Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Small Town Girl Sports

Many years ago I was fortunate enough to have been able to
handle and read a 1928 copy of the St. Vincent School's annual
"Borderlines", copying several pages pertaining to my family
The piece below was written by Mike Rustad and and originally posted on my family's 'family' website, a website I created to gather family history to which I invited Mike to be a part of due to his love of local history and knowledge of so many area families that intersected with my own.

Mike shared this fascinating look into St. Vincent's past back in 2004; I am currently reviewing all content on this old site because it will be discontinued soon. Many great pieces of local history were shared there, and I intend to preserve it all in some shape or form. I invite you to share in this wonderful view to our past, this little 'time machine' to my family's roots that touches on the wider communities they lived in...

[And as Mike ponders, where DID those girls practice some of their sports? My theory is they shared practice/play space with Pembina, but that's just a working theory...]


This little essay was inspired by reviewing some old clippings about the St. Vincent girls basketball team that appeared in the 1927-28 school yearbook that can be found in the Lake Bronson-based Kittson County Museum. St. Vincent is today nearly a ghost town. First, a little background. Mrs. Dick Lapp's little history of St. Vincent notes that the towns was the oldest city in Kittson County from the standpoint of settlement. Mrs. Lapp writes that "[t]he history dates back as far as 1857, when Minnesota was still a territory. A trading post on the village site had been named St. Vincent in honor of St. Vincent de Paul, founder of missions and hospitals in France." St. Vincent was built up as a town that serviced Fur Company XYZ (what an unimaginative name!). She notes the town was a byproduct or expansion by the Selkirk settlers that founded Pembina. St. Vincent had the reputation of being a rough and tumble town. Mrs Lapp writes:
"Ox-carts were the first means of travel in this area. Norman Kittson enveloped the ox-cart enterprise. Later steamboat traffic became important not only to the village but to settlement of the community. As early as 1862, railroad talk began. In Winnipeg, Donald Smith thought the Red River needed a lifeline to the east. He took his idea to Norman Kittson, the president of the steamboat line which held a monopoly on the river. Kittson referred the matter to his silent partner, James Hill. Hill had a dream of reviving the bankrupt railway at St. Paul and latched onto the idea immediately. In 1878, his dream was realized. He saw the first locomotive arrive in Emerson, Manitoba from St. Paul. It was the Great Northern Railway and later known as the Burlington Northern. The customs office and depot were in St. Vincent until 1905 when they were moved to the Canadian border at Noyes. In 1900, a roundhouse was built, James J. Hill backed the project. It was located by Lake Stella, east of St. Vincent. A turning table was included that was used to turn the trains around. Charles Gooding was the first depot agent. John McGlashen was the first man to take a carload of horses through from St. Cloud to Winnipeg. He also operated a saloon".
Mrs. Lapp notes how vibrant the town was by the turn of the century. The fur traders were prosperous and started the first stores. She writes further:
"The first bank was established in 1880 by J. H. Rich, E. L. Baker and F. B. Howe. It was later sold and closed. J. R. Ryan operated a livery and sales and William J. Mason opened a blacksmith's shop and also ran a wagon and carriage shop. The Firehall was built in 1903 by Edward Cameron and his three sons. It was on main street, east of the Red River bridge and housed fire engines run by steam. The Firehall was pushed over in 1972, the town hall demolished and a new hall built on original site of depot."
Mrs. Lapp notes that the first teacher in the St. Vincent School was none other than Eliza Moore.  The first schools in the county were on or near this village. Lapp's sure-footed history records that it was "Eliza Moore, then age fifteen, taught all eight grades in a little one room school in the west end of town. She told stories in later years of the Indians riding their ponies around the schoolhouse and looking in the windows and frightening her and the pupils. The present school was built in 1903. It was a square two-story white frame building and originally housed all the grades from one through twelve."

Eliza Moore continued to teach in St. Vincent when I was a student in the 1950s and 1960s. I thought of her as an Ancient Mariner or School marm. Mrs. Lapp gives her great credit for the development of the school in St. Vincent. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Prof. Moore was a big part of the St. Vincent school. Other St. Vincent teachers from my day included Maribel Berg, Velma Isley and now my memory so many decades later becomes fuzzy. I think Simeon Cameron was the school cook. [Note from Trish:  I also had Mrs. Berg & Mrs. Isley as teachers at the St. Vincent School, and Simeon Cameron was still the cook while I attended...] 

