Greenville’s Black Field, site of many football games over the past 90-plus years, once was just a deep ravine.
“Years ago what is now known as the Black Athletic Field was simply a gully left as the result of glacial action and was used for no purpose at all,” according to a paper by Wyman Bock in the archives of the Flat River Historical Society.
Bock said the Rev. D.E. Hills, a Baptist minister in Greenville, wanted to plant a melon patch and garden in that area and tried to find the owner without success.
“Everyone told him to go ahead and use it anyway. So for several years it was thus used,” Bock said.
Then one day an old man came to Hills’ door and said he was the owner of the land and had come to collect the rent.
“Hills asked him how much it was and he replied, ‘One dollar.’ Hills paid it and the man wrote him a receipt for it and then handed the dollar to Mrs. Hills,” Bock wrote. “Each year thereafter the man came and collected his dollar and gave it to Mrs. Hills.”
A bird’s-eye view of early Greenville shows the Union school on the site now occupied by the Flat River Community Library with a deep gully just beyond it, bounded on the east side by a high bridge.
According to the Flat River Historical Society, “This portion of the city south of the Union school building is remembered by older alumni as an unforbidding part of the gully that was crossed at Franklin street by an old wooden bridge, on which they romantically carved their names.”
Early Greenville football
Although football has been played in Greenville since the turn of the 20th century, the early games were not played at Black Field because the property that became Black Field was a series of privately owned lots and not school property.
The first Greenville football field was located between Oak and Benton streets where Friendship House now stands. A photo of the 1900 team is labeled “second football team.” There is no mention of football in the Greenville Independent for 1899, however, but brief reports on the Greenville football games are found in the newspaper from 1900 to 1904.
On Nov. 5, 1904, the Greenville and Alma high school teams played at Harvard. A Greenville player, Henry Loding, was injured in a head-on collision during the game and died that evening.
The Greenville team, according to the Independent, “promptly disbanded after the casualty at the Harvard game.” It would be more than 10 years before football was played in Greenville again.
Dr. Black’s donation
Meanwhile, Dr. Duncan K. Black moved to Greenville in 1890, where he practiced medicine and became involved in community affairs. His love of young people led him to serve on the Greenville school board.
About 1913 the doctor “in passing the grounds lying in back of the Union School building, conceived the idea that the basin would make a grand place for the school children to play and the sloping hills an ideal place for grandstands from which to view the athletic sports,” according to the Greenville Independent.
“With this plan well outlined in his mind he proceeded quietly to acquire the ground, which had years ago been subdivided into lots. He said little and but few knew what the doctor wanted with this almost worthless ground.”
Titles to the lots were held by six people, including the state of Michigan, but after two years Black “had gathered together two and one-half acres of ground and presented it to the school district to be held in trust by them for the use of the children of the schools of our city,” the Independent said.
Dedication ceremonies took place on June 10, 1915. The Independent reported the field would have “a baseball diamond, a football field, a seven lap track, a basket ball field and two tennis courts.”
“The doctor is extremely modest about this matter and seems to feel it is of small importance, but time will demonstrate there was much wisdom in the doctor’s original idea of a play ground and athletic field for the school children,” the Independent said.
Sadly, Dr. Black died less than a year later, on April 2, 1916, and did not live to see the success of the field bearing his name.
Football is back
Football finally returned to Greenville in 1916. Although football practices took place at Black Field in 1915, no games were played until 1916.
The 1917 issue of the Hi-Life, Greenville High School’s yearbook, included only a sentence about the matter: “Football was taken up last fall (1916) for the first time in several years.”
The only mention of football in the newspaper during the fall of 1916 was this passing reference under “School Happenings” in the Nov. 29, 1916, issue: “The gymnasium now replaces the football field as the mecca for the school athletes and basketball becomes the order of the day.”
The Independent gives no reports of football during 1917, but a report on “The Schools” written by Harriet Macomber and printed Oct. 30, 1918, notes “A football team with lots of spirit is active on the field. Some of the players are not very heavy, but they plan an aggressive game which looks interesting to the observer.”
The 1918 season was a short one, however, because the Independent reported on Nov. 20 that the games for the remainder of the season were canceled because of a flu epidemic.
It is assumed that the Greenville games during these years were being played at Black Field, but the Independent removed all doubt in 1919 when it reported on Nov. 19 that Greenville defeated Lowell in a game played at Black Athletic Field.
Black Field at that time was not ideal for football, however.
“For several years after this field was presented to the school it was used as nature left it, for baseball and football, in spite of the fact that the playing field was more or less uneven, and these banks encroached upon the playing field,” R.A. Brown noted during dedication ceremonies in 1936.
Another problem at football games at Black Field was the spectators standing out on the field, which cost Greenville at least one game.
The Greenville Independent’s report of the Catholic Central game in November 1921: “(Greenville player) Mote got away for a play which would have resulted in a touchdown had the head linesman been on his job and held his position on the field line. He was some eight yards in on the field, and the crowd stopped Mote about four yards from the side-lines and the referee called him back. Fralick followed with a 10-yard gain and Grand Rapids intercepted a forward pass on the next play.” Catholic Central went on to win the game 14-9.
This issue was addressed by an improvement to the field in 1922, according to Sept. 29 issue of The Daily Call.
“Black Athletic Field has been much improved by the construction of a fence all around the playing area. Spectators are requested to remain outside the fence during the games.
“The Catholic Central game last year was lost because the crowd was out on the field.”
Not just for football
The school baseball team played at Black Field, too. Other activities also took place at the field and by other participants than school athletic teams.
