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Dempsey display adds punch to Laurel Park exhibit


William Harrison Dempsey (1895-1983), The “Manassa (Colo.) Mangler” — then the champ — trained and sparred in Laurel Park in April, 1926. This was to prepare for the first of his two famed bouts with Gene Tunney — 89 years ago.

Dempsey’s visit helped promote Fleetwood Estates and the Fleetwood Hotel, which was being built by Commodore J. Perry Stoltz near the top of Jump Off Mountain. Most floors (13 of 15) were built by 1926, but no more. The Fleetwood remained a shell of its dream. A hurricane ravaged Stoltz’s upscale Miami, Fla. hotel, and his finances for the one here. Then the Great Depression struck three and a half years later. The structure was razed in 1939.

Still remaining from Laurel Park’s vacation heyday is the 1896, 33-room Echo Mountain Inn at 2849 Laurel Park Hwy.

A continually-running video shows Dempsey training here such as hitting a punching bag, and sparring. Chris Nevel handles museum video.

Golden Age: Part 2 newer exhibits are on Laurel Park, 125-room Wheeler Hotel (now the site of Bruce Drysdale Elementary) and Golden Age architecture. They are in the Historic Heritage Corridor’s Archive Room. This follows up part one (still in the Bo Thomas Room) on emergence of the railroad and thus tourism, industry and trade.

Other areas showcase the likes of the Civil War and other military artifacts, Baker-Barber historic photos, and a circa-1900 replication of the M.M. Shepherd general store that opened in 1841.

Museum Director Brenda Bradshaw said such exhibits should continue this new year, with some new ones phased in soon.

Dempsey images include a collector’s card of him in a stoic punching stance, his face on Time magazine, Laurel Park newspaper account of his visit, a sketch of a bout, group photo with him dressed in a suit, photo of him with two young boys, and two photos of his sparring. A 1930s “Three Champions” election card shows, from left to right, Pres. Franklin Roosevelt, Dempsey, and N.Y. Gov. Herb Lehman and has Dempsey’s signature.

Also displayed is a colorful promo sketch of Jack Dempsey, for the film of his victorious fight with European champ Georges Carpentier in 1921.

Knox Crowell did graphics and much of research for such exhibits, including on the 1903 Dummy Line rail up Fifth Avenue West from downtown hotels to Laurel Lake Casino, Rainbow Lake (for boating, swimming dancing) and Jump Off Rock. The rail closed, as the Fleetwood failed. The route mirrored the concrete Laurel Park Highway, which was innovative by being fully lit. The road was initially aimed for transporting materials to build the Fleetwood.

Among museum research findings is that Dempsey was offered $35,000 and other benefits valued at $25,000 to train for a month. He trained at an outdoors ring on the hotel site in good weather, in Laurel Lake Casino’s Rhododendron Lake Pavilion when it was wet and in Indian Cave Lodge when it was windy.

Jack and his wife, actress Estelle Taylor, stayed in the Kentucky Home Hotel in downtown Hendersonville. They were accessible to the public, walking around town at night. They held a farewell dance at Hebron Lodge in Indian Cave.

Dempsey at 6-foot-1 and 187 pounds was big for his era. His punch was devastating. He patiently stalked then thundered foes. He became heavyweight champion on July 4, 1919 when he dethroned Jess Willard. He outboxed then knocked out huge 6-5, 245 Willard.

Dempsey was champ for seven years, until 1926 when he lost in a famed bout with finesse-boxing Tunney. That bout was Sept. 23, 1926.

“I forgot to duck,” a battered Dempsey reportedly confessed to his concerned wife, earning praise for his humor and sympathy from fans. He ranked behind only Babe Ruth as an American sports hero in the Roaring Twenties.

Dempsey lost the rematch in 1927, after the infamous “long count.” Smashed down and seemingly out in round seven, Tunney gained at least five extra seconds. This was as the referee urged a befuddled Dempsey to retreat to a neutral corner, which he belatedly did to abide with a new rule. Tunney recovered, and prevailed.

Dempsey retired after this defeat. He acted in films, and served as a Coast Guard lieutenant commander in World War II. As brutal as he was as a prize fighter, Dempsey was known as a good sport and generous in his personal life. He was married four times.

Dempsey grew up in a Mormon village. His father taught school in West Virginia. The family mined in Colorado. Jack picked crops at age 8. Then in Utah, he dropped out after eighth grade to work. He unloaded beets. He was a cowboy. He boxed on the side, then full-time at age 17. Dark-haired, he was “Kid Blackie.”

His elder brother Bernie taught Jack to box, to chew pine tar gum to strengthen his jaw and to soak his face in brine to toughen skin. Bernie boxed as “Jack Dempsey,” after 19th century boxer Jack “Nonpareil” Dempsey. Filling in for an ill Bernie one night in 1914, Jack retained the family’s Jack Dempsey name. He won decisively, kept the name, and thrust it into American sports glory and Henderson County history.

The museum is open Wednesdays through Sundays, to 5 p.m. For more on Heritage Museum exhibits, call 694-1619 or check www.hendersoncountymuseum.com.

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