Portsmouth, Ironton, and the Making of Thanksgiving Football


Advertisement for the 1929 Thanksgiving game between the Portsmouth Spartans and the Cincinnati National Guards. Portsmouth won 25-0 and claimed the independent professional championship of the United States.

It’s Thanksgiving time again in the United States, and for millions of Americans Thanksgiving is synonymous with American football. Football on Thanksgiving is almost as old as the holiday itself Princeton and Yale began an annual Thanksgiving Day game in New York City in the 1876, just 13 years after Abraham Lincoln declared the national holiday.

America’s top professional league, the National Football League, will feature an entire day of games on Thanksgiving. The afternoon game will feature the Detroit Lions playing host to the Philadelphia Eagles. Detroit has hosted Thanksgiving Day games since their first year in the league in 1934. The seeds of Detroit’s Thanksgiving tradition, however, sprouted in a little field in Portsmouth, Ohio six years earlier. 
In the late 1920’s, Portsmouth was a bustling industrial city. The town, which had just over 33,000 residents in 1920, would swell to over 42,000 by the end of the decade. Like many blue-collar towns in Appalachia during that time, Portsmouth fielded a semi-pro football team. Portsmouth had a problem, though—their teams weren’t all that great. Portsmouth’s industrial base dominated the Scioto Valley, but each autumn the teams representing the city failed to defeat the best team from the region—the Ironton Tanks. Ironton, 30 miles down the Ohio River from Portsmouth, was a town of just over 14,000 people in 1920. The Tanks were a powerhouse football team during the 20’s, though, racking up wins against NFL teams and laying claim to the mythical Ohio Valley Championship numerous times. There were few professional teams during that time, and many semi-pro outfits hired the talents of top-notch players—sometimes fresh out of college and sometimes playing under assumed names while still undergrads. The Tanks began hiring enough talent to compete on a national level. In the early years, the Tanks scheduled games against regional rivals on Thanksgiving Day. By mid-decaade, though, the Tanks were competing with NFL teams like the Kansas City Cowboys and Canton Bulldogs on Thanksgiving. 

Their most bitter rivalry, however, was with Portsmouth. For years during the 1920’s, Portsmouth found no answer for the powerful Tanks. That all changed in 1927, when a team from Portsmouth calling themselves the Shoe-Steels, and led by NFL Hall of Famer Jim Thorpe, defeated the Tanks. The Spartans were formed the following year and, taking a cue from the Tanks, scheduled the rival Ashland Armco Yellowjackets for an afternoon contest at Labold Field in Portsmouth. Ashland, like Ironton, was a big draw in Portsmouth featuring nationally-known talent. 

“The demand for tickets is unprecedented in the history of football for this city,” wrote the Portsmouth Times. Portsmouth fans were rewarded with a 19-0 win over Ashland. Portsmouth finished the 1928 campaign with a record of 9-3-2, there only setbacks coming against Ashland early in the season, the Cincinnati National Guards, and Ironton. 

Portsmouth’s fortunes changed in 1929. Portsmouth signed Indiana University halfback Chuck Bennett and first-year fullback Roy “Father” Lumpkin of Georgia Tech. Flush with top-notch talent, the Spartans finished the 1929 campaign with a 12-2-1 record. Ironton edged the Spartans 3-0 in October and the 1929 NFL Champion Green Bay Packers defeated them 14-0 in September Portsmouth faced Ironton again the Sunday before Thanksgiving, drubbing the Tanks 38-0. Portsmouth defeated Cincinnati 25-0 on Thanksgiving to claim the mythical Tri-State Championship. Spartan leadership began using stationary calling themselves “Independent Pro Champions of the United States.” 

