By Jeff Rankin, Monmouth College historian
MONMOUTH, Ill. — ESPN proclaimed it “one of the five weirdest trophies in sports.”
It’s been kidnapped. It’s been broken. During its lifespan, it has suffered more indignities than should be expected for such a storied piece of hardware.
The trophy is, of course, the Bronze Turkey — symbol of the seventh-longest college football rivalry in the nation. When the rivalry renews this Saturday at Knox College, it will mark the 90th birthday of the Turkey and the 130th anniversary of the first game, played at Knox in 1888. That was the year the Kodak camera was introduced and the year that Jack the Ripper was terrifying London.
Given the history of intense competition between the two schools, it’s perhaps not surprising that there are competing stories about the origin of the Bronze Turkey trophy, which was first presented in 1928.
While there is no dispute that the turkey was adopted as a symbol of the game having originally been played at Thanksgiving, Knox claims it was the brainchild of Bill Collins, a Knox player who, after a football injury, began working for the Galesburg Register-Mail. He supposedly persuaded his employer and the Monmouth Review Atlas to each pitch in $40 for the trophy, which was purchased from a Chicago wholesale house through Steinfeldt Jewelers of Galesburg.
The Monmouth version is that Review Atlas business manager Victor Moffet, Class of 1917, suggested the traveling trophy, and that after a nationwide search of many weeks by a Monmouth jeweler, a metal statue of a turkey was finally located in a New York wholesale house.
Until recently, the Bronze Turkey was formally presented at halftime of the home basketball game of that year’s football champion — that is, when the bird could be found.
The first in a long line of bird-nappings occurred in the early 1940s, when the trophy went missing for five years. In 1998, Dick Eckhoff ’47 shared an anecdote of having been instructed by members of the Class of ’43 where to find it. Members of that class had stolen it and buried it under the indoor track in the basement of the gymnasium.
The 1947 class succeeded in digging up the Turkey, which was located in the northeast corner, but failed to find the base to the trophy, supposedly buried in the southeast corner. The Turkey was then deposited on the steps of Woodbine, the home of President Grier, along with a note stating that “due to circumstance beyond control the base is not available,” so a new base was made.
Another memorable theft occurred in 1965, orchestrated by a Knox student who would become one of the nation’s most notorious double agents. Now serving 15 life sentences in a Colorado supermax prison, Robert Hanssen posed as a Monmouth student newspaper reporter and tricked a college employee to take the bird outdoors for a photograph. When the employee was called away to take a phone call, Hanssen and the Turkey flew the coop.
In retaliation for the theft, Monmouth students responded in a military propaganda-style attack, using an airplane to drop fake issues of the Knox student newspaper over the Galesburg campus warning of the agony that would befall them in the Bronze Turkey game.
The following year, two Monmouth students set out to uncover the whereabouts of the missing Turkey. The pair concocted a spin-off of the previous year’s heist by infiltrating the Knox hierarchy posing as reporters from the SIU Egyptian newspaper, explaining that Southern Illinois University was exploring the possibility of a similar rivalry trophy with Bowling Green.
The “reporters” spent over an hour establishing themselves as legitimate reporters which spurred one Knox student to inform their athletic director that the pair was “not Monmouth students trying our trick from last year.” The pair was then escorted to a safe where the bird was stored and allowed to photograph the “missing” trophy.
The following week, the Oracle, Monmouth’s student newspaper, broke the story of the discovery of the wayward bird.
A bird heist in 1984 did not require as much planning — thieves simply broke the glass of the trophy case and absconded with the bird. The bird went AWOL for nearly 10 years before it was returned in “James Bond” fashion.
At the Class of 1983’s 10th reunion in 1993 — just weeks before the annual Monmouth-Knox game — the bird reappeared. With the former classmates inside, a car pulled up in front of the Filling Station III restaurant on North Main Street and a mysterious box was handed to an unsuspecting bystander, who in turn, delivered the package to English professor Gary Willhardt ’59. Willhardt, not knowing what was inside the package, tore open the box to find the wayward bird and a note which read, “The last hostage is home,” along with a derogatory remark concerning Monmouth’s archrival.
During the nearly decade-long absence, the Register Mail had a replacement bird made and although not as ornate as the original, the “body double” Turkey was as much revered. Today, it is used for display purposes, while the original is locked in a secure location.
The original trophy by that time had become worse for the wear, with the Turkey leaning precariously forward on a replacement base, and a broken wing soldered crudely back in place. Those issues were resolved in 2017, when the Turkey was sent to an artisan foundry for a makeover, that included straightening, resoldering the wing and repainting in muted colors to mimic the original Art Deco bronze sculpture. Designed by noted Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Bergmann, it was cast in a Vienna foundry which produced numerous patinated and cold-painted Oriental and animal figures, prior to closing during the Great Depression.
With a rivalry so intense, played for a trophy so prized, the battles encompass more than the actual participants.
In the 1930s it was not uncommon for the winning team’s fans to tear down the goal posts. Such was the case when Knox won the contest in 1938 — at least that’s how it started. Knox had come out on top 14–7 and their fans immediately began lowering the north goal post. Monmouth freshman Bobby Dunlap, who would later earn the Medal of Honor for heroism at the Battle of Iwo Jima, and Ray Cook ’42 raced to the south end zone to defend that goal post. The pair was successful in rallying the Monmouth fans to defend their turf and the south goal post was spared.
To discourage pre-game vandalism, an annual Monmouth-Knox Turkey Dance was organized in 1939 on a roof garden in Galesburg. Over the years, on the night before the game Monmouth and Knox would alternate hosting duties, and the dance hall would be decorated in the colors of both schools. The tradition was finally discontinued in the 1950s, but the pranks continued.
In 1955, while seeking revenge for a stolen scoreboard, a six-car caravan of Monmouth raiders set out for the Knox campus to avenge the stealing of the Monmouth scoreboard the previous night. Their mission was to paint “Beat Knox” on the Knox sidewalks and burn a giant “M” on the Knox football field. However, one carload mistook the Knox County Courthouse for a Knox building and set fire to a bronze statue of famed Civil War nurse Mother Bickerdyke on the courthouse lawn. The Monmouth students were jailed, found guilty of malicious mischief, fined $39 and suspended from college for 20 days.
In 1989, when Monmouth and Knox tangled in what was thought to be the 100th meeting, the Scots won 14–0 and produced the first series tie in the century-old rivalry. It was not until 2002 that research uncovered a missing game which meant the actual 100th game had been played one year earlier. Not to worry — Monmouth had also won that game, 45–6.
The series became tied a second time in 1998, at 50–50–10.
The Fighting Scots’ current 19-game win streak in the series is the record for consecutive years without relinquishing the Turkey. Monmouth previously held a 10-year grip on the bird from 1966 to 1975, with the Scots nearly losing claim to the trophy when the teams tied, 7–7, in 1973.
In years past, before Knox changed its team name from Siwash to the more politically correct Prairie Fire, it was a tradition for Monmouth freshmen to learn the words to a melancholy ballad that would be sung following a Fighting Scots victory over Knox. Before that once-familiar refrain is lost to history, we offer it here and encourage you to sing it after Saturday’s game!
Oh poor old Siwash
Oh poor old Siwash
She’s got the blues today.
The game is over
The game is over
And victory’s come our way.
The turkey that you won from us before
Is standing right outside of our front door.
Oh poor old Siwash
Oh poor old Siwash
She’s got a bad case of blues today.