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Our 100 year-old love affair with Harmon Field

In its infancy in 1924 it was a community park



A Bluffton fixture turns 100 this fall, and it is as vibrant today as it was during its 1924 inaugural year. This centenarian goes by the name “Harmon Field.”

Click here to open a 236-page booklet in the Bluffton Public Library Digital Archive Collection. The booklet, “The Harmon Field Story,” provides rare photos of the early days of Harmon Field plus a detailed history of the Harmon Foundation.

 

By Fred Steiner

A Bluffton fixture turns 100 this fall, and it is as vibrant today as it was during its 1924 inaugural year. This centenarian goes by the name “Harmon Field.” However, in its beginning it was much, much, more than simply a high school football field, as it was originally created as a village park.

 

Aging well, while its usage experienced many changes in 100 years, it continues as one of the most popular athletic hangouts for Bluffton residents from toddlers to the most senior of senior citizens.

 

While witnessing huge wins and some heart-throbbing defeats, Harmon Field also has experienced at least one on-the-field marriage proposal (probably more), ashes spread on the field from one former athlete (probably more), three different press boxes and one generation in the 1930s watching. Thanksgiving Day games between Bluffton and Pandora High School. We’ve lost count of scoreboards coming and going at the field.

 

While known best as the football field for the Bluffton High School Pirates, it served this community is countless ways since Calvin Coolidge was president of the United States.

 

But first, let’s examine how it came to be and why it’s call Harmon Field, as only a handful of residents can actually explain its origins. As this story unfolds viewers will begin to understand how the Bluffton community appears to accomplish so many things.

 

Harmon Foundation

Bluffton’s Harmon Field is one of nine in Ohio, and one of 50 in the United States, each constructed between 1924 and 1926. Other Ohio fields are in Wapakoneta, Bellefontaine, Bucyrus, Sidney, Miamisburg, Fremont, Oberlin and Paulding.


William E. Harmon, president of the Harmon Foundation - he visited Bluffton in 1924


Created by the Harmon Foundation of New York City, its intention provided community parks, or playgrounds, in qualifying “growing” villages and cities across the United States.

 

The theory on which the Harmon Foundation was inaugurated as a family trust was the “desirability of interesting one’s children raised under modern conditions in their responsibility to the social structure.” Each Harmon grant required that the land be deeded in perpetuity for recreation uses.

 

In 1924 the foundation announced the availability of $100,000 toward the purchases of 50 play tracks in rapidly growing communities throughout the United States. Qualifiers had to have at least 3,000 population – as an interesting note, Bluffton’s 1920 census reported 1,950 residents – and show a growth of 30 percent or more since 1900. No tract of less than two acres would be considered and not more than $2,000 would be made available to any one town. The formal applications must have the endorsement of the village mayor or president of the board of education.

 

Oct. 30, 1924, football game at Harmon

While more than 850 requests were received from every state, the selection committee reduced that number to 86 and eventually to 50. In a grading system measuring the effective involvement of each of the 50 remaining communities, Bluffton was scored second highest on the list and received $500.

 

The foundation’s annual report described Bluffton’s outstanding playground this way: At Bluffton, Ohio, the field had been used during the year previous to the opening of the contest, so that grading was not a pressing problem before beautification could begin. An old fence was removed and a new one built, trees and shrubs were planted, lamp posts were installed, a baseball diamond was made and flower beds were laid out. An addition was made to the field by the purchase of two more acres, which doubled the recreation space.

 

The following described Bluffton’s Harmon Field plans:

Population: 2,000

Area: 7.39 acres

Established: May 1923 (Ohio Gift Offer)

Land cost: $900

Sponsor: Community Association, assisted by Business Men’s Association, Women’s Clubs and High School Athletic Association (Note, Bluffton’s sponsors were far greater in number than other awarded communities)

Type of field: Athletic field

Development: Field laid out for all high school athletic events. Added about 3 ½ acres by purchase of adjoining property; built fence around three sides of field and secured a promise from the railroad to build the fourth side.


July 4, 1924 celebration


Entrance pillars equipped with electric ornamental lights by the Board of Public Affairs. Have this year build a pole vaulting and jumping pit, a baseball diamond, outdoor basketball court, and renovated a building for storage and field house.

