An iconic symbol of the mining tradition and the history of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville is the world's largest "M," located on the Platte Mound four miles northeast of the city of Platteville.
At a December 1924 meeting of the Engineering Club, members voted to place an "M" on the mound. A committee of five students was formed to investigate the project. That investigation did not take place and there was no mention of an "M" until 1936.
As history tells it, Wisconsin Mining School students Raymond "Pat" Medley '37 and Alvin Knoerr '37 stomped a large "M" in heavy snow on the Platte Mound in 1936. "It took several trips in parallel to widen out the path so that it would show up at a distance," explained Knoerr in Thomas B. Lundeen's book, "Jubilee! A History of the College of Engineering, The University of Wisconsin-Platteville, 1908-1983."
"Shortly before sundown we walked back to Platteville and were happy to note that the 'M' could be discerned at a distance," said Knoerr in the book.
The weather was particularly cold and the image of the "M" was frozen in the hillside. "This freeze contributed to the life of the snow 'M' and to its visibility, because a noticeable amount of dust or other material accumulated in the frozen pathway to make it more visible," recalled Knoerr.
The following spring, a classmate of Knoerr suggested they construct a stone "M." Another student suggested they make it the largest "M" in the country, even larger than the Colorado School of Mines' "M," which was 200 feet high.
"When Pat and I had worked at Climax in Colorado during the previous summer as student miners, we resented the way some of the Colorado students would look down on Platteville miners as being inferior," said Knoerr. "Maybe that had something to do with the decision to outclass Colorado as 'M' builders."
The school obtained permission from landowner William Snow to construct the "M," which is 241 feet high and 214 feet wide.
Shortly after beginning the project, H.B. Morrow, director of the Wisconsin Mining School, approved a field day for students to help construct the "M." Students used picks, crowbars and wheelbarrows to move an estimated 400 tons of limestone to form the "M."
The "M" was completed in the fall of 1937.
Throughout the years, the "M" has been cemented, limed and whitewashed.
The outline of the "M" is lit once each year in the fall and for special occasions, using coffee cans containing kerosene. Wicks made from sound-deadening board are lit inside more than 200 cans.
The "M" was first lit Oct. 16, 1937 as part of Homecoming festivities. The torch traveled 4.6 miles, in an Olympic-style relay between students from the university to the "M." After being lit, the "M" is visible from parts of Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.
The original "M" design was based on the monogram of the Wisconsin Mining School in 1936.
The "M" garnered national fame in the May 23, 1949 edition of Life magazine. The multi-page spread highlighted the lighting of the "M" and compared it to others throughout the country.
MTV featured the "M" in November 1987 as 650 students gathered to complete the music television's logo on the mound.
The "M" was also instrumental in influencing the selection of Platteville as the site for Disney's Mickey's Hometown Parade on July 4, 1998. Platteville was the lone city in the country to host the parade. To boost their chances at being selected, members of the Platteville Jaycees recruited approximately 250 people who dressed in black and formed Mickey's ears at the "M."
Following the Snow's death, the 90 acres became the property of L.R. Clausen. He later donated the property to the Wisconsin State College and Institute of Technology. The Platteville Mining School became the Wisconsin Institute of Technology in 1939 and later merged with the Platteville State Teachers College in 1959 to become the Wisconsin State College and Institute of Technology at Platteville. In 1971, the name changed to the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.
The land remains under the ownership of the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, and the property was later named Clausen Park.
The Platteville Mound is one mile long and approximately one-half mile wide, 150 feet high and 450 feet above the city at the summit of the hill. The "M" was built on the south side of the hill at a 45-degree gradient.
The "M" is maintained by the University of Wisconsin-Platteville Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Chapter. Maintenance includes whitewashing the "M" with lye, setting up and lighting kerosene lanterns, as well as all weeding for the M lighting.
Facts at a Glance
- An "M" is the official symbol for the "Miners" of the Wisconsin Institute of Technology, formerly the Wisconsin Mining School and currently the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.
- Platte Mound is 150 feet high and rises an estimated 400 feet above the city of Platteville, is one mile long and one half mile wide. It is about five miles from campus.
- Total area of the "M" exceeds one acre and is approximately 24,000 square feet in area. ? The "M" is built on a 45-degree slope of the Platte Mound and can be seen from high points in Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.
- The engineers at the Wisconsin Mining School finished construction of the "M" on May 19, 1937.
- The legs are about 241 feet high and 214 feet apart. Each leg is 45 feet at the base and 25 feet wide at the center.
- Howard B. Morrow, president of the Wisconsin Mining School, helped supervise the construction.
- The engineering students moved four tons of rock and limestone using picks, crowbars and wheelbarrows to shape the "M."
- On March 31, 1960, L.R. Clausen, landowner of 93 acres of the mound, donated the land to officially make it part of the Wisconsin Mining School.
- The "M" was featured in an issue of Life Magazine on May 23, 1949, and by MTV in 1987.