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The Beginning Era of High School Football: The Great Teams, Players and Coaches of 1884-1909

Well, it all started in 1884 when the Reverend Sydney Smyth founded a private school in Delafield and it was called St. John’s Military Academy. Needing a way to entertain the students that fall he gathered some material he had on sports…there were really only a limited number of athletic activities available at that time. Besides baseball, running events and swimming, football was a sport he enjoyed as a student at Racine College where he studied for the ministry. He had a set of rules, the new and official rules that Yale’s Walter Camp and others had hammered out to refine the game, making it less of a version of rugby and more identifiably it's own thing. He was the first to utilize the IFA (Intercollegiate Football Association) rules, the first guidelines of the modern sport. Insisting that all the opposing teams played by the same rules, Smythe made or obtained copies for teams he hoped to play. St. John’s was the first school…public, private or college east of the Allegheny Mountains to follow the “Eastern” rules, as they were sometimes called. The school played two games in 1884 and won both contests.

In those days it wasn’t uncommon for a teacher or the team coach to play in the games. At about age 48, in 1890, Smythe was hurt in a game pitting St. John’s against Beloit College. He broke a thigh bone and walked with a limp for the next 33-years. After his injury Smythe demanded that only students of the school play for St John's and his opposing teams have only “proper aged” players…no teachers or ringers were to be allowed.

The game progressed and many schools and colleges began to play football. Madison High School had their first teams around 1892 or 1893. The Milwaukee high schools, North Side, South Side and East Side schools (Later known as North Division, South Division and Riverside high schools) started about this time to field teams as would West Side (Later known as West Division and now remade as Milwaukee High School of the Arts). They, along with other several colleges and St. John’s helped to form what would become the WIAA in 1896. After a few years the colleges were dropped from the active roster of schools in the organization and St. John’s, because it was a private school was not allowed to join the WIAA. It would be 104 years for private schools to formally be allowed to apply for membership in the WIAA.

The early years are difficult, as I have said in other blogs and my book, to track some teams. So, my research for this era has been a hard one in searching for the correct data. What I present here is based on the best information I could find. Let’s get started at looking at the best of the best from 1884-1909.

The Top 10 Teams for 1884-1909:

1) Delafield St. John’s Military Academy…1904…9-0-0

2) Milwaukee South Side…1898…7-0-0

3) Madison High School…1897…8-2-1

4) Chippewa Falls…1909…6-0-1

5) Sparta…1907…8-0-0

6) Oshkosh…1908…6-1-0

7) Eau Claire…1903…8-0-0

8) Delafield St. John’s Military Academy…1905…7-0-1

9) Eau Claire…1904…6-0-0

10) Fort Atkinson…1902…6-0-1

Why the 1904 St John's team at number 1? The team was undefeated, untied and unscored upon while scoring 355 points. Their opponents included four colleges (One was a combined Carroll College and Waukesha High School team), three private academies and two high school…beating Appleton 39-0 and Elkhorn 102-0. This season also began a run of 18 consecutive shutouts which is still a Wisconsin state record.

1898 Milwaukee South Side was also undefeated, untied and unscored upon beating two college teams and they even defeated St, John’s 39-0. They were honored as the second National Champion football team, the last Wisconsin high school to be so honored. South refused to play Madison in 1897 because there was a question of the capitol city team having age eligible players.

The 1897 Madison team was recognized in the state to be the best team that season. They are also recognized as the first National Champion team by beating Tonawanda, NY 14-0 in a game played in Detroit on Christmas Day. Their two losses were to the University of Wisconsin varsity squad and their tie was to Whitewater Normal College.

Chippewa Falls had a 12-game shutout streak that ended in 1909 when the team played a game against their own alumni, a 11-5 win. Powered by the great quarterback Gus Dorais, who was one of five all-state players on the team.

Sparta cruised through the 1907 season, including a 113-0 defeat of New Lisbon. In the title showdown they beat La Crosse 6-4. The team was bolstered by two all-state players, end Kessling Thayer, and center Moses “Mose” Smith along with quarterback/halfback Earle “Runt” Jefferson. The team was coached by a local dentist, Dr. George Hull Barlow.

