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Of all the towns on the Hi-Line, Shelby has to have one of the more colorful histories. After all, how many towns on the Hi-Line, let alone in Montana, have held a professional boxing match? True, the town nearly went bankrupt because of it, but well, the story is just so colorful that it really must rank Shelby near the top as far as historic Montana towns go.
It all started in 1923 as a real estate stunt, or to put it more succinctly, as a way to put the tiny town of Shelby (population of 2500 at the time) on the map. The problem, of course, was how to do it? After all, what can a small town of 2500 do to obtain worldwide attention, barring some natural disaster that wipes out half the town?
Quite a bit, as it turned out. All that was needed was a lot of money, a headline and a desperate need for attention. After seeing a headline in a Great Falls paper of how Montreal was offering a $100,000 purse for a boxing match between Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey and a yet unnamed challenger, an enterprising individual named James W. “Body” Johnson, who wanted to call attention to his own land holdings, came up with the unique idea to up the offer a bit. The hopes were that by offering a sky-high proposal to bring a professional boxing match featuring Dempsey to Shelby, on July 4th of all days, the publicity would spark an interest in this otherwise ordinary Hi-Line Town, leading to a nice rush of land sales.
Or so the theory went.
As it turned out, things didn’t quite work out as planned. First, through shrewd negotiations in Chicago by Dempsey’s manager Jack “Doc” Kearns, the offer somehow ended up being increased to $300,000 despite nobody in Shelby having any idea on how to come up with the money. Then a massive stadium had to be built to accommodate the vast floods of people who were expected to pour into town to see the fight. An octagonal stadium that could seat 42,000 people was built – seemingly overnight, all at great cost (see photograph of stadium). And to house all these people, numerous “temporary hotels” were built all up and down Shelby, destined to be torn down following the fight.
A few things got in the way of prosperity, though. The town had great difficulty in selling advance seats. Moreover, right when it seemed like the town had finally succeeded in booking some advance tickets and organizing the trains to bring people out from the east coast, the fight seemed like it would not happen since Shelby failed to come up with the final $100,000 payment on time. As such, Dempsey’s manager leaked word that the fight would not happen, resulting in the virtual cancellation of all advanced ticket sales. And by the time word got out that the fight was on again, it was too late to sell tickets and transport all the people out to Shelby.
Thus, on the date of the fight, in a stadium designed to seat 42,000 people, only a handful of people were in attendance. However, there was no shortage of people milling around. Problem was, they were Montana locals, and balked at paying the exorbitant price for admission. Right before the fight the price was lowered drastically, from $25 to $10. This persuaded a few people to pay to go in and see the fight. However, not to be left out, the others who refused to pay to see the fight just pushed over the barbed wire that surrounded the stadium right before the opening bell of the first round. leading to a rush of over 4000 people into the stands – none of whom paid. The result of all this was a near empty stadium that was primarily filled with local spectators who were seeing a championship heavyweight boxing match the town of Shelby paid for, all for free.
The fight itself, between Heavyweight Jack Dempsey and challenger Tommy Gibbons, was considered a spectacular fight since it was the first time anyone had gone the full 15 rounds with Dempsey. But that was the high point.
Note : A book about the fight in Shelby is now available. Called Shelby's Folly, it details everything that led up to the fight, the fight itself and the rather unsavory aftermath. More information about the book.
Following the fight, the town of Shelby was broke. With virtually no income received from the fight (since no one came), the town was straddled with debts it had no hope of paying. Indeed, money was so short IOU’s had to be used for payment following the fight. The end result was that four banks in Montana went out of business due to the losses they sustained in promoting the fight, including the bank which was owned by James W. “Body” Johnson’s father.
Yet the publicity stunt did put Shelby on the map for a few days, and the town survived the fallout of the fight. Today, nothing remains of the arena, as the lumber was repossessed and sold as scrap. Where the arena once was now stands the local Pizza Hut and several other local businesses.
While Shelby is not likely to be hosting a heavyweight-boxing match anytime soon, Shelby does still play host to lots of people. Shelby is fortunate to sit on an interchange of Interstate 15, allowing the town to pull in traffic from people passing through. Additionally, the town is only about an hour and a half from Glacier National Park, allowing it to capture tourists on their way to the park who happen to fall a “bit behind” in their schedules.
Shelby is still primarily an agricultural town, and today has a population of 3300 people. However, the Interstate has given rise to a few other industries here and there, including a private prison. Shelby has also benefited from the oil and gas discoveries made in years past. Although the oil and gas boom is long since gone, the town still receives spillover effects in terms of well servicing and repair. As such, Shelby has a little more of a diversified economy than many other towns do on the Hi-Line.
Downtown Shelby today is small but quite nice. Like other Montana Hi-Line towns, Shelby is both compact and contains all the basics – although you won’t find any big box retail stores here. Also downtown is a movie theatre, in the event you get stranded and need to pass some time. And, should you get stranded, Shelby, unlike many other Hi-Line towns, has several lodging options, including a decent Comfort Inn.
For more photographs of Shelby, see the Shelby and Cut Bank Photo Gallery page.
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