It was 1960 and Erie was a growing industrial city. The population had risen consistently since the census statistics began in 1870. The city of Erie climbed to its peak population of 138,440 citizens in 1960.
Several major companies helped with the growth of Erie including General Electric, the Lord Corporation and the Hammermill Paper Co. Hammermill Paper employed as many as 2,400 people of Erie at one time.
The Hammermill was founded in 1898 but under a different name. It was the Ernst R Behrend Co., named after the man who funded the building of the paper mill. Ernst Behrend was the son of German paper mill businessman Moritz Behrend.
A year after the Ernst R Behrend Co. was formed, its name changed to Hammermill. The termed was coined after a German pulp and paper mill that was built on the location of an old metal forging site that used drop hammers.
German locals referred to the site as “the Hammer,” because of the loud banging, thus the name “Hammermill” was given to the Erie paper mill.
Fifty years later Hammermill expanded with the acquisition of the Oswego mill in New York. Then in 1965 the Hammermill Paper Co. bought the paper mill in Lock Haven, Pa. The two additions put the Hammermill at a papermaking potential of half a million tons.
Change came in 1987 when the International Paper Co. bought Hammermill. The mill was up and running for another 15 years before its eventual closing. But before its closing, Hammermill Paper expanded its name one step further.
In 1983, Gannon University adopted the Hammermill name for the university’s basketball gym. The Hammermill Center, located on Sixth and Peach streets, has been the home of Golden Knight basketball teams since the inaugural 1949-50 season.
Due to the Hammermill Paper Co.’s generosity Gannon was able to make the necessary repairs and improvements the 30-year-old gym needed.
Originally known as the Gannon College Auditorium, or “the Audi,” the Hammermill Center has a capacity of 2,800 fans but has been known to reach crowds of more than 3,000 for big-time games. Back when the gym was still titled “the Audi,” one New York City kid was spending countless hours practicing his game on that very court.
Joe Gaeta, 73, attended Gannon from 1958-62 and was part of the basketball team’s first bid to the NCAA tournament.
“My last year, the NCAA year, the Audi was always packed with city fans, student body and Gannon priest and faculty, an awesome environment,” Gaeta said.
“My best memories were wins that season against Tennessee A&I, ranked second in the nation, Texas Southern, Belmont Abbey with coach Al McGuire, Cheyney State with coach John Cheyney and Philadelphia Textile against the now famous coach Herb Magee,” Gaeta said.
The Brooklyn, N.Y., native was playing in the Audi during the gym’s infancy. Gaeta said the floor was marble, not hardwood, and many players were injured from falls on the extremely hard surface.
The lighting on the court was much worse in 1960 than today and what is now the Hammermill weight room was then an ROTC firing range, Gaeta said.
Flash forward to 2006 when one of Gannon basketball’s most well-known players, Tyler Stoczynski, was beginning his illustrious three-year career. The Erie native played for the Golden Knights from 2006 to 2009 and helped Gannon men’s basketball to its most productive season ever in terms of victories and winning percentage with a 30-4 record in 2008.
Stoczynski saw plenty of changes happen to the Hammermill Center during his time.
“The weight room, when I got there, was basically two squat racks, two benches and a dumbbell set,” Stoczynski said.
“Mats on the floor were old and nasty and there were no mirrors on the walls. The weight room alone has come a hell of a long way.”
The weight room wasn’t the only upgrade during his time at Gannon. The locker rooms were redone and a study room was put in with computers for the players. The court also went through some changes.
When Gannon realigned to the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) and out of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC), the Hammermill’s court was updated. The decals on the court were all switched over from GLIAC to PSAC and same with most of the posters and signs around the gym, Stoczynski said.
One thing that did not change between Gaeta’s and Stoczynski’s time at Erie’s basketball hub were the great environments. Stoczynski played for current head men’s basketball coach, John T. Reilly. The head coach recently guided the team to the 800th all-time win at the Hammermill.
“During Reilly’s first two years we had pretty good crowds but as the saying goes, winning cures all ills, and the last two really successful years we had great crowds,” Stoczynski said.
