MONMOUTH, Ill. — In 1872, Ulysses Grant defeated Horace Greeley for president, Yellowstone National Park was founded and Monmouth College’s longtime athletic rivalry with Knox College was born, as the red and white defeated the purple and gold on the baseball diamond.
As happened with many schools, the rivalry gained steam with the introduction of football, and the Monmouth-Knox series, now known as the Battle for the Bronze Turkey, was once known as “The Oldest College Football Rivalry West of the Alleghenies.” That claim was later dashed, as were several other misconceptions, which grew like many legends out of retelling stories from generation to generation.
Recently, in researching the Monmouth-Knox rivalry, I came across several obscure bits of athletic lore, which I thought were interesting enough to share in a column:
This fall will mark the 130 anniversary of the seventh-longest rivalry in college football, which began with a contest played at Knox in 1888. For years, it was assumed that the first sanctioned meeting between Monmouth and Knox occurred in 1891, but post-1989 — when the “100th” game was celebrated with much hoopla — the earlier contest was rediscovered. That meant the 100th meeting actually occurred in 1988. The rivalry is the 13th-oldest in college football, and while it’s not the oldest west of the Alleghenies, it’s the second-oldest. (Albion-Kalamazoo have played two more times.)
Just What is a Siwash?
Until it was changed to the Prairie Fire in 1993, Knox’s nickname was the Siwash, inspired by a series of popular stories by 1897 Knox graduate George Fitch set at “Good Old Siwash College.” The name was adopted as Knox’s athletic nickname in 1924, but fell into disfavor decades later when it came to light that it was considered a derogatory term for Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest. Although dropping the name Siwash was unpopular with many Knox alumni, Prairie Fire has gained acceptance and in 2016 a mascot named Blaze was adopted. The character is in the form of a fox — presumably because it rhymes with Knox.
Once is Not Enough
The exceptional longevity of the Monmouth-Knox rivalry can be attributed in part to the number of games played in the early years. Two games were played in 1893, 1894, 1896, 1898, 1900 and 1901. Three games were played in both 1895 and 1897.
Origin of the Bronze Turkey
Although the Monmouth-Knox football rivalry dates to 1888, it was not until 40 years later that the Bronze Turkey trophy was born. In its early days, the match was held on Thanksgiving, which inspired Monmouth Review Atlas assistant editor Victor Moffet, Monmouth College Class of ’17, to suggest a traveling trophy in the form of a turkey, co-sponsored by the Monmouth and Galesburg papers. After a nationwide search of many weeks by Monmouth jeweler Glenn Wilson, a suitable statue of a turkey was finally located in a New York wholesale house.
The turkey that’s perched upon the traveling trophy was designed by noted Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Bergmann (1861–1936). His foundry in Vienna produced numerous patinated and cold-painted bronze Oriental and animal figures — many of them in the Art Deco style — before it was closed in 1930 due to the Great Depression.
A Dangerous Game
Although most Knox-Monmouth games are occasions for celebration, the 1930 Thanksgiving Day match ended in tragedy when Monmouth’s captain and star fullback Stan McConnell, playing in his final game, plunged through the line and landed on the frozen field. Taken to the hospital paralyzed from a broken neck, he died three days later. A teammate, center Bob Sharpe, had died earlier that season from blood poisoning, caused by a tight-fitting football shoe.
Trick a Minute Machine
By 1925, the forward pass had become an important tool for college quarterbacks, and that year Monmouth’s Warren Taylor used it to its maximum advantage, throwing touchdown passes at will to future Chicago Bear Keith Molesworth — a feat so prolific that the undefeated team was known as the “Trick a Minute Machine.” After Taylor’s graduation, Monmouth’s passing game became so passé that the lone score in the 1927 Turkey Bowl game was on a lateral pass, intercepted by Knox. Passing would resurface in the 21st as a lethal weapon against Knox, as Mitch Tanney threw six TD passes against the Prairie Fire in the 2004 Turkey Bowl and Alex Tanney equaled that mark in the 2009 edition.
To discourage pre-game vandalism which had become rampant on both campuses, 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 late 1950s.
The original Bronze Turkey has flown the coop on multiple occasions, but the first theft occurred during the 1942 holidays. When it did not immediately resurface, Monmouth purchased a winner’s plaque, which it gave to Knox. During WWII, no football games were played so the turkey trophy was somewhat forgotten. In February 1947, however, the top of the turkey appeared one morning on the porch of Monmouth president James Harper Grier. A typewritten note stated that “due to circumstances beyond control the base is not available,” so a new base was made.
Burning the Beloved Nurse
On the eve of the 1955 Bronze Turkey game, a six-car caravan of Monmouth raiders set out for the Knox campus to avenge the alleged stealing of the Monmouth scoreboard the night before. Their mission was to paint “Beat Knox” signs 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 found guilty of malicious mischief, fined $39 and suspended from college for 20 days.
Espionage has surrounded the Bronze Turkey throughout its multiple disappearances, but one of its thieves became the nation’s most notorious double agent. Now serving 15 life sentences in a Colorado supermax prison, former Knox student Robert Hanssen posed as a Monmouth student newspaper reporter in 1965 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 an accomplice disappeared with the trophy. Hanssen, who later became an FBI agent, was convicted of selling secrets to the Soviet Union. He was portrayed by Chris Cooper in the 2007 movie “Breach.”
Poor Old Siwash
In the days when Knox was still the Siwash, Monmouth freshmen were required to learn the words to a haunting ballad that was sung following a Fighting Scots victory over Knox:
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.
In 1983, the Bronze Turkey disappeared from the Monmouth trophy case in a “smash and grab” incident. It was missing for so long that a substitute trophy was purchased by the Register-Mail. On the eve of the 1993 Homecoming game, a mysterious package was delivered to a reunion dinner for the Class of 1983 and inside was the long-lost original turkey. Now two trophies exist — one for safe keeping and one for display.
Making Up For Lost Time
Until the so-called hundredth meeting in 1989, Monmouth had never tied or led in the longtime series. Following that game, the series was tied at 45–45–10. After the 1998 season, the series was tied again, at 50–50–10. Since then, Monmouth has gone on a roll, winning 19 straight and leading 69–50–10.
It would take a lot to make a turkey beautiful, but by 2017 the Bronze Turkey statue was in desperate need of a makeover, after having been bumped, battered and bent numerous times. After a trip to an artisan foundry where it was lovingly restored, the bright new bird debuted following Monmouth’s victory over Knox in the 2017 Turkey Bowl.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org