100-year anniversary of state’s first high school wrestling dual, held in Fort Dodge, is next month
The Fort Dodge wrestling program’s dual meet at Mason City next Thursday night will carry an important level of historical significance into the New Year.
Iowa’s first-ever high school wrestling meet — featuring the Dodgers and the Mohawks — happened 100 years ago next month. The dual took place on Jan. 15, 1921 at the Armory in Fort Dodge, billed as the “First Interscholastic Wrestling Contest Ever Staged In Iowa” by the Fort Dodge Messenger and Chronicle.
Fans in attendance that Saturday afternoon had no way of knowing what was to come. Until that point — despite being one of the oldest sports known to man — wrestling had gained very little traction as anything more than professional entertainment or an intramural activity in the state. Fort Dodge High School paired the introductory dual up with the first home boys basketball game of the season — also against Mason City — probably as a way of attracting fans who were headed to the Armory anyway.
The advertisement promised “7 Fast and Furious Matches” beginning at 3 p.m. The basketball contest was scheduled to start “at 4 o’clock prompt” and garnered decidedly more media attention despite the unprecedented circumstances of the wrestling match.
A number of other schools began to follow suit and put official squads on the mat that year, likely motivated by the momentum built at Iowa State College (now Iowa State University). While professional grapplers like Frank Gotch of Humboldt had helped mainstream the sport in America around the turn of the century, it was ISC’s introduction of a more organized team concept which motivated high schools to start offering wrestling across the state.
The first Iowa High School Wrestling State Tournament technically happened on Feb. 5, 1921, hosted by ISC in Ames. Cedar Rapids Washington was the champion, followed by Mason City. The Dodgers placed 11th. The Iowa High School Athletic Association didn’t formally recognize the state meet until 1926, when George A. Brown — then executive secretary of the IHSAA — organized and delegated a set of rules for and supervision over the championships.
Not long after the dawn of this new era, Fred Cooper became Fort Dodge High School’s head coach. From 1923-45, Cooper turned the Dodgers into a powerhouse. His programs won state titles in 1927, ’29, ’30, ’31, ’32, ’34, ’36, ’37 and ’41.
FDHS also crowned 28 individual champions during Cooper’s tenure, and hosted the state tournament from 1934-37 and again in ’39. The Dodgers went undefeated for six consecutive seasons at one point, and even placed second twice at the national meet in Chicago. To this day, Cooper is still widely recognized as not only a wrestling pioneer at the high school level, but one of the sport’s most successful prep coaches ever.
The Fort Dodge wrestling program has long been a pillar of success in Iowa, with the second-most team championships in state history and 61 individual gold medalists all-time. In the last six years alone, the Dodgers have brought six traditional team trophies back from Des Moines, advanced 18 athletes to the finals, crowned 12 champs and earned 42 medals overall.
That tradition began with a vision in 1921 during an undercard event between rival high schools at the Armory. In the decades to come and still to this day, Iowa high school wrestling matured into one of the sport’s crown jewels — both in terms of quality and longevity.
It all started on a Saturday afternoon here in Fort Dodge, 100 years ago next month.
(Special thanks to former Dodger great and FDSH Hall of Famer Jim Sanford, who alerted me to the upcoming milestone date and provided material from the 50th anniversary celebration in 1971, as well as the field report of Loren Glenn Parker, who wrote a graduate studies paper on the history of wrestling while attending Drake University in 1970).
Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @ByEricPratt