Women’s Athletics Integral at Lake Erie College Since the Turn of the 20th Century

Women’s Athletics Integral at Lake Erie College Since the Turn of the 20th Century

Painesville, Ohio - The 2012-13 sports season marks the 40th anniversary of Title IX. However, the roots of intercollegiate athletics for women at Lake Erie College began to take place nearly 80 years prior.  

This story, from the Fall 1990 Lake Erie College Bulletin, looks back at the role of athletics for women at the College – and how sports gained the school public notoriety - in the first half of the 20th century. 

Lake Erie College Bulletin/Fall 1990
Athletics at Lake Erie College
by Meg Soruley '77

What images do you have of athletics in early twentieth century America? Do you picture 1906 Ohio State University football fullback posing proudly in his letter sweater? Do you smell hotdogs and illegal "hootch" and feel the warmth of a raccoon coat? Or do you imagine baggy-clothed runners competing for the glory of Cornell. . . or Yale . . . or Harvard?

But what about this image - a beautiful spring afternoon, Wednesday, May 12,1909, at Lake Erie College. Girls in middies, bloomers, and wire-framed glasses dot the lawns. A few pause to watch participants line up for the 75-yard dash, while others show their green winner's ribbons to friends, Does this sound like athletics in early twentieth century America to you?

By 1911, athletics had become such a serious part of Lake Erie College life that Ruth Potwine, director of physical education, had to remind members of the Athletic Association that although Lake Erie College currently held second place in track for intercollegiate records, students should "continue to make athletics the real thing, not the whole thing."

But how had this interest in athletics developed? Why did Miss Potwine feel compelled to remind her students that college was more than athletics? What had happened to the notion of weak, frail women?

Lake Erie College had always included some form of physical activity within its curriculum since its founding in 1856. The very first college catalogue noted that calisthenics instruction would be available to all students who could attend. This interest was a legacy of Mary Lyon of Mount Holyoke College, who had long insisted that household duties were to be performed by students as part of their exercise program and that calisthenics were a useful exercise.

Laura L Rose was the first teacher of gymnastics at what was then still a seminary, but it was with the arrival of Miss Welton in 1889 that physical education became a reality. Miss Welton, a graduate of the Full Normal Course of the Allen Gymnasium in Boston, provided "systematic and progressive work in physical training" as a part of the regular seminary program,

By 1892, Bessie R. Haynes '94, complained in the Seminary Record that few students exhibited much enthusiasm for athletics, and suggested that "We have a large field which, at a small expense, might be made ready for use next summer . . . that the spring sunshine may rejoice over a field dotted with white tennis-courts, encircled by a beaten track where would-be sprinters run . . ."

Within a year, the Seminary Record noted that some changes had occurred. The Athletic Club was engaged in planned walks, and a Bicycle Club had been organized. Tennis courts were busy and "no hour of recreation on a suitable day passed without marking eager players on the ground." In 1895 the Athletic Association was welcomed formally, and the congratulatory editorial noted, "Nothing can more quickly advance mental activity than an well-developed physical body."

This comment marked the beginning of an amazing period in the history of Lake Erie College. From the late nineteenth century through the early years of World War II, significant athletic achievements were commonplace for the women of Lake Erie College, and athletic participation was considered an important and normal part of the college experience for women at the school.

From the first Field Day in June 1898, with its wheelbarrow and sack races and "very interesting and scientific game of basketball," through the last Sports Day 1952, the college continued to provide athletic opportunities for the student body. Over these years, Lake Erie College students participated in basketball, tennis, equestrian activities, field hockey, polo, dancing, swimming, baseball, volleyball, croquet, and archery. Track and field events included the javelin, shot put, fifty and one hundred yard runs, broad jumps, discus, high jumps, and hurdles. In 1937, the Tiber yearbook remarked, "Dribbling the ball down the field, high jumping, cantering a horse around the ring, or serving a tennis ball, Miss Lake Erie strives for achievement . . ."

During those years, the highlight of the Lake Erie College calendar was an athletic event called "Field Day," or later, "Sports Day." Usually held on a Saturday in the middle of May, Field Day marked an opportunity for the women to compete as classes against each other, not only demonstrating their individual abilities, but also their class fealty. Because the college then held classes on Saturday, Field Day also marked a holiday from Biology, Bible, or Biochem!

