‘Field Day’ in 1916 paved the way for KSUnite a century later

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Students relax after a day of work on Dec. 7, 1916. The university had cancelled classes that day to allow students to work on realigning the football field over what is now the K-State Alumni Center. Royal Purple archive photo.

The cancellation of classes and campus offices Tuesday afternoon for the KSUnite event may be the first time classes have been canceled for non-weather-related reasons in over 100 years.

“I believe the only time the entire campus has been closed for a singular event excluding that rare winter storm or other weather-related issue was on Dec. 7, 1916,” said Jed Dunham, history researcher and writer/editor for the division of communications and marketing.

On that day, nicknamed “Field Day,” students and instructors worked together to overhaul the field in the World War I Memorial Stadium, which was known as the College Athletic Field at the time.

Today, the Memorial Stadium’s field runs north to south, covered in artificial turf. The College Athletic Field ran east to west and was in poor condition by the end of the football season. Dunham describes the state of the field in the upcoming book “The Last New Thing in the World: A History of World War I Memorial Stadium.”

The College Athletic Field was marred by a surface of rough and pitted turf. Bare in many places, the limited grass eroded to a hard patch of dried dirt on sunny days or thick, oozing mud on those when it rained. It was surrounded by a creaking, leaning grandstand and a decaying fence. The track team, baseball team and football team all practiced and played on the field, and little funding was earmarked in the college budget to upgrade or maintain the field. Much of its upkeep was done by the students themselves under the direction of the Athletic Association.

“The inability of the field to hold a grass surface was also a blemish upon a school which boasted an agricultural identity,” Dunham wrote.

In 1916, Kansas State was known as the Kansas State Agricultural College, and thus its students were called “the Aggies.” During a pep rally prior to KSAC’s football game against the University of Missouri (which KSAC won 7-6), then-university president Henry Jackson Waters announced that all classes would be canceled on Thursday, Dec. 7, freeing students’ schedules to take part in the renovation of the athletic field.

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Dean J. T. Willard, carrying a distinctive red handkerchief, supervises and helps students working on the field on Dec. 7. 1916. The university had cancelled classes that day to allow students to work on realigning the football field over what is now the K-State Alumni Center. Royal Purple archive photo.

According to vol. 23, no. 17 of the Collegian, the renovations entailed a regrading of the field to facilitate better water drainage, a relocation of the baseball field and a reconstruction of the bleachers.

“Only service on the field will be an acceptable excuse for absence from regular college duties,” read the Dec. 5 issue of the Collegian.

Insights from H.B. Walker, then-associate professor of irrigation and drainage engineering, guided preparations for the renovation.

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A student shows off as he works with a wheelbarrow on Dec. 7, 1916. The university had cancelled classes that day to allow students to work on realigning the football field over what is now the K-State Alumni Center. Royal Purple archive photo.

According to the Collegian, all able-bodied male students and faculty were expected to partake in the labor, while female students were to help prepare food for the laboring men. The squads of students were organized by the deans of agriculture, engineering, general science and domestic science. In total, there were approximately 40 squads, each with 25 to 30 student workers.

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1916, approximately 1,200 male students and faculty members armed with donated spades, shovels and picks assembled on the College Athletic Field at 8 a.m. This was approximately half of KSAC’s total enrollment for the fall 1916 semester, which stood at 2,251.

The 1917 Royal Purple yearbook set the scene:

At eight o’clock on the morning appointed, an industrial army of twelve hundred students, faculty members and townspeople, uniformed in old clothes and armed with picks and shovels, stood ready for the signal to dig. Up in the domestic science building, another, this one of women students and faculty members, responded to the command of housewife’s duties. As the morning advanced, reinforcements arrived to swell the ranks of each. Picks, shovels, spades, twenty teams, four tractors and an army of Aggie men, the combination of which worked wonders.

On the field, the men dug trenches marked by stakes prepared by L.E. Conrad, then-professor in engineering. Meanwhile, the women prepared a meal of “wienie sandwiches” with over 350 pies, 100 gallons of coffee and 200 dozen donuts. The meal was served at noon. The band played while the laborers ate and rested.

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Then-university president Henry Waters gives instruction to students working during a university-wide work day on Dec. 7, 1916. The university had cancelled classes that day to allow students to work on realigning the football field over what is now the K-State Alumni Center. Royal Purple archive photo.

The work resumed at 1 p.m. and extended into the evening. At one point, Waters joined in on the work after seeing a student resting. J.T. Willard, then-head of the general science department, also participated in the work day.

That evening saw the completion of the field’s regrading. The construction of a new baseball field was well underway.

“It is a fine sight,” Waters said after the day’s completion, according to the Collegian. “Never before was such enthusiasm shown at an educational institution in the country.”

Waters called the new field “a new link forged into the chain of college unity,” according to Dunham.

Nearly 101 years later, the university has canceled classes for non-weather-reasons again to to promote the KSUnite event, encouraging staff and students “to unite together to reaffirm who we are, what we value and what we stand for as the K-State family.”

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Rachel Hogan
I'm Rachel Hogan, news editor at the Collegian. I'm a sophomore in journalism from Olathe, Kansas. When I'm not at work in the newsroom, I like to spend my time taking naps, playing the cello and laughing with my friends.