By Tom Archdeacon
Dayton Daily News (Ohio)
December 24, 1995
This is the story of a fabled football team that lost its trademark bark, the story of an Ohio town that lost its NFL team.
It’s about a place where football once was king – where the helmeted players were held in awe by the townsfolk, the team was known across the land … and the dog bones never were in short supply.
Is this the story of Cleveland, its much-loved Browns and the last days of the Dawg Pound?
This is a tale where the dogs really do have tails. It’s the story of little LaRue, Ohio – once the home of the most colorful franchise the NFL ever has known – and how, just as quickly, pro football passed it by.
Soon Cleveland could follow suit.
After today’s season-ending game with Jacksonville, the Cleveland Browns are scheduled to pack their bags and move to Baltimore, where – unless the courts or the league intervenes – they will play next season.
And what will happen to Cleveland? Maybe there are lessons to be learned in LaRue. That leads us to Jim Anderson, a LaRue historian, sports collector and longtime Browns fan.
The Market Street home he shares with his wife, Beverly, is a shrine to the NFL clubs of LaRue and Cleveland. Every shelf, wall, tabletop and open floor space in two downstairs rooms – as well as upstairs and in a barn out back – is crammed with memorabilia.
”It may take a while in Cleveland, but one day you may hear people saying, ‘Yeah, we used to have a heck of a team, four-times world champs, had guys like Otto Graham, Jim Brown, Brian Sipe and Bernie Kosar.’ But the more you listen, the more you’ll hear it in their voices and see it in their eyes. It just won’t be the same. Once the team’s gone, the spirit’s gone. The past fades. And after a while they don’t talk about it as much. That’s what happened here.”
LaRue was and still is a small, one-stoplight town in central Ohio – population 802 – that sits 14 miles west of Marion along the Scioto River at the very end of Ohio 95. It has one restaurant, one bar, one bank and one bragging right from the past.
As you come into town, you notice the small metal sign mounted along the roadside – a silent sentry to glory days long gone. It proclaims:
Former Home of Jim Thorpe
1922 NFL 1923
Thorpe – the star of the 1912 Olympics, the man voted in 1950 by The Associated Press to be the greatest male athlete of the first half of the century – was playing pro football for the Cleveland Indians and serving as president of the newly formed National Football Association (soon to be the NFL) when he hooked up with Walter Lingo, a back roads P.T. Barnum, who was LaRue’s most successful businessman.
Lingo ran the Oorang Kennels, then the largest Airedale business – complete with mail-order shipments and health care products – in the world.
In its heyday, the kennels shipped out 15,000 dogs a year. President Warren G. Harding had an Oorang Airedale, as did movie star Gary Cooper, baseball greats Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, and heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey, who made a big hit in LaRue the day he handed out shiny silver dollars to the kids.
Lingo was a quintessential hustler, showman and dreamer, who often brought celebrities into LaRue so they could hunt with his dogs. That brought the newsreel crews, big city reporters and gossip columnists.
Thorpe and Lingo became fast friends and in 1921, the pair hatched a promotional scheme that would put LaRue – and the kennels – on the map. At the 1922 NFL owners meetings, Lingo purchased the rights to a professional franchise for $100, just one-fifth the price of one of his fully trained dogs. More amazing was the fact that LaRue didn’t even have a football field.
For $500 a week, Lingo made Thorpe the manager of his kennel and the coach of his team – which, they decided, would be made up totally of Indians. The two men then scoured the country for Thorpe’s former teammates at Carlisle (Pa.) Institute, as well as other Indians with college and pro experience.
The team would be called the Oorang Indians and Thorpe managed to recruit 17 players – including Joe Guyon and Pete Calac, both of whom had once starred with him on the powerful Canton Bulldogs pro team. Guyon, like Thorpe, would later be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
While many of the players – some of whom used Indian names like Long Time Sleep, Wrinklemeat, Bear Behind, Xavier Downwind, Baptist Thunder and Laughing Gas – moved into a clubhouse on the edge of town, Thorpe and his family stayed at the Coon Paw Inn downtown and rode around LaRue in a new Pierce Arrow.
The town, Anderson said, was divided over the Indians: ”Some were fascinated by the newcomers and wanted to meet them, others got caught up in prejudices and wanted them gone.”
