A day in Williams history: the epic Cane Rush of 1910

It was Monday, March 14, 1910, and all Williams students were talking about one piece of news emblazoned in bold letters across the Record’s front page: “FRESHMEN WIN CANE RUSH. Sophomore Forces Completely Outgeneraled. Limits Crossed Near College Farm.”

The Cane Rush no doubt caused such a big hullaballoo that scant attention was paid to some other daily matters, like a heads-up about an  upcoming “Lecture on ‘Color Photography’” by Professor McElfresh to be delivered in Thompson Physical Laboratory.  Or to some much-needed lost and found items: “Two fountain pens, two pen knives, two caps, numeral hat. Lost – pair of leggings.” This Cane Rush was not just any old event. It was the Third Annual Cane Rush, in which “Committee Attended by Half of Class Meets Little Opposition. Sophomores Secure Fakes in Exciting Struggle. Brilliant Escape of Committees.”

Apparently, the Cane Rush was an intensely competitive game meant to amp up rivalry between first-years and sophomores. Freshmen had to hide a bundle of canes off-campus and then carry them back onto campus, fending off the sophomores who made every attempt to steal the canes. The canes, be assured, were not ordinary. In fact, the 1910 canes were ordered all the way from a New York City firm during Thanksgiving – four months before the Cane Rush occurred. A certain Mrs. Arthur Moody agreed to hide the canes in her house, which was “on the first branch road beyond the railway track.” And that year’s freshmen were especially sneaky, ordering a second set of fake canes that arrived on the same day in a flashy trunk. So the plot unfolded, masterminded by a special committee of elected freshman, and to go along with the sneaky fake canes, a fake committee gave false information to sophomore spies.

“The Committee Escapes,” folks. That’s right, the Friday night before the Cane Rush, the first-years set out in full force to retrieve the hidden canes. Marching in compact order, the frosh concealed the position of the committee members, whose task it was to actually dash the canes back to campus. The escape, mind you, was no easy task: Sophomores followed behind through the dense forests with a wagon to kidnap members of the committee, and detachments of horseback riders galloped around the group of freshman. But – ho! – the freshmen would not tolerate such manhandling and sprung upon the sophomores, capturing a man who was thrown from his rearing horse and taking him as prisoner.

The members of the real committee made a break for it; they escaped the sophomore forces and proceeded to the house of Mrs. Moody. Their journey was arduous enough to put any proud sunrise-hiker or Mountain Day champion to shame: The men leaped over a fence to the embankment of Hemlock Brook, hastily forded the brook, cut to the left over the mountain back of Northwest Hill, crossed the Hoosick River, reached Mrs. Moody’s house but met pickets, retreated half a mile, crawled along a railroad embankment for a mile, boarded a passing freight train and finally jumped off the train onto a bridge near Mrs. Moody’s house at 5 a.m. Meanwhile, the fake committee retrieved its canes “without adventure.”
Smuggling the canes back to campus was no less eventful. It was like a civil war on campus as sophomores hurled Roman Candles (a type of firework) at the freshmen, and freshmen and sophomore battalions engaged in physical skirmishes. The freshmen ultimately triumphed near our beloved Haystack Monument when the sophomores captured the fake committee and opened, to their horror, a box of fake canes.

It seems that the whole convoluted Cane Rush should have ended quite satisfyingly on that note – but no, the Cane Rush closing ceremony, the “Burial of the Hatchet,” is an even better story. This dubious event kicked off when freshmen paraded from Main Street to Greylock and back again, wearing nightshirts stolen from the sophomores. The real excitement started when the freshmen and sophomores circled around a roaring bonfire. A pistol was then fired and the freshmen and sophomores wrestled for possession of the nightshirts until a second gunshot was discharged. Finally, a hatchet was buried to “symbolize the cessation of hostilities between the two lower classes,” and, lo and behold, the classes joined together, much like we do today, in a robust chorus of “The Mountains.”

In the midst of months of preparation and then the actual weekend that was chock-full of galloping horsemen, whizzing fireworks, gunshots, nightshirts and, of course, canes, students must have managed to squeeze schoolwork in somewhere. After all, they went to Williams. However, some were so busy that there was no time for homework at all: Students cut class a week before the Rush. Don’t get it wrong, however, even if they were too busy for academics, they still managed to squeeze in a few recreational activities: shopping for their “London Slip-on Raincoat[s]. Called ‘SLIP-ON’ because they’re so handy to put on,” and zipping into the “Williams Store and Billiard Parlors” where the “[soda] fountain was always in charge of an expert dispenser,” if the ads in the Record are anything to go by. Always time enough for play.

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