Lake Erie was not alone in the development of these sports activities. Mount Holyoke, Lake Erie College's "mother" institution, also began its field day in the 1890s, and Lake Erie also competed in "long-distance" meets with Vassar and Bryn Mawr. Meets were held by comparing results among contests at the individual women's colleges, with the winner chosen by comparing the times and distances for various events.
At Lake Erie College, Field Day soon included more than just a few athletic events. Noon picnics, admission tickets, evening class dinners, newspaper reporters from Cleveland, Plain Dealer photographers, and celebrities all became part of the fun. By 1914, one thousand spectators attended, with a local paper noting, "About 100 automobile loads from Cleveland and numerous small towns brought parents and friends to see the girls in middies and bloomers make their famous records." All of these visitors needed attention, and by 1924, spectators could purchase sandwiches, pop, and ice cream at the field, with the YWCA and Athletic Association sponsoring an evening dance and entertainment in the gym. In 1917, high school girls, possible prospective students from Madison, Ashtabula, Painesville, Perry and Willoughby high schools were among the specially invited guests. Cleveland Athletic

Club sent representatives to view the meet in 1914, and in 1934, the Buffalo Seminary sent a group of students. Even such an unlikely publication as The Police Gazette sent a reporter to chronicle the college's track and field achievements! By the 1930s, the crowds had dwindled to only several hundred, but were still impressive for a school of Lake Erie's size.

Although Field Day was a one-day event, it was quite obvious that students took great interest in the event and put in a significant amount of effort, As early as 1910, ninety girls entered the meet! In 1912, 82 students entered training, with 33 chosen for the final competition. By 1915, interest was so great that an "Elimination Day" had to be held to limit the participants in each event.

Training for Field Day really began with the college's basic physical education requirements. The college curriculum consistently included physical education as part of each student's schedule. In the early years, six forty-five minute periods of physical education exercise per week were required, taken on six different days. Later, the college required that all students participate in two periods of a sport each week during the fall and spring. By 1931, the requirement had become at least one hour daily of exercise, preferably outdoors, and ten years later this was amended to include an additional three-hour physical education course.

Besides curriculum requirements, extracurricular activities also promoted physical activity. In 1911 the Walking Club participated in a 12-mile hike to Concord, a seven-mile hike to Cascade Falls, as well as several shorter hikes of four miles, great preparation for Field Day participants. Local newspaper reports indicate that formal training for Field Day began for the events by at least early April. In some years, coaches from Harvey High School in Painesville even assisted the girls in training,

Class loyalty, increased self-confidence, and physical conditioning were definite outcomes of the Field Day activities, but more intrinsic rewards were also available. Letter sweaters began to be awarded in 1910, supplemented over the years by loving cups, ribbons, and trophies. For many years, records were carefully recorded on the walls of the college gymnasium, a constant reminder to current athletes of alumnae successes.

Important to the success of Sports Day was Ruth Potwine Bartlett, who had attended Mount Holyoke College and had an undergraduate degree from Arnold College of Physical Education. As Miss Potwine, she taught from 1908-14, and returned to Lake Erie after her marriage to teach from 1928-1949. During the interim years she had taught at South Carolina College for Women.

It was during Ruth Potwine Bartlett's first years at the college that athletics were actively promoted. Not only did Bartlett encourage participation in athletic activities, but she also promoted the construction of appropriate facilities. A cinder running track was constructed about 1919 to replace the original grass track and in December 1920 the original Lake Erie College gymnasium was opened, replacing the former one in the basement of College Hall. (Ed. note: Today that building, the Ritchie Athletic Training Center, houses the varsity weight room, Ritchie Pool and offices for the football and swimming staffs).

All of this interest in athletics was bound to create some controversy, and the college community often warned students that athletics was a part of college life, and not vice versa. The Lake Erie Record had reminded students in the pre-World War I years, "Now the chief aim of the Department of Physical Training is not to break intercollegiate records, but to give every student in the college the relaxation and enjoyment and health and strength necessary if they maintain the high standard of scholarship for which the college stands.  We must not forget that it is because the department succeeds so admirably in achieving this end that Lake Erie College holds five intercollegiate records.”