In 1930 Portsmouth made the jump to the professional ranks—they joined the NFL. More powerful competition meant a larger stadium. In August, the $150,000 Unicversal Stadium was completed just in time for the Spartans home opener with the NFL’s Newark, New Jersey Tornadoes. The Spartans won 13-6 on their way to a 5-6-3 record and an 8th place finished in the NFL. The Chicago Bears, Chicago Cardinals, Green Bay Packers, and New York Giants all played at Universal Stadium that year. The Spartans slate was filled with League contests, but the team still found room to play the hated semi-pro Ironton Tanks in a Thanksgiving grudge match at Universal Stadium. Playing on a snow-covered field, the aptly named Frosty Peters dropkicked two field goals and Bennett plunged for a late touchdown to lead the Spartans over the Tanks 12-0. It would be the last time the purple clad Spartans would clash against the red of the Tanks. It was the last game the Ironton squad would ever play. 

Portsmouth didn’t play on Thanksgiving again. The Tanks were gone and the Spartans had no real rival after their first lackluster year in the NFL. The Chicago Bears were always a big draw, but the Bears had their own Thanksgiving series with the crosstown rival Cardinals. Still, games were schedule against the Bears for the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 1931 and 32. Those were years when the Portsmouth-Chicago rivalry began heating up. The Bears and Spartans—along with the Packers, would compete for the league championship. The Bears and Spartans finished in a tie atop the league standings. At that time, ties did not count in league standings, so the Bears (6-1-6) and the Spartans (6-1-4) finished in a dead heat, and neither team had managed to defeat the other during the season, playing to ties on November 13th and 27th. Counting ties as half a win and half a tie, as the NFL would in later years, would have given Green Bay the championship at 10-3-1. Nevertheless, a ‘playoff’ in Chicago was scheduled to determine a champion. In a game dominated by defense, Chicago pulled away thanks to a fourth quarter touchdown pass from Bronko Nagurski to Red Grange. The Bears won 9-0. The Spartans had a new rival. 

Games were scheduled against the Bears on the Sundays before and after Thanksgiving. The Bears defeated the Spartans 17-14 on November 26 and 17-7 on December 3. The December contest would be the final game played in Portsmouth. The team, struggling as the league’s second smallest market next to Green Bay, was facing financial hardship as the Great Depression dragged on. Offseason rumors began to circulate that the Spartans would be leaving town. Unfortunately for Portsmouth’s fans, the rumors proved true. Detroit radio executive George Richards purchased the Spartans for just under $8,000. 

The core elements of the old Spartans remained intact in the Motor City, however, and the lions started their inaugural season on a 10-0 tear. Despite that fact, the largest attendance for a game in Detroit had been 15,000. That changed on Thanksgiving Day. The Lions met the Bears at the University of Detroit Stadium in a game televised on 94 radio stations coast-to-coast. A crowd of 26,000 showed up to watch the game, which would determine the champion of the Western Conference. 

It was a hard-fought contest. Some Lion players, such as Glenn Presnell, had long histories with the Bears. Presnell, a former All-American for the University of Nebraska, had faced the Bears with Ironton, Portsmouth, and Detroit. In 1930, he scored two touchdowns to lead Ironton to victory over the Bears. Presnell and the Lions would come up short on their first Thanksgiving in Detroit, however, as Nagurski and the Bears won 19-16 nailbiter. When the Bears returned the following Thanksgiving, Detroit handily defeated them 14-2 on their way to the first NFL Championship for the Lions. The Lions would play the Bears every Thanksgiving until the series was interrupted by World War II. When the war was over, there was only one NFL Thanksgiving Day each year—a tradition synonymous with Detroit football, but born in southern Ohio. 

High Bridge and Civil War Memory

Copyright NG71

Copyright Flickr User NG71

The 150th anniversary remembrances of the American Civil War are winding down this month.  For the last five years, the United States and it’s citizens, in a myriad of ways, have commemorated the conflict that claimed the lives of more than 620,000 people and ended the institutionalized enslavement of African-Americans in the United States once and for all.  The 150th anniversary commemorations particularly relevant to myself as I spent a good deal of that time working on the documentary Dixie, which explores the sociological history of the Confederacy’s anthem and the ways in which the Civil War continues to shape the lives of Americans.  People often think of the political and social changes wrought by the Civil War, but the most dramatic change was to the landscape of the South.  Today we look at a bit of that landscape, a bit of the antebellum landscape that remains 150 years later: High Bridge near Farmville, Virginia.

