A Turkey Day Battle On the Mississippi River Banks

While today we end the football season the Thursday or Friday before Thanksgiving and the start of deer hunting season with the state title games, that wasn’t always the case. As I have mentioned in previous blogs and in my book, the season often ended with a championship match game on the late November holiday.


The story in the Milwaukee Sentinel on Tuesday, November 21, 1916 said it all. It admitted that the battle between Edgerton and La Crosse on Thanksgiving Day would be for the state championship. After a quarrel between Milwaukee East (also known as Riverside and the two names were interchanged by the press for many years) and La Crosse had not been settled in 1915 with both teams having legitimate claims to the crown. This year, the usual teams like Eau Claire, Madison and the Milwaukee public schools all had less than championship contending teams. Another contender was Oshkosh, who was undefeated but had several ties and played a limited number of games. More on them later. The turkey day game was to be a battle of David vs. Goliath. The newspaper said,


“After much wrangling, La Crosse high finally consented to meet Edgerton high in a football game on Thanksgiving Day at La Crosse, which will decide the state high championship. Both elevens are evenly matched as far as weight is concerned and judging by comparative scores, neither has the edge. Edgerton’s most notable victory is that over North Division high of Milwaukee and it’s win over Marquette academy. The La Crosse eleven boast’s victories over Riverside (East) high and Madison high gives them a right to battle for state honors. Neither team has suffered defeat this season”.

La Crosse had a proud sports program. The city had only one high school for the overall population of about 30,000 residents. Logan and Aquinas wouldn’t open until 1927. Edgerton had played some great football in the 1913-15 seasons against bigger schools but the “Tobacco City” had only a population of about 2,500. On Monday, November 20, in an effort to get a game with La Crosse, Marquette Academy, who had just lost to Edgerton, attempted to set up a meet for Saturday, November 25 but La Crosse already had a game for that day. It wouldn’t have been a championship game but just an added event. It wasn’t unusual for teams to setup games, sort of “on the fly”. Most teams had no real set regular schedule and especially towards the end of the season there was a mad scramble to lineup tough opponents. But, because of a previous commitment, Marquette lost out on a game against a tough team. So, La Crosse vs Edgerton was set to be a big battle of undefeated teams. That was when they agreed to meet as the details were settled on Monday, November 22.


La Crosse had not lost a game since Thanksgiving Day 3 years prior in1913 to Sparta, 13-10. Since then, they had reeled off a record of 19-0-1. 1914 had been a 7-0-0 season, in 1915 they went 6-0-1 (tying St. Paul Central 0-0) and now in 1916, they were 6-0-0 with a final tune up match with Central on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. That matchup in St. Paul was setup for Saturday, November 25. After several key fumbles and the inability of the defense to adjust properly to the baffling Minnesota shifts the La Crosse eleven lost 13-7. Since the start of 1914, La Crosse had given up only four touchdowns and four field goals. With extra points they had given up only 38 points in that timeframe while scoring 687 points. The loss didn’t diminish the outlook for the championship game. The two best teams in the state were set to battle it out.


On the same day that the results of the St. Paul Central game were printed in the La Crosse Tribune another story was listed. Edgerton fullback Marlon Ogden was ruled by the WIAA as being okay to play in the La Crosse game even though he had just turned 21 two weeks earlier. Supposedly La Crosse was fine with it as they wanted to see Edgerton in action in full strength. Also, in the same story it was mentioned that there was a special passenger train for Edgerton that will make three stops along the way to bring a brass band and about 150-200 hometown fans to the game and it would arrive in La Crosse the day of the game between 12 noon and 1pm in time for a 2:45pm start. The team had gone on ahead and was staying at a hotel in town. The fan train left Edgerton at 7:30am and was sent off by nearly 1,000 well-wishers. The price of the trip through the rolling countryside was was $6.35 round trip and a Thanksgiving dinner for two cost a whopping $.75!! Upon arrival Edgerton fans took the city by storm and racked up bets of over $1,000 in favor of their team.


Another note in the paper told fans not to worry about the game as if they normally eat Thanksgiving dinner around noon, they would have plenty of time to get to the game and it they could eat late as the game would be over by 5pm. The game was to played at Normal Field with the price of a ticket inside the 20-yard line costing $.75 and outside the 20 costing $.50. There would be no normal pricing for children. 3,000-5,000 spectators were expected to attend the game.


