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Ridgefield High’s football state record from 1940s remains a mark to marvel

Unbeaten, unscored on teams of 1940 & 1941 put pre-war Ridgefield Spudders on the map

By , Columbian staff writer
9 Photos
The 1941 Ridgefield Spudders, as pictured in the school yearbook, won their third consecutive league title by continuing their shutout streak all season.
The 1941 Ridgefield Spudders, as pictured in the school yearbook, won their third consecutive league title by continuing their shutout streak all season. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Shirley Fadness questioned whether four roasted chickens and all the side dishes were enough to feed Ridgefield High School’s football team of some 25 teenagers.

To no surprise, the fixings included potatoes made two ways since “real Spudders like potatoes,” her husband, John Fadness, once said.

Mrs. Fadness got accustomed to helping make her husband’s annual after-season sports banquets memorable in small-town Ridgefield, population 640, in the early 1940s. This one honored the 1941 Ridgefield team that made headlines two weeks before the United States entered World War II.

Nearly 80 years ago, Ridgefield completed the second of back-to-back unbeaten seasons without allowing an opponent to score. According to media reports, the 17 consecutive shutouts in 1940 and 1941 set a state record in an era when the organization later renamed the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association separated schools by Class A and Class B — Ridgefield was Class B.

The most recent team to shut out all regular-season opponents was O’Dea’s 1995 Class AAA state championship team, according to longtime Washington prep football historian David Maley. That 1995 season also is when Ridgefield (Class A) captured the school’s only football state title.

The WIAA didn’t sanction a football state-playoff system until 1973. If it had in that era, Fadness’ Spudders might have dominated more than just in Southwest Washington.

After all, as one opposing coach said, the Potato Express train is tough to slow down.

• • •

At age 25, John Fadness caught a lucky break when Ridgefield had a coaching vacancy in 1938.

He spent two years as an assistant at Woodland; the rural setting of small-town Southwest Washington echoed his hometown of Yelm and later, Parkland. He played center at Pacific Lutheran before graduating from the College of Puget Sound in 1936.

He married Shirley Savage shortly before the young couple settled in Ridgefield, a town with a potato-farming heritage and shingles mills that served as its primary industry. The Bratlie Brothers Mill, owned by quarterback Jack Bratlie’s family, provided a major impetus to the local economy for more than two decades.

Before the current high school on Hillhurst Road opened in 1971, the previous Ridgefield High opened in 1928 on Pioneer Street between North Fifth and Eighth avenues. Ridgefield hired Fadness to teach science and coach football, basketball and baseball, plus track and field until the school dropped the sport in 1939. He grew into a daily routine of carrying a thermos of black coffee to last all day, and a briefcase holding lesson plans, graded assignments and practice notes he whipped out at lunch.

Fadness spent his entire career as an educator. Influencing young people is what Fadness lived for, said his daughter, Jenesi Talbert, of Tacoma. As a teacher and coach, he was fair, yet firm.

“He did it well,” she said in a recent interview with The Columbian, “and he enjoyed it.”

Fadness was one of eight teachers at the 182-student high school. It didn’t take long for “Mr. Fad” to be a favorite among the student body, and with it, came the success on the field.

• • •

While a war raged in Europe, Ridgefield battled on the field.

It entered the 1940 season — Fadness’ third year — as the defending Tri-County Conference champions. The Spudders ran a single-wing offense; their offensive line averaged 155 pounds led by first-year center Ed Claiborne. Burton “Red” Johnston started in the backfield since ninth grade. Bratlie, at quarterback, also was the high point scorer in basketball and pitching ace in baseball. He also played saxophone in the band and orchestra.

Ridgefield played most home games at 2 p.m. Fridays on J.F. Schenk Field, named after the district’s superintendent. The field was five years away from $1,524 in donations for an electronic scoreboard and light installations.

By mid-season of 1940, Ridgefield outscored opponents 125-0 when Columbian Sports Editor Al Stump received a crumpled-up letter in the mail. As a small school, the Spudders didn’t get the same publicity as Dutch Shields’ eventual 10-0 Vancouver High team nor as much glory as the presumed state leader in rushing touchdowns, Camas’ Steve Daley.

That angered a Ridgefield resident who called himself the Ridgefield Revenger in a poison-penned letter to Stump.

“Listen, you half-blined busher,” the letter read, “don’t you realize we have a halfback here that makes this Daley kid look like an infirmary case?”

That halfback was Johnston, a burly-yet-shifty 165-pounder who dreamt of playing in the Rose Bowl for the University of Washington. The teen would’ve been a four-year starter for Ridgefield if he wasn’t deemed ineligible his senior year because of his age. Ramblin’ Red averaged two touchdowns a game.

“Can anyone in the state match him?” Stump questioned in a November 1940 column in The Columbian. Stevenson coach Scotty Cummins knew the answer. Johnston had touchdown runs of 70 and 55 yards on his Bulldogs that season.

“Johnston,” the coach said at the time, “is just plenty good.”

So, too, was Ridgefield. The team joined tiny Mabton in eastern Washington as the two teams statewide to go undefeated, untied and unscored on in 1940. The Spudders outscored its nine opponents, 222-0.

