Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Wagon Wheel myth

Locally, the big college rivalry is between Kent State University and The University of Akron. Both schools are roughly the same size and since they're only about 10 miles apart, it's pretty natural that not only would there be a rivalry, but it would something that is regularly contested in sports. Like most rivalries, the biggest games are the football and men's basketball. The rivalry also features a trophy that goes to the winner of that year's football game. For Kent State and Akron, that trophy is an old wagon wheel pained blue and gold, which are the school colors for both schools. While the trophy itself continues to be held by the team that wins that year's football game, since 2011, the Wagon Wheel Challenge is held involving all sports. The background of the actual Wagon Wheel, though, is another example of folk history that has become accepted as truth despite having no real basis.

Wagon Wheel Challenge logo showing the current point total for each school. Points are from wins in head-to-head competition between the two schools. In addition to winning the actual Wagon Wheel trophy in 2011 and 2012, KSU also won the challenges each year.
The Kent State-Akron football rivalry was first held in 1923, a 32-0 Akron win, though it was not a regularly held contest at first. No games were played between the two schools from 1924 until 1928. It became an annual game from 1928 through the 1936 game, all of which were Akron wins except a scoreless tie in 1932. The game took another hiatus from 1937 until 1940. After one more more Akron win, Kent finally broke through in 1942 with a 23-7 win. World War II would be the next interruption for the series from 1943 through the 1945 season as neither school fielded a football team during those years, which was the case for many other schools across the country. The game resumed in 1946, which is the first year the Wagon Wheel was contested. Kent State went on a dominating run from then on, including a 31-0 win in 1948, a 47-0 win in 1949, a 48-7 win in 1951, and a 54-19 win in 1953 culminated by a 58-18 win in 1954. After that game, which was Kent State's 10th consecutive win over the Zips, the series was discontinued as being noncompetitive. It would not be played again until 1972, which resulted in a 13-13 tie. After that, it was played in 1974, 1979, and 1981 and has been played every year since the 1983 game, with the exception of 1991. Akron joining the Mid-American Conference in 1992 made the game a conference game again for the first time since 1950, when both teams were members of the Ohio Athletic Conference.

The Wagon Wheel in 2012 after Kent State won 35-24 in Kent.
Photo is originally from the Akron Beacon Journal and was also used
The Wagon Wheel trophy was the idea of Dr. Raymond Manchester at Kent State, who was the dean of men during the 1940s. How or where he got the wheel is not recorded, but he had it in 1945 and suggested it be used as a trophy between the schools. He concocted a myth about the wheel's history connecting it to both John R. Buchtel (pronounced BOOK tul), the namesake for the original name of The University of Akron (Buchtel College), and Kent State, near where the wheel was reportedly found in 1902, to make it something that both schools would want to play for.

The legend passed around in the newspapers and media guides for both schools is that the wheel was part of a wagon of John R. Buchtel, who was searching for a site for a new school. While in Kent around 1870 near the future site of Kent State University, the wagon got stuck in the mud and the horses pulled it apart as they tried to break free. One of the wheels got buried in the mud and was found in 1902 during construction of a pipeline or a building (different accounts use one or the other). Eventually, Buchtel chose Akron as the site for the school, known as Buchtel College, which eventually became The University of Akron. An "account" of the story from the 1955 KSU yearbook Chestnut Burr states that Buchtel chose Akron right after the horses broke his wagon in the mud. In any account, that's the basic legend and while there are some real people (John R. Buchtel) and places (Akron and Kent), the rest of the story fails miserably when put up against actual history.

Explanation of the wheel from the 1955 Chestnut Burr at Kent State, the year after the rivalry was ended until 1972.