When the Edgerton fans and the brass band arrived, they began a march from the railroad station to the team’s hotel and then on to Normal Field where they serenaded many with songs and dance numbers and chanted a slogan “We’ll beat the ‘L’ out of La Crosse”. If you ever get a chance to look at the La Crosse Tribune in the days just prior to the game you will see that the paper printed poems and prayers on the front pages about the strength of the team and asking for divine guidance in the championship game. On Thanksgiving Day, the banner in the La Crosse Tribune read:

It was now 2:45pm and the combatants were on the field to start the battle. Now, the combatants:


Substitute members of the Edgerton team were: Back, Edward Short, lineman, Hurley Ford, lineman Rush Touton and end Chester Peters. Coach Lamereaux was assisted by A.J. Dexter.


NOTE #1: As you look at the lineup and the names in the photos you will notice that there is a lack of first names. The newspaper stories of the day as well as the school’s yearbooks didn’t often provide a player’s or the coach's first name. I, alas didn’t have access to the 1917 La Crosse yearbooks so the players first names came from the 1916 book. The La Crosse Tribune never mentioned coach Bell’s first name. The nickname for La Crosse wasn’t mentioned in the paper reports but the words “red and black” were often mentioned so that may have been what they were known as. No help from the yearbook.


NOTE #2: When I was writing my book, I was surprised that tobacco and rice were grown in this state. I had always thought of it as a southern crop. Edgerton was known as “Tobacco City” and the teams nickname was “The Tobacco Growers” long before they became the “Crimson Tide”.


Now, the game.


There were several standouts on both sides. Coming into the game the biggest star was Edgerton’s Rollie Williams, the team captain. After scoring nine touchdowns against Janesville, three on interception returns, he was well known around the state. A marked man, Williams would score 25 touchdowns on the season. It was no different in the title game. The two teams were evenly matched in terms of weight but Edgerton had speed and the backfield was well balanced. Williams hit the line hard and used his speed to pick up yards. The La Crosse Tribune declared that he was his team’s star. Also known as a great punter, he often outkicked his counterpart, LC’s Feinberg by 10-15 yards as the two teams made some gains to start the game but had to give up the ball on downs. Coach Bell’s team won the toss and chose to defend the south goal. Edgerton’s Rossebo kicked to Layman who returned the ball to the 32-yard line.


Now, I must admit I don’t know much about many of the early football offenses. I’m always finding some new wrinkles. After a few small gains LC’s left tackle, Rudolph “Rube” Blatter, La Crosse team captain, ran the ball for a 30-yard gain. I guess that he pulled when the ball was snapped and, with the backfield leading the blocking, took a pitch from Feinberg and slashed through the Tobacco Growers defense. Williams and Ogden hauled him down. After three plays that gained only one yard, Reget tried a drop-kick field goal. The snap was poor and he picked the ball up and ran around and eventually got the kick off but it went nowhere close to the goal posts. Edgerton got the ball back and gained 20-yards on line plunges before being forced to punt.


And, so it went as the two teams exchanged punts with Edgerton netting 10-15 yards after each kick. After an interception by the red and black’s Liscovec near their own 35-yard line. The quarter ended. In the second the two teams continued to exchange punts but then Edgerton was able to take the ball downfield on a series of passes. Clarke was given the ball and he went 15-yards around end to score but the referee ruled that Kepp had moved illegally. After losing five yards on the penalty, it was fourth down and the ball went nowhere so La Crosse took over on downs. They immediately punted and Edgerton got the ball back to their opponents 40-yard line. Two runs picked up three-yards then Williams passed to Ogden for thirty yards. On the next play Williams slashed into the endzone from the seven for the touchdown. Rossebo kicked the extra point and the score stood 7-0. There was a lot of excitement the rest of the half with La Crosse gaining some yards but failing on passing attempts to get the ball into the endzone.


