The March Madness of the high school and college basketball championships is now behind us, but it was April Madness at Sayles-Hill Gymnasium in 1913 as Carleton hosted the very first state high school basketball tournament. The teams from larger towns had been eliminated and Fosston and Mountain Lake, each with populations of about 1,000, played in the championship game on April 5, with Fosston (“playing with jack rabbit perseverance”) prevailing by a score of 29 to 27.
Carleton hosted the state tournament until 1923 when it was moved to the Twin Cities to accommodate larger crowds. The Northfield High School boys’ team played once at Sayles-Hill, losing in the first round of the tournament in 1916 to St. Paul Mechanical Arts. During its next appearance at the state finals in 1928, the NHS team played at Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota, defeating Austin 30-22 in the first round and losing to Minneapolis Edison 28-22 in the second round.
Northfield was the site of an earlier basketball “first” dating back to 1892, a year after James Naismith is credited with inventing the game of Basket Ball (using peach baskets as receptacles). Naismith was a young physical education instructor at the International Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) Training School in Springfield, Mass., and his friend Max J. Exner participated in the first game played on Dec. 21, 1891. In 1892, Exner enrolled as a student at Carleton and, because of his YMCA training, he was also hired as the college’s first instructor of “physical culture” for both men and women.
The women of Carleton took an immediate interest in the new game that Exner introduced to them. Eight years before, in 1884, a gymnasium room had been fixed up in Gridley Hall for women. Although the lower level room was only 36-by-20 feet with small windows and poor ventilation, it became the birthplace of basketball in Northfield and in Minnesota colleges. The 1893 spring issue of the Carleton yearbook Algol described the introduction of “Basket Ball” with these words: “…you should have seen the fun. See the ladies on the floor, attired in loose dresses permitting free action of the body and tennis slippers upon their feet. They are divided into two sides, standing at opposite sides of the gymnasium; their eyes sparkling with excitement, ready to dash at the ball when put into play.”
The writer then talked of how each player “dashes to obtain the ball, now darts to obstruct an opponent and again to protect the goal; running, dodging, squirming; throwing the ball, again catching it, and all the time exercising her vocal organs to the best of her ability. When in the course of the game a well-directed throw sends the ball into the goal a cheer arises which shows the complete relaxation of the mind to the enjoyment. Are girls fit for the drawing room only? Can they participate in active games as boys can? Were you permitted to witness one of these games you would surely conclude that they can.”
Northfield High School girls were also attracted to this new game. A short article in the Northfield News on May 14, 1904, reported, “There is a lively interest being taken at present in the formation of a girls’ basketball team at the Central high school building. There is plenty of good material for a fast team and the co-eds are working hard for places on the school team.” The team expected to “have a game in the near future with a team from Gridley Hall.”
The NHS girls played their first game against another high school later that year on Nov. 4, 1904, losing a home contest to St. James School by a score of 39-6. The Northfield News story on Nov. 12 noted that the St. James team “was com-posed of veteran players” who threw baskets “almost at will.” The umpire and referee of the game were from St. James and “their decisions at times were not very satisfactory to the spectators.”
In 1905, a women’s basketball club was formed at St. Olaf and the first intercollegiate schedule of basketball was played by the St. Olaf men, who won four of six games. The first inter-scholastic match for the Northfield High School boys took place in 1908 when the NHS basketball team defeated Pillsbury Academy 14-8 in an away game.
The construction of the Sayles-Hill Gymnasium, dedicated on Jan. 26, 1910, spurred the development of many sports at Carleton, including basketball. Carleton’s men defeated Pillsbury Academy on Jan. 22 in the first basketball game played at the new gym. The first men’s basketball game between natural rivals St. Olaf and Carleton took place at Sayles-Hill just two weeks later on Feb. 5, with St. Olaf winning 22-8. In 1914, the tradition of awarding a “Goat” as the victory symbol began, with one team needing to win both home and away to “get the goat.” The goat awarded for basketball prowess was described by Dr. Joseph Shaw in his “History of St. Olaf College” as resembling a “miniature, undernourished sawhorse.”
So the proud basketball tradition of Northfield started with Carleton women, “eyes sparkling with excitement,” as they played the new game that Max Exner was teaching them during the 1892-93 school year. The NHS girls picked up on this excitement during the first interscholastic game against St. James in 1904. This game was celebrated on Jan. 8, 2005, with a “Game of the Century” in which the St. James Saints came to Northfield to play special games against the Northfield Raiders varsity girls’ and boys’ basketball teams. The commemorative program for this event explained how girls’ high school basketball had faded from view for more than 50 years from the 1920s until Title IX, passed in 1972, mandated equal opportunities for girls and revived interscholastic competition. A national movement had de-emphasized competition in an attempt to make girls’ programs more accessible.
A book published in 2005 recounts with much affection the first era of Minnesota girls’ high school basketball, from 1891 to 1942. It is “Daughters of the Game” by Marian Bemis Johnson and Dorothy E. McIntyre. The copy in the Northfield Historical Society archives bears this inscription from McIntyre: “To the Northfield Historical Society where women’s history matters.”
Cheers to the women (and men) who were part of the early basketball history of Northfield!
Information for this story was found in the archives of the Northfield Historical Society and Carleton and St. Olaf Colleges.