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Claremont High School Players Gather To Remember Nation's Longest Winning Streak From 70 Years Ago

As South Dakota’s smaller high schools struggle to field even minimum numbers for football teams, some have discussed a return to Six-Man football in the state.  It’s a successful formula in Nebraska, Texas, and a few other locations.  At one time, Six-Man football was popular in South Dakota as well.  In northeast South Dakota, people who saw the Claremont Honkers play still talk about their skills.  In more than 70 games in the 1940s and 50s, the Honkers and Coach Bill Welsh lost only one game.  Many of his former players recently gathered in Aberdeen to swap stories, celebrate their accomplishments—and honor the man who helped them achieve their success.  

Harry Truman once referred to towns like Claremont as “places where you forget people live in this country.”  To someone who drives into the community of just over one hundred people, the first thought is likely, “this isn’t much.”                                       

Credit Gary Ellenbolt / South Dakota Public Broadcasting
South Dakota Public Broadcasting
The Road Into Claremont, SD

Maybe not, if “much” is defined as a convenience store, restaurant, a local bar.  But at one time, very much was made of Claremont on the football field.  Former Honker multi-sport standout Lyle Cutler was there for the beginnings of the Honker tradition.  One day in 19-47, Bill Welsh decided Claremont High needed to play football, and Cutler joined the team.

Cutler remembers,  “Well, within a week or two we had a game, and he had to go out and buy some used equipment.  We didn’t have shirts, we just had some old sweatshirts that we painted numbers on.  I think we had five plays or something.  I had never seen a game before, and most of the players hadn’t.”

Cutler and his teammates learned well in that short period.  He graduated from high school nearly 70 years ago, but still remembers those five plays.

“Number One," says Culver, "was directly into the line from the left side; number two was the right side; number three was around one end, number four was around the other end—and then he had a play we called the ‘Sioux City Sue.’  I think he saw someone run the play in a college game or something—anyway, I was the end, so the quarterback would throw me a pass and I would lateral to Gibbs coming around the other way.  That was a good play—we used it a lot.”

The name Cutler is a strong part of a complete history of athletics and life in and around Claremont—high school basketball fans know of Frank Cutler, the long-time coach at Platte-Geddes.  He’s part of the family, and grew up in Claremont.  Frank’s uncle Lyle was a great athlete in his day, and not just in football.  The 19-48 amateur baseball team representing Claremont—which might have been a town of 250 people then—qualified for the State Baseball Tournament.  Only four teams made it to state in those days; the other three that year were Mitchell, Sioux Falls and Rapid City.  After a first-round loss to Sioux Falls in the double-elimination tournament, Claremont played its way back to the championship game.  Cutler says the local team had to beat Sioux Falls in the final round to have any championship hopes.

According to Cutler, “We run outta pitchers and everything—they beat us by six or seven runs.  Anyway, at the conclusion of that tournament, they gave everyone on the champion team and the runner-up team a little baseball, signed by Babe Ruth.  Yeah—I can show you—and the night we got that little baseball was the night Babe Ruth died.” 

Lyle Cutler keeps his autographed ball in a glass case, surrounded by newspaper articles from the tournament.

Credit Gary Ellenbolt / South Dakota Public Broadcasting
South Dakota Public Broadcasting
A Babe Ruth-autographed baseball. Lyle Cutler received this in a baseball tournament the night Ruth died.

Cutler and his life-long friend, Bill James, are in Lyle’s dining room.  They’re sipping on coffee made by JoAnn Cutler, Lyle’s wife.  There’s a light rain falling, and it’s windy—and the coffee provides a nice warm-up.  So do the stories of the man who meant a good part of the world to these men, and hundreds of others who wore Claremont green—Coach Bill Welsh.

The men reflect, “He wasn’t real big—no, not astoundingly big; what was he, six foot tall?”  “I suppose.”  “And he probably weighed 220.”  “He was a—he had a good personality about him?  He was the kind of a man who got things done—there’s always them kinda guys around, ain’t there?”  “Yah.”  “Whatever he done, he tried to get it done right, I guess you’d say.”

There’s very little argument that that’s what Coach Welsh did.  He grew up in Illinois, and played on the same University of Illinois team as early football legend Red Grange.  Some had said Welsh was the next Red Grange.  But Welsh suffered a serious injury in college, which ended his playing career. 

There was another wound that defined Bill Welsh’s life—an internal wound that ultimately brought him to northeast South Dakota.  While living in Forest City, Iowa, his only son, Jean, whom the coach always called “Brother,” died in an accident.  He was five years old.  The oldest Welsh daughter, Jane Walsh Edwards, knows first-hand how deeply the death affected her father.

Credit Gary Ellenbolt / South Dakota Public Broadcasting
South Dakota Public Broadcasting
Jane Welsh Edwards

"Yes.  Definitely," she says.  It’s always been my belief that’s what made him the coach.  Although he was an excellent coach prior to that.  Every boy he coached after that was like a son.  And he coached them like he’d want a son to be coached.”

Many of the remaining members of those successful teams from Claremont gather at The Flame; a steakhouse in downtown Aberdeen.  The years show, but a few of them look like they could still play some ball.   One of the former Honkers, Marv Rasmussen, gave his working life to sports—he came out of Claremont, was a four-year starter in basketball at Northern State, and eventually ended up in the Northern Hall of Fame.  Rasmussen is grateful for the years of instruction Welsh shared.

