BY SHAUN TREAT
The first sign of fall in Denton ain’t grass turning a slightly lighter shade of sun-bleached tan, but the boisterous return of college students to UNT and TWU. Just as sure as dodging cars hurtling the wrong direction down one-way streets, or watching a learning curve hilariously unfold for back-in parking on East Hickory, these fresh faces to Denton also give us an opportunity to maybe learn a few new things about our two-college town. Since this year is the 125th Anniversary of UNT in Denton, I figured it’d be fun to revisit the purt-near-constant changes in our local university mascots that have bemused locals trying to keep up since back in the day.
Today’s branding of universities makes us assume that school mascots emerged fully-formed like the mythic Venus, yet it just ain’t so. “Denton has always been school-minded” surely, but the notion of a college sports mascot was unknown when UNT began on the Square in 1890 as the Texas Normal College and Teacher Training Institute. Not only did your great-grandparents walk uphill both ways in the scorching sun and play games with sticks, but their college “mascot” was a gosh-darned bell used to announce classes and nightly curfew from the Normal Building. Sure enough, ringing the Spirit Bell is one of those zany UNT traditions that endured, right alongside firing off an honest-to-gosh muzzleloader cannon during Mean Green scores. Because let’s admit it, sports is more fun when you can make an opponent or unsuspecting neighbors soil their pants with bells and cannon-fire every time your team puts points on the board.
With numerous name changes to the universities over the years (UNT has gone through 7 different names and TWU has changed their campus letterhead 5 times), it’s easy to see how keeping up with who-calls-which-school-what-now could’ve been a bit maddening. The UNT Eagle didn’t even show up on the scene until a 1921 student petition, when it barely beat out the Dragon as official school mascot by 17 lousy votes. Up until then, student athletic groups uninterestingly went by “Normal Boys” or the “Normal Girls,” except for a few sassy women’s basketball clubs who dubbed themselves the “Dandy Doers,” “Haughty Hits,” the “Suffragettes” or “Limber Lassies” [take note for punk band names, folks]. Live birds were trotted out as mascots during games after 1950, the first a fish hawk instead of a real eagle because who knows, but then a string of live eagles died due to heat exhaustion and maybe nervous breakdowns because of all that Victory Bell-ringing and dang cannonfire. The Eagle didn’t get the name “Scrappy” until 1952, and even then was sometimes called “Beaky” or “Victor” then “Eppy” later, when the university soon discovered sticking students inside a heatstroke-inducing costume was cheaper than medicating neurotic eagles with PTSD. But as the accompanying photo clearly shows, this “Mr. Eagle” wasn’t the friendly Saturday-morning cartoon redesign from 2013 we now see on gamedays… he was a straight-up horror show for the kiddies that I myself think we should bring back.
Texas Woman’s University has its own pretty fascinating history with mascots, mainly because it can be convincingly argued that they’ve never really had one. Once the College of Industrial Arts for Women established classes in 1903, they did have a pretty rad women’s basketball team who called themselves The Vikings, then soon a ladies baseball team who did everything the boys could do but in wool leggings and 20-pound bustled-dresses. According to old yearbooks, there was also a tendency to appoint children as class “mascots” since some female students had to bring their kids to school with them, due to unaffordable childcare and sexist social expectations… so not much different than today. The all-lady students were often referred to as “Industrial Girls,” which conjures robots or maybe Rosie the Riveter, but were also called “Settlers” as often as “Pioneers” in early years. The university’s signature symbol, The Pioneer Woman, wouldn’t become a fixture until the iconic statue was dedicated in 1938 after a heated pearl-clutching controversy. And boy howdy, accounts of this row are still a real page-turner!
The Pioneer Woman controversy began, according to reliable sources, after a jury of hoity-toity Art experts had unanimously selected the work of New York artist William Zorach as their winner of a $30,000 sculpture competition for the TWU campus. Zorach’s plaster model submission depicted a pioneer family, with a seated mother reading to a daughter on her knee while a father and boy looked on from behind her, as stylized classical figures… that also happened to be nude. Scandalized campus insiders quickly spread word of this unclothed abomination by telephone or letters, which the DRC chronicles once public outrage hit full-tilt freakout:
"One astute observed noted that the woman wore no wedding ring," the article said, "while another quibbled that it was a memorial to a pioneer family not to the pioneer woman as specified." A chapter of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas declared it "the greatest insult that could be offered to these women who believed and practiced the virtue of modesty." Other critics said the figures "looked like apes" and that a "nude statue was not appropriate to a woman's college."
The statewide moral panic resulted in the campus art commission being quickly reassigned to Leo Friedlander, a sculptor who hadn’t even entered the competition. His 15-foot-tall statue, made of Georgian white marble, was sculpted during a three-year period then unveiled at TWU in 1938 in honor of the Texas Centennial. The Pioneer Woman of TWU, sometimes called Minerva, now stands proudly among notable Denton women and feisty local Foremothers.
We should also mention North Central Texas College, operating under their mascot The Lion, established in Gainesville in 1924 by God-fearing Christians because they dreaded "the moral hazard of sending students away from home" to go to college. These universities have certainly shaped the culture and character of Denton County, and have even saved Denton during tough economic times more than once. So as the Denton CVB “goes UNT Mean Green” this fall, and MENTOR DENTON begins another school year helping at-risk students, let’s not forget to give a little back to the school-minded culture that makes Denton such an amazing community for us all!
Shaun Treat is a former professor at the University of North Texas and founder of the Denton Haunts historical ghost tour. Doc has written about numerous local places and personalities at his Denton Haunts blog, and is forever indebted to the great work of our local keepers of history like Mike Cochran and Laura Douglas at the Emily Fowler Library for their tireless work in helping preserve Denton’s intriguing past. Be sure to check out our local museums curated by the fine folks at the Denton County Office of History & Culture, and follow @Dentonaut on Twitter for local happenings.