Turning back the clock on tailgating

Pre-game festivities date back to the 1860s
Turning back the clock on tailgating
A group of Madison residents (L-R) Mrs. Arthur Freeman, JoAnn Brandt, Scott Freeman and Mrs. Mary Engler set up their own ‘refreshment headquarters' on the tailgate of their car preceding a Green Bay Packers game at Milwaukee County Stadium.

British actress Emma Watson confessed, “I don’t know anything about American history or presidents … I don’t know what tailgating is!” Throughout time, food and drink have usually been included when people get together, including at sporting events. In England, cricket matches are halted for lunch and tea. European soccer hooligans are well known for their prematch boozing. In the U.S., however, the parties that have become a prerequisite to watching college and professional football are as uniquely American as the game itself.

The concept of tailgating–gathering to eat and drink before cheering on the team–actually goes back to the Civil War and the Battle of Bull Run in 1861. A crowd of Washington civilians, armed with overflowing picnic hampers, traveled via carriage and buggy to Manassas, Virginia. The plan was to witness what they mistakenly thought would be the end of the Southern rebellion.

The now-popular practice of eating and drinking before a sporting event dates to the very first football contest in 1869 when Princeton played Rutgers in New Brunswick, New Jersey. There were only about 100 spectators, but those rooting for Rutgers seemingly became fired up with more than just school spirit, since they chased the losing Princeton team out of town.

A much-repeated claim is that “Packer backers” coined the term tailgating. As the story goes, it became a common practice to drive to old Green Bay City Stadium in a pickup, then watch the game while dining alfresco on the truck bed. Unfortunately, Packers historian Cliff Christl doesn’t believe the tale is true since there isn’t any photographic evidence to support it.

Whatever their means of transport, game-goers have always brought along snacks to share with family and friends. Today, the grill and cooler have replaced the old wicker picnic basket–beer and brats are sure to be on the menu in Wisconsin. Needless to say, a charcoal fire is an added amenity at Lambeau Field when fall sometimes resembles the dead of winter.

Tailgating has undeniably become a much-anticipated part of football Saturdays here in Madison. Regent Street transforms into a sea of red on game day. Sports bars turn into beer gardens and tailgating troupes set up camp on nearly every block surrounding Camp Randall, a stadium built on a Civil War military training ground. Palmer “Butch” Strickler might be to thank for teaching us how to party with his Bologna Bash, an annual tradition preceding the UW spring football game that lasted 29 years and involved beers, brats and raising funds for the UW Department of Athletics. And in good Wisconsin fashion, the pre-party isn’t the only party. After the final second expires on the scoreboard, welcome to the “Fifth Quarter,” which often extends past the postgame performance courtesy of the UW marching band.

This combination of fall, football and tailgating is a uniquely American experience. For some the pregame revelry is but a prelude to the main event. For others, like myself, it’s the real draw, a time when camaraderie trumps competition and a good time is had by all. Nothing beats a tailgate, especially in Wisconsin.