Ever made a meal out of a few appetizers? In today's episode, we’re serving up three bite-sized stories from the centuries-old history of the University of South Carolina.
Have you ever gone out to eat but weren’t in the mood for a big entrée, so you made a meal out of a few appetizers?
I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re serving up three bite-sized stories from the centuries-old history of the University of South Carolina. Think of these tidbits as snack food to feed your appetite for university historical trivia.
For our first mini-story, we’re going back to 1867. That’s when the first baseball club was organized at South Carolina College, the precursor of today’s university. Union troops who were occupying the state after the Civil War helped to introduce the game of baseball, and Carolina students took a shine to it. They formed a club team and played against a civilian club team in Columbia. The final score was — get this — 96 to 66 in Carolina’s favor. Sounds like a lopsided basketball score.
Why such a high score? Baseball back then was a very different game than what you see today. One of the major differences was that the pitcher had to toss the ball to the batter exactly how the batter wanted it. The batter could ask for a low pitch or a high pitch — and the pitcher had to comply. The back-and-forth between batter and pitcher might have sounded something like this:
Batter: “Oh, I like it right here. Sort of medium to high level, please. And not too hard.”
Pitcher: “All right, here we go.”
Batter: “Oh, almost. But, you know, I'd really like it a little bit higher. That was a little low.”
Pitcher: “All right, I get you. Would you like a little curve with that or ...”
Batter: “Oh, no, no, no. I can't hit a curve to save my life. I would just like a straight pitch, nice and easy right about here.”
Pitcher: “Maybe we can do that for you. Here we go.
Batter: “Oh, almost there, my boy.”
You get the idea. Pitchers back then were not trying to make the batters strike out — they were trying to get the ball into play. Obviously, the game has changed a lot since then, and the Gamecock baseball team has kept up with the times. They’re one of only six universities in the country to have won back-to-back College World Series championships.
Our next historical appetizer has to do with students finding excuses not to go to class. I’m not talking about cutting class — anyone can do that anytime. I’m talking about finding a reason why classes should be canceled for everyone.
During Thomas Cooper’s presidency of South Carolina College in the 1820s, students suggested — with straight faces, I’m sure — that classes should be suspended for a day so that the student body could properly mourn the passing of Cooper’s beloved horse. This was the same horse, I suppose, that they had, on occasion, painted green as one of their college pranks back then. Check out the Remembering the Days episode on 19th century student pranks to learn more.
In 1858, Carolina’s president Augustus Longstreet noted that the State Fair caused its fair share of class absences. Students would get permission from their parents to miss one or two or even three days of class to attend the annual festivities. Keep in mind that the State Fair back then was a major social event. Parents and brothers and sisters of Carolina students would come to Columbia from all over to attend, and the students were only too eager to tell their professors that they simply had to go to the fair to escort their mothers or their sisters. Eventually, the university just gave in, and for many years classes were suspended for one or two days during fair week.
These days, it's not uncommon for USC to suspend classes in the event of inclement weather. Hurricanes, snow or the threat of other severe weather can briefly close campus. But Carolina students in the early 1800s turned weather watching into an art form. A custom had arisen that students would stay away from their classes if they deemed the weather too dangerous to venture outside. One historian of the university put it this way: “The sky was watched with anxious eyes, and not many clouds were necessary to make a storm.”
Student 1: So have you noticed those clouds forming from the west? Just over the tree line there.
Student 2: I don't see — oh, yes, I see it now. I see it now.
Student 1: See, as those clouds develop, we could get a very bad storm coming up in the afternoon. And I know from experience that sometimes those clouds bring more than just inclement weather. They can bring hail, they can bring snow.
Student 2: One of those clouds balloons out of proportion and you're taking your life into your hands. Not worth it.
Student 1: Not worth it at all, my boy. We should talk to someone about trying to cancel this afternoon. And it's not at all because I have that exam coming up.
Student 2: No, I'm sure you would absolutely be happy to take that exam were it not for the dangerous storm cloud pattern.
Student 1: Quite right. Quite right.
Our last historical tidbit on the menu today concerns the part of campus known as Gibbes Green. That’s the area behind McKissick — lots of trees and a big circular walkway connected to other sidewalks that lead to buildings like Davis, Sloan, Barnwell and LeConte.
Carolina acquired much of the land through an act of the legislature in 1833. Five years later, the college purchased an adjacent tract for $400. In 1865 when Sherman marched through Columbia, fires were rampant throughout the city and destroyed many courthouse records, including the documents related to that purchase. Carolina didn’t have any purpose for the land at the time, and in the latter part of the 1800s, it became a playground, a park and an informal ball field for Columbia residents.
Things came to a head, though, in the early 1900s when the university wanted to build beyond the Horseshoe. They set their sights on the Gibbes Green property, but many Columbia residents claimed that the land was abandoned — that USC didn’t really own it. University officials couldn’t produce documentation of ownership because the 1865 fire at the courthouse had destroyed it. So, there was an impasse. USC wanted to build on the land and Columbia residents wanted it to remain as a park or be developed for private use.
To counter the claim that the land was abandoned, USC’s president at the time, Benjamin Sloan, got creative. He had the Green laid out as a small golf course. I found a photo of Gibbes Green from that time that shows a golf flag on a putting green. The old Observatory Building beside Thornwell College became the place for professors and students to stow their golf clubs after playing a round on Gibbes Green.
Golfer 1: Cheerio.
Golfer 2: Nice to see you on the green. Wonderful day for the links.
Golfer 1: I believe I have the honors.
Golfer 2: After you.
Golfer 1: Why, I thank you. Oh, I believe I've hit a squirrel. He seems to be OK, though. Oh, but my lie is terrible. There's no way I'll get up and down in par. Ah, well, we'll just make the most of it. Where's my five iron?"
The dispute over who actually owned Gibbes Green eventually went to the state Supreme Court, which affirmed USC’s ownership of the site. Davis College was built in 1909 and what we now call Barnwell College was built in 1910, both in the heart of Gibbes Green. The fairways and putting greens were soon absorbed into the campus lawn.
That’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed this sampling of historical anecdotes from USC’s past. On the next episode of Remembering the Days, we’re going to meet two pioneering students from the early 1960s during a time of major change at the university. Until then, I’m Chris Horn — thanks for listening. Forever to thee.