Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Spike Peterson - Short Biography

One of a series of short biographies of individual ancestors. These are undertaken, from time-to-time, when enough information becomes available about an individual.

Curtis "Spike" Peterson, the "Rassler"

One of the most colorful characters in my family history was “Spike” Peterson. He was a locally famous wrestler, who traveled the wrestling circuit, primarily in southern Wisconsin from the 1930’s until his tragic death in 1951.


Curtis "Spike" Peterson, circa 1940s.

Spike was born Curtis Peterson on August 11, 1911 in Blue Mounds Wisconsin. He was the second youngest of four children of Henry Peterson and Gena Lewis. Both of his parents would suffer during the 1918 flu pandemic. His mother would die, along with an unborn child but his father would eventually recover. His older sister, Martha, probably filled the role of both sister and mother to young Curtis after that time. By all accounts, he would grow into a tall, strong and good looking young man, described by one reporter as "blessed with beautiful muscles, a height of 6’-1” and 200 pounds of well-knitted body." His only real deficiency was his deteriorating eyesight which was a handicap in the ring. Spike was often portrayed as the country bumpkin and that was part of his wrestling persona but he was actually a very smart fellow, with a keen wit and generous sense of humor. How and why he decided to become a professional wrestler is a mystery. It is also unclear when this adventure began, but by the 1930’s he was a regular fixture on the wrestling scene in southern Wisconsin. One reporter described him as “a young fellow of fabulous strength and tremendous determination to become a wrestler.” After 1940, Spike lived in Madison, in his infamous trailer and junk yard compound at 405 Center Street.
From an article on Spike at the time of his death; Wis. State Journal, 05/29/1951 . . . Spike was a crowd-pleaser and the wrestling fans looked forward to his impromptu “speeches.” I was part of the crowd of thousands who saw him that gave him the nickname – “Spike” – after he had showed them how to pound a spike through a board with his bare fist. They loved it too, when he would take a straight, strong spike and bend it into a ‘U’ shape. Spike had a touch of showmanship that Madison will long remember . . .
Professional wrestling has always lived on the fringes of respectable sport; somewhere between an athletic event and carnival side show. This was especially the case in the days of Curtis Peterson and his contemporary wrestlers. Known as “Spikedriver” Peterson or just “Spike” for short, his claim to fame was driving a railroad spike into a piece of wood with his fist. For most of his career, Spike was associated with Jimmy Dementral. Jimmy was a well-known wrestler and promoter who traveled a circuit that consisted of county and state fairs, eagles clubs, gymnasiums, local football and baseball fields and other small venues. Many times (and especially in the early days), Spike’s role in the show was that of the “spoiler” or “ringer.” Dressed in overalls with his trade-mark derby hat and often chewing on a long sprig of straw, Spike would slip into the audience and wait for his moment of fame. At the appointed time, the call would go out for a volunteer to face the champion. That was Spike’s cue; he would rise and say “I’ll do it!” Spike understood the showmanship aspects of the sport. In the ring he was a talker. He would talk, almost non-stop, both to his opponent and the spectators. This along with his “everyman” appearance connected with the audience and made him a crowd favorite, especially in the farming communities of central Wisconsin.
On an upcoming match with his friend and nemesis Jimmy Demetral; Henry J. McCormick, Wis. State Journal, 9/9/47 . . . If you like comedy, “Spike” will provide that with his speeches before, during and after each bout. The Mount Horeb Norwegian loves to address the crowd and the crowd always get a big belt out of his maunderings . . . if you like your wrestling straight, with an overtone of mayhem, this match will provide it, for there is a definite animosity between the two . . .
Jimmy "Gentleman Jim" Demetral in his hayday.
He was a wrestler and wrestling promoter.
Demetral was both his nemesis and mentor, friend and foe. Spike prodded him, time and time again, for a match and they did eventually wrestle each other on several occasions. On one particular instance, Spike was verbally assaulting Jimmy in an effort to get into the ring. Spike's routine was getting old and hoping to get rid of him, Jimmy remarked that he was not taking-on "any farmers today." Then, someone in the crowd yelled out, "what's the matter with farmers?" Spike jumped on that, also demanding to know what was wrong with farmers. Soon the whole crowd demanded an answer to the questions. Demetral had no choice but let Spike into the ring. After a few minutes of wrestling, Jimmy had him up over his head and then down on the mat hard. Spike passed out. Jimmy called out to the audience, "someone call an ambulance!" and soon Spike was being taken away on a stretcher. This caused a sensation as word of mouth spread that Demetral had killed a farm boy in the ring. Of course, Spike was up and about within 45 minutes but the whole thing was a boon to Demetral as the wrestling tent was packed for the rest the day. Jimmy seemed to take a liking to Spike and despite their public squabbling, they must have become friends. Jimmy would teach Spike how to train, build his strength and often gave him wrestling pointers. Eventually, Spike was a regular on Demetral’s circuit. When Spike lay dying in a hospital bed, Jimmy was by his side until the end.
From an article on Spike at the time of his death; Capital Times, 5/28/1951 . . . Peterson’s career was colorful both in and out of the wrestling ring and his outside activities frequently brought him into contact with the police and the courts . . . 
