They arrived in Missoula by train on a Wednesday night in November, ready for adventure and a football game or two.
What are now the North Dakota State Bison were the Aggies of North Dakota Agricultural College in 1914. On Saturday, the FCS powerhouse Bison visit Missoula for the fifth time in 101 years to play in front of a record crowd of more than 26,000 in Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
NDSU upset the Grizzlies 12 years ago before a then-record assembly of 23,109 in the same arena. Those Bison, in their last year as NCAA Division II powerhouses, bused into Missoula after smoke forced their plane to land in Helena.
Things were different on the first trip to the Garden City.
“The Aggies are away to the west this afternoon on one of the biggest football trips ever taken by a similar team,” reported the Fargo Courier on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 1914, an article reprinted by the Missoulian that Thursday.
Coach Howard Wood was bringing 16 Aggies to Montana for a nine-day trip, the Courier said. They would play undefeated University of Montana on Friday the 13th and the Montana Aggies in Bozeman the following week.
Between games, the North Dakota team would head by rail to Gardiner. There, a three-day stay was to be punctuated by a Sunday trip into Yellowstone Park as far as Mammoth Hot Springs. They’d meet Montana’s Aggies in Bozeman the following Wednesday and get back to Fargo on Friday.
“The first game is to be played at Missoula and the local bunch will be considerably up in the air, as the altitude there is considerably higher than here,” a Fargo reporter wrote. “For this reason they will arrive a day before the game is to be played and spend that time becoming acclimated, climbing Sentinel mountain.”
That was no easy feat, the Courier assured. “It is reported that you have to pull on the grass above with your hands and push as hard as you can with your feet to make any progress at all. This will no doubt put the huskies in good trim for the game.”
If they believed their hometown paper, the Aggies were in for a surprise when they woke up Thursday morning, the Missoulian opined.
“Mount Sentinel is not a cliff, and at this the football players will marvel. ... Also the fact that we have real air in Missoula will be a source of satisfaction to the visitors because the Fargo paper has undoubtedly led the men to believe that they will be high and far above the clouds when they visit the Garden City,” the local paper said.
The 16 sleeping players from NDAC, the Missoulian reported Thursday, were “routed out by several representatives of (UM)" when they arrived at the Northern Pacific station at the top of North Higgins Avenue in their special car, a part of the North Coast Limited.
They were state champions of North Dakota, just as the Bruins had clinched the Montana state title the week before by beating the Aggies of Bozeman 26-9.
On Thursday afternoon, the visiting players carried “kodaks” and took snapshots as they climbed the trail up Mount Sentinel, reported the Missoulian’s “Man About Town." Then they strolled downtown, coming to a stop at a grocery store window, where a basket of red apples was on display. The young men were riveted.
“Theirs was the wistful look of a long-time resident of a cold, fruit-barren country suddenly transported and dropped in the midst of an orchard, hanging full of luscious fruit,” the columnist wrote.
It was late in Montana’s most successful season yet, its second and last under Coach A. George Heilman, who also taught bacteriology and physiology at the university. The “football management” at UM announced Wednesday that ticket prices for the final home game would be reduced to 75 cents “in order that the people of Missoula who have not seen the Bruins may have an opportunity to see the eleven in action.”
That was a gamble. On game day, with an eye on an unfavorable weather forecast, the Missoulian reported that the size of the crowd could dictate future football schedules at the university. The guarantee for North Dakota Agricultural was a hefty $600, and a crowd of 800 was needed to meet expenses.
It was the last of five home games in a 6-0-1 season. No attendance figure was reported afterward, but over the next two years the Bruins would play just four of their 12 games in Missoula.
Montana beat the Aggies 13-0 in a ragged contest. According to the Missoulian’s account, “The game was played on a field soaked by rain and snow and the players splashed through pools of water in their efforts to reach the goal.”
“The battle,” the game story added, “was a slow one and was featured by more arguments and more ‘rag-chewing’ than has been seen on (the) Montana field in many a day.”
They were just beginning to be called Bison when the boys from Fargo returned to Missoula in 1921 for another November tilt. They brought 19 players this time, and “stretched their limbs from the 1,000-mile (train) ride with a workout in the seclusion of the county fairgrounds during the afternoon.”
The Bruins were now Grizzlies, and a beat-up home team won 7-6 to kick off homecoming weekend. The Friday afternoon skirmish was played in a blizzard, and UM got soaked financially with a $1,500 guarantee.
By NDSU’s next visit in early October 1941, lights were installed at Dornblaser Field and the Grizzlies played their lone night game of the season.
A black bear cub from the Mission Mountains nicknamed “Wild Bill Kelly” was introduced as Montana’s mascot. More than 3,000 people, many of them Boy Scouts from around western Montana, saw the Grizzlies prevail 27-0. They were led by a senior end named Jack Swarthout, who scored on a double reverse.
Swarthout became coach at Montana in the 1960s. In 1969 and 1970, the Grizzlies earned berths in the Camellia Bowl, the small college national championship game in Sacramento, California. North Dakota State defeated them both times, spoiling perfect 10-0 regular seasons.
Forty-five years later, for all its success, the University of Montana still hasn’t completed a football season unbeaten. In fact, the last time that happened was in 1914, the year the Bruins of Missoula beat the sightseeing Aggies from Fargo in “real air.”