A Look Back in Iowa

Back In 1940, the NHPA produced a booklet "Horseshoe Pitching Compendium." The book is now one of the few resources for our sport's history. While I was writing the 'Focus on Promotion' articles, with most issues I had reprinted excerpts from that book. That is except for the state of Iowa. Not that there wasn't any horseshoe pitching history, just the opposite. It was a case that the article available was just too long to include in the series. The article is even too long to reprint for this series, if put into one issue. But it is such a fascinating article, it needs to be part of this series, so we will just print it up over the next three issues. This article was written by Leland Mortenson, a Hall of Fame member, and he did a delightful job. Not only is the sport's history in the state of Iowa covered well, but stories of the personalities of so many of the game's major stars. What is so extraordinary, is to have this first hand accounting of all that had taken place. Today, there would be no way possible to ever recapture most of this information, no matter how skilled the researcher may be. Leland's article is the greatest illustration of the word - folklore.

As horseshoe pitching jumped into the national sports limelight in the early 1920's, Iowa was right at the top of the list with Ohio for having super stars of the sport. Mortenson has done a marvelous job in telling us about the early-days. In this first section, you again see the match between C.C. Davis and Frank Jackson mentioned. This is the same challenge match that was mentioned in last month's article. Now we will learn a bit more about that match, especially what was behind the 41' stakes. Still no report of what happened to the side bet though. And so, here is part I.

By Leland Mortenson

It is a pleasure to write this history of Iowa in horseshoes for the NHPA. This shall be a history of the game in Iowa and shall touch upon the national scene when Iowans have had connection with it.

So far as we are able to learn, the horseshoe game was with America before Iowa became a state. Perhaps it was adopted here after the arrival of blacksmith shops with their large number of cast-off horseshoes.

The game, once it began in Iowa didn't change much until the twenties. The courts varied in length from 30 feet to 55 feet; the stakes were generally rusty, easily bent pipes, three inches high, or perhaps three feet; maybe bent and leaning in any direction. The earth around the stake was generally at least two feet deep and as hard as a brick. The players generally competed in two-man teams, tossing castoff shoes of different size and weights. For the most part the men were old. Games were of 21 point duration, five points for a ringer, three for a leaner, ten for a ringer covering an opponent's ringer, and twenty for a double ringer upon an opponent's double ringer.

No official champions existed. About the only honor to be gained from being an expert was to be a most desired partner. The only prizes ever won were such items as a keg of beer or something of similar or less value, offered at an occasional picnic, and the man who won was generally he who was fortunate in having the largest and heaviest shoes, for these would slide the best and bounce the least.

In 1909, the promoter of a colt show somewhere in Kansas, conceived the idea of staging a world's championship horseshoe pitching tournament in connection with the show. An Iowa farmer, Frank E. Jackson, of Kellerton, won the title and a championship belt.

Jackson in 1909, was 39 years old, and he had been tossing cast-off horseshoe since a boy. His method was like all others, to spin the shoe with one finger and pray for an open shoe. At that time he was fortunate if he could hook 20 per cent ringers. Jackson claims to have kept his title until 1919, and that he gradually improved and finally regulated his shoe to turn 1 ¾ times.

In 1920, Jackson induced the Iowa State Fair Board to put some cash prizes for a two-man team tournament. This competition was held in front of the race track and Jackson and his oldest son Carrol, won first prize. The contest was changed to singles competition in 1921 and Jackson won the 'bacon'.

The two state tournament had been successful enough in drawing entries and in entertaining the State Fair visitors that the Fair Board made a successful bid in 1922 for both World and State Tournaments. Frank Jackson held both titles, and he was an overwhelming favorite to defeat all rivals. For these tournaments new courts were installed directly north of the brick horse barn. A small section of bleachers were set up, but there was no fence to keep spectators from getting too near the pitchers. Model T Ford axles were used as stakes.

Frank Jackson was considered to be so skillful that he was barred from the State tournament but a $50 prize was set aside for a two-of-three contest between the winner of the tournament and Jackson for the Iowa championship.

