Clemson, the State Fair, and Big Thursday

2019 marks the 150th anniversary of the South Carolina State Fair. Clemson has a long history with the State Fair, particularly with "Big Thursday," the historic rivalry football game that was the highlight of Fair Week for more than six decades. This year also marks the 60th anniversary of the last Big Thursday.

The State Fair

Clemson’s connection with the State Fair began with founder Thomas Green Clemson.

Four years after the Civil War ended, state leaders formed the State Agricultural and Mechanical Society of South Carolina which founded the present State Fair.

Thomas Clemson, former president of the Pendleton Farmers Society, was a member of that first State Agricultural and Mechanical Society.

The State Fair has been held every year since 1869, except during the 1918 influenza epidemic.

Clemson at the Fair

Early Clemson administrators recognized the value of the State Fair for advertising and promoting their new college.

Clemson's first exhibit at the 1896 State Fair featured a display of class work in agriculture, textiles, and mechanics intended to interest potential students. The College also operated a working dairy on the fairgrounds.

Clemson's State Fair exhibits continued to feature new and innovative work being done at the college. In 1899, fair goers marveled at a six-horse power vertical engine. In 1923, they were awed by a small radio station that broadcast speech and music over a short range.

Clemson College exhibit at the State Fair, c1907

Clemson's strong tradition of public service also has been on display at the State Fair since the early 1900s. Even before the 1914 Smith-Lever Act established the Cooperative Extension Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture at land grant colleges, Clemson displayed the results of its own extension and home demonstration work at the State Fair. The Cooperative Extension Service has continued to provide educational displays and judge competitions at the State Fair every year since.

State Fair exhibit, 1922
State Fair exhibit, 1939
Clemson English professor D.W. Daniel speaks at the 4-H rally at the State Fair, 1940
Cooperative Extension Service employees judging cattle at the State Fair, 1961
State Fair exhibit, 2019

State Fair Week

Clemson students also were eager to join in the fun of the State Fair.

In early years, the entire Corps of Cadets traveled by special train and camped at the Fair for several days.

They practiced military drills, paraded on the streets of Columbia, visited Fair exhibits and enjoyed all that the big city had to offer.

Clemson cadets at the State Fair, 1920s

Big Thursday

One of the main attractions of the State Fair for Clemson students was the annual football game between Clemson and the University of South Carolina.

The football rivalry started on Thursday, November 12, 1896 at the fairgrounds in front of about 2,000 fans.

Clemson's 1896 football team with coach Walter Riggs (back row center)
Card from Clemson vs University of South Carolina football game, c 1899

The series continued with more fans viewing the game each year through 1900. There was no game in 1901 and a riot after the 1902 game canceled the competition for several years. However, both teams continued to play against other schools during State Fair week.

The rivalry resumed in 1909. Over the next decade, the third Thursday in October matchup became known as the "State Fair Classic" and the day known as “Big Thursday.” Attendance topped 5,000 and then 10,000. It was described as “combination picnic, fashion parade, political rally and drinking bout.”

c 1928

The popularity of Big Thursday continued to grow in the 1920s. A new stadium increased attendance to over 17,000 fans by 1934. The game also became an informal reunion for Clemson alumni gathered in Columbia.

Banks McFadden (right) at the Big Thursday game, c1939

Both schools also fielded separate freshmen teams since freshmen were not eligible for varsity competition in those days. The freshmen teams competed on Wednesday night.

Big Thursday’s popularity exploded again after World War II. In 1946, there was a counterfeit ticket scandal leading to many more tickets than seats. Fans broke down the general admission gate and flooded the field throughout the game, blocking the view of the teams on their benches.

Attendance continued to keep pace as stadium capacity increased to 34,000 by 1949 and 44,000 by 1957. Schools, businesses and government offices closed for the state’s most colorful sports contest and “the biggest social event of the year.”

Politicians attending the game did not want to risk offending fans (potential voters) of either school, even if they attended one of them.

Usually, the governor sat on one side for the first half while the two U.S. senators sat on the other. At halftime, the two college presidents met at midfield and exchanged politicians.


A number of Clemson football game traditions developed around Big Thursday.

On Tuesday of Big Thursday week, Clemson freshmen began the traditional drum beat which echoed over campus for twenty-four hours to the cadence of Beat Carolina.

Beginning in the 1930s and continuing after World War II, Clemson alumnus Frank B. “Gator” Farr’s burial of the Gamecock was an important part of the pre-game pep rally.

As enrollment increased and transportation improved, Clemson students were given a two or three day holiday to attend the State Fair and related events on their own.

from The Tiger, 21 October 1946

From the earliest years of Big Thursday, a large influx of Clemson students into Gamecock territory sometimes led to conflicts.

In 1947, the two schools formed a Better Relations Committee under their respective Blue Key organizations. Clemson students were provided lodging with some Carolina students, as well as in the Carolina gymnasium. Activities included a dance with bands from both schools.

(left) from The Tiger, 18 October 1951

The Last Big Thursday

There were calls to end Big Thursday by the late 1940s. Clemson's faculty complained about the disruption the mid-week State Fair holiday caused to the College’s academic work. Clemson fans and administrators called for a more fair sharing of the perks of the rivalry game.

The proposal of an end-of-season game played on an alternating home schedule received the most support. Eventually, both schools agreed that 1959 would be the last game played on Big Thursday.

“Mrs. Robert C. Edwards [Louise Edwards], wife of the Clemson College president, has chosen a “spicey” ensemble for the last Big Thursday football game in Columbia this week. The walking suit is spice colored wool, worn with velour hat, wool jersey blouse, satin-trimmed suede closed, high heeled pumps and fabric gloves and bag.”

-- The Greenville News, October 20, 1959

“Every year we get less than half the tickets, we have the sun field each year, we do not share in the program sales or the concession profits, besides not having that home field advantage every other year. I frankly can’t see a thing fair about the game as far as Clemson is concerned. I am very anxiously awaiting South Carolina’s first trip to Clemson. We think we have a mighty fine institution at Clemson and our stadium is second to none. Many people do a lot of talking against us, but have never seen what we have to offer.” -- Clemson coach Frank Howard, 1959

"It seemed as if the Tigers had decided from the beginning of the 63rd Big Thursday classic that the best way to end the State Fair series was to bury the Gamecocks as deeply as possible. For the benefit of those Carolina fans, and there were many, who were ashamed to glance toward the scoreboard, the loudspeakers blared forth the good news, Clemson 27, Carolina 0.” -- Taps, 1960

Clemson ended Big Thursday with a 33–21–3 record.


Clemson, the State Fair, and Big Thursday

created by Susan G. Hiott, Curator, Special Collections and Archives

Materials reproduced in this online exhibit are from the holdings of Clemson University Libraries' Special Collections and Archives except where noted. Collections include Athletic Department Communications (Series 044)Cooperative Extension Service Photographs (Series 051)Clemson University Photographs (Series 100), Benjamin Gaillard Sitton scrapbook (Mss 0271), William David Craig, Jr. scrapbook (Mss 0276), James C. Littlejohn Papers (Mss 068), Clinton Calhoun Lemon Papers (Mss 067), Taps yearbook and The Tiger newspaper.