The 1918 Independent reports on several amateur baseball games between the East Side and the West Side teams as well as “the best and fastest game of amateur baseball seen in Greenville in many a day” when Howard City met Sheridan.
At the January 1919 meeting of the Greenville Boosters, the Black Athletic Field was chosen as the place for a skating rink “and the hat was passed for a fund to do the work and $42.58 was raised on the spot.”
Members of the Chamber of Commerce held a Field Day in 1920 pitting the East side against the West side. The event opened with a tug-of-war, followed by quoit pitching, a base ball throw, running broad jump, three-legged race, fat man’s race, 50-yard race and lemon race. A base ball game concluded the program.
Several issues of the Independent in 1933 and 1934 report that Boy Scout Troop 111 met at Black Field.
A “Punkin Ball” league was announced in April 1933 with plans to use Black Athletic Field for the games.
“Entry of at least four teams in such an amateur sport circuit has been assured. It is expected that probably six teams will make up the league which will provide amusement and recreation throughout the summer for ‘would-be’ and ‘has-been’ ball players,” the Independent reported.
Leaving Black Field
The Greenville High School football team left Black Field for a new field at the fairgrounds in 1927.
The Independent reported on Sept. 20, 1927: “Departing from the time-hallowed sacred precincts of Black field, Greenville high school’s 1927 football eleven will play its opening game of the year against the Edmore high school at the Greenville fair grounds, according to an announcement made today by the athletic authorities at the high school.
“Arrangements have been completed whereby the six home games on the purple and gold schedule will all be played at the fair grounds.”
The Sept. 23 issue noted: “The new field is in first-class condition and is far superior, as a playing field, to Black Field. No cars will be allowed to park inside the fence surrounding the stands and tracks. The bleachers have been transferred from Black Field and erected n the west sidelines.”
Greenville played its home games at the fairgrounds from 1927 through 1933.
A new Black Field
The nation in the 1930s was in the midst of the Great Depression with widespread unemployment. The Civil Works Administration (CWA) was established to create manual labor jobs to put some of the unemployed men back to work. The CWA was created under the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), which was replaced in 1935 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
In late 1933 several Montcalm County projects were selected to receive CWA funds to provide construction jobs.
“Five Montcalm county projects, including two for Greenville, were approved yesterday by the state Civil Works Administration and the county administration, meeting last night, authorized work to be started on them Monday, sending 800 unemployed men back to work,” said the Greenville Daily News of Dec. 8, 1933.
“The Greenville projects are remodeling of the Franklin street bridge to prepare it for a detour when work is started on the new Lafayette street bridge and repair work in the city schools and on the Black athletic field.”
Work on the field wasn’t finished until 1935 but the wait was worth it.
“The townspeople as well as all the students are proud of the new Black Athletic field,” reported the 1935 Hi-Life. “The labor was furnished by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration; the school supplied the materials. Besides a football gridiron there will eventually be a baseball diamond and a cinder track. Permanent seats on the south side are also planned.”
“Although the field was unfinished last fall (1934) several games were played on it and attendance was noticeably improved over 1933. The field is conveniently located for local fans.”
Work continued until mid-winter when, according to the Feb. 25, 1935, Daily News, “The work project for the present has been suspended on Black Athletic Field until early spring. Some grading still is needed on the south side, and shrubbery set out, in addition to considerable sodding. This year the field will take on a decided new appearance and make a fine addition to the school plant.”
The 1935 Hi-Life addressed the issue of sod, too: “Mr. Beal’s 10-2 Agriculture Class made a study of the field and by fall they should have a solid sod; along with the other improvements this should make one of the best high school stadia in this part of the state.”
Work on the field was completed in time for the 1935 football season. The Greenville team played its home games on “the new gridiron, the D.K. Black Athletic Field, a natural bowl behind the high school building,” said the Greenville Daily News.
“This was completed this summer and with its beautiful, broad concrete steps leading down the northeast corner, the terraced bank on the south side, where the bleachers are located, and the level, solid turf, it is one of the best high school fields in the state. The field is being piped this week so the sod may be kept in excellent condition at all times with plenty of water.”
The field had new bleachers which were “placed upon the hill south of the field back of the retaining wall,” the Daily News noted a few days later. “The hill has been terraced and it is possible to obtain a perfect view of every part of the field from any of the bleacher seats, as they are considerably above the field. There will be no seats on the north side of the field.”
A plaque honoring Dr. Black’s memory was placed on one of the central pillars of the stairway leading down to the field from Judd Street.
Dedicating the new field
It was a year later that the D.K. Black Athletic Field was formally dedicated. Ceremonies took place on Oct. 16, 1936, when more than 1,000 students and citizens gathered for the event. Among those present were Dr. Black’s children, Mr. and Mrs. Duncan K. Black Jr., Mr. and Mrs. Robert H. Edsall and Mr. and Mrs. C.H. Kutsche. (Dr. Black’s wife, Ada, had died in 1935.) Grandson Jimmy Edsall was a member of the 1936 football squad.
A parade of all school children above the third grade circled the field and drew up in front of the speakers stand located on the central landing of the wide concrete stairway leading down to the field. A flag-raising took place at the new 40-foot flag staff donated by the Corwin family in memory of longtime board of education member Ray S. Corwin. The school public address system was used so everyone could hear the speakers.
School board member R.A. Brown delivered the principal address of the afternoon.
“We are proud of this athletic field and we are met here today to honor the memory of the man who has made it possible,” Brown said. “We dedicate this field to the youth of Greenville in the name of its donor, Dr. Duncan K. Black.
“May those who are privileged to use it become better men and women for having had the opportunities that this field affords.”