Wisconsin Magazine of History

A Badger in Full

MANY STUDENTS HAVE WALKED THE HALLS AND PATHWAYS of the University of Wisconsin over the years, but perhaps none has been as influential—or as intriguing—as John Muir. Muir studied at the university from 1861 to 1863, and shortly after his death in 1914 he was hailed by the UW Board owf Regents as “perhaps the greatest of the alumni of this University.”1 But what kind of student was Muir, and how does he compare to students of today? Did he walk the Lakeshore Path, swim in Lake Mendota, or spend time at Camp Randall? What did his dorm room look like? What were his relationships with professors? Did he leave the university with the same love for it that characterizes Badger alumni today? Though times have certainly changed, the parallels between John Muir and modern students are both striking and surprising.

John Muir was born in Dunbar, Scotland, on April 21, 1838.

His father was a strict disciplinarian but a poor businessman, and in 1849 he made a new start by taking his eldest son, John, and two other children with him to Wisconsin (leaving a wife and four other children behind). According to Muir’s autobiography, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, the night before they left, Daniel Muir said to his undoubtedly surprised children, “Bairns, you needna learn your lessons the nicht, for we’re gan to America the morn!”2 The Muirs made their homestead near Portage, where they set to work trying to tame the glacier-scarred landscape. Ten years of hard work followed.

John Muir first came to Madison in the late summer of 1860, traveling via the new railroad line from Pardeeville, near the second Muir homestead at Hickory Hill Farm, to Madison. Muir was a mechanical prodigy and arrived carrying a collection of wood pieces, clock parts, and mechanical gears carved, for the most part, from pine and shagbark hickory. The clever Muir assembled this collection into a variety of clocks and contraptions that he entered in the Tenth Annual State Agricultural Fair, held at the site that would in a few short years become Camp Randall. The featured Muir on the front page of its September 25, 1860, edition under the title “An Ingenious Whittler” and predicted that “few articles will attract as much attention as these products of Mr. Muir’s ingenuity.” The exclaimed that Muir’s inventions were “surprising, and could only have been executed by genuine genius.” University of Wisconsin student John G. Taylor later recalled that Muir’s inventions were “the attraction of the Fair. I can even now see the crowd wending its way to see the wonderful creations of the Scotch boy.” The judges were so impressed that they awarded Muir a cash prize of fifteen dollars. In recommending the prize to Muir, the committee reported, “The clocks presented by J. Muir exhibited great ingenuity. The Committee regard him as a genius in the best sense, and think the state should feel a pride in encouraging him.”

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