A Different Type of Football: Gem City Business College
We tend to think of college football in terms of the Power Five teams that dominate play at the highest level, so it is easy to think of those schools as defining football's past. As described in an earlier post about schools that dropped football, however, a wide range of schools once played the game and each has its place in the history of college football. One school that battled on the gridiron more than a century ago was the Gem City Business College of Quincy, Illinois.
Situated on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River at the point Illinois bulges farthest west, Quincy was an early transportation hub, particularly after a railroad bridge crossed the river north of town in 1868. Such was Quincy's growth that the 1870 Census showed it to be Illinois' second-most-populous city. The same year saw the founding of Gem City Business College.
Gem City Business College reflected America's move from an agricultural to industrial economy, as people moved from farms to cities large and small. The typical American college and university of the time focused on studying Latin, Greek, mathematics, and other liberal arts. However, the Morrill Act of 1862 advanced agricultural and mechanical research and education by creating the land grant universities, many of which grew into large universities, populating the Power 5 football conferences today.
Analogously, commercial colleges like Gem City taught practical business skills such as bookkeeping, penmanship, and shorthand. Teaching penmanship and shorthand at the college level may seem odd today, but the world did not yet have mechanical means of recording the spoken word or creating correspondence, short of typesetting. Like today, the business race went to the swift, including those able to pump out reams of correspondence in precise penmanship. Business-focused penmanship was efficient; a clerk who wrote ten letters per hour was more valuable than one producing eight. Schools teaching efficient business methods had value as well, and as more efficient shorthand methods came along, Gem City was at the forefront of popularizing them in the Midwest.
The march of technology changed Gem City as "type writers" evolved into efficient business machines, and attitudes changed, so typed correspondence became an acceptable replacement for hand-penned letters. Gem City included typewriting in its curriculum, as shown in the 1892 advertisement below.
Gem City grew, and by 1892 welcomed students into the new, five-story Musselman Building in downtown Quincy. Who needed a leafy, rural campus when the business of business occurred in city centers?
Like most schools of the time, Gem City developed athletic teams to attract and entertain students while bringing visibility to the school. Newspaper reports of the time are incomplete, but the school fielded a football team in 1891, then took a few years off before playing consistently from 1896 until shortly before WWI. Their opponents included the many small colleges that popped up in the Midwest in the last half of the 1800s. Like Gem City, many no longer exist, were absorbed, or no longer play football.
Gem City traveled north to face Keokuk Medical College, south to St. Louis to take on Christian Brothers College, east to Jacksonville to meet Illinois College, and to points as far west as Chillicothe, Missouri, to take on Chillicothe Normal School. Of the four opponents mentioned, only Illinois College remains in operation. Numerous other colleges, clubs, and high schools appeared on the schedule over the years. Some, like Christian University, continues as Culver-Stockton, Macomb Normal morphed into Western Illinois, and St. Louis University is still SLU. Carthage College, which once had Abraham Lincoln on its board, relocated several times in Illinois before heading north to Wisconsin. Finally, the American School of Osteopathy (ASO), the first osteopathic school in the U.S., is now A. T. Still University.
Those schools played what was considered minor football, though some dot the historical records of today's major colleges. In 1901, for example, ASO hosted and lost to Nebraska 5-0 one week before the bone setters beat Missouri in Columbia 22-5. Gem City never played at quite that level. Its membership in the minor college football world is encapsulated in a sentence in The Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune article describing the upcoming game between GCBC and Chillicothe Normal in 1907: "The game will be played in the McWilliams' pasture west of the hospital, and will be called at three o'clock." Gem City often played .500 ball; their top seasons came after the forward pass became legal. At least one Quincy coach was a protege of St. Louis University's Eddie Cochems, whose 1906 St. Louis U team pioneered the use of the overhand spiral in passing the football.
Gem City promoted itself with postcards of the football team, also capitalizing on the national craze of mailing postcards to friends near and far.
Their best teams came under the direction of John A. Hall, who emigrated from Sweden as a child, served with the 39th Volunteer Infantry Regiment in the Philippines in 1899, and then became a sportswriter, minor league baseball statistician, wrestling promoter, and football coach. His GCBC teams of 1910 and 1911 went undefeated, particularly impressive because the business college graduated most students, including football players, in less than one year. His 1911 squad did not return any veterans but may have been the school's most impressive. At a time most teams aligned in the traditional T formation, GCBC used unconventional formations and a steady stream of misdirection to confuse opponents. Their 16-0 defeat of Carthage appears forgettable until one learns the game ended after 23 minutes due to a storm pelted the field with walnut-sized hail. Given the leather head harnesses of the time, it made sense to take cover.
The 1912 season was more forgettable, "capped" by a walloping by Christian Brothers College of St. Louis. Gem City was late arriving for the game due to a train wreck en route. Knowing they were late, the GCBC boys dressed on the train and shuttled to the game by auto, but did not organize which players took which car, so the first eleven to arrive took the field regardless of their ability or position. Football rules at the time allowed team captains to agree to shorten the game as darkness loomed and, in this case, they agreed to play seven-minute quarters. After CBC scored 34 points in the first fourteen minutes, the game was cut short due to darkness and futility.
As the decade marched on, vocational business studies increasingly became the province of women rather than men, reducing the pool of football players. GCBC dropped football by 1916, citing time away from studies as the primary factor. Still, GCBC sent basketball teams onto the court for many years after dropping football.
GCBC provided business education through the 1950s, taking a strategic turn in 1961 by purchasing the Horology Department (i.e., watch and clock making) of Bradley University. That move coincided with shortening the school name to Gem City College. Since acquiring a local beauty school in 1975, GCC has offered diplomas in both programs, but its days of football glory are long gone. Had society, the school, or football evolved differently, GCBC might have retained a spot in the sporting world, but that did not happen and their few moments of football glory are now largely forgotten.
Full disclosure: My lovely wife had the good fortune to grow up in Quincy. As a football history geek, I came across GCBC football team postcards over the years and finally decided to investigate what it was all about. Now you know the story as well.
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