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The beginning of something special

A look back at Lancaster's first football team in 1897

The beginning of something special

The very first football team at Lancaster High School was formed 120 years ago in 1897. Team members included Henry Bidwell, Leo Henkel, Gene Croft, Ralph Kinney, Albert Philipps and Ralph Brown wi...

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POSTED August 10, 2017 12:23 p.m.

LANCASTER — With the start of a new high school football season upon us, the excitement begins to grow with each passing day, waiting anxiously for Friday nights and the anticipation of another successful season.

As is the case with every new season, expectations for the Lancaster Flying Arrows are always high, when considering the program’s rich tradition and impressive accomplishments of those teams before them.

In recent years, the Flying Arrows have made 11 state appearances with seven state titles. They have advanced to the playoffs for 24 consecutive seasons, and won 18 conference titles under head coach John Hoch.

 But how many Lancaster football fans really know where it all started. With generations of former players passing on year after year, how much is really known about the first football team at LHS?

I recently stumbled across a newspaper article in the Nov. 10, 1960 edition of the Grant County Independent, which features Henry Bidwell and his recollection of the first Lancaster High School football team in 1897.

Along with that story, and a little history lesson of American football, my hope is to take you on a trip 120 years into the past, where football in Lancaster High School got its beginnings.

In 1897, American football was essentially still in its infancy, though the first college football game between Rutgers and Princeton took place 28 years earlier in 1869.

The Western Conference, which was the precursor to the Big Ten Conference, was organized two years earlier in 1895, while the Green Bay Packers were founded in 1919, and the American Professional Football Association wasn’t formed until a year later in 1920.

From what I could find, one of the earliest high school football games played in Wisconsin was in 1895 when Green Bay East took on Green Bay West at City Stadium in Green Bay. Curly Lambeau later became a captain for the Green Bay East squad in 1917.

The 1897 team from Lancaster High School was coached by Ray Walker, with Burn Pollack being the manager.

Along with Henry Bidwell, other members of that first team included Leo Henkel, Gene Croft, Ralph Kinney, Albert Philipps and Ralph Brown.

It should be noted that not many boys in those days attended high school, and began working after completing the 8th grade.

Bidwell, who played halfback at Lancaster, was a farm boy while going to Lancaster High School. “I stole time from chores,” he said in the 1960 newspaper article. “We played for fun to begin with.”

 “We were tough,” Bidwell said in the article. “We were tough and didn’t need much toughening up. Most of us bucked wood on the farm. Too bad they gave up on the sawbuck. And we had endurance. We weren’t too heavy. The first team at Lancaster High only averaged 150 pounds. But we had endurance.”

The team’s nickname was the Purgolds, named after their dark purple and gold uniform colors.

There was little padding in those days, and instead of a helmet to protect their head, players wore a nose guard, which protected their nose and mouth. If you look closely at the team photo, you can see a few players with their nose guards hanging from their neck. 

Hard plastic helmets with “futuristic” facemasks weren’t worn by a Lancaster team until the 1957 season.

As you might imagine, football in 1897 was quite different than what you see today. Not only did players not wear helmets or shoulder pads, the style of play was also very different.

The game then was considerably rougher, as teams utilized group formations known at the time as the “Flying Wedge,” which was nothing more than a mass of offensive players surrounding the ball carrier while slamming into a mass of defensive players looking to break the wedge.

While in the Flying Wedge formation, offensive players were allowed to interlock arms or even hang onto each other’s belts while lead blocking down field.

According to an article published in 1897 by the Chicago Tribune, a bill banning football in the state of Indiana was introduced to the state legislature, and a doctor at the time declared “more men have been killed by football than by pugilism (boxing).”

It wasn’t until 1906 that the football rules allowed the use of the forward pass, in an effort to discourage the use of wedge formations.

According to Bidwell, many of the teachers at Lancaster High School back in 1897 were against the school even having a football team at that time. He remembered the school janitor, Tom Duncalf, whom he said ran interference for the boys between the teachers and the team, keeping the teachers informed, but helped the boys to play.

Lancaster High School’s first opponent during their inaugural season was none other than Lancaster’s city team, known as Jimmie McBrien’s Invincibles. Results of the game could not be found.

The Purgolds played their home games at either the fairgrounds or in a vacant lot owned by the Wright family next to where the former Wright Hotel once stood.

After their first game, Lancaster traveled to Prairie du Chien for a Thanksgiving Day contest.

According to Bidwell’s recollection, the team rented two rigs from the livery stable to transport the players, and started out for Prairie du Chien at 5 a.m. that morning.

“We had to walk up all the hills,” said Bidwell in the article. “That didn’t seem to bother the team. We were hardened by it.”

The Lancaster team arrived in Prairie du Chien sometime around 11 a.m. for a 2 p.m. game, which ended in a 70-0 victory for the Purgolds.

Scoring back in those days was a little different though. Back then, touchdowns were worth four points and conversion kicks were two points. Safeties were also worth two points, while field goals, which were considered very rare, were worth five points.

The first football season at Lancaster High School also included games against Patch Grove, which apparently had a professional team at the time, along with Mineral Point, Dyersville and Platteville.

In those days it wasn’t uncommon for high school teams to play against college teams, which the Purgolds attempted to do a year later in 1898.

During the 1898 season, Lancaster had an undefeated record, which included a victory over the Platteville Normal School, who had badly beaten Oshkosh College. 

It was said that Lancaster reached out to Oshkosh College to arrange a game between the two teams, but was turned down. The Lancaster team also apparently offered to play teams from the Western Conference (now the Big Ten), but was again turned down.

Football at Lancaster High School continued for 10 years until the 1909 season when the school, parents and a few concerned citizens considered football to be too rough and violent for adolescent young men.

After six years (1909-1914) with no football, Lee O’Leary, a football coach, convinced the school and community to give the sport a second chance in 1915.

From that day on, Lancaster High School has fielded a football team every year for the past 102 years with the 2017 season set to start Friday, Aug. 18, against visiting Fennimore.


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