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Badgers vs. the Men of the Minnesota Boat Club: Sponsored by Schlitz Brewing of Milwaukee

February 28, 2018

 

 

Students at the University of Wisconsin initiated their first rowing club in 1874,[1] the same year the University hired John Bascom to serve as president, and this was an unfortunate coincidence.[2] Bascom arrived in Madison with an actively unsupportive stance toward college athletics, and while he tolerated the presence of a student-run rowing club, he offered nothing in the way of resources or encouragement to the athletically-inclined students. Competition with other clubs was out of the question; Bascom harbored concerns that if he opened Wisconsin’s storied doors to outside crews the vices of betting and drinking would waft in and corrupt his upstanding student body. Bascom underscored his dislike of collegiate sports by devoting a substantial passage of his baccalaureate sermon, ‘The Seat of Sin’ to the condemnation of athletics, specifically college regattas and ball games.[3]

 

 Bascom’s student body was well-heeled and interested in popular trends, often taking social cues from prestigious eastern schools where intercollegiate rowing was on the rise.[4] Undeterred by the administration’s dismissive stance, the students cultivated their rowing club, and a school-wide interest in intramural rowing grew, buoyed by the rise of the fraternity system throughout the 1870s and ‘80s. Ultimately, however, the sport was constrained by the capacity of the student body to support it, forcing the Badgers to make the most of recreational rowing on Lake Mendota. And they did, forming crews for lively informal, intra-class and intra-college contests.[5]  

 

Throughout the 1870s, national interest in rowing increased significantly. As amateur rowing spread westward across the country, a number of new clubs popped up in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Yet rowing remained stubbornly insular at the University of Wisconsin. An 1886 editorial in the University Press noted that:

 

‘…students from other colleges visiting the University have often expressed surprise on learning that we possessed no boat [house]. With unrivalled facilities and an abundance of talent in this line, when we stop and think of the matter it must seem rather unaccountable even to ourselves.’ [6]

 

Shortly after Bascom retired in 1887, several undergraduates—including a W.T. Saucerman—transferred to Wisconsin. They arrived with previous competitive rowing experience and a double shell that quickly became a big attraction. Saucerman, a passionate rower, became such a strong vocal advocate for advancing a new boat club at Wisconsin[7] that by the late 1880s a more robust rowing program began to take shape.

 

A group of faculty members joined the students, in 1889, to form an ambitious new boat club with plans to procure two eight-oared shells and designs from architects Conover and Porter for a spacious boathouse. Despite the growing interest and progress, the University remained unsupportive; the entire financial burden of the boathouse project fell to the students. After securing permission from the regents to build between the Old Red Gym and the shores of Lake Mendota, the students successfully raised enough money through member subscriptions to allow construction to begin, but the project quickly stalled out as sponsor funds failed to keep up with construction costs.[8]

 

With providential timing, the University retained Dr. Charles Kendall Adams in September of 1892 to serve as president. In marked contrast to Bascom, Adams arrived in Wisconsin with a fierce determination to promote athletics. Adams came directly from Cornell, where he had served as president since 1885, the same year Cornell engaged professional sculler Charles E. Courtney as their head crew coach. During Adams’ tenure, Cornell’s rowing program had gained national recognition for its successful intercollegiate rowing.[9] Moreover, Cornell’s rowing program provided a powerful example of how athletics could instill a sense of University spirit throughout the entire community, to the student body as well as to the townspeople, generating good will that could be leveraged to support the University in other ways.

 

Adams immediately set to work resurrecting the stalled boathouse project. In December of 1892, he chaired the largest meeting the college had had to date, at which he facilitated the formation of the University Boat House Company to serve as a new vehicle for collecting subscriptions by issuing shares. He successfully raised the outstanding $4500[10] and construction resumed in March of 1893. The impressive new boathouse was finished posthaste, equipped to serve faculty, students, and the community, with room for 80 small boats and several racing shells. It even had a commercial dock.

 

Drawing on his Cornell connections, Adams recruited Amos Marston, a former rowing captain who had trained under Courtney, to whip the Badgers into shape for their third non-intramural contest against the Delawares from Chicago.[11] Marston passed on Countney’s winning training techniques, helping Wisconsin out-pull the Delawares in the spring of 1894. With a new boathouse, administrative support, two wins under their trau, and their first coach secured, the Badgers were itching to engage in more serious competition.