A newcomer to the State Fair was a rather thick-lipped 20-year-old shabbily dressed boy from New London, Iowa. His name was Frank Lundin. He never said much, just pitched. And with and with ever pitch he bit his lips, so that while he was in a game it was a common sight to see his lips bleeding.

The state meet was held before the national, and Lundin easily won. He was said to be absolutely nerveless. After disposing of his rivals, Lundin cracked Frank Jackson in two straight games, 50-13, 50-17, averaging 61 per cent ringers and starting the first game with seven consecutive double ringers. Sixty one per cent would be poorly today, but Lundin was using horseshoes, although made especially for pitching, were greatly inferior to the best of today.

C.C. Davis, a very famous pitcher, then from Ohio, saw Lundin defeat Jackson for the state title, and said something to this effect, "We'll take him in the National." But Davis became a Lundin victim, 50-12.

By the way, I rank Lundin's state championship 1922 victory over Jackson as one of the three outstanding games in Iowa history for suspense and surprise. When the old-timers get together now it is the game they like most to talk about. The people in new London were so proud of Lundin that they erected a huge sign beside the road leading into town. It read, "This is the home of Frank Lundin, World's Champion Horseshoe Pitcher."

In the 1922 National Meet Lundin did lose one game to Lyle Brown, then 17 years old, and from Des Moines 50-48. The Lundin boosters claim that Lundin threw the game in order to put Brown into third place, but this can be discounted. Brown led 49-48 and threw a ringer and a close shoe. Lundin topped with a double which should have won the game, but his second shoes hopped off away, giving Brown the point he needed.

Frank Jackson lost two games to Lundin and to his second oldest son, Hansford. If Hansford had lost to his father then there would have been a tie between Jackson and Lundin for the championship. This single instance is pretty good proof that the Jackson's didn't practice game-throwing to much extent, if any.

It may be stated that by this time National rules about the same as those today existed.

An Iowa Horseshoe Pitchers Association was organized that year and Dr. J.H. Becker of Des Moines was elected secretary and treasurer. Becker held his association together until 1927, when he withdrew. However, Becker never called for any more conventions, but collected dues. The money was used for tournament prizes. This was not a case of dishonesty, but simple a matter of keeping oneself at the head of an organization by not calling a meeting. The other officers were not interested enough to argue with Becker about the matter.

Lundin and Jackson went to Florida early in 1923, where a 15 year-old boy from Ohio, Harold Falor, copped Lundin's title. Lundin's friends say this tournament was a joke, that sand was placed around the stake instead of clay; that Falor had practiced for a month to slide his shoe to the stake which he learned quite well, and that the other threw their ringers directly on, only to have them bounce off. I don't know whether this is true or not. However, most Iowa's remember Lundin lost his title, They think he retired undefeated except for the game they think he threw to Brown.

Why did Lundin retired from horseshoes? The answer is that he lost his fine touch of one of his finger nerves. He is not crippled today, but just simply can't regulate the turn of the shoe.

A popular fable about Lundin is that he never injured a nerve, but that some gamblers bought him off for a period of years, that he pitches about 100 per cent in secret daily practice, and that he will be back at the fair when his time expires. Believe it or not, I have heard that tale over 200 times from different sources in the past ten years.

The only significance of this fable is that Lundin is No. 1 in the hearts and memories of the older Iowa fans.

It was shortly before Lundin retired that a Des Moines man whose name is now forgotten, promoted some matches at the fair grounds. In one of these Lundin beat Jackson six straight games, and in another, C.C. Davis vs., Jackson an amusing incident occurred.

Davis and Jackson had put up a side bet and there was a small sum of gate receipts to be divided. Jackson's shoes continually fell short of the stake, but Davis shot a rich ringer percentage. Immediately after the game, Jackson measured the court and found the stakes to be 41 feet apart. Why 41 instead of 40? Tom Fogarty, of Des Moines, and long associated with horseshoe pitching, says that Jackson's friends claimed that Davis had purposely practiced on 41 foot courts and that the night before the match Davis or some of his friends went to the fair grounds and moved the stakes.

At any rate, Fogarty says, the promoter couldn't get anything settled; that Mr. Corey, of the Fair Board, was called to make the decision, which he promptly did by tossing the funds into the school fund.

To be continued...