 

Made a volley ball court, set up a tackling dummy for football, laid out flower beds, planted 101 trees, started work on two tennis courts, rolled the entire field with two-ton roller, built an open fireplace. Having excellent cooperation from local organizations and high school boys. Entered 1925 Honorarium Contest and won $500 for development of field.

 

Correspondent: I.B. Beeshy, chairman, Bluffton Community Association.

 

Recreation program organized:

Harmon Field’s arrival transformed the properties around the site. The first addition to the complex was creation of a swimming pool located in Riley Creek. That pool existed from the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s, complete with lifeguards and a dam, which held back the water.

 

The pool was near today’s entrance to Steinmetz Soccer field. Although overgrown with brush and trees, its flagstone walls are still visible on both sides of the creek. The dam is also slightly visible, but no longer holds back the creek’s flow.

 

Soon after that tennis courts were developed and continue today as the Howe Tennis Courts. As a result a tennis association formed and continued for many years under the leadership of Woody Little, Wilbur Howe and other tennis enthusiasts. The association created a tennis league and it held annual tournaments in Bluffton, establishing the village in the 1930s to 1950s as a serious tennis community.

 

Like the swimming pool, the tennis courts improved the appearance of the Harmon Field area as the courts were constructed over a former quarry that had turned into a village dump.

 

In 1946 a Bluffton recreation committee organized. Funds raised through resident contributions, receipts from a rodeo, football previews and games, over $6,000 was raised. Those funds paid for playground equipment, game equipment, athletic director salaries, and hard-surfacing of the grade school ground. By 1948 the committee had enough funds that a door-to-door solicitation for funds, which took place in 1946 and 1947 was not needed. Also in 1948, tennis lessons were added to the summer recreation program.


Baseball game

Bluffton Community Association

The Bluffton Community Association, the significant player in attracting the Harmon Foundation to Bluffton, was a forerunner of several village organizations created to promote Bluffton. Going further, this association helps answer the question, "Why does small-town rural Bluffton continue to succeed when other rural communities fight for survival?"

 

One could argue that these associations are one of the reasons of Bluffton's success in several areas, including a cohesive Main Street business district. The lesson here is that when the early community saw a need, it came together to see the matter resolved in a successful fashion. And that idea continues today.


Perhaps the earliest of such groups formed to raise funds to successfully attract two railroads to come through Bluffton. These organized as early as the 1870s, going door-to-door asking for “subscriptions” (monetary donations) to the cause.

 

Another such group successfully persuaded the committee selecting a location for a Mennonite college to land in Bluffton. On the heels of that decision, the same association assisted in making the dream of a Bluffton Community Hospital a reality.

 

Using the name Bluffton Civic Improvement Association, in 1905, that organization proposed and promoted creation of a Bluffton sewer system.


Among later groups includes the Bluffton Business Men’s Association, and Bluffton Community Improvement Corp. (CIC), which brought the Ex-Cell-O Corp. here. Each of these early community groups played an important piece in the establishment of the Bluffton Area Chamber of Commerce, and its other non-profit partner the Bluffton Center for Entrepreneurs.


Put in another context, these things didn't just happen here. They happened because the community came together make things happen.


Dump in 1924 - today Howe Tennis Courts

Bluffton football history

With all of the above programs, football finally enters the discussion. Football at Bluffton High School goes so far back no one knows for certain when it really started.

 

Several very early 1900 teams may have been all-high school teams, while some, such as the Bluffton Warriors, was a town team made up of high school and alums.

The first games were played at Schmidt’s field, which was actually a cow pasture and property where circuses performed and where itinerant travelers set up camps. The was located on Vance Street, site of today’s Tommy’s Plaza and Community Market.

 

The final BHS team to play at Schmidt’s field was the 1923 squad.


In 1924  while Harmon Field opened as a village park, it became to true home of the Bluffton High School football program. Harmon Field also served as the home for the Bluffton College Beavers football team until the current university stadium was constructed.

 

It was not until 1936 that Bluffton stadium was added to Harmon Field, with the first stadium game played on Thanksgiving day as Bluffton defeated Pandora 31-0. All games until 1937 were played during the day. Ada defeated Bluffton in the initial game under the lights 14-7.

Playing at Harmon Field, Bluffton High School participated initially as an independent with no league affiliations.