First is the role of John R. Buchtel in the founding of the University of Akron. Yes, it is true that the school originally was named after him. What is not true is that the decision of what town to put the college was Buchtel's to make nor is it true that it was Buchtel's school. The University of Akron was founded in 1870 and was first known as Buchtel College, because of a large monetary gift from Buchtel. According to the 1908 Centennial History of Summit County, Ohio, initially, the Universalist convention wanted to name the school "Murray Centennial College" or "Buchtel Universalist College." When Buchtel was asked what his opinion was, he said: "name it what you like. The college is yours, not mine. It shall have my hearty support. If prospered, I expect to give it one hundred thousand dollars." The account continues: "Then it was unanimously voted to name the child of the Ohio Universalist convention Buchtel College, in honor of the man who financially most loyally aided it in its infancy."(pp. 203-204) The University of Akron's own history page also states "The Universalist Church founded Buchtel College, the forerunner of The University of Akron, in 1870."

John R. Buchtel. One of the high
schools in Akron is also named for him
So, the school was created by the Ohio Universalist convention, not Buchtel, and was associated with the Universalists until 1913, when the school was sold to the city of Akron. It became a state university in 1968. Buchtel did have ties to Kent as he was a member of the Kent Universalist congregation, founded in 1866, which, for a time, was the closest Universalist congregation. Akron had previously been home to a Universalist congregation, but it closed in 1853 and a new Akron congregation wasn't established until 1872 when the college opened. That means he was certainly in Kent multiple times during this time period and he most definitely had a horse-drawn carriage.

In their search to locate this new college, the Universalists did consider Kent, along with some other cities in the state (Mt. Gilead in particular and initially Oxford, home of Miami University). The site in Kent offered was the eventual site of the original campus (what is known as Front Campus) at Kent State University, the former William S. Kent farm at Lincoln and Main. While Kent had financial backing to secure the school, "there was a strong prejudice on account of its reputation of unhealthfulness" (Centennial History of Summit County, Ohio, p. 202) which basically eliminated Kent as a possibility. The convention nearly put the school in Mt. Gilead (more centrally located in Ohio) as they had investigated Akron as a site but with "unsatisfactory results." Later, several Akron businessmen met together and convinced the actual man in charge, financial secretary Rev. H.L. Miller, to come back to Akron and "re-investigate." The second visit was much better than the first as there was an organized push to get subscribers. Buchtel became a strong supporter of putting the school in his hometown and donated the initial $6,000 for the $60,000 building fund and $2,500 for the endowment.

So, Buchtel clearly did not establish the school himself (though he is sometimes referred as the "founder" and clearly played a large role in the establishment of it), nor did he go out and search for a host community. Again, it was not his decision and he clearly advocated for Akron to host the new school.

Statue of John R. Buchtel on the campus of The University of Akron that describes him as the
"Founder" of Buchtel College (photo from Wikipedia)
Kent's other connection to the founding of Buchtel College is that the person who first proposed the Ohio Universalist convention establish a school was Rev. Andrew Willson, who was the pastor of the Kent congregation at that time and also served as the chairman of the convention's Committee on Education. He first presented the plan in 1867 in Mt. Gilead and again in 1868 at Dayton. Willson, of course, favored putting the school in Kent, but after it was apparent that Kent would not be chosen, he supported Akron as the site for the new school.

The other issue in the story is where the wheel came from and if that's true. 1902 for the discovery of the wheel seems plausible at the very least. Kent had a municipal water system by the late 19th century, so a pipe could've been constructed, or a building, depending on exactly where it was found. There really wasn't a whole lot in the area where campus is now even in 1902, but an old wagon wheel buried in the mud is entirely possible. Heck, it could've very well been John R. Buchtel's own wagon, but he certainly wasn't scouting a site for the Universalist college.

In conclusion, while the evidence does not conclusively rule out the possibility that the Wagon Wheel was part of John R. Buchtel's carriage, it seems to indicate it's most likely not his, though. The evidence certainly eliminates the possibility that even if it did happen to be from Buchtel's carriage, it certainly wasn't part of him scouting for a site for a school in Kent and it had absolutely no bearing on the college being located in Akron. What is true, though, is that the histories of Kent State University and The University of Akron do have connections, which is hardly surprising considering how close they are to one another. What is now Kent State University could very well have started off much earlier as a Universalist college. Who knows, if history had been different, maybe the rivalry would be between The University of Kent and Akron State University?