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 more. 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.
One of the critical questions I asked when I started research was this: Is the jug that Michigan equipment manager Jon Falk has tucked away the same crock that was purchased by U-M student manager Tommy Roberts in Minneapolis back in 1903 and returned to Fielding Yost in 1909?
I knew a key to resolving this was determining what exactly occurred during the period the jug was missing in the 1930s, which I covered in Part I of this series. The net of that research is that the folks who would best know (people like Yost, Minnesota’s Oscar Munson) believed that the jug that was found in some bushes on East University Ave in 1933 was indeed the real deal.
This is a helpful data point but hardly answers the question of whether the jug survived all these years.
Was it Broken?
If the jug were replaced along the way, it would either have been the result of a theft (like that in the 1930s) or if it were broken and replaced. Falk told me of one frightening incident when it almost went the way of Humpty Dumpty. It seems after one Michigan victory in the mid-80s the jug was resting on a table in the equipment room. His daughter Katie, about four years old at the time, decided to climb up for a better view. “She jumped up on the table and it teeter-tottered,” Falk recalled with a smile. “We ran over and caught it before it fell off the table, and we still tease her about that.” That was the closest call on Falk’s watch.
The only potential major incident of damage involves an something I raised this in Part V of the series, when the Minnesota Daily in 1929 included this blurb, suggesting something happened when the jug traveled to Minnesota in 1924:
As I mentioned in that post, 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.
IF the jug needed to be fixed, Red Wing would likely be the place to do it or <gulp> replace it. But beyond finding no other evidence that this occurred, the story above claims the jug (with unspecified damage) was repaired and put back into service. Talking to folks that would know, depending the extent of the damage it’s possible to repair a jug, seal it and repaint it with little evidence (you wouldn’t have “glazed” it which implies a refiring which would have likely 86’d the jug). I found no visual evidence of damage on the existing crock.
In 1960 Oscar Munson, the Minnesota custodian who found the Michigan jug in 1903, told a reporter that Yost had indeed replaced the jug a some point along the way. The timing is unclear, but Munson claimed, “Yost came and got it after they won, but it got broke at Michigan and Yost bought another for $35 in Red Wing.”
In a 1979 special edition of Michigan Replay, Bo’s second wife Millie Schembechler discussed the memorabilia exhibit she helped assemble for the 100-year anniversary celebration of the football program. When discussing the jug, she said that today’s jug was not the original–that the 1903 crock was broken at some point.
Given the drama that went on in the 1930s and possibly in the 1920s, it is tough to what to believe. To solve the question of authenticity I moved beyond the news clippings and started snooping around.
I sought out the men that have protected the jug over the years: the equipment managers. Michigan’s Jon Falk has cared for the trophy for most of the past thirty-six years thanks to the Wolverines’ dominance on the field over this stretch. Falk was hired by Bo Schembechler in 1974 and probably knows more about the jug than anyone. Along with sharing a few great stories, Falk told me that his understanding is that the jug he’s got tucked away is indeed the original.
Bob Hurst began his tenure with the Michigan athletic department after returning from WWII. He worked directly with legendary equipment manager Henry ‘Hank’ Hatch, who performed the duty from 1919 to 1964. Hurst, who lives in Florida today, told me over the phone that he was always told this was the genuine jug.
On the other sideline, I spoke with longtime Gopher equipment manager Dick Mattson who served the school from 1963 to 2008. While Minnesota has only held the prize three times since 1968, he didn’t hesitate when I asked him about the authenticity. “It’s the original jug,” Mattson insisted. And we know that back in 1935 Oscar Munson (the man who found the jug in 1903) following the disappearance in the 1930s told reporters, “It’s the original jug, all right, and I’m the only one who knows.”
But other folks well-versed in the Michigan traditions expressed doubt. Bruce Madej, the longtime Wolverine sports media relations director told me, “We’re just not sure.”
Greg Kinney, curator of the athletic archives housed at Michigan’s terrific Bentley Library, has seen various photos and stories on the jug over the years, but wasn’t certain when I approach him with the question. Former Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr, who enjoyed retelling the origins of the jug rivalry before the Minnesota game each season, told me he always believed today’s trophy wasn’t the original jug.
Given the range of opinions from the experts I decided I needed to dig a bit deeper. Thankfully a request to inspect today’s jug was granted and I visited Jon Falk on campus in the spring of 2009. Falk shared some great stories of jug lore and I took a bunch of photos of the jug.
