Madness: Brawls, Riots, at 1937 Civil War Game as Ducks and Beavers Escalate a Feisty Rivalry
*At left, Hayward Field in its prime as a football stadium. At right, the modern track-only venue.
By Mark Schipper
With all of the skullduggery and tomfoolery animating the Civil War between Oregon and Oregon State Universities, the 1937 edition makes a case for the wildest in series' history. But even with the madcap nature of collected shenanigans over that long October weekend, the thirty-seven game is not an extreme outlier, either. We'll use it here as a general example of why the Civil War moniker was branded onto the game.
In 1937 the Ducks were still the Webfoots and played most their home schedule at Hayward Field. Hayward has since become an iconic track venue famous for the legend of Steve Prefontaine and the Nike brand that emerged after Prefontaine wore their shoes during a string of glorious victories in the early 1970s. But during the first half of the twentieth century Hayward was a humble dirt field and short sweep of wooden grandstand that hosted three games a season, including the Oregon State affair.
That particular season a group of Oregon students wanted a new turf field for the Civil War game instead of the usual dirt arena. They wanted to both class up rivalry weekend and ensure the game was played on a fair surface if it rained in the Willamette Valley, as it often did. The students raised funds on their own initiative and met their goal, allowing them to purchase new sod to cover the playing surface and install it just days before the big game.
This edition of the rivalry, even before the grass went down, already was looking like the biggest spectacle in the game's history. Oregon was expecting the largest crowd ever to watch in person, along with multiple VIP guests who had sought out passes, and an Italian opera singer scheduled to put on a show after the game had ended. Eugene was preparing itself for one of the most significant home football weekends since the program started competing in 1894.
But on the Friday night before the Saturday showdown, a squad of vandals from Oregon State breached the field and scorched a massive “OSC” into the new grass. The initials stood for Oregon State College, which was the school's name until 1961. The beautiful new turf had been brutally defaced and there was not enough time left to do anything about it. The rivalry would be contested with the blackened initials seared onto the playing surface.
*At left, the new grass field in 1937. At right, OSC burned into the turf before the game.
The rivalry kicked off as scheduled later that afternoon and Oregon State controlled the game almost from beginning to end. The Beavers throttled the Webfoots, 14-0, salting the wound of the scalded field in a meeting defined far more by off-field flare ups than the competition itself.
During the game Oregon State students had managed to kidnap Puddles, Oregon's live duck mascot, and hold him ransom. A group of Oregon students spent the game working to buy him back. Later, as the click ticked down on the final quarter, with the outcome all but sealed, a mob of Oregon Staters stormed the north side of the field while the football action wrapped up at the other end. One rioter shimmied onto the goal posts, stood on the crossbar, and dropped his pants, mooning what was to that point the largest crowd ever to watch the rivalry. Minutes later the goal posts were torn down and a large-scale brawl began as Oregon students rushed onto their new field to defend their outraged honor.
But the Oregon State mob was a bold invading force. They'd gathered up the pieces of the downed uprights and marched them through campus like they'd captured the city, ecstatic in their celebration. The Beavers mob was pelted with food and trash and harassed by a growing contingent of Oregon people who were marshaling their forces to defend their university. After several hours the skirmishers began to scatter and the madness died down as everyone made their way home. But the rioting was not over.
Two days later, on crisp October Monday, a fresh swarm from Oregon State organized another caravan and buzzed out of Corvallis in the direction of Eugene, forty-seven miles down the valley. A gas station attendant in Junction City, Oregon—about midway between the schools—acted as war scout when he saw the cavalcade of young men hanging out of car windows, shouting and bellowing, and flying by like an armed convoy headed south. He stepped inside and telephoned authorities at the university, letting them know a boisterous crowd of young men was headed their way.
The Beaver’s contingent roared onto campus, ready to spark a melee, only to be met by the University of Oregon’s president and the Duck’s marching band. In an act of good sportsmanship the band played the OSC fight song and congratulated the Beavers on their great victory, even procuring a police escort to drive the convoy up Franklin Street, through the heart of campus, so the students could shout and wave cornstalks from the hoods of their vehicles in celebration as the Oregon crowd looked on.
The company went unmolested until a group of Oregon students, outraged finally at the brazen disrespect of the Monday return, screwed a hose to a fire hydrant and sprayed down a swatch of the invaders. This broke up the first wave of blitzers and sent most of the Corvallis cohort home.
Ominously, a tight platoon of Oregon State students had hung back, engaging Oregon students in a small-scale fist fight that seemed to bring an end to the proceedings without any serious incidents. But instead of leaving after the fight, the fateful decision was made to head to Seymour’s Cafe in the middle of Eugene for lunch, rather than chasing the back end of the convoy back to Corvallis and catching chow there.
A fast-moving scuttlebutt circled campus that a small group of Oregon State invaders was lunching at the cafe. As classes in Eugene ended, and the students poured into the town, a large crowd gathered outside the cafe, where the now frightened Oregon State students attempted to barricade themselves against the mob outside.
Their cars were identified on the street and turned over by students as local police now backed off, possibly believing the Beavers who'd remained had pushed their luck too far. A short time later the owner of the cafe, who was in the business of selling food, not protecting marauders from Corvallis who'd been separated from their convoy, booted the group out into the street.
*The mob gathered outside Seymour's Cafe. Courtesy University of Oregon Special Collections
Once the boys had been shoved into the street they were quickly grabbed, roughed up, and captured as prisoners of war. The group was force-marched to the top of Skinner’s Butte, a prominent hill on the city's northern boundary, and made to paint the giant “O” with a fresh coat of yellow paint, just as freshmen students were compelled to do in a hazing ritual of the era. Afterward, they were marched back down to the banks of the Millrace, a water channel used to power the city's mills in the early days of its existence, where their heads were shaved with a military-style clipper before being thrown into the frigid water. The Beaver kids finally were fished from the canal and forced out of town in the direction of Corvallis.
The next day’s Eugene Register-Guard ran a massive, bold-faced headline: “OSC INVADES EUGENE: WAR FOLLOWS,” referring to the Monday riot after the Saturday game. If there was a bigger headline announcing the archduke's murder in 1914, or the outbreak of World War II in 1939, it could not have been by much. It was a Civil War rivalry between the schools and their communities and if anything the metaphor was too on the nose.
The events in '37 were just a fragment of the wild skirmishes over the decades that made the university war in the Willamette Valley. While the Civil War moniker had been in place for less than a decade—the sabotaging of the field prior to the game, the brawl during it, followed by the capturing of the goal posts and the riots and dunkings the following Monday—it was for a time almost as much literal as figurative. It was a true college rivalry with all of the color and madness that make the best of them so compelling. May its name live on amongst those who know what it really stands for.
*Photo courtesy University of Oregon Special Collections
*Thank you to Oregon historian and newspaper writer Kurt Liedtke for providing details of the game, brawl, and riots following the 1937 Civil War, as well as several photographs from the University of Oregon Special Collections.