LIFE in the mill towns

FIFTY YEARS is a very long time. Such an expansive time span spawns a myriad of changes, while countless memories may come up lacking.

Today marks exactly 50 years to the day that LIFE magazine published an article titled, “Rocky Cradle of Football — The Big Play to Escape from the Mill Town.”

Ohio Valley residents for the most part, especially those in Martins Ferry, registered quite a reaction to the Nov. 2, 1962, issue of LIFE magazine.

The reaction was outrage as many residents were critical of the magazine’s comments about football programs on both sides of the Ohio River. Many of them were irate about the material in that issue since they were proud of the area’s football heritage and had been hospitable to the magazine staff. As a result, they expected a better showing about football in this area.

The pictorially-spiced article spotlighted life in Martins Ferry and Bellaire. The piece, however, was anything but flattering to the two rival communities. The crux of the story was that the two cities were deplorable places to live and that the only hope for local athletes to escape such a place was to win a football scholarship.

It was noted that Bellaire High had sent 300 players to the collegiate football ranks with 47 going on to play professionally. Five decades later, those numbers have obviously swelled.

The John R. McDermott-penned story points out the lavish support provided by the schools’ respective booster organizations in contrast to the pressure applied by those same groups as well as by the players’ parents. They expected the coach to build character amongst the boys, but to do so while winning football games. The writer noted that after one coach lost three straight games, he awoke one morning to a “For Sale Sign” in his yard.

The article, in fact, sent many Ferrians into a tirade. So much so, the Ferry partisans reportedly fueled the Purple Riders’ bonfire for the Bellaire game that season with copies of that edition of LIFE magazine.

A half century later, the LIFE story and photos still resonate with several Ferry residents.

John Applegarth, Martins Ferry native, a retired social studies teacher and still a current active Purple Riders’ booster, was a pup when the original LIFE story came out. Nonetheless, he still recalls it vividly.

“The Ferry people took exception to LIFE’s selection of pictures to use in the issue as well as some of the quotes depicting Ferry and surrounding areas as grimy mill towns,” Applegarth recalled. “This resulted in many subscriptions ending up in the annual (fall) bonfire. In addition some citizens were upset by LIFE proclaiming for the only way a college scholarship to be obtained was the the student be adept at football.

“It was also rumored Ferry’s mayor didn’t want the magazine protest to take place,” he continued. “There was also peer pressure from those in attendance to get rid of all copies in the bonfire and not to keep any souvenirs.”

Gene Joseph was a junior on the Martins Ferry football team in 1962. The Purple Riders went 7-3-1 that season (yes they played 11 games), losing to Steubenville, Marietta and Cambridge while tying Bellaire, 0-0.

Joseph is a retired Martins Ferry educator, coach and basketball official. He is also one of the people photographed in LIFE’s “Rocky Cradle of Football.”

“LIFE magazine was a big deal back then. They were here all week long,” Joseph said. “They told the truth, but the photos were used to make it look worse. A lot of people didn’t like it because they took the photos the year before.

“Larry Duck and Vic Rose were all-staters and were not pictured,” Joseph continued. “In reality, that was the way it was. You either went to school to play football in college or you went to work in mines or the mill. I did not throw my magazine into the fire. Many people did. I think Mayor (John) Laslo was against burning them.”

THE COVER story for that LIFE edition with the Cuban missile crisis, one of the riveting moments in U.S. history. Also featured was the beginning of the Ecumenical Council in Rome.

Kapral may be reached at