Recreation in the Pi Beta Phi Era

From almost the moment Pi Beta Phi established its settlement school on the banks of the Little Pigeon River, the fraternity made a conscientious effort to provide Gatlinburg residents -- both children and adults -- with physical education courses, organized athletic contests, and other recreational activities. Their reason for doing so was simple: like many of their contemporaries in urban, Progressive Era America, the Pi Phis were convinced that Southern Appalachian mountaineers lived dismal, uninteresting lives, marked only by tedium and unceasing toil. As we have seen in the essay “Recreation in Southern Appalachia” this perception was often exaggerated; the mountaineers, it turns out, were actually quite ingenious at amusing themselves, despite their meager material means. And yet, the fact remains that life in Southern Appalachia was difficult, and the opportunities for recreation scarce. Thus the recreational programs offered by Pi Beta Phi were not only welcomed but enthusiastically embraced, to the point that they became an important part of the local cultural fabric.

The settlement school’s recreational program began rather informally, with individual teachers taking the initiative to lead students in songs, games, and other activities. In 1916, for example, teacher Bernice Goode encouraged her students to play pickup baseball games on the school’s athletic field, perform jump-rope routines with a piece of wild grapevine, and organize makeshift choirs to sing hymns and patriotic songs. Two years later, in 1918, newly-appointed Head Resident (and skilled musician) Evelyn Bishop began offering piano and voice lessons to students who wished to expand their musical abilities, and whose parents were willing to pay a nominal fee. Unfortunately, not all of the teachers’ efforts met with success, for among the families who patronized the school, agricultural needs often came before recreational needs. Following a failed attempt to form a “Girls’ Club” in August 1919, teacher Ruth Sturley lamented that “I do not believe at times that [the girls] need [the club] -- Perhaps later on when there is not so much farm work it may be different. Making molasses and picking beans have been the reasons lately for absences.”

As the settlement school’s funding and organizational abilities increased, however, so too did the complexity of its recreational program. By the mid-1920s, the school was regularly hosting organized, inter-scholastic basketball games in the loft of the “Red Barn,” and was also sending boys and girls teams to compete against neighboring schools in Sevierville, the Sugarlands, the Glades, Banner, Cartertown, and other nearby communities. On occasion, these games gave rise to humorous incidents, particularly when they were staged in isolated areas that were still adjusting to the novelty of sporting events. In February 1925, for example, the Pi Beta Phi boys’ team created “quite a stir” at an “away” game in the Sugarlands, simply by donning official basketball uniforms. Unaccustomed to the sight of boys wearing tank-tops and shorts, the overall-clad members of the Sugarlands team were, according to Evelyn Bishop, simultaneously “horrified by the sight of basketball suits” and “envious because they didn’t have anything better . . . to play in.” In the end, Bishop suspected that the latter emotion predominated among the Sugarlanders, for in the aftermath of the game, they adamantly refused to award Pi Beta Phi a “return game.”

All humor aside, however, basketball soon gained a vocal, intense following in Gatlinburg and the surrounding communities. It was not uncommon in the early 1930s to find the Red Barn loft packed with children and adults on a Saturday night, all of them cheering loudly in support of their favorite team. So crowded were the games, in fact, that by mid-decade, Pi Beta Phi decided to build a gymnasium on the settlement school campus. In 1947, the same year, incidentally, that the fraternity expanded the gymnasium’s seating area to accommodate an even greater number of spectators, the girls’ team won the settlement school’s first county county-wide athletics trophy. According to one teacher, the only thing preventing the well-coached, enthusiastic Pi Beta Phi teams from establishing a basketball “dynasty,” of sorts, was the fact that so many of the players performed exhausting manual labor during the week, either because their family required it of them, or because they needed to work off their tuition and dormitory fees.

 

 

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Boys basketball team, 1937

Students and teachers, 1928

 
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Baseball team, circa 1915

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