The One Week Stadium

 

UT students planned and financed the first stadium, and built it in a week.

UT Football Player.1900sFootball stadiums are often in the news. It’s usually about more seating, fancier lighting, hi-tech fields, and larger jumbo-trons – all, as you might expect, at a greater costs.

Though it had a more humble beginning, Texas fans should know that UT students – not professional contractors – built the University’s first stadium. And they did it in a week and for just under $800.

In the University’s infant years, Longhorn football was played on a 3 ½ acre vacant lot east of the original campus, just off the southeast corner of 24th and Speedway Streets, about where the O’Donnell Building and the Gates-Dell Complex stand today. As the campus was too hilly for a proper athletic field, UT students “squatted” on the level plot starting in 1897 and used it for football and baseball games, along with inter-class sports contests. Two years later, the University officially purchased the land, and soon after it was named for the much-loved James Clark, UT’s first librarian, groundskeeper, registrar, bursar, academic counselor, and half-a-dozen other things, who was famous for the Christmas Dinners he gave at his expense to the students who couldn’t make it home for the holiday. Clark Field has since migrated about the campus; its third home is just south of the San Jacinto Residence Hall.

The 1897 UT Football Team

Above: The 1897 UT football squad was the first to use the vacant lot east of campus that would become Clark Field.

Initially, UT fans watched the games precariously perched on the 4-inch rail of the wooden fence built to enclose the field. But as University enrollment increased and football and baseball grew in popularity, the uncomfortable rail was abandoned in favor of standing.  When the field was purchased in 1899, a few small bleachers were hastily constructed along the west side that could accommodate a few hundred spectators, but important games were already attracting several thousand fans, most of whom had to stand four or five persons deep along the sidelines. To make sure onlookers didn’t accidentally intrude onto the playing field, a second fence, made of barbed wire, was erected to keep fans off the gridiron. Those standing in front had the best views, but were in danger of being pushed by the crowd into the wire.

The 1907 football season was a great success. The team played eight games, with the first and last against the A&M College of Texas. The opener was scheduled on neutral turf in Dallas as part of the Texas State Fair, but the UT train was delayed five hours because of a wreck on the tracks, and didn’t arrive in Dallas until more than an hour after the scheduled kick-off time. Texas had to hurry to the field, and with no time to warm-up, struggled against the A&M Farmers to a defensive 0 – 0 tie. This left unfinished business to be decided in Austin at the end of the season on Thanksgiving Day.

The only other road trip was a two-game visit to the Universities of Arkansas and Missouri. In Fayetteville, the Longhorns literally faced an uphill battle, as one end of the Arkansas field was 15 feet higher than the other. (The challenge of finding a level plot of land for football certainly wasn’t unique to Austin.) At a time when football games were played in two uninterrupted halves, the Texas offense faced downhill the second half and pulled away for a 26 – 6 win.

Missouri handed Texas its only defeat of the season, winning 5 – 4, but the trip to Mizzou wasn’t a complete loss. Just before the start of the game, Missouri students held a dedication ceremony for a new section of bleachers they had constructed and financed by selling “bleacher badges” around town. The Longhorn squad and the UT students who accompanied them were inspired by the Missouri students to undertake a rather ambitious project of their own: to increase the meager stands at Clark Field with comfortable seating for several thousand, and to complete it in time for the Thanksgiving Day bout against A&M.

Once back in Austin, the University community eagerly embraced the idea, and immediately set about the task of raising funds and drawing plans. The students turned to John Keen, a senior law student who also had construction experience. Keen proposed building 22 movable bleachers that would accommodate 120 persons each. When added to the existing stands, the capacity of Clark Field would be increased substantially to about 3000 seats. In the fall, the stands would be stationed along the east and west sidelines of the football field. Each spring, the east side bleachers would be transported to the north end zone to make room for baseball.

1907.Bleacher Badge

To finance the project, students borrowed an idea from their peers at Missouri and sold white ribbon ”bleacher badges” which bore an orange letter “T” and “Bleachers 1907” underneath. But wanting to do something more, the co-ed students living in the Woman’s Building – UT’s first residence hall for women – created a 3-by-6-foot banner to be auctioned at a University-wide rally. Made of white satin, it featured a bold orange “T” near the top, along with a large gold star, in the middle of which was a Texas football.

1907.Womans Building.Bleacher BannerOn Friday evening, November 15th, an enthusiastic and boisterous crowd assembled in the auditorium of the old Main Building. The group heard rousing speeches from the football team, engineering Dean Thomas Taylor and Professor Harry Benedict. College yells and songs were in abundance, and when the Woman’s Building residents entered with their banner, everyone stood for an extended ovation. “Texas college spirit … once more greets the Longhorns with the old-time cry of confidence and victory,” boasted The Texan student newspaper. As the auction began, bidding was by department, which at the time consisted of three: Law, Engineering and the Academic Department (Arts and Sciences combined).

