As early as the 1890s, high schools throughout the Upper Peninsula were fielding competitive football teams. Following in the footsteps of college programs, schools saw these games as fun extracurricular activities for the students, but also as ways to bring communities together. From these games, however, came great community pride and longstanding rivalries. Menominee and Marinette (Wis.) have the oldest interstate rivalry in the country, going back to 1894.
In late 1899, the University of Michigan and the Michigan High School Athletic Association committee decided to hold a state championship game each Thanksgiving weekend. The second year of the championship, they invited Ishpeming High School to compete against Orchard Lake Michigan Military Academy. The Hematites won their first state championship by defeating Orchard Lake, 12-6. Ishpeming would go on to win the title the next two years as well (1901 - Ishpeming 27, Kalamazoo 21; 1902 - Ishpeming 35, Benton Harbor 12).
In 1903, Escanaba was selected to play in the championship game, but lost to Benton Harbor, 22-0. A year later, Escanaba got a new football coach, John Woodhams, and began the rivalry with Gladstone, whom they tied 0-0 during their regular-season game. Escanaba had a season record of 6 wins, 1 loss (to the Escanaba city team), and 1 tie. The Escanaba high school team played Mount Pleasant in the state championship and won 16-5.
In 1905, Ishpeming would return as the state champion, defeating Grand Rapids Central by a score of 17-5, but after that year the game was no longer held on a yearly basis. Escanaba High School’s 1907 football team was supposed to play Saginaw in the state championship, but the Saginaw team refused to play them either at home or in the U.P. Escanaba therefore won the state championship by a forfeit from Saginaw, which is recorded as a 1-0 score. The next year, Escanaba was the U.P. champ again, but a game with Ann Arbor never materialized.