When high school basketball seasons reach tournament time every February, I always find myself thinking about how different the sport is now in places like Greene County, compared to the way it was in my boyhood in the 1950s and early ’60s. Now we have just two high schools here playing basketball — Greene County High and Paton-Churdan. The idea that we once had eight high schools with teams in this county seems almost unreal.
But that’s the way it was in the 1950s — you can look it up. All our communities, except for tiny Adaza and Farlin, had their own high schools, gyms and teams.
Let’s do a roll call from that era. In my own little town of Cooper, we had Franklin Township Consolidated School, but everyone called it “Cooper,” and our teams were the Cardinals. Dana had its Cyclones. There were also the Scranton Trojans, Rippey Bulldogs, Churdan Gremlins (later the Rockets), the Grand Junction Bluejays, the Paton Panthers. And of course, the Jefferson Rams, except they were the Ramblers until 1954, and when basketball was started for girls in the county seat town, their teams were called the “Jeffettes.” Many of the other schools added that “-ettes” suffix to their nicknames for their girls’ teams.
It fascinates me thinking how intense the rivalries must have been back then, when all the players on all the teams, as well as their fans, must’ve known each other well. There were fewer coaches, with most schools having one man coaching both the girls’ and boys’ teams. Road trips for games were never more than about 15 or 20 miles from home. While it’s true most of the gyms were small, the crowds were big.
“Basketball games were real social affairs for communities,” says Denny Lautner, a ’66 graduate of Jefferson High who recalls attending games in some of the smaller towns, too. “There really was nothing else to do, so everybody went to basketball games, even people who didn’t have kids in school.”
Dot Lawton, who arrived in Cooper as a newlywed in 1954, says one memory of games back then is “that at halftime or between games, everybody would go to the schools’ lunch rooms, and there’d always be ‘Maid-Rite’ sandwiches and homemade pie.”
Lawrence Geisler, a ’50 graduate of Churdan High, said his school produced strong girls’ and boys’ teams when he was a student, “and there’d be good crowds for most of our games. Then when we’d get into the tournaments, we’d get to the gym two or three hours before the games were starting, to make sure we’d get a seat. I can still remember a bunch of us sitting on the sidewalk outside the gym in Harcourt when our Churdan girls were playing there in a district tournament, and to pass the time, we played canasta. That was a card game back then. Do people even play canasta now? I haven’t heard anybody mention it for years.”
Does he have a favorite recollection from those long-ago basketball games?
“Popcorn,” Geisler said. “Whenever I smell popcorn now, I’m right back in those old gymnasiums.”
Chuck Offenburger is a member of the board of directors of the Greene County Historical Society. You can write him at chuck@Offenburger.com.