During the 1870s, a local farmer named James Taylor hosted a fall event he called the Annual Harvest Home Festival “Bou-Yah!” in what was known then as Taylor’s Grove, the orchards on the west side of Kalamazoo where Frank Henderson later built his castle. Participants enjoyed roasted sweet corn and broiled beefsteaks, along with an afternoon game of “foot ball” (two words), one of the first documented local manifestations of the gridiron sport. “Mr. Taylor’s entertainments on his big farm have gone into history,” declared a writer for the Gazette in 1874, but another decade would go by before organized football became “Americanized” enough to be embraced by Kalamazoo’s leading educational institutions.
‘Foot Ball’ in Kalamazoo during the 1880s
While baseball was fast becoming America’s game, the popularity of “foot ball” – a variant of English rugby – continued to grow, as well. In 1883, The Battle Creek Republican made it known that “a foot ball match [had] been arranged between the club of that city and the Kalamazoo club” while the Kalamazoo Gazette touted the benefit of outdoor sports with a “wish that every young man in this country could have his blood stream quickened, his muscles hardened, his eye brightened, his brain cleared, his imagination purified every day of his life by a game of foot ball.” Throughout the decade, members of the popular Odd Fellows fraternity gathered with friends and family each year in July at Long Lake near Kalamazoo for their annual picnic celebration. These events often included boat races, sack races, “blind folded stake finding,” baseball, dancing, and late morning “foot ball” games between rival lodges. “There was some lively kicking” wrote the Gazette in 1886, as thirteen-member teams from area lodges went head to head to defend their honor in front of hundreds of onlookers.
It’s generally accepted that American football was invented in the early 1880s by Walter Camp, who famously became known as the “Father of American Football.” Camp was there when representatives from Columbia, Rutgers, Princeton, and Yale universities gathered to create the Intercollegiate Football Association, one of America’s earliest intercollegiate athletic football conferences.
Rugby football or similar variations of the popular English sport had been played in America for decades, but Camp, while a student at Yale University, fundamentally restructured and reorganized the game. He reduced the number of players on each side from fifteen to eleven, and introduced such new organizational features as the line of scrimmage, the system of downs, and the position of “quarter-back.” Camp was also responsible for rule changes that allowed tackling below the waist and blocking in front of the ball carrier.
Subsequent adaptations of the game came about during the years that followed, including the standup quarterback and the direct snap from the center. And of course there were disagreements along the way. Harvard wanted seven men on the line with one fullback and three halfbacks, while Princeton was using a six-man front line with a quarterback, two halfbacks and two fullbacks. But once again it was Camp who established the modern seven man front with a “T” formation in the backfield. Formal adoption of the “yards-to-go” rule on 12 October 1882 marked the official beginning of American football.
“A Brutal, Demoralizing Sport”
Unlike its more “gentlemanly” counterpart baseball, football during the mid-1880s was a dangerous, sometimes deadly sport. Played without protective gear of any kind, football was immediately recognized and often criticized for its sheer brutality, where broken bones and other serious injuries—even deaths—were not at all uncommon.
In spite of its Ivy League roots, the dangers of football soon became a matter of national concern, prompting some institutions to ban the sport entirely. “The brutality of football is keeping pace with its popularity,” claimed the Chicago Herald, “or rather getting ahead. At a typical football game there are as many persons ‘done up’ with cracked skulls, faces smashed in, bones broken and joints misplaced as can be found in the twenty-fourth ward of Chicago after a raid of the Market street ‘gang’ election day” (Gazette).
“During the last football season in England twenty-two players were killed.
This appalling list of casualties stamps football as the most dangerous of sports – Sporting Life.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 5 May 1894
In 1884, Harvard’s athletics committee, “having become convinced that the game of foot-ball, as at present played by the college teams, is brutal, demoralizing to the players and spectators, and extremely dangerous” (Gazette), suggested that its faculty be required to prohibit the game after the close of the season. Still, “football seems to be more popular than midnight oil at the college just now,” wrote the Gazette a few months later, noting that “sore shins [were] to be chosen rather than great riches.” If they only knew.
College Football Comes to Kalamazoo
“Hoo Rah, Hi Kah! Boom Ah, Hoo! Zip Rah, Hi Boom! Kalamazoo.”
In October 1889, the newly formed Kalamazoo College Athletic Association hosted the school’s first ever “Field Day” on campus with a morning baseball game, races, and other athletic events. To cap off the day’s activities, an ad hoc team of students from the college took on a newly formed team of high school students in a featured “foot ball match.” With teams that were composed of six “rushers,” two “half backs,” two “quarter backs,” and a “goal tender,” the 40-minute contest—although halted due to darkness after only two “innings”—resulted in a 1-0 victory for the college team.
