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Most sports fans are aware of the movie “Hoosiers,” in which a small rural Indiana basketball team wins the Indiana state class A basketball championship. The school had 75 students. Gene Hackman starred as the team coach. The story keeps being told and retold.


An even better basketball story languishes in the history of Oregon high school basketball. Thanks to the Woodburn Public Library, a little independent research and the internet, I can tell you that story.

Back in the 1930s Oregon had two classifications for high school athletic teams.

Enrollment numbers determined if you were a Class A or Class B high school. But, uniquely, if you won the B championship you could challenge the Class A teams to play for the Class A title in basketball.

Well, in 1937, Bellfountain High School did just that: They won the Class B championship and then challenged to play for the A title.

Oh, you’ve never heard of Bellfountain? You aren’t alone. But in the 1930s they were well known. They had a student body of 27 to 29 kids, depending on who was telling the story. The population of the unincorporated town was 75 persons. Most of the students walked two to three miles from their farm homes to get to school. They had already milked cows, cleaned barns or fed chickens before they arrived at school. That routine had more than a little to do with the success of the Bellfountain Bells basketball team. They never seemed to tire in the games they played.

There were only eight boys on the team, not even enough for a team scrimmage. But these kids had played together all through school and knew each others’ movements and passing skills. By the time they had become seniors, they had perfected their passing game to an art form. Opposition teams were befuddled by ball movement and blind passes that led to sometimes embarrassingly easy baskets. The closest game they had was in the state finals of Class A play.

They weren’t strangers to tournament play. They had won the B championship in 1936 and regularly beat up on Class A teams during their preseason schedule. They were well known in high school basketball circles before people who read about them in the regional newspapers knew how to find Bellfountain on a map. At best they knew this basketball Mecca was about 20 miles southwest of Corvallis, west off of Highway 99W. I’ve been there a couple of times. It’s not that hard to find, but it is very hard to comprehend what took place there nearly 80 years ago.

The Bells won the 1937 Class B championship without breaking a sweat, putting them in the semifinals bracket for the A tourney. They were favored to win. They were no longer the team from the “spot off the road” driving from Corvallis to Eugene. Bellfountain played Franklin High of Portland in the semifinal and won by 26 points. Franklin had three times as many teachers on staff as Bellfountain had students. It was an embarrassing rout for the Portland team.

The finals weren’t much more solace for Lincoln High of Portland. Bellfountain led from the opening minutes and won 39-25. It became national news and the Bells became known as the team of the decade. They should have been known as the team of the century. The players and coaches became legendary.

They are all now deceased. One gave his life in World War II.

The championship game was almost anti-climatic. It was a blowout. The capacity crowd of over 3,000 cheered everything the Bells did on the floor. They won all the individual awards, two state championships and the admiration of the fans. It was heady stuff.

The boys were back in school Monday, having walked from their farm homes after completing chores. They had affirmed that David probably did slay Goliath. They certainly proved it was possible. Old timers remember the celebration went on for “darned near a week.”

The coach who crafted this remarkable team was obviously a leader and an organizer who knew his basketball. And, indeed, he was. Ken Litchfield had starred for Willamette University after establishing himself as one of the premium prep players in the state at Washington High of Portland. He soon realized that he had some talented, dedicated kids who loved basketball and were willing to accept his style of coaching and respond to his deep affection for the community.

He had plans to be an attorney, but conditions in the 1930s were not too conducive to establishing a new law practice. So he answered an ad in the paper that was seeking a teacher, principal and coach (three jobs in one) for this small Benton County hamlet called Bellfountain. He fell in love with his new home, and the kids and community fell in love with him, long before the basketball accolades began piling up.

His first realization that he might have a special group of kids came when the JV coach at Philomath asked if Bellfountain could bring some kids over to play his JV team. Litchfield agreed, but told him his kids were just seventh- and eighth-graders. The young Bells went to Philomath and came home with a 40-10 win.

The young Bellfountain team went to the State Class B tournament as sophomores, but lost to Oakridge in the opening game, 26-12. Oakridge had a 6-foot, 4-inch center named Laddie Gale, who later led University of Oregon’s “tall firs” team to the first NCAA championship at Madison Square Garden in 1939. The Bells won third in the state.

Many victories and championships followed, concluding with 1937 Class B and Class A state championships. But Litchfield wasn’t around for the 1937 title games.

The Litchfields decided they needed to move on when their child with Down syndrome was institutionalized at Fairview in Salem. Shedd offered Coach Litchfield a much higher salary to bring his special leadership skills there as superintendent of schools. The Litchfields tearfully left town.

The school board looked once again to Willamette University and hired Bill Lemmon, a friend of Coach Litchfield. When it became tournament time, Lemmon insisted that Litchfield sit by him on the Bellfountain bench, which Litchfield reluctantly agreed to do. It was said that at one point in the championship game that the two men could be seen arguing. Turns out the two were arguing that the team’s success belonged to the other.

If you visit Bellfountain today, you will be surprised to know that the old two-room school is still standing and so is the gym (short court variety). They are well kept and in good condition. A small playground gives the impression that the school may still be in use as a grade school, but it isn’t. The church across the street owns the property and is required to maintain the trophy case.

When I entered the school on a Sunday afternoon the first thing that I confronted was the trophy cabinet, which is absolutely loaded with all kinds of elaborate trophies. There were kids on hand and I asked if they knew the storied history of the school. They all said yes, but didn’t want to explore the subject any further. The trophy case is at least seven feet above the floor, so reading the inscriptions on the trophies was not possible, but the huge Class A basketball championship trophy was easy to pick out.

I highly recommend that you check with your local library or go online and get a copy of Joe R. Blakely’s book “The Bellfountain Giant Killers.” It is a much more complete story of the Bellfountain basketball saga that unfolded in the 1930s. I am indebted to Blakely for having brought this story to life, helping me to resurrect it in time for March Madness.

They don’t jump center after each score and you are allowed five personal fouls before you are disqualified, and three point goals are a major offensive weapon. There’ll be no Bellfountain versus Lincoln High School because of the six divisions of play that the Oregon School Activities Association has structured, but long-time rivalries still provide many exciting moments on the court. Go to one of the tournaments.

Bellfountain 39, Lincoln 25. Are you kidding me? Unbelievable!

It’s a story that should never go away.

Russ Baglien is a retired businessman and regular columnist for Woodburn Independent. He was sports information director while attending Oregon College of Education (now Western Oregon University) in the 1950s. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 503-871-4481.

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