In the second half Edgerton was satisfied to just play defense and they did it well keeping the red and black at bay. Williams was hurt at the end of the third quarter but he stayed in the game. He only carried the ball once after that. His punting wasn’t as good in the second half as it had been in the first. Edgerton nearly scored again as Rush Tiuton blocked a punt but a La Crosse player was able to recover it and thus kept his foes from advancing the ball at that time. Still, the Edgerton defense held up, even with Williams playing hurt and the score would end up 7-0 in favor of the Tobacco Growers. Rube Blatter was a demon all over the field for La Crosse. After the game Blatter, the 188-pound tackle had nothing but praise for Williams and Edgerton in general. As a blocker, a defender or as a runner he did it all. Even though he mainly played tackle he was his teams leading ground gainer with 86-yards on the day. The Janesville Gazette pointed out that Blatter, Reget and Layman were the stars for La Crosse and every one of the Edgerton team played well. I should make a note here that the statistical reports by both the Janesville Gazette and the La Crosse Tribune were well documented, unlike 99% of other game reports in that era. Frederick Layman added 44 yards rushing to the teams total of 222 yards on the ground. Edgerton’s Williams led all rushers with 102 yards while Norman Clarke had 53 yards and Marlon Ogden added 39 as they gained 238 total yards on the ground. The team passing stats read La Crosse was 3 of 10 for 46 yards and one interception. Edgerton was 4 of 10 for 53 yards but threw three interceptions. Each team was penalized 20 yards. And so, the banner in the La Crosse Tribune the next day read:


Edgerton’s great team, their fans and the brass band boarded the train for the return trip at 6pm and a chance to enjoy their turkey dinner. They stopped in Madison to go from the east to the west side depot with the fans and band leading the way. They were cheered on by many Madison well-wishers. It would be a wild time in the Tobacco City that weekend. David had beaten Goliath.


But there was some complaining in the La Crosse Tribune on the day the paper reported the game, Friday, December 1, 1916. I’ll add parts of the story:

“With no way to detract from the glory due a wonderful football machine of the Edgerton high school it was obvious to every one in the stands at the Thanksgiving Day game the Tobacco town boy’s got “the breaks”. It is It is one of the hazards of football, to be accepted as part of the game, that luck plays no part in the outcome of so many contests. Had fortune smiled on La Crosse, as she did on Edgerton, it is possible that the state title would have remained in this city.”

In the first series La Crosse’s Feinberg was” layed out” and played for much of the first half in a daze.

“His usual alert comprehension and quick analysis of difficult situations was not there. Moreover, he was so badly hurt that, Youngberg, who had not been kicking all year, had to take over the booting duties … and it was blocking Youngberg’s punt [this happened in the third quarter as Feinberg did the kicking duties in the half] which gave Edgerton its chance to score. Youngberg couldn’t get them away as quickly as Feinberg, and the second longer it took him to swing on the ball sufficed for the Edgerton lineman [Touton or Kellogg] to get in his path”

There was a complaint that a possible interception by La Crosse was caught too close to the ground and

not allowed but maybe should have been ruled in favor of the “Bellboys”.

“Also, it is worth noting that whenever La Crosse was near to threaten the Edgerton goal, the ball was so close to the sidelines that big “Wop” Blatter, the only consistent ground-gainer on the Red and Black team, couldn’t be used for one of his big tearing dashes around the right wing”.

And finally, the concession:

“All of which is “might have been” stuff. It was tough luck---but Edgerton was the fightin’est bunch of berserkers that has appeared here in the memory of the oldest inhabitant and it would have been anybody’s game if the breaks had been the other way”.

Note: I reprinted the story directly so some punctuation is incorrect. The nickname "Wop" was used several times to refer to Blatter and at least once to his younger brother as "Little Wop". It's unclear if this was a reference to the Italian slur or if the nickname was unrelated, particularly since his ancestry was Swiss German. The paper certainly wasn't using it as an insult when speaking of Blatter but if it was this is obviously unacceptable and sadly these types of pejoratives were all too common in the papers of the time.


Postscript


Both Green Bay East and Oshkosh claimed to be the state champions. East would post a 4-0-3 record. Oshkosh would post a 5-0-2 record. The two schools played to a 7-7 tie in early November. As was typical of the Oshkosh school and the city newspaper, The Northwestern, they twisted facts. They claimed that they had a better record than Edgerton (See Edgerton and La Crosse’s season records below). Oshkosh claimed in earlier seasons as being the state champions due to being undefeated. But they often had losses to college teams and only counted high school teams in their claims.