The Laws opened with a $25 offer that was quickly countered by a $50 bid from the rival Engineers. The auction continued at a rapid pace until the price rose to $300. Interest was intense. Students quickly had to pool their resources to see how much they could afford. The bids continued to rise, albeit more slowly, until the Engineers won with a commitment of $325 to the bleacher fund.

When the rally had finished, 662 badges were sold at 50 cents apiece, and the banner auction had garnered $325 for a total of $656. A $132 contribution from the UT Athletic Association covered extra costs, which made the grand total $788, enough for the lumber and other supplies.

The following Thursday, November 21st, construction on the bleachers began in earnest, as Thanksgiving was only a week away. John Keen had organized the students into work crews by classes from the three departments, who would take turns in half-day shifts. By faculty consent, students involved in the project were excused from their classes that day. Senior engineers were first Thursday morning, Senior Laws took over in the afternoon, Senior Academic students (“Academs”) arrived Friday morning, and then on to the junior, sophomore and freshman classes.

1907.Building Clark Field Stadium

Above: Construction of the bleachers began on Wednesday, November 21st and was completed a week later, in time for the UT vs. A&M football game.

Below: Second year law students finished a section of stands and gave it a test run.

1907.Bleachers.Second Year Law Students.

For the next week, Clark Field was a bee hive of activity. “There was no such thing as loitering,” reported the Austin Daily Statesman. “Everybody working on the run, and an unpleasant surprise awaited anyone who thought he could go down and leisurely watch the work. A hurried and painful application of a plank always decided the leisured one to ‘shuck off’ his vest and ‘get in the game.’ The busy energy and varied costumes (everything from overalls to swell new suits) presented an interesting sight.”

1907 UT AMC.Thanksgiving Football AdIn the meantime, the A&M football team was also having a winning season, and the “Championship of the Southwest” was to be decided at the Thanksgiving Day game. Local newspapers claimed the Aggies were putting in three practices a day, with signal practice in the morning, full contact play in the afternoon after classes, and weight training in the evening.

The bleachers were completed by the following Wednesday, but a heavy rain overnight threatened to ruin all of the students’ plans. Thanksgiving morning, November 28th, Clark Field better resembled an aquatic park. “A great pond stood in the center of the field and another in the south goal, and the corridors were filled with long faces and grave speculations as to what the Farmers would do to us on a sticky field.” The students rallied, recruited volunteers to dig ditches that would drain the water, and then repaired the holes with sand and soil brought in by wheelbarrow. By the 3 o’clock kick-off, the field was in playable condition.

DT.Bleachers Completed.HeadlineAn estimated 5,000 fans attended the game, overwhelmed the bleachers and stood along the sidelines. As a show of good sportsmanship, the A&M supporters were given room in the west side bleachers, which were closer to the field’s main entrance along Speedway. UT students elected to fill the east stands, a seating choice that was passed on to the current stadium and continued for more than a century.

The game was a fierce defensive battle, but the Longhorns ultimately prevailed 11- 6.

Clark Field Entrance.1916.Through the next several years, UT students continued to add and renovate Clark Field. The west stands were covered in 1912, a “press box” built on the roof, and north and south seats were added. More than 18,000 fans attended the 1920 Texas vs. A & M football game, at the time a record crowd for the South.

Left: A colorful rendering of the entrance to Clark Field, at 23rd and Speedway Streets, in 1916. The ticket booths and covered grandstands were all constructed by UT students. Click on the image for a larger view.

Attack of the Academs!

Academs

All hail the University of Texas professor! Tireless researcher, espouser of knowledge, valiant defender of free inquiry, appointed distributor of homework and grades, and, on occasion, “other duties as assigned.” From time to time, faculty members have been required to perform above and beyond their usual academic roles. In the early years of the University, the 40-acre campus was a magnet not only for aspiring scholars, but the town cows, which were free to wander and graze about Austin. The campus sported a wealth of wildflowers, newly-planted pecan and oak trees, and lush English ivy that tenaciously clung to the walls of the old Main Building (where the UT Tower stands today), all of which was an irresistible treat for the four-legged visitors. The munching and mooing, though, was a distraction to lectures. Professors had to regularly interrupt their classes, meet in front of Old Main, and as a group, shoo away the boisterous bovines. It was, perhaps, good practice for herding longhorn students through their degree requirements.

By 1915, the University of Texas boasted 2,300 students, most of them divided into three departments: law, engineering, and academic. The Academic Department included the “arts and sciences” curriculum offered today by the Colleges of Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences, and was contained almost exclusively in Old Main. The engineers were housed in what today is the Gebauer Building, and the old Law Building, once nestled into the southeast corner of the campus, was removed in the 1970s and replaced by the Graduate School of Business (GSB).

Two of the departments – law and engineering – have had an ongoing rivalry for more than a century. Most of the time it’s been a good-natured feud, though there have been episodes that would better be described as all out rumbles, and which required faculty intervention. The Academic students, informally called the “Academs,” typically remained neutral, and were either too busy pursuing their degrees or visiting Scholz’ Beer Garden to bother.

