THORNTOWN — Why would a community go out of its way to honor a high school basketball state championship team from 100 years ago?
“Pride,” said Florence Emma Peery, a 1946 Thorntown graduate and former teacher at the school. “It’s the one thing we have in a small town. It’s the thing we can be proud of.”
Thorntown, a community of 1,500 in Boone County, hasn’t had its own high school since the last senior class graduated in 1974. But back in the early portion of the 20th century, Thorntown was part of the “Cradle of Indiana Basketball.” The first eight high school state champions came from a 30-mile radius — Crawfordsville in 1911, Lebanon in 1912, ’17 and ’18, Wingate in 1913 and ’14, Thorntown in 1915 and Lafayette Jeff in 1916.
On Saturday at the Thorntown Elementary School, the alumni association will celebrate the accomplishments of the 1915 team at its annual banquet. It’s been a long time coming, according to many of the alums, who hope to eventually raise money to put signs outside of town to honor the championship. There are also plans for the downtown merchants in Thorntown to dress up their businesses in the blue and white of the school’s colors this weekend, as well as invite graduates of the rival schools near Thorntown. There will be displays available for viewing beginning at 9 a.m. and a buffet lunch served at noon.
“The whole town has kind of embraced the idea,” said Martha (Maiden) Randel, a 1965 Thorntown graduate who has played a major role in coordinating the event. “That championship (in 1915) is kind of our one claim to fame in basketball.”
Fifteen years after Thorntown won the title, the Thorntown Centurian recalled the aftermath of the championship. “Thorntown had one of its greatest celebrations of its first century when the boys came home. Every business closed its doors and the citizenship gave vent to its enthusiasm. This began with a big street parade of the school children, citizens and visitors headed by a band of volunteer musicians.”
As with many schools at the time, Thorntown in 1914-15 did not have its own gym. Previous Thorntown teams had played games in the opera house downtown, but local historian David White and others believe Thorntown played most of its home games in 1914-15 on the third floor of the grade school, in a large room that was also used as a science lab.
“There was an independent team called the Thorntown Americans that played at the opera house,” White said. “But that court had posts in the middle of the floor, so people didn’t really like to play there.”
The 1915 postseason was the first with a sectional round. Thorntown, coached by a young Chet Hill (who would later go on to Martinsville, Lebanon and Kokomo and was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame), won the sectional at Lebanon by avenging a regular-season loss to the host and knocking off Rossville in the championship.
Thorntown was one of 14 teams to advance to the state tournament in Bloomington. Thorntown won 46-20 over Hartford City and avenged a 14-point loss to Rochester, winning 17-14. In the final four, Thorntown defeated Manual 30-16 and blew out Montmorenci 33-10 in the championship. Al Smith, a senior, was the star of the seven-player team.
Thorntown, later nicknamed the “Kewaskees” in the late 1920s, went back to the final four in 1919 — played that season at Purdue — and lost to Bloomington in a semifinal. Thorntown star Walter Cross, named the Gimbel (Trester) Award winner in 1919, was the grandfather of former Park Tudor coach and current UCLA assistant Ed Schilling.
Thorntown never again reached such great heights in basketball, though the teams were successful and the passion ran high. Thorntown won sectionals in 1944, 1957 and 1960. Part of the legacy of the 1915 team was that it became immediately apparent that the community needed a larger gym than a third-floor science lab could offer. The following season, a gym was built in the space between the elementary and high school buildings (all of which are now gone).
“The ceiling was low,” said Marvin White, a 1943 Thorntown graduate. “If you shot it too high, the ball might hit the rafters. We had an old hardwood floor and in the wintertime when it was freezing it would get a little uneven. The Thorntown players knew you had to pass the ball in that gym instead of dribble. I remember a team from Sheridan came over to play us and the coach swore after the game he’d never come back to play us in that gym.”
Thorntown built a new, modern gym in 1954. For the gym’s dedication, Milan — fresh off its famous state championship win that spring — made a visit for a game.
“To me, the Thorntown Kewaskees were kind of like the Boston Celtics or New York Yankees,” said Gordon Wait, a 1963 graduate who followed the teams closely. “For a lot of teams, even if you were having a lousy season, if you could beat Thorntown it was a good season.”
But by 1974, Thorntown had gone the way of many small towns and lost its school to consolidation, in its case into Western Boone. Even after 40 years without a graduating class, Thorntown is still proud of his basketball heritage. Larry Campbell, a 1958 graduate and former player, was a part of a float in 2010 that honored 100 years of high school basketball in Indiana. With him that day was the trophy created in 1915 by coach Hill, which featured half of the basketball from the sectional title and half of the basketball from the state championship game.
To Campbell and other Thorntown graduates, the 1915 championship is worth celebrating — even 100 years later.
“It exemplifies the best of Indiana high school basketball,” he said.
Call Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.