Decades before the iWireless Center in downtown Moline made its mark as the Quad-City region’s premier entertainment and sports venue, an arena up the hill was hosting celebrities, professional sports and community events.
It was Wharton Field House. The 86-year-old landmark at 1800 20th Ave. is no longer a mecca for show business greats, politicians on the stump or exhibitors displaying automobiles. Yet it continues to fulfill one of its original intended uses as a showplace for high school athletics and the home of the Moline Maroons.
The arena’s story and that of its next-door neighbor, Browning Field, are colorfully told in a new book, “A Century of Players, Performers, and Pageants: Wharton Field House and Browning Field, Moline, Illinois,” by Curtis C. Roseman. Roseman is a Moline native and a retired University of Southern California geography professor.
With 292 pages and 460 illustrations, he and research assistant Diann Moore, the president of the Moline Preservation Society, provide thorough histories of both Wharton and Browning.
Wharton was designed by William H. Schulzke, a prominent Moline architect whose works include the Fifth Avenue Building in downtown Moline. The arena opened Dec. 21, 1928, after volunteers led by Theodore Finley Wharton, the secretary-treasurer of Deere & Co. and a longtime education booster, sold $175,000 in bonds to finance the project. In Wharton's words, it was “a building adequate to take care of large gatherings assembled for concerts, conventions, mass meetings, pageants, basketball, indoor field days, track meets, etc.”
Browning Field opened Sept. 28, 1912, as Moline High School lost a football game to its alumni 6-0. The land had been donated to the city by John T. Browning, a lawyer and Moline’s first city attorney.
Not only does the book chronicle the origins and development of the side-by-side facilities, but it also gives a history of early professional sports teams in the Quad-Cities and their roots in what are today the National Basketball Association and the National Football League.
In addition to sports, the book covers in exhaustive detail all of Wharton's other uses. That includes concerts, dog shows, wrestling and boxing matches, car shows, farm shows, flower and garden shows, not to mention the spectacular John Deere centennial celebration of 1937. Providing context are other Midwest arenas, including Davenport Central High School’s George Marshall Gym and the iWireless Center, which opened in 1993 as The Mark of the Quad-Cities.
Separate chapters on Browning Field detail its many uses. Those include midget auto races, Moline’s 98th- and 100th-anniversary celebrations, high school and pro sports, appearances by the Chicago Cubs and Bears and a hitting exhibition by Babe Ruth.
The book is rich in sports history that goes beyond local interest. Readers learn that Wharton was the birthplace of the Tri-City Blackhawks pro basketball team, a member of the NBA. The team eventually ended up in Atlanta, where it is known today as the Hawks. Pro football fans will meet the Rock Island Independents, an original NFL member.
Included are the NBA’s first African-American players such as Earl Lloyd and Chuck Cooper. Duke Slater of the Rock Island Independents, the first African-American lineman to play in the NFL, is another athlete who broke the color barrier.
Political and show business stars make up a big part of the book. The scores of entertainers who graced the Wharton stage include Bill Haley and his Comets, Gene Autry, Johnny Cash, Harry Belafonte, and DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince (Will Smith). Richard Nixon, Ted Kennedy and Barry Goldwater are among the many politicians who drew huge crowds to Wharton.
In addition to historical photos, the book’s voluminous collection of images includes posters, newspaper ads, tickets and original architectural drawings that help bring the two major Quad-City venues to life.