The University’s First Thanksgiving

UT Campus.Mid 1890s.

Above: The University of Texas campus in the early 1890s, seen from the corner of 21st and Guadalupe Streets. An unpaved Guadalupe runs along the bottom of the image. On the campus, from left: the Chemistry Labs (where the biological ponds are today); two-thirds of the old Main Building, not completed until 1899; and old B. Hall (near the present day intersection of Inner Campus Drive and the East Mall). The campus was surrounded by a wooden fence to keep out the town cows.

Thanksgiving has always been on the University calendar. A national holiday since 1863, celebrated on the last Thursday in November, the Board of Regents has dutifully ordered a suspension of classes for the day since UT opened in 1883. At the time, the University followed the quarter system. The fall quarter usually started in mid-September and classes were held six days a week (Monday-Wednesday-Friday or Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday). Thanksgiving was the first opportunity for a break in the academic routine, though it only lasted a day. Classes resumed on Friday.

Students from Austin spent the day with their families. Out-of-towners either took the train home if it wasn’t too far, or celebrated together at their boarding houses or local restaurants. For its first seven years, UT had no residence or dining halls; the Forty Acres was a quiet, lonely place on Thanksgiving.

B Hall Original.1890On December 1, 1890, the University opened Brackenridge Hall – known on campus simply as “B. Hall.” A $17,000 donation from San Antonio Regent George Brackenridge, the building (photo at left) was intended to be temporary and provide inexpensive housing for the state’s poor boys, who otherwise couldn’t afford to come to Austin and attend the University. A no frills structure, built from yellow pressed brick and limestone trim, it better resembled a pair of city slum houses adrift on the Texas prairie. Rent for a room was $2.50 per month. Expanded and improved a decade later, B. Hall became legendary. A stronghold of student leadership, the Hall was the birthplace of many UT traditions and campus organizations, including: the Longhorn Band, The Daily Texan, Student Government, The Eyes of Texas, Texas Cowboys, and the Tejas Club.

While the upper floors were student rooms, the ground floor of the hall housed a restaurant. Designed to accommodate more than 100 patrons, it was also the University’s first campus-wide eatery. Outfitted with oak tables and chairs, tablecloths, heavy china plates and bowls, utensils, and glassware, each table was provided with salt and pepper shakers, sugar, cream, and a porcelain pitcher filled with water. A popular prank was to add a few minnows from Waller Creek to a pitcher. Waiters, usually B. Hall residents working their way through school, delivered meals from a fully stocked and staffed kitchen on the north side of the hall. Food was modestly priced. A student could eat well for $5.00 per month.

B. Hall.1890s

Above: B. Hall residents assemble for a group portrait in the 1890s.

AAS.1891.11.26.University Thanksgiving HeadlineThe following year, November 26, 1891, the first Thanksgiving Day meal was served in B. Hall. As most of the residents were too poor to afford a train ticket home, the hall’s steward, Harry Beck, had a feast prepared and a special menu printed on 4 ½ x 7 inch cards. Though the menu has not survived, it was published in the Austin Statesman.

B Hall.1891 Thanksgiving Menu

Above: The menu for the first Thanksgiving Day feast served on the Forty Acres, re-typed from an issue of the Austin Statesman. (The original version, found on microfilm, was difficult to read.)  B. Hall Steward Harry Beck had some fun with the listings. Do you recognize everything?

  • ConsommeA flavored, clear broth soup.
  • Oleaginous Porcine with Apple Sauce“Oleaginous” is a word for “greasy,” while “Porcine” is to resemble a pig. This is really roast pork with apple sauce.
  • Crushed Hiberian SpudsHiberia is an island off the coast of Ireland. These are mashed Irish potatoes.
  • Baked Convolvulus BatatasA botanical reference to sweet potatoes.
  • Punk-In-PiYou guessed it. Pumpkin Pie.

At 1 p.m. in the afternoon, about 55 hungry UT students, mostly B. Hall residents and a few others, enjoyed a full Thanksgiving Dinner. According to several accounts, “all spoke in praise of the excellent fare.” A round of speeches and toasts followed the feast, including a special tribute for Harry Beck. “He was warmly cheered by the boys and his sentiments of friendship were greatly appreciated by them.” The festivities continued through most of the afternoon.

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