When Carl Van Ness wheeled in a cart of the University of Florida’s oldest
archives into a room of George A. Smathers Library, the 13 high school journalists within were interested, but doubtful they’d be able to touch them.
“You can put on the freshman caps and take selfies, if you’d like,” Van Ness
On Friday, Van Ness, UF’s historian, talked to students attending the college’s Summer Institute about his work. He’s a detective, but he doesn’t hold a magnifying glass. He solves mysteries, but they’re not about murder.
“As a historian or archivist, you’ll rarely find the proverbial smoking gun.
You’ll find clues,” he said. “It’s up to you to interpret them.”
In the case of the origin of UF’s mascot, he has between five to seven leads, depending on how they are analyzed. The first one recorded is from 1928. Roy Corbett, the captain of the football team from 1906-1907, wrote to UF’s school paper to congratulate the team on a great season — their only loss was by one point to Tennessee. He also said that Neal “Bo Gator” Storter, the captain of the 1911 football team, gave the Gators their name.
Storter himself said that wasn’t the case. He insisted that the name started with a headline in the Macon Telegraph just before the game against the Mercer Bears. It read, “Macon to be invaded by alligators from Florida.”
The simplest of these origins stories comes from the university’s business
manager at the time, Klein Graham. He said the name was drawn from the existence of alligators in Lake Alice on campus, which are still there today.
The final story was actually born in Charlottesville, Virginia, by a man
named Phillip Miller who had owned the first grocery store in Gainesville since 1875. He was looking to benefit from UF’s opening in Gainesville and decided to add college pennants to his inventory.
While visiting his son, Austin, who went to the University of Virginia’s Law
School in 1907, he stopped by a local manufacturer of college regalia to have the pennants made. Miller says the owner asked which mascot he wanted on them. The alligator was his answer.
The pennants went on sale in 1908, but there are no photos on record showing Miller’s gator pennants.
“Each of these stories are based on memories, and aren’t necessarily the most accurate,” Van Ness said. “The Miller story used to be the ‘official’ story just by virtue of repetition.”
However, this story could account for another important aspect of UF
culture: the orange and blue.
Van Ness’ theory is that the store owner may have asked Miller what colors he wanted on the pennants instead of what mascot. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t the only possible explanation.
An unknown Gainesville resident there during the time of UF’s opening said that the colors are rooted in the Buckman Act passed in 1905.
The Buckman Act: law written by Henry Holland Buckman that divided Florida’s higher education into three colleges segregated by race and gender.
She said that the orange was pulled from East Florida Seminary’s colors, orange and black, and the blue from Florida Agricultural College, the state’s original land grant school, whose second color at that time is unknown.
UF’s colors are a huge source of school pride, especially at sporting events.
The third and final UF culture controversy Van Ness spoke about is the tune heard coming from Ben Hill Griffin stadium at the end of the third quarter.
Between the third and fourth quarters of home UF football games, students lock arms, sway and sing “We Are the Boys from Old Florida” in unison. Bobby Swanson, a UF student, was the accepted song writer for a while until others stepped forward.
All students were required to take basic military training then, and
joining a military band was a common way to avoid combat. This is exactly what Swanson did, as well as John Icenhour, who also claimed to have written the song.
“Turns out, neither of them wrote it,” Van Ness said.
Both the song’s tune and lyrics were popular at the time, due to military
bands like the one Icenhour and Swanson were in. These bands would travel across the country, spreading numbers they’d either written or learned. This is why melodies and lyrics similar to “We Are the Boys” are heard from schools in Chicago, Nebraska, Madison, Wisconsin, Toledo, Ohio and beyond.
Van Ness said he thinks the tune originated in Toledo.
But he doesn’t know for sure.
Van Ness holds the honorary title of University Historian. He spends each day hunting down these stories, but 99 percent of his findings remain theoretical.
So why does he do it?
“Because it’s fun.”