Berkeley History

Back to school circa 1886: A young man’s reflection

The Bancroft Library recently received a donation of letters written by Elmer R. Drew, who attended the then-young UC Berkeley in the mid-1880s. As Tom Leonard, the University Librarian, was perusing them, he was struck by how different Berkeley was. The hills weren’t built up, cows grazed in fields around town, and hunting in the creeks and woods was commonplace. Yet the teenage student agonized over the same things today’s students worry about: the work load, competition, and of course, football.

By Tom Leonard

“There are so many improvements going on at Berkeley now, that we hardly know the place,” an undergraduate wrote. Roads are torn up, buildings changed to fit larger classes. The year is 1886.  This new take on “back to school” is in a small white box of letters from Elmer R. Drew, recently discovered by his relatives. This is a teenager’s view of a campus that was itself a teenager. Mike Drew (Elmer’s grandson) and Mary Drew of Los Altos have given this California snapshot to the Bancroft Library.

Elmer R. Drew, UC Berkeley Class of 1888. Photo: Courtesy of The Bancroft Library

The letters show the California we have lost. Drew camped in Hetch Hetchy when it was a fertile valley. He listened to an army officer who was fresh from chasing Apaches. Elmer marched with a flaming torch to inspire his classmates to support the GOP. This is a pastoral East Bay, when you cut the grass, you can give the hay to the cow next door. Drew owned opera glasses and sang.  He owned guns and used them, frequently. Many squirrels and birds meet their ends in these letters.

“Haven’t had a chance to warm up the gun yet,” Drew wrote, “but may go out some Saturday afternoon after quail in the hills. A large flock (of geese) somehow strayed over Berkeley last Saturday and the familiar honk made me hungry.”

The competition of Berkeley was bracing, when it was not exhausting, for Elmer Drew. “This is a place where one must work to succeed. I have . . . all solid work in recitations and in reading at the library, except perhaps half an hour of exercise at the gymnasium, which, by the way is a fine place.”

Drew watched classmates fall behind.  “Two years of play cannot be made up in one year’s work,” he wrote. Drew himself was ready for a good time. “Picnics are in full blast,” he noted.  “All is well except that my throat has not yet entirely recovered from Saturday’s football.” Like Berkeley students today, he deployed his time with care (he was, appropriately, a student of mechanics).  University of California customs allowed him slack. When a Regent died, for example, classes were called off.

Drew stayed on at Berkeley after graduation to work in Joseph LeConte’s physics lab. The spectacle of Berkeley continued to catch his eye: “The boys celebrated Halloween with . . . a pair of cart-wheels on the top of the gym and a goat in the Recorder’s office.” Elmer himself was headed for a career that would keep him in touch with spirited undergraduates and wide open spaces. He became a professor of physics at Stanford.

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