Gilbert Boxing Arena, Hillsboro, N. Hamp

Philip R. Harvey
August 1, 2012

In an open field along West Main Street, that I assume belonged to Mr. Carlton Eaton because his corn field extended to about 200 yards from the highway at that point, a Mr. Gilbert had constructed his sports arena on the land where the west end of the Armory now stands.

arena sketch

Gilbert’s Boxing Arena, West Main Street, Hillsboro, New Hampshire, c. 1932. Sketch by Philip Harvey

He and his wife, Noreen, were active entrepreneurs during those early depression years. They ran the “Gables”, now the Town Office complex on West Main Street, that consisted of a Shell gas station, a restaurant in the small building in front along the main road, and presumably tourist rooms in the gabled building. It may have been the inspiration for the famous fictional sign that read: “STOP, EAT and GET GAS”. In those early days of the automobile when Main Street was a principal highway from points east and west, the Gables was a busy spot. But it wasn’t enough to keep Mr. Gilbert occupied fulltime so he decided to convert the barn into an athletic gym where boxers and wrestlers could train. Boxing was a big time entertainment in those days with Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney still capturing the headlines, and a pure sport of wrestling had a former Dartmouth star football player, Gus Sonnenburg, as its major attraction.

 The Gables
The Gables, West Main Street, Hillsboro, New Hampshire, c 1931

The gym facilities were on the east end of the barn and elevated above the ground floor. A nearly full-size boxing ring occupied the central area and west end. Several local young men aspiring to become boxers learned the fundamentals there.

During the winter some boxing and wrestling programs were held in the barn facility, but in the summer season regular programs were scheduled in the arena. This structure was completely built of lumber with only the nails and hardware excepted. I am not aware that the Manahan, Phelps, McCullough Collection has a photo of it. It was roughly octagonal in shape about 100 to 125 feet in diameter and 20 to 25 feet high. The outer walls were constructed of vertical boards that never received a finishing coat of paint, so the arena always had the appearance of an unfinished circular barn without a roof. In the interior, the central ground-level area was occupied by a regulation boxing ring. Along the interior wall, bleacher-type bench seats were built that encircled the ring except at the front entrance. Enough space was left around the ring for the boxers, aides and officials to move about freely. There were dressing rooms built under a portion of the bleachers. It has been reported to me by a local historian of high repute that certain youths of the day would pry a couple of the boards loose on the back wall of the structure and gain free entrance to the best show in town.

Most of the events involved boxers although there were also wrestling matches. The participants were often older fighters who were regional has-beens and who fought only for the few dollars that a fight would pay to the winner. It is unlikely that there were any major fights during the brief history of the arena’s life, but Mr. Gilbert, the promoter, attempted to include some established fighters on each card.

During the time that fights were scheduled, boxers were frequently sighted downtown looking for a little excitement, and they would occasionally create some themselves by picking a fight with some local personage with a reputation for physical prowess, and who was willing to risk being decapitated to gain a bragging right. One local celebrity was “Bunny” Young who was a youthful gentleman of considerable brawn. I am not certain who challenged whom. Bunny was a star pitcher on the Hillsboro Town Team, with a variety of pitches and a velocity that would be clocked today in the 90 MPH plus zone. He had established enough local notoriety to earn an invitation to Boston for a look-see. Since he returned to Hillsboro, he must not have gained their full confidence.

Returning to the saga of the scrap between Kid Young and the burly “has-been,” negotiations took place, apparently much like the pistol duels in Nevada in the days of Mark Twain and the Virginia City silver bonanza. The Kid Young spat didn’t fizzle in quite the manner that Twain’s did ( Twain’s second hoodwinked his challenge into believing that Twain was a professional gunslinger), but rather, as tensions built, cooler heads apparently prevailed, and any public fisticuffs were cancelled. Whether or not private combat was arranged, perhaps in the bowels of the Gilbert gym, such a clandestine event was never reported to me by my connected sources. It appears that Walter “Bunny” Young went on to live out his life more normally than perhaps was foreseen at the time, and recently I have discovered that he now rest peacefully in the Butler Cemetery in Deering along with many of his old friends and baseball associates.

