Sherburne History Center

Sherburne History Center
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Thursday, January 23, 2020

Coming Centennial of Handke Stadium

With the coming of the new decade, centennial celebrations emerge from the pages of history.  Nationally recognized centennial celebrations include prohibition and women’s suffrage.  Local centennial celebrations include the construction of Elkhi Stadium, also known as Handke Stadium.  Important not only for its age, it also serves as a monument to the center of recreation and outdoor sports in the community. 

Handke Stadium circa 1951
Before 1920 it was a mud pit, located next to the public school.  Later, with the stadium construction, the pit serves, to this day, as a landmark to the evolution of the idea of community in Elk River.  Through three phases of construction, from 1921 to 1940, Handke Stadium highlights local initiative and self-reliance that county residents regard as vitally important.  

The stadium is often associated with the Elk River schools.  Built in 1898, education officials located the Elk River School district’s first high school just north of a small pond, a pit filled with seeping water from high water table of the Elk and Mississippi rivers.  The wooden structure remained in place until 1952, while the brick school that became known as Handke School, was built in 1930.

Until 1921, the pond adjacent to the schools remained undeveloped.  Surrounded by wooded area, the water served as a place for ice skating and sliding in the wintertime.  An apocryphal story tells of a young boy breaking through the ice during a winter skate.  Whether in danger or not, the event prompted discussions on making the area safe for children.  Engineers were summoned.  They determined that filling the pond with a few feet of dirt and landfill would stop the water seepage and allow for a good playing field. 

Plans took hold and an estimated 100 to 200 volunteers, students as well as townspeople and local farmers worked on weekends to haul in dirt to fill this natural amphitheater.  For several years, the work continued to fill the pit.  In May 1925, Superintendent Clark declared the project complete.  He commissioned a sign to hand on the highway, “Elkhi School Playground, Minnesota’s Finest Athletic High School Field.”   

Construction of Handke Stadium 1940
In 1929, the school set out to expand the playing surface.  Again, using volunteer work, the stadium received an additional 2,000 yards of soil and the field enlarged to create a regulation football field with a surrounding track.  In quick order the volunteers completed the work in two days.

In 1939, ten years later, phase three of the stadium construction began.  With support from a WPA depression era work program, and the help of the National Youth Agency, workers built retaining walls, stone steps, and a warming house.  The dedication of this final phase of construction drew a large crowd for this project begun as a volunteer endeavor.    

Unfortunately, the stadium never lived up to the claim as Minnesota’s finest natural amphitheater.  It continued to collect water.  Stories abound of football games played in inches of mud.  According to these tales, the 1947 football team played games where the football floated. 

Overtime, the use of Handke Stadium came full circle.  By 1950 the school built a new football field on a more suitable, drier site.  Baseball continued for a few more years, before the teams moved.  To this day, Handke Stadium remains a popular location for ice skating, hockey, and sliding.  A pit that served as skating pond, later filled in with dirt and served as a football field, returned to its natural state as a skating pond.  Throughout the 100 years as Handke Stadium, the landmark serves as a reminder of the capabilities of volunteerism and community involvement.    

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