Sammy the Owl

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A stirring tale of defeat, theft, counter-theft, imprisonment, and triumphant return... of a sawdust-stuffed canvas owl.

The initial story is really funny and would be considered "normal collegiate hijinx". Then aggy turns it up to 11 and things get serious.

Full credit to Redditor "Owlcatraz", reprinted in full from here.

The Owl is Abducted

On January 16th, 1917, Texas A&M defeated Rice in basketball, 21-13, [1] at Houston City Auditorium[2], to give the Aggies their first win over Rice in Houston in any sport in three years. As the Aggie basketball players, students, and alumni "former students" realized that Rice had left their mascot, a man-sized canvas owl stuffed with sawdust, unattended. J. Percy Street Thompson (A&M '17) and Sidney F Mitchell (A&M '18) gathered their fellow Corpsmen and hatched a plan.

The triumphant Aggies posing with their new General

The Aggies ceremonially inducted the owl into the Corps of Cadets, bestowing the rank of general on him [3]. A group of the men hoisted the nearly 200 lb bird onto their shoulders and lugged the giant mascot out of the building. When asked by the guard what they were doing, they calmly replied that they were returning the mascot back to Rice's campus. The guard let them pass, but once they got the bird into their car, they drove the mascot to the train station and shipped him to College Station care of Wells Fargo.

I'll let the 2000 A&M article about it take it up from there:

When the train arrived at College Station, Denning and his cohorts quickly collected the owl and welcomed it to the campus with all the respect due its rank. From the station they retired to Denning's room in Milner Hall where the owl received visitors for the remainder of the night. The next day the owl served as "General in Chapel," attended military science lectures, and reviewed members of the Corps of Cadets as they marched to evening chow. To the Cadets this was great sport at the expense of an athletic rival. The Batallion, the A&M student newspaper, was quick to lay down the challenge, writing that "if Rice wishes to claim their bird and ever think they are able to take him safely back to the 'Institoot,' [4] they can find him at 37 Milner Hall, College Station, Texas."

<a target="_blank" href="">The triumphant Aggies posing with their new General.</a>

Rice quickly made a new, identical mascot, and told all of the Houston newspapers that the Aggies had fabricated the story. The indignant Aggies countered that, not only did they have the mascot, but that they intended to bring him down to Houston for the parade prior to A&M's football game against Rice the following fall. Thirteen men from Rice resolved that the mascot had to be rescued quickly, and thus was formed the Owl Protective Association.

The Search for the Owl

On January 19th, the Owl Protective Association hired a detective to go to College Station and locate the owl. The detective was supposed to telegraph them whether he was successful in locating the mascot or not, but the OPA didn't receive any word from him. The OPA gathered up some army uniforms and drove up to College Station to contact the detective.

The OPA arrived at 1:30 AM in the driving rain and met the detective, only to learn that he had been unsuccessful in locating the owl. The OPA spread out and searched the academic buildings, without success. Three of their number were found by a night watchman, who asked them why they were inside a locked building in the middle of the night. They told him that they were freshmen "Fish" who had been locked in the building by the seniors and told not to come out before 3 AM [5]. The watchman bought the lie, and left them alone. Still, the mascot was nowhere to be found. The only remaining buildings that hadn't been searched were the dormitories.

Undeterred, the OPA proceeded with plan B. Two of the OPA members were transfers from A&M, familiar with the Aggies customs. They each took half of the group and changed into their makeshift army uniforms. They then went around to every single first floor room in every dormitory on campus and pretended to be drill sergeants making sure the room was in fine military order. Apparently the subterfuge worked, but even after searching all the rooms, there was no sign of the mascot. The disappointed OPA drove back to Houston, arriving on the afternoon of the 21st.

After four days of discussion and planning, the OPA decided to try again with a new detective, who is known to history only by the codename "Snowball." Snowball drove up to A&M on January 29th and pretended to be a Houston newspaper reporter hoping to get the real story on whether A&M had managed to steal Rice's mascot. Whether by luck or by skill, his story made it to the only four men in all of College Station who were privy to the mascot's hiding place. They showed Snowball the owl, who then sent a cryptic telegram back to the Owl Protective Association to convey his success:

Sammy is fairly well and would like to see his parents at 11 o'clock.

Rice's mascot has been known as Sammy ever since.

Sammy is Busted Out

The Triumphant Owl Protective Association

Alternatively: Run, Forrest Jimmie, Run!

The OPA rounded up four more conspirators and left for College Station immediately, arriving there at 11:30 PM in two Fords and a Hudson Super Six. Snowball greeted them with bad news: Sammy's prison was the third floor of the U.S. Armory, by far the most secure building on the A&M campus. This would be a major undertaking. The OPA drove to Kyle Field to set up a forward base of operations, and devised a plan.

Four men by the names of Fulweiler, Billups, Moore, and Waters [6] volunteered to scout the building. Billups hid himself outside the building, in a location where he could signal the main group down on Kyle Field if necessary. Moore, Fulweiler, and Waters entered the building on the main floor and climbed three flights of stairs to find the door to the armory locked. They took out knives and started trying to cut through the door, but the noise attracted the night watchman.