High Bridge was originally part of a Southside Railroad line between Petersburg and Lynchburg.  The bridge crosses over the Appomattox River.  The 20 piers of the structure included nearly four million bricks.  The bridge was completed in 1852, just nine years before the beginning of the Civil War.  In 1865, as Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia retreated westward after abandoning Richmond, Lee knew lines of pursuit needed to be cut if his army was to survive.  High bridge was capture by Union forces on April 6.  Confederate forced managed to take the bridge and capture 800 Union prisoners.  The following day, Union reinforcements launched a counterattack and dislodged Confederate forces from the bridge.  Confederate troops set fire to the bridge as they retreated, but were unable to destroy it.  The intact bridge kept the Union Army in close pursuit of Lee, who turned his forces towards Appomattox Court House, where he would surrender on April 9.

High Bridge’s strategic value to the Union kept it from being destroyed, but much of the South was not so lucky.  Atlanta, Charleston, Columbia, and Richmond were all severely damaged.  The devastation of the landscape remained a physical reality for generations of southerners.  Southern rail lines were heated by Union troops and then twisted into loops resembling bowties.  These so-called “Sherman’s neckties” could still be seen in the south decades later.

The Southside Railroad was rebuilt by former Confederate general William Mahone after the war, part of a what became the Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio Railroad.  The bridge became part of the Norfolk Southern Railway in 1982.  The Norfolk Southern donated the bridge and rail land to the State of Virginia, which became High Bridge Trail State Park in 2008.  The renovated bridge, with the walking and bike path pictured above, opened on the 147th anniversary of the battle: April 6, 2012.  The state park should ensure that this once lost piece of Civil War history will be preserved for years to come.  A bit of the past shaping the future.

1910 Lynn School in Garfield County, Washington

Copyright Robin Flint

Copyright Robin Flint

This week Lost Places travels to the northwestern United States–Washington State, to be exact–courtesy of photographer Robin Flint.  This is the 1910 Lynn School, located just off East Lynn Road near the Central Ferry crossing of the Snake River.  Flint writes: “My favorite photo subjects are abandoned vehicles and houses in rural settings. Ghost towns are great, but locations like this one are preferred since they are generally miles from other attractions and I don’t have to wait for anyone to get out of my shot.”

Garfield County sits in southeastern Washington, in a region of fertile hills and prairies north of the Snake River known as the Palouse.  The Palouse region underwent a settlement boom in the 1880’s.  Now, Garfield County is Washington’s most sparsely populated county with just 3.2 inhabitants per square mile, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  The 2010 population was 2,266.  The population was almost double in 1910, during the heyday of the one room schoolhouse.

One room schoolhouses were based on a British system developed in the 1790’s called the “Bell-Lancaster Method.”  Under this system, students of all ages were grouped together.  Students who were able would help the teacher with tasks such as cleaning erasers and bringing coal and water into the school.  Older pupils would also pass on their knowledge to younger students.

Horace Mann began advocating for reform in the mid-1800’s.  Mann, appointed as Massachusetts Secretary of Education in 1837, stressed the importance of universal education to create a strong base of educated citizens for the fledgling U.S. republic.  He used as his basis a model not from a republic, but from a kingdom.  The Kingdom of Prussia, which consisted of parts of present-day Germany, Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Denmark, Belgium, and the Czech Republic.  Prussia had introduced an eight-year, tax-funded, compulsory course of education in the early 19th Century.  Mann’s reforms worked.  By the time the 1910 Lynn School was operational, 72 percent of U.S. children attended school.  Half of those students did so in one-room schools.

