Above: Snow blankets the UT campus in front of the old Main Building.
Snow? Snow days in Austin are rare. They happen only once in a blue moon. Some give the odds as a snowball’s chance in, well, you get the idea. When Old Man Winter makes an infrequent visit to the capital of Texas, it usually closes down both the city and the University. But UT’s first snow day depended on some daring acts by a few students, and a University president with a sense of humor.
In February, 1899, an exceptionally strong Arctic surge abruptly disturbed an otherwise quiet winter across most of North America. Dubbed the Great Blizzard of 1899, it brought record cold to the South, including a -1ºF low temperature in Austin. More than 35 inches of snow fell in Washington, DC, and white-out conditions were experienced as far south as Tampa, Florida.
On the morning of Saturday, February 11, 1899, sleepy University of Texas students awoke to find Austin cloaked in six inches of new snow. In a time before long-range forecasts, pinpoint Doppler radar, or the Weather Channel, the snowfall was completely unexpected. “In the old days at Varsity, snow was a rarer thing than ice cream at B. Hall,” wrote Fritz Lanham, the first editor of The Texan student newspaper who also lived in Brackenridge Hall, or “B. Hall,” the University’s first dormitory for men. “Imagine, therefore, the surprise of the students when they rose from their larks to find the earth receiving a breakfast of heavenly flakes!”
It was also a class day. For the first few decades, University classes met six days a week, either on Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. Since most of the faculty and UT’s 600 students lived on or within walking distance of the campus, and as there was no radio, television or internet to broadcast a school closure, Saturday classes began as usual, promptly at 9 a.m.
Of course, the snow was a distraction. Students gazing from the windows of the newly completed Main Building (better known as “Old Main,” and since replaced by the current Main Building and Tower) couldn’t help but think that such an unusual day ought not to be spent in a classroom.
The denizens of B. Hall agreed. As the snow fell, so fell their interest in academic work. Schemes hatched in the minds of the Hall’s residents as snowballs formed in their hands, and gradually a relationship of cause and effect between the two was realized. The only piece missing was the official declaration of a holiday, which could only be granted by the University president.
After some discussion, a small band set out from B. Hall. Led by Walter “Ovey” Schreiner and Walter Monteith, both captains of the football team, they boldly made their way up the hill to Old Main, climbed the south steps, passed through the front entrance, and then immediately turned left to enter the sanctum sanctorum, the office of UT President George Winston. Their mission wasn’t a secret, and others were eager to join the cause. By the time the group reached the Main Building, it had snowballed into a crowd, and each student carried an armful of frosty white pellets to “bolster up this declaration.”
The mob of students squeezed into the president’s office, where Schreiner and Monteith, respectfully, but firmly, presented their request for a day off. Winston eyed the students, spied the arsenal of snowballs, but didn’t panic. He’d been in this situation before.
George T. Winston (photo at left) was appointed UT’s first full-time president in 1896, succeeding Leslie Waggener, who was then both Chairman of the Faculty and President ad interim. In the spring of 1897, Winston received a request from the students who believed that March 2nd, Texas Independence Day, should be an annual University holiday.
But Winston hailed from North Carolina, had attended the Naval Academy and Cornell University, and neither understood nor shared the affinity Texans had for March 2nd. He flatly refused the petition. The only Independence Day he recognized was on July 4th.
Undaunted, the students contacted the Attorney General, signed a bond to borrow one of two brass cannons then in front of the State Capitol, rolled it a mile to the campus, and on March 2nd fired it repeatedly in front of Old Main. Classrooms emptied, faculty joined the students in making patriotic speeches about their beloved Texas, and a very reluctant President Winston was brought before the assembly to say a few words. His comments were paraphrased:
“I was born in the land of liberty, rocked in the cradle of liberty, nursed on the bottle of liberty, and I’ve had liberty preached to me all my life. But Texas University students take more liberty than anyone I’ve ever come in contact with.”
Two years later, facing a legion of anxious students armed with melting snowballs, a wiser President Winston smiled. “Certainly, young gentlemen. It seldom snows at this latitude, and you are at liberty to enjoy it.”
The news wafted through the halls of the Old Main, classrooms were opened, “and the prisoners liberated.” The only dissenting voice came from English Professor Mark Liddell, who was unhappy at the interruption of his lecture. Though he may have been a bit warm under the collar, his temperament was surely cooled as a volley of snowballs was fired in his direction.
The rest of the day was spent in a great snowball battle in which the residents of B. Hall held their own against the combined forces of the remaining students and faculty.
Above: Snowball fight of a later day. A fierce battle breaks out on the West Mall after a snowfall in the winter of 1963. Click on image for a larger view.