The Four Oarsmen of Hillsdale

In the Hillsdale County Fair Museum hangs a newspaper article with a picture of four young men casually posed around a table wearing what looks like abbreviated long underwear with black shoes.  Although the athletic sartorial standards of 1879 wouldn't give competition to Nike, the story of these guys is the equal of any tale of amazing athletic success.

Who knows what inspired the four Hillsdale men, who were clerks and firemen in their day jobs, to get involved in the gentlemanly sport of rowing.  It was typically a pursuit of men who had a lifelong familiarity with the narrow-hulled "shell," as well as training by experts who understood the intricacies of the sport.  Principle members of the Hillsdale Rowing Club, Captain Clarence Terwilliger, Lew F. Beckhardt, T.D. Wilson and E.B.Van Valkenburgh had no experience in rowing and could only practice on Baw Beese Lake when their work day concluded. There were no coaches, athletic trainers, training diet, workout regimens or sponsors.  They had no idea what they were doing, using only "common sense" to figure out how to row together in the most efficient, effective way.  

Their brash confidence led them to the National Regatta in Saratoga, NY after only two months of training, there to compete in the National American Amateur Rowing Championship.  It was the most prestigious amateur rowing competition in the country.  They won the mile and a half race by the fastest time ever recorded - 8:32.75.

To say Hillsdale County went crazy when the "Hillsdales" returned home is an understatement.  In an orgy of enthusiasm, all stops were pulled out.  The July 17, 1879 edition of the Hillsdale Heraldreported that the celebration began at the train depot grounds where the "crush was simply immense and as the shell was taken from the coach, followed by the victorious crew, a prolonged and deafening shout went up from the assembled multitude."  A nautical theme dominated the procession from the depot.  First came an escort of firemen in uniform, eight of them carrying oars.  They were followed by  members of the Hillsdale Rowing Club bearing the shell and the City Band in uniform.  Then the Oarsmen themselves passed in a carriage drawn by six horses, on either side of which men carried the four oars of the shell.  Various other groups marched, including a member of the Rowing Club dressed as Uncle Sam.  He was mounted backward on a horse, using oars as though rowing and with a sign that announced "The dark horse won."  The noise was deafening as every bell in the city was rung, cannons were fired and the crowd continued to roar long after the parade passed.  At one point Captain Terwilliger stood up in the carriage and said something that no one could hear.  It didn't matter.  At the bandstand the mayor carried on so long that when Henry Waldron was implored to say a few words he demurred, saying that it wouldn't be proper to inflict any more speeches on the Oarsmen and he only wanted to say that they had won for themselves and Hillsdale a world-wide fame.

This exhausting welcome home was capped by a reception at Underwood's Opera House (where Gelzer's Hardware now stands). The decorations, as described by the Hillsdale Herald, were completely over the top and much appreciated.  Everybody who was anybody attended and the reception was a success, netting $200 for the Rowing Club in order to purchase new shells and other equipment.

Success continued.  The Hillsdales won the National American Amateur Rowing Championship in 1879,1880 and 1881, never losing a competition.  In the spring of 1882, the National Association of Amateur Oarsmen voted to send the Hillsdales to England to represent America in the Athletic Amateur Contest.  Money was raised for their passage, their oars replaced and other equipment purchased for them.  (There is no account to be found that tells whether they were outfitted in snappier uniforms or if they continued to wear their long underwear.)

The rowing style they had developed on their own on Baw Beese Lake elicited incredulous ridicule by the English crews.  The Oxford Rowing Team, no doubt offended, sniffed that the Hillsdales wouldn't be recognized as amateurs by English standards - which presumably valued a dignified appearance along with masculine athletic prowess.  

The derision of the Hillsdale's style could be ignored.  More difficult to deal with were the conditions on the Thames River, on which they would compete in a four and one half mile route.  To the Hillsdales the Thames was as much an opponent as the other rowing team.  Used to a short course and the relatively smooth water of lakes, the strong tide, crooked course and many boats that used the Thames as transportation created a situation that the Americans had never experienced.  There was a vessel that went ahead of the rowers to move away any other boats.  While this was a nice gesture, the wake of the vessel washed against the hull of the American boat, which had been positioned at the side of the Thames River, while the English boat traveled in the middle.  Despite all these challenges, the oarsmen from Hillsdale managed to gain a healthy lead when suddenly L.F. Beckhardt's seat broke.  Captain Terwilliger stopped the rowing and frantically tried to fix the seat as the spectators booed.  The boos turned to loud cheers when the English moved into the lead.  With grit and determination the Hillsdales rowed manfully and gained on their opponents.  The finish line found them just three lengths behind the English team.  

They lost the race but gained the admiration of the English.  An English newspaper, The Sportsmans, described their accomplishment as phenomenal and frankly admitted that only the untoward accident to their boat prevented the Hillsdales from bringing the world amateur title to America.  Their personal disappointment could never be forgotten, but the welcome they received on their return home was once again one of unalloyed admiration. 

In 1907, when President Theodore Roosevelt's railroad car stopped in Hillsdale, he said in his speech that as a boy the success and hard work of the Hillsdale Terwilliger crew had made a great impression on him.

As you enter the Hillsdale County Historical Society Museum at the County Fairgrounds, you will see one of the oars that the Hillsdales used in their 1879 success in their first National Regatta in Saratoga.  With a little imagination, visitors to the Museum can look at that oar and create a vision of four young men with an unconventional rowing style pulling steadily away from their competition.

The Four Oarsmen Themselves

The four men who posted the three wins at the National Regatta in Saratoga, NY and went to England for the Amateur Athletic Contest were all members of the H.B.B.C. baseball team, as well as firemen.  These fellows must have been real hunks.  Much was made of their superb physical appearance, with the Hillsdale Herald sounding more like a swooning young girl than a sober newspaper when describing them.     

C.W. Terwilliger, designated bow and captain, was born in Reading and apprenticed as a carpenter.  He made his living, however, as a clerk in a bookstore.  He was the pitcher of the baseball team and "developed the muscles of his arm to a marked degree.  Hunting and gymnasium have given tone to the general muscular system.  As foreman of the hose company, captain of the ball club, etc., he has learned how to command, and his cool head, quiet bearing, and rigid discipline have been most serviceable to the crew."     

J.D. Wilson, No. 2, was the "'crack nine' of baseball fame, and was known as a good 'batter.'" Harper's Weekly.)     

 L.F. Beckhardt, (Lew) No. 3 was a bony, muscular fellow who was first basemen of the baseball team.     

E.B. VanValkenburgh was designated stroke for the team.  After the Hillsdales won their first national regatta, Eb, as he was known, fell back into Lew's arms in "unbounded joy and laughed for joy."

JoAnne P. Miller