There were Jim Thorpe fans everywhere in Carlisle on Aug. 16, 1912.
Ten thousand people lined West High Street to celebrate the return of the Olympic athlete who won gold in both the pentathlon and decathlon during the games in Stockholm, Sweden.
The town clock struck 2 p.m., heralding the start of the parade of fire companies, dignitaries and marching bands. “Crowds cheered as the procession moved by,” The Evening Herald reported. “Handkerchiefs were waving and colors flying everywhere. It was a burst of triumph.”
Seated next to Thorpe, in the ceremonial carriage, was his legendary coach Glen “Pop” Warner, along with Louis Tewanima, a fellow Carlisle Indian School student who won the silver in the 10,000-meter race.
Following the parade, 5,000 people gathered at Biddle Field on the campus of Dickinson College. When called to speak, Thorpe summed up his feelings: “You have shown us a splendid time. We are grateful for it.”
But all this was just the start of a day, which included fireworks, a formal dance and band concerts. The festivities ended with dinner at the Elks Club and an escort of Indian School students dressed in night shirts and white caps.
“As the boys paraded, they gave snake dances amid the glare of red and yellow light, creating a scene somewhat beautiful and slightly weird, but surely noisy,” The Evening Sentinel reported.
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No one, least of all Thorpe, suspected his looming downfall. Seven months after winning gold in Stockholm, the story broke that he had spent two seasons playing minor league ball in North Carolina and Arkansas. The Olympic committee had strict rules that banned professional athletes from Olympic competition.
Thorpe apologized, saying he only played for the love of the game and had received very little money. He was forced to return his medals and had his name removed from the record books. The medals were only restored to the Thorpe family in 1983 – 30 years after his death. The loss of Olympic prestige haunted Thorpe the rest of his life.
In August 1951, Thorpe returned to Carlisle in triumph to celebrate the world premiere of his biopic movie “Jim Thorpe – All American.” Over 15,000 people attended a tribute to Thorpe, which included the dedication of an historic marker in the Veterans Memorial Courtyard on the Square.
Thorpe died of a heart attack on March 28, 1953. At one point, Carlisle was considered a possible burial place for Thorpe because it was at the Indian School where he first achieved fame. A committee of local residents even had a gravesite picked near Indian Field at Carlisle Barracks, but that effort failed when Thorpe’s third wife made burial arrangements with two towns in northeast Pennsylvania with no previous ties to her husband.
In 1957, the citizens of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk approved a referendum unifying their two towns under the new name of Jim Thorpe, with the hope of drawing tourism to the sports legend’s tomb.
Tour through Time runs Saturday in The Sentinel print edition. Reporter Joseph Cress will work with the Cumberland County Historical Society each week to look at the county through the years. Send any questions, feature ideas or tips to email@example.com.
Email Joseph Cress at firstname.lastname@example.org.