 

Without missing a beat, the Ulhlein family of Schlitz Brewing in Milwaukee stepped up, offering the grand Schlitz Challenge Cup to be given to the winner of three consecutive races between Wisconsin and a rival of their choosing. The silver cup was magnificent. Lined with gold and standing three feet high, it was a dazzling prize.

 

The sketch to the right was printed on the front page of the June 24, 1894 St Paul Daily Globe. It is not clear that the trophy, or any other image of it exists The trophy was modeled after The Schlitz Atlas (shown above) which was used for marketing in the late 1880s.

 

Had there been another collegiate team within close proximity to Madison, it’s almost certain Wisconsin would have engaged them. The closest approximation to a high-powered undergraduate crew, within striking distance of Madison, were the Men of the Minnesota Boat Club (MBC), still glowing from their victorious winning streak of 1893 (see Love-Hate Eight Part 2)The Men of MBC were considered to be nearly as competitive as the elite collegiate teams of the east coast.

 

This new rivalry opened up fresh opportunities for both teams. The Badgers would gain valuable race experience, while the Men of MBC would have the opportunity to win the stunningly beautiful Schlitz Cup and finally race The Geneva, their newly purchased eight (see Love-Hate Eight Part 1). After two decades in small boats and fours, this was not an opportunity to squander.

 

The Wisconsin Badgers traveled to Lake Minnetonka to race the Men of MBC on June 24, 1894. At that time, neither team could have foreseen how much they would change over the course of this three-year rivalry. Stay tuned....

 

[1]Taylor, Bradley F. Wisconsin Where They Row, The University of Wisconsin Press 2005, p 4. The first evidence of crew at the University of Wisconsin was noted in a 1912 letter from alumnus C.B. Bradish who wrote of his father’s telling him that ‘he rowed on the first crew Wisconsin ever had’ in 1874.

 

[2] John Bascom served as President from 1874 to 1887 and while he was unsupportive of athletics he worked tirelessly on behalf of the University to ensure it became a solid academic institution. Bascom believed that the University should exert a strong moral presence, and taught a special course for seniors on the importance of using education to improve society. Bascom is credited with promulgating ‘The Wisconsin Idea,’ the concept that a public university should improve the lives of people beyond the borders of its campus. If not a champion of athletics, he most certainly was a champion of temperance, women’s rights, and labor. He was considered unmatched as a leader of a major American university in his time.

 

[3] Paraphrased from Taylor, Bradley F. Wisconsin Where They Row, The University of Wisconsin Press 2005, p.5.

 

[4] By 1874 the following elite colleges and universities had taken up intercollegiate rowing: Massachusetts Agricultural College, Amherst, Bowdoin, Williams, Penn, Columbia, Princeton, US Naval Academy, Brown, Cornell, Union, Hamilton, Harvard, and Yale. In 1874 they raced coxless six-oared shells. The first intercollegiate race to feature an eight took place between Harvard and Yale in 1876. From this point on the eight became increasingly popular.

 

[5] Taylor, Bradley F. Wisconsin Where They Row, The University of Wisconsin Press 2005, p 5.

 

[6] Feldman, Jim The Buildings of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin: The University Archives, 1997 - http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/UW.UWBuildings.

 

[7] IBID p.88

 

[8] IBID p.88

 

[9] Taylor p 19 (paraphrased) Under Courtney, Cornell’s crew teams had become almost unbeatable. Courtney coached part-time very successfully from 1883 – 1888 before becoming the permanent head coach in 1889. Between 1884 – 1895 Cornell was undefeated, racing against more established programs such as Harvard, Penn, New York Rowing Club, Yale, and Columbia.

 

[10] Taylor p 21.

 

[11] The Badgers first non-intramural race abroad was an eights race, ¾ mile out and back, against the Chicago Navy[11] on August 27, 1892 on Lac La Belle in Oconomowoc before a crowd of 5,000. The race was between the eight best rowers from Wisconsin and a ‘picked crew’ of the eight best rowers from across Chicago Navy’s twelve clubs. To everyone’s great surprise, Wisconsin rowing in the Rheola took the lead over the second half of the race and won. Wisconsin raced the Delewares a second time in the spring on 1893, and again under Marston in the spring of 1894.

 

 

 

 

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