Title

Exhibit - Seasons of the Red Cedar River

The Red Cedar River has been a focal point and gathering place on campus for generations of students at Michigan State University.  Of course, feeding the ducks on the river has long been a favorite pastime here!
           
Spring
Springtime’s much-anticipated warmer temperatures bring new life to activity along the river.  The banks of the Red Cedar River provide a welcome haven for rest, relaxation, rejuvenation, and reflection.  People of all ages and walks of life might be seen relaxing or picnicking on the banks.  Classes might be held near the river; in 1921, for example, Samuel Kennedy took his art class to the river to paint.  Music of varying degrees of formality has also commonly been played near the river; to conclude Greek Week in 1967, for example, Beta Theta Pi sponsored “Session on the Cedar,” which featured jazz and swing music for students’ enjoyment.

As part of the annual spring “Frosh-Soph Day,’ begun in 1920, freshmen and sophomores competed against each other in a tug-of-war over the Red Cedar River.  In addition to the Tug-of-War, freshmen and sophomores competed in contests like tree-sitting, canoe and centipede races, egg throwing or rolling, chasing a greased pig, climbing a greased pole, and cheering, in an attempt to win the coveted underclass Little Brown Jug. This tradition was a descendent of the earlier tradition of class rushes, in which it was determined whether the freshmen would have to wear beanies.
           
Summer
Summer’s arrival brought the much-anticipated yearly Water Carnival.  Sue Carter, M.S.U. Professor of Journalism and Chairwoman of M.S.U.’s Sesquicentennial Committee, recollected that “students’ lives were more centered on campus than they are now.  I think that’s part of why this was so special.”

In 1920, the first “Mardi Gras” on the Red Cedar River was hosted by the senior class. The Water Carnival, then, was officially begun in 1923 and was celebrated each June from 1923 to 1969. However, like many campus activities, the Water Carnival was cancelled from 1943-1946 due to World War II. At its height, the Water Carnival was a three-day extravaganza featuring up to 50 floats and serving as a Senior Class Council fundraiser. As Sue Carter described it, “It was a carnival, in the fullest sense of the word.  This was kind of a final blowout.” The main event of the Water Carnival was always a parade of floats down the Red Cedar River, each competing for the pride of winning the first place trophy. Sue Carter reminisced, “It may seem kind of basic to spend a Thursday, instead of in the bars, building a raft. But you know what? Guess which Thursday you’re going to remember? It’s going to be the Thursday that you built the raft.”

The winning float of the 1969 Water Carnival was created by residents of Phillips Hall and members of Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity. The enormous bra, designed to look like a Playtex Living Bra, opened and closed as it moved down the river.  Sue Carter was a freshman student from Phillips Hall on the 1969 winning float team. “It was not one of our finer moments,” she recalled regarding their winning float, “We were young people and we were just kind of pushing boundaries – how far can we go?  Well, apparently far enough to get first place.” 

Apparently, some students were so serious about competition in the Water Carnival that, according to John Forsyth of the M.S.U. Class of 1962, “Kids flunked out of school putting the floats together.”  Water sports were also included in the Water Carnival, such as canoe racing, log burling, and variety acts.  In 1950, students even spent $400 to dye the river red to celebrate the Water Carnival!  They had thought Life Magazine was planning to feature the Water Carnival, but unfortunately, no photographers ever arrived.

In 1932, as part of M.A.C.’s 75th Anniversary celebration, the Water Carnival was themed to review the college’s history.  That year, floats featured the first graduating class of 1861, the first fraternity started in 1876, the name change of the college, and victories over the University of Michigan in 1913 and 1932.  For M.S.U.’s Sesquicentennial Homecoming celebration in October of 2005, the Water Carnival was revived with 18 student-built floats depicting eras of M.S.U.’s 150-year history, including a float featuring the 1876 fire which destroyed the college’s first dormitory, Saint’s Rest.

