• Mark Schipper

Madness: Brawls, Riots, at 1937 Civil War Game as Ducks and Beavers Escalate a Feisty Rivalry

By Mark Schipper

But for all the skullduggery and tomfoolery that has animated the Civil War rivalry between the University of Oregon and Oregon State University, the 1937 edition has a strong case for the most insane in the history of the series, while being also generally representative of precisely why the Civil War moniker was branded onto the game.

In 1937 the Ducks were playing football at Hayward Field, now an iconic track venue famous for the greatness of track-star Steve Prefontaine and the behemoth Nike brand that emerged after Prefontaine wore their shoes during a string of glorious victories. At that time, Hayward Field was a humble dirt pitch and wooden grandstands that hosted three games a season, including the Oregon State affair.

*At left, Hayward Field in its prime as a football stadium. At right, the new track-only venue.

That particular season a group of Oregon students wanted to lay down a turf field over the dirt for the Civil War. They raised funds on their own initiative and met their goal, allowing them to purchase new sod to cover the playing surface and have it installed days before the game.

This edition of the rivalry was going to be maybe the biggest in history, as the largest crowd ever to watch it was expected in Eugene, while multiple VIP guests would be in the stands, and an Italian opera singer scheduled to put on a show afterward.

On the Friday night before the festivities, a squad of Oregon State saboteurs snuck onto the field and burned a massive “OSC” into the turf, for Oregon State College, which they were called until 1961. The new beautiful new turf field had been badly fouled and there was nothing that could be done the morning of the game. The game would be played 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.

Later that day, to intensify the insult, Oregon State beat Oregon 14-0 in a meeting defined far more by off-field flare ups than the competition itself. During the game Oregon State students managed to kidnap Puddles the live duck and hold him ransom, while late in the game, with the outcome all but sealed, a mob of the Oregon State contingent stormed the north side of the field while the football action was wrapping up at the southern end. One rioter climbed onto the goal posts and pulled down his pants, mooning what was to that point the largest crowd to watch the game. Shortly, the goal posts were torn down and a large-scale brawl came to life after Oregon students rushed onto their new grass surface to defend their honor.

Oregon and OSC cheerleaders, courtesy University of Oregon Special Collections

The Oregon State mob was a bold invading force that day, gathering the downed uprights only to march them through campus like a captured flag, ecstatic in their celebration. This group was pelted with whatever was on hand and harassed by the Oregon contingent that had marshaled to defend their university. After several hours the madness died down and everyone went home, but the rioting was not over.

Two days later, on Monday morning, a mob from Oregon State got up another caravan and set out at speed from Corvallis to Eugene. A gas station attendant in Junction City, about midway between the schools, acted almost like a look out in war when he saw the cavalcade of young people hanging out car windows, flying by like a convoy on the move, pointed at Eugene. He stepped inside and telephoned the authorities at the university, letting them know something wicked was headed their way.

The Beaver’s contingent roared in, 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 once more congratulated the Beavers on their great victory, even procuring a police escort to drive the convoy up Franklin Street, in the heart of campus, so the students could shout and wave cornstalks from the hoods of their vehicles and out the windows in celebration as the Oregon people looked on.

OSC students ride through Eugene in 1937 waving victory cornstalks. Photo Courtesy University of Oregon Special Collections

The company went unmolested until a group of Oregon students, outraged finally at the brazen disrespect and aggression in the Monday morning gesture, hooked a hose up to a fire hydrant and sprayed down a swatch of the invaders, an action that broke up the first wave and sent most, but not all, of the Corvallis cohort home. Ominously, a small squad of Oregon State students hung back, engaging in a small fist fight that seemed to end the proceedings for good, until a 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 that was headed home.

A fast-moving scuttlebutt shot around campus that a small group of the Oregon State invaders were having lunch at the cafe. As classes in Eugene ended, and the students poured out into the town for lunch hour, a large crowd estimated at 500 souls gathered outside the cafe, where the now frightened Oregon State students attempted to barricade themselves against the mob outside.

Their cars were identified and turned over in the street as local police now backed off, possibly believing the ones who had remained behind had pushed their luck beyond its limit. A short time later the owner of the cafe, who was in the business of selling food, not protecting marauders from Corvallis who had separated from their convoy, booted them out into the street.

*The mob gathered outside Seymour's Cafe. Courtesy University of Oregon Special Collections

On the street they were grabbed immediately, roughed up and captured as prisoners. The group was force-marched up to the top of Skinner’s Butte and made to paint the giant “O” in a fresh coat of yellow paint, much like new freshmen were made to do in a hazing ritual of that era. Afterward, the Oregon tormentors shaved all of their heads and threw them into the Millrace alongside the Willamette River before dragging them back out and sending them home.

The next day’s newspaper had a huge, blaring headline: “OSC INVADES, WAR FOLLOWS,” referring to the Monday riot after the Saturday game. If there had been a bigger headline at the outset of World War II it could not possibly have been by much. These were the skirmishes that made the war in the Willamette Valley.

*Photo courtesy University of Oregon Special Collections

While the Civil War moniker had been in place unofficially for less than a decade in 1937, after the sabotaging of the field prior to the game, the brawl during the game, followed by the capturing of the goal posts and the riot the following Monday, the name for a time was 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.

*Sincere thank you to Oregon historian and newspaper writer Kurt Liedtke for providing details of the game, brawl, and riots following the 1937 Civil War game, as well as several of the photographs from the University of Oregon Special Collections.

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