Cane Contest

Late in the 19th century, Williams College witnessed the beginning of a lively competition between the sophomore and freshman classes.  The Cane Contest grew out of this inter-class rivalry that can be traced as far back as the mid-1800s.  The rivalry usually proved violent, surfacing in such events as street fights over the right of way and seniority.  Invented by the student body, the Cane Rush involved both classes rushing to touch one cane held by the strongest member of each class.  The class to have the most members touching the cane was deemed the winner.  Although the tournament didn’t persist for more than a few years, it helped to influence another competition which became a fundamental part of campus life for a quarter of a century.

The college drew up the first set of rules for the Cane Contest in 1901.  While freshmen generally couldn’t carry canes, they would finally gain that right if they proved the better in this tournament.  The contest was a game of strategy, consisting of the attempts of the freshman class to bring a bundle of canes within the town limits while the sophomore class did all they could to thwart such actions.  It took place on one of the first Saturdays in March and lasted from 5 or 6 o?clock in the evening to 11’0 clock at night.  The required number of canes to be transported equaled that of the freshman class.  If by 11 o’ clock all canes were within town limits, the freshman class was named champion, winning the right to carry their canes.  If, however, they were not successful, the competition canes were granted to the sophomore class.

Although the actual competition took place in early March, preparations began as early as November, when the freshman president secretly ordered the canes and hid them somewhere outside the bounds of Williamstown.  He then appointed a secret committee, which alone would hold knowledge of the canes’ whereabouts.  For fear of spies from the sophomore class, which worked determinedly to discover the members of the freshman cane committee and the location of the canes, the freshman president changed the canes’ position frequently, and changed the members of his committee just as often.

When the time came for actual competition, the members of the freshman committee would leave town in order to slyly retrieve the canes.  In the contest’s early years, they would cut classes as much as a week in advance in order to leave campus and hide away, hoping to begin the competition from an unidentified starting point.  Nevertheless, new regulations produced in 1904 banned the cutting of classes, forcing the committee to leave the night before.

Tactics engaged during the event were imaginative and many.  The sophomore class often employed professional detectives, and the freshman class usually had a bundle or two of fake canes to be used as decoys.  Both teams communicated by using fireworks, bombs, and telegraphs.  Strategy played a major role in gaining victory, and the strategy employed in the contest was often compared to that needed for a military action.  An army officer who once witnessed the struggle observed that he might be able to “‘keep out the canes’ with his whole regiment.nothing less.” (Tiebout, F.B., The Intercollegiate).

The Cane Contest closed with a parade and a bonfire held at West College Hill.  The freshmen marched to the fire led by a band and dressed in nightshirts stolen from the sophomores.  They say that one sophomore had all his night-shirts stolen, got some more, had those stolen, and finally resolved to sleep in his basketball suit till after the 17th.  (Dutton, George Burwell).  At the top of the hill, the sophomores leapt upon the freshmen to tear their nightclothes back.  Next the student body heard from speakers, including the president of the senior class and the class orators of both the freshmen and the sophomores, who sang the praises of their respective classes.  At the close of the ceremony, the hatchet was buried.  More literally, the students threw a cardboard ax into the bonfire, signifying the end of animosity between the two groups of students.

Although the contest was meant to incite healthy competition between the students, and hopefully influence the abandonment of interclass resentment, it proved to be a violent and hostile tradition.  Instead of nursing friendly relations, it conversely helped mistrust and resentment to grow, culminating in violence and property damage during the actual event.  In 1914, President Garfield and the administration chose to abolish the Cane Contest after freshmen were held on the ground and pounded into insensibility with plenty of students, faculty, and townspeople as witnesses. (The Williams Record, 31 May 1939, page 5).

The student body protested the President?s decision, claiming they should be allowed a say in the matter.  Alumni even engaged themselves in the struggle, refusing to take a specific position yet stating that the contest had not been tried fairly and thoroughly.  Under some circumstances, it may have been justified in continuing.  However, Garfield replied that the competition had already been given a fair trial, and that it had not won.  It was simply too dangerous an activity, both for the student body and the local residents.  Nevertheless, whether or not the administration could justify the Cane Contest’s abolishment, the student body and alumni continued to look back fondly on their memories of the former Williams ritual.

By Amber LaFountain (Williams Class of 2009)

Further Reading:

Brown, David.  Undergraduate Letters of George Burwell Dutton ’07.  20-22.
Tiebout, F.B.  The Cane Contest at Williams.  The Intercollegiate.  140.
Van Doren, Durand Halsey.  ?The Cane Contest and March Seventeenth.  Williams Literary Monthly.  Vol XXVIII, No 8.  267-271.
The Williams Record.  March 11, 1909.  March 1, 1914.  April 6, 1914.  September 18, 1926.  May 31, 1939.