East Texas Tales: Remembering The History Of Jacksonville's Tomato Bowl
By KELLY GOOCH
JACKSONVILLE -- For seventy years, the Tomato Bowl has housed home football games for the Jacksonville High School Fightin' Indians.
The stadium has endured multiple face lifts over the years to modernize the field house, stands, playing field and lighting.
But alumni and community members said the structural integrity has remained intact from one decade to the next, which is one of the many reasons why the stadium is so special.
"It's one of the historical landmarks," said Cathy Smith, information coordinator for the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce. "You mention the bowl to anyone who's lived here or visited here (and) it's just a symbol of tradition. Whether it be soccer, football, cheerleading or band, they've all had memories in the Tomato Bowl."
Those memories and seven decades of "rock solid" tradition will be celebrated from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday in the Norman Activity Center west parking lot, 526 E. Commerce St., prior to the game against John Tyler High School.
During the celebration, memorabilia will be on display and attendees will have a time to catch up with each other.
Ms. Smith said the event also will feature several speakers, including Superintendent Dr. Joe Wardell and former Jacksonville High School coach Danny Long, who is now director of athletics in Tyler ISD.
There are "relationships that you acquire, whether it be with teachers or classmates," she said. "There's just a camaraderie when they come together as a community to cheer on their classmates, hopefully in victory. This is a time to reminisce on those friendships."
The Tomato Bowl sits on the site of the original East Side school.
According to a document from the Cherokee County Historical Commission, school officials authorized a Dallas architect to draw plans for a field to be constructed on the hilltop site on East Commerce Street, "if and when" the site was available for that use.
Jacksonville ISD school board members, including W.H. Brown; Charles F. Adams; W.E. Stone; W.W. Holman; Carl Williams; Carlton Odom; and Leonard Hugghins, authorized an application to the Federal Works Progress Administration for financial assistance, which was approved in Aug. 1939, the document states.
Work on the stadium began in 1940 after bonds totaling $20,000 were issued.
According to the historical commission, workers reshaped the hillside so they could put seats on what was going to be the west side of the field, where there was also going to be a track.
Soil was shaped into windows thanks to gasoline-powered graders. However, because there weren't modern front-end loaders, workmen heaved the soil onto trucks so it could be taken other places on the job site, according to the historical commission. Dirt work progressed and bleachers were eventually installed.
Additionally, work included constructing a two-story field house on the old school's foundation; concession facilities; observation decks; two large pressrooms for newspaper sports writers; dressing rooms; and equipment rooms.
On the exterior, red iron ore rocks from area farms were cemented, according to the historical commission.
James Spivey's father, Delbert Spivey, was the time-keeper when the Tomato Bowl was being built.
Spivey was a first grader at the time, but he still vividly remembers his late father's work.
"He would keep time for the men," Spivey said. "Some were common laborers (and) some were carpenters. They were semi-skilled and common labor hoisted rocks."
He added, "The Tomato Bowl was the landmark for the ages. It was just phenomenal how they built that. I don't know how they got those big rocks up there but they did."
He also recalled that when workers heard the phrase "water jack," it meant a man would bring them water.
After months of work, the first athletic event at the stadium took place on Sept. 27, 1940 without a completed main entrance. The Fightin' Indians played the Dallas Tech Wolves that day. The Tomato Bowl is not only used for athletic events, but also for events such as graduations, concerts and festivals.
In the many years that have passed since that first game, spectators and athletes have made their own memories.
Spivey said his greatest memory is running in the last Tomato Bowl track meet.
"I remember it being the Jacksonville Tomato Bowl Track Meet and schools from as far as Dallas came, and in 1950, (I), James Spivey, got to run in the mile run," he said.
Spivey, who was later a football coach in JISD, also recalled taking his 7
grade team to home games at the Tomato Bowl.
"The Tomato Bowl is so dear to me because of those memories," he said. "I got to run there in track and I got to take my boys for seven years and play home games. We won most of them and we lost a few."
Vernell Alexander played football and basketball for Fred Douglass High School, which was the black school in Jacksonville at the time.
He said he was a decent quarterback but could only play non-district games his senior year because he turned 18 before the school year started.
Alexander said the stadium means a lot to him because it brought about many assets.
For example, he said, he and a Jacksonville High School player had a paper route back then, and they would fold papers together near the Tomato Bowl before going their separate ways.
One thing he didn't like, though, was the drainage problem in the north end zone.
"When it rained before a game Friday night, water would always collect in the northwest end zone," Alexander said. "Anytime you went for a touchdown in that end zone, you would almost have to swim."
Jacksonville High School counselor Jan Lewis, who was a drum major in the 1970s, said the Tomato Bowl is special to her because it's "such a place of tradition."
"All the students and athletes who went before me (had traditions)," she said. "I respected that and all those traditions were passed down to me."
One of the stadium's traditions is the totem pole, which her father-in-law helped build.
After every home win, the team goes to the front of the totem pole for the lighting of the blue light. The lights then stay on all weekend.
Matt Montgomery, who has announced Jacksonville football games for 29 years on 97.7 FM, said not a lot has changed since the 1970s.
"We still do the 'Flaming J' … (and) we still have a grass field that we maintain meticulously," he said.
Another tradition that can be expected at games, he said, is train conductors blowing horns.
He said there is also loud war hymn music when the visiting team pulls up, and it continues while they warm up.
Pat McCown has been watching games in the Tomato Bowl since he was a child. He and his high school sweetheart, Robin, have four children, two of whom have played in the National Football League.
He said he believes the Tomato Bowl is unique because of the rock wall that surrounds it.
"I'm real proud of our Tomato Bowl …," he said. "I hope we keep it an antique. There's just something to be said about that."
While former Jacksonville students and athletes have fond memories of the stadium, so do current students.
Jacksonville High School senior football player Tanner Chancey said his cousin played at the Tomato Bowl, and he grew up thinking about the day when he would play there.
"You just want to go out there and make the town proud and do as good as you can," he said. "A lot of great players went to the Tomato Bowl. A bunch of former players will probably come back (for the celebration Friday). You want to go and make those people proud, those who came before you."
Senior football player Cody Bolton said he also appreciates the stadium's history,
"We've had a lot of people come speak to us, (including) former players …," he said. "It brings a whole new sense of pride. It's amazing to step off onto the field and realize you're not just in a stadium … (The Tomato Bowl is) history. … As a player there's no better feeling than to come out with that many fans in one of the oldest stadiums in Texas."
He added, "It's still just a great feeling to be on that field. Nothing ever changes."