Early Hoofers History: 1930s

1930 – 1939


Signup sheet for Hoofers hike, 1930s
Signup sheet for Hoofers hike, 1930s

After years of knocking the idea around, and a decade after the inception of the Badger Ski Club, UW chemistry professor Doc Bradley and Memorial Union director Porter Butts organized a student outing group.

They posted a sign on the Union bulletin board stating, “Please sign here if you’re interested in participating in an outing club with skiing, camping, and canoeing as a prospect.”

They had a meeting and seven people, including Dr. Bradley, his son Charles Bradley, and Porter Butts attended. A committee consisting of Professor Bradley, Porter Butts (Union Director), Edward Thomas (Union staff), and three students—Henry Baker, Sally Owen Marshall and Marilla Eggler—was formed to consider establishing a university skiing and outing club, as part of the Union.

Their office was located in the basement of the old president’s house at Park and Langdon Streets. The group decided to model themselves after the Dartmouth Outing Club, the largest such club in existence at the time. Dartmouth called their new members “Heelers”.

The UW group agreed on the name “Hoofers” for their club, a name designed to evoke the sense of “getting there under your own power.” New members, it was decided, would be called “Heels.” Heels could graduate to full Hoofer status after proving themselves by putting in so many hours—and after a vote of the current members.

Ski tournament program, 1934. #dn04050701
Ski tournament program, 1934. #dn04050701

From the beginning, one of Hoofers’ primary purposes was to make the necessary outing equipment available. The group first set up shop in the billiards room with an inventory of 3 pairs of skis and 10 toboggans.

A toboggan slide had been in use on Observatory Hill since the late 1800s, and the group helped to maintain the slide, as well as rent toboggans. One of their biggest challenges was finding ski equipment.

At that time, skiing was so rare in Wisconsin that only children’s skis were available for purchase. Today, such equipment would hardly even be called skis—they were essentially nothing but wooden planks tied to one’s shoes with a leather strap. Bindings, boots, and poles simply did not exist.

The Hoofers had to purchase their ski equipment from the Dartmouth Outing Club, who imported it from Switzerland.

The Hoofers’ first mission as a group was to preserve the sport of ski jumping on campus. The original wooden ski jump, built in late 1919, had fallen into disrepair. The group set to work, first patching up the old jump to make it safe again, then raising $1,600 for a new jump. The new steel jump, designed by Carl Houm of Milwaukee and considered one of the best in the country, rose 56 feet into the air, was 108 feet long, and weighed 55 tons.

Muir Knoll ski jump, c. 1949. #040502as170
Muir Knoll ski jump, c. 1949. #040502as170

February 11, 1933
The new ski jump was inaugurated by its first tournament. Estimates of the crowd vary from 4,000-5,000; spectators included local notables such as UW President Glenn Frank, Madison Mayor James Law, and Governor Albert Schmedeman. Johanna Kolstad, Norway’s world champion ski jumper, competed along with 50 of the Midwest’s best riders. Sally Owen Marshall, a charter member of Hoofers, was the first woman to navigate the jump.

This meet was the first in a series sponsored by the Central United States Ski Association. The crowd of spectators stretched down the hill along the jump and out onto Lake Mendota. Photographs show not only large crowds but also clusters of automobiles out on the lake ice.

The events became so popular that Hoofers began to charge admission. They erected fencing in order to restrict lines of sight and funnel spectators past the admission booth. Even with the large number of people who worked their way around the fence, or simply chose to watch for free from further out on the ice, these meets raised enough money to support Hoofers events throughout the rest of the year.

With financial help from the Class of 1933, Hoofers built a new toboggan slide on the slope running from Observatory Drive down to Lake Mendota. The original slide, built around 1886, was replaced in 1911 by a wooden run 600 feet long and 3 feet wide. The new slide, modeled after slides in Canada, was the first concrete chute in this country. The operation included safety gates, water lines, and an automatic toboggan release.

Toboggan run, c. 1911. #S07723
Toboggan run on Observatory Hill, c. 1911. #S07723

Despite these “safety” features, the slide was lax by today’s standards. A wooden bridge spanning the lake path had to be removed when the slide was in use.

Of course the path itself was never closed, even when the slide was in use; pedestrians simply had to be wary of sleds hurtling toward them at the rate of 60 miles per hour.

Toboggans could be rented at the Hoofers’ store, and people were charged a dime a ride. The new fee did not sit well with many students who had been using the old slide for free.

