February 16, 2013 11:25:35 PM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
It's easy to overlook the squatting behemoth that serves as a gateway to downtown. Faded and worn, the stadium sits silent, encircled by concrete but endowed with a proud legacy -- somewhere in there. Once the home of victories and triumphs, there is little glory to be found in the Magnolia Bowl of today. No one clamors at the gates, and the storied walls whisper only of the ravages of time.
But that could change if a local organization, Link'd Young Professionals, succeeds in an ambitious, five-phase restoration plan. In their hands, and the hands of dozens of volunteers, Magnolia Bowl might just receive the Hail Mary pass it has needed for more than a decade.
'A great big family'
Magnolia Bowl began as a ditch in the road -- literally. In 1933, as part of the Works Progress Administration's nationwide public works program, men gathered with shovels and picks to fill the valley with 25 feet of dirt and, if legend is correct, 40 old automobiles.
And from that time until the last game was played Oct. 30, 1998, the stadium lit up the night sky regularly, bringing a community together.
Sissie Sisson, a 1955 graduate of Lee and a trumpet player and majorette, remembers how she and her band mates lined up on Friday afternoons at what is now the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library. Like flag bearers leading the troops into battle, they marched down Seventh Street to Main, up Main Street to Market Street and on to "the Bowl," carrying morale -- and more than a little frivolity -- through the gate and onto the field.
The games were a place to see and be seen, whether you were intimately connected to the gridiron action or not.
"It was really interesting, because the whole town went," Sisson recalls. "I remember the friends, the band music, the excitement, the school spirit. It was like the whole town was together for the same thing, like a great big family -- we're talking about hundreds of people."
Ward 3 City Councilman Charlie Box holds similar memories. He played halfback for the Lee High Generals from 1957 to 1959, and he remembers that even though his team didn't bring home a championship, the support from the fans was almost palpable, an electric energy that was exhilarating to young men on the cusp of adulthood.
"For little high school players who hadn't played before very many people, it was a little bit intimidating," Box says. "But it was good to have all those people behind you."
'So much history'
The heritage Magnolia Bowl contained added a unique quality as well.
"There was so much history going back," Box says. "You were standing on some strong shoulders when you played there. Back in Coach (Willie B.) Saunders' day, there was a national championship team. It was a special, special place."
Of course, all was not roses. In fact, there were quite a few bare patches and rocks, Box recalls, laughing. With its proximity to Franklin Academy, school children like Sisson used the field as their playground, making it nearly impossible to coax grass into growing. It made for a rough field that was as hard on its home team's knees as they were on their opponents'.
But these are the things of which memories are made. Box remembers a late 1950s game in which a controversial referee call caused then-Coach Hal Easterwood to stalk off the field with the football at half-time, forfeiting the rest of the game.
The possibilities raised by Link'd Young Professionals' civic-minded largesse have been met with enthusiasm by people like Sisson as well as city leaders like Box, Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin and Columbus Mayor Robert Smith.
Smith played defensive end in Magnolia Bowl in 1970, his senior year and the first year following integration. That year the consolidated Columbus team -- two schools playing under the Lee High Generals banner -- was undefeated.
You never had to convince people to attend the games, Smith says. People packed the stands. He believes an amphitheater could be met with similar enthusiasm.
Gavin envisions tying an open air amphitheater into the Riverwalk, Trotter Convention Center and the new soccer complex. At one time, he says, there were plans for the Columbus Municipal School District -- which owns the 16th section land on which the stadium sits -- to allow a skate park and other things to be built there. The funding was in place, but in the 11th hour, the deal fell through.
As a child, he lived only blocks away from Magnolia Bowl, attending school at Franklin, playing junior varsity football and taking his dates to games. Afterward, they would go to dances at the downtown YMCA or hang out at Bob's or Sonny's.
The younger people don't remember the Magnolia Bowl in its heyday, he says, but for those who do, it is steeped in memories that have withstood time far better than the aging stadium where they were forged.
"We have a lot of history in Columbus on all sides, and we should preserve those things," Gavin says. "They serve as memories of our younger days and special times in our lives. I drive down toward City Hall and come by the Magnolia Bowl every day. I always look through the little gate, peer out onto the field, and there will be a flashback or some memory of times that have gone by. They're hard to get back."
Though it would be nice to see football played in the Bowl once more, Sisson says she would be happy to see it used as anything, even if only as a park. It's more than just the memories, it's about preserving what was once the best of the community.
"The town is just not united like it used to be," she says. "Something needs to be done. It's just such a great part of the history of Columbus."
A labor of love
Even with volunteers and donations, the restoration that Link'd Young Professionals is attempting is an expensive, time-consuming process. It is a labor of love by many volunteers too young to remember the stadium in its glory.
They began working there in 2010, scraping, patching and repainting the exterior walls as part of their "Clean Sweep Columbus" and "Scrape the Bowl" events, and this year they will continue those efforts, holding "Scrape the Bowl," March 2, with volunteers preparing the area for more work to take place during the March 23 Clean Sweep.
When they first embraced the project, there wasn't a lot of interest in it, Link'd President Jason Spears says. But as the gateway to downtown -- the epicenter -- he believes it could be transformed once more into a vibrant space benefiting the entire community with things like family-friendly concerts, outdoor theater productions and other activities.
Spears estimates it would take around $74,000 to restore the entire facility -- a cost he believes is worthwhile for many of the reasons cited by Sisson and others.
"We see that being an opportunity to again unite the community in that particular area," Spears says. "You've got something that can tether everybody together, and I guess that's why I've worked so hard at it. So many people behind the scenes are steadfast in their resolve to see this thing through. The opportunities are endless."
For more information about the restoration efforts, or to pre-register for "Scrape the Bowl" or "Clean Sweep," contact Kristen Thomas at 662-329-9777.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.