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Pigeons

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The communities clustered along the Mississippi around Rock Island have contributed their share of sports heroes to American folklore. There's Roger Craig in football, Gene Oliver in baseball, and Jack Fleck, the golfer who beat Ben Hogan in the U. S. Open.

Two names have inadvertently been left off the list: Long Neck and Old Grey Male, both championship pigeons back in the 1920s and ‘30s. Both belong in a league with that bird Noah sent out after the flood.

Homing pigeons arrived in the Rock Island area around 1900 with the immigration of large groups of Belgians to work in our factories. At the height of local pigeon racing, some 150 pigeon fanciers kept 10,000 birds in rooftop coops in Rock Island, Moline, and East Moline. The coops created a distinctive skyline until well into the 1970s. Newspapers published pigeon racing results on the sports page along with ball scores.

Pigeons were raced by taking them to distant sites from sixty to five hundred—and even a thousand miles—away, and timing how long it took them to fly home. Long Neck, owned by Edward Van Damme of Rock Island, was one of greatest racing pigeons. He won the annual thousand-mile race three years in a row. In 1935 he set a record of two and a half days from Colorado Springs to Rock Island. During his ten-year career, Long Neck covered more than twenty-five thousand miles. During a race in 1940, he did not return, presumably shot by hunters.

Old Gray Male, also owned by Van Damme, was just as good, winning twenty-four out of twenty-six races in which he competed.

In 1926, he set a national speed record of seventy-three miles an hour in a 132-mile flight from Centerville, Iowa, to his loft at 15th Avenue and 42nd Street in Rock Island. In 1929, he earned $400 in prize money.

For all of their work, and the many records they set, the pigeons got little respect. Like most other sports heroes prior to 1960, they worked for chicken feed.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.