Now, let's fast forward to 1928. The town of St. Vincent in its heyday had a hotel called the Northern Hotel. It also had saloons, stores, a jail, fire station, curling rink, etc. However, the jewel in the crown was the St. Vincent School. The School field both boys and girls teams for basketball, track. tennis and baseball. I think that the social history of girls' sports is largely a lost memory. I want all of the readers to think of the St. Vincent described by Mrs. Dick Lapp. There was a vibrancy. It was 1928 only a year before the Great Depression was to cause the citizens of St. Vincent great economic and personal turmoil. The Great Depression which was to begin in 1929 decimated St. Vincent. Mrs. Lapp blamed the Great Floods of 1948 and 1950 and she may be right about the factors leading to the dissolution of vibrant St. Vincent. I think that the Great Depression might have played a role. Mrs. Lapp lived through the Great Deapression and both floods. I was a baby during the Flood of 1950. I digress. Fast forward to the 1927-28 school year. The school was the center of town life.

The St. Vincent School had a strong (women's) basketball team consisting of Mamie Cleem, Isabel Fitzpatrick, Lelia Davis, Fidessa Wilkie and Alberta Fitzpatrick. The Girls' Basketball Team of 1927 is pictured during the first game of the season. The first game for the girls was held on December 4, 1927. I found the school yearbook to be amusing. Isabel is pictured as tall and lean and quite attractive in a picture taken during the first game of the year. In the back row, there is yet another Fitzpatrick named Fern. The name is alternatively spelled Fern or Ferne. Ferne was the starting Left Forward on the team and had the nickname of Coon. Isabelle was known as Issy or at least that's what her teammates called her. Issy was apparently the team's star ball handler and dribbler and played at the right guard position. What's so puzzling to me is that there appears to be 6 players on the starting lineup for girl's basketball. Issy was at the Right Guard position Fidessa Wilkie or Fido was at the Center Guard and Verlie Cameron or Plug was at the Left Guard. The nicknames for the girls were not exactly comely or feminine names. I was impressed with their apparent fitness and competitiveness. Every girl had a nickname. The Center Forward, Mamie Cleem, was nicknamed "Slivers" There was Coon (Ferne) at the Right Forward position and Lelia Davis or Lee at the Left Forward. Isabelle or Issy played Right Guard. Fido was at the left guard. They were spelled by substitutes Verlie Cameron (Pug), Violet "Cutie" Cleem and Mae (O'Leary) Gamble. Eileen Twamley also played on the team. I assume she was the sister of Merle Twamley who was the patriarch of the large Twamley family we knew growing up in Humboldt and St. Vincent.

The other sports stories about the girls basketball team of 1928 mentions the injuries the girls sustained and how they played the game. Isabelle, for example, jammed two fingers, and was hurt in the game with Stephen. St. Vincent beat Stephen 21 to 16. Issy continued to play despite having sprained fingers. She was not the only girl to be injured. Coon's leg was twisted and the game delayed. She limped through the end of the quarater and could not continue. She was replaced by "Cutie" Cleem. In that game, Mamie "Slivers" Cleem was the superstar scoring 12 of the 16 points and playing like a champ. St. Vincent beat Stephen! I don't ever remember Humboldt-St. Vincent beating Stephen. St. Vincent beat Stephen at the game held in St. Vincent. Does anyone remember where the games were played? I think that the Boy's Teams were played in Pembina. It may be that the games were played at Pembina's gym. St. Vincent played Pembina February 8, 1928. The Game ended in a 10 to 10 tie. In the Stephen game, St. Vincent's star players missed key free throws while Stephen made their shots. St. Vincent took the win because of their better outside shooting. In the Pembina game, the game game had a number of hard fouls against the St. Vincent girls. Issy Fitzpatrick had a key personal foul levied against her. A technical foul was called on Fido Wilkie. Slivers was hurt in a hard foul and knocked against the back wall and then to the floor. There were officiating disputes in all of the girls' games or there was a hyperactive imagination on the part of the St. Vincent sports writers. In the return game with Stephen at Stephen held on January 20, 1928, the St. Vincent team made baskets that were not counted. The home town (Stephen tilted) referree ruled that when Slivers made a basket, it did not count. When Coach Dick Lapp objected, he was told that the basket did not count because of interference. Lapp retorted, "Interference, YES, BECAUSE ST. VINCENT MADE THE BASKET."

The third quarter of the Stephen game ended in a 14 to 14 tie. In the fourth quarter, a St. Vincent player named Mae Gambel or O'Leary went into the game replacing Issy Fitzpatrick. That substitute was not a wise choice as then Stephen made four baskets and St. Vincent only two to round off the game which ended "18 to 22, in Stephen's favor." In the Pembina game, Cutie Cleem substituted for Coon. Apparently, the ref called a foul on Cutie for chating with someone on the team so a technical foul was called.

I was wondering whether anyone knows additional facts about any of these colorful girl sports heroes from the late 1920s. St. Vincent was a great sports town with a full array of girls sports during the 1920s: basketball, tennis, softball or kitten ball etc.

