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Bascom Hall 1904

Bascom Hall (1904 after)

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-57184

Jubilee: 50th Anniversary of the First UW Commencement

The first UW commencement took place on July 26, 1854. At 9:30 a.m. the church bell rang and a band played in Capitol Park as the crowd filed into the Baptist Church on the Square. The salutatory address was given in Latin by Levi Booth – “no doubt excellent, though a portion of the audience, we apprehend, were not particularly enlightened by it.” Booth and Charles Wakeley, the only graduates, received degrees.

On June 6, 1904, the UW celebrated the jubilee of the first ceremony. Main (now Bascom) Hall was strung with electric lights, and the upper campus was lit with two rows of 2,000 lights. At 8:30 in the evening 400 women, dressed in white with large paper hats trimmed in class colors and carrying large hoops adorned with colored paper, went through figure movements on Bascom Hill.

A torchlight procession then formed at the Armory and proceeded up Langdon Street to Wisconsin Avenue, around the Square, and back down State Street. One thousand marchers participated, dressed in cardinal and white capes and caps. They sang “rollicking” varsity songs, led by the University band. Then there was a bonfire and the senior class peace pipe ceremony.

Twenty thousand spectators lined the shore of Lake Mendota that evening to witness the water fete. Fifty rowboats discharged fireworks in what spectators described as “looking like a naval battle.” Nearly every lakeshore lot from the university to the Yahara River was hung with Japanese lanterns. Searchlights stabbed the sky from machine shops and the city boathouse at the foot of Carroll Street. All the street ends and University Hill were thronged with people. The steamers Columbia and Putter, festooned with lights, passed back and forth in the lake in front of the university. Twenty-five rowboats followed, decorated with Japanese lanterns. Then came sailboats and launches, their masts and sail strings bearing lights. Out in the lake bombs and other fireworks were shot from a raft. The Wisconsin state band played in the rear of President Van Hise’s house (now the site of the Memorial Union). From 8 to 11 p.m. his spacious back lawn hosted two thousand guests. A fountain on a raft just off shore was lit with red, green and white lights.

On June 9 forty men and women were given honorary doctor of law degrees at the UW commencement exercise, including Jane Addams of Hull House, Reuben Gold Thwaites of the Historical Society, and the presidents of the University of Michigan, University of Chicago, Boston University, University of Minnesota, and University of California.

Mark Gajewski