Even Sherlock Holmes would be stumped. A mystery that really shouldn’t be a mystery exists within the Westerly/Stonington area, and it involves our respective high school football teams.
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The Bears play for Stonington High and the Bulldogs play for Westerly High. Two typical American towns which are connected geographically by the state line and whose high school football teams are yearly Thanksgiving rivals, have played against each other for more than a century, with their first game played back in 1911.
This two-state friendly rivalry is sometimes called a “family rivalry” because the connection between the two towns is so deep. Some people grew up in Westerly but now live in Stonington and vice versa. Some people live in one town and work at the school of their rival and some have relatives on both teams. The games have always been friendly and provide a lot of camaraderie and good wholesome hometown fun on a great American holiday. People of all ages make attending the Thanksgiving Day game a part of their yearly tradition.
But, there is a mystery surrounding the Bears and the Bulldogs that, to this day, has not been solved. As a transplant to this area some twenty-one years ago, I’ve occasionally wondered how the Bears and the Bulldogs got their names. I thought I’d write an article about it – something light and fun for the Thanksgiving holiday. I surmised that an article on this topic would provide some interesting information that people would talk about around their Thanksgiving dinner tables.
It shouldn’t have been difficult. I thought it would take a couple of phone calls and the needed information would be gathered and my curiosity about the Teams’ names would be satisfied. I’d write the article and move on. It quickly became apparent that the origin of the names of the Stonington and Westerly football teams was a mystery, and not just for me, but for others who have gone before me.
What started as a phone call to each school morphed into visits to both schools, e-mails and phone conversations with local historians, a trip to the Westerly Library’s Local History department, a call to the Stonington Library, and an online chat with the State of Connecticut Library in Hartford which led to research through very old online editions of the Norwich Bulletin.
Bits of information about the history of the Bears and Bulldogs presented themselves through various conversations with local historians and searching through old documents and yearbooks, but nothing was 100% definitive in revealing why or how either team acquired their name.
Research showed that the Westerly Sun referred to “the Bulldogs” in a 1930 issue, and the Norwich Bulletin mentioned them in an earlier 1928 issue. The earliest WHS yearbook examined was from 1900 where the team was simply called the “Westerly Football Eleven.” The earliest newspaper clipping of Westerly’s High’s first football team was 1886 where they were referred to as the “Gridiron Heroes,” but that could have just been a descriptive term.
There is a framed photo of a Mr. Charles E. “Bulldog” Mason in the Westerly High School Library, which states he was principal from 1928-1952. Given his nickname, it would strongly suggest that the team was named after him, but there was no documentation found to make that a certainty. However, it remains a logical possibility.
If Mr. Mason started as principal in 1928, would it have been possible that he was nicknamed “Bulldog” and the team was named after him that very same year? Was Mr. Mason a football coach prior to being principal and if so, would the team have chosen the name “Bulldogs” to honor him as he left coaching and went on to be principal?
The question remains – why was Mr. Mason called “Bulldog” and was he the definitive reason why the WHS football team got their name? Was it possible that the team was already called the Bulldogs and then the principal got his nickname from the team?
It seems that one of the first images of a bulldog as a mascot was seen in the November 1946 issue of “The Barker,” a WHS school newspaper. It appears that this was the first edition of “The Barker” and one could assume it was named after the bark of a dog, a bulldog of course. On the top it reads “Let’s Get a Bear”, referring to the Stonington Bears. The previous issue of the school newspaper was called “The Senior” and was dated 1945-1946, which was probably the spring issue, and just prior to it being renamed “The Barker” in the Fall semester of 1946.
Regarding the Bears, the issues of the Norwich Bulletin prior to 1928 referred to Stonington High’s team as simply the Stonington Football Team, and they were listed as the Bears once in the 1928 SHS yearbook. While looking through old books and Stonington High Yearbooks in the Local History Room of the Westerly Library, I made a discovery.
A school program was tucked into a yearbook. The program cover had a handmade construction paper bear mascot glued on with the letters SHS and the year 1926 (see photo below), so it appears that Stonington’s football team was called the bears as early as that year. The Bears’ mystery is more expansive than the Bulldog’s and many questions remain partly due to a lack of records found, and partly due to not having enough time to exhaust all research possibilities.
So, what started out as an easy-to-write article turned into many hours of research that still has not yielded definite answers. Gratitude goes out to everyone who entertained my questions and shared information regarding this mystery.
Among those who are owed a thank you are the principals and staff of Stonington High and Westerly High, the Stonington, Westerly, and Connecticut State libraries, and specifically Mr. Anthony Lombardo, Mr. David Erskine, Ms. Marianne Mirando, Ms. Jane Maxson, Ms. Nina Wright, Mr. Tom O’Connell, Ms. Diane Schull, and Mr. Bryan Morrone for taking time out of their days to assist in this quest to solve this mystery.
Anyone who might have answers or know someone who can help solve this mystery is encouraged to comment below, so maybe a “Part 2 – Mystery Solved” article can be written in the future. Perhaps a previous graduating class from either school, or current students, might want to take on this mystery as a special project?
There must be a “Sherlock Holmes” out there somewhere who would like to solve this mystery! Happy Thanksgiving everyone!