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1917 - Part 1: Prologue and the Rabbit Hole

The Initial Spark

When I was researching my book, I found a list of possible early state football champions for Wisconsin online. I somehow came across it and I made a copy which jumpstarted my research. On that list were several schools that should not have really been considered the champion for their year but for the most part it was accurate. On the list for 1917 was the Marinette team so I went to the state historical society to look at the microfilm of the town's newspaper, the Marinette Beacon. That and the 1918 school yearbook were my basis for the story found in my book. But like the 1913 state title controversy, 1917 had its own problems.

On December 20, 2021 my fellow historian Kevin Askeland from, based in California published an article concerning the 1917 high school football champions. I mentioned in my January 5th post that Marinette was #45 on the list. Up at #33 was Rochester (MN), the only team of the top 50 to not have a complete schedule of scores. Since my youngest daughter lives in Rochester, I thought that on my next visit there I would go to the library, the county historical society, the high schools and the school district offices looking for the high school 1918 yearbook. No luck. Nobody had a copy so I was off to the Rochester library microfilm files. I found mostly brief stories on the team and only six of eight possible game scores. I was at a dead end, or so I thought.

One of the brief mentions on the Rochester team in the paper was a game with Farmington but no score or game report was noted. Back home I started searching for the Farmington score and I also looked at the Winona newspaper to verify the scores of the Rochester vs Winona High School and Winona Normal games. There was a mention of those two teams playing La Crosse High School so, out of curiosity, I looked up the La Crosse team. They had a great record in 1914-1916 and played Edgerton for the state title in 1916 so I looked closer at their 1917 season. In doing so I found the Rochester season record. Why would they print the season record of a team that was so far away? Rochester was about to play St. Cloud Tech for the Minnesota state title and the La Crosse Tribune newspaper wanted to argue that their hometown team should be in the mix for the Wisconsin title.

Rochester played the Winona Normal College in their season opener and won 7-0. In their sixth game they beat Winona High School 41-0. Meanwhile La Crosse High School defeated Winona Normal 114-0 and Winona High School 90-0. La Crosse Normal beat Winona Normal 101-0. Big scores by the Wisconsin schools and the newspaper didn't think that Rochester could measure up to La Crosse High School. There are reasons for the low Rochester scores compared to those by the La Crosse teams but I won't get into that just yet.

The Contenders

Here is where I began to go down the rabbit hole. While checking the La Crosse newspaper I ran across more information than what I had initially found when doing my research on the 1917 Marinette squad. Back then I had used the school yearbook and the local newspaper but now I reviewed the La Crosse Tribune, the Green Bay Press Gazette, the Wisconsin State Journal and the Waukesha Freeman with a little help from the Marshfield News and the yearbooks from Madison, Marshfield, Watertown and Waukesha.

Many schools were in the mix by mid-season for the Wisconsin state title. Marshfield, Watertown, Madison, Waukesha, Marinette, Green Bay West, Grand Rapids, Fort Atkinson and St John's all looked like contenders.

La Crosse only played against one Wisconsin high school team in 1917, that being Tomah in the season opener. In the second game they lost to Prairie du Chien Campion College and then to Winona St Mary's College. They regrouped and destroyed Winona Normal 114-0 and then followed up with their 90-0 win over Winona High School. Because they hadn't played many Wisconsin foes, the press outside of La Crosse didn't feel they should be in the running for the state title. So the local newspaper hounded other schools with challenges for a game, particularly 5-0-0 Marinette, the last two weeks of November but to no avail. Marinette had cancelled an earlier game because heavy rains made their field unplayable. With a 3-2-0 record, La Crosse moved their scheduled game with St Paul Central (MN), a team they had played in 1915 and 1916 in past November games, to the Sunday before Thanksgiving. La Crosse Normal won the Wisconsin College School title and wanted to play the high school to cap off the season in early December. However, the high school's star back came down with chicken pox right after his team trounced St Paul Central and the game was cancelled. Yet, because they now had a 4-2-0 record the Tribune continued to bad mouth other Wisconsin schools.

In their sixth game of the season Green Bay West was declared out of the running after they lost to Marinette 16-0. And when I say 'declared out of the running' I mean that the major in-state newspapers were pushing for undefeated teams to match up. Green Bay West had tied Oshkosh Normal in their second game 0-0 so they now had a 4-1-1 record. They would finish the season 7-1-1, beating their next three opponents, Wausau, Oshkosh and Green Bay East.

