A two-bedroom house that was onced owned by one of America’s greatest sports heroes brings more than the occasional visitor to Yale, a community of about 1,200 in Payne County.
The Jim Thorpe Home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was the only home the acclaimed Olympian owned in his lifetime, says Cindy White, Yale’s Chamber of Commerce treasurer.
But the Thorpe Home isn’t the only thing that brings people to town, says Chamber president Brian Porter Jr. He and others are interested in seeing Yale succeed, pointing to the recent establishment of an economic development authority, a new tax structure and a couple of businesses, alongside housing construction.
“We’re starting to see some progress,” he says. “Our goal is to spur progress in our community.”
Yale marks the aforementioned athlete’s memory with the annual, family-friendly Jim Thorpe Day celebration in the city’s Jim Thorpe Park on the first Saturday in May. Porter says the Chamber-sponsored event annually draws a sizable crowd for the food trucks, games, street vendor sales and 5K fun run.
Visitors can also check out what is thought by some historians to be the site of the Civil War Battle of Round Mountain, just outside town. The 1861 battle, sometimes known as the Battle of Red Fork, was a key early skirmish in the Civil War as Union, Confederate and Native American factions fought for control of vital trade routes and Indian Territory itself.
Yale was founded in 1895 on what had been Pawnee Reservation land, with the original town site 1½ miles east of the current location, when a general store owner named Sterling Underwood set up a post office inside his store.
Two stories explore the origin of the town’s name, according to a history on Yale’s official website. One has it that the name was taken after a lock in Underwood’s store, and the other holds that a traveling salesman from Yale, Iowa, named the town. Either way, the new town site was established on the Eastern Railway route, which began serving the town in 1902. It existed as a farm community until 1913 when oil was discovered in the area, briefly bringing prosperity.
Thorpe, a member of the Sac and Fox Nation, is believed to have been born May 28, 1888, in the Seminole County community of Econtuchka. He died March 28, 1953, in Lomita, Calif. He was considered one of the most versatile athletes of his time, and was the first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal, nabbing two top prizes in the 1912 Olympics, in classic pentathlon and decathlon. He also played collegiate and professional football, basketball and baseball.
He was controversially stripped of his Olympic medals because he briefly played semi-professional baseball before the Olympics. His wins were restored in 1983, and in 2022, Thorpe was again recognized as the sole champion in both events.
The Thorpe home now contains replicas of several of the athlete’s medals and trophies, and is preserved much as it was when Thorpe, his wife and his children lived there, says Linda Frick, president of the Jim Thorpe Memorial Foundation. She says the two-bedroom home receives a steady number of visitors annually.
“A lot of people from other states seem to know who Jim Thorpe was,” she says.
The museum grounds also include a log cabin that was the first homestead in Payne County. Thorpe sold the home in 1923, and in 1968 it was purchased by the Oklahoma Historical Society.
Thorpe’s athletic success has been a big influence of Yale youngsters through the years, says White – especially the boys.
“All of the guys wanted to be like Jim Thorpe,” she says.
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