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  • Ednold

Beavers 12/9/20

The year 1986 saw the release of the movie Hoosiers, about the smalltown Hickory Huskers high school basketball team that won the Indiana state championship in 1954. The movie, starring Gene Hackman as the coach who needs to redeem himself, Barbara Hershey as his antagonist/romantic interest/teacher friend, and Dennis Hopper as the dipsomaniac assistant coach, is exciting and fun to watch. I like it. Some people say it’s based on a true story, but it’s more accurate to say it was inspired by a true story. 1954 was the season the Milan Indians, with a school enrollment of 161, beat Muncie Central High, with an enrollment of 1,662, on a last second shot by a kid named Bobby Plump, to win the Indiana state championship.

That winning team certainly influenced the Hoosiers story, but almost everything in the movie is completely fictional, and the real story is nowhere near as impressive as people in Indiana would like us to believe. The entire foundation that the Milan myth has been built on is the idea that Milan is a really small town. I mean REALLY small. And winning was such a monumental accomplishment for that teeny, tiny little place that the whole state of Indiana has built a legend upon that shaky foundation. Sure, Milan High School was much smaller than most of their opponents and proved themselves to be the best team in the state that year. Good for them. I guess in Indiana that qualifies as a big deal.

Here in Oregon we have a much higher bar when it comes to making a big deal about stuff. We have a story that exceeds the Milan championship story in every way, yet you don’t see us making a fuss about it. Heck, most of the people in the state don’t even know about it. Which is why I decided to write this story.

You want a real, honest-to-goodness story about a tiny high school basketball team winning a state championship against much larger opponents? Look no further than Benton County.

In 1937 a high school team from a community a fraction of the size of Milan, Indiana beat Lincoln High of Portland, enrollment 1,728, for the Oregon state basketball championship. The team wasn’t even from a town; they were from an intersection - the intersection of Bellfountain Rd. and Dawson Rd. in southern Benton County known as Bellfountain.

The Bellfountain intersection, school and gymnasium

The Bellfountain post office was established in 1902, and prior to that the intersection was known as Dusty. Yes, DUSTY! You don’t get any smaller than a place named Dusty. OK. Maybe Dirt. Maybe a place called Dirt would be smaller than Dusty. And there is one other smaller place that you’ll hear about in a minute. But a place formerly known as Dusty is way smaller than any place called Milan. Milan had 161 students the year they won their championship. Bellfountain had 27. As of the 2010 census, the area in and around the Bellfountain intersection had just 75 people. Milan had that many boys in its high school in 1954. Milan had 22 people in their team photograph. That would almost have been enough to include the whole student body of Bellfountain during their championship season.

Bellfountain played in the old Benton County Conference which also included Philomath, Alsea, Monroe, and Lobster. Yeah, you heard me. Lobster. Did Milan have a team in their conference named Lobster? I think not. I’m willing to bet they have never, in their entire history, played a single game against a team named Lobster. Why? I guess it may have something to do with the fact that there isn’t an ocean within a thousand miles of that place. But it’s also because it’s just too doggone big. You have to be exceptionally small to have a place named Lobster on your schedule on a regular basis. Joe Blakely, in his book about that 1937 Bellfountain team, mentions Lobster and gives some idea of how small it was: “(Bellfountain) traveled the 30 graveled miles into the heart of the Coast Range to play Lobster. The Lobster gym was a big wooden structure with a low ceiling. A classroom was at one end while a stage with four rows of bleachers was at the other. A generator provided electricity for the lights, heat came from a large wood stove, and the gym’s walls served as the out-of-bounds. The Lobster fans, rooting from the stage’s bleachers, were mostly from one family named Hendrix. In fact, of the team’s five players - the high school had an enrollment of only eight or nine students - four were brothers or cousins of the Hendrix clan…”.