There were tons of season ticket holders and students along with people from the Erie community who just wanted to see good basketball, Stoczynski said.
The Hammermill has been known for its rowdy fans and intense crowds. Opposing coaches have to deal with coming in to a hostile environment and trying to steal a road win. Herb Magee, the winningest men’s basketball coach in NCAA history and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, played against Gannon in 1962 and ran into the Golden Knights a few more times while coaching at Philadelphia University.
“Gannon is a tough place to win due to the proximity of the crowds, the noise level and their tradition,” Magee said. “The crowd is truly involved as the sixth man.”
Former Pace University head basketball coach Darrell Halloran had good things to say about Gannon fans of the Hammermill.
“Gannon is a Division II with a Division I atmosphere; they live and die basketball,” Halloran said. “The fans lift the home team and rattle the visitor.”
According to the Gannon sports website, opposing coaches have voted the Home of the Knights the “toughest” place for a visiting team to win in Division II numerous times over the years.
The Hammermill Center has consistently been atop its respective conferences, PSAC and GLIAC, in home game attendance.
For the 2012-13 men’s basketball season, Gannon ranked second in the conference with a home attendance average of 1,080. In 2011-12 Gannon had an average attendance of 1,282 fans, which ranked first in the PSAC.
The 2010 and 2009 seasons both landed a second-place spot in home attendance with averages of 1,091 and 1,035.
During the most successful season in terms of wins (30), in 2008, the average home game attendance was first in the PSAC with 1,754.
In Gannon’s last year in the GLIAC, before its shift in conferences, the men’s basketball team ranked first in home attendance with 1,572. And in 2006 Gannon was second with 1,220 fans at home games on average.
All in all, over the last seven years the Hammermill Center has ranked first or second in average home game attendance in its respective conference.
With more than 1,000 fans shuffling through the Hammermill doors each game day, preparations must be made to ensure the event runs smoothly. Bill Strub is Gannon’s maintenance manager and has been since 1979.
Strub, 57, claimed he has seen roughly 1,000 men’s and women’s basketball games since the 1970s. But the head of maintenance does much more than just watch.
“We constantly have to tear down for one event and set up for another,” Strub said. “The toughest time I remember was when Gannon had the Model United Nations during the day, and we had to tear it down and set up for a basketball game. We managed to do it in 2 ½ hours.”
The Hammermill Center has gone through many changes during the last 64 years including a name change, a conference change and numerous upgrades to the offices, court and locker rooms. But what does the future hold for the Hammermill?
With the ongoing construction of Gannon’s Carneval Athletic Pavilion, big changes for the Hammermill will have to be put on hold. Carneval Athletic Pavilion began its modernization in the summer of 2013 and won’t be completed until July.
The $14.5 million project will include a 14,000-square-foot addition along with a 51,300-square-foot indoor field house.
The Hammermill upgrades are in the fundraising stage currently, according to a university official. The plans include full air conditioning, brand new locker rooms and offices, a new façade and improved lighting. Within the next five years things should come together, a university official said.
The city of Erie’s basketball hub known as the Hammermill Center, or the Audi by veteran Gannon fans, has been operational since 1949. With more than 1,000 men’s basketball games played there, 800 have been victories. The Hammermill Center has a winning percentage of 77 percent.
An electrical fire broke out at the Hammermill Center around 11 p.m. Monday, Dec. 23. There was a basketball game held at the facility that night, but no one was in the building during the blaze.
The Erie Fire Department reported that the fire started in the basement. Three weeks following the destructive fire both the women’s and men’s basketball teams took the court against the Indiana University of Pennsylvania – resulting in two Gannon victories.
President Keith Taylor, Ph.D., thanked the fire department and the first responders for their efforts during halftime of the men’s game against IUP.
Tradition is rich between these walls, with banners from the past great teams hanging from the rafters. One cannot appreciate the present without learning of the past, as American writer and novelist Pearl Buck once said;
“If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.”