On the same day of the title game, a few schools also played games. Marquette Academy got a game with Wabasha (MN) and lost 14-7. Menominee (MI) beat rival Marinette 3-0. Horicon beat West Allis 37-0. Green Bay East beat an 8-2-0 Breen Bay West team 7-6. Finally, to add to their championship claim and an offer to play any other contender was Oshkosh who beat Evanston (IL) Academy 13-0. Evanston had beaten some good private schools and ended with a 4-1-0 record.


Rollie Williams was considered the best player in the state and he went on to earn more honors and awards at Wisconsin. He was the first athlete at Madison to earn nine letters playing football, basketball and baseball although others before him earned nine letters in a combination of different sports. He was an All-Big Ten as a football player playing halfback and fullback in 1922 while standing only 5’8 and 170-pounds. Rollie played freshman football in 1917 but left school, maybe to serve in the military, and then returned for the 1920-22 football seasons. He also earned All-Big Ten in the 1922-23 basketball season. After college he played one season of NFL football in 1923 for the Racine Legion. He then served as the head football, basketball and baseball coach for the 1923-24 seasons at Millkin University. He then spent 42 years as an assistant football coach, head basketball coach and assistant athletic director at Iowa. Williams was inducted into the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame in 1960. He died in 1970.


In 1956 a 40-year reunion was held in Edgerton as another would be one held in 1961 and 1966, the 50th anniversary of winning the title. The first reunion drew 14 of the teams 15 players as well as their former coaches, Edison Lamereaux and his assistant A.J. Dexter. Missing was starting left halfback Norman Clarke who was killed in France in 1918 during World War I.


While most schools ended their seasons one or two weeks prior to Thanksgiving, some traditions were kept for teams like Marinette and Menominee and the two Green Bay schools. In fact, starting in 1905 and continuing through 1920 they played on each on Thanksgiving Day. The only exception was in 1918 when they played on December 7 after three postponements due to Spanish Flu concerns. After World War I, Thanksgiving Day games in Wisconsin seemed to flitter away as the big holiday for games became a November 11 Armistice Day (now known as Veterans Day). In some states the Thanksgiving Day game remained a tradition. Check out this link: American football on Thanksgiving - Wikipedia


Now, for some Thanksgiving trivia:


In 1541 Spanish explorer, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his troop of men stopped in Palo Duro Canyon (TX) to camp and Padre Fray Juan de Padilla called for a feast of prayer and thanksgiving.


There were other “first” claims. Spanish founders of St. Augustine (FL) in 1565 shared food with the Timucaun people. Or, in 1607 colonists at Fort St. George in Maine shared a harvest feast with the Adenaki Indian’s.


Traditionally we hold a feast as a remembrance of the December 11, 1621 Plymouth (MA) celebration.

There were several other days of thanksgiving before George Washington called for a Day of Thanksgiving on November 26, 1789.


Ben Franklin derided the Congress for naming the Eagle as America's national bird. He thought, and said so often that the national bird should be the turkey.


In November, 1846 Sarah Josepha Hale began a letter campaign to create a national Holiday. She sent a letter to Abraham Lincoln urging the holiday and on October 3, 1863 he declared the first official National Holiday of Thanksgiving.


On November 30, 1876 the first Thanksgiving Day football game occurred between Princeton and Yale. The idea of a football game on this day caught on and in 1893 40,000 fans showed up to see Princeton and Yale play in New York’s Manhattan Field.


Finally, with Thanksgiving set to fall on November 30, 1939 and thus leaving only 24 shopping days before Christmas, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the date of celebration forward a week to November 23. Critics called it “Franksgiving” and congress officially moved the date back to the current spot, the fourth Thursday in November in 1941.


My Mistake: When I wrote my book, I had an error about this game. I mixed up Rube Blatter in my reports as I wrote him as part of Edgerton’s team. He would attend the University of Wisconsin where he competed in football and track and then on to Harvard to study architecture. Blatter and Williams played on the same freshman football team at Madison. Sorry for the mix-up.



This story was updated on 11/24/21 to include several selections from the La Crosse Tribune's contemporary account of the game.

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