By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
For most of the residents and visitors in Wyoming, the town of Midwest is nothing more than an exit sign on Interstate 25 between Buffalo and Casper.
But the tiny town created during the oil boom of the early 20th century has a little-known claim to fame – it was the location of the very first high school football game played at night under electric lights.
“Ironically, even though we call it ‘Friday Night Lights’ now, Nov. 19, 1925, was a Thursday night,” said Phil LeMaitre, a Midwest native and author who has written a series of novels based on his experiences growing up near the Salt Creek oilfield.
“The Midwest Oil and Refining Company, which was one of the major players in the Salt Creek field, brought in the lights. They thought it was a novelty thing,” LeMaitre told Cowboy State Daily. “And they set up a game between Midwest and Casper. The feeling was that the nighttime games would draw more of a crowd from the oilfield workers in the area, and perhaps even people from Casper, which it did.
“But I’m ashamed to say that Midwest didn’t even score a point that night,” LeMaitre said “Casper beat them 20 to nothing.”
By the mid-1920s, college football had begun experimenting with artificial lighting, but no high schools had attempted the technology until the Midwest Oil Company provided the means to hold games at a time when more of the local oilfield workers and families could attend.
Midwest has had to fight for its claim as the location of the first night high school football game. Residents in Westville, Illinois, have put up a sign claiming that in 1928, the nation’s first lighted high school game was played there in a game against nearby Milford.
First Lighted Game
But Midwest’s night game was held three years before the Illinois game and a full four years before the first professional night game. Between 400 and 1,000 people turned out for the game, braving the freezing cold weather.
“For the football game, Midwest Refinery Company electricians set up 12 floodlights of 1,000 candlepower each around the field, four more of 2,000 candlepower and from the top of an oil derrick near the field, a huge searchlight swung its beam over the players and the crowd,” wrote historian Tom Rea in his blog post on WyoHistory.org.
“The Salt Creek Museum (in Midwest) has the football that was used in that first lighted football game,” LeMaitre said. “And it was a white football.”
Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, a 20-year legislator, is also a native of Midwest who knows Wyoming football better than most. He spoke to Cowboy State Daily from a football camp in Chadron, Nebraska, where he was coaching his Natrona County High School football team, a position he has held for 37 years.
Harshman, like LeMaitre, played high school football for the Midwest Oilers, and takes pride in the team’s place in Wyoming football history.
“I remember as a little kid going to those games,” Harshman said. “They used to play up where the baseball field is now, where the intersection of the highways is.
“When you used to go to Midwest, (there were) thousands and thousands of (oil) derricks, and each one had gas flares on top, so it was light around there the whole time,” Harshman continued. “There were thousands of people that lived out there.”
Harshman recalled that when he played high school football in Midwest, the team won the state championship in 1979.
“We were playing teams like Sundance, Upton, Moorcroft, Tongue River, Big Horn,” he said. “That field is kind of down off the edge of the cliffs there, and you’d have people parked all along the top and then people parked outside. So we’d have some really nice crowds, and a lot of fun. A lot of community support.”
LeMaitre also recalled fondly his Midwest high school football experiences.
“My senior year, we had a great, great team,” he said. “And the team behind us, they graduated in (1987), they also only lost one game. So for three years’ stretch we only lost four games. And that has never been repeated.”
Interestingly, the very first night football game played under electric lights took place in 1892 and also had a Wyoming connection. The game, played in Pennsylvania on Sept. 28, 1892, was between Mansfield State Normal School and Wyoming Seminary – but the “Wyoming” referenced the Wyoming valley of northeast Pennsylvania. And the game was a bust, only lasting 20 minutes because the lighting system turned out to be inadequate … and several players reportedly had unfortunate run-ins with a light pole.