Texas and football are practically synonymous. Every fall, fans gather in stadiums across the state to cheer on their favorite teams and players. In one East Texas city of some 14,000, this means heading downtown.
Jacksonville’s Historic Tomato Bowl was built in 1940 by the Works Progress Administration as an athletics venue for the Jacksonville Independent School District (JISD). The stadium was constructed on a hill in the heart of downtown Jacksonville, which at the time was known as the Tomato Capital of the World due to its production and shipping of the crop. Both the stadium and the wall surrounding it were constructed out of local iron ore rock—also known as giraffe rock—delivered to the site by residents.
The Tomato Bowl hosted its first game in September 1940 and has been in continuous use as the primary stadium for JISD ever since. Very little was done to the stadium over the course of 80 years. In 1970, a small wooden press box was added and in 1980, lights were updated and aluminum seating was installed on top of the rock bleachers. No parking was ever developed for the stadium, so visitors park downtown and walk to events, allowing attendees to explore shops and businesses along the way.
Upon his arrival as superintendent of JISD, one of the first meetings Dr. Chad Kelly attended was with a group of concerned citizens hoping to raise money for minor renovations to the Tomato Bowl. At this point, the visitor stands were deemed dangerous and the restrooms, lighting, press box, and grass field were in dire need of updating. The building known as the dressing room for teams was small, unable to house two teams at once, and falling apart. The original steps of the stadium were uneven and deteriorating. Not realizing that any efforts to renovate would trigger full compliance with the American with Disabilities Act, the group understood Jacksonville faced an “all or nothing” scenario where the beloved stadium was concerned.
In 2017, a bond was called for $21 million to renovate the Tomato Bowl and the Career & Technology facility at Jacksonville High School. The projected cost of the stadium was figured at $15 million, and the CTE facility at $6 million. The bond passed with an 80% approval rate, and interior and exterior renovations were completed in 2019.
The historic rock façade and wall were maintained, while state-of-the-art updates were made to the interior and press box. The entryway was redesigned to include displays of historic documents and images of the Tomato Bowl from previous decades. Photos were printed on metal and framed, showcasing students and teams from each decade, school traditions and their origins, and JISD Board documents from 1938–39 board meetings about construction of the stadium. The Cherokee County Historical Commission history of the Tomato Bowl is hung with images of the first game roster and team schedule of the Jacksonville “Fightin’ Indians.” A favorite is a large picture collage of Fred Douglass High School, the African American high school that operated until 1970 and whose teams also played in the Tomato Bowl. After integration, the school building burned, and much of their history was lost in the fire.
The picture collage has photographs of the Dragons, cheer squads, and band, and of the Dragon school annual. Both the FDHS and JHS school songs are showcased. Also included in the entry is a high wall named the “Corridor of Champions” with fourteen arrowhead-design plaques depicting former players and coaches who went on to play and coach in the NFL.
The community’s investment in this amazing downtown asset was rewarded in 2019 when the Historic Tomato Bowl Stadium was recognized as Best Public Improvement/Under 50,000 Population by the Texas Downtown Association. The judges panel was impressed by the scale of the project and the community’s commitment to maintaining its one-of-a-kind venue.
Historic Tomato Bowl Stadium
200 Austin Street.
Jacksonville, TX 75766
Visitors wishing to attend a football game at the stadium should consult parking information and clear-bag policy at www.jisd.org. During non-game times, stadium tours are available by advance arrangement with the school district.
Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce
1714 E. Rusk St.
Jacksonville, TX 75766