Nearly a year to the day after Cummins’ complement of Johnston is when Stevenson’s coach felt his team had the best chance to score on a team he called the Potato Express … because it kept on rolling.

• • •

The Trico featured Battle Ground, La Center, Union of Mill Plain, Ridgefield, Stevenson, Washington School for the Deaf, Washougal, and Woodland. Its two youngest coaches — Fadness at Ridgefield and Cummins at Stevenson — quickly rose through the ranks by developing winning programs.

Three years earlier at Whitman College, Cummins was offered $100 a game by the New York Giants football team to turn pro as a receiver. He also had a minor-league baseball contract on the table, but opted for a more stable line of work of education, and later, became a small business owner.

By the time Ridgefield and Stevenson met in late October 1941, Ridgefield’s shutout streak continued its first three games against Kalama (0-0), Union (20-0) and School for the Deaf (25-0) in spite of few returning lettermen and loads of newcomers.

Claiborne, who earned the league’s lineman of the year honor in 1941, anchored an experienced line. Speedster Bennie Wray called all signals and racked up a handful of multi-touchdown games at halfback. Ed Murray’s size at left end made it a breeze to lead the team in receiving yards and interceptions. Howard Anderson was the team’s only four-year starter, playing fullback.

Heavy rains made for a mud-soaked Stevenson field, which didn’t play in the home team’s favor on their best drive of the game.

“He’s in — he got in!” Cummins shouted toward referee Eugene Gentry about his fullback finding the end zone.

Gentry, paid $3 by the home team to officiate, never signaled a Stevenson touchdown with Ridgefield leading 12-0. He walked to the even-keeled coach to explain the player’s knee was down shy of the goal line. Nobody really knew since rains washed away the chalked lines. Cummins pleaded his case for a 12-6 score so hard the coach’s gum he hastily chewed landed on Gentry’s foot.

Ridgefield won, 19-0, with touchdowns by Wray and Anderson. Five weeks later, the annual tradition of playing Woodland on Thanksgiving Day ended in a 12-0 Spudder shutout to stretch its unbeaten streak to 20 games and its third straight league crown. The shutout streak hit 17 games over two seasons.

Ten days later, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

After the season, Fadness wrote: “May your championships continue through life. I know playing this sport has given you more than just enjoyment. Probably some will be called in fulfilling the duty which many of our citizens are doing now. I know from what you have met on the gridiron, the practice field, your duty will be well-fitted.”

• • •

War time brought changes to Americans’ lives. In Washington’s high school sports scene, the 1943 state basketball tournament was canceled, and numerous schools statewide did not field certain sports teams because of transportation issues.

Locally, three Trico schools — La Center, Union of Mill Plain and Washington School for the Deaf — did not play football in 1942. The remaining five schools played each other twice for an eight-game schedule.

In 1940 and 1941, Ridgefield went 16-0-1 and never allowed a point. Its unbeaten and shutout streak ended with a 19-0 loss to Kalama to open the 1942 season under new head coach James Van Hoose.

Many of Ridgefield’s players on the historic teams served in the military during World War II. The war story of Lt. Bratlie, the quarterback of the 1940 team, is well-documented. In 1945, an American B-17 bomber Bratlie flew in as a navigator crash-landed in rural Hungary. Nearby Hungarian villagers kept the crew safe from capture, and it took 35 days for the airmen to return to their unit after their bombing mission departure. Bratlie went into education after the war, and is in the Pacific Lutheran Hall of Fame as a member of the 1947 football team.

Fadness also joined the war efforts. The coach left Ridgefield at the end of the 1941-42 school year for a teaching and coaching job in Mount Vernon before enlisting in the U.S. Navy Air Corps in 1943. He returned to education at Tacoma’s Lincoln High teaching math, coaching multiple sports, and later became athletic director. He died in 1976 at age 63.

Fadness spent four years at Ridgefield and won three league titles. He never forgot his time in a small town that’s now turned into one of Washington’s fastest-growing cities. After World War II, Talbert, Fadness’ daughter, said her father made annual trips back to Ridgefield at Homecoming to revisit the school that gave him his head-coaching start.

And a program that earned opponents’ respect as the Potato Express.

“Every opponent’s objective that faced the orange and blue was to break that long string of (unbeaten) and unscored upon games,” Fadness wrote after the 1941 season. “This meant we were being faced by the best which our opponents could give us. And we can proudly say, ‘We took their best, gave our best, which meant victory for R.H.S.’ ”

1940 Ridgefield Spudders game results

Ridgefield 7, Kalama 0

Ridgefield 32, Parkrose (Ore.) 0

Ridgefield 51, Union (Mill Plain) 0

Ridgefield 33, La Center 0

Ridgefield 2, Washington School for the Deaf 0 (forfeit)

Ridgefield 15, Battle Ground 0

Ridgefield 21, Stevenson 0

Ridgefield 27, Washougal 0

Ridgefield 34, Woodland 0

1941 Ridgefield Spudders game results

Ridgefield 0, Kalama 0

Ridgefield 25, Union (Mill Plain) 0

Ridgefield 25, Washington School for the Deaf 0

Ridgefield 19, Stevenson 0

Ridgefield 33, La Center 0

Ridgefield 14, Washougal 0

Ridgefield 13, Battle Ground 0

Ridgefield 12, Woodland 0