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The St. Vincent Borderlines of 1928


Lost St. Vincent Memories


Prof. Michael Rustad

This little essay was inspired by reviewing some old clippings about the St. Vincent girls basketball team that appeared in the 1927-28 school yearbook that can be found in the Lake  Bronson-based Kittson County Museum.  St. Vincent is today nearly a ghost town. First, a little background. Mrs. Dick Lapp's little history of St. Vincent notes that the towns was the oldest city in Kittson County from the standpoint of settlement. Mrs. Lapp writes that the history dates back as far as 1857, when Minnesota was still a territory. A trading post on the village site had been named St. Vincent in honor of St. Vincent de Paul, founder of missions and hospitals in France. St. Vincent was built up as a town that serviced Fur Company XYZ (what an unimaginative name!). She notes the town was a byproduct or expansion by the Selkirk settlers that founded Pembina. St. Vincent had the reputation of being a rough and tumble town. Mrs Lapp writes:

"Ox-carts were the first means of travel in this area. Norman Kittson enveloped the ox-cart enterprise. Later steamboat traffic became important not only to the village but to settlement of the community. As early as 1862, railroad talk began. In Winnipeg, Donald Smith thought the Red River needed a lifeline to the east. He took his idea to Norman Kittson, the president of the steamboat line which held a monopoly on the river. Kittson referred the matter to his silent partner, James Hill. Hill had a dream of reviving the bankrupt railway at St. Paul and latched onto the idea immediately. In 1878, his dream was realized. He saw the first locomotive arrive in Emerson, Manitoba from St. Paul. It was the Great Northern Railway and later known as the Burlington Northern. The customs office and depot were in St. Vincent until 1905 when they were moved to the Canadian border at Noyes. In 1900, a roundhouse was built, James J. Hill backed the project. It was located by Lake Stella, east of St. Vincent. A turning table was included that was used to turn the trains around. Charles Gooding was the first depot agent. John McGlashen was the first man to take a carload of horses through from St. Cloud to Winnipeg. He also operated a saloon".

Mrs. Lapp notes how vibrant the town was by the turn of the century. The fur traders were prosperous and started the first stores. She writes further:

"The first bank was established in 1880 by J. H. Rich, E. L. Baker and F. B. Howe. It was later sold and closed. J. R. Ryan operated a livery and sales and William J. Mason opened a blacksmith's shop and also ran a wagon and carriage shop. The Firehall was built in 1903 by Edward Cameron and his three sons. It was on main street, east of the Red River bridge and housed fire engines run by steam. The Firehall was pushed over in 1972, the town hall demolished and a new hall built on original site of depot."

Mrs. Lapp notes that the first teacher in the St. Vincent School was none other than Eliza Moore. The first schools in the county were on or near this village. Lapp's sure-footed history records that it was "Eliza Moore, then age fifteen, taught all eight grades in a little one room school in the west end of town. She told stories in later years of the Indians riding their ponies around the schoolhouse and looking in the windows and frightening her and the pupils. The present school was built in 1903. It was a square two-story white frame building and originally housed all the grades from one through twelve."

Eliza Moore continued to teach in St. Vincent when I was a student in the 1950s and 1960s. I thought of her as an Ancient Mariner or School marm. Mrs. Lapp gives her great credit for the development of the school in St. Vincent.  In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Prof. Moore was a big part of the St. Vincent school. Other St. Vincent teachers from my day included Maribel Berg, Velma Isley and now my memory so many decades later becomes fuzzy. I think Simeon Cameron was the school cook.   Mrs. Lapp's well written account notes:

"The earliest newspaper of the county was started here and was called the "St. Vincent Herald". It was the official newspaper of the county at that time. St. Vincent had a fair each year, called the Kittson County Agricultural Society, that title being changed later to Union Industrial Society in 1884.

At one time the population was about five hundred in spite of the floods of the Red River. The flood of 1897 almost wiped out the village. It was rebuilt on the present site in spite of James J. Hill, the railroad tycoon, offering to finance the moving of the entire village to the Junction of Highways #75 and #171, also known as the "Y". The floods of 1948 and 1950 were probably a determining factor in bringing St. Vincent to the present condition. About the greatest loss was the railroad. The railroad company would not rebuild here and set up the depot at the "Y".

