From the 1998 MHSAA Football Finals Program

In the early years of high school football in Michigan, the game enjoyed immense popularity as local heroes pursued mythical state championships before enthusiastic crowds.
From the beginning of the sport in the late 1800s through the 1920s, prep football took center stage on Saturday afternoons in Michigan, and even drew crowds for annual Thanksgiving Day contests. High school football in that era was the ticket for fall sports entertainment, as regional rivalries and traditional showdowns developed.
However, the college game was growing quickly. Schools like the University of Michigan and Notre Dame, with large new stadiums, competed with high schools for fans. In addition, the Depression years were hard on sporting event attendance at high schools across the state. School officials began searching for new ways to draw the people back to the game as crowds began to dwindle.
Beginning in the early 1930s, a number of high schools began to change their schedules, shifting their games to Friday afternoons. At parochial schools, Sunday afternoon contests were quite common. Then, a handful of schools in the state began to install artificial lights, and games slowly made the move to Friday nights. The novelty of football "under the floodlights" had the desired effect, as large crowds gathered to watch their local squads compete once again.
The lighting of high school gridirons continues today, and with much the same controversies and successes. After a successful test with portable lights during the 1997 season, Dearborn Community Schools added permanent lights at Dearborn, Edsel Ford and Fordson this year. The schools joined the fray at a cost of more than $350,000. A year ago, Livonia Franklin and the Grosse Pointe schools installed lights amid pockets of resistance from various members of the community. Next season, Farmington Hills Harrison will add lights to its facility.
But, which high school was the first to play under the lights? The answer to that question has been lost in time, but the pursuit of an answer continues.
The Des Moines (Iowa) Demons of the now defunct Class A Western League became the first baseball team in America to host a game under permanent lights, defeating the Wichita Aeros, 13-6, on May 2, 1930.
A little over four months later in Michigan, the Vikings of Jackson High School hosted St. Johns in one of the state's first gridiron contests under the lights. On Thursday, Sept. 18, more than 1,000 fans showed up for the Vikings' team practice session and a final test of the 58,000-watt lighting equipment that had been installed at Withington Stadium. The following night, approximately 4,500 attended as Jackson rolled to a 26-0 victory behind the running of Charlie Brown and Don Vaughn. The crowd was double that of the 1929 home opener.
A host of dignitaries, including Mayor Milo Hulliberger, Superintendent Harold Steele, and Ralph Carolyn of Consumers Power were on hand for the dedication ceremony. Harry Waha of the Junior Chamber of Commerce--the organization responsible for the purchase of the lights--was also in attendance.
That same evening in Lansing, the Big Reds of Lansing Central downed East Lansing, 20-0, under 16 huge floodlights at Pattengill Field. An estimated crowd of 7,000 showed up for the town's first-ever night contest. On Saturday night, Lansing Eastern and Albion battled to a 7-7 tie before approximately 5,000 in the city's second nocturnal game.
The success at the gate inspired others to pursue light for their fields. Benton Harbor, under new head coach Bill Moss, launched the 1936 season under the lights before the largest opening-game crowd in school history. A number of coaches from opposing squads paid a visit to Filstrup Field, both to scout the squad and to check out the floodlights.
Grand Rapids fired up newly installed lights at Houseman Field on Friday, Sept. 18, 1936, as the Detroit Lions played their annual Blue-White game, their final training contest of the preseason. The Lions, who had spent Thursday afternoon visiting with local students at the eight Grand Rapids area football fields, celebrated the end of camp before a crowd of over 5,000. The White squad, sparked by a 29-yard touchdown by former Nebraska All-American Glenn Presnell, defeated their teammates in Blue, 7-0. A week later, Grand Rapids Central and Mt Pleasant kicked off the city's first-ever prep night contest, while Godwin traveled to Lowell for another evening contest that same night.