Texas Independence Day on March 2nd often provided an excuse for student shenanigans, and professors were always wary as the day neared. It was one of only two spring holidays and had been loudly celebrated by the University since 1897, when a group of law students borrowed a brass cannon from the Capitol, fired it repeatedly on the campus, and nearly broke out the windows of Old Main.

WaterTankFightEarly in the evening of March 1, 1915, UT President William Battle made a harried call to all faculty still on the campus. The engineers and laws were at it again at their usual spot: the old water tank. Placed on the north side of the campus, about where Painter Hall is today, the tank was installed in 1904 as a safety measure against water shortages that plagued Austin at the time. It was never used for its intended purpose, but its 120-foot perch was an instant hit with students, who dared to climb the tank’s legs and paint class initials on its walls. Almost always, the perpetrators were from the law or engineering departments.

Professors arrived at the tank to discover a full-blown scuffle in progress. The engineers held the high ground – at the top of the tank – while the laws were determined to dislodge them. The law students were having trouble, though, as the engineers had come prepared with an ample supply of eggs acquired from the University Cafeteria. Dropping the “hen fruit” from the tank’s platform discouraged any would-be climber.

The faculty immediately took control and sent the students home, though not before several professors were splattered with egg yolk, including English professor and future Plan II founder Dr. Hanson Parlin. Determined to prevent any more activity that evening, four members of the faculty remained on the grounds: Harry Benedict, who taught applied mathematics and astronomy, and was Dean of the University (what would be the Provost today); Edward Bantel, a civil engineering professor and the Assistant Dean of the Engineering Department; Hyman Ettlinger, an instructor of applied math; and Milton Gutsch, who taught Medieval History. A spotlight owned by the electrical engineering department was hastily installed on the roof of the Engineering Building and pointed north to illuminate the water tank. The foursome settled into the northwest corner room on the first floor, where they kept watch throughout the night. According to all accounts, they found a chess set to help keep them occupied. Card games, such as poker, had been specifically prohibited on the campus by the Board of Regents.

1913 Cactus Yearbook.Engineering Building.

Above: The Engineering Building, today’s Gebauer Building. With a makeshift spotlight installed on the roof, the four faculty members stayed in the room on the first floor (one floor up from the ground floor) seen on the far left corner. From there they could look north to the water tank.

At the first sign of daylight on March 2, and satisfied trouble had been averted, the four bleary-eyed instructors decided it was finally safe to return to their homes. Three of them –  Benedict, Ettlinger, and Bantel – elected to make a final pass in front of Old Main before they wandered off to the west and north campus neighborhoods where most of the faculty lived.

The Victorian-Gothic old Main Building featured a tall central tower with two shorter towers at the east and west entrances. Atop each of the towers was a short flag pole. As the three ambled to the west side of the Old Main, which was out of the line-of-sight of the Engineering Building, they discovered, much to their chagrin, a large flag hung on the western pole, with the rope flying loose in the wind. Fluttering in the pre-dawn breeze, the flag read “Academs 1915.” The Academs had struck at last!

Old Main and Water

Above: The Old Main Building, where the UT Tower stands today. Flags are flying from each of its three towers, with the west wing on the left. The water tower can be seen to the north, while the Engineering Building is out-of-sight, behind Old Main to the east. And yes, there were lots of bluebonnets on the campus in the spring. (For more on that topic and the bluebonnet chain tradition, go here.)

If the flag remained, there would be a new round of class rushes, and the all-night vigil would have been for nothing. There was but one choice: the flag had to be removed.

Resigned to the task at hand, the three ascended to the top of the central tower of Old Main, climbed out of the window onto the roof, and precariously made their way to the west wing. The flag’s untied halyards were flapping in the wind, four to six feet from the roof’s edge. What to do? The three pondered a moment, and hatched a plan to remove the flag and preserve the campus peace.

Academ

Above: Three UT faculty take a precarious early morning walk on the roof of Old Main. This drawing, along with one of the accounts of the story, was found in the Thomas Taylor papers in the Briscoe Center for American History, which houses the University Archives. Taylor was the first dean of engineering studies, and an avid recorder of UT student life.

There, on top of the west wing of the old Main Building, a little after 6am on March 2, and after having been awake all night, Benedict (a future UT president), grabbed the coattails of  Ettlinger, who in turn had a firm grip on Bantel’s right ankle. Standing on his left leg, Bantel leaned out over the roof, and after a few tries, successfully grabbed the rope and secured the offending flag from its pole.

And what of the water tank incident? Six students were brought before the Faculty Discipline Committee and were suspended and banished from the campus for two weeks, though one of the offenders was defiantly seen on the Forty Acres almost any time of day. When confronted about his trespass, he argued that there was a U. S. Post Office in the rotunda of Old Main, and as a United States citizen, he had a right to mail letters, check his post office box, and attend to any other postal matters that he desired.

The faculty, perhaps tired of shooing away belligerent cattle from the campus, took no further action.