I responded to Mike's post by saying:

1 - The use of "Prof.", short for "Professor" was curious to me, since I had only been familiar with it in association with teachers at a university or college level, but here it is used with teachers at a secondary level. I did a bit of research, and it appears to have been common at this time...
Wow, Mike! Keep the stories coming, sports-related or otherwise! You really bring St. Vincent alive for us. It's really neat to hear about the history of where I grew up. I wonder what other source material there might be out there that would have information about the town's life? I'd love to hear more about the merchants, who owned what, what the saloons and hotel, etc. was like, the background of the town's politics, etc...even the gossip of the past. Any ideas anyone?
My cousin Delphine Mundorf responded:

Alberta Fitzpatrick as you may know from other postings is my mother. I was surprised about her name mentioned here on the basketball team. I guess she has mentioned it to me but her biggest thing she talks about is playing tennis. She says she was very good at tennis and she and her partner did so well they had a chance to go to the State tournament. However that cost money and her folks didn't have the money to send her so she never got to the state competition. I believe she felt she was good enough to maybe have become a pro. The Fern you talk about is mom Alberta's & my aunt Harriet's first cousin. I met her several times as she lived in Crookston when I was a child and we usually stopped to visit her whenever we went to St. Vincent to see my grandparents. My mother is still living and will be 92 in July. To my knowledge she has outlived in age all her family. They all had longevity but most of the elders died in their late 80's.
Mike Rustad then commented:

Alberta was in fact a member of the St. Vincent tennis team. What this demonstrates is that the St. Vincent girls program was fully developed. The girls did not play football or hockey in the late 1920s, but every other sport. The point was that the town followed these teams. I find it amazing that St. Vincent played Neche, Cavalier, Stephen, and towns that were much bigger. I wonder where St. Vincent played their hockey games. Jim Gooselaw, Fred Stranger, Allen Smith, Roy Clow, Manuel Gooselaw, Cecil Smith, Bill MacKay and Ralph Cameron were on the school's hockey team. I have no further information. I think that if I were to get back to Lake Bronson that I could find a great deal more about the St. Vincent school. One of the problems I have being in Vermont is that I don't have ready access to these materials. Maybe one of you could do a field trip to the Kittson County Museum and make some copies of the St. Vincent materials. Another great source would have been the Pembina Museum. I am not referring to that antiseptic boring museum today, The old museum had tremendous numbers of artifacts etc. I asked someone what happened to that stuff and was told that the State has it in storage in Bismarck. What a waste. I think a fellow named Barron had his own private museum in Pembina. [Note from Trish:  Mike is right in this - it was Elmer Barry, and his private museum became the basis of the old Pembina Museum!]  I bet he had tons of stuff on St. Vincent. The shame of having this lost history is that everyone is now deceased or very old who attended St. Vincent High School. We have only fragments to draw from. We must be like archeologists in trying to construct social history from such scant data. I think who we are is deeply rooted in our history. Going back to far in history for wisdom is like ox-tail soup. It's going back too far for a good thing.
Delphine Mundorf again commented:

My mother as I mentioned is now 92. She & I believe 3 other boys were the only 4 to graduate from the St. Vincent High school all others transferred to Humboldt I believe. I wish I had pd. more attention to Mom's stories but not being a historian I didn't. But I think Mom, Fred Stranger, and a Smith boy & one other graduated from St. Vincent High school. The rest transferred but it cost a tuition to do so & these 4 parents didn't have the money for it. So Mom wasn't going to finish school. One morning she came downstairs and found her mother crying and when My Mom asked Grandma why she was crying Grandma said because I only had a 3rd grade education and you have a chance to graduate and aren't going to do it. So my mother called the boys and asked them if they would be willing to go back to school and they agreed so they showed up in Prof.1 Good's class. Mom said he was so happy to see them he got tears in his eyes, Moms favorite thing she used on us kids was that we better do good in school because she was valedictorion of her class. I wasn't til later we found out she was only 1 of a class of 4, no wonder she was validictorion. Ha Ha. She also has told me that the professor was so glad they came back to his class that he offered to help each one of them should they decide to further their education. She then went on to Minneapolis and went into nurses training but at her time it didn't cost to go to nurses training you worked some of your education so got the room free and got pd. $12 a month. She made it through the 3 yrs. to become a registered nurse but was never able to take the state boards. Her story all these yrs. was because it cost $12 to take the board exam and she didn't have the money to pay for it nor did her parents. I always asked her why didn't you contact Prof Good since he said he would help any of you. To go through the whole training then not take that final exam to get you certificate is such a waste. She just said Ya I suppose I could have asked him. However I have since very shockingly found out there was a a whole other reason why she never got that final exam.