Jimmie Waters spotted the watchman hurrying towards the first floor door from outside, and decided to distract him away from his co-conspirators. He climbed out the third story window and down the side of the building, in full sight of the watchman. He then leads the watchman on a merry chase, giving him the slip elsewhere on campus Jimmie Waters: 1, Watchmen: 0 before heading back to the armory.

When Jimmie arrived, he discovered that two sergeants were searching the armory building, while his comrades in mischief lay low. 20 tense minutes passed, but eventually Fulweiler was spotted. Fulweiler ran outside to join Waters, and the two of them led the two sergeants on a chase all the way to the train depot, where they lost them Jimmie Waters: 3, "Pig" Fulweiler: 2, Watchmen: 0. Fulweiler headed back to the armory, while Waters headed back to Kyle Field to check on the main party.

Moore was working on the armory door with a crowbar by himself, but was spotted by yet another sergeant as Fulweiler was returning. Moore ran off, losing his pursuer outside of campus before heading back to Kyle Field. Fulweiler was spotted shortly thereafter, but he repeated his earlier escapade, running off and losing the sergeant at the train depot "Pig" Fulweiler: 3, Watchmen: 0.

The group adjourned to Kyle Field to reassess their strategy, but not before Jimmie Waters engaged two more watchmen in a footrace across campus, once again losing them at the train depot Jimmie Waters: 5, Watchmen: 0. The OPA decided at this point that the time for stealth was past, and that they should just try to blitz the armory en masse.

Five football players entered the armory building armed with fire extinguishers filled with ammonia [7] and crowbars. The remaining OPA members blocked all the doors into the building with the Fords and the Hudson, preventing any watchmen from interrupting them. The football players managed to finally break the door to the armory by ramming it three at a time. They retrieved Sammy and put him in the Hudson. A watchman saw them as they started to pull away and fired his .44 pistol in the air repeatedly to alert the campus to the theft. The jubilant OPA members drove their cars in a circle around the campus, honking their horns, while a few of their number painted "20-0" on nearby buildings to remind the Aggies of their football defeat to Rice that year.

The three cars drove off triumphantly, but the elation was short-lived. The headlights on both of the Fords went out, which resulted in one of the Fords crashing and the other one rear-ending it. The group attempted to continue with just the one Ford and the Hudson, but the roads were in bad shape from storms and the cars weren't up to it. The other Ford broke down, and the Hudson developed a leak in its gas tank. To make things worse, the late night train to Houston passed by the stranded party, every window filled with shouting Aggies. The OPA thought the late night train had left before their assault on the armory, but they had been mistaken, and now Navasota and the surrounding area would be crawling with searchers.

The Great Manhunt

The OPA hid the stricken cars in the woods and sent a team to get gas to refill the hastily-patched Hudson. The patch hadn't worked well, though, and the OPA conceded that they would have to risk going into a town to have the Hudson fixed. Sammy was hidden in the woods under guard while nine of the team took the stricken Hudson and Ford to Milliken to be repaired. Their worries about entering towns soon proved to be valid:

In the meantime the A. & M. cadets had been busy organizing their pursuit. Everything that had four wheels had been requisitioned and pressed into service. Eight hundred cadets were brought up to the firing line in automobiles, wagons, buggies and trains and were strung out between Bryan and Navosota in hope of catching the raiders. A detachment of cadets raided Milliken and found all of Rice's means of locomotion in the garage. They immediately took charge of the cars - nine Rice men, who had been left to delay pursuit as long as possible, were captured with the cars.

The captured OPA members managed to get word to Sammy's guards that they were being captured and that they should hide Sammy far from the roads. The remaining 8 lugged the 200 lb stuffed bird into the woods, but quickly realized that without any cars, there wasn't much hope of getting him all the way back to Houston intact. They found a secluded thicket and emptied Sammy of his sawdust stuffing. They drenched the sawdust in gasoline and lit it on fire to hide the evidence of their change of tactic.

The gasoline made the sawdust burn with very little smoke, but there were so many Aggies searching the woods that the fire itself was spotted. Sammy's skin was handed over to the four fastest runners, and the other four led the Aggie search party away in the wrong direction before being captured.

The remaining four were spotted by another Aggie search party, but the four owl-bearers (including Jimmie Waters, the watchman-distracting phenom) managed to outrun them and lose them in the woods. They continued to elude multiple Aggie patrols for much of the afternoon of the 30th, but they hadn't eaten or drank anything for almost a day, and were coming up on their physical limits quickly.

Luckily, the elusive four were stumbled upon by a pair of hunters from Navasota, who quickly realized that these four kids were the reason their town was being occupied.

After much parleying the hunters were told the true status of matters. The hunters told the men all about the location of the patrols into Navasota and said there were 300 men in Navasota. The idea of four men eluding 1,200 appealed to the hunters and they promised to sneak the men into Navasota.

The Aggies had questioned the hunters when they had left Navasota, and knew that they were planning to go duck hunting until 7 PM. The remaining four OPA members hid out and waited until the hunters had finished hunting, so as not to arouse the Aggies suspicion. At 7, the hunters came back for the Rice men. One of the OPA members hid in the car's toolbox, and another swapped clothes with one of the hunters so he could ride in the car, impersonating him. The car drove off to Navasota with the two OPA members, while the hunter who had swapped clothes led the other two closer to Navasota on foot to await pickup.

