As early as 1912, Frank Stanton and George McMahon, co-owners of the Smoke House (a popular Portsmouth tobacco shop), had sponsored an amateur football team that traveled the Ohio-Kentucky-West Virginia Tri-State region, playing its home games at Millbrook Park in nearby New Boston, Ohio.
Regarded as “one of the finest ‘weed dispensaries’ in the state," the Smoke House had originally opened in 1906, under the ownership of Pete Schilling and Chalmer Davis, who sold the business to Stanton and McMahon in March 1912. The shop was located inside the Grand Opera House on Chillicothe Street, but following a fire in September 1914, Stanton and McMahon re-located to what was known as the Richardson Block, on the northwest corner of Fifth and Chillicothe Streets, overlooking the city’s Esplanade (what was then known as Government Square).
The new shop included a major expansion, with the cigar store on the ground floor and a second floor set up as a "pool and billiards hall." The Times reported that "the handsome fixtures down stairs are of the very latest design, the show cases are of an unique and attractive make, the plate glass front is counstructed along new lines and the poolroom with its 12 tables on the second floor is ideally equipped. .... The Smoke House is a veritable club house and is sure to be well patronized by lovers of the weed and those who like to show their skill as a pocket billiardist."
The Smoke House also provided its patrons with the latest sports news and scores for baseball and football games from across the nation, which they pulled from the news wires and radio. On election night, the Smoke House would also be the first place to post returns on local, state, and federal races.
The Emergence of Semi-Professional Football
In the region’s smaller industrial towns, as well as its larger cities, former high school stars (now making a living in their hometown factories and businesses) joined with recent college graduates to form the first semi-professional teams. They worked their regular day jobs and during their free time, they practiced and played ball, traveling to nearby cities to do battle on the gridiron.
The teams attracted commercial backers including members of the chamber-of-commerce and other city-boosters (whom themselves were fans of the game). Team sponsors helped offset the cost of fielding a traveling team and local rivalries helped fuel the competition as teams vied for both financial backing and regional league championship titles.
City boosters came to view successful professional sports teams and associated sports infrastructure — playing fields and stadiums — as key elements in their city’s economic development. Civic and business groups, such as Kiwanis and the Rotarians, backed ballot initiatives to build stadiums and youth sports complexes.
The N & W Smoke House Football Team
The first truly semi-professional football team in Portsmouth can be traced back to 21 September 1920, when the Smoke House hosted a meeting of interested players and boosters. August Putzek would manage and coach the team, which was co-sponsored by the Norfolk & Western Railway. The N & W was a major local employer, managing the city's railyard and running the company's repair shops. As in other cities, Portsmouth's early semi-professional teams were often named after their primary business sponsors.
Coach Putzek and the new N & W Smoke House team would establish the longstanding footbally rivaly with the Ironton Tanks, with the two teams playing their first contests in 1920.
After the Tanks won the first game, the Times reported "the rivalry was so intense that the game will be an annual affair in each city, in fact negotiations are already on for the Tanks to play in Millbrook next fall and the Smoke House team to play a return engagement in Ironton." (29 November 1920).
From 1920 to 1925, the Smoke House teams enjoyed moderate success, with an overall record of 19-16-8. And, while they won against teams from Wellston, Chillicothe, Jackson, Ashland, Columbus, Lancaster, and Huntington, they could never defeat their greatest rivals - the Ironton Tanks. In October 1925, the Smoke House suffered a humiliating 34-0 loss at the hands of the Huntington Boosters and the team fell apart, disbanding after playing only two games of the season.
Jacques 'Jack' Creasy
According to football historian Carl Becker, author of Home & Away: The Rise and Fall of Professional Football on the Banks of the Ohio, “no one in Portsmouth mourned the passing of the team. They never held the heart of Portsmouth, emotionally or materially, never came near becoming a team of the town. The community had to await the coming of a new venture in football for that to happen.” A new football venture was indeed on the way. And it was spearheaded by twenty-five year old Jack Creasy.
William Jacques Creasy was born on October 9th, 1901, the son of William L. Creasy, who worked as the Assistant Superintendent of the Pocahontas Consolidated Coal and Coke Company. Jacques attended Portsmouth High School (PHS) and graduated in 1922. While at PHS, he worked on the school newspaper and served as senior class president. He made a name for himself as an excellent athlete and team leader, having been chosen captain of both the football and basketball teams.
His senior Yearbook notes: “As captain of last year’s varsity (football squad), Jack finished up his fourth and most successful season for P.H.S. His defensive and offensive work was excellent, and his passing sure and swift.” Creasy was a local football star and, by all accounts, he was fun-loving and well-liked by all who knew him.
After his high school graduation, Creasy took a job with the Portsmouth Daily Times circulation department and eventually found work as a clerk in the Department of Public Service. In his free time, Creasy trained as a boxer and refereed bouts, while also playing center and serving as the captain of the Smoke House team.
In the fall of 1924, Creasy left Portsmouth, hitch-hiking his way to the University of Arizona, where he hoped to play ball under Coach Pop McKale. Creasy, however, never made the team and returned home to Portsmouth in June of 1925 after completing one year of study.
“Look Who is Here!” read the headline in the Times. “No it was not a senatorial candidate nor a beer baron from Canada that was drawing crowds last night. The center of the handshaking group was one Jacques Creasy, brown and smiling with his broad sombrero suggesting the far southwest. For Jacques has just returned from a winter in Tucson, Arizona where he attended University…Buenos dios, Jacques.”
