The exact date of the first game may have been forgotten, but the rivalry between Monmouth and Knox Colleges that began on a football field in 1888 is etched in the collective memory of the two schools. The rivalry ranks as the fourth oldest among Division III schools and sixth overall in college football.
Knox can lay claim to the inception of today’s symbol of football supremacy by virtue of former player Bill Collins, who in 1928 persuaded the Galesburg Register Mail and the Monmouth Review Atlas to donate $40 each toward a trophy to be presented to the winner of the annual contest. Symbolizing the fact that the annual game was then held on Thanksgiving Day, the trophy was topped by a large bronze turkey on an ebony base. Each year, the Bronze Turkey was formally presented at the home basketball game of the victor – that is, when the bird could be found.
The first in a long line of bird-nappings occurred in the early 1940s, when the trophy went missing for five years. Eventually, Monmouth officials were tipped off that the bird might be found buried under the dirt track in the basement of the gymnasium.
In 1965, the bird was stolen again, this time in an elaborate plot to liberate the bird from the Monmouth College trophy case. A Knox student posing as a Monmouth student newspaper reporter convinced the student center director to take the trophy outdoors for a promotional photograph. Once outside, the director was called to the phone and when he returned the bird and the “reporter” had vanished.
In retaliation for the theft, Monmouth students responded in a military propaganda-style attack, using an airplane to drop fake issues of the Knox student newspaper over the Galesburg campus warning of the agony that would befall them in the Bronze Turkey game.
The following year, two Monmouth students set out to uncover the whereabouts of the missing turkey. The pair concocted a spin-off of the previous year’s heist by infiltrating the Knox hierarchy posing as reporters from the SIU Egyptian newspaper, explaining that SIU was exploring the possibility of a similar rivalry with Bowling Green.
The “reporters” spent over an hour establishing themselves as legitimate reporters which spurred one Knox student to inform their athletic director that the pair was “not Monmouth students trying our trick from last year.” The pair was then escorted to a safe where the bird was stored and allowed to photograph the “missing” trophy.
The following week, the Oracle, Monmouth’s student newspaper, broke the front-page story of the discovery of the wayward bird.
The bird heist in 1984 did not require as much planning – thieves simply broke the glass of the trophy case and absconded with the bird. The bird went AWOL for nearly 10 years before it was returned in “James Bond” fashion.
During a reunion gathering in 1993 just weeks before the annual Monmouth-Knox game, the bird reappeared. With the Class of 1983 inside, a car pulled up in front of the Filling Station III restaurant and a mysterious box was handed to an unsuspecting bystander, who in turn, delivered the package to English professor Gary Willhardt. Professor Willhardt, not knowing what was inside the package, tore open the box to find the wayward bird and a note which read, “The last hostage is home,” along with a derogatory remark concerning Monmouth’s arch rival.
During the nearly decade-long absence, the Galesburg Register Mail had a replacement bird made and although not as ornate as the original, the “body double” turkey is as much revered.
The original bird, purchased through Steinfeldt Jewelers in Galesburg, the ready-made bronze turkey found at a Chicago wholesale house featured an ebony base inscribed with the scores of each game. The base has long been lost, perhaps the result of the 1940s turkey caper, the wings have been broken and soldered, and the turkey itself leaned forward with the breast resting on the replacement base. That is until officials at Monmouth had the bird restored to its original glory in the fall of 2017.
With a rivalry so intense, played for a trophy so prized, the battles encompass more than the actual participants.
In the 1930s it was not uncommon for the winning team’s fans to tear down the goal posts. Such was the case when Knox won the contest in 1938 – at least that’s how it started.
Knox had come out on top 14-7 and their fans immediately began lowering the north goal post. Two Monmouth students ran to the south end and was successful in rallying the Monmouth fans to defend their turf – the south goal post was spared.
Throughout the years, students from both schools have pulled many pranks on their rivals in the week leading up to the actual game. In 1955, while seeking revenge for a stolen scoreboard, a band of Monmouth students made the 15-mile trek to the east to paint “Beat Knox” on the Galesburgers’ campus.
One carload mistook the Knox County Courthouse, adjacent to the Knox campus, for a Knox building and set fire to a statue. The statue happened to be that of Civil War nurse “Mother Bickerdyke.” The students were quickly apprehended and suspended from school for 21 days.
The series was in favor of Knox until 1989 when the two teams tangled in what was at the time thought to be the 100th meeting between the two teams. Monmouth won that game 14-0 and produced the first series tie in the century old rivalry.
It was not until the turn of the 21st century did officials at Monmouth uncover a missing game which meant the actual 100th game had been played one year earlier. Not to worry – Monmouth won that game 45-6.
The two longest streaks for consecutive years without relinquishing the turkey are owned by Monmouth. The Fighting Scots held the prize for 10 years from 1966 to 1975, nearly losing the bird when the teams tied in 1973. Monmouth then began their current win streak of 20 games in 1999 with a harrowing 27-26 victory. During the current streak, Monmouth has won by an average score of 42-11. Monmouth College holds a record of 70 wins against Knox, who holds 50 wins out of the games played between the rivaling teams.
For now, the “body double” turkey is awarded to the winning school while the original Bronze Turkey is safely tucked away at an undisclosed location.
Alison Barrington – Staff Writer
Information obtained on MonmouthScots.com