Several months later, Professor Shattuck O. Hartwell, principal of the Kalamazoo High School, received a letter from the Lansing Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) requesting a game of football against a local high school or college team. While so called “backyard football” had been played in Kalamazoo for several years by this time, “official” school-sponsored teams had yet to be organized, although according to the Gazette, “one probably will be soon.”
By November 1891, an official team had indeed been organized at Kalamazoo College, with C.J. Kurtiz as captain. After nearly a year of practice, the ‘K’ College team received an invitation to play its first official game on Monday, 24 October 1892 at the college field day in Olivet. From there it was game on.
The first few years were tough indeed for football at ‘K’. The team played just two games during each of its first two seasons without a single win. Things did improve in 1894, however, with substantial victories over teams from the Kalamazoo YMCA and Three Rivers High School.
In spite of certain challenges, the Kalamazoo College team boasted several notable players during the 1890s, including a young Joseph B. Westnedge at right halfback, and his older brother, Richard, who played left. Both men would eventually leave ‘K’ and go on to represent Kalamazoo well during their respective military careers; Richard as a surgeon in the Spanish American War, and Joseph as a famous colonel in the First World War.
“Kalamazoo will not be behind the times and this year will have the Thanksgiving sport of the eastern of cities.
It is the foot ball game.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 27 November 1894
“Boys and Big Men”
To wrap up the 1894 football season, the Kalamazoo College team took on the newly formed Kalamazoo High School team at Lake View Park near Woods Lake in a Thanksgiving Day battle for the “Championship of Kalamazoo” (Gazette). Despite a fiercely cold northwest wind, the two teams squared off in front of a hardy crowd of 200 supporters for the mid-afternoon contest, which ended in a 16 to 16 tie. But this of course was only the beginning.
Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association
The 1895 season saw K College claim its first ever collegiate victory with a 12-8 win over Alma College. Two years after that, Kalamazoo College would join the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MIAA), one of the oldest and most prestigious collegiate conferences in America, and hire its first full time coach. The team then went undefeated three years in a row.
Challenges and Victories
The K College football program struggled during the first decade of the new century, yet there were still victories to be had and things did improve. In 1906, the team was captained by a young man from Orlean, Virginia named Charles Lewis Williams, Jr., who would become the first African American to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kalamazoo College. Edwin “E.J.” Mather coached Kalamazoo College sports from 1911 through 1916, before moving on to a famously successful career at the University of Michigan after the First World War. Future Kalamazoo College football teams would finish among the top 5 in the conference 85 times over the next 118 years with 14 first place titles.
Kalamazoo College Athletic Grounds
Kalamazoo College football teams played most of their early gridiron contests on the old college athletic field, located along the south side of Academy Street near the Michigan Central Railroad tracks, but other fields were used on occasion. In 1894 the college team played several games on the short-lived athletic grounds at Lake View Park near Woods Lake. A year later, Kalamazoo College leased another newly developed athletic field at so called “Recreation Park” on North Street (not to be confused with the facility by the same name off Portage Street), but that field only lasted for one or two seasons, as well, and college play soon returned to the campus.
In 1944 the campus athletic field was given to the City of Kalamazoo for use as a park (part of which remains today). In return a portion of the old Arcadia Brook Golf Course was transformed into Angell Field, which has been home to Kalamazoo College football since that time. Today, Angell Field is part of the recently updated Kalamazoo College Athletic Fields Complex with a new playing surface, new seating, a new scoreboard, and a new stadium services building.
High School Football in Kalamazoo
“Hi-Yi-Ki-Yi-Siz-Bom-Bah – Kalamazoo High School – Rah! Rah!! Rah!!!”
Famous for helping to establish tax-supported high schools in Michigan, Kalamazoo had already outgrown its “Old Union School” by 1880 and the building was razed. Three years later, the school fielded its first football team just as fall classes were beginning in the “New Union” building. Throughout the years that followed, ad hoc teams from the high school played occasional football games with the Kalamazoo College team and others, but nearly a decade would pass before the school’s first “official” football team was sanctioned.
By 1891, talk began to circulate about forming an official high school football team in Kalamazoo. Three years later in September 1894, the Kalamazoo High School Athletic Club was officially organized, with Professor S.O. Hartwell as president; Mr. Worth (probably Earl N. Worth), vice president; Edward Hitchcock, secretary; and Walter DenBleyker, treasurer. Soon thereafter a football team was organized with Menz Rosenbaum as coach; Charles Mead, manager; and Charles Hall, captain. Practices were held every day on the field near the school and by month’s end, the fledgling team had “already done some fine work” (Gazette).
