Early Physical Education in Ypsilanti Schools

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
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Author: Unknown, Provided by Claudia Wasik

(The following article was provided by Claudia Wasik who enjoyed a long career at EMU, as a student, professor and coach during her 32-year affiliation with the university. Claudia found the article which appears to have been written in the 1940s or 1950s.)

While the city of Ypsilanti was in its early growing stages, physical culture or physical training was also in its infancy. The term “physical education” is relatively new. It was not until 1927 that legal sanction was given to it. Prior to this time, “physical culture” was in vogue. Traditionally physical education has been of interest to state and local educators. As early as 1847 Superintendent of Public Instruction, O. C. Comstock, stated that among other attainments “the teacher should know something of physical education, sound health and a development of all physical faculties and a system of popular education.” During the 1850’s, reference to the desirability of physical education was noted at the dedication of the Normal School here in Ypsilanti. The main speaker, Rev. John Pierce and A. S. Welch in his inaugural address as principal, advocated physical culture for students.

When attempting to recapture physical education’s past in Ypsilanti, one finds that he must look in two directions; to the university and to the public schools. This is necessary because in most instances it was the graduates of Michigan State Normal College that were to be the teachers of physical training in Ypsilanti schools.

In 1860, Principal Welch requested $1,000 for a building of physical culture. Although the State Legislature denied the requests on two occasions, the State Board of Education, aware of the need, saved a small amount of money of its yearly appropriations and that, along with private contributions, was enough to erect a wooded gymnasium in 1862 for $1,200. Although no special teacher of physical culture was available, formal instruction in calisthenics and light gymnastics were provided by interested faculty members. This building served the students and faculty for only 10 years when it was destroyed by fire. For the next 20 years informal instruction was provided in the large classrooms or hallways of the school.

In 1894, a new gymnasium was erected on the block enclosed by Cross, Normal, Summit, and Ellis streets. Public spirited citizens raised $1,800 which was matched by the state so that this site could be purchased. Since this building was to serve the community and Eastern Michigan for 71 years, many Ypsilanti residents may still remember it.

The exterior was of brick with trimmings of Berea stone and its architecture was medieval in style. The building was divided into a south half for men and north side for women. Each side contained showers, lockers, a swimming pool (13 x 22) and a running track. Equipment such as climbing poles, adjustable ladders, pulleys, vaulting boxes, stall bars, Indian clubs and horses were located throughout. The addition, the west gym, built in 1914, was intended for men only.

With the completion of the new gymnasium in 1894, a department of physical training was formally established. Professor Wilbur Bowen was appointed director and Fannie Cheever Burton, assistant. Two years were required to complete the course of study which included special subjects in applied anatomy, methods in physical training, German and Swedish gymnastics and practice teaching. In 1921 a four year program for specialized students was first offered. Young ladies enrolled in the physical training program of the 1920’s could be found wearing black stockings, black pleated bloomers, middy blouses with a sailor’s tie and square knot. Young men in physical training programs wore white t-shirts and long green trousers with a white stripe.

Activity classes could include performing the “Swedish Days Order” which was a progressive set of activities that systematically exercised all body parts. Indian clubs, dumb bells and wands were sometimes used. Apparatus work included rings, Swedish box, parallel bars, horse and mats. Other classes were devoted to posture correction, precision marching, aesthetic dancing (a forerunner of modern dance) clog and folk dancing, and sports.

During the 1920’s a circus sponsored by the Michigan State Normal College physical education club was started. All students enrolled in physical education activity classes took part in the affair held in the West gymnasium. Many townspeople may remember several circuses, each with their grand parade, animal acts, gymnastic demonstrations, swinging ladders, and clog dancing; others recall the excitement of the human cannonball act with identical twins, Dr. Old’s gilded figures depicting famous statuary, Bingo Brown as ring master, the acrobatic feats of Jack Flag and Gus Zelke, and the Zouave drill.

May-Day-On-The-Green was another traditional event sponsored by the physical education department. Women enrolled in physical education classes participated in the program which has as its general theme, “The Awakening of Spring.” The memory of this Spring pageant and the winding of the May Pole is still shared by many and some Michigan State Normal College graduates in the Ypsilanti area continue to remember their particular role in the program; as snow maidens, Spanish and Irish dancers, or even as Queen of the May.

In 1919 the Physical Training Law of 1911 was revised, which made it mandatory that all students in public schools and normal colleges participate in a regular physical education program. Consequently we note that in 1919 Ypsilanti High School employed Deyo S. LeLand and Katherine Patch as physical education instructors. Prior to this time Ypsilanti High School had limited itself to a boys athletic program which had made quite a good reputation for itself.

In 1928 Bill Foy was named Athletic Director of Ypsilanti High School and in the same year he coached the football team to a 7-1-1 record and a State Class B championship. Individual honors went to John “Speck” Dignan who was selected as an all-state fullback. Just recently Coach Foy recalled the dedication of the 1928 team. “In my opinion every boy on that team was an all-stater. They only averaged about 140 pounds but they had lots of desire.”

