If Dodger Stadium bricks could talk …

Oh, if those old bricks at Dodger Stadium could talk. Think of the history they’ve seen, the people they’ve touched, the memories they evoke — and the lives they continue to impact today.

Think of the stories they could tell. Perhaps just as many stories as there are bricks — some half-million of them, first cemented together by mortar and hard labor nearly 80 years ago. Since that time, the 22 acres where the iconic Fort Dodge stadium and surrounding grounds sit have impacted hundreds of thousands of residents.

“People are in awe when they first see the stadium,” said Travis Filloon, director of buildings and grounds for the past 12 years with the Fort Dodge Community School District, which owns the facility. “You just can’t build character from scratch. I’m proud of the things we’ve done over the years to maintain and showcase Dodger Stadium. It’s a privilege of my job.”

First and foremost, Dodger Stadium was intended for athletics when it was built in 1939-40 as part of FDR’s Works Progress Administration that put millions to work in the wake of the Great Depression, constructing public buildings and roads.

The total cost: $150,000. Workers used 385,000 bricks from the old junior high building at the corner of First Avenue North and North 10th Street, torn down as part of the stadium project, to form the outside-wall structure. Another 60,000 bricks were added to complete the project. The stadium itself was built to hold 4,500 to 5,000 people in two concrete bleacher sections.

Today, athletics still play the major role in the stadium’s use — the football field on which Fort Dodge Senior High, St. Edmond High School and Iowa Central Community College play, as well as the Dodgers’ boys and girls soccer teams; the Ed McNeil baseball field where the Dodgers play, with its ivy-covered brick outfield walls that evoke memories of Chicago’s Wrigley Field; the J.H. Nitzke track that hosts the Dodger Relays and other boys and girls track and field meets. (Both the baseball field and track were named after legendary Dodger coaches.)

Athletes who starred in Dodger Stadium and went on to excel at higher levels include Sherwyn Thorson, a Dodger football lineman who played professionally in the Canadian Football League; Billy Goodman, a four-sport Dodger star who played in the minor leagues with the Reds and Twins organizations; John Matuszak, who played football at Iowa Central one year and later was the overall No. 1 selection in the 1973 National Football League draft; and Dodger track star Lisa (Koll) Uhl, a 2005 grad who competed in the 10,000-meter run at the 2012 Olympics in London.

But there’s much more to Dodger Stadium than footballs, baseballs, soccer balls and track cleats used by thousands of athletes over the years.

Each May since shortly after the stadium was built, Fort Dodge Senior High has held graduation ceremonies for its seniors and their families inside the stadium. An estimated 25,000 seniors have taken part over those years.

“My daughter had her graduation ceremony there,” recalled Cindy Herrin. “A big event in our family’s history.”

Dodger Stadium “is a great venue to hold this significant event in the lives of our students,” said Doug Van Zyl, superintendent of the Fort Dodge Community School District. “The stadium itself has so much history and so many stories that can be told about it. It is a great place for them to end one chapter of their lives and to begin another.”

The FDSH band holds an invitational there and then hosts the state band tournament in the fall, Filloon said. Cheerleaders make use of it to practice and train. The North Central Area for Special Olympics Iowa is held there. The National Guard, State Patrol and Fort Dodge Police Department use it for physical training testing. All grade levels in the school district come to the stadium in early May for fun and games. Youth tackle football is held in the fall. Outside the stadium walls, the tennis courts host meets for both high schools’ boys and girls teams; youth flag football is played; the football practice field gets use.

“Seldom do we have any down times,” said Filloon.

Memories of the stadium run deep. And they include events held at the stadium in the past, but have been discontinued — the Harvest Festival, the drum-and-bugle corps competition that featured the Fort Dodge Lanciers, the pep rally and bonfire outside the stadium before the Dodgers’ homecoming game.

“My first recollection of the stadium is attending a football game there in the fall of 1943. I was six,” said Tom Schwieger, who lives in Florida. “I became a ‘stadium rat.’ I attended track and football practices as well as games and meets on a somewhat regular basis when I was at Duncombe school. I set up hurdles, would sneak into the fieldhouse after games and would line up to pat all my heroes on the butt or back after a football game. This was on a regular basis from age 10 (1947) on.  I loved that place.”

If those old bricks could talk — Harvest Festival

The Harvest Festival was held in the stadium for only 13 years — from 1946 to 1959 — but the event that led off with performances by the Karl King Band and featured circus-like acts over a three-day period still sparks vivid memories for those lucky enough to experience it. In 1947, 35,000 people attended the festival over three days.

Rosemary Kolacia grew up across the street from Dodger Stadium when North 22nd Street was a gravel road and recalls the Harvest Festival was “a big deal for us as we parked cars in our yard for free. My brother and sister and I were in charge and the families usually gave us a nickel tip. The Harvest Festival was very popular and ran two or three nights. My older siblings generously shared the tips and we each had more than $3 to spend. Candy bars and ice cream cones cost 5 cents then. That was a lot of nickels.”

“I lived near Dodger Stadium and as soon as I heard the sound of hammers building the stage I was over there every day to watch,” said former resident Greg Sells, now of Sacramento, California. “I would go to the show each night — trying to sneak in if possible. The next morning, I would go to the stadium and walk around the stands trying to find any loose change that fell out of pockets. I loved the different acts — motorcycles racing around in a cage, horses diving into a small pool of water, comedians with terrible jokes — and especially the fireworks at the end of the evening.”

