Paint The 'M': A History of A Socorro Landmark
This article is a condensed version of Robert Eveleth's historical research about the 'M' atop Socorro Peak. The complete article will be on the Tech webiste soon.
“The M…poised high above all it surveys…noting every event that takes place from Registration until Commencement, 49ers, victories, defeats, exams, Christmas Holidays…it ever remains as a symbol of student activities and the high standards of the engineering profession”
– Porphyry, Golden Anniversary Edition, 1939
By Robert W. Eveleth
New Mexico’s centennial (January 6, 2012) is just around the corner and I suspect, even predict, it will be a time when many of our citizens re-examine the events of 100 years ago in an effort to more fully appreciate what, who, and where we are today. Many critical events occurred in Socorro’s history at that time but the details are, sadly, all but lost to us. Since the “M” has been in the news of late now seems to be an excellent time to bring its early history into the light of day and relate a few anecdotal stories along the way.
Many have certainly heard the old cliché “what’s in a name?” but for our purposes it might be more appropriate to ask “what’s in a letter?” Plenty, as it turns out, especially if that letter happens to be an “M” and that “M” happens to decorate the east-facing slope of
The author, center, broom in hand, along with classmates Delbert Fraissinet and Rodger Gilbert, tries to do three full-time jobs simultaneously: 1) remain awake long enough to paint the “M,” 2) stay within the guide lines laid out for the new coat of whitewash, and 3) enjoy the scenery as much as possible through the blood-shot haze of the previous night’s bacchanal.
I became closely acquainted with that ‘M’ for the first time nearly 50 years ago and I am one of a rare group of NMIMT students – no more than 10 that year – who arrived in Socorro in September 1963 over the rails of the
St. Pat’s and the “M”
“Initiation” for the newly arrived freshman took place during the annual spring academic holiday known as St. Patrick’s Day and “M” Day had been associated with that event since 1958. For me, that day began at 5 a.m. Saturday March 14, 1964, when I and my freshman colleagues were rounded up to carry a “flagpole”(actually a telephone pole made from a giant sequoia) from the
The astute reader is probably wondering “how could the New Mexico School of Mines/Institute of Mining and Technology, in a mere 50 years, lose the history of its oldest and most visible icon?” Simply stated all obvious first-hand accounts have not survived the ravages of time.
M Day = Horace Lyons Day
“The NMSM Class of 1914 surveyed and built the M on
A New Mexico School of Mines survey crew assembles for work near the Torrance Mine at the base of
Horace T. Lyons enrolled as a freshman at the New Mexico School of Mines in 1908 before
A Fine Collection of “M’s”
Socorro’s “M” did not require any kind of rock facing but it is reasonable to assume a similar amount of time – 2 to 3 months – was required to complete the task from start to finish. The final touch occurred when Maloit and crew enlisted the help of the freshman to apply the first coat of whitewash. I interviewed Frank Maloit’s son Robert and he unhesitatingly stated that his father surveyed the “M” – drum roll please – in the fall of 1911. Herewith the “traditional date of 1910” can be put to rest since Maloit did not enroll until 1911.
“M” day through the years. Collecting snow, 1945 (left) and Bill Fitch and students melting snow and mixing whitewash, 1930.
Maloit’s “fall-1911” time-frame is confirmed by handwritten notes of James Avery Smith, who indicated that the “M” was “laid out with a Brunton compass and a steel tape between 1911 and 1912 and he provided two burros to haul the first loads of lime and H20 in 1912.” This was exactly when the lime would have been needed if the survey was initiated late in 1911 and a necessary ingredient (snow) would likely been available to augment what little water was hauled by the burros. Note too that the time span of November 1911 to January 1912 conforms to that required to complete Montana Tech’s “M.”
The “M” received its first coat of whitewash circa 1912. Given the very nature of the water-born “paint” it quickly became apparent that regular maintenance would be required.
According to the 1926-27 Porphyry, “A tradition established in 1919 commands us to go forth to the Mountain at least once every school year and give the huge “M” its annual coat of slaked lime. The school schedule has a day set aside for this purpose but the actual painting is seldom done on the official date. Snowfall in Socorro is thin and erratic and we must have snow. Nearly three thousand feet in vertical distance and five miles by the long, long trail … is a bit too much even for husky miners to pack the necessary water.”
A 1920s postcard view of
According to Chieftain archives, students relied upon burros to haul lime and water through 1921. In 1922, the annual event was planned to coincide with the first snowfall, so students could melted snow to make the whitewash. That tradition held for 15 years.
Franklin T. “Casey” Davis,
Packing water up the mountain must have once again proven “a bit too much even for husky miners” and “M” Day resumed its dependence, at least in part, upon snow fall in 1945. During this era, a contest evolved in which the first person to arrive at the summit with their sack of lime is awarded a cash prize of $10. The record for getting a sack of lime to the summit solo and in the shortest time might go to Vladimir Ispolatov (PhD Geochem’01) who allegedly started running at the base and didn’t stop until topping the peak – a good half hour before anyone was expecting him!
