MacArthur “genius” and University of Texas at Austin professor David Hillis, recently profiled by the New York Times, has spent over a decade researching the evolutionary history of the Texas longhorn.
Hillis’ investigation into Texas’ famed animal namesake inspired us to take a few moments to research the origins of other famous University of Texas at Austin icons.
Note: This information was compiled from combing the websites of the University of Texas System and the Texas State Historical Association, not from research done as a MacArthur genius.
Santa Rita No. 1
The Santa Rita is both the name of the university’s highest award from the University Board of Regents and the oil well that made the University of Texas what it is today. The Santa Rita No. 1 rig, named after the patron saint of the impossible, was famously first spudded hours before an oil exploration’s permit on university-owned lands in West Texas was set to expire in 1921. Two years later on May 28, 1923, the oil well spurted into life, “sprayed oil over the top of the derrick, and covered a 250-yard area around the site.” Royalty payments from oil wells on university lands in West Texas like Santa Rita would play a major role in the development of the university’s endowment. The Texas State Historical Association moved the rig from its original site to its place on campus in 1940.
Big Bertha wasn’t always so adored. The drum was originally used as the big bass drum of the University of Chicago’s football team. After the university ended the varsity football program in 1939, it is said the drum was stored under the school stadium and as a result, contaminated by the atomic bomb research conducted there in the 1940s. The drum’s life took a turn for the better in 1955 when a former Longhorn Band director purchased Bertha for $1 and set about restoring and decontaminating the drum. The 10-foot-high, 93-year-old drum, once considered the largest in the world, became what it remains today, the “Sweetheart of the Longhorn Band,” in 1955.
There are many stories as to where the name “Bevo” comes from, from an Aggie prank to a brand-recognition attempt for an early Annheuser-Busch beverage. The only story that can be verified (via a 100-year-old edition of the Alcalde) is the story of a 1916 football game with Texas A&M when a “half-starved and frightened longhorn” was dragged onto the field during halftime and presented as the university first mascot. A December 2016 edition of the Alcalde bore the following words about the longhorn: “His name is Bevo. Long may he reign.”
Everyone’s favorite campus turtle ponds were built between 1934 and 1939. Overseen by the College of Natural Sciences, the ponds hold a variety of turtle species, some of which are up to 30 and 40 years old. The ponds along with the adjacent garden were dedicated to the victims of the 1966 Tower shootings in 1999.
Legend has it that you will have good luck if you see the elusive albino squirrel before a major test. However the squirrel, which has its own Twitter and preservation society, is thought by Hillis to actually be merely a color variant of the white fox squirrel.
The 307-foot tower was originally built to be the university’s library in the 1930s. It now houses a number of administrative offices and is the center of one of the university’s most visible traditions. Texas law prohibits the construction of any building that might block the view from the Tower to the Capitol downtown.
Smokey the Cannon
The cannon that marks each and every time the Longhorns make a touchdown was originally built in 1953 as an answer to Oklahoma’s shotgun blasts at football games. Today’s Smokey, Smokey III, built in 1988 out of an oak tree trunk, weighs 1,200 pounds and is under the care of the Texas Cowboys, a UT student service organization.
Note: A previous version of this article identified the former Longhorn Band director credited with buying Big Bertha as a Longhorn Band member.
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