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Wharton rekindles memories

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Wharton Field House in Moline was one of the finest athletic arenas in the state when it opened in 1928. In its heyday, the building was often standing-room only. It's still home to the Moline High School basketball teams and many celebrations.

Seventy years of memories are packed into Moline's Wharton Field House. It was one of the finest places in Illinois to view a basketball game when it opened in 1928, and the same statement can be made today.

``I remember when we had 6,500 at games, maybe more with standing room,'' said former ticket manager Ed Lemon, who was in charge of the toughest ticket in town from 1961 to 1985. ``We had something like 5,000 season ticketholders in the '60s.''

That's impressive. But what makes Wharton such a special place?

``It's mystique,'' said former varsity assistant and freshman basketball coach Jack Dye. ``In the old days particularly, you had a lot of small gyms around the state, so when those teams walked into Wharton, it was like the pro circuit. Teams and fans would come down from Chicago and would stare at Wharton in amazement.''

Wharton still draws its share of stares today, despite a waning interest in prep sports.

``Ticket sales started tapering some just before I retired,'' said Mr. Lemon. ``There are many more things to do for kids nowadays, and it's a new ballgame. It was a fun, fun time back in the '60s with Wharton, and I'm sure it's still a good time for those that do go to the games today.

``You've got to remember, back in the early days of Wharton, very few people played before 5,500-6,500 crowds. It was a treat to play at Wharton.''

However, with the treat came the trick for visiting teams of trying to win at the field house.

``Wharton has played host to the premier programs in the state,'' said Mr. Dye, whose wife, the former Joy Shipley, once was a cheerleader for the Maroons. ``LaGrange, Centralia, Paris, Elgin and DuSable, among others, all came to Wharton.

``I remember one time I heard one of the DuSable players telling his coach that they were getting cheated, and his coach turned to him and said, `Be quiet, this is the best place we've ever played.'|''

Wharton's the ``best place'' because of its character. No, it's not a shiny new civic center; it's a place where you feel the history bouncing off the walls. And it's a place where the seating features nooks and crannies.

Yes, there have been touch-ups -- the latest last year, when a new floor replaced the original one. However, no one ever will strip the tradition away from Wharton.

``It's one of a kind,'' said Dye.

Packed with memories.

-- By Bill Allee (January 22, 1998)

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