The Inaugural Season
With a roster that included Lenz, Briton, Faling, Frink, Snyder, Kilgore, Lay, Hewson, Wood, Barrett, Mead, Sargeant, Couron and Roe, the “high school foot ball eleven” (Gazette) kicked off the first season of high school football in Kalamazoo on Saturday, 27 October 1894, with a 3 o’clock game against Battle Creek at Kalamazoo’s Lake View Park. A “large audience” of 450 witnessed a “splendid exhibition” (Gazette), which ended with Kalamazoo on top by a score of 24 to 6 and launched what would become the oldest team rivalry in the state.
A week later, Kalamazoo took on a team from Grand Rapids, again at Lake View, and held the visitors scoreless in front of a cheering hometown crowd of more than 400. Winter weather was beginning to set in when the Kalamazoo high school team boarded the train for Niles to close out its first season of play.
High School Athletic Grounds
Kalamazoo’s early high school football games took place on the athletic grounds located behind the school near the intersection of Oak and Walnut streets. Games were also held on the Kalamazoo College campus field (Academy Street and Michigan Avenue), and once attendance began to grow, many high school games were played at Recreation Park (the old National Fair Grounds), east of Portage Street in what later became the Edison Neighborhood.
In 1925, a third new high school building replaced its predecessors at the corner of Westnedge Avenue and Vine Street. This became known as Kalamazoo Central High School (now Old Central) when Loy Norrix opened in 1961. In 1972, Kalamazoo Central was moved to its present location on North Drake Road. Today, Kalamazoo’s public high school football home games are played on their respective school athletic fields. Both schools (Kalamazoo Central and Loy Norrix) remain strong contenders in the MHSSA (Class A) Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference (East Division).
Football at Western State Normal School
“Hy-lo-zoo, Hy-lo-zoo, Western Normal, Kalamazoo”
In August 1903, there was great fanfare over the news that Kalamazoo would become the home of the new State Normal School. Twenty-eight cities around West Michigan bid for a chance to host the new school, but thanks to Kalamazoo’s centralized location, established railroad network, and an “excellent system of public schools (and) fine public libraries,” the state board of education chose the Celery City as “the only logical and the most practical location for the ‘Western State Normal School’” (Gazette). State Normal would later grow to become Western Michigan University.
After voters overwhelmingly approved a bond proposal in support of the new project, a site overlooking the city was chosen among the orchard trees atop what was then known as Prospect Hill, located between Asylum Road (Oakland Drive) and Davis Street on the west side of the city. Local building contractor Arthur Rickman was awarded the contract and work on the main building soon began. Western Normal School’s first classes opened at the end of June 1904 in the high school building below the hill while construction work on the new hilltop campus was underway.
Normal School Athletic Association
While students were settling in for the first round of fall classes in October 1904, a new Normal School Athletic Association was formed and the initial steps were taken toward organizing Kalamazoo’s newest collegiate football team. The association met for a second time in January and adopted its constitution, with officers Archibald D. Polley, president; Charles Carroll, vice president; Arthur Mason, secretary and treasurer; Orville McNett, football manager; and George Sievers, team captain. Other members of the committee included Professor G.S. Waite, Dr. John T. McManis, and Ethel Rockwell, the school’s physical education instructor. There were but six students enrolled at the time who had any previous football experience, but with proper training it was hoped that others would soon join and perhaps a few games could be arranged.
When the new Western Normal building opened in September 1905, there was still doubt as to whether or not a school football team would be organized, since there were so few experienced players and there was not yet a suitable place to play on the newly constructed campus. “In all probability,” wrote the Gazette, “some sort of a team will be organized and a few scrub games played.” After much effort, a football team was successfully pieced together in October, which included Ampie, Van Son, Grover, Wheeler, Baden, Prichard, Flower, Carroll, Deal, Bender, Johnson and McNaughton. They were nicknamed the “Hilltoppers.”