On Oct. 9, Ann Arbor High School officials illuminated Wines Field for the first time, for a game with Lincoln High of Ferndale. Comprised of 60, 1,500-watt bulbs mounted on 10, 52-foot poles surrounding the field, the system cost approximately $6,000. On hand for the event were Richard Remington, a well-respected football official whose gridiron all-state selections for the Detroit News were considered the official squad in Michigan; L.L. Forsythe, principal at Ann Arbor High School, and Charles C. Forsythe, the first full-time director of the MHSAA.
The evening contest proved to be a real test for the equipment, as a fog settled over the field following a drizzling afternoon rain. The game ended in a 6-6 deadlock.
A report in the Ann Arbor Daily News stated that Remington felt "it was one of the most satisfactory lighting systems under which he had ever worked."
Charles Forsythe addressed the crowd over the public address system, and said the Ann Arbor system was the best he had seen in the state. According to Forsythe, 13 fields in the state were now lighted: Albion; Ann Arbor; Coldwater; Detroit; Dowagiac; Grand Rapids; Iron Mountain; Ironwood; Jackson; Kalamazoo; Lansing; Lowell; and Monroe. Additional newspaper reports indicate that there were others. According to the Kalamazoo Gazette, Niles and St. Joseph both had lighting systems in 1936.
The decision to add lights to an existing stadium was not always a popular decision. In 1937, Muskegon traveled to Benton Harbor for its first game under the lights. It was a huge event, as around 1,500 local fans made the trip to watch the contest.
"As I recall, the lights were too low," said Rudy Kolenic, a halfback with the 1937 Big Reds. "There was a lot of mist on the field, and it was hard to see. We called it the swamp land." Despite conditions that, according to Muskegon Chronicle sports editor Jimmy Henderson, were "far less effective for play than sunlight," Muskegon downed their Southwestern Conference rivals, 19-0.
Muskegon played its second night game in the fall of 1939--again against the Tigers of Benton Harbor. Another large group followed the Big Reds south, and Muskegon emerged victorious again.
The games had proven two things to the Muskegon officials. First, the Big Reds could still play football under what many considered inferior artificial light. Second, and more importantly, night football attracted people, and thus the decision was made to light Muskegon's Hackley Field.
Although located on the school's campus, the stadium is surrounded by many private homes. Fears about the effect on the surrounding neighborhood, worries about increased crime and the school's break with tradition were all cited as reasons not to light the field. The high cost of the job was also mentioned. The price was tagged at $4,000--a huge sum of money in an era when adult tickets were 60 cents per game.
School officials went about the task of selling the project to a skeptical public. They circulated fliers to "Patrons of the Big Reds" requesting that 600 supporters of the project respond by purchasing season tickets in advance, at the reduced cost of $2.50 for five home contests. Four of the games were to be played at night. The fifth game, Muskegon's traditional season-ending showdown with crosstown rival Muskegon Heights, remained on Saturday afternoon. The campaign was a success and lights were installed during the summer of 1940.
On Sept. 20, 1940, a record season-opening crowd of 7,500 fans packed Hackley Stadium for the debut of Friday night football in Muskegon. The fans enjoyed a 22-0 Big Red victory over Grand Rapids Catholic Central. The same evening, 5,000 turned out in Flint for Northern High School's 18-7 victory over Toledo Catholic Central played under the lights at Atwood Stadium. The Flint Journal reported that this was "the first nocturnal grid clash here since 1930 when General Motors Tech and St. Michael and St. Matthew made use of an earlier version of a lighting plant." The following night, 3,200 gathered for Flint Central's 33-12 win over Caro also played under the artificial illumination at Atwood.
The process of lighting gridirons continued throughout the 1940s and 1950s. The majority of suburban schools built in the late 1950s and 1960s included money in their budgets for halogen gridiron lights. First installed at a high school near Cleveland, Ohio, the halogen lights emitted a stronger light, more closely replicating natural illumination.
Today, football under Friday night lights is as natural as...well, as natural as the rising sun.
--Ron Pesch
Ron Pesch is the historian for the MHSAA. Story ideas and potential statistical records submissions are always welcome. Write to Pesch at 1317 Lakeshore Drive, Muskegon, MI 49441.