 

Then in 1929 Bluffton became a charter member of the Mid West League. That conference folded and was reborn as the Western Buckeye League in 1937. BHS was also a charter member of that league.

 

While Bluffton was competitive in the WBL, it was the smallest school by far and eventually Bluffton looked for a conference with similar sized competition. It found that in the Northwest Conference, joining the NWC in football in 1953. While still in the WBL in basketball, it joined the NWC basketball league in 1958.

 

While the cleat marks of countless outstanding players made their mark over the seasons, several Bluffton players continued their careers on the college level.


Five Pirates, whose original home was Harmon Field, also played in the Big Ten.

Those players were:

• 1931 BHS grad Howard Triplehorn, who played at the University of Michigan

• 1947 BHS grad Neil Schmidt, who played for Purdue, was drafted by the Chicago Cardinals (now Arizona Cardinals), and earned five Super Bowl rings as a scout with the San Francisco 49ers.

• 1948 BHS grad, Jim Howe, who played for Northwestern

• 1967 BHS grad, Jim Opperman, who played for Ohio State on the 1968 and 1970 national championship teams

• 1970 BHS grad, Mike Albright, who played for Purdue

 

Although, he never played on Harmon Field, from the Bluffton News archives is this brief account of one other Big Ten Bluffton athlete. A story stating Alvin Whisler, 1901 Bluffton High School graduate, played football at Purdue with “Doc Holloway, team captain.”

 

Bluffton High School football players who coached at BHS on Harmon Field:

• Dwain Murray

• Garfield Griffith

• Dwight Diller

• Pete Schmidt

• Joe Urich

• Jeff Richards

 

Athletes who played football at BHS and were assistant BHS coaches:

Ed Amstutz

Jim "Spike" Berry

Dave Bracy

Ron Schmutz

Steve Shaw Jesse Steiner

Rich Steiner

Bruce Yant


Bluffton HS football league memberships, playing at Harmon Field:

Mid West League 1929-1936

Western Buckeye League 1937-1952

Northwest Conference 1953-present

Bluffton College football league memberships, playing at Harmon Field

Mid Ohio League

Hoosier-Buckeye Collegiate Conference

 

Bluffton College

Until the current Bluffton University football stadium was opened, Harmon Field was the home field of the Bluffton College Beavers. That team’s most famous player, Elbert Dubenion, played from 1955 to 1958 at Harmon Field. He is the only Beaver to play in the National Football League, as a member of the Buffalo Bills, from 1960 to 1968.

 

Bluffton High School graduate who were teammates with Dubenion at Bluffton College were:

Rex Ackerman

Jim “Spike” Berry

Ron Lora

Bill Montgomery

Bill Ramseyer

Ralph Reichenbach

Joe Urich

Sandy Yoder

"Spike" Berry hands off to Elbert Dubenion

in a game at Harmon Field


 Some of Dubenion’s Harmon Field records follow:

1955

• Averaged 11.5 yards per carry in 107 rushing attempts, totaling 1,236 yards in 8 games, averaging 154.4 yards per game

• Scored 9 touchdowns; shortest was 16 yards, longest 96 yards

• Scored 3 touchdowns versus Findlay


1956

• Scored 12 touchdowns; hampered by injuries, gained 870 yards in 91 rushing attempts


1957

• Scored 15 touchdowns, rushed for 1,340 yards in 161 carries

• In a homecoming game Versus Ohio Northern, scored on a 98-yard run, carried the ball 10 plays for 270 yards, scored 3 TDs, retired for the afternoon mid-way in the second quarter


1958

• Named to UPI All-Ohio football team as first team halfback

• Team rushed for 3,015 yards in 9 games, Dubenion turned in 1,290 of those yards in 151 carries

• Third leading rusher in the nation among small colleges, an average of 8.54 yards per carry • caught 9 passes for 240 yards • total offensive effort of 1,530 yards, an average of 170 yards per game • Scored 17 touchdowns for 102 points • Scored 2 touchdowns in first 3 carries versus Ashland, rushed for 229 yards in 15 attempts • Named to the Williamson Football Foundation “All-American Team” • Selected as 1 of the 33-member national All-Star team in a game versus Baltimore Colts

Professional career

• Selected to the Pro Bowl, and first-team AP All-Pro, 1964

• In 1964 scored 10 TDs, 27 yards per catch on 42 receptions for 1,139 yards (14 games)

• Selected as a member of the Bills Silver Anniversary Team as a wide receiver, 1984

• Member of the American Football League Hall of Fame

• Member of the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame

• In 9 professional seasons caught 296 passes for 5,309 yards and 35 touchdowns

• Holds record for longest reception in AFL playoff history, 93-yard reception for a TD in 1963

 

More than just a football field

Harmon Field is also home to the Bluffton Midget Bucs, junior high, freshman and junior varsity football teams. Until the opening of Steinmetz Soccer Field, both BHS boys’ and girls’ soccer teams played on the field.

