Jim Thorpe: The Man, The Myth, the Small Pennsylvania Town
By Matt Soniak
If I say the name Jim Thorpe, most of you will probably think of the Native American baseball player/football player/Olympian. Some of you, though, will think of the Carbon County, Pennsylvania borough known as “Switzerland of America” and the “Gateway to the Poconos.”
I think of both, and what concerns us here today is how the latter got named after the former. The story starts in another small town in neighboring Ohio.
Jim Thorpe, the man
At the turn of the 20th century, LaRue, Ohio was not exciting place. There were some 1200 people, a few grocery stores, garages, churches and a car dealership or two. The only action in LaRue was to be found at the train tracks in the middle of town. On a busy day, close to 30 trains passed through.
At the time, though, something interesting was starting to brew in the world of sports. In Ohio and western Pennsylvania, the seeds of professional football were being planted, and two men were about to put the game and the town of LaRue in the national spotlight.
One of those men was Jacobus Franciscus “Jim” Thorpe (also known by his tribal name Wa-Tho-Huk), a Native American athlete who had represented the Sac and Fox Nation and the United States at the Olympic Games in Stockholm and, when he took gold medals in the pentathlon and the decathlon, was called “the greatest athlete in the world” by King Gustav V of Sweden.
After the Olympics, Thorpe signed with the New York Giants baseball team and played sporadically with them as an outfielder for three seasons. In 1915, he joined an early pro football team, the Canton Bulldogs, as a player and coach for $250 a game. Under his leadership, the Bulldogs claimed unofficial championships in 1916, 1917, and 1919, and the country began to take notice of pro football.
In LaRue, a man named Walter Lingo also took notice. Lingo owned a general store, a tire factory and a famed dog breeding kennel. At its peak, Lingo’s Oorang Kennels bred and sold a few thousand Airedale terriers a year. Movie star Gary Cooper, baseball players Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, heavyweight champion boxer Jack Dempsey and President Warren G. Harding all kept Oorang Airedales as pets. Lingo often liked to bring these celebrity owners in to visit LaRue so they could hunt with his dogs and be seen with him in front of newsreel crews and newspaper gossip columnists.
As football took off, Lingo thought that the game would be a great way to promote his kennel and dogs. He decided to organize a pro team, and he knew just who to ask for help in getting it off the ground. Lingo and Thorpe had first met when Thorpe came to Lingo's defense after a group of farmers accused the Oorang Kennels of raising a nation of sheep killers. Thorpe brushed the critics off and said that he once knew an Oorang Airedale that had saved a 6-year-old girl from being trampled by a bull. From then on Lingo and Thorpe had been good friends and hunting buddies.
In 1920, the National Football League was organized and the charter members named Thorpe league president. The next year, Lingo bought an NFL franchise for $100 and brought Thorpe and Pete Calac—a friend and teammate of Thorpe's from his school days—out to LaRue to hunt possum and hammer out a deal. They agreed that the team would play away games almost exclusively, touring the country and advertising the Airedales. Thorpe would play and coach and would field an all-Native American team, the Oorang Indians, whose players would help run the kennels when they weren't practicing or traveling for games. Lingo’s other kennel employees pulled double duty on the team, too. The same dieticians and trainers who looked after the Airedales also tended to the players.
Thorpe and the other players soon figured out that Lingo was not all that interested in the team or football. They were not given dedicated practice space and often had to share a field with the local high school’s team. The pre-game and halftime activities at their games were emphasized over the games themselves, and the players were made to change into traditional Indian clothes and perform tricks alongside Lingo’s terriers. They did Indian dances, performed tomahawk and knife-throwing demonstrations, shot fake ducks for the dogs to retrieve and, strangely, re-enacted battles from World War I. On occasion, a player known as Long Time Sleep even wrestled a bear in the middle of the field.
Despite Thorpe’s best efforts, the Indians turned out not to be a very good team, going one 2-year stretch with only three wins. Once the novelty of the halftime show wore off and attendance began to fall, Lingo stopped renewing the franchise in 1924. Some of the players stayed in and around LaRue, working on farms, opening shops and joining the local police force. Thorpe had a hard time holding down a job after leaving professional sports, and worked shorts stints as an extra in cowboy movies, a construction worker, a bouncer, a security guard and a laborer. He died in March 1953 at the age of 64.
Jim Thorpe, the town
After Thorpe’s death, his wife Patricia lobbied officials in Oklahoma, Jim’s home state, to erect a memorial in his honor. When they refused, an angry Patricia decided she would make sure that Jim was honored elsewhere. She heard that the Pennsylvania towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk were looking for ways to attract businesses and tourists, and got an idea. She struck a deal with town officials, and the two towns merged, renamed the new town after Thorpe, purchased his remains, and built a monument to him that includes his tomb (he rests in soil from his native Oklahoma and the Swedish stadium where he won his Olympic medals), two statues of him, and plaques telling his life story.
Thorpe’s memorial didn’t draw too many tourists, but the town has made a name for itself as a destination for outdoor activities like hiking, paintball, and whitewater rafting.
In June 2010, Thorpe's son, Jack, filed a lawsuit against the town in federal court in order to have his father’s remains returned to Oklahoma and re-interred near other family members. Jack claimed the agreement between his stepmother and Jim Thorpe officials was made against the wishes of Thorpe’s other family members, who wanted him buried on Native American land. So far, the suit is unsettled.