For the proudest of Texans, it’s the most important day of the year. It’s a holiday that no other state can claim. March 2 is Texas Independence Day, and its observance on the University of Texas campus began with a missed class, a visit to Scholz’ Beer Garden and a spiked cannon.
In the spring of 1896, the fledgling university was confined to a forty-acre campus, with a white-washed wooden fence around the perimeter to keep out the town cows. A Victorian-Gothic Main Building, only two-thirds complete, commanded the hill in the center. It was flanked by the Chemistry Lab Building to the northwest, and B. Hall, a men’s dorm, down the hill to the east.
The university’s 482 students were divided into two departments: academic and law. The Academic Department encompassed studies comparable to today’s Colleges of Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences, and the “Academs” pursued their classes for the usual four years, leading to a Bachelor of Arts degree.
Law students, though, needed only two years to complete an LL.B. — a Bachelor of Laws and Letters — and a previous undergraduate degree was’t required for admission. Junior Laws were first-year law students, while Senior Laws were completing their final year.
On the cloudy, warm and humid morning of March 2, 1896, the Junior Laws were waiting for their next lecture in criminal law, taught by Judge Robert Batts, when one student bemoaned the fact that the day was Texas Independence Day, a legal holiday for Texans, except, apparently, for UT students.
For years, students had regularly petitioned the faculty for a break on March 2, but had always been refused. “Our faculty is afraid to grant us holiday, even on such occasions,” complained the Alcalde, a weekly student newspaper that pre-dated The Daily Texan (and not to be confused with the present alumni magazine). “They fear that some 2 x 4 politician, or still smaller newspaper, will accuse them of not earning their money. That is the real cause of their reluctance to grant a cessation of routine grinds, to allow our Texan bosoms an inflation of truly patriotic atmosphere.”
After serious discussion, the Junior Laws decided they would honor such an auspicious day by avoiding class altogether, and invited Judge Batts to join them. The diplomatic Batts responded with an eloquent speech, espousing all of the dire things that might happen to Junior Laws who skipped lectures. The students listened, cheered, and promptly ignored Batts’ pleas, choosing instead to spend the day at Scholz’ Beer Garden just south of the campus, where they were reportedly “very gemuethlick.”
One year later, in 1897, the now senior law class was determined to include the entire campus community in a celebration of “the natal day of Texas Independence,” and again petitioned the faculty for a holiday. But the Board of Regents had recently appointed George T. Winston as the new university president. A native of North Carolina and an alumnus of both the Naval Academy and Cornell, Winston neither understood nor shared the affinity Texans had for March 2nd. Winston recognized only one Independence Day, and that was on July 4th.
Undaunted, the Senior Laws pressed ahead with their plans, hoping to impress upon President Winston the importance of the second day of March. Working with the Texas Attorney General, four of the students signed a bond in order to borrow one of the two brass cannons that stood guard in front of the State Capitol. It took most of the afternoon of March 1 to roll the cannon to the Forty Acres, where the Laws planned to use it for a 21-gun salute to Texas at dawn the following day.
Just before sunrise on March 2, 1897, the Senior Laws arrived for their celebration, only to find the cannon had been spiked. A large nail had been driven in to the ignition hole, and it took some time, persistence and the employment of several pocket knives to remove the offending item. By then, President Winston had arrived on the scene, and was rather unhappily resigned to the fact that the students were going to celebrate, whether or not the faculty approved. Hoping to minimize the damage to the class day, Winston asked the Laws to move the cannon away from the Main Building, down the hill to the university’s athletic field (where the ACES Building now stands). Or, they could wait until after noon to have their fun. As it turned out, the students did both.
Boom! Starting at 9:30 a.m., an otherwise peaceful March morning was harshly interrupted by a series of cannon blasts from the athletic field. The entire Law Department attended, including Professors Robert Batts and John Townes, and following the cannon fire, each person present gave a short but sincere patriotic speech. The talks by Batts and Townes were greeted with particularly loud cheers from the students.
Meanwhile, a distracted Academic Department continued to hold classes as best as it could, some of the faculty hoping the Laws would tire of their efforts, while other professors were no doubt wishing they could join in the fun. The Laws, though, weren’t going to allow Texas Independence Day to pass without including the rest of the university.
At 1 p.m., a fresh supply of gun powder was secured, and the cannon was dragged up the hill and positioned directly in front of the Main Building, facing the Capitol. The first blast “threatened to break every window in the building.” In a flurry, the Academs vacated their classrooms and joined the Laws outside, and the scene of the morning was repeated, with more speeches from students and professors.
Midway through the afternoon, it was discovered that President Winston had quietly made his escape home just north of the campus, to which a large and boisterous committee of students promptly followed. Refusing to take no for an answer, Winston was persuaded to return and make a speech of his own. He opened with the remark:
“I was born in the land of liberty, rocked in the cradle of liberty, nursed on the bottle of liberty, and I’ve had liberty preached to me all my life, but Texas university students take more liberty than anyone I’ve ever come in contact with.”
The students responded with their loudest cheers of the day, and gave President Winston a rousing rendition of the University of Texas yell:
Hullabaloo! Hoo-ray! Hoo-ray!
Hullabaloo! Hoo-ray! Hoo-ray!
Varsity! Varsity! U. T. A.!
Since then, UT students and Texas Exes have recognized March 2 as a time to celebrate both the Lone Star State and the University of Texas. In 1900, the Ex-Students Association adopted a resolution which states: “Whenever two Texas Exes shall meet on March 2, they all shall sit and break bread and pay tribute to the institution that made their education possible.”
Visit the Texas Exes UT History Central Web site for more fun facts about the university’s history.