Now, let's fast forward to 1928. The town of St. Vincent in its heyday had a hotel called the Northern Hotel. It also had saloons, stores, a jail, fire station, curling rink, etc. However, the jewel in the crown was the St. Vincent School.  The School field both boys and girls teams for basketball, track. tennis and baseball. I think that the social history of girls' sports is largely a lost memory. I want all of the readers to think of the St. Vincent described by Mrs. Dick Lapp. There was a vibrancy. It was 1928 only a year before the Great Depression was to cause the citizens of St. Vincent great economic and personal turmoil. The Great Depression which was to begin in 1929 decimated St. Vincent. However, in 1928 there was no indication of things to come.  The school was the center of town life.

The St. Vincent (Borderlines) had a strong basketball team consisting of Mamie Cleem, Isabel Fitzpatrick, Lelia Davis, Fidessa Wilkie and Alberta Fitzpatrick. The Girls' Basketball Team of 1927 is pictured during the first game of the season. The first game for the girls was held on December 4, 1927. I found the school yearbook to be amusing. Isabel is pictured as tall and lean and quite attractive in a picture taken during the first game of the year. In the back row, there is yet another Fitzpatrick named Fern. The name is alternatively spelled Fern or Ferne. Ferne was the starting Left Forward on the team and had the nickname of Coon. Isabelle was known as Issy or at least that's what her teammates called her. Issy was apparently the team's star ball handler and dribbler and played at the right guard position. What's so puzzling to me is that there appear to be 6 players on the starting lineup for girl's basketball. Issy was at the Right Guard position Fidessa Wilkie or Fido was at the Center Guard and Verlie Cameron or Plug was at the Left Guard. The nicknames for the girls were not exactly comely or femine names. I was impressed their apparent fitness and competitiveness. Every girl had a nickname. The Center Forward, Mamie Cleem, was nicknamed "Slivers" There was Coon (Ferne) at the Right Forward position and Lelia Davis or Lee at the Left Forward. Isabelle or Issy played Right Guard. Fido was at the left guard. They were spelled by substitutes Verlie Cameron (Pug), Violet "Cutie" Cleem and Mae (O'Leary) Gamble. Eileen Twamley also played on the team. I assume she was the sister of Merle Twamley who was the patriarch of the large Twamley family we knew growing up in Humboldt, St. Vincent.

The other sports stories about the girls basketball team of 1928 mentions the injuries the girls sustained and how they played the game. Isabelle, for example, jammed two finger, and was hurt in the game with Stephen. St. Vincent beat Stephen 21 to 16. Issy continued to play despite having sprained fingers. She was not the only girl to be injured. Coon's leg was twisted and the game delayed. She limped through the end of the quarater and could not continue. She was replaced by "Cutie" Cleem. In that game, Mamie "Slivers" Cleem was the superstar scoring 12 of the 16 points and playing like a champ. St. Vincent beat Stephen! I don't ever remember Humboldt-St. Vincent beating Stephen. St. Vincent beat Stephen at the game held in St. Vincent. Does anyone remember where the games were played? I think that the Boy's Teams were played in Pembina. It may be that the games were played at Pembina's gym. St. Vincent played Pembina February 8, 1928. The Game ended in a 10 to 10 tie. In the Stephen game, St. Vincent's star players missed key free throws while Stephen made their shots. St. Vincent took the win because of their better outside shooting. In the Pembina game, the game game had a number of hard fouls against the St. Vincent girls. Issy Fitzpatrick had a key personal foul levied against her. A technical foul was called on Fido Wilkie. Slivers was hurt in a hard foul and knocked against the back wall and then to the floor. There were officiating disputes in all of the girls' games or there was a hyperactive imagination on the part of the St. Vincent sports writers. In the return game with Stephen at Stephen held on January 20, 1928, the St. Vincent team made baskets that were not counted. The home town (Stephen tilted) referree ruled that when Slivers made a basket, it did not count. When Coach Dick Lapp objected, he was told that the basket did not count because of interference. Lapp retorted, "Interference, YES, BECAUSE ST. VINCENT MADE THE BASKET.

The third quarter of the Stephen game ended in a 14 to 14 tie. In the fourth quarter, a St. Vincent player named Mae Gambel or O'Leary went into the game replacing Issy Fitzpatrick. That substitute was not a wise choice as then Stephen made four baskets and St. Vincent only two to round off the game which ended "18 to 22, in Stephen's favor." In the Pembina game, Cutie Cleem substituted for Coon. Apparently, the ref called a foul on Cutie for chating with someone on the team so a technical foul was called.

I was wondering whether anyone knows additional facts about any of these colorful girl sports heroes from the late 1920s. St. Vincent was a great sports town with a full array of girls sports during the 1920s: basketball, tennis, softball or kitten ball etc.