Spike was a notable character out of the ring as well. Madison newspapers dubbed him a modern day “robin hood” and he had many brushes with the law for stealing (or borrowing) various items to help his friends and fellow man. One reporter described him as a “frequent guest of the Sheriff,” though mostly for very short durations. In addition to regularly losing his driver’s license, he was also known to steel coal from the railroad so others would not “freeze to death,” and he noted to the judge that he had an oil burner so the coal was definitely not for him. His most serious brush with the law was when he helped two thieves load a stolen safe on to their truck. He claimed to not know that they were thieves or the safe was stolen but that is not the real story. For his part, Spike served 60 days in prison. Spike’s appetite, especially his love of dairy products (and meat), was also the subject of discussion around the wrestling circuit and it was remarked that he had “stomach trouble . . . he could never keep it filled.” It was reported that once, on the last evening of the fair, he polished-off 35 unsold hamburgers in one sitting.
From an article on Spikedriver Peterson; Wis. State Journal, 2/27/1944 . . . he showed up one lunch hour, with a small electric plate, a cooking pot, three and a half pounds of beef, a box of crackers, a bottle of catsup, two loaves of bread, two quarts of milk, and a horrific slab of cheese; received Jimmys’ (Demetral) reluctant permission to plug the electric plate into a tent connection and prepare his noon repast . . .
Curtis Peterson (second from left) and his co-defendants, the Dickie
brothers, who stole a safe from a roofing company on Park Street in
Madison on October 29th, 1948. Peterson claimed he did not know
they were stealing the safe when he helped them load it into their truck.
From an article on Spike’s troubles with the law; Wis. State Journal, 6/13/1950 . . .The troubles and cares of Curis O. “Spike” Peterson, Madison’s spectacular, bespectacled “rassler,” were recounted at length before the patient care of Superior Judge Roy H. Proctor Monday afternoon, and Spike had plenty of both . . .
About one of Spike’s encounters with the law; from two articles Madison Papers, late 1940s . . . Curtis O. “Spike” Peterson, 39 year old Madison wrestler, was sentenced to 10 days in jail Monday by Circuit Judge Alvin C. Reis for failing to obey a court order directing him to remove the junk from his property at 405 Center Street . . . Spike yawned audibly as he listened to Building Inspection Superintendent Ray F. Burt, Fire Inspection Captain Paul Gabbei, and Frank Harrison, and investigator for the city attorney’s office, tell the court for the ump-teenth time that Spike had failed to move the “junk yard” from his property . . . “Yeah, I know it is a mess,” Spike interrupted. “But I been on a little vacation. I went down to the state fair and did a little rasslin.” Judge Reis reminded Spike that the last time he was in court, his excuse for not having the property cleaned was that he had been “ton busy” with wrestling matches at the Eagles Club . . .
and
 . . . Peterson was charged with maintaining a trailer camp, using a garage for living quarters and storing junk and rubbish on his premises . . . In court today, “Spike” explained he had been “busy at the State Fair,” but he admitted his place was a mess. He added he was trying to clean it up, but claimed, “I’m no flying machine.”
The results of 14 matches Spike wrestled at in Madison in 1950 and early 1951 (mostly at the Eagles Club and Breese Stevens Field) showed his record as six wins, four draws and four losses with two of the losses to Jimmy Demetral. Spike died the way he lived, with a bang. He passed away on May 28, 1951 as a result of a broken neck in a match the night before. A wrestler, named Sam Abraham had lifted Spike into the air and when he struggled to get free, Spike fell hard to the mat and was critically injured. He lived through the night and died in a hospital in Richland Center, Wisconsin, where the match had taken place. His funeral was attended many including Jimmy Demetral and Judge Proctor. Spike was buried with his parents at Union Cemetery in Mount Horeb.
On news of Spike’s death; Lew Cornelius, Wis. State Journal, 5/28/51 . . . Wrestling in and around Madison isn’t going to seem the same for a long, long time. Curtis “Spike” Peterson, a wrestler who couldn’t see without his glasses and never actually knew his own strength on the mat because of that handicap is dead. 
From an account of Spike’s funeral; Hank Casserly, Capital Times, 6/1/1951 . . . They buried Curtis “Spike” Peterson Thursday in Mount Horeb . . . Spike was simple soul who never harmed anyone as the Reverend E.R. Anderson remarked as he preached the funeral service of the Lutheran church over the departed “Robin Hood.” Reverend Anderson, who baptized and gave confirmation to Spike presided at Gesme Funeral Parlor and at the Mount Horeb Lutheran Church. Reverend Anderson not only preached a beautiful sermon over the departed wrestler, but also sang several hymns suited to the occasion. There were friends of all degrees at Spike’s funeral. Not a few Madison people attended, among them Judge Roy Proctor, Jimmy Demetral, Alec London and Dan Brown of Milwaukee. There were others from Madison and the surrounding territory. The church was packed for the services and there wasn’t a dry eye as Reverend Anderson related Spike’s growth from a baby to the time of his death following an injury received in a wrestling match in Richland Center . . . Funerals are depressing, but Spike’s was robbed of all depression by the words of the Reverend Anderson's “Farewell Spike.”
Curtis O. Peterson, about 1950.

Curtis Peterson is buried at Union Cemetery in Mount
Horeb with his parents on each side of him.

Additional Information:
Read about the Peterson Family of Blue Mounds and Mount Horeb Wisconsin here . . .

Research Notes: Much of the information for this report was obtained from articles found in two Madison newspapers, the Wisconsin State Journal and the Capital Times. Additional information was obtained from the United States Census, other vital records and other on-line sources.

2 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Gerry, I have been wanting to write this one for a while . . .

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