Oshkosh in 1908 ruled the Fox Valley and the north east part of the state as they beat Fort Atkinson for the title on a snow-covered field 4-0. Their only loss was to Ripon College in the season opener, 11-0.

The 1903 Eau Claire team was the best team in the state as they went 8-0-0. They claimed the title when Fort Atkinson failed to show for the championship game and was awarded a 2-0 forfeit win.

St. John’s in 1905 continued their shutout streak as they defeated three colleges, four private academies and tied 0-0 against Chicago area powerhouse Morgan Park Academy. The streak continued into 1906 when they shutout their first opponent before losing to St. Louis University 27-0. Several weeks earlier in 1906, St. Louis played Carroll College and attempted the first legal pass. The forward pass didn’t become legal until that year. The combined 1904 and 1905 seasons helped make St. John’s one of the most dominate teams in the state.

1904 Eau Claire again dominated the north as they shut out all of their six opponents including a 33-0 shellacking of Green Bay East for the state title. A follow up match with St. John’s never materialized because the two couldn’t agree to the date and location of the game. Eau Claire would have a 16-game shutout streak during the 1902-05 years.

Fort Atkinson was declared the 1902 state champion by several papers although Eau Claire also made a claim that season. Fort tied Janesville 0-0 and did trounce Stoughton 103-0 but they only scored 169 points on the season and did have a close 11-10 battle with Madison. None the less, they were a super team. Their coach, George Lloyd, was in strong competition for my Coach of the Decade as he led his teams from 1902-1909 to a 41-4-4 record.

The Best Game:

This is a tough call to pick a game. The 4-0 win by Oshkosh over Fort Atkinson in 1908 might have been the best game and it was for the state title. Fans crowed the field and made problems for the referee’s when the Oshkosh people shoved the Fort players in between plays after some of the team would run out of bounds or get close to the sidelines. The field had lots of snow on It and the conditions were slippery. It obviously was a see-saw battle. Fort Atkinson outweighed Oshkosh 154 pounds to 141 pounds. The game was played in Ripon. Early stats showed that Oshkosh outgained Fort 150-yards to 115-yards. A drop-kick from Fort's 43-yard line on the first half (They played two 25-minute half’s, not four quarters) was the difference. Field goals that season were worth 4-points. As the Oshkosh Northwestern newspaper reported, the “little giants” of the north triumphed over the “giants” of the South. The actions by the Oshkosh fans led to stricter control of the sidelines around the state starting in 1909.

The Best Coach:

Like many coaches of the era, most didn’t stay at one school or even coach for very long. My pick is Louis C. Christofferson of Delafield St. John’s. Only at St. John’s for the two seasons (1904 and 1905) he developed a well-oiled machine that would, in 1905, earn honors for the school as they were awarded the National Military Prep Championship, the Western Prep Championship and the North Central Academy Association Championship. He left St. John’s to coach college ball.

As I noted before, Coach George Lloyd of Fort Atkinson was a close second.


You will see that for this issue of the top players of the decade that there is a first team and an honorable mention list. Future first team lists may have more than the usual 11-players along with the honorable mention list. As I progress into the 1970’s when the 2-platoon system became more common after substitution rules were relaxed, I will be presenting first team offense and defense teams as well as an honorable mention list.

Remember that Hercule Poirot (Remember the reference in my last blog) is still searching for the first names of older players and thanks to the help from Jarod Roll at the Monroe County Local History Room and Museum in Sparta I learned of the first names to two of the three players on my All-Decades Team and Honorable Mention list along with the first name of the team coach, Dr. George H. Barlow. Jarod helped me when I wrote my book in finding the scores for the 1907 and 1913 state champion Spartan’s and it is through his help and that of his research assistant that the names were finally tracked down.

I hope you like what you see here. From time-to-time I will be doing other decades of stars, coaches and teams.

Nearly everyone mentioned here is profiled in more detail in my book, The Great Teams.

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