Starting in 1954, the Hartsville Quarterback Club, the Trousdale Board of Education and the town of Hartsville worked together to put on a grand show – the Tobacco Bowl!
The event, a playoff between two of the state’s best high school football teams, was the No. 1 playoff game in Tennessee for over 20 years, until the Tennessee Secondary Schools Association began heavily promoting its own playoff event, the Clinic Bowl.
The football spectacle – and it was indeed a spectacle – was the result of hard work by the late Chester Davis. Davis was a Hartsville businessman and natural promoter. He would later, in 1966, start the town’s first radio station, WJKM.
But Chester wasn’t the only man behind the Tobacco Bowl’s success.
He had the good fortune to work with another Hartsville icon, the late Gene McIlwain.
Many people will recognize Gene’s name for the annual award given to a Hartsville football player and named in his honor.
McIlwain was not a native of Trousdale County. He graduated from Smith County High School. After that he attended Vanderbilt, where he was himself an outstanding football player. Finishing his education at Peabody and Cumberland University, McIlwain taught school here. He was the physical education teacher and coach.
And he married a local beauty, Kathleen Rogers.
The couple and their daughter, Jo Ann, lived in the lovely rock house at the intersection of McMurry Boulevard and Broadway in Hartsville. The house has long been a Hartsville landmark as you enter town from the west on Highway 25.
While McIlwain was coaching our TCHS football team, the Yellow Jackets defeated Westmoreland by a score of 128-0, which may be a state record. He followed his coaching years here by coaching at his alma mater, Cumberland University, for eight years.
As enterprising as Chester Davis, Gene McIlwain entered the paving business, working on highways here and across the Midstate. McIlwain also was in the movie business in that he was the owner of a movie theatre in Lafayette and part-owner of the old Eveska Theatre in Hartsville. And not content with just being a successful businessman, he also ran for the state legislature.
He was elected six times to the Tennessee House of Representatives, representing Trousdale, Macon and Clay counties.
Davis and McIlwain were an impressive team!
The Quarterback Club was organized after a few local residents noticed a lack of interest in our local football team. One of them, the late Tolly Wilburn, suggested the parents and businessmen of the town create a ‘Quarterback Club’ to promote our high school team.
Davis jumped at the idea and made a round trip through town to see if there was interest. There was and Chester was primed and ready to see it happen.
Gene McIlwain was elected the first president of the group, which soon grew to 190 members! That was probably larger than the total number of students in the high school!
Another resident, C.H. Wilburn, suggested the club sponsor a playoff game. Now Davis and McIlwain had something they could sink their teeth into, and they did.
The two savvy businessmen hit the ground running.
Their first bit of genius was to engage the Tennessee State University Marching Band to put on the halftime show – and you thought the Super Bowl came up with the idea of spectacular halftime shows!
The band alone guaranteed a good crowd.
But there was more, as they invited local dignitaries, beauty queens and celebrities to sit on the sidelines.
The game was broadcast live across the state and Nashville radio and TV sportscasters manned the microphones.
The first game attracted a crowd of 2,500 people!
It was everything it was hyped up to be and more!
The Quarterback Club divided the gate proceeds three ways. The two visiting teams each got a third and the last third went to the club. The club then pumped the profits back into the field and stadium.
An article in The Vidette in 1962 pointed out that the Tobacco Bowl had in its first eight years brought in gate receipts of $46,000. This was back when Cokes sold for a dime!
The Club had invested over $60,000 into our Creekbank stadium, making it one of the best high school football venues in the state! It could now seat 5,000 people!
And it was largely thanks to two forward-thinking and hard-working men: Chester Davis and Gene McIlwain!
NOTE: The Historical Society will hold its monthly meeting on Saturday, Nov. 10 at 2 p.m. at the County Archives building, located behind the administration building on Broadway. Our guest speaker will be Bobby Joe Lewis. All meetings are open to the public.