One of Manchester’s most enduring traditions, May Day turns 100

mud-volleyball-2The formally gowned maidens of Manchester’s first May Day in 1920 might be aghast at the sight of today’s MU women getting their game on in a mud volleyball pit.

Then again, they might be proud that the tradition they started has endured for a century.

Buildings, programs and people come and go, but May Day has been an enduring rite of spring on the North Manchester campus for a century. The only exceptions: 1943 and 1944 because of World War II and 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

From the beginning, May Day has been a chance to blow off some steam before final exams and Commencement. Students cooped up in residence halls, classrooms and laboratories all winter look forward to letting loose come spring.

The Civic and Oratorical League – a student group known for getting things done – planned and organized Manchester’s first May Day. Women students, dressed in green and white, performed the May Pole Dance (pictured above). Our first May Day Queen, Mabel Winger, was crowned under the May Pole with Maid of Honor Hazel Dickey at her side.

Throughout that first May Day students performed speeches, duets and other talents. A baseball game provided athletic entertainment, as did a field meet at which students competed in races and jumping and throwing events.

As with everything else over time, May Day evolved.

The May Pole remained a constant until the women’s movement of the 1960s. “Lighting the May Day flame” officially opened the festivities in 1965. An all-campus snake dance followed, and other events that year included a greased pig race. A tug-of-war across the Eel River remained a popular event for years.

The 1965 May Day parade featured old model cars, the pep band, nine floats representing five dormitories and all four classes, and the queen and her court in convertibles. A carnival, masquerade dance, queen’s reception and chicken dinner rounded out that weekend.

1976-Bike-TeamAlumni of the Baby Boom generation will forever associate May Day weekend with the Spartan Spoketacular, started in 1966. The Spoketacular was a grueling men’s bike race for which some teams trained for months. Each team had four riders, an alternate and a “catcher” for the 25-mile competition completed in 100 laps around the cinder track.

Other events came and went and often reflected the era. There was a rocking chair marathon in 1975, a midnight picnic in the College Woods in 1974, and a Beach Party Disco behind the Union in 1977.

In 1981, a “drive-in movie” on campus showed “Breaking Away” – the hit film about another Indiana college town. By 1989, things had tamed down a bit when students played “Win, Lose or Draw” in the The Oaks.

A century after it began, May Day weekend kicked off with a bonfire, hot dogs and s’mores. The Spoketacular is no more, but there’s a tricycle race, drag show, airband (lip sync) competition and, of course, mud volleyball.

And what would those formally gowned maidens of 1920 say to that?

“Carry on, Manchester!”