Remembering Polk sports of 70 years ago

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 7, 2011

Polk County residents told stories this week about playing sports in the 1930s and 1940s that made listeners feel as though the games were held last week.
The Polk County Historical Association program Tuesday reviewed the history of school sports in Polk County from 1923 until the 1950s. Polk County High School coach and assistant athletic director Pat McCool led the program and invited former athletes Harold Taylor and Aileen Cudd Henderson to speak. The program also included stories from Jim Jackson and Annie Bell Gilbert.
“I remember one game you played against Columbus and Columbus got so frustrated the game ended in a hair pulling contest,” Jackson said to Henderson, who played basketball for the Green Creek Hornets in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Henderson was recognized as a local legend in basketball. Standing 6 feet 1 inch tall, she scored 99 points in one high school game. She was also recently recognized by the state of North Carolina for her high school record; Congressman Heath Shuler presented her a copy of the legislature’s resolution honoring her.
“I saw her shoot the 99 points,” local resident Howard Greene said.
Henderson said Tuesday she wasn’t better than any other player on her team – her teammates would just throw her the ball and she would tower over the opponents to score.
“One tournament the coach told me he wasn’t going to put me in until he had to,” Henderson said. “It kind of hurt my feelings. Well, it wasn’t long until he had to [put me in].”
At that time, local mills would recruit high school basketball players. Henderson said she was approached, but her daddy wouldn’t let her play for them because she had to finish high school.
The meeting on Jan. 4 was filled with laughter, and residents talked back and forth, sharing their memories of Polk sports, which in the early days included only football and basketball.
Harold Taylor said the times were hard economically and it was difficult to get enough players to come out because most boys were required to do chores at home.
“Most people used cook stoves then and had to chop wood,” Taylor said.
He said he remembers one away game when his Tryon football team consisted of only 11 players. One player got hurt early, so one of the drivers suited up and played. When another player got hurt, the coach put on a uniform and played and scored a touchdown.
The Hot Springs team didn’t mind, Taylor said, because they were beating Tryon by about 50 points.
Taylor said players would catch rides with whoever was attending away games, and those driving could fill up with gasoline at the school’s gas tank.
Residents talked about the rivalries among the county teams. They remembered many tournaments and could name who won which year. The county’s early teams consisted of the Tryon Tigers, Green Creek Hornets, Saluda Wildcats, Stearns Stingrays, Mill Spring Indians and the Sunny View Comets. When Polk Central was built in later years, its teams were the Rebels and later the Patriots.
Taylor talked about playing football in 1938 for the Tryon Tigers. He said the team that year wasn’t very good and the main problem was finding small schools to play.
“We probably didn’t have 100 boys in the whole school,” Taylor said.
He said they played at Harmon Field in the afternoon because there were no lights, and not many people attended because it cost a quarter to get in. There were no bleachers, he said and the team might have gotten a new football every year, but never new uniforms. Taylor said he remembers their uniforms came from the used uniforms of Newberry and Clemson College players who donated them to Tryon.
Taylor was later captain of the 1940 Tryon Tiger football team, which was undefeated.
Football in Polk County started in 1926-1927, with Bill Blackwell in Tryon being noted as one of the best athletes to play in Polk County during the early years. In the 1930s, Saluda and Tryon combined to form a team.
Tennis and baseball teams began in the 1950s in Tryon. Baseball was played in the early days on town teams instead of through the schools.
Other early sports in Tryon included a gym team in 1944, boxing and golf. McCool said the earliest band picture he could find was from 1960, but there were cheerleaders in early years.
“I’ve survived 68 years of marriage and three years of WWII and I’d forgotten a lot of these things until Pat (McCool) brought them up,” Taylor said. “I appreciate Pat for doing this.”
School sports in Polk County were much different in the 1920s to 1950s era than they are today.
Football players wore a leather hat for a helmet and small pads that slid around, Taylor said. There were no bleachers and no field houses.
Men’s basketball players went back to center court after every basket to do a jump ball, so the scores were low.
In women’s basketball, the players played only half court and were allowed only one or three dribbles before passing or shooting, depending on the year.
In some county gymnasiums, a lay-up wasn’t possible because the goals were on the end walls. Residents could attend a Tryon basketball game for 25 cents in the 1930s and 1940s, but it cost only 10 cents in Green Creek.
Sunny View and Mill Spring were the only county schools that didn’t get a basketball gymnasium built by the Work Projects Administration (WPA) around 1938. Sunny View played all its basketball games away and practiced on dirt courts, as did the other schools before gyms were built.
The first boys basketball team in Tryon began in 1923, with a girls team following in 1924. W.A. Schilletter was credited with starting sports in Tryon. He was the principal, superintendent and also taught six classes.
Early Saluda basketball was played on dirt courts outside and later played in an old theater that was turned into a gymnasium, according to McCool. He said the gym only had enough room for people to stand on the sidelines. The Saluda boys basketball team won the county championship in 1935 and the team included George Jones and M.C. Staton.
By 1926, Green Creek already had an alumni basketball team, McCool said.
The Sunny View girl’s basketball team won the county championship in 1934, McCool said.
McCool said the Green Creek girls basketball team in 1941 that included Henderson won every title that could be won. There were no state championships then, but regional championships existed.
The Tryon boys basketball team won the county championship in 1941. The team included Jackson, Taylor, Frank McFarland, Seth Vining, Jack Melton and Marion Greene.
Jackson said he will never forget that championship, which was played in Saluda. He scored 17 points, he said.
Jackson said he doesn’t have fond memories of the 1940 championship. Tryon had beaten Sunny View twice during the regular season and thought the championship would be a piece of cake, but Sunny View beat them.
“I was sitting on the bench,” Jackson said, who then was known as Jimmy. “The coach told me I’d been hot in practice and he wanted me to shoot every time I got the ball. I was so charged up I didn’t hit the net, the backboard, nothing…,” Jackson said.
Jackson also said he admired Taylor in high school.
“(Taylor) was always my hero,” Jackson said. “He was the captain of the football team, captain of the basketball team and president of our class.”
He then reminded Taylor that as class president it was time for him to start organizing a 70th class reunion. Their class consisted of 24 members and Jackson said they could probably round up seven classmates.
Gilbert told a story about playing in a Valdese basketball tournament her senior year and being accused of being her older sister, Aileen Cudd.
“They came out with a picture of Aileen and said that girl’s been playing for 10 years,” Gilbert said. “They thought it was me.”
She played and her team won all but one game in the tournament, she said. Gilbert won a trophy in that 1948 tournament for scoring about 80 points total.
“At Green Creek the thing was basketball,” Gilbert said. “We didn’t have a football team then and people came to the basketball games. We grew up in good times and I’m thankful for that.”

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