Over the years, the Water Carnival has featured a variety of themes, many of which represent creative plays on facets of popular culture of the time. Themes have included:

1923 – Songs of Our Times
1926 – Day’s News
1927 – Worship of the Spartan Gods
1928 – Fantasy of Romantic Figures of History and Folklore
1929 – Cosmopolitan Night
1930 – Praise of Learning
1931 – Spartan Holiday Parade
1932 – Re-Dreams of the Red Cedar
1933 – The Song of America
1934 – The Pursuit of Peace
1935 – Milestones of Michigan
1936 – Ballads in Tandem
1937 – Mankind Sings
1938 – A Night in Fairyland
1939 – Quests
1940 – Cinema Supreme
1941 – Parade of States
1942 – All Out for Victory
(1943-1946 – Water Carnival cancelled due to WWII)
1947 – Songs We All Know
1948 – The Best Things in Life
1949 – It’s a Great Day
1950 – Midcenturama
1951 – Quote Me, Mister!
1952 – Laugh and Smile Film Antics Style
1953 – The World We Inhibit
1954 – Forsooth and All That
1955 – Sense and Nonsense
1956 – Media Mania
1957 – Oscar
1958 – Port Au Call
1959 – U.S. Route 76
1960 – The Sounds of Music
1961 – Only Yesterday
1962 – Pseudo
1963 – Panic
1964 – Witerature—A New Look at Old Books
1965 – De-losers of Grandeur
1966 – Slipped Disc or Rock Back to Bach
1967 – A B Cedarian, The Building Blocks of Life
1968 – Braggadocio:  Afoul Facts in Short Acts
1969 – Dubious Distinctions
 
Fall
Fall has always been a time for returning to campus life, full of hopes for a fun and successful academic year.  While many fall activities on campus are brimming with positive energy, prior to 1900, freshmen would occasionally find themselves ritually dumped into the Red Cedar River.  Apparently, such “ritual dumpings” into the river were also sometimes performed upon graduating seniors in the springtime well into the twentieth century.

Canoeing on the Red Cedar River became a popular pastime for students after 1903, when Professor, and later President from 1928-1941, Robert Shaw was the first official canoeist on the river.  The M.A.C. Canoe Club was successfully begun in the spring of 1920.  The first canoe shelter was the class gift of the M.S.C. Class of 1937.  However, it was torn down in 1961 for the construction of Bessey Hall.  In 1962, when Bessey Hall was completed, a new canoe shelter was built and re-opened.  The canoe livery was typically open from April or May through October, depending on weather conditions.

The 1976 Welcome Week issue of the State News advised that “canoeing on a warm evening down the Red Cedar provides the perfect atmosphere for a romantic date.  But watch out when making the moves because the canoes tip over easily.  Remember to keep low and stay in the middle to remain above the water and not in it.”  M.S.U. student Terri Marco added, “It’s fun, and besides you see coons, ducks, muskrats, turtles and lots of oil in the river.  It’s a different way to spend the day.”
           
Winter
Winter’s snow and cold do not deter activity on the Red Cedar River.  Though it is not cold enough every year, when the river freezes completely, students take advantage of the ice.  Ice skating and casual hockey games are frequent winter pastimes on the Red Cedar River, and some students simply enjoy being able to walk across the frozen river without needing a bridge.  Winter’s chill might also provide a thrill for those students who are brave enough to take the plunge into the icy waters; in early 1951, for example, freshman Charles Crownover won $10 from two friends who bet him to swim in the icy 18-degree Red Cedar River.

Prior to the mass production of modern refrigerators in the late 1940s and 1950s, a supply of ice was required for refrigeration purposes.  Commercial ice suppliers formed a significant industry, and supplies of natural ice made refrigeration more readily available around the country.  The proliferation of natural ice refrigeration meant that bodies of water were subjected to scraping for ice production, and the Red Cedar River was no exception.  Ice was harvested on the Red Cedar River for use in the school’s ice house; in fact, Gallup and Spross of Okemos were contracted in 1886 to build a new Ice House near the river to replace the school’s older, and increasingly insufficient, ice house for the price of about $385 – the equivalent of almost $10,000 today!
 
Exhibit created by Alexandra O. Conell, April 2017

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Hungry ducks getting grits from generous student
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Woman feeds ducks on the Red Cedar River
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MSU Archives and Historical Collections
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Woman feeds ducks on the Red Cedar River
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Image: jpg
MSU Archives and Historical Collections
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MSU Archives and Historical Collections
Workers Resting on the Banks of the Red Cedar River, circa 1947
Workers Resting on the Banks of the Red Cedar River, circa 1947
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Image: jpg
MSU Archives and Historical Collections