Using a graphics editor, I was able to compare my new photos with the white ‘Oscar’ jug (dating to the start of the rivalry) by applying a degree of transparency and overlaying the images. The match was nearly precise:
The ‘Oscar’ jug seemed slightly shorter (less than an inch) although the spout, handle and shoulder seemed to be dead on. I realized that photo comparisons are helpful but I’ve learned that perspectives can change drastically depending on the angle of the camera and of course with any distortion in the images (especially a photo over 100 years old).
Closer inspection of my photos showed that the worn-down handle and chips in the paint on revealed a pale tone similar to that of the Oscar jug:
The visual signs, at least to a novice, seemed to lean toward authenticity. If today’s jug were replaced at some point one would wonder the lengths someone would have to go through to swap the original jug with such a close visual match, seemingly made of the same material.
While the photo comparisons were compelling I needed an expert’s perspective.
A Master Potter’s Perspective
The Ann Arbor area is blessed with many artisans and after asking around I was given the name of Ryan Forrey, the Master Potter at The Henry Ford Museum/Greenfield Village.
Forrey holds a Bachelors of Fine Art from the New York State College of Ceramics and has worked at The Henry Ford since 1996. He has traveled the world studying his craft in other cultures and his pottery can be seen in collections from United States to China.
While inspecting several photos of the jug from over the years, Forrey paid particular attention to the handle, a distinctive element of handmade jugs. The handles are formed by pulling a piece of clay between the potter’s fingers before attaching it to the shoulder, and the shape and style of the handles between the photos seemed to match in Forrey’s opinion.
While the photos were helpful, alone they weren’t enough for Forrey to offer a firm opinion on the matter. Among other things, he wanted to confirm that the color on the sides of the jug wasn’t a glaze, which would suggest the jug was specifically made for the teams (and not painted over). He needed to see and hold the jug.
The Return Visit
Several weeks later Forrey and I were greeted by Jon Falk inside Schembechler Hall. The jug was waiting for us a top a table in the equipment room, released from its protective trunk.
Forrey quickly pointed out several critical features. First, the color on the trophy was indeed paint. Next, beneath the Minnesota logo ‘M’, he spotted a flaw or notch that seems to be evident on the ‘Oscar’ jug. It’s difficult to confirm through a 100+ year-old photograph, but the shape and location of the imperfection seem to match dead on.
Finally, Forrey pointed out a glaring feature of today’s jug, something that I didn’t notice on my first trip. The outline of an alternatively-styled Minnesota ‘M’ logo can be seen beneath the layers of paint:
Forrey had seen enough. From comparison of the photos, to the distinct match of the shape of the handle, to the notch that appeared to be on early photo of the crock, he was convinced that the jug we viewed was indeed the original.
The Old Gopher ‘M’
Days after our visit I became more and more intrigued about the pointy Minnesota ‘M’ Forrey spotted beneath the paint. After digging through articles and photos from the 1920s, I found two instances of an alternately styled logo. The program to the 1923 game held in Ann Arbor thankfully depicts a drawing on the cover featuring the Gopher side of the jug. Later I uncovered a photo from 1927 of Minnesota captain Herb Joesting cradling the crock, with the Gopher side facing the camera. Each image presents a pointy M that matches the style evident beneath the current coat of paint:
While I was fairly satisfied by Forrey’s conclusion, I was thrilled when I found the image of the program and Joesting that likely dates the jug at least to the early 1920s. Recapping the evidence:
- The Minnesota Daily note claiming it was repaired in Red Wing 1924.
- Oscar Munson’s claim in 1960 that the jug was swapped out for a replacement Red Wing jug at some point.
- Accounts from three living equipment managers, in particular Bob Hurst who served with Henry Hatch, who in turn served the university starting in 1919. Each told me they believe the jug is the original.
- Newspaper articles noting that Oscar Munson and Fielding Yost both validated that the jug that reappeared in 1933 was the authentic article.
- The nearly precise image overlay of today’s jug against the photo of the ‘Oscar jug’.
- The opinion of Ryan Forrey, Master Potter of the Henry Ford Museum, who told me, “I’d be shocked if this isn’t the original jug.”
- The flaw at the bottom of the Minnesota side that appears on the original jug.
- Finally, the outline of the older style Minnesota ‘M’ logo beneath the current paint that likely dates the jug at least the early 1920s.
After weighing the evidence I’m comfortable concluding that the trophy tucked away in Ann Arbor today dates at least to the mid-1920s. Is it the same Little Brown Jug that was left behind in 1903 and handed back to Fielding Yost over a century ago in 1909? In my opinion, the evidence points to a strong possibility that today’s jug is indeed the real deal – but I’m still digging.
Read the rest of the Brown Jug Lore Series