Bob Whitman, a Clermont County school administrator, grew up in LaRue and 11 years ago wrote a small, engrossing book called Jim Thorpe and the Oorang Indians. In it he told how the team practiced every afternoon, then in the evening, they trained some of Lingo’s top dogs by taking them on coon-hunting forays into the surrounding woods.
Writer Lewis Beyer once visited an Oorang practice, which he described as:
”Warwhoops, college yells, hound dog howls, Airedale yips, coyote yowls and bear growls are resounding through the woods outside of LaRue … The place sounds like a circus.”
At times – especially halftime of the games – it was a circus. Since the team was a promotional tool for Lingo, most games during the Oorang’s two years of existence were on the road.
In 1922, the NFL had 18 teams – from the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Blues to five Ohio teams, including the Dayton Triangles.
At halftime of Oorang games, Lingo had his players change into Indian garb and put on a show with the Airedales. Along with chasing bears and treeing coons, the players put on tomahawk throwing and rifle shooting exhibitions, did Indian dances and re-enacted battle scenes from the first World War.
”By the time they changed back to football gear for the second half, they were exhausted,” Anderson said.
The Oorang Indians’ first game was played in Dayton at Triangle Park. More than 5,000 people paid $1.75 a ticket to see the Dayton Triangles clobber the LaRue team, 36-0.
Although Thorpe didn’t play in that game or the next – a 20-6 victory over the Columbus Panhandles in Marion – he did put on a kicking exhibition before the second game, accurately drop kicking the ball from 50 yards and punting 65 yards in the air.
Although the team finished the season 4-7, Lingo, now a millionaire, was more than pleased. His kennels were booming, so was the town – farmers were paid to raise the Oorang mothers until they had pups, the lumber mill boomed because wood crates were used to ship the dogs, the train stopped in town daily to pick up its barking cargo. Benefiting most was the fledgling NFL.
”In those days, the NFL didn’t have a lot of credibility,” Whitman once said. ”It was little more than glorified sandlot ball and college players changed their names so as not to taint their reputations.
”But with the Oorang Indians, the league suddenly got publicity in every town. And Jim Thorpe was the catalyst. He brought acceptance much quicker. He was to pro football what Arnold Palner was to golf.”
Prior to the 1923 season, the Indians lost several key players and with lesser replacements, went just 2-10. After the year, the franchise – much to the dismay of the league – was disbanded. Nearly all of the players moved out of LaRue, though Thorpe and Calac married local girls.
Thorpe, injured much of his time in LaRue, played pro ball for five more seasons. Calac became a Canton cop, Leon Boutwell, the editor and publisher of The Mechanicsburg Daily Telegram and Nick ”Long Time Sleep” Lassa lived for several years in LaRue doing odd jobs.
Lingo’s kennel business was nearly wiped out in the Depression, although it later was revived it in a scaled-down fashion and kept going until Lingo’s death in 1969. His aging widow, Beryl, still lives in LaRue, though she rarely holds court on the past.
”These days,” said the 49-year-old Anderson, ”the Lingo empire is all but gone.”
While the burned hull of the abandoned Coon Paw Inn still stands downtown, the Lingo kennels are gone, as is the old dry-goods store, which – until giving way to a parking lot – proudly displayed the Lingo name.
Besides Whitman’s book, Anderson’s collection and a few surviving tales – like the day Lingo’s Mexican black bear broke loose and rushed down main street, sending townsfolk up telephone poles and leaving one guy clinging to the roof of the filling station – the Oorang past is mostly mothballed.
The one exception is the Oorang Bang, a two-day festival in June that began in the 1970s and is highlighted by an annual parade.
In the early years, the parade was led by a pair of Airedales, but Anderson admits, ”A lot of people were whispering, ‘What the heck do those dogs have to do with this anyway?’ That’s how little they remembered.”
While the dogs are still part of the parade, Anderson admitted they no longer lead it. ”We had to change that,” he said with a grin. ”Dogs being dogs, they used to do their business in the street and the rest of the parade had to watch its step.”
As he talked, you wondered if someday it would be the same for the Browns. Some day, when the talk turns to the Dawgs, will people be thinking about the bottom of their shoes . . . and not their grand old ball club?
Copyright 1995 The Dayton Daily News
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