May Day at Bluffton University
For those alumni who have grown to love Bluffton's May Day tradition for more than a century, a quote from the May 1915 issue of The Witmarsum might best sum up the tradition:
May Day festivals and maypole dances are customs with rich history. According to that same issue of the Witmarsum, "The question comes to us, Whence came such a custom? For answer to this, we must go back to the Druids in England. It was their custom to light bonfires on the hills on May Day to welcome the spring. On the eve of the day the young men of each village, both in England and on the continent went to the woods and cut a May pole, which was decorated and set up it some open place and the following day all the people danced about it." Wikipedia authors cite many roots of the tradition, including Classical Roman, Gaelic, Germanic, and Catholic connections. For a time, Bluffton shared in the May Basket tradition connected to May 1, a day which is also observed as "May Day" and relates to international labor and work concerns.
The May Day tradition at Bluffton University dates back to Tuesday, May 24, 1910, when a chatauqua-style public assembly was held on the grounds of Central Mennonite College. Invited speakers addressed the assembled crowd on the topic of education; they included:
“The present trend in education and what people ought to do to stimulate it” by Honorable John W. Zeller, Commissioner of Schools
“Culture and Character” by Professor John Davison, Superintendent of the Lima Schools
“The Future of the Rural Schools” by Professor James E Begg, Superintendent of the Columbus Grove Schools
The Bluffton Citizens Band entertained those in attendance, and a tennis tournament was held. Central Mennonite College's Lowell Literary Society held a meeting.
[The College Record 9:5 (May 1910), p.1]
The following year, a second, similar May Day event was held on Tuesday, May 23, 1911, with a theme of agricultural education. Speeches included: “The Relation of the School to the Farm” by Mr. A.B. Graham, Superintendent of Agricultural Extension of the Ohio State University; “The Value of Beautifying the County Home” by Mr. Swan, Swan Floral Company, Lima, Ohio; “The Mission of the Country Church for Better Country Life” by Rev. W.S. Settlage; and “Business Methods for the Farm” by Mr. N.W. Cunningham.
The Bluffton Citizens Band and the College Quartet provided music for the event.
[The College Record 10:5 (May 1911), p.1]
Three years passed before the college instituted the more familiar May Day tradition as we would recognize it today, with a maypole dance, the crowning of royalty, and theatrical entertainment. Miss Viola Welty was crowned the first May Day Queen during a ceremony on Friday, May 29, 1914, on the College Hall lawn. The June 1914 issue of The Witmarsum reported,
Reporting in the May 1915 issue of The Witmarsum suggests that the May Day events from 1914 were held, in part, to provide fundraising for the YMCA and YWCA organizations so that they could send representatives to the annual national conference in Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania.
No evidence has been found to explain why this type of celebration was chosen, though these types of celebrations were popular in the early part of the 20th century. The Bluffton University Archives staff continues to search for the answer to this question.
Monday, May 24, 1915, brought the return of the May Day celebration. The June 1915 issue of The Witmarsum reported on the day's success:
Moving forward, the May Day celebration became a steadfast part of Bluffton's set of traditions. In 1917, the event was moved to Commencement weekend to be a part of the festivities of the close of the academic year. In 2013, for the 100th performance of the maypole dance, a "legacy" pair of maypole dancers was added to the maypole dance. Because of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic and the cancelation of on-campus events, 2020 will mark the first year in which the maypole ribbons will not be wound.
From the Bluffton University May Day website:
Carrie Phillips, Archives & Special Collections Librarian
1 May 2020