Remembering the Days: Paving the Horseshoe Pathways
Remembering the Days podcast — Episode 19
By Chris Horn, firstname.lastname@example.org, 803-777-3687
For decades, the Horseshoe's pathways were muddy ruts when it rained and dusty trails when it was dry. But in 1931, a young English professor led a campaign to pave the pathways with bricks, using students as volunteer bricklayers.
Imagine it’s a cold rainy day and you’re walking across the Horseshoe at the University of South Carolina. If you’re an alumnus, it won’t take much imagination to remember those brick-paved walkways that criss-cross the entire length of the Horseshoe. Like me, you might have tripped a time or two on one of the uneven bricks.
But now imagine that instead of brick sidewalks, there are only dirt pathways. And in the pouring rain, the pathways are ankle-deep in mud.
I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and, less than 90 years ago, none of the Horseshoe sidewalks were paved. Today we’re looking at how those dirt paths became brick sidewalks. It’s a story that goes back to 1931, and involves an English professor, a lot of industrious students and what must have been some very patient brick masons, including one in particular.
Back then, the Horseshoe was the main thoroughfare on campus, and professors and students had, frankly, gotten tired of trudging the dirt paths that were dusty when the weather was dry and muddy when it was wet. Everyone wanted them paved.
Problem was, it was 1931 and the Great Depression was on. The state Legislature said ‘No way’ when the university asked for help in paving the pathways. But a young English professor named Havilah Babcock proposed a solution — since the university couldn’t afford to pay laborers to do the work, why not ask the students to do the work themselves as volunteer brick layers?
Students were given a simple but powerful incentive — if they showed up on the Horseshoe to help build the new sidewalks, they would be excused from going to class. Student organizations started fundraising and arranged with Richland Shale, a Columbia-area brick company, to supply 7,000 paving bricks.
So the supplies were in place and the free labor was in place. Only thing missing was skill — the know-how to actually lay brick pavers and mortar them in place.
"And bricklaying is something that takes a lot of time, a lot of patience, and it's very monotonous. It's the same thing over and over again. All your bricks have to be in a perfect line. All of your bricks have to be at the same level."
That’s Kevin Curtis, assistant landscape manager for the university, who oversees lots of projects, including maintenance of all of the brick sidewalks across campus.
To make up for the skill deficit, the brick company sent over a few experienced brick masons to train the student volunteers.
Kevin Curtis:That seems like a monumental task to me, you would have to do it in sections, I can't imagine one person could handle more than 10 students at a time working for him, I can't imagine you getting large groups of students out here that were basically untrained to come through and do it right. Yeah. And get it right the first time and the second time and the third time.
Somehow, they pulled it off. The president of the university at the time, Leonard Baker, ceremoniously laid the first brick on Nov. 23, 1931, and the last bricks were laid by the end of the fall semester. To celebrate the achievement, students mortared the initials of some of the student organizations right into the sidewalks. You can still see them today. They also spelled out H B, Havilah Babcock’s initials, in a section of sidewalk beside the Osborne Administration Building. By the way, we’ll probably devote an entire episode at some point to Babcock, who became a legendary professor at the university.
If you look on a section of sidewalk between DeSaussure and McKissick, you’ll also see the initials M E E embedded in the brick. They stand for Marion E. Evans, an African American brick mason who won the admiration and affection of the student volunteers he helped to train in the art of brick laying.
Given today’s labor laws and liability issues, I’m pretty sure there’s no way South Carolina or any other university would ask its students now to engage in such a major construction project. Kevin Curtis says that’s probably a good thing.
Kevin: I would say there's a handful of students that would could pull it off, but we couldn't pull it off on the scale that they did back in the past.
I talked to a few students about the brick sidewalk project from 90 years ago and asked them whether, given the opportunity, they would volunteer for such an adventure. Here’s what they said.
Student 1: "I think with the incentive to miss class to lay the brick might give students more motivation to volunteer and help out. Personally, me, I don’t think I could lay brick. Seems like a lot of labor that I’m probably not cut out for."
Student 2: "Yeah, I’d definitely, something that would get me out of class for a little while, enjoy the day and lay some brick, I’d definitely do it. I think if shown the way I could definitely lay some brick. It would make you strong. That stuff’s heavy, for sure."
Student 3: "I don’t think I could if I’m being completely honest but if something like this were to actually happen and there was like an explanation, I think I could do it. I’m pretty adaptable."
Special thanks for background information in this episode go to university archivist Elizabeth West who includes a section about the Horseshoe sidewalks in her book, On the Horseshoe, A Guide to the Historic Campus of the University of South Carolina. The book is published by, USC Press, the sponsor of today’s episode and a publisher of books that illuminate the history and culture of South Carolina and the American South. Learn more at uscpress.com.
This is the final episode of the fall 2020 season. Remembering the Days will be back next month with a new season of stories about the university’s always interesting and sometimes quirky history. We’ll have examples of both in the spring 2021 season. Hope you’ll join us.
Remembering the Days is a production of Communications and Public Affairs at the University of South Carolina. I’m Chris Horn — see you in the new year.
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