Football is a cornerstone tradition in American high schools and Bisbee High has been playing since its earliest days. When fans around town talk about football sooner or later they get around to the second oldest high school rivalry in the U.S.—the Bisbee Pumas vs. the Douglas Bulldogs. The tradition began in 1906 and the teams have played more than 140 times. In some early years, they played twice a season. For a few years in the 1990’s they missed playing and one year Bisbee won by forfeit. But the rivalry continues and passions about which team—or town—is more worthy are as strong as ever.
To illustrate just how deep those passions run, look no farther than that iconic symbol of victory, the Copper Pick. Each time the teams play their annual game, the winner goes home with the trophy. It started in 1944 when Douglas principal Charles R. Johnson suggested there should be some symbol that would represent good sportsmanship between the teams. Phelps Dodge came on board and funded the pick’s fabrication. Designed by Paul H. Hubar of Douglas, it is an 18” replica of a miner’s pick formed out of copper mined in Bisbee and smelted in Douglas. The pick’s first home after the 1944 season was the trophy case at Bisbee High School. Halfback Bill Penn finished his brilliant career with a 74 yard scoring dash that helped seal the Puma’s 21-6 win.
Over the years, the pick has gone back and forth with the winning school celebrating and the loser lamenting each vowing it will keep or recover the prize next season. The Copper Pick has come to symbolize one of Bisbee’s most revered traditions, and each year as the game approaches you can hear the excitement building in the hallways at the high school and around town.
But there was an earlier symbol of Puma pride in Bisbee. Up Chihuahua Hill just below the crest, a big letter “B” looks out over the town. It got its start in 1927 during a snowstorm when the first stakes were driven into the mountainside by members of the Hi-Y club. The plans and measurements for the letter came from mining engineer Harrison M. Lavender, who later led development of the open pit that bears his name. Local businesses donated about $300 to pay the costs. Lavender had the boys use newspapers to lay out the design on Horace Mann field—the park next to today’s city swimming pool. An identical design was laid out on Chihuahua Hill and the two were compared for accuracy. It was designed to be larger at the top so that when seen from the streets of the town below it would appear normal.
Dick Scott, one of Bisbee’s youngest entrepreneurs at 11 years of age, owned a string of donkeys he used for hauling wood. He offered his team and services to carry concrete, lime and other supplies up OK street to a trail that led around the backside of the mountain then up to the spot where the “B” was laid out. Phelps Dodge donated 3000 lbs. of lime to whitewash the big letter. It took a few months to complete the job, but by early May 1928, it was finished. Most of the students at the high school helped with the project including the Puma Girls who kept the hardworking boys fed.
High school boys weren’t off the hook even after the “B” was done. Once a year starting in fall 1932, the sophomore boys (the lowest class at that time) and later the freshmen trekked up a long staircase from OK street to an outcropping of rock about halfway up the hill. There in what was for many years the final act of freshman initiation, they mixed lime with water and carried it in buckets and five gallon “GI” cans up to the “B” where the rock was whitewashed to make the symbol of Bisbee and Puma pride sparkle. That tradition continued for many years.
Of course the reason for the annual sprucing up was the Bisbee-Douglas football game, played through the 1963 season on Thanksgiving Day. The night before the game, students marched up Main Street accompanied by the band in a victory rally that ended up on Horace Mann Field. There a bonfire was lit as a signal to the Drillers high on Chihuahua Hill. The Drillers, students who served as a utility and security detail, outlined the “B” with kerosene soaked rags. When they saw the bonfire, they lit the “B” which burned brightly in the night sky, a symbol of the next day’s contest and the quest to keep or take back the Copper Pick. Long time Bisbee residents and high school alums remember the magical flicker of fire on the hill that symbolized Puma pride and town spirit.
Nowadays, the “B” can be seen every night. Modern technology has replaced the once a year tradition of burning rags with lights powered by the sun. They can even change color to celebrate special occasions. But the meaning does not change. It is Bisbee’s symbol and reminder of cherished traditions.
From 1928 until 1959, the “B” kept an eye on Bisbee High students who went to class in the big yellow building on High School Hill. Starting in 1934, each year’s school annual, The Cuprite, was introduced by a message to the students, The “B” Speaks. In that first Cuprite the big white symbol reminded the students of its presence in their lives:
I am the “B” of ’34.
Of years gone by and many more.
I shine by day and glow by night:
In fact, I am your beacon light.
The spirit of your school and I
Symbolize ambitions high.
In days to come remember me
And live the spirit of your “B”.
School spirit and town spirit are inseparable in Bisbee. The annual gridiron contest with Douglas continues a rivalry that has lasted over a century and enthusiasm for the Copper Pick is as strong now as it was in 1944. High on Chihuahua Hill, the “B” lights the night sky over the old town, an echo of those Thanksgiving Eves when everyone turned out to cheer the Pumas on to victory. Both remind us that we have been shaped by traditions that endure. Onward Bisbee.