The car was stopped by an Aggie patrol as it entered Navasota, but the OPA passenger managed to pass himself off as the second hunter, and the toolbox wasn't searched. In fact, one of the Aggies hitched a ride back to Navasota with the pair by sitting on top of the toolbox that the other OPA member was hiding inside. Perhaps because of their Aggie hitchhiker, the car made it into Navasota without any issue and the two OPA members were smuggled into the hunter (who turned out to be a doctor)'s house. The car-less party's entrance to Navasota was significantly more difficult:

Three hundred cadets in Navasota made it impossible for the car to return for Payne and Waters and after waiting until a very late hour for the returning car, the second hunter hid them and went to town on foot. He was arrested and carried to town but was released on proving his identity. The cadets had complete control of all telephone and telegraph lines, had all roads blocked and were searching all trains that passed, so all means of communication and transportation were under vigilance.

Nevertheless, the second hunter called the doctor and asked: "Doctor, what shall I do with those capsules you gave me?"

"Have you got them with you?" On being told that he did not, the doctor replied: "I shall be right over and bring you some new ones right away."

The two hunting buddies roped a third friend into their plan. The doctor went back to his house to keep prying eyes away from the two fugitives they already had, and the other two hopped in a car and tore off at 50 miles an hour towards the two remaining OPA members, blasting past the Aggie blockades so quickly they mostly eluded pursuit. They picked up the two remaining OPA members and headed back to Navasota, where the two "capsules" were surreptitiously dropped off at the doctor's house before the third man drove off to lead the pursuers away.

At 3:30 a. m. Thursday morning the doctor was called to the telephone: "Doctor, my wife is very ill and needs immediate attention."

"My car is out of order, but if you can come for me in yours I shall be glad to come over."

The third man arrived in his car in thirty minutes and the four men ran out, got in the car and started to Houston. It was necessary to elude sentries all the way to Hempstead, but the trip was accomplished without any trouble and the four men with the skin arrived at the Institute at 7:30 a. m. Thursday morning.

But what about the 13 captured OPA members? The Aggies continued to imprison them in College Station until Rice president Edgar Odell Lovett petitioned A&M's president for their safe return. While the OPA members were generally treated well by their captors, Snowball the private investigator wasn't so lucky:

[Snowball was] paraded around campus, given a regulation army haircut, and turned over to the freshmen for a few days [8]. He was eventually taken to the station late at night, minus his clothes, and told to catch the train. It was said he wasted no time getting aboard.

Owlcatraz's Footnotes

[1] Yes, that's what a shootyhoops score looked like in 1917. It's a miracle the sport ever caught on. But I digress.

[2] Rice was opened in 1912; Rice did not have any on-campus sport facilities until the 20's, instead playing football and basketball in Houston parks.

[3] Remember that next time you taunt our mascot at a football game, Aggies. Sammy is your superior officer! Drop and give him 20!

[4] This is a reference to Rice's original name, "The William Marsh Rice Institute for the Advancement of Literature, Science, and Art." Rice amended the name to "William Marsh Rice University" in the early 60's. Apparently Texas was not the only school that Aggies intentionally misspelled to be insulting.

[5] When in doubt, claim that the Corps was hazing you. It will always be plausible.

[6] Waters happens to have been captain of the Rice track team at the time. You're about to find out why.

[7] Neither the Rice account nor the A&M account explains what these were used for. Smoke screens, maybe?

[8] I don't even want to know.


The Feb 15th, 1917 edition of the Rice Thresher (PDF warning)

"The Martyr Sammy", a ballad to commemorate the incident from the Thresher. Looks like it's to the tune of The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.

The same story, as told by A&M's historian in 2000: Page 1, Page 2, and Page 3

EPILOGUE: aggy goes after Bevo

Are you ready for the kicker for this story? From the front page of the very same edition of the Thresher:

Brand the Texas Longhorn With the Score of the 1915 A&M-Texas Football Game.

Incensed over their discomfiture at the hands of Rice in the owl affair, and unable to obtain revenge in Houston after several plans failed, a band of Aggies from College Station made a raid on the camp of their ancient enemy, the Longhorns, early Sunday morning, and branded the mascot of the Texans, a huge steer, with the 1915 football score of the game between the two institutions.

It had been planned by the Texas students to brand the score of the 1916 game, in which the Longhorns were victorious, on the steer on the occasion of the celebration of Independence Day, March 2. [1]

The fact that the raid was totally unexpected made the affair a success. However, it was a decided coup, and there is no question but there is much chagrin in Austin, and a corresponding degree of exultation at College Station.

We are glad that it was not Sammy II, our cherished owl, who was thus out-raged. But we are at a loss to know just what the Farmers could paint upon the glossy coat of our noble bird. [2]

[1] That's The Republic of Texas' independence from Mexico, for you foreigners.

[2] Presumably because Rice had won shutout victories over A&M in both 1915 and 1916.