Mug and Jug at 100

Submitted by jjcho on February 8, 2007 - 12:00am

At this writing, we count 1697 men admitted to our circle, but one hundred years ago, there were but seven, and without the notion to grow beyond seven, much less to 1700.

Were any one of us to encounter any one of them on campus, feverishly scrawling at his physics prelim, or sprinting across the brand-new Arts Quadrangle late for a lecture, he would seem an alien creature, clad in his "kollege kut" long coat and high-water trousers, Victorian in his manners and prejudices. But come evening, reunited with his cohorts, proposing an exuberant toast after a narrow win at the billiards table, we would recognize him at once--we would recognize them at once. There was yet no house, no badge, no officers, no fraternity. But there was a great friendship.

Cornell of the nineteen aughts was likewise a mixture of the familiar and foreign, of the late Victorian and early modern. The chimes rang out from the clock tower, though the clock was wound by hand; the incandescent light illuminated all-nighters, but not the outhouses; and a few coeds were about, but polite society abhorred them. College was no longer a prison that murdered half its inmates with ancient Greek and the other half with tuberculosis, but student life was hardly Elysian. There was no radio, nor even the silent variety of films, and to drive up Buffalo Street from downtown to Stewart Avenue an impossible feat of automotive technology. There was neither a North Campus, nor West Campus, nor Collegetown, and the founder of Jim's Chapter House was still toiling away in a candy factory in Canada, so most students still lived, ate, and drank downtown, where room and board averaged $6 a week. But the new generation was moving uphill, especially the freshmen of the Class of 1908.

With few social outlets, students clung fiercely to their college and class, and intense freshman-sophomore rivalry gave rise to endless pranks, injuries, and humiliations. To avoid kidnapping prior to the sophomore class banquet, freshmen Otto Brandt, Fred Pearce, Leon Brockway, and Neil Preston sequestered themselves in their attic. Soon discovered, they beat off the sophomores with for two hours curtain rods, floor boards, and sacks of flour. And in the unlikely crucible of a College Avenue boarding house, a great friendship was born.

These four remained close for the rest of their college days, adding three more to their circle: Chet Hunn and A.U. Wetherbee, and two years their junior, an Ernst Fischer ’10, whom Otto Brandt had befriended in the Deutscher Verein German student society. All found something what Cornell did not provide: true friendship, something they did not see in the prevailing social scene dominated by a few aristocratic fraternities, the ridiculous “hat societies,” or the Cornell University Christian Association.

Besides beer, the other emerging national pastime was football, perhaps because they blended well; athletic victories were cheered not only because school spirit was high, but because in such cases the faculty turned a blind eye to drunken revelry. Cornell won many victories in those days, so by senior year the little club were regulars at the popular student watering holes: the Dutch Kitchen and Zinck’s at the Ithaca Hotel, the Senate and the Alhambra Grill on Aurora Street, and the Office Hotel a block down. It was a football game, in fact, that would take them to the next step, that would lead to the founding of Omicron Zeta.

There was yet no Crescent, though there was a newly christened “Big Red Team,” and a new song about Registrar Davy Hoy and Professor Tee Fee Crane for the crowd to learn. All morning on October 26, 1907, thousands from around New York State descended on Percy Field for the big game against Princeton. The Tigers had won the previous six outings, but Cornell made better use of the newly legalized forward pass, and 15,000 cheered as they prevailed 6-5. A deluge of humanity surged down Tioga Street in an impromptu victory parade, our seven among them.

As evening fell, they settled into a bar and reminisced, pausing the songs and storytelling to refill their steins. . . and then to realize that they were six seniors and a sophomore. Soon the group would be split, their members scattered, and their sociable gatherings ended. They would need to make the most of their time left, meeting every week at the same spot, to refill their mugs from the jug and relive their best times. But more than that, could not a new generation benefit from the kind of friendship they enjoyed? Could not new men be brought into their circle—their brotherhood?

There was yet no Omicron Zeta-- there was yet no Lambda Chi Alpha anywhere. But on one night one hundred years ago this year, our brotherhood was born. For the fraternity lies not in its house, its badge, its offices, even its rituals, but in its brothers. And the seven members of Mug and Jug had the foresight and generosity to share it with us.