David Powell, who lived just south of Fort Dodge, recalled that farmers and rural residents got free tickets — “otherwise, we wouldn’t have been able to go.” He said the festival was just like a circus, without the tent.

If those old bricks could talk — Bob Brown Press Box

Renee Brown is confident few people spent more time at Dodger Stadium than her father, Bob Brown, Messenger sports editor for 37 years — whose name graces the two-level press box overlooking the football field. The Bob Brown Press Box was dedicated in 2015, three years after Brown’s death.

“I can still hear the booming broadcaster’s voice from my bedroom, announcing the players’ names,” she said. “My entire family spent an impressive amount of time there, but no one held a candle to the number of hours my dad clocked in as executive sports editor for The Messenger. He covered all the FDSH football and baseball games; from JV to varsity.

“I loved the quick walk to the stadium — the red brick structure with that beautiful ivy all along the walls. The concession stand with its irresistible smell of popcorn. The peppy band with its infectious spirited tunes and of course, the thrill of singing along when they played ‘Up Fort Dodgers’.”

If those old bricks could talk — the Lanciers’ Music Festival

The Fort Dodge Lanciers drum and bugle corps hosted American Legion and VFW competitions in Dodger Stadium — the Lanciers Music Festival — that drew up to eight contestants from around the country.

The west side of Dodger Stadium would fill up for the competition, recalled Jim Tarbox of St. Paul, Minnesota, who was a drummer and drum major for the Lanciers. “It was one of the best places to put on a show. The sun was behind the audience, the seating was higher. I still have to this day people from the St. Paul Scouts telling me how much they enjoyed playing at the stadium.

If those old bricks could talk — a bit of chicanery

Let’s just call him John. He has asked to remain anonymous, in case the statute of limitations may not have expired, as he shares a story from summer of 1965 when he and a group of friends lacked the cash to buy gas so they could shag the drag on Central Avenue, a mandatory activity back then.

The Fort Dodge school bus fleet was housed under the east stands of the stadium, so one weekend, the group scaled the stadium wall loaded with coolers, empty jugs and a siphoning hose.

“After taking turns sucking on the hose and inhaling sufficient mouthfuls of fuel, all were on the ground gagging profusely,” he said. The group scaled back over the wall with a few jugs of fuel in hand, “Now ready to reap their rewards, they began the process of transference from the jugs to one of their vehicles. Just then an older brother of one of the delinquents showed up and after learning of their escapade, told them that he was quite certain that the buses used diesel fuel and that it would ruin their car engine. It was another wasted summer day in Dodge.”

If those old brick walls could talk — the baseball field

The baseball field, with its brick ivy-covered outfield walls, resembles a miniature version of the Chicago Cubs’ Wrigley Field. It was dedicated in 1942 by none other than the Cubs, who came to town for an exhibition game against the Chicago White Sox on April 9 that drew 8,500 fans — from five states and 75 Iowa counties. That still stands as the largest crowd for an athletic event in Fort Dodge history.

A newspaper account of the game noted that the Cubs had used 40 dozen new baseballs in exhibition games that spring, prior to the Fort Dodge game — and that “Several dozen more must have gone to the spectators as souvenirs at Fort Dodge.”

Jerry Russell said his father Emmett Russell used to tell the story that the Cubs knocked almost every pitch over the wall. The Cubs won the game, 16-14.

Like Wrigley Field, Dodger Stadium did not have lights for much of its history — until 2015 when a fundraising project gathered more than $135,000 to install lighting. A fundraising drive is underway for the addition of a permanent grandstand with seating for up to 300 people, a new concession stand and press box improvements.

If those old bricks could talk — umpire dies on the job

On May 8, 1945 — Victory in Europe Day — a veteran Webster County umpire died of a heart attack while sweeping off home plate at Dodger Stadium during a sectional tournament game between Eagle Grove and Fort Dodge Senior High.

Elmer Curtis was felled just after the Dodgers had completed a big inning and were headed to their positions in the field. Curtis stooped to dust off home plate, straightened up, collapsed and fell backward without a word. He was unable to be revived. The game, in the final round of the sectional, continued after a half hour’s delay.

Always known for his kindness and fair play, one of Curtis’ last characteristic acts was to purchase game tickets for a group of Webster County boys who were standing outside the stadium.

Curtis was the grandfather of current Messenger editor Jane Curtis, whose father was also a baseball umpire.

In an essay titled “Why Do Old Places Matter?” Tom Mayes of the National Trust for Historic preservation notes: “Old places foster community by giving people a sense of shared identity through landmarks, history, memory, and stories, by having the attributes that foster community, such as distinctive character and walkability, and by serving as shared places where people meet and gather.”

District Superintendent Van Zyl would give an enthusiastic Amen to that.

He said Dodger Stadium was “one of the things that stood out” when he was considering the superintendent position seven years ago: “It was very impressive to walk into the stadium for the first time and get a sense of community pride in it.” Van Zyl took the job, and his son Parker played baseball for the Dodgers on Ed McNeil Field and now his daughter Liza competes in soccer for the Dodgers.

Filloon said that for the past decade, $30,000 to $60,000 has been invested yearly to make repairs and updates at the stadium. Van Zyl said the district feels strongly about continuing to invest in the stadium, for improvements in disabled access, restroom facilities and locker room spaces.

“At some point, renovations will be made to help the stadium continue through our lifetime on this earth,” he said. “I don’t see Dodger Stadium going away. I see it as needing some TLC.”

Said Filloon, “I’m confident to say my grandkids will see and enjoy it in their lifetimes.”

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