SPORTS >> Basketball trailblazer for women in 1930s
IN SHORT: Mabel Williams of Jacksonville helped lead the Crescent Comets of Eureka Springs to a national championship game in Wichita, Kan., in the Depression.
During the early 1930s, “guests” of what is now the 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa, a historic hotel of America located in Eureka Springs , slept in the rooms… but they also went to class and some of them played basketball. One of them played basketball very well.
In fact, Mabel Williams of Jack-sonville took her college team, the Crescent Comets, all the way to a national championship game in Wichita, Kan., where they lost the title game by only one point to a team led by All-American Babe Didrikson.
She and her fellow Comets did manage to win two other national championships for Crescent College and Conservatory for Women in tournaments played in Dallas. Some say this championship team played like they had been playing together for years. They had.
“My fellow Comet teammates all came to Crescent College, like I did, from Sparkman (Ark),” Williams said. “All 10 of us played for the Sparklers, our high school team, where we won three state championships. Mrs. Engels, who owned the hotel college, offered our team a full scholarship to come to Eureka Springs and play for the Comets.
“We loved it,” explained Williams. “We had the entire fourth floor just for our team. And even though the school was for rich girls, our team was accepted with kindness from the regular students. We all loved it so.”
Williams righted a few Eureka Springs’ urban legends as well when she explained, “We never played in the hotel’s glass conservatory like some think. We always practiced and played in the basement of Eureka’s city auditorium where the boys played also. In fact, our coach would make us run from the hotel to the auditorium every day for practice.”
It should be noted that their route from the Crescent Hotel, which sits atop Crescent Mount-ain, to the City Auditorium, located downtown in the valley below, was about a two-mile run. The auditorium was also the site of many of the Comets’ tournaments.
“Most of our games however were in Oklahoma and Kansas,” noted Williams. “And when you’ve got a bunch of girls from Sparkman, Yellville, Flippin and Hartman, trips out of state were quite exciting… especially in the early ‘30s.”
Basketball wasn’t Williams’ only fond memory of her time at Crescent College, a finishing school for young women. She also remembers the dances.
“It was marvelous,” beamed Williams. “We got to dance in the lobby with all the other girls and we looked just as nice. Mrs. Engels saw to it. Before the college’s first formal, she bought each member of our team a formal gown from a fancy dress shop in Springfield, Missouri so we could go and feel like we fit in.”
The years of 1930 to 1933 were filled with more than just basketball and dances for Mabel Williams. This highly regarded offensive forward was a championship student as well. Her studies in general curriculum earned her a degree allowing her the opportunity to become a teacher upon graduation.
Williams opted to stay at Crescent College another year after graduation but then the school closed due to hard times. So “ol’ number 5” went home, got married, and started a family and a career in the height of The Great Depression… a transition she refers to as “from the hardwood to the hard life.”
Even though she was offered a chance to play basketball in Joplin, Williams stayed home, raised two sons, Jack and Bob, and began her career as a banker. She began her banking career at First Jacksonville State Bank and and stayed with it through its transition to First Arkansas Bank and Trust, where she was employed at the time of her retirement.
Bank president Larry Wilson recalls training under Williams in his early 20s.
“I was in college I guess,” Wilson said. “She worked at the base branch, I think the entire time she worked for us. I remember working over there with her. The military got a check the 15th and 30th of every month, and I can rember she and I just cashing checks all day long. She was very patient and she came to be known by the military as their banker. She always did an outstanding job for us. She was the manager over there. She trained me and she trained a number of people that have come through here.”
When asked if there is any one thing she cherishes most from her basketball days at Crescent College, Williams smiles warmly and simply says, “The friendships.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Sparkman Sparklers team on which Ms. Williams played was recently inducted into the Hall of Fame at the Dallas County Museum in Fordyce, Arkansas.