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Glory days on display

Tyrone Wacker, on the left, with Corey Kosek, owner of the Cactus Jack’s Bar & Grill in Stewart, standing in front of some of the memorabilia assembled for the 212 Athletic Conference. Photo by Tom Hauer

Tyrone Wacker, on the left, with Corey Kosek, owner of the Cactus Jack’s Bar & Grill in Stewart, standing in front of some of the memorabilia assembled for the 212 Athletic Conference. Photo by Tom Hauer

Stewart grad working to preserve the memories of the 212 conference

The years after World War II were the best of times for area high schools, according to Tyrone (Stine) Wacker who grew up in Stewart, Minn.

“Every small town had a school, and we shouldn’t forget that it was the best of times,” said Wacker. “Those years from the end of World War II to the mid ‘60s were the peak years for small-town America. All the small towns had businesses and were booming. Most farmers worked 160 acres and made a living without having another job.”

It was also a great time to be involved in athletics.

“Back in those days, just about every garage had a basket on it,” Wacker remembered, “and we as kids gathered together at the city park and created our own games. We just got together, chose up sides and played. Our own freedom and creativity was a big part of the fun, and we enjoyed playing at the park.”

Things change. Schools have merged, towns are shrinking, and fewer kids are playing ball at the city parks these days.

The 212 Athletic Conference was formed in 1947 and included eight schools located on highway 212: (town’s 1950 population) Sacred Heart (745), Renville (1,323), Danube (437), Bird Island (1,333), Hector (1,196), Buffalo Lake (724), Stewart (695) and Brownton (696). Here’s a test: Can you match the mascot to the correct school? Bears, Bison, Bulldogs, Gophers, Hawks, Indians, Panthers and Vikings. Answers are at the end of this story.

Today, Sacred Heart, Renville and Danube are all together as Renville County West; Bird Island is joined with Lake Lillian and Olivia as BOLD; Stewart (which used to be with Brownton as McLeod West) has joined with Buffalo Lake-Hector; Brownton no longer has a school, and students can go to Glencoe-Silver Lake or travel south to Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop (GFW).

Wacker, born in 1944 and a graduate of Stewart High School (SHS) in 1962, was a multi-sport athlete and successful multi-sport coach in high school and college. He was the youngest of three Wacker boys, Roger, Delano and Tyrone. He also had three sisters, Linnea, Audrey and Jolene. Tyrone married Vereen Peterson, of Hector, in 1965. Tyrone’s parents, Milo and Vera encouraged them to play sports. Milo gave his blessings to the boys and told them they could do what he wasn’t able to do.

Tyrone played on seven 212 Conference Championship teams and five runner-up teams in his career at SHS. He was an All-Conference selection in football and basketball, ran the sprints in track and played catcher/pitcher in baseball. He played football and baseball in college. He went on to coach more than 40 years in high school, junior college and college. Several of his teams would go on to win state championships.

Tyrone is also a true history buff and enjoys doing research in his retirement. With that background of sports participation and a love for history, Wacker put together a detailed history of the 212 Athletic Conference over a 27-year period, from 1947-1974. His project, which took nearly three years to complete, turned into a web page on the Internet, with pictures, history, statistics and highlights on the eight-team 212 Conference.

But it didn’t start out to be a web page. After he retired from Jackson County he thought he had to find something to do with his time.

“I was the worse retiree in Jackson County,” he recalled.

That’s when Wacker met with a bunch in Danube to discuss putting a 212 Conference Museum together.

“Everybody looked at me and said people should never forget those days of the 212 Conference.”

It was decided to make a museum in Danube and that’s when Wacker began collecting stuff for the museum. He started picking up photos and stats, visited schools, newspapers and picked up microfilm from the St. Paul Historical Society.

“From there, I thought the museum was a bad idea in the old Danube High School. Nobody would see it, and the school was in rough physical shape. So I decided to put it on a web site. Fortunately, I married a girl from Hector who was really good at computers and organization. Organization and research skills is what I had to learn. Most importantly, it wasn’t work putting this together . . . it was a lot of fun.”

The famous “212 Gold Brick” was instituted in 1947 and was recently discovered at the Olivia High School. Photo by Tom Hauer

The famous “212 Gold Brick” was instituted in 1947 and was recently discovered at the Olivia High School. Photo by Tom Hauer

Wacker’s research states the 212 Conference was “born” on April 14, 1947. LeRoy Henning, the principal and basketball coach at Sacred Heart, and Dale Aaseth, the principal and coach at Bird Island, discussed the alignment of a new conference in the fall of 1946. Minnesota High School League encouraged schools to get organized into leagues or conferences to give schools and students the opportunity to compete for conference championships as well as in district, regional, and state tournaments. The original 212 Conference ran from the fall of 1947 to the spring of 1974. The original eight teams went through 1974. After that more teams were added, and the conference split into the east and west.

The 212 Conference name was an obvious choice, since all the schools were along U.S. Highway 212. The highway was on the Yellowstone Trail, part of the first transcontinental northern highway in the country, running from Massachusetts to Washington. By 1934, U.S. 212 was redesignated and went through Brownton, Stewart, Buffalo Lake, Hector, Bird Island, Renville, Danube and Sacred Heart — the members of the 212 Conference when it was formed in 1947. There were other towns, such as Olivia, Norwood, and Clara City that asked to join the conference but were voted down because of population or location.

The website that Wacker created is, has pages and pages of photos and history of all the boys’ athletic teams involved. Wacker thought the website may come down in a couple of years because of the money he has to pay to keep it up and running. So what’s next? He is putting together a display of 212 Athletic Conference memorabilia at Cactus Jack’s Bar & Grill in Stewart. Cactus Jack’s, owned by Corey Kosek, is located right on Highway 212 at 260 South Street.

The famous “212 Gold Brick.” Photo by Tom Hauer

The famous “212 Gold Brick.” Photo by Tom Hauer

The 212 Conference had a traveling trophy for football called the “Gold Brick.” On the back of the brick is the history of the Gold Brick, and it reads as follows: The organizational meeting of the 212 Athletic Conference was held in Hector on April 14, 1947. The original constitution called for a Gold Brick, which to be a football traveling trophy. A drawing determined which school was to hold the brick at the beginning of the 1947 season. Brownton won the honor. The team with the brick retains it until they lose a football game. The team that defeats them gets the brick and they in turn keep it until they lose a football game. The brick does not change hands if there is a tie score.

The brick was designed and painted by Mr. LeRoy Henning, who at that time was the coach and principal at Sacred Heart.

Now to the trivia question: What mascot goes with what school? Bird Island Panthers; Brownton Bears; Buffalo Lake Bisons; Danube Hawks; Hector Bulldogs; Renville Indians; Sacred Heart Vikings and the Stewart Gophers. If you guessed correctly you win the gold brick!

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