Thursday, August 16, 2012

A. C. Gilbert: Connecting Idaho, the Olympics, Erector Sets, Model Trains, and More

Even in these days of “instant on, instant gone” news cycles, people are still talking and writing about the Olympics. So why not here? Specifically, about another Idaho connection to the Games. Coincidentally, the Olympic track & field events began on August 3rd – the same day I posted my blog on historic Idaho Olympian Clarence “Hec” Edmundson. Hec, of course, was born in Moscow and competed in several running events.
A.C. Gilbert, Champion Wrestler.

That same day, Idaho State Historian Keith Petersen sent me a very kind note about the blog. He also pointed out another historic connection to the Olympics: Alfred Carlton “A.C.” Gilbert, who also started his Olympic journey in Moscow. I knew that Gilbert, the “Erector Set Man,” had spent some time in Idaho, but not about his athletic connection. Alfred was born in Salem, Oregon on February 15, 1884.

Although Alfred did well in school, he preferred physical activities, especially sports. The physical component of stage magic – sleight-of-hand – also attracted him to that hobby. He practiced diligently. In his autobiography, A.C. noted that he finally became good enough to “astound and delight my family and my friends.”

Albert’s father, Frank N. Gilbert, was a small-town banker. The family moved to Moscow in about 1892 or 1893, and lived there for a couple years before returning to Salem. About that time, the University of Idaho greeted its first students [blog, October 3].

A robust sports tradition began almost immediately at the University. Albert was naturally drawn to the athletic fields at the school, although he was rather young during the family’s first stay in Moscow.

Naturally, when they returned to Idaho around 1896, he jumped whole-heartedly into outdoor activities, and sports. Their favorite camping spot was Priest Lake, where, A.C. said, “My mother was the first white woman ever to go up to the head of the lake.”

He and his father also visited the Nez Perc├ęs Indian Reservation. There, his father bought him an Indian pony, purported to be “quite gentle.” A.C. tried to hide the fact that the pony was actually a wild bucking bronco, which threw him several times. His father eventually found out, and sent the animal back. Still, these and other experiences fed Albert’s life-long passion for hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities.

Albert was now old enough to actually try to of emulate the athletes he saw on the fields at the University in Moscow. Although he pursued many different athletic endeavors, pole vaulting became his particular fascination: “I thought it was wonderful, soaring so high in the air just by using a pole.”
Gilbert Vaulting, 1908. Autobiography.

Still too young to take an active part at the school, Albert put together his own “Moscow Athletic Club.” Club members competed among themselves in various sports, and even initiated a boys’ Field Day in town.

They repeated the event the following year (1899) and, “The town officials, the schools and the university all got behind the Field Day, and it was a big success.”

That support was probably enhanced by the fact that his father had been appointed to the University Board of Regents (Idaho Statesman, Boise, April 28, 1899).

In the fall of 1900, Albert enrolled at the Tualatin Academy, the prep school associated with Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. The family moved to Portland shortly after that and neither Albert nor the family returned to Idaho, except for vacations and business trips.

A.C. excelled at several sports at Pacific University and, after 1904, at Yale University. But it was his ability as a pole vaulter that gave him international recognition: He set several world records in the vault and won a Gold Medal at the 1908 Olympics in London, England. He was the first, or among the first, to use a bamboo pole instead of a heavy, stiff wooden rod. He is also credited with inventing the pole vaulting box. For decades, he served as an advisor to the vaulting team at Yale University.

His later business career and many innovations are far beyond the scope of this blog: Magic kits, the famous Erector Set, model trains, chemistry sets, and other educational “toys” made him a millionaire many times over. For more, visit the A. C. Gilbert Heritage Society and A.C. Gilbert’s Discovery Museum.
J. Russell School, ca 1902. University of Idaho Archives.

One wonders, as Historian Petersen has done, whether or not A.C. and Hec Edmundson knew each other. In the fall of 1896, when both families lived in Moscow, Albert would have been twelve years old, Hec ten. Both, therefore, would have attended J. Russell School, the only elementary school in town. Given their mutual interest in sports, it seems highly likely that they did meet. However, neither mentions the other in existing records, so we’ll never really know.
References:  [Illust-North]
Rafe Gibbs, Beacon for Mountain and Plain: Story of the University of Idaho, The Caxton Printers, Caldwell, Idaho (© The Regents of the University of Idaho, 1962).
A.C. Gilbert with Marshall McClintock, The Man Who Lives in Paradise: The Autobiography of A. C. Gilbert, Rinehart Publishing, New York (1954).
Keith Petersen, “A. C. Gilbert: Millionaire with Moscow Roots,” Latah Legacy, Vol. 8, No. 3, Latah County Historical Society, Moscow, Idaho (Summer 1979).