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.

Rumble at the Water Tank!

The 1904 start  of the infamous “feud” between engineering and law students.

WaterTower2It arrived late in the summer of 1904, when a near-vacant campus was quietly wilting under the August heat. A stark-black and spindle-legged water tank was installed just north of the old Main Building. Intended to be temporary – a year or two at the most – it remained for almost two decades. An instant campus landmark, the tank provided a backdrop for many campus shenanigans, and was the catalyst for a long-lasting rivalry between law and engineering students.

The need for a tank was born in 1900, when a spring flood brought down the seven-year old Austin Dam that had created Lake Austin. City water service was interrupted and remained sporadic for years, and the frequent water shortages forced Austinites to make emergency plans until the water supply was dependable again.

Just before the start of the 1904-05 academic year, UT President William Prather ordered the elevated water tank constructed behind the auditorium of Old Main. Dubbed “Prexy Prather’s Pot” by the students (“Prexy” was slang for “President” at the time.), it towered 120 feet on four lattice supports and stood “in somber majesty on the open campus, in its coat of black paint.” The tank cost just over $11,000, but after it was ready and tested, the University discovered that the city could only provide enough water pressure to fill the tank halfway, making it almost useless. Even worse, the tank leaked, and a permanent pool of mud formed directly beneath it. Fortunately, the University didn’t experience a water emergency, but a lonely water tank on a college campus isn’t likely to be friendless for very long. It soon became a focal point for student antics.

Main Building Water Tank043

Above: The water tank sat behind the old Main Building, fairly close to the north edge of campus at 24th Street, about where Inner Campus Drive passes the west side of Painter Hall today. Its height enticed students to climb up and enjoy the view, and to paint class numerals and other decorations.

On the brisk autumn morning of October 13th, about two months after the tank’s arrival, the campus awoke to find that the junior law class (the first-year law students) had scaled the ladder attached to the northwest support and decorated the sides of the tank with white paint. The initials of the 1907 Law Class – “0L7” – were boldly displayed, along with “Beware Freshie” and some derogatory remarks about freshmen, especially first year engineering students.

“Every time we viewed the shameful sight, it burned deeper into our seared vision,” wrote Alf Toombs, then a freshman engineer. While the junior laws’ handiwork taunted from above, the engineering freshmen huddled all day and plotted their revenge. Toombs acquired a large sheet of tough paper, and drew “by aid of a bottle of Whitmore’s black shoestring dressing, the silhouette of a jackass of noble proportions, and with the brand of the ’07 Laws on his flank.”

The choice of the animal wasn’t arbitrary. In 1900, law professor William Simkins was lecturing to his first-year Equity class in Old Main and had asked a student about the day’s lesson. Before he could respond, a mule grazing outside the classroom window brayed. “Gentlemen,” said Simkins above the laughter, “one at a time!” Thereafter, junior law classes were nicknamed “Simkins’ Jackasses,” or simply, the “J.A.s.”

WaterTankFightShortly after dinner that evening, the “clans of the engineers” gathered around the water tank, shouted class cheers and yells of defiance, and dared the law students to dislodge them. “Mars was the ruling planet in the horoscope for University students for several days,” noted The Texan campus newspaper. The junior laws responded accordingly, and amassed to face off against their campus rivals. Once begun, the freshman scrap sprawled over a half-acre and lasted almost an hour. “I entered the melee with a full wardrobe,” Toombs recounted, “and emerged minus a sweater, shirt, cap and part of my ‘munsing-wear,’ not to mention about four square inches of skin.” Though the junior law students were generally older and stronger, the engineers held a numerical advantage. As opportunities arose, unwary laws were captured and “baptized” in the mud pool below the water tank. The battle didn’t subside until the both groups were exhausted, and the muddy and overpowered junior laws had retreated, at least temporarily.

Flushed with their victory, the engineers recruited Toombs, along with fellow freshmen Clarence Elmore and Drury Phillips, to climb and redecorate the water tank. The ascent was a perilous one, as the ladder only went as far as the bottom of the parapet that guarded the service platform. Each of the three would have to grab the parapet, hang by their arms, and swing their legs up and over the railing to get a foothold. Since the law students had done this the night before, the three were certain they could “do all a miserable law could do,” and set out on their mission. Armed with white paint, paintbrushes and Toombs’ sign, the group brought along a pair of blankets each, as they planned to stay and guard their work through the chilly night.

The law students’ graffiti was replaced by a skull and crossbones, class initials “C.E. ‘08” and “E.E. ‘08” for the civil and electrical engineers, along with, “Down with the Laws,” and “Malted Milk for Junior Laws.” Toombs’ painting, “a meek, symbolic jackass, branded 0L7,” was hung in a prominent position. Before bedding down for the night atop the water tank, the three discussed what to do if the laws should return. As one of them had brought along some chewing tobacco, it was decided that if their “fort” was invaded, all of them would “chew tobacco for dear life and expectorate on the attacking party.” A late-night visit by four freshmen in the Academic Department caused some alarm, and the defense was employed. The pleading Academs insisted that they only wanted to add their own class initials to the side of the tank. After some heated deliberation, the engineers grudgingly consented. The rest of the night passed quietly, but it was a miserable one for Toombs. “You see, I was not a user of tobacco, and my gallant defense got the best of me. I was deathly sick for two hours.”

The tank’s revised appearance had the campus buzzing the following morning, and the talk continued for weeks. Engineers and Laws both claimed victory, and expressed their views poetically in “The Radiator” column of The Texan. The law students boasted:

Take your dues, ye engineers. Take a mudding mid the jeers of the ‘Varsity’s population –Simkins’ Equity is just. And the Laws will, when they must, give to you its application.

While the engineers parried:

That same night the Engineers, a noisy, noisome crowd, took lessons in high art at which no Law man was allowed. And those few Laws that hung around, knew not which way to turn. On every hand the enemy,whose need seemed to be stern.

President Prather, though, was not amused, and by mid-morning had hired someone to repaint the entire tank in gray and remove the ladder. Of course, this only provided an irresistible challenge to the students, and the water tank was regularly decorated through the rest of the academic year.

When Dr. David Houston succeeded Prather as president in 1905, he adopted a different strategy, and told the students they were welcome to paint the tank as often as they wished. This took all of the fun out of the deed, and the tank was neglected for years. William Battle, a Greek and Classics professor who had also founded the University Co-op and designed the UT Seal, rose through the academic ranks and in 1914 was appointed acting president. His attitude was “touch not,” which promptly re-ignited student interest. The tank was decorated once more, including a 1915 incident where several professors had to guard the tank overnight.

WaterTowerThe water tank remained on the campus through World War I. Along with the usual class initials and slogans, the tank sported the insignias of the military schools stationed at the University through the war, including a particularly well-done mural of a bi-plane painted by a soldier in the School for Military Aeronautics.

In 1920, the tank was sold to a Houston contractor for $2,000 and finally removed. Its passing was eulogized in the student newspaper: “Our old historic and beloved tank is no more. This old tank was to the University what the Statue of Liberty at the entrance to New York Harbor is to the lover of American democracy. It is the embodiment and emblem of all the splendid traditions, good or bad, of this still more splendid institution.”