Creasy would join the Smoke House roster for what would be its last season in the fall of 1925. But while the Smoke House team collapsed, he would go on to greatly impact football in Portsmouth helping to form the Portsmouth (Studebaker) Presidents, the Portsmouth Shoe-Steels, and then setting the stage for the creation of the Portsmouth Spartans.
The Studebaker Presidents vs. the Portsmouth Merchants
In the summer of 1926, Portsmouth football fans and backers formed two separate teams, each competing for local talent and financial backing. Jack Creasy would join the squad organized with the primary backing of W.R. Fundenberg, owner of the Scioto Motor Company, a local Studebaker auto-dealer. Creasy was chosen as captain of the new team, which took the name of the Studebaker Presidents. Jack Walters of the Hurth Hotel served as business manager, handling contracts and booking games.
The second team was fielded by members of the Portsmouth Retail Merchants Association and given the uninspired name of the “Portsmouth Merchants.” Pat Shoemaker served as coach and manager. Their uniforms and equipment were donated by various local supporters, including the Dunham Meat Market, Taylor Universal Motor Company, Service Drug Company, Harley Davidson Motorcycle Shop, Ferrell Bros. Confectionery, the Senate Cafe, Gibson Music Shop, Kings Lunch Room, Home Vulcanizing Company, Cannonball Company, Terminal Lunch Room, Horchow Furniture Company, the Play House, Glockner Chevrolet, and the McDonnell Buick dealership.
The Merchants would complete the season with a mixed, but losing record, which failed to rally local fans and financial boosters. Both teams would play on the new Labold Field, which the city had acquired by donation in 1925 from one of the city’s most wealthy businessmen and most generous philanthropists -- Simon Labold. Located at the foot of Brown Street on the banks of the Ohio River, behind a newly constructed floodwall in the city’s East End neighborhood, Labold Field was to be used by the city schools and general public, as well as professional sports teams.
Previously, the Smoke House had practiced at Mound Park and played their home games in New Boston’s Millbrook Park. But in September of 1925, local Boy Scouts and city workers cleaned up and leveled the ground for football and baseball fields. These improvements were spearheaded with $7,500 in donations from area businesses, and included the erection of temporary bleachers, steel wire fencing, steel goal posts, and a new paved city street to the field.
Jack Creasy and the Studebaker Presidents would win their home-opener at Labold on September 26th, 1926, defeating the Ironton Panthers, 7-0. The Times coverage of the game was surprisingly critical, perhaps hoping to goad the team to improve their play. “Although the Presidents opened their season with a victory,” reported the Times, “they should not feel very elated over the game as they outweighed the Panthers considerably and should have had no trouble in beating them to a standstill.”
Like Portsmouth, Ironton sported two football teams in 1926. The Ironton Panthers were considered the B-Team and derisively described as the “Junior Tanks.” H. Coleman Grimes, the City Editor at the Times, who wrote much of the paper’s coverage of local football, concluded: “All in all, the game was very disappointing, instead of working like a well-oiled machine as they should, the Presidents showed up poorly, their line failed to hold when it should have, only one [pass] was thrown and received and the backfield men received little or no interference from their team mates.”
For all the criticism, the Presidents, it turned out, were just getting warmed up. Their win over the Panthers at Labold Field kicked off a run of six victories, including a 12-0 defeat of their Portsmouth rivals, the Merchants. The weather for the game was awful. “A small crowd of spectators paid their admission, but several hundred sat in their cars outside the enclosure and viewed the game,” reported the Times. “The sparkling red jerseys of the Presidents were in contrast to the brand new gray ones of the Merchants as the first whistle blew, but within five minutes there was little difference in the colors.” The game had been “a titanic struggle in the mud” whose results ensured the Presidents would “retain the right to use Labold Field for Sunday games for the remainder of the season.”
Local interest reached a fever pitch after the Presidents vanquished the Merchants. Captain Jack Creasy and team boasted an undefeated record (6-0) heading into the next away game against the Ironton Tanks, the city’s biggest and longest standing rival. “The locals are eager to get into the battle, which will either make them or break them,” reported the Times. “The team went through its last workout last night on the Mound Park. …. Indications are that close to a thousand Portsmouth fans will make the trip with the team to the Iron City. Enthusiasm here is at a breaking point. Fans have been talking about the Presidents-Tanks game for the past month and within an hour after 250 tickets for the game arrived at the Smoke House to go on sale most of them were sold.”
Unfortunately, the Presidents lost the grudge match, 0-to-9. It was certainly disappointing to Portsmouth fans. Local press coverage was muted, focusing on interviews with Ironton football fans who only praised their defeated river city rivals. One commentator opined that “the Portsmouth club has really developed remarkably this season. They organized early in the fall with no thought that they soon would be in position to meet with the leaders of valley football and play them almost on even terms.”
Creasy and the Presidents rebounded for their next two games, with two shut out victories over the Columbus Bobbs (12-0) and Cincinnati Friars (31-0). They dropped their next match (0-6) to the Armcos in Ashland, Kentucky, before preparing to meet the Tanks for one last game before the season’s end.
Again, the Presidents would travel to Ironton to play at the Tank’s Beechwood Stadium. And again, they would fall -- this time by a score of 33-0. Portsmouth press coverage was completely silent. The Presidents had been humiliated. At the end of the season, both the Presidents and the Merchants would dissolve. But, while fans were licking their wounds, Jack Creasy was putting together a new football organization, one that would give the city a fully-professional team that could dominate the region and propel Portsmouth to the highest levels of national sporting leagues.