One of the better known personages of Hillsboro was a young man who was affectionately known as Midge Sullivan. He had come by his name naturally for he was small in stature, possibly not reaching five feet in height, but otherwise was well built. Although I did not know him well enough to judge his personality, it must have been special because he was always accepted regardless of the nature of the community activity. During his early years, he was the mascot and bat boy for the Hillsboro town baseball team, and it was his desire to actually be one of the team members and was for a brief period.

But when the Gilbert gym opened Midge apparently felt that boxing might be his road to glory. After a few months of training, we all could have become believers because he was a picture of muscular perfection. Now having led you to this point, regretfully, I cannot report to you his record as a pugilist, but since his name is not emblazoned on signs at the entrance of town, it is easy to surmise that he was not that successful. But those who knew him wish that it might have been so.

Hillsboro Town Team
Hillsboro Town Team 1928: Back Row, Wilfred Sullivan, Merrick Crosby, Royce Ding Sleeper, Paul Scruton, Charles Scruton, Al Thornton, Frank Fowle. Front Row, Cicarello Sp), Harry McClintock, Clare the catcher (a hired hand), Eddie Wilgroth, Carl Harrington, Willis McClintock. Front, Midge Sullivan [1]

It is possible that the boxing enterprise would have played a larger role in the entertainment history of Hillsboro had it not been for the untimely death of Mr. Gilbert. He died suddenly leaving his wife and three young children, and a complex business operation. To my knowledge the boxing activities cease with his death and the arena soon suffered from disrepair. Its final demise is not known to me, but it seems to have disappeared from the scene during the latter years of the depression and its existence has been largely forgotten by the Hillsboro residents of later generations.

Copyright , Philip R. Harvey, Hillsborough, New Hampshire, 03244, August 1, 2012

  [1] Hillsboro always had a good town baseball team  as was true of this team, most of whom played into the early 1930s.  In recalling their skills, Harry McClintock was probably the most talented member of this team although Merrick Crosby was not far behind him in baseball skills and proved to have much more longevity.  Harry played third base, had a strong arm and could make major-league plays.  He was a strong right-handed batter who was the team’s cleanup hitter.  At about the time of this photo, he had a trial with the Red Sox but apparently did not quite measure up to Major League expectations.  He returned to Hillsboro and played for only a short time before retiring.  I played on a softball team with him a decade later, he at first base and me at third.  Merrick Crosby was the backbone of the town team for many years.  He could play most of the positions, but he was strongest as a pitcher or center fielder, and for years he was the most consistent hitter batting from the left side.  Royce “Ding” Sleeper was the manager although in earlier years he had been an active player.  He later was the director of the Hillsboro Band.   If any of the members would frighten a pitcher it would have been Paul Scruton who looked the part of a tough scrapper and fierce competitor (a tough out).  He stopped playing about this time and I saw him play just a few games.  He and his brother Charlie were skillful players.  Charles was a left- handed pitcher  who played first base when not pitching.  Carl “Pint” Harrington was the golden boy of the team,  played shortstop and later left field.  He was an average hitter as was Eddie Wilgroth who played second base.  Al Thornton was the  leading pitcher and the team was usually successful when he was on the mound.  While  from Antrim, he had an Hillsboro connection (Mrs. Frank Mosley was his sister).  Willis McClintock,  Harry’s brother,  played right field and was a good player but did not measure up to Harry’ standards.  Wilfred Sullivan was a bench player, but got to play in most games as a pinch hitter or in one of the outfield positions.  Frank Fowle was also from Antrim at the time but had an Hillsboro connection.  He was a brother to Mrs. Fred Hill, Sr.   Frank was a good player who batted very well right-handed with an open stance.  It was known derisively as batting with a foot in the bucket (Water bucket located by the bench).