Western Normal School vs. Plainwell High School
Western Normal played its first ever football game on the 29th of October, 1905, against the high school team in Plainwell. “Kalamazoo had no chance during the game,” boasted a Plainwell writer for the Kalamazoo Gazette, as the Hilltoppers struggled to compete. “The visitors (Western) were slightly heavier,” the journalist conceded, “but lacked training and were far out classed by the local team.” In his address at the dedication of Western’s new school building in November, State Board of Education president Luther Wright proclaimed, “Ability to take defeat and learn from it is not without its value as a training for life.” He then added, “To give a boy physical courage is to give him moral courage; to train the hand, the eye, the judgment, to develop strength, agility and energy, to learn to keep one’s temper under stress, to endure punishment uncomplainingly—surely this is education” (Gazette). Indeed, Western’s men were “well educated” that Sunday afternoon in Plainwell when the high school locals handed the rookie collegiates a disappointing 29-0 defeat.
Western Normal School vs. Augusta High School
For the second game of their opening season, the Kalamazoo players traveled east to the village of Augusta where they squared off against the high school team there in late November. Western opened strong with 20 yards gained in the first three plays, but the game quickly descended into a slug fest when a player for the Augusta team was declared ineligible and booted out of the game (it was discovered that he was actually from Kalamazoo College). The locals protested the call and launched “a series of slugging in 20 minutes of play which ended in a serious quarrel...” (Gazette). The Augusta players left the field in disgust and refused to return to the game. Temper, gentlemen... temper.
Western’s “Black Ghost”
Western played just three games during its second season compiling a 1-2 record with a 21–0 victory over Wayland High School, but the team gradually began to gain momentum, all the while facing strong adversity both on and off the field. During the 1915-1919 seasons, Sam Dunlap, Western Michigan University’s first black athlete, earned a national reputation as “The Black Ghost” for his speed and skill on the gridiron, yet he was forced to endure cruel racial slurs and outright rejection from opponents and teammates alike due to the color of his skin. Although recruiters from the University of Michigan recognized his talent, they rejected Dunlap because he was black, but Western’s president Dwight B. Waldo welcomed him warmly instead. Knute Rockne called Dunlap one of the finest athletes he’d ever encountered. During his career at Western, Dunlap earned 11 varsity letters and set a touchdown record that stood unbroken for 98 years.
In 1927, Western joined the Michigan Collegiate Conference, along with Central Michigan University, Eastern Michigan University, Ferris State University, and Wayne State University. The Western State Hilltoppers became the “Broncos” in 1939 and moved to the Mid-American Conference (MAC) in 1946. Since that time Western has gone on to win three MAC titles (1966, 1988, 2016), three West Division titles (1999, 2000, 2016), and has participated in eight prestigious post-season college bowl games, including the 2017 Cotton Bowl.
Western Normal Athletic Field
When Western was first established, the open field below Prospect Hill along Davis Street was developed as an early athletic field for a variety of sports and activities, including tennis and football. This continued until 1913 when a more expansive athletic facility was opened on the opposite side of campus.
Before Western Michigan University developed the area, the land currently occupied by Waldo Stadium and Hyames Field was a swampy pond fed by Arcadia Creek, where ice was once cut during the winter months and stored for use at a nearby brewery. The brewery closed in 1880 and stood abandoned for several years until an ember from a passing Michigan Central locomotive ignited a fire that destroyed the old building and nearby ice house. The ruins of the burned out brewery remained until 1890 or so when the land was cleared and platted for residential use.
Dwight B. Waldo
The residential development failed to materialize and in 1913, Western’s president, Dr. Dwight B. Waldo, was able to raise enough money to buy the property and turn it into an athletic field. Waldo declared a school holiday one day and equipped able-bodied faculty members and students with shovels and pickaxes to help reroute Arcadia Creek and drain the swampy area. The project succeeded and games were held on the new athletic field the following year. Even without permanent seating, the football field, eight-lane track, and nearby baseball field saw extensive use for more than two decades.
As Western continued to grow, the older athletic field was replaced in the 1930s by Waldo Stadium and neighboring Haymes (baseball) Field, a $250,000 project made possible in part by President Roosevelt’s Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA) program. The 15,000 seat stadium, named in honor of the school’s first president, was christened on 7 October 1939, just weeks before Dr. Waldo’s death, with a 6–0 victory over Miami University. Significant renovations since that time have pushed the seating capacity to more than 30,000. In 2000, a record crowd of 36,361 saw Western defeat the Indiana State University Sycamores by a score of 56–0. Today, Waldo Stadium remains a state-of-the-art athletic facility, with the $25-million Donald J Seelye Athletic Center to its north, a $1.3-million FieldTurf Cool Play playing surface, and three massive new videoboards in the end zones.
Like many of our Local History essays, this article is by no means a definitive study; rather it may be viewed as a work-in-progress. If you have new information, corrections, or items to share, please contact the author or the Local History Room.