A small shed serving as tool storage and a ticket booth was burned down in 1934; a note left at the scene asked, “The slide was a gift to the university, why charge for each ride?”

Hoofers wrote its first constitution in 1933. In its third year, the group had 22 active Hoofers and 30 Heels. Its mailing list to interested parties, however, had ballooned to 200. Facing a drastic increase in membership, the Hoofers decided to craft a constitution to guide the organization’s growth. The constitution set up a governing body consisting of officers, the chairperson of each activity, and two advisers.

The terms Hoofer and Heel were retained, and one more category was added: Prospect, to designate people who had expressed interest but had not yet become active. To become a full-fledged member, individuals were required to work on a project and come to at least 3 meetings before being voted on by members. Initiation fees were $1, with yearly dues of $.25 after that.

December 1933 Octopus cartoon: "Jees, we must have missed Shorewood Hills!"
December 1933 Octopus cartoon: “Jees, we must have missed Shorewood Hills!”

The Hoofer Archery Club was founded. The club, which was open to Madison residents as well as students, was popular from the beginning; its first year, 25 members joined up, including the conservationist Aldo Leopold and his wife.

The club’s first archery range was located in the Armory, and interest was divided between target shooting and hunting.

Leopold gave a presentation to the newly formed club describing bow hunting techniques, which required two groups: one to drive the deer into a bottle-neck clearing, and one to shoot at it. He warned the gathering that only 1 in 100 archers had bagged a deer the previous year.

The toboggan slide on Observatory Hill is removed to make way for the construction of Elizabeth Waters Hall.

The Hoofers ski team gains national recognition after winning the Intercollegiate Combined Championships at Land O’ Lakes, WI and taking 2nd place in the National Intercollegiate Classic Combined Championships in Sun Valley, ID. The team’s coach, Rueben Silvola, made the team start practicing in the autumn, on fallen leaves.

Paul Bietila, 1939 Badger Yearbook tribute.
Paul Everett Bietila, 1939 Badger Yearbook tribute page.

February 26, 1939
Hoofer Paul Bietila died following complications from a fall two weeks earlier, during the American National Ski Meet in Minneapolis. One of the famous Flying Bietila Brothers, Paul had been lured from the University of Minnesota by Doc Bradley and dominated Wisconsin skiing with his brother Walter, also a Hoofer.

Paul was considered by many to be the best American skier of his time. Just 10 years old when he jumped Minnesota’s infamous Suicide Hill,

Paul went on to set a boy’s world record for a 196-foot jump, then break and re-break over a dozen distance records. He made national press as he traveled around the country, representing Hoofers in tournaments.

Paul and Walter had both been selected for the 1940 Olympic team. Even if he had lived, however, Paul would not have been able to participate; the games were cancelled in the face of World War II.

Walter went on to become captain of the 1948 US ski jumping team, coached the team during the 1960s, and served on the Olympic Committee.

Hoofers moved into the newly constructed theater wing of Memorial Union. Grubstake, a limited cafeteria, opens in the Hoofers quarters. In addition to sandwiches and drinks, the most basic outing essentials were available: gum, cigarettes, and beer.

Facilities expanded further when the organization took over the Women’s Athletic Association (WAA) recreational cottage at Eagle Heights. The cottage was built by the WAA in 1925 and served as a shelter, pit-stop, and overnight destination for outing activities of all kinds. The cottage, renamed Black Hawk Lodge by Hoofers, eventually closed in 1948.

Hoofers lounge, 1940s. #dn06021402
Hoofers lounge, 1940s. #dn06021402

Hoofer Sailing Club was founded, and proved to be wildly popular from the beginning. Just two years after the club’s inception, more than 450 students registered for sailing instruction. Members were either students or instructors; as soon as a student passed the required tests, they began teaching others how to sail.

That same year, 1941, the club owned 8 Class X Olympic Cat sailboats, purchased from contributions by interested faculty, alumni, and Madison residents. The Union Council approved $300 for the construction of a Sailing Club pier.

The Riding Club is formed after the UW Hunt Club votes to join Hoofers. Horseback riding was a common activity at UW, with organized groups like the Prince of Wales Club, founded in 1927, and the Women’s Athletic Association club, named the Bit & Spur. But it wasn’t until Hoofers created the Riding Club in 1939 that the campus had a co-ed club.

There were no accommodations on campus, and at times the group traveled as far as Baraboo, Wisconsin to ride. Even so, the club was popular; in the 1949-50 school year, 485 riding hours were logged by 60 people. At some point, the club began to lease and operate stables in nearby Middleton.