From the Archives: the true history of The Fence part II
Last week I left you with unanswered questions about The Fence. If you haven't read it yet, take yourself up to UC 314 and politely ask us for a copy of last week's edition (or click the link here). In short, last week I shared my revelation that nearly every online resource about The Fence is wrong, contradictory, or bad. Nobody can agree on when or why it was built, when or why it was first painted, and the legends are so rife with falsehoods that I'm hesitant to trust anything.
Except, one source was honest. Almost everything I presented last week were things I read during the fall of my freshman year, between September and December 2021. Then in February of 2022, the Carnegie Mellon Instagram posted a video where Julia Corrin, the university archivist, explains how the common legend is most likely false. My research had lain dormant for a while, but seeing a figure of authority affirm my suspicions put me back on the trail. Before I share with you the complete timeline of The Fence's construction, I want to thank Corrin and the rest of the University Archives team for their help as they were an extremely valuable resource for this project. I also want to thank Kelby Kramer, another student who did very similar research several years ago who shared with me his findings. Here's what we know for certain about The Fence:
The absolute earliest reference to a fence I can find comes on page 154 of the 1913 Thistle, in a section titled "Class History, '13." While reminiscing about their days at Tech, the author proclaims, "Let us build for ourselves a Tech Fence and gather around it with our hearts still full of love for C.I.T and the class of 1913." Carnegie Tech wouldn't be the first campus home to a special fence — a similarly sacred spot existed at Yale back in the day.
However, plans did not come together until well after WWI. On Feb. 1, 1922, The Tartan reports on the "Committee on Senior Privileges," which determined that "no plan for distinctive dress for the Seniors at this school was feasible due to its location in such a large city as Pissburgh" (that isn't a typo). In place of dress, they suggest the idea of "senior privileges," including the construction of a senior fence.
From here on, we get occasional reports of the progress of this fence. On Mar. 29, 1922, plans were approved by the student council with the tentative location between Doherty and Hamerschlag hall. But on May 31, construction had yet to move forward due to an inability to procure lumber. Progress on The Fence appeared to have been so sporadic that on Oct. 18, 1922, The Tartan published an article titled "Enthusiastic Crowds View Senior Fence as Structure is Unveiled." Lest you mistake it for genuine reporting, it ends by saying: "This write up a joke? Certainly not. We are merely twenty years ahead of time."
Plans resumed in January 1923 with renewed vigor thanks to a new committee of seniors from the class of 1923 led by Hubert Owen Sprinkle, the football player and WWI veteran you may have read about in this lovely article.
And on May 16, 1923, the issue published prior to Campus week (the predecessor to modern Carnival), we are told, "The construction of the Senior Fence is at last underway … so that it may be opened for use next monday." The following week, this is confirmed to have occurred with an article titled "Senior Fence Finally Appears on Campus." The Monday in between those two publications would be May 21, 1923, giving us an official birthday for The Fence. Right?
So close. In the May 30 issue of The Tartan, they "apologize for the story of the Senior Fence published in last week's issue, which was to be held over for today." So was it constructed the Monday before campus week? Or the following week? The official birthday of The Fence eluded me, and I was certain it would remain ambiguous forever. Unless I could get definitive proof that The Fence was up during campus week of 1923, I could never confirm May 21. "May 1923" would be the closest we could get. That is, until our school's Collections Archivist, Emily Davis, handed me a piece of paper which finally contained answers.
The paper was a scanned article from the Spring 1988 edition of the alumni magazine, "Carnegie Mellon Magazine," written by M.C. Johnsen, the special collections librarian. The article, simply titled "The Fence," tells much the same story as I have, but also includes an interview with Hugh Sprinkle himself. He is quoted as saying, "Before Campus Week in May 1923 had arrived the fence was complete."
The proof I sought was before me, and I now had a complete timeline with exact dates. Now that we know for certain it was a student-built project, I decided to update the Wikipedia page on Carnegie Mellon traditions (which erroneously claimed that the administration built The Fence).
But can I be positive that the legend is completely false? Suppose you remain unconvinced. Perhaps there truly was a bridge over the Cut, and perhaps The Fence was indeed supposed to be a meeting point for the men and women of CIT and Maggie Mo. To be fair, it's not completely incompatible with the timeline I've put together. Even the university archives team couldn't tell me for certain that there was never a bridge over the Cut. To put the issue to bed for good, I want to point to the strongest pieces of evidence I have found.
The first is a sort of proof-by-omission. I spent a large amount of time this past fall break scouring digitized scans of our yearbook, The Thistle, from the very earliest years of the Carnegie Technical Schools, searching for any reference to this bridge (it was during this time I stumbled across the subject of my first "From the Archives" piece — you see how it all ties together?) The early Thistles are littered with inside jokes — one thing they liked to do was to list "statistics" for every member of the class (not unlike yearbook superlatives.) On page 276 of the 1908 Thistle, the "Statistics" include a category for where each person frequents — such hilarious entries include Gotty Gottfried who frequents "Any old Place" and Lew Frank who frequents "The Rittenhouse." Price Kenton, however, a man known to frequent "Girls' Homes on Off Nights," does not seem to frequent a bridge of any sort. In fact, among the hundreds of pages of inside jokes, superlatives, and weird off-hand references to places that no longer exist, I failed to find a single mention of what was supposedly the only place on campus to meet women.
The second, more definitive pieces of evidence are two photographs I found of Margaret Morrison Hall as seen from the second floor of Doherty Hall. The first photo is from page 45 of the 1911 Thistle, and the second is from page 148 of the 1912 Thistle. Both show very unambiguous views of the Cut, with no bridge in sight. I do expect future textbooks to cite me personally as having discovered this. I now feel absolutely confident saying that there was never a bridge over the Cut, and thus The Fence was never intended to serve as a meeting point for the men and women of the two schools.
So there you have it. A committee of students from the class of 1923 put up a Fence so that seniors would have their own special place on campus to sit. It was put up on May 21, 1923, 100 Carnivals ago — so while its actual birthday might be well into our summer break, I'm considering this Carnival to be its 100th birthday in spirit. And now we can finally update the rest of Wikipedia.