By the 1920’s, motorized school buses allowed students to travel longer distances to school.  Albert L. Luce, a Ford dealer from Georgia, produce a bus body for a Ford Model T.  Luce would go on to create the Bluebird, the first iron bus design.  The increase in safety and distance made  consolidation inevitable.  By the 1940’s, one-room schools had been replaced in all but the most remote rural areas.

One-room schools are not extinct in the U.S., though.  According to the One-Room Schoolhouse Center, 26 school are still in operation across the U.S.  Ones that still survive are often re-purposed as restaurants, private residences, shops, and lodging areas.  No word on what plans, if any, are in store for the 1910 Lynn School.  If anyone matriculates onto Lost Places and has any information, let us know.  We’re always interested in what happens to lost places–and we’re eager students.


The Sterling Opera House in Derby, Connecticut

Copyright Steven Bley

Copyright Steven Bley

Historic preservation.  It is a controversial topic in small towns across the United States.  How does a small community effectively and efficiently preserve the architecture of its past?  Architecture that cannot be duplicated.  Architecture that tells the story of the people who have lived and died in a community, helped build a community from the ground up.  It is a tall order for any community on a limited budget.  In this era of stagnant economies, the task becomes almost herculean.  Local preservationists must come to a building’s rescue.  Today’s photo shows one such case: The Sterling Opera House in Derby, Connecticut.  The image comes to us courtesy of New Jersey-based photographer Steven Bley.  Bley is particularly interested in abandoned places and has some great shots on his site, located at www.stevenbley.com and on his Flickr page at https://flickr.com/stevenbley.

The Sterling Opera House is not quite a lost place, but at one time it was heading in that direction.  The opera house opened 125 years ago this month, April 2, 1889.  The building served as an arts venue until 1933.  The first two floors served as the community’s city hall and police station until 1965.  In 1968, it became the first site in Connecticut listed for historic preservation status.  Local preservation efforts from the 70’s through the 90’s raised enough funds and awareness to completely restore the exterior of the building.  The opera house hosted some luminaries in its day: bandleader John Philip Sousa, comedian Red Skelton, magician Harry Houdini, actor Donald O’Connor, aviator Amelia Earhart, and no less than three Barrymores: Lionel, John, and Ethel.  According to some locals, including town dignitaries, the opera house still hosts a few residents in the form of ghosts.  Locals have reported mysterious slamming doors and strange sensations in the building.

The sign in the image promotes 19th century French strongman C.A. Sampson.  Sampson was famously defeated in a show of strength against strongman Eugen Sandow.  According to news accounts at the time, Sandow substituted materials prior to the exhibition which made him look much stronger than Sampson.  Sampson walked off stage in protest.  Sampson was a also a writer, penning “Strength: A Treatise on the Development and Use of Muscle” in 1895.  The book advocated, among other things, deep breathing, walking, cold baths and the use of elastic bands tied around the muscles during weight training.  Sandow is by far the more well-known of the two men.  Sandow, born in Germany, measured Greek statuary to build his physique up to the standard of the “the Grecian ideal.”  It is with good reason that Sandow is often called “the father of modern bodybuilding.”

Derby continues to do some body modification on the opera house itself.  Jean Falbo-Sosnovich of The New Haven Register reported in early March that the city received a $20,000 grant from The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.  The money will help the city apply for a state tax credit that would significantly lower the cost of continued restoration.  Preserving the past often comes with a high price tag.

The Late Great Forbes Field

Copyright Marc Senger

Copyright Marc Senger

At Lost Places, we see a lot of images from places that are slowly falling to the ground.  This week, however, we see a place that is already gone.  This image is of the outfield at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The image was taken by the late Michael Senger, a software developer who received his psychology degree from the University of Pittsburgh in the 1970’s.  This is one of many photos Senger took of Pittsburgh and Boston during that time period.  The history of baseball is ingrained in the minds of millions of Americans.  Fans hold certain statistics, such as Pete Rose’s 4,256 career hits or Cal Ripken Jr.’s streak of 2,632 consecutive games, as almost sacred accomplishments.