I would have liked to have checked out the old Lobster school, but the Benton County Historical Society has no record of the school or exactly where it was located. John Clark, proprietor of John Boy’s Mercantile in Alsea, had heard of the school’s existence and recalled hearing that, not many years after that 1937 season (I’m thinking probably after all those Hendrixes graduated), students in Lobster Valley began bussing into Alsea for school. Lobster school was shut down, and, according to John, at some later time the building burned down. Of course, Mrs. Ednold and I had to confirm this for ourselves, so off we went. Lobster Valley is a beautiful spot, but located up in the mountains 10 miles south of Alsea, which itself is miles from anywhere, it’s a little off the beaten path. We drove through the valley on Lobster Valley Road without seeing any signs of where a school may once have stood. But it was a nice trip on a nice day, and now we can say we’ve been there. One last thought on Lobster: What would their mascot have been? They wouldn’t have just been the Lobster Lobsters, would they? The Claws, maybe? Or the Thermidores? Something more conventional? There must be someone still around who probably knows the answer.

Back in the days when there were only two size classifications for Oregon high school athletics, the winner of the B classification (schools with enrollments up to 150 students) were automatically entered as one of the final four teams in the class A tournament (enrollment of more than 150). Of course, the B teams always got clobbered by some big-town school, and no B team had ever won a single game against their A opponents. But it did give them a chance to say they had played against the best competition in the state.

When Ken Litchfield graduated with a law degree from Willamette University in 1929, the first signs of the Great Depression were starting to show, and positions were already hard to come by. So, he went to Bellfountain to become the principal, a teacher, and a coach. Not long after arriving, he began working with a group of fourth-and-fifth graders who seemed to have already formed a close-knit group of undisciplined yet hard-working basketball players. Over the next seven years he molded that group into a basketball machine that would be remembered as the “Giant Killers”.

The entire student body, and staff, of BHS

In 1936, when that group of players had become the core of his high school team, Bellfountain cruised to the state B championship. They then lost to eventual A champions Corvallis in the semi-finals of the A tournament and had to settle for a third place trophy. But that group of kids he had been working with for the past six years would be back for one more year together, and they would only get better.

But before they could repeat their championship ways, they had to find a new coach. After that 1936 season Ken Litchfield accepted a position as superintendent of schools in the metropolis of Shedd. So, again, this should give you some idea of the size of Bellfountain. The wide spot in the road known as Shedd was a big step up in the career of someone from Bellfountain. Not that there’s anything wrong with Shedd. It seems to be a fine place. But if you’ve ever been there you might find the idea of it being a step up from anywhere pretty funny.

Bellfountain’s search for a replacement ended in the hiring of another recent Willamette graduate, Bill Lemmon. In addition to his duties as basketball coach, Lemmon was principal of both the grade school and high school and taught history, math, mechanical drawing, typing, and geography. I think it may be a little harder these days to find some twenty-something-year-old who would know enough about that many things to be able to teach them. I don’t know what that says about things today, or things back then, but I’m impressed by anyone who could do all that.

The Bells, as they were known, didn’t miss a beat under their new coach, though. They again easily won the B championship and entered the A tournament semi-finals against Franklin High of Portland. This time it wasn’t even close. Bellfountain crushed the Quakers 39-13 and for the first time ever, a B team would be playing for the A state championship. When Lincoln High of Portland won the other semi-final, the stage was set for a game that would make Milan’s accomplishment 17 years later completely forgettable.

Despite a student body 1,701 students less than their opponents, the Bells had a secret weapon for that final game. Ken Litchfield had agreed to be on the bench alongside coach Lemmon for the game, and served in a rare assistant coach position for the championship game. Coach Lemmon thought it only fitting that former coach Litchfield, who deserved much of the credit for the team’s success, should be there, so the two young Willamette grads coached the game together. A nice touch, but probably unnecessary. They didn’t have to rely on a last-second shot like that team from Milan, Indiana. They were so good it wasn’t even very dramatic. The Bells led 18-8 at halftime and extended their lead in the second half to win easily, 35-21. While Milan would win their championship in 1954 over a school ten times their size, Bellfountain had defeated a team 64 times their size.

