Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Tallahassee's turn-of-the-century track team

[ I wrote this in 1990. It was originally published in the April 1990 edition of The Fleet Foot, the newsletter of the Gulf Winds Track Club of Tallahassee, Florida. ]

In 1897 Dr. Albert Murphree, a young mathematician, came to Tallahassee to accept the presidency of the West Florida Seminary, a small state institution of higher learning. Under his energetic leadership the enrollment grew from a few scores of local scholars to over 300 students from all over Florida, and the legislature was compelled in 1901 to change the name of the school to the more modern Florida State College. Advertisements for the college boldly compared it to respected schools in the northeast.

Perhaps it was conscious imitation of those schools that motivated FSC to form a track team. At any rate, President Murphree was a strong believer in college sports and FSC had football and baseball squads as well. Our record of the earliest collegiate track team in Tallahassee (if not all of Florida*) is a small photo from the 1901-1902 edition of the Argo, the college's yearbook, of the 1902 FSC track team. Pictured are Francis Bayard Winthrop, Guy Louis Winthrop, Fritz William Buchholz, R. E. Turner, Irving James Belcher, Burton Elies Belcher, Robert Fort Bradford, Jr., J. L. Forehand, and two unnamed managers or coaches. The Winthrop brothers were of the same wealthy Leon County landowning family from which Winthrop Park derives its name. Fritz Buchholz was the son of Professor Ludwig Buchholz, a German immigrant and good friend of President Murphree. Bob Bradford was from the pioneering Bradford family for whom Bradfordville is named. The Belchers were Tampa boys, and as for Turner and Forehand, there is no indication that either of them were even students of FSC!

Unfortunately, there is no direct evidence that the FSC track team ever competed against athletes from another school. The picture and the roster is there in the 1901-1902 yearbook, but there is also a page devoted to the roster of a football team that certainly did not play--FSC's inaugural game was held in the fall of 1902 against a team from Bainbridge. An editorial in the Argo states grandly that "the formation of the Olympian Athletic Association opens a new era in college athletics here. No longer will FSC take a back seat in athletics in this State, but it may be safely prophesied that in a very few years she will rank foremost upon the track and field." This indicates that there was at least an intent or desire to take part in intercollegiate track and field competition, but leaves dangling the question of whether any meetings ever took place. Perhaps the answer lies in the records of one of FSC's athletic rivals: the South Georgia Military Institute in Bainbridge, the University of Florida at Lake City, the East Florida Seminary at Gainesville, Georgia Tech, and Stetson.

By 1903 the team's roster had swollen to ten, and although there was no photo of the thinclads in the 1902-1903 Argo, the opening page of the athletics section in that yearbook featured a drawing of three runners. However, in the fall of 1902 Florida State football opened in Tallahassee and much of the excitement the students had for the fledgling track program was transferred to the football team. Finally, all of Florida State's sports hopes were snuffed out by the state legislature; in 1905 the Buckman Act was passed, consolidating all the state schools into a women's college in Tallahassee, a men's university in Gainesville, a negro college in Tallahassee, and an institute for the blind, deaf, and dumb. The students at the women's school were denied all but intramural competition, and intercollegiate athletics in Tallahassee became confined to the teams of Florida Normal and Industrial College (present-day Florida A&M University).

Bob Bradford, incidentally, went to work in 1911 with his father, who had foreseen the downfall of cotton as a cash crop and moved into the the dairy business. The Bradford dairy operation remained one of the foremost in Leon County until 1958, when Bob's son moved it east to Jefferson County. No record remains of Bob Bradford's mile time, but maybe he was a discus thrower, anyway. Fritz Buchholz graduated with FSC's last class in 1905 and ended up in Gainesville where he became a prominent citizen, serving at various times as a teacher, coach, school principal, politician, and author of a book on the history of Alachua County. Buchholz High School is the second school in Gainesville to be named after him. Whatever became of the rest of the pioneering FSC thinclads, none of them were ever Olympic athletes; not until 1964 would Tallahassee produce an Olympian on the track.

* I have since learned that Rollins College in Winter Park had track teams at least as early as the 1890s.

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