St John's dropped out after starting out 4-0-0. They lost to Shattuck (MN) Military Academy 14-7 in their fifth game. Besides the loss, two Wisconsin high school teams backed out of their matchups with St John's so they found a game against a Chicago public high school to partially fill their schedule. St John's finished 6-1-0 with wins over Oshkosh Normal, The Milwaukee Murry Athletic Club, St Norbert's College, Milton College, Wendell Phillips (IL), and the Racine Professionals (forerunner to the Racine Legion of the NFL). In their six victories they shut out each of their opponents while scoring an average of 67 points per game.

Grand Rapids (now known as Wisconsin Rapids) and Fort Atkinson did not finish strong and were both eliminated from the running. Madison was 5-0-1, having tied Milwaukee South, when they played and lost to the Northern Illinois champion, Rockford, 16-7. With the defeat they were declared out of the title race. They then scheduled and beat Eau Claire 20-0 in a Thanksgiving Day battle to finish 6-1-1 on the season.

On November 18, Marinette played their last regular season game, beating their twin city rival Menominee (MI) and rested with a 5-0-0 record after two other schools backed out of playing them. Having beaten Green Bay West and the top teams in Northern Michigan, Escanaba and Menominee, they were considered the champs of the North, even with only having played five games. They now sat and waited as undefeated Watertown (7-0-0) was to meet a tough 6-1-0 Marshfield on Thanksgiving Day in Marshfield. Marshfield had lost in their second game to Stevens Point Normal 20-6. Watertown had allowed only six points, that in their season opener vs Milwaukee East (Riverside). They had scored 290 points with seven shutouts. Marshfield had outscored their first seven opponents 202-32. Scribes thought this was the best matchup.

But what about 7-0-0 Waukesha? They were considered for the title but they only wanted to play home games. The Waukesha Freeman didn't cover all of their games and there was no season wrap-up in the later editions. Waukesha was undefeated, untied and unscored upon after the first six games, scoring 237 points. I could only find a brief mention about them in the La Crosse newspaper, discounting the team's ability. I had to continue the search. The school yearbook didn't mention the snub or later championship drama. The Saturday before Thanksgiving, Waukesha beat Milwaukee Washington 13-7 (per the yearbook, 13-6 per the newspaper) but they were excluded from the championship game, they contacted schools to play on Thanksgiving and came up with Chicago Lake View (IL). They won 14-0 to end up 8-0-0.

La Crosse's Beef

With the title matchup set due to big help by the Milwaukee Sentinel, Watertown faced Marinette at the county fairgrounds. The La Crosse Tribune criticized the matchup. The paper began to sound like the Oshkosh Northwestern had in years past and the lead squawker was J.E. Dahlgren who wrote a regular feature sports column. The paper seemed to change their tone after being generally fair and honest. In 1914, after La Crosse beat Grand Rapids (93-0) and Sparta (12-7), two teams in contention for the title, things seemed to change. The La Crosse team was good in 1914-1916 and they scored well against two of the Winona schools in 1917 but they weren't as good as the paper claimed. La Crosse was very fortunate to play those Winona teams at the right time.

Rochester (MN) played Winona Normal in the season opener and only won 7-0. One of the brief stories in the Rochester newspaper reported a week before the Normal game that they only had 10 players and the coach was scouring the school for more bodies. Surprising, considering Rochester also won the Minnesota state title in 1916. You would have thought that potential players would flock to the gridiron. The team was able to come up with an 11th starter and a few backups. So, when they went to Winona, they were only recently at full strength. Had they been a solid unit they would likely have beaten Normal by a lot more. Later in the season Rochester played Winona High School and won 41-0. The year before they defeated them 91-0. In that game several Winona players left the game with severe injuries. According to the Winona paper in 1917, several key players were hurt playing Rochester and couldn't play the next week against La Crosse. When the team did play, they seemed to give up after falling behind. La Crosse would also face a beat up Winona Normal team that quickly surrendered the field.

On or about Saturday November 23, Marinette passed on playing La Crosse. Why? Because La Crosse wanted to play a home game and wouldn't travel to a neutral site. Travel in 1917 was difficult especially in late November with bad roads, long train rides, likely facing bad weather and often having difficulty earning enough money to cover expenses. Marinette had no Thanksgiving game but with an undefeated record felt no pressure to move to a neutral site that might have been more profitable for both parties. Since La Crosse turned them down they reached out to other teams, including some from Chicago who asked for more money than Marinette was willing to give for their travel expenses.

Marshfield and Watertown were now set to play each other. Waukesha evidently wanted to play on Thanksgiving, November 29 even with a November 24 game with Milwaukee Washington looming. But they wanted a home game. If Waukesha had played Marinette on Thanksgiving it would have been a great showdown of unbeatens. It may have led to a final showdown of the winners from the two major games. La Crosse had scheduled their November 24th game with St Paul Central so now they proposed another game with Marinette to be played in that western city on Thanksgiving. Marinette turned them down and the newspaper wars really began.

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