Mark J. Price

Kent State University Dean Raymond E. Manchester rounded up a dusty antique, spun a fanciful story and watched the good times roll.

The blue-and-gold Wagon Wheel, a prized trophy presented to the winner of the football game between the University of Akron and Kent State, made its public debut 70 years ago.

“That buggy wheel is a relic that belongs to KSU, but I’m willing to put it up as a trophy,” Raymond announced in 1946. “There’s no danger of losing it.”

Ouch, Akron.

That was a zinger.

The Golden Flashes and the Zippers reinstituted football that fall after a hiatus from 1943 to 1945 during World War II. Only 12 miles apart, UA and KSU were natural rivals, but Manchester wanted to fire up the contest after the lull.

He revealed that he was “in possession” of a “relic of some importance” to Akron fans. Manchester said the wheel once belonged to Akron industrialist John R. Buchtel, benefactor and namesake of Buchtel College, forerunner of UA.

The origin of the wheel is rather muddy, but this is the story Manchester told. In 1870, Buchtel traveled by buggy to Kent while scouting locations for the Universalist college. He wanted the school to be built in Akron, but he visited Kent at the request of the Rev. Andrew Willson, pastor of the Kent Universalist Church.

“While making the inspection, Buchtel stopped to water his horses at a spring along the Western Reserve trail which ran through the center of what is now Kent State’s campus,” Beacon Journal reporter Lincoln Hackim wrote in 1946. “Meanwhile, the horses strayed off the trail, drawing the surrey into a swamp.

“In an effort to free themselves, the horses pulled the carriage away from the wheel, which almost immediately disappeared in the mire.

“Upon his return, Buchtel, winded and mosquito-bitten, was enraged. He decided then and there that Akron, rather than Kent, would be the site of Buchtel College.”

Manchester said the wheel was unearthed in 1902 during an excavation project. Old-timers recalled the Buchtel incident and rescued the relic before it was tossed aside. Manchester acquired it after joining Kent State in 1920 as a math teacher when the campus had only 500 students.

“Had it not been for the loss of this wheel, Kent might never have received the fine state university now located here,” Manchester said.

The legend of the wheel is filled with implausibilities. The wooden relic was buried for decades but was still in good shape? It was found on the future site of Kent State and just happened to belong to Buchtel?

Manchester didn’t let on where he acquired the wheel, but the legend took on a life of its own.

William Sparhawk, president of UA’s Alumni Association, played along with the story and encouraged KSU to put up “The Big Wheel,” as it initially was called, as an annual trophy for the winner of the football game. He hoped that “The Battle of the Big Wheel” would turn into another rivalry like “The Battle of the Cowbell” with Wooster.

“It seems unreasonable that a man of the standing of Dean Manchester should withhold from the University of Akron a symbol of an incident which might be considered a determining factor in the founding of Buchtel College in Akron,” Sparhawk said.

The game was scheduled Friday night, Nov. 15, 1946, at the Rubber Bowl in Akron. Painted blue and gold, the colors of both schools, the Wagon Wheel awaited the victor. The days leading up to the game were filled with shenanigans.

KSU fans invaded the Akron campus at night and burned a giant “K” on a scaffold.

In a midnight raid, UA fans hoisted an Akron pennant on a Kent State flagpole, cut the ropes and greased the pole. They left graffiti on a sidewalk near the library, painting “Akron U was here” and “Akron 70, KSU 0.”

The Golden Flashes held a torchlight parade and burned an effigy of a Zippers player. During Akron’s pep rally, KSU fans flew overhead in three airplanes and dumped 1,000 fluttering Daily Kent Stater newspapers onto the assembly.

Yes, it was some week.

A crowd of 13,197 converged on the Rubber Bowl for the 14th meeting of the schools dating to 1923. Kent State coach Trevor Rees and his Flashes were three-touchdown favorites over Akron coach Paul Baldacci and his Zippers.

After a defensive struggle, KSU won 13-6, but the close score was a moral victory for UA. Kent State majorettes carried away the Wagon Wheel.

“Blessed victory … sweet, soothing nectar of the Gridiron Gods,” the Chestnut Burr yearbook cooed. “This one — above all else — the Flashes wanted but badly.”

Akron vowed to win the trophy in 1947, but the Zippers lost nine straight seasons to the Flashes.

Ken “Red” Cochrane, UA coach and athletic director, waved a white flag after a 48-18 loss in 1954, announcing that the annual game against KSU was being suspended.

“It was obvious we could no longer compete,” Cochrane said.

After an 18-year lapse, the rivalry was renewed in 1972. Leigh Herington, assistant director of alumni relations at KSU, searched the campus and found the Wagon Wheel in a basement. The teams battled to a 13-13 tie at the Rubber Bowl.

In 1979, Akron finally tasted “the sweet, soothing nectar of the Gridiron Gods” in a 15-3 win in Kent. With the exceptions of 1980, 1982 and 1991, the teams have played every year since.

Akron leads the series 32-24-2 with the next game Saturday, in Kent. The Wagon Wheel awaits the victor.

Dean Emeritus Raymond E. Manchester, 89, former two-term Kent mayor, reminisced about his collegiate career in a 1973 interview with the Beacon Journal — eight months before his death at age 90.

“Those years were wonderful,” he said. “That’s the only word to describe it. The university was smaller. As a result, the teachers were a lot closer to the students and their problems and interests.

“That’s what college is all about: Students and their interests. You don’t need fancy buildings and all that garbage. You just need students and teachers.”

And once a year, Dean Manchester, you need an old wagon wheel.

Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price is the author of the book Lost Akron from The History Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 at mjprice@thebeaconjournal.com.