Rasmussen says, “I was in a lot of trouble in grade school; and Coach Welsh had a special spot for me in his office—and over a period of time, he told me a lot of the right things.  His discipline was a lot different—it was always challenging you; it wasn’t, you know, ‘do it this way.’  I got to know Bill really well—and I think he took special interest in me, because our family was really poor, and he really took a nice interest in what I did.”

Marv Rasmussen went into teaching and coaching—he won a state basketball title at Alexandria High School in 19-63.  He played football in Claremont at a time when the Honkers were one of the area’s largest tourist attractions.

“There were times there’d be two-thousand, 25 hundred people there; and at a dollar a head—you know, Bill Welsh is making maybe a thousand dollars teaching and coaching, and they made 25 hundred dollars in the games; and he was scared to take the money home—he sent it five or six different ways, as Marc said in the book.”

Credit Gary Ellenbolt / South Dakota Public Broadcasting
South Dakota Public Broadcasting
Marv Rasmussen

“Marc” is Marv Rasmussen’s son—he has written a book on Coach Welsh and the Claremont Teams, known as “Six” after the Six-Man football played in Claremont and other very small towns.  His childhood was full of stories told by his father of the days as a Honker athlete.

“They were," Mark Rasmussen admits.  "I was never sure how much was true, but then I researched it and I realized it was true.”

Marc Rasmussen’s research on Bill Welsh revealed he was much more than a coach—he had a way of getting people to the games.

“One of the big things was—he was the ultimate PT Barnum.  He had found how to promote a sport, and I think it really paid off for him as he developed this winning team.”

One of the final games of every season came on what was called Armistice Day back then; every November 11th, Welsh would line up a game against one of the top Six-Man teams in the State.  The Honkers handled Montrose one year—another year, they traveled to Aberdeen to meet Faith; and the Longhorns were defeated, too.

Credit Gary Ellenbolt / South Dakota Public Broadcasting
South Dakota Public Broadcasting
Poster for Armistice Day football game in Claremont, SD. The Honkers defeated Montrose.

In those days, one man usually did all the coaching for a school; Welsh, of course, handled the basketball team and had several successful teams through the years.  Welsh also enlisted community help in building a brand new gymnasium for the school.  Claremont cheerleader Mary Lynn James, wife of former standout athlete Bill James, says the gymnasium was one of the finest in the area—even if it did cost the Honkers a huge home-court advantage of playing home games in the school cafeteria.

With a smile, James says, “What the opposing players did not know was that the Claremont players had a spot on the ceiling—and they marked it.  And that’s where they could shoot the ball, ‘cause it was a low ceiling--and bank it, and they’d make a basket every time.  And nobody could beat Claremont in the old gym—the old lunchroom, downstairs.”

Another nod to the showmanship of Coach Welsh was a tradition he established when the Honkers would come home from a win on the road.  After the bus unloaded, the coach would fire a rifle shot into the air, letting the town know of another Honkers win.  It’s another fond memory from daughter, Jane Welsh Edwards—especially the night things didn’t go as planned during the celebration.

“I was there—I was there!  I was really lucky because I grew up during the Claremont years, and I was a part of all that.  The night he shot the rifle and it went through the electric wires and we didn’t have any power in the school.  Yeah, I was there that night.”

If, as someone, believed to be Winston Churchill once said, “History is written by the victors,” the lessons come from the losses.  Bill Welsh only lost one football game at Claremont—a shut-out against Hecla late in the 19-53 season. That defeat ended the nation’s longest winning streak at 61 games.    Former Claremont player Owen Perkins, who left the area to sell insurance in Colorado, played in that game, and remembers the loss, and the time-out the coach called, very late in the game.

“And we had about 30 seconds or so—and he called a time out.  And in my mind, I’m thinking—why are we doing this?  We’re gonna lose this game.  But he called us all together and said ‘Fellas, now we’re losing this game—and we’re going over and congratulate them, and act like real gentlemen; because that’s what we are, and we can take the defeat," Perkins says.”

Outside the restaurant on a chilly Saturday night, the Claremont Honkers pose for a team photo.  They’ve spent the past few hours sharing a meal, and sharing stories of their days with Coach Welsh and the Claremont Honkers.  Many of the boys ended up farming in the area—a few more went off to see the world.  The Claremont district dissolved in 19-69—a few students went to Langford, some more to Britton-Hecla and a few more area schools.  Bill Welsh went to Montana and coached for a while—he retired in 19-70, and died ten years later.  He’s buried near Forest City, Iowa, next to his wife and the son he lost years before.  As Marc Rasmussen puts it in the final words of his book— “Brother had been alone in a strange place for a long time, and this final act fulfilled the vow Bill had made so many years earlier.”

For South Dakota Public Broadcasting, I’m Gary Ellenbolt in Claremont.

Credit Gary Ellenbolt / South Dakota Public Broadcasting
South Dakota Public Broadcasting
Former Claremont Honkers gather in Aberdeen to swap stories and honor their legendary coach, Bill Welch