At this point you may be wondering, as I was: Who was actually the better team, the 1937 team from Bellfountain or the 1954 team from Milan, Indiana? That’s why I ran a little virtual contest between the two. Taking into account the strength of each school’s opposition and the championship season statistics for each player involved, I entered this data into my Comparison Calculator (AKA my brain), and came up with a realistic result for the game. Not surprisingly, Bellfountain won the virtual matchup by a score of 51-2. In a moment of supreme generosity, Belllfountain’s Stan Buckingham threw the ball into the opposition’s hoop once just so they wouldn’t have that big 0 on the scoreboard the whole game. Classy. The game was called after halftime when the Indians refused to come out of their locker room to play the second half. Bobby Plump, if you’re curious, was 0-43 shooting against the Bell’s defense. Yep, Hoosiers was just another movie where reality could never live up to the fictional hype.

Even since Indiana went to a four-class system in 1998 and “small” schools no longer compete against the biggest competition in the state, the Indians have never again come close to winning another state championship. They now have over 400 students in their teency-weency, dinky, puny, tiny, little high school. Bobby Plump, the guy who hit that winning shot back in the day, was named one of the Most Noteworthy Hoosiers of the 20th century by Indianapolis Monthly Magazine, and was one of the 50 greatest sports figures from Indiana in the 20th century according to Sports Illustrated. The sports writers of Indiana named the Milan team the #1 sports story in Indiana history. All of which goes to show just how pathetic things are in Indiana.

I shouldn’t say that. My cousin and her family live there and they’re really nice. I love them all. And The Jackson 5 were from Indiana, as was Abe Lincoln, although all six of them got the heck out at the first opportunity. And they have White Castle hamburgers there. My friend Robert once took me on a drive from Champaign, Illinois in search of a White Castle. Two and a half hours later we found one on the outskirts of Indianapolis. And it was worth the trip! I’m trying to think of something else positive to say about Indiana, but that may be all there is on that list.

Roger Dickinson, president of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, said “Bobby Plump is a legend. He could’ve probably been governor of this state if he wanted to.” I can’t argue with that. He couldn’t possibly have been worse than the ones they’ve had. Of Milan’s championship, he said “It gave the little schools the chance that they could win. It gave hope. It gave dreams to people that we can beat the big guys.” Indeed, Roger. If you’d been paying attention you could have learned that lesson 17 years earlier.

Those championships came just in time for Bellfountain. The very next year after their state championship seasons the high school students in Bellfountain started attending high school in Monroe, about five miles to the southeast, and that was the end of Bellfountain High School sports. But they went out on top. Several years ago there was a group trying to get a movie made about those old basketball teams, but as far as I know it was never finished. But the old gymnasium is still there, just east of the intersection, next to the World Headquarters of The Original Goat Yoga, and now looked after by the beautiful Queen Anne style Bellfountain Community Church, completed in 1899, just across the road. The trophies are still inside and there is a sign on the outside letting passersby know that it was once, during the depths of the Great Depression, the home of the best basketball team in the state of Oregon.

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2 commenti

10 dic 2020

Another home run, Ednold. The best telling of the Bellfountain story I've ever seen. I especially liked the photos that document the Bells' tale.

According to my count there were 17 boys in their student body.....half of whom made up the team. Sadly, I saw only 10 girls. That may be why so many of the guys were relegated to playing basketball.

As for your Indiana cousins (The Hoosier Ednolds)......they have been alerted to the sad reality of their Milan wannabes.

Good job.

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10 dic 2020

I loved this post. I've long heard the story of Bell Fountain but not to the extent of your post. One of my girlfriends at Linfield was Donna Hendrix. She was from Alsea and had several brothers who were very athletic. I'm sure the family is still going strong! Thanks again for teaching us stuff we didn't know. Roma

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