Friday Night Lights in Historic Stillwater

Commencement ceremonies for the class of 1971 were held at Hamilton Field.

Story and images provided by Roger Moore

Historians speak of Stillwater’s early settlers pitching tents and dipping their feet in Stillwater creek near what is now Couch Park. Those early Kansans we know as Boomers had to find ways to entertain themselves. There was probably wrestling and running and a few impromptu baseball-like games. There was also most likely some sort of football being played, minus the forward pass, helmets, or cigar-smoking coaches in fedoras.

During the fall, beginning in the first decade of the twentieth century, high school football games were played Friday nights in Stillwater. Where those games were played remains a mystery. We do know that the stadium located in Couch Park was named Ralph Hamilton Field in 1948, the location now an open field. Tennis courts remain to the north with the outfield wall of the high school baseball diamond to the south. In between those courts and the left field wall lies almost a century’s worth of stories. Extensive research through local newspapers, exploring Wayne Bowers’ 1963 compilation of SHS football history from 1901-63, flipping through yearbook after yearbook, along with a Stillwater areal map or two, provides little information into the early stadium history.

Games were played, some probably at 12th and Duck, before the longtime home of SHS became wood bleachers, then uncomfortable cement stands in Couch Park. Somewhere in a shoe box in someone’s attic are pictures of 1930s SHS football and the stadium they called home.

The first Pioneer football squads played in overalls and work boots. There was no official game until 1911 when Stillwater, transported by a team of horses and a hayrack provided by W.A. Watson, traveled to Perkins for a 42-0 victory. In 1913, Stillwater faced Perry at Oklahoma Agricultural & Mechanical College’s Athletic Field. During World War I there was no organized football at Stillwater for obvious reasons.

The gridiron returned in 1918 with a 17-man roster for football. However, there was no coach for a team that played just one home game and was outscored 175-7 in five games. Frank “Doc” Wittenberg, the team’s captain, recovered a fumble and rambled 90 yards for the Pioneers’ lone touchdown that season.

The history of Stillwater High football would take a significant turn in 1919 when Ralph A. Hamilton, a recent graduate of Oklahoma Central State Normal (now Central Oklahoma in Edmond) was hired to teach physical education and coach football. Hamilton earned five athletic letters at Central Normal – football, track, tennis, baseball, and basketball. During World War I, Hamilton played halfback on the 90th Division’s football team.

The change was immediately evident in SHS’s 6-1 record and lopsided wins over Cushing (78-0) and Oilton (99-0), plus two shutout victories over Chandler.  Stillwater’s new high school opened for business in the fall of 1919 near the corner of 12th and Duck. Never with an official name, practices and some games were played at Pioneer Field just to the south of the school on the corner of 12th and Duck. Municipal Field, with wooden bleachers and located in Couch Park, would soon become the site for home dates for Stillwater High football.

Through three seasons, Hamilton’s teams won 19 and lost just six. But the Peoria, Ill., native left Stillwater for five years, coaching at Dewey, Poteau, and Ramona in Oklahoma and Albia in Iowa. He returned in 1927 and remained head coach until 1948; he took over as director of athletics at SHS in 1948 and retired in 1958. His football teams won 124, lost 95, and tied 17 in 26 years of coaching.

Friday, October 29, 1948, proved to be a special day. During the annual homecoming assembly at school on Friday morning, Stillwater mayor L.E. McConkey presented Hamilton with a resolution passed by the city council naming Pioneer athletic field Ralph Hamilton Field. Chilton Swank, who played for Hamilton in the 1930s, presented the coach with a statue with the inscription: “Presented to Ralph A. Hamilton; By students and former students of Stillwater High School in recognition of 25 years of successful service.”

That night may not have rivaled Matt Holliday’s incredible comeback against Tulsa Union in a 1998 playoff game; or a Kevin Sasser toss during a great 1977 season; or one of a number of plays during the Pioneers’ 1967 state championship run under Jim Harris; or the good doctor Bill Defee working his magic on the sidelines, but October 29, 1948, certainly implanted plenty of memories for those who attended the first game played in the old stadium with the new name.

Hamilton’s 269th game as head coach of SHS came against Blackwell. The son of local fireman Ray Bennett, Ronnie Bennett lost his eye glasses before the game somewhere near the Blackwell sidelines. Despite what must have been a difficult visual adjustment, the 15-year-old sophomore quarterback hit Lee Snyder with a 55-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter for a 6-0 lead. The guests tied the game, but Bennett’s 88-yard sweep in the fourth quarter must have sent the home crowd into a frenzy. The Stillwater Daily Press’ game-winning write-up also included a brief note asking “anyone who might find the lost glasses can contact Coach Hamilton or his father at the fire department.”

The 1948 roster included senior captain Clifford Bilyeu and Conrad Lookabaugh, familiar names in these parts. Wins that season came against Bristow, Perry, Chilocco Indian School, Blackwell, and Guthrie. But, like many other teams on many other Friday nights at Hamilton Field, the wins and losses do not seem as important as the relationships forged between player and coach, between lifelong friends who battled together for a few fall Friday nights, between those who paid the small fee for entry into the old stadium.

Stillwater voters turned out in October of 2007 and approved a $31 million school bond package, which included $21 million for a new football stadium. It passed by more than 64 percent. Construction began in June of 2008 and the current cast of Pioneers continue to suit up and play in a state-of-the-art facility located to the north of Stillwater High School. The current two-story press box could almost host the entirety of the visiting bleachers some 20 years ago. In other words, things are bigger, brighter, more modern in regards to anything played at 12th and Duck or in Couch Park. So, while enjoying a brisk fall September or October evening watching high school football take a moment to thank R.A. Hamilton for his efforts and foundation for success for the blue and gold. Hamilton died August 15, 1963 and was posthumously inducted into the Oklahoma Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1969.

A few reminders of Hamilton Field remain in Couch Park. The structure that housed visiting and home locker rooms, the ticket office, and the lone entrance to the stadium still stand, along with the sign that proclaims “Welcome to Hamilton Field, Home of the Stillwater Pioneers.”

Oh, and a short August afternoon walk near what would have been the Blackwell sidelines at old Hamilton Field did not turn up any eyeglasses.

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