By Darrel Radford, Historian, Henry County Historical Society and Museum
On Nov. 21, 1959, the “largest and finest high school fieldhouse in the world” was dedicated in New Castle. The Trojans christened their new home with a victory over Greenfield.
It was the culmination of a dream that really took hold on Saturday, March 20, 1954.
“That night, Milan defeated Muncie Central to win the Indiana High School state championship in what most consider the biggest upset in state championship history,” New Castle basketball historian Neil Thornhill said. “Their coach, Marvin Wood, becomes an instant statewide legend.” Coincidentally, the New Castle coaching job becomes open.
“In the discussions with Coach Wood, plans for the building of a new high school and gymnasium on the south side of town were shared. The thoughts of not only moving to a bigger school that played in the premier basketball conference in the state along with playing in a new basketball palace were very appealing.”
The Milan miracle man came here to coach, but after two seasons and the building of a new fieldhouse getting almost no traction, a frustrated Wood resigned at the end of the 1956 season with a year left on his contract. He had turned down a three-year extension.
“Had he known that a kid named (Ray) Pavy, who turned out to be a pretty good player, was moving to town later that summer, he might have reconsidered leaving,” Thornhill said.
With the loss of a celebrated coach and several lackluster seasons the New Castle-Henry Township Building Corp. was organized on Feb. 26, 1956. The sole purpose was to speed up the process of building a new fieldhouse. It was organized less than a week after New Castle lost in the sectional to Knightstown that year.
When the New Castle-Henry Township School Board announced plans for building a new high school, Supt. Rexford Wright indicated that a new physical education and basketball facility would have to be built at a later date.
But for New Castle basketball fans, currently having to settle for half-season tickets in the “crackerbox” known as Church Street Gym, which seated only about 1,800 people, there was no time to wait.
Suddenly, the words “Gym Now” became the talk of the town.
An advisory committee was formed, with Courier-Times columnist and reporter Ed Ogborne elected president. Howard White, whose property on the south side of town would later become White Estates, became chairman of the fund drive.
And the fast break to a “Gym Now” was under way.
A kickoff rally was held at Church Street Gym on May 3, 1956, with the goal of raising $200,000. That goal was reached in less than a year and a half.
“This amount was raised without the benefit of any large donor, the largest being one corporate gift of $15,000,” Thornhill said. “From there it went down to very small gifts from all sources in the community, not the least of which was a total contribution from the students themselves who came up with nearly $4,000 raised from car washes, general work days and other fundraising projects.”
On Oct. 8, 1957, the $200,000 – which Thornhill said was equivalent to $1.9 million in today’s dollars – was officially reached.
With $875,000 from a bond issue and the $200,000 from the fund drive, the corporation signed construction contracts in Sept. of 1957. Construction started Dec. 30, 1957. Sadly, it was interrupted by a June 12, 1958 steel work collapse, which prevented New Castle’s Ray Pavy from ever playing in the facility.
An open house held the weekend of Oct. 31-Nov. 1 – three weeks before the opening game – drew 8,000 people. Thornhill said 2,000 season tickets were sold that first year at $6.50 each for a 10-game season.
“Many times over the years, New Castle sold more season tickets than the Pacers,” Thornhill said.
For many years, the New Castle Fieldhouse was regarded as the “largest and finest” in the world. But when temporary bleachers, which were used during the Kent Benson and Steve Alford eras, wore out beyond repair, the Fieldhouse was no longer the largest in terms of seating capacity. A golf outing in 2019 brought back many Trojan basketball stars from the past, including Alford and Benson, and enough money was raised to purchase new bleachers. That pushed the Fieldhouse seating capacity back up to 8,424, making it number one in the world once again.
The words on the wall of New Castle Fieldhouse – “the world’s largest and finest high school fieldhouse in the world” – were not a local boast. It was a direct quote from Indiana High School Commissioner L.V. Phillips, who was in attendance for the very first game.
“I have been to a lot of high school gymnasiums in my role as commissioner but this one has to be the largest and finest high school fieldhouse in the world,” Phillips said that night.
More than six decades later, the banner with those words hanging in the fieldhouse still fits.