Columbus organization to restore Magnolia Bowl

By Carmen K. Sisson/The Commercial Dispatch

COLUMBUS — It’s easy to overlook the squatting behemoth that serves as a gateway to downtown.

Faded and worn, the stadium sits silent, encircled by concrete but endowed with a proud legacy — somewhere in there. Once the home of victories and triumphs, there is little glory to be found in the Magnolia Bowl of today. No one clamors at the gates, and the storied walls whisper only of the ravages of time.

That could change if a local organization, Link’d Young Professionals, succeeds in an ambitious, five-phase restoration plan.

Magnolia Bowl began as a ditch in the road — literally. In 1933, as part of the Works Progress Administration’s nationwide public works program, men gathered with shovels and picks to fill the valley with 25 feet of dirt and, if legend is correct, 40 old automobiles.

And from that time until the last game was played Oct. 30, 1998, the stadium lit up the night sky regularly, bringing a community together.

Sissie Sisson, a 1955 graduate of Lee and a trumpet player and majorette, remembers how she and her band mates lined up on Friday afternoons at what is now the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library. Like flag bearers leading the troops into battle, they marched through downtown through the gate and onto the field.

The games were a place to see and be seen, whether you were intimately connected to the gridiron action or not.

“It was really interesting, because the whole town went,” Sisson said. “I remember the friends, the band music, the excitement, the school spirit. It was like the whole town was together for the same thing, like a great big family — we’re talking about hundreds of people.”

Councilman Charlie Box holds similar memories. He played halfback for the Lee High Generals from 1957 to 1959, and he remembers that even though his team didn’t bring home a championship, the support from the fans was almost palpable, an electric energy that was exhilarating to young men on the cusp of adulthood.

“For little high school players who hadn’t played before very many people, it was a little bit intimidating,” Box said. “But it was good to have all those people behind you.

“There was so much history going back,” Box said. “You were standing on some strong shoulders when you played there. Back in Coach (Willie B.) Saunders’ day, there was a national championship team. It was a special, special place.”

The possibilities raised by Link’d Young Professionals’ civic-minded largesse have been met with enthusiasm by people like Sisson as well as city leaders like Box, Councilman Bill Gavin and Columbus Mayor Robert Smith.

Smith played defensive end in Magnolia Bowl in 1970, his senior year and the first year following integration. You never had to convince people to attend the games, Smith said. People packed the stands. He believes an amphitheater could be met with similar enthusiasm.

Gavin envisions tying an open air amphitheater into the Riverwalk, Trotter Convention Center and the new soccer complex.

At one time, he said, there were plans for the Columbus Municipal School District — which owns the 16th section land on which the stadium sits — to allow a skate park and other things to be built there. The funding was in place, but in the 11th hour, the deal fell through.

The younger people don’t remember the Magnolia Bowl in its heyday, Gavin said, but for those who do, it is steeped in memories that have withstood time far better than the aging stadium where they were forged.

“We have a lot of history in Columbus on all sides, and we should preserve those things,” Gavin said. “They serve as memories of our younger days and special times in our lives. I drive down toward City Hall and come by the Magnolia Bowl every day. I always look through the little gate, peer out onto the field, and there will be a flashback or some memory of times that have gone by. They’re hard to get back.”

The restoration that Link’d Young Professionals is attempting is an expensive, time-consuming process.

They began working there in 2010, scraping, patching and repainting the exterior walls as part of their “Clean Sweep Columbus” and “Scrape the Bowl” events, and this year they will continue those efforts, holding “Scrape the Bowl,” March 2, with volunteers preparing the area for more work to take place during the March 23 Clean Sweep.

When they first embraced the project, there wasn’t a lot of interest in it, Link’d President Jason Spears said. But as the gateway to downtown — the epicenter — he believes it could be transformed once more into a vibrant space benefiting the entire community with things like family-friendly concerts, outdoor theater productions and other activities.

Spears estimates it would take around $74,000 to restore the entire facility — a cost he believes is worthwhile for many of the reasons cited by Sisson and others.

“We see that being an opportunity to again unite the community in that particular area,” Spears said. “You’ve got something that can tether everybody together, and I guess that’s why I’ve worked so hard at it. So many people behind the scenes are steadfast in their resolve to see this thing through. The opportunities are endless.”