This season marks the 100th anniversary of when Michigan and Minnesota first played for the Little Brown Jug. Early this year I started on a quest to find out everything about the old trophy. I reviewed the legends, interviewed writers, equipment managers, coaches and pored through newspapers, photos and other accounts on the history. I even held the 5 gallon crock in my hands on a couple different occasions to get a good look. Go here for the previous posts in the series.
As discussed earlier in this series, the accepted ‘story’ of the origins of the Little Brown Jug rivalry has twisted and turned a bit over the years. For the first few decades of the series it was assumed by most that Fielding Yost toted the water vessel with the team from Ann Arbor in 1903. It wasn’t until the 1950s (first in an article for The Michigan Alumnus in 1955, I believe) that Tommy Roberts, the student manager on the squad, clarified this detail:
The Jug was not brought from Ann Arbor as all the accounts have it, but was purchased in a little variety store in Minneapolis at a cost of just thirty cents.
Before ending his tale with a poem, Roberts emphatically explains why he’s a valid source for these claims:
I CAN STATE THESE FACTS WITH SOME DEGREE OF ACCURACY, BECAUSE I WAS THAT STUDENT MANAGER.
He was indeed:
Roberts, from 1903 team photo, U-M Bentley Historical Library
After this point it’s pretty much been accepted Michigan bought the jug in Minneapolis, although some have questioned the purchase price (30 cents vs. 35 cents).
I spoke with Ryan Forrey, the master potter at The Henry Ford Museum/Greenfield Village, about accepted history of the jug. After merely looking over a few photos he shared a few interesting details about the crock’s roots.
“There wasn’t a producer of something like this in Michigan at that time,” Forrey explained. “Michigan was more suited for brick making.” He told me Minnesota, Ohio (East Liverpool) and possibly Illinois would have had potters making a product such as the jug.
Further, Forrey noted that the straight sides of the Jug help determine when it was made. “Looking at the straight-sided shape of the jug tells us a time period. They started making more straight sided jugs later in history, Civil War-era, 1860-on. That way they were able to in crates and storage easier. Before that and back to the 1700s, they were rounded, bulbous jugs.”
He believes the jug was probably made in Red Wing, Minnesota, “between 1890 and the turn of the century.”
Red Wing was (and still is, I guess) renown for its stoneware pottery and is about 90 minutes south east of Minneapolis. Given the proximity it’s almost certain that the jug that Tommy Roberts purchased in 1903 was handmade by a potter from Red Wing.
Back to Red Wing?
The jug might have even returned to Red Wing at one point in the 1920s for repairs. Check out this blurb in the November 16, 1929 Minnesota Daily:
Side note: I tried to dig into this a little further but I wasn’t able to validate this alleged damage in any of the papers in 1924. Game accounts from the 1924 game do not mention any sign of a broken or dinged jug and in fact, some written game summaries note that the jug was on display on the sideline during the ‘24 game, apparently in good health.
You can find Red Wing jugs on eBay these days, and according to some sellers, folks in the Red Wing (they had a collection of stoneware-producing shops) produced replicas of the LBJ in the 1920s. BTW – that pint size replica on the right sells for well over $100 and has became quite the collector’s item:
Left, a beehive 5 gallon Red Wing jug, right a souvenir very Little BJ celebrating the rivalry
More next week.