 

In the late 1940s to mid-1950s the field served as the Bluffton Saddle Club’s Fourth of July rodeos. Many of the early Bluffton antique car shows also used the field for exhibits. The Bluffton Music Boosters held several band shows at the field, as were several community Easter sunrise services.

 

Several baseball teams used the Harmon Field diamond including the famous Triplett men’s baseball and Triplett women’s softball teams of the 1940s and early 1950s. Other teams using the diamond included Bluffton Sportsmen’s. For several years a Bluffton church softball team played their games there.


And, what came before Harmon Field? In 1883, Al St. John relocated a wooden sucker rod and handle factory from Lima to Bluffton, to become almost overnight the major employer of men living in Bluffton. His plant was located on the site that eventually became Harmon Field.


With the discovery of oil and natural gas in Findlay in the 1890s, the demand for sucker rods was tremendous because of their use in the oil industry.

 

Products of the plant were marketed on a national scale and like the other village businesses at the time, success of the industry couldn’t have been possible without the town’s newly acquired railroad, which came to Bluffton in 1872, offering outlets to all part of the country.

 

An abundance of native hickory trees in the woodlands of the area was the magnet, which brought the factory to Bluffton, for the wood was highly prized as the best material for hoe, fork, shovel and other handlers made in the plant, along with sucker rods, which were used in oil fields.

 

The sucker rods were octagon shaped rods, about two inches in diameter, ranging from 10 to 60 feet long. Their purpose was to carry the oil being pumped from the wells to the tanks.

 

Within a few months after operations started here, St. John was shipping his products across the U.S. A full-time working force of 20 men worked at the factory, each putting in 60 hours a week.


In 1884 the reproduction of the sucker rod and handle factor was in full force. The enterprise manufactured and shipped 40,000 sucker rods and 200,000 forks and hoe handles.

 

His Bluffton factory operated on a large scale for nearly two decades. It finally closed near the turn of the 1900s when select timber required for handles grew care in the Bluffton area.

 

Harmon Field plaque

During the dedication ceremony of Harmon Field a plaque was placed on a large granite. That stone today is located outside the fence on the home side of the field near the goal line. The wording on the plaque reads:

This playfield was made ours through the assistance of the Harmon Foundation 1923 Dedicated forever to the plays of children the development of youth and the recreation of all“The gift of land is the gift eternal”

 

From then on for several years, Bluffton received additional prize money as the park was improved and enlarged. 

 

The enlargement results after the school board continued a program of purchasing other plots of land that touched the original park, resulting in what today includes the football field, softball field and practice area behind the softball field. It also includes the Howe Tennis Courts across from Harmon Field.

 

The additional land purchases more than doubled the land area of the original park.

Then, during the Great Depression in 1936, separate from the Harmon Foundation, the community received a $10,000 WPA project enabling the construction of the current cement football stadium. 


Click here to open a 236-page booklet in the Bluffton Public Library Digital Archive Collection. The booklet, “The Harmon Field Story,” provides rare photos of the early days of Harmon Field plus a detailed history of the Harmon Foundation.


Photos below are from the booklet


Oct. 30, 1924, Bluffton High School football game at Harmon Field - the earliest known photo of a game on the field

A former quarry, in 1924 it was a brush dump. Today it is Howe Tennis Courts.

Tennis courts to the left, stadium now located there. A.L. Kiene home in background.

Dredging and filling in low spots

 

High jump on July 4, 1924

Women's dash, July 4, 1924

Automobiles parked on East College Avenue on July 4, 1924

Harmon Field opening ceremony, July 4, 1924

Baseball game, July 4, 1924

Testing the slide in at the Harmon Field playground

July 4, 1924, opening ceremony

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