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KU Traditions Past: May-pole Scrap and May Fête

As Robert Taft explains in his history of KU, Across the Years on Mount Oread, the first May-pole scrap occurred on May 1, 1891. The preceding night, the junior class had erected a pole forty feet high in front of old Fraser (then known as University Hall), and on the pole was a banner marked with the figures, ’92.  The pole was found on the ground the next morning with a sophomore wielding an axe beside it.  The juniors, aided by a group of freshman, tried to regain the pole and banner, but the seniors came to the rescue of the sophomores and together they burned the banner.  The battle raged into the evening and the “May-pole scrap” was born.  This battle between freshman and sophomores continued for nearly fifteen years as an annual event and eventually developed into a series of duels that were not confined to May-day alone.  The May-pole scrap was discontinued by 1905 because of the violent nature of this KU tradition.

May-pole Scrap, 1904
1904 May-pole Scrap between the freshman and sophomore classes to determine whose colors would be hoisted on the May pole. May Day Photographs, Call Number: 71/10/1904

In its place a new tradition was established, the May Fête.  The first festival, held on May 23, 1908 began with the crowning of the Queen of the May.  Other festivities were described in the May 5th issue of the University Daily Kansan:  “After the Queen is crowned, five May poles will be wound with May pole dances.  One pole will be wound by each of the four sororities, the fifth by girls chosen to represent the University.  Music for the dances will be furnished by old-time fiddlers in costume.  May day games such as quoits, archery and bowling on the green will be carried on in different parts of the campus.”  The last mention of the May Fête occurred in the Kansan on May 23, 1923.

May Day festivities, 1911May Fete, 5/12/11
May Fête festivities, May 12, 1911. May Day Photographs, Call Number: 71/10/1911

Click here to see a photograph of the 1908 May Fête in KU’s Luna Insight Image Collections, and then continue your explorations by browsing additional images in the University Archives Luna collection.

Rebecca Schulte
University Archivist

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