Despite the admonition, Lake Erie College continued to attract significant notice from the wider athletic community, meriting inclusion in the Spaulding Official Athletic Almanac for 1911. On May 15, I912, local newspaper headlines read: "Girl Athletes Smash Records and Tie with Vassar in Field Day Meet," and "Hurdles Races Take Lake Erie College Students to Supremacy in Seven World's Records - College with Little or No Equipment Puts Itself on the Map in Athletics." It is sufficient to note that local newspaper headlines seldom reported perfect marks on Greek or Literature exams with such enthusiasm!

But the next year was the supreme victory. With Selna Petenon ’16, and Virginia Branum ’15, winning the 100 and 120 yard hurdle events, Lake Erie surpassed Vassar, with nine records to Vassar's five. Some of these nine records included Virginia Hamilton's (class of 1914) pole vault record of 5' 4 1/2'; Donna Marie Thornton's (class of 1911) record of 12 seconds for the 100 yard dash; and A.L. Fee's (class of 1913) record of 3' 9” in the standing high jump.

By 1927, the schedule for Field Day demonstrates the breadth of athletic opportunities at the college:

9:30 am        Archery

11:00 am      Javelin throw, basketball preliminaries

11:30 am      Shot put preliminaries, baseball preliminaries

2:00 pm        Fifty yard run

2:10 pm        Running broad jump, discus

2:40 pm        Low hurdles

2:50 pm        Running high jump, baseball throw

3:10 pm        Seventy-five yard run

3:15 pm        Four hundred and forty yard walk

3:20 pm        Hop, step, jump; basketball throw

3:40 pm        One-hundred yard run

3:50 pm        Standing broad jump

4:15 pm        Shot put, high hurdles

4:20 pm        Two hundred yard relay


The Tiber yearbook for 1927 gives us a picture of Field Day during those years:

"The various sports of the year end in a spring track meet on Field Day. The sun pours down out of a blue May sky, for it never rains on Field Day according to those who keep Lake Erie's traditions. Hitchcock Field is thronged with townspeople, admiring high school girls, and loving families, who have come to see the athletes leap hurdles, race and high jump… There are officials everywhere, there is an announcer with a bass voice and a large megaphone, and there are some favored few college girls in white dresses who are fortunate enough to be minor officials and who hurry from one part of the field to another, looking irresistibly business-like.”

Although Lake Erie College no longer figured in the breaking of women’s intercollegiate track records by the late 1940’s, Field Day continued with equestrian activities and tennis exhibitions with Alice Marble and Mary K. Browne increased in importance. Swimming also became more important and Field Day, or Sports Day, was also seen as a grand time for prospective students to view the campus.” 

In 1951, the penultimate Sports Day was held. In the morning interclass track events were featured, including the shot put, discus, baseball, basketball, and javelin throws, several dashes, relays and hurdles, as well as several types of jumps. In the afternoon, the riding show took place in the campus paddock, followed by the main event of the day, the tennis matches. A lacrosse match concluded the event.

In 1952, after a questionnaire was distributed by the Athletic Association, the head of the Athletic Department, Jane White, reported that the current year's Sports Day would be the final one. Years later, in 1977, Jane White Lincoln explained: 

"The program was dropped due to local (LEC) and general collegiate lack of interest. There was no other college nearby for competition. Mostly there was no former high school experience. The last days were a frenzy of trying to train students for a one day event (Sports Day) in the spring where they would compete as classes. As you must know, track and field events take considerable training; and for lack of interest and enthusiasm the students did not want to train and/or learn or compete by classes, and so the last couple of years there were too many pulled muscles, turned ankles, broken collar bones!"

A long Lake Erie College tradition has ended. Today with both men's and women's teams in such sports as basketball and volleyball, our current college athletes can take pride in the fact that they are continuing an almost one-hundred year tradition of athletic participation as an important part of their collegiate experience. 

Our alumni would like that.

Epilogue: Today, Lake Erie College offers 23 varsity sports for men and women at the NCAA Division II level, providing opportunities for approximately 500 student-athletes to compete on the fields of play and learn valuable lessons, among them sportsmanship, discipline and respect for others.  And, after a nearly 50-year hiatus, “Field Day” is once again a cherished Lake Erie College tradition having been brought back to campus by President Michael T. Victor as a fun-filled College-wide picnic the Sunday before the start of fall classes.

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