Letter of the Land

Letter of the Land

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Rich Elbert

History of the "M". 

One thing’s pretty certain this spring: If your story takes place in Bozeman, there’s a big, whitewashed letter decorating the mountains that serve as your backdrop. At least, if those mountains include the half-shaven southern face of Mount Baldy. 

Ever wonder about the story behind the 240-foot “M” that oversees your daily hurly-burly down here in the valley? That glimpse of white letter propelling you up or squashing your soul—especially on a first “steep side” hike after a beery winter—as you climb the rocky switchbacks leading to it? The College M, as it’s officially known (subtract “College” to avoid sounding like a Texan tourist) has been in the background of every Bozeman story for the past 98 years. And like all good things, it has a pretty good story of its own. So here’s the skinny on the M, with a primer on hillside letters for good measure.

The Backstory on Hillside Letters
Why did folks start building letters on mountainsides, anyway? To help early pilots airdropping mail over remote towns? To summon the rainmaking power of petroglyphs? To teach ET the alphabet? Actually, it turns out the whole thing got started by some kids trying to curb their intramural enthusiasm.

In 1905, students at UC Berkeley built the nation’s first letter. Their “Big C” went up as a symbol of armistice between the freshmen and sophomore classes, who had hitherto been kicking the crud out of each other in the name of class rivalry. Soon after, other schools caught the bug, and humongous letters began cropping up all across the west.

And hillside letters are definitely a curiosity of the American West. There are around 450 of these letters in the country, and almost all of them appear this side of the Mississippi. Outside the country, they’re practically unheard of. And the Treasure State has always been a trove of letters. Juniors at the University of Montana built the first one under the Big Sky in 1909, and today Montana rocks nearly 100 of them. It also turns out that “M” is the third most common letter in the country (behind “S” and “C,” for those keeping score). 

The Facts on Bozeman’s M
Imagine jumping in your car, heading down Rouse, and after driving a quick five miles, getting out at the trailhead to Bozeman’s most popular day hike. You stretch your legs, peek up at the sun, check your water, and then set out on another journey up the “A.” It’s just not the same, is it?

“A” (as in “Agriculture”) was the original athletic letter of Montana State College. Happily, students in 1912 decided “A” wouldn't do, and voted to adopt “M” as the official letter. The decision to build a monster, whitewashed monogram on the mountainside came later.

In 1915, sophomores at the college—probably ticked that their rivals at UM had beaten them to the punch in the letter-building business—petitioned the Forest Service for permission to build the giant “M” on the hillside. They said it would be an enduring monument to their loyalty and collegiate pride. (Historians believe this was code for “it will tell UM to eat shit.”) 

A permit was granted and a site selected. One October morning in 1915, the sophomores trekked to the mouth of Bridger Canyon on bicycles, horse-drawn buggies, and one newfangled gas-powered truck. After sweating all day laying down limestone rocks into the familiar serif shape we see today, the men got a treat when the ladies of the class came out for a frolicking picnic on the mountainside. The gang returned the following May with buckets of whitewash to finish the job.

If freshmen at MSU think they have it rough, they should consider what their predecessors had to endure. Until they’d been packed into cattle trucks and hauled up the mountain to repaint the letter each year, incoming freshmen were barred from walking on campus lawns, dating, or even growing mustaches! The hazing faded away with the influx of no-nonsense vets entering the college in the late 1940s, but it wasn’t until 1967 that an official day was designated for the job, a Saturday each fall ever since known as “M Day.”

Sara McCallum, a recent MSU grad, sums up most Bozemanites’ feelings on the letter: “I love to hike the M. It’s a nice little challenge, and the view at the top is amazing. The pictures I’ve taken of the valley in the morning fog, or sparkling in the evening are ones I’ll always remember Bozeman by.” The ladies and gentlemen of the class of 1918 would be proud.

So that’s the story of our letter on the mountain. If nothing else, you’ve got some fresh material for your next barstool round of “Things I learned in Outside Bozeman.”

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