Oct. 21, 1905: There are 45 states in the U.S., its President is former “Rough Rider” Teddy Roosevelt, and just two weeks earlier the Wright Flyer III had managed to stay in the air for a record-breaking 39 minutes.
And amidst all of this, the Illinois Fighting Illini under second-year head coach Fred Lowenthal prepare to kick off Western Conference play at home against the Purdue Boilermakers. The Illini entered the game with a perfect 4-0 record, after defeating the St. Louis Billikens the week before by a score of 12-6.
Purdue also entered the game undefeated, having earned a victory over the Wabash College Little Giants the previous week. In a scheduling quirk that was somewhat common in the early 20th century, Purdue actually opened its 1905 season with a 33-0 home win over Chicago’s Wendell Phillips High School, which is still a powerhouse Illinois high school football program to this day.
The Boilermakers and their fans were clearly anxious to earn a victory in Champaign. This is hardly surprising, as Illinois had won the previous five matchups between the two rivals dating back to 1900, and the Illini outscored the Boilermakers 122-22 in that time span.
According to various sources, an intrepid group of Purdue fans brought an actual cannon to Champaign from West Lafayette, and the fans intended to fire it off after the Boilermakers won the game. Although this situation certainly sounds absurd, especially by the standards of our era, it’s important to keep in mind that Memorial Stadium wouldn’t be completed for another 19 years at this point. Instead, the Illini were playing at Illinois Field, which was at the southeast corner of University Avenue and Wright Street where the Beckman Institute is located today.
Based on a few 1919 images from Illinois Athletics website, the grounds at Illinois Field were essentially comparable to a large modern high school football field, and appear to have been surrounded by trees in a few different directions. I’m sure it would’ve taken some creativity and planning, but it’s certainly possible that the Purdue fans actually were able to hide the cannon in a nearby ditch until the final whistle blew.
But that was not to be, as an Illinois student by the name of Quincy Hall found the cannon and took possession of it with a group of his fraternity brothers before the Purdue fans could fire it after the Boilers’ 29-0 road victory. Hall apparently kept the cannon until 1943, when he donated it to the two schools for use as a rivalry trophy, and the rest has been history.
This whole story leaves quite a few unanswered questions — What led Hall to find the cannon in the first place? Was it unattended or was there something of a dust-up between the Illini and Purdue fans when he found it? — but the details have been lost to time as far as I can tell. What matters these days is that the Illini and Boilermakers have a rich history and storied rivalry that stretches all the way back to 1890, and that background adds so much meaning to each new installment in the long-running series.
Coincidentally, the all-time record between Purdue and Illinois is currently tied at 45-45-6, and this Saturday’s game (the 97th installment) is the rubber match of a 131-year series. With any luck, Bret Bielema will have better fortunes leading the Illini than Fred Lowenthal did way back when the legend of the Purdue Cannon was born.