Once red-faced, Shelby now embraces 'The Fight That Won't Stay Dead' and the massive stadium built for it

2020-04-19 | Billings Gazette

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SHELBY -- Picture for a moment the palatial football palace that is Missoula's Washington-Grizzly Stadium, which becomes the seventh-largest city in Montana when filled to its 25,217-seat brim on Saturday afternoons in the fall.

Impressive, by Montana standards, yet Wa-Griz still pales next to the sprawling 40,268-seat wooden octagon built in a month for a sporting event that had the fleeting eyes of the world on the Hi-Line nearly a century ago.

In 1923, Shelby was a fledgling community of 500 with no paved streets, a single Great Northern Railway storage facility and a battered economy wrought by drought and the first salvos of the coming Great Depression.

Paradoxically, Shelby also had visions -- delusions, as it turned out -- of boom-town grandeur. An oil strike on a nearby ranch the previous year sparked fantasies of Shelby as the "Tulsa of the West".

Big-time cities need big-time events for flash and attention, and so when real-estate developer James "Body" Johnson Jr. and partner Mel McCutcheon saw a headline in the Great Falls Tribune about Montreal offering world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey the princely fee of $100,000 to fight there, capitalist wheels were set in motion.

If Montreal can pursue Dempsey, why not Shelby, Montana?

The pair could only imagine what hosting such as spectacle featuring America's favorite sporting pastime would do for a flagging real-estate market.

They never calculated such an event leaving Shelby in economic ruins 32 years after its founding.

Johnson, whose wealthy father was mayor, on a whim wired Dempsey's manager, a crafty character from the Midwest named Doc Kearns, with a proposal. Shelby would double Montreal's offer to bring Dempsey -- one of the two most iconic sports figures of the day, along with slugging New York Yankees great Babe Ruth -- to the remote high plains of northern Montana.

It was, Johnson would write four decades later in a brochure he titled "The Fight That Won't Stay Dead", "intended to be nothing but a publicity stunt" to shine a brief spotlight on Shelby.

Much to Johnson's surprise, Kearns accepted.

Now what? As Montana Gov. Joseph Dixon told Johnson then, "Body, just where are you ever going to get $200,000? Hell, man, there isn't that much money in the whole state of Montana."

Nevertheless, the commander of the Montana American Legion, Loy Molumby, whose organization stepped up to sanction the fight to satisfy state law, traveled to Chicago in May 1923 with $100,000 that Shelby scraped together for Kearns. By the time Molumby returned, apparently after some liquor-infused revelry, Kearns had wrangled a $300,000 commitment.

The deal was done. Or so Shelby thought.

The opponent: Tommy Gibbons, a young light-heavyweight from St. Paul, Minnesota. The date: Fourth of July. The site: A six-acre field in a low spot on Shelby's west end.

In the imaginations of town fathers, people would arrive via ships, planes, trains and automobiles from around the nation to see the great Dempsey, even knowing few of his bouts lasted more than two rounds. And why not? Dempsey's previous fight had drawn 80,000 in New Jersey; he would later peak at 135,000.

Shelby had less than two months to prepare.

On May 19, 46 days before the fight, architect E.H. Keane's vision began to rise from the field where the Pizza Hut and Hotel Shelby sit today. More than 1 million board feet of lumber from Kalispell and 200 carpenters were used to construct a massive open-air arena. The cost: $82,000.

The Great Northern laid 35 miles of siding for chartered passenger trains. Hotels and dozens of other buildings were hastily erected for the expected throng, including a media center that today serves as City Hall. Package tours with travel by steamship to Seattle and train to Shelby were offered.

Dempsey rented a home and trained in Great Falls for a month. Gibbons did the same in Shelby and charged 50 cents to watch his sparring, his choice of venues endearing him to locals. Both fought exhibition matches.

As the bout neared, Shelby had $500,000 in committed reservations and 26 passenger trains on the schedule.

Trouble was, Shelby also was struggling to scare up the final $100,000 of its up-front guarantee, at one point even offering Kearns 50,000 sheep in lieu of cash. Kearns at first threatened to cancel -- and finally did just that three days before the fight.

Newspapers nationwide seized on the story and Shelby's anticipated big payday evaporated overnight as boxing fans canceled flight, train and steamship reservations, or turned their cars around.

Crossing his manager, Dempsey insisted on staging the fight anyway. And the elder Johnson managed to rustle up the final $100,000 by leasing his oil and cattle lands.

But it was too late for Shelby.

On fight day, only a few trains arrived and only 8,000 spectators had purchased tickets, even with price reductions. Those fans were joined in the cavernous octagon by another 4,000-5,000 locals who stormed the arena from nearby ridgetops to fill empty seats.

In a remarkable footnote to history, Gibbons took Dempsey all 15 rounds on a sweltering afternoon, the only time any fighter went the distance with the Manassa Mauler. Dempsey won by decision. Luminaries at the fight included artist C.M. Russell and sports writers Grantland Rice, Damon Runyan and Heywood Broun.

Within minutes, both Dempsey and Kearns were on a train, reportedly with the fighter still in his robe and Kearns paying an engineer $500 to beat a hasty retreat to Great Falls. Gibbons initially was to receive $7,500 but his son told the Los Angeles Times more than six decades later that he actually made closer to $50,000.

Johnson, who was 89 and living in Palm Desert, California, when Times reporter Earl Gustkey interviewed him in 1989, said his father lost $169,000 on a spectacle sports writers dubbed "The Sack of Shelby".

"It all started as a publicity stunt, then got out of control," Johnson said.

In the aftermath, four banks closed within a month -- two in Shelby, one in Great Falls and one in Joplin. Many Shelby residents went broke as well. Just like that, the dream of a "The Tulsa of the West" boom went bust.

For decades, Shelby tried to forget its fleecing. Today, the town of 3,100 has shaken those ghosts and sees its 15 minutes of infamy as a source of pride and opportunity; after all, how many other small towns in America, much less Montana, could boast of hosting an event of such international magnitude?

"There are still a few old-timers that prefer to forget the financial disaster of the fight, but the story is better than a soap opera," says Lorette Carter, Shelby's community development director. "We prefer to think our colorful past has provided us a very bright future."

To that end, for the past 17 years Champions Park has beckoned visitors to the site where the quickly dismantled octagon stood. Bronze statues of the two fighters, a ring and interpretive kiosks commemorate the summer Shelby was on the world map.

The brass bell, last used for a middleweight bout in Bozeman in 1960, rests behind the bar at the Tap Room by a sign reading, "Official Bell--Dempsey-Gibbons Fight, Shelby, Mont., July 4, 1923". Gibbons' scuffed gloves are in the Marias Museum of History and Art along with other artifacts. Some of the bleachers, seat numbers still visible, exist as attic boards in homes.

They're all reminders of those two heady months in the summer of 1923, when Shelby hosted Montana's grandest sporting event ever in the largest arena ever built here -- an octagon nearly large enough to hold today's combined capacities of Wa-Griz and Bobcat Stadium.

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