It is no surprise, then, that the parks where baseball is played often have the aura of shrines.  Baseball parks in the early 20th Century were built to last.  Some parks lasted so well that generations of fans grew up attending games within their confines.  Some of the parks are still alive and kicking, like the two gray ladies of Major League Baseball: Boston’s Fenway Park (opened in 1912) and Chicago’s Wrigley Field (opened in 1914).  Both are beloved by fans.  In many cities, though, beloved parks are razed to make way for progress.  Such was the case with Forbes Field.

Forbes Field was home to the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team from 1909-1970 and to the National Football League’s Pittsburgh Steelers from 1933-1963.  Built in 1909, the stadium was the first steel and concrete baseball stadium in the nation.  At the time, it was lauded as the finest ballpark in all of baseball.  The Pirates won the World Series in their first season in the new park, defeating Ty Cobb’s Detroit Tigers.  The Pirates were led by Honus Wagner.  It was the only time the two future hall of famers would face each other during their careers.

During its 61-year history, the park hosted some of the most noteworthy events in baseball history.  In 1920, the park hosted the last triple-header in the major leagues.  On May 25, 1935, an aging Babe Ruth hit the last three home runs of his career in Forbes Field while playing for the Boston Braves.  In October 1946, Jackie Robinson and his African-American all-stars squared off against Honus Wagner’s all-stars in an exhibition at Forbes Field.  Robinson famously broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.  Forbes Field was home to a number of great African-American ballplayers, including some of the top teams in the Negro Leagues.  The Homestead Grays of the Negro Leagues played their from 1922-1939.  The Grays counted many hall of famers among their numbers, including Josh Gibson.

The most iconic moment in the park’s history came during the 1960 World Series.  Pittsburgh second baseman Bill Mazeroski cracked a home run in game seven to beat the New York Yankees 10-9.  It was the first time a home run had ended a World Series.  The win gave the Pirates their first world championship since 1925.

Forbes Field is now gone, like so many legendary ballparks of the past.  The nature of the the parks–places whose stories are passed down from generation to generation, where past glories are recounted every spring–means they will still live on.  Unlike many lost places, whose stories are forgotten by time, baseball stories will get told each and every spring as long as people are playing the game.

Abandoned Psychiatric Hospital in Belgian Limburg

Copyright Karen Baijens

Copyright Karen Baijens

This week’s photograph comes to us from Belgium-based Dutch photographer Karen Baijens.  Karen is an avid urban explorer and her journeys often send her to lost and abandoned places.  One of these journeys sent her to an old building in Belgian Limburg, built in 1830.  Karen writes:

“The building has been used for many purposes.  From 1921 until 1980, it was used as a psychiatric hospital.  Since 1980 it has been abandoned.  The place inspired me so much that I also used it for a wedding shoot.”

Abandoned psychiatric hospitals are some of the most photographed of all lost places.  They combine many elements that make an abandoned building fascinating: an interesting history, unique construction, and an element of fear.  It is hard to argue that few places are as fundamentally frightening as old psychiatric treatment facilities, due in part to the frightening history of how the mentally ill have been treated.  Photographs of forgotten psychiatric hospitals can easily conjure up images of shock tubs, straight-jackets, and secretive experiments on the mentally ill. The sad truth is that, for much of human history, the mentally ill were treated quite poorly.  Old psychiatric hospitals are a tangible reminder of that past.  Regardless of how patients were treated in any particular hospital, these abandoned hospitals were once places where real patients experienced real suffering at the hands of mental illness.  Urban explorers often wonder what would happen if walls could talk–few places give the feeling of lost stories more than the psychiatric hospital.