In the 1920’s and 30’s at Ypsilanti High the physical education program was varied. Apparatus work, sports and swimming were included for the men whereas the girls’ program consisted of light gymnastics with and without equipment, marching, sports, swimming, folk and aesthetic dancing and hygiene. Mrs. Howard Ivans, Sue Hammock, and Janet McAllister Smith supervised the girls’ program.

Intramural programs also flourished. Both boys and girls participated in inter-class contests in basketball, baseball, track and field, swimming, and tennis. Mabel Eichkorn was instrumental in starting a Girl’s Athletic Club in 1921. Mararet Harker and Eleanor Bowen were among the first officers.

In 1926 an Ypsilanti High organization proposed that a formal award be presented to the winner of an athletic contest between Roosevelt (the school on the hill) and Ypsilanti (the school in the hollow). The proposal was accepted and a purple and grey trimmed jug was designated as the award. Roosevelt was the recipient of the first presentation although Ypsilanti regained the jug at the conclusion of the second contest. This competition was continued for many years when it ceased by virtue of a gentlemen’s agreement. Norris Wiltce, former principal of Ypsilanti High School, still remembers the parade activity and the excitement and enthusiasm generated by the competition for the jug.

In 1925 with the completion of a new building, Normal High became Roosevelt High School. Since 1927, boys and girls at Roosevelt have had a varied program of physical education. Heavy apparatus including parallel bars, buck, ropes and bars, boxing, wrestling, swimming and other sports were offered to the boys. The girls program consisted of dance, swimming, hygiene and sports. For many years the physical education program was conducted by Art Walker and Chloe Todd. Art Walker also was the athletic director and a coach.

In 1929, an athletic league for class “C” high schools in the area was formed. Roosevelt, along with Lincoln, University High of Ann Arbor, and other schools joined what was to be called the Huron League. In the early 1930’s Roosevelt won championships in track and baseball, coached respectively by Howard Chanter and Art Walker. Roosevelt, along with University High, took the greatest number of League Championships in tennis. These teams were coached by Leonard Menzi. During this time, Chloe Todd conducted physical education classes for the elementary boys and girls of Roosevelt as well as for the high school girls. The highlight of the program was the May Day performance. For years, dances and gymnastic activities culminating in the May Pole Dance were performed by costumed children in the formal gardens behind Sherzer Hall in honor of the Queen and her court.

Lincoln School opened its doors in 1924 and in 1925 Robert Peel was named director of Physical Education for both boys and girls. A physical education program similar to the other two high schools was organized at Lincoln. In 1927, a new director of physical education and athletics was named. Under the new director, Larry Dunning, Lincoln won League championships in track in 1933, 34, 35 and 39. In 1929 the girls’ physical education program came under the directorship of Alice Beal.

Elementary school children in the city schools had limited physical education programs. For a short time in the 1920’s Deyo LeLand was Director of Physical Education in the Ypsilanti Schools. Under his leadership and supervision, classroom teachers were responsible for the physical education program. For a few years, a Spring Festival was held which involved all the elementary school children in the city. Costumed children performed dances, gymnastic exercises and vocal numbers.

Field days were also popular for the elementary children. From all the city schools, boys and girls met at the city parks and participated in bicycle races, sack races, dashes, baseball throws, and jumping events.

This reflection into the past should serve to remind most Ypsilanti residents of their rich and proud heritage as a forerunner in physical education programs.

(Postscript: “What fond memories I had when I found this article, starting with the very impressive castle-like appearance of the building. Upon walking up the massive stairway to the building, you entered a large hallway that was kept immaculate by a matron (Addie). The floors even in the 50's still shone and looked new. I remember being told as a freshman that women were only allowed to enter by the Summit street (south) door and that women were not to enter the North gym which was for men. Of Course I could never forget navigating the boiler room and squeezing around the hot water pipes in order to enter the swimming pool (11 x 66) which had a ceiling height from the pool deck of approximately 10 feet. I can still see the hole in the ceiling.It was a sad day indeed when the building was demolished for a parking lot. What a tragic end to such a majestic structure.” - Claudia Wasik)


Photo Captions:

Photo 1: In 1894 a new gymnasium was erected by Michigan State Normal College on the block enclosed by Cross, Normal, Summit, and Ellis streets. The building served the college and community for 71 years.

Photo 2: The exterior of the gymnasium was of brick with trimmings of Berea stone and its architecture was medieval in style. The building was divided into a south half for men and a north half for women.

Photo 3: Activity classes at the Normal College could include performing the “Swedish Days Order” which was a progressive set of activities that systematically exercised all body parts. Indian clubs, dumb bells and wands were sometimes used.

Photo 4: Some physical activity classes at the Normal College were devoted to posture correction, precision marching, aesthetic dancing (a forerunner of modern dance) clog and folk dancing, and sports.

Comments

Great Phys. Ed. Stories.

Baseball is good for PE. Lots of fun and kind of active.
TBB