Miners and “Kalso-miners”
A freshman “punk” wearily hoofs his way up the Peak back in the days when an attempt was made to pack both lime and water to the “M” in this 1948 cartoon by Mona Byers.
Whitewashing, or kalsomining, the “M” has never been an easy job or a simple undertaking. Dr. Abeyta said “it about killed some of [the freshmen].” Constantly seeking ways and means to simplify the task, the 1949 students tried “spraying” the M with the old-style pressurized insecticide canisters. The idea apparently proved unsuccessful and was abandoned, according to the 1949 Porphyry.
This narrative written by Robert Harcus in 1945 is illuminating: “For the past several days we’ve really had the snowfall. Six inches covered the countryside one day and on the next we finally held “M” Day. It was quite a time as we have about 40 freshmen now. … We started out hiking the three miles across the snow covered mesa, through waist high sage toward the base of
“The trees and bushes were heavily laden with their snow burden and even these three foot shrubs seemed to look down upon us as we crawled by on our hands and knees. The going was very rough as on the steep slopes we spent most of our time slipping and sliding backward. It was a very hot climb and I was forced to carry my fur coat under my arm as excess baggage, however when we finally reached the summit and sat down to eat our lunches we almost froze in the icy gale which whistled around us. After lunch we set up a snow [melting] unit consisting of a large can and a fire. After all of the freshmen reached the top we built the fire [and] got all of the 500 pounds of lime ready to mix into whitewash. Then upon the command ‘Snow!’ they formed a snow brigade, directing the snow into the large can. In other cans they mixed the whitewash taking care to slop it all over everybody, and these [cans] were carried to points on the ‘M’ where the painters armed with brooms painted the snow covered boulders with the hot lime.
“We spent about three hours on the summit and then after the job was done we sent a boulder thundering down through the snow to clear a trail for us…We left a sack burning in a can of coal oil as a beacon on the top of the mountain and it burned far into the night, appearing only as a mere twinkle from a great distance.”
“After the ordeal few if any still believed the “M” was a symbol for Mines.”
To give the lines of the “M” sharp definition, the freshmen carefully painted the edges with used engine oil. All these cosmetics are applied vigorously with brooms.
Memorable Events – Monumental Pranks
The M has a long history of nighttime illumination. I clearly recall the first time – using modern wiring and incandescent lights – occurred during 49ers in 1968. But was that the first? Not by a long shot. In fact the “M” was first illuminated much farther back in time – and not in a manner one might think – than the oldest of old-timers recently interviewed could recall. The New Mexico School of Mines went all out for its Golden (50th) Anniversary commencement exercises May 19, 1939. Special effects weighed heavily on the minds of the planners and the school set up an aircraft spotlight on campus whose brilliant beam penetrated the pitch-blackness of the
The antics and pranks pulled by the students over the years, if gathered in a single compilation, would be sufficient to fill a small book. Socorro’s “M” has never been successfully molested due primarily to its remoteness and inaccessibility although it came close on one occasion and not by pranksters from another university. It seems that a “wayward” group of Mines’ students paused for a rest about 400 yards below the M. One of the group suddenly exclaimed “Say, we’ve the lime and water. Let’s paint our own little “M” right here.” Most fortunately for the sake of tradition a comely co-ed happened by at the critical moment “and shamed them from making the sacrilegious reproduction” (Gold Pan, 10/22/1954, p 6).
In 1948 the Miners did it again: According to the 1948 Porphyry, “During State Fair Week and for the second time within a year, the people of Albuquerque awoke one morning to view the enigma of an “M” occupying the position where the University “U” normally graces one of the foothills east of the city. … Old timers … were heard to mumble petulantly something about ‘inmates breaking out of that Socorro asylum again’.”
M for all Ages
Near the close of the 2011 year the Socorro “M” will be 100 years of age and it is incumbent upon us, the successors-in-fact to the
We again should acknowledge a debt of gratitude not only to the NMSM Classes of 1913-14 – Lyons, Smith, Abeyta, O’Boyle, Campredon, and especially Frank Maloit – for bequeathing us with this gift for the ages but also to the university administration for doing the best it can in the face of waning enthusiasm. Without their perseverance and dedication to the task, we might not have that “M’ on
This is certainly a step in the right direction because, denied annual maintenance, both the appearance and brilliance of the letter has suffered. Moreover the re-association with 49ers is an indication to every entering freshman that they are expected (though not required) to participate in “M” Day. This goes a long way toward instilling a sense of school spirit and loyalty to the alma mater: the “M” is now a part of them and vice versa.
The use of slaked lime for painting was discontinued because it was deemed too toxic. Powdered limestone or marble is used today but it is an inferior substitute and cannot bond with the substrate. When whitewash reacts with CO2 in the atmosphere it forms a hard, durable coating of calcium carbonate. We are engineers, geologists, and scientists who will likely work with substances much more dangerous than calcium hydroxide and Portland cement throughout our careers. The “toxicity” problem can be overcome with the use of gloves and goggles and hopefully the use of whitewash can be reconsidered.
Bob Eveleth is a New Mexico Tech graduate and a senior geologist at the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources.