In this episode of Step Back in Time, Robert Fritz looks back on the challenge of attending high school athletics in Otsago County in the 1920s and 1930s.
GAYLORD – In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Otsago County School was much different from what it is today.
One-room schools taught the kindergarten until the eighth grade and were located in the various towns. Most of the eighth-grade students completed their formal education and went out to work on the farm. It is worth remembering that in those days many of the students’ parents and grandparents were illiterate. Most of the agricultural work was done by hand, and help, especially from the boys, was desperately needed. It was indeed an honor to have a high school graduate in the family.
The high school was located in Gaylord, and students had to finish eighth grade first to attend. High school students had to buy their own books as well as provide transportation to school. This was very stressful for the number of boys who managed to participate in football, basketball or track.
The schools were not consolidated and there were no buses to transport students. There were also very few private cars available to bring students to school. Most of them walked to school and back. On several occasions one high school entrepreneur initiates a ride on a cow from his home on a farm about three miles northwest of Gaylord. The cow ate grass contentedly and waited for the school to release her as Charles rode back home. Boys who played sports and practiced after school were very often late for home. In many cases they were still faced with performing tasks before bed.
It was a little easier to build. Many of them were able to find work to live in the city, maintain a babysitter or do cleaning and general housework in exchange for a room and boarding house. The girls’ sport was not particularly emphasized in the early days.
For boys like Ed Cassouba, Louis Kojawa and many others who lived on the farm, it was a difficulty few would try today. They went to school in the morning and stayed long after school to play sports. They then faced another three- or four-mile walk home, often in the dark and sometimes faced below-zero temperatures with a blizzard. This spawned some tough players and Gaylord always held himself accountable, even with a schedule made up mostly of larger schools.
Transportation has always been an issue in away games. Gaylord did not have a school bus, although sometimes they asked one from another county to take the staff on a long trip, like to the West branch. On trips east and west the school used the train in Wayne City, Gaylord and Alpana to move their teams to games.
Basketball was different and private cars could be used, with owners usually paying for their fuel. I was the manager of the basketball team and as such I had to ride everything that coach John Michael rode. He always rode in front, and had a big full-length fur coat that he always wore. In those days the vehicle heater was a small radiator, installed on the firewall. Well, Michael would get in the car and wrap the big, big fur coat around the stove. It took care of the heat for the whole trip. I can look back on some pretty cool rides.
Basketball games were held and rehearsed in every building that was available. There were usually few seats for spectators and most of the fans stood aside. Many of the buildings were heated by a wood-burning stove and occasionally dropped the pipe. The game was held until the pipe was installed and the smoke cleared.
Home games at Gaylord were held in the hall and often St. Mary’s, at that time an eighth grade school, set up a team for the first game. However, if the ball hit one of the tie rods near the ceiling, it was an automatic bounce ball. The rules have changed a lot since then.
Johannesburg, Vanderbilt, Elmira and Gaylord have always rated basketball as one of the top sports offered in Otsgo County for our students, boys and girls alike. Good equipment, good training and no more walking make sports and athletics a real opportunity for Otsago County students to enjoy in addition to the three Rs.
Robert Fritz was a longtime chronicler of Otsego County history and served for many years as the postmaster at Gaylord.