At 118 games and counting, the series between Minnesota and Wisconsin ranks as the longest in Division 1-A football; and “Paul Bunyan’s Axe” has the history of one of college football’s fiercest rivalries emblazoned on its six-foot long handle. The first game in the series, a 63-0 Gopher victory in 1890, is printed on the handle near the axe’s head. The results of every successive game line the handle in red ink. There have been so many games that the scores scroll up and down the width of both sides of the handle, and school officials have now resorted to writing scores on the narrow edges of the six-foot shaft.
Randall Field, Wisconsin - Minnesota vs. Wisconsin, 1904.
By 1930, “Paul Bunyan’s Axe” wasn’t even created, although the rivalry had already reached feverish levels. The 1906 game was canceled by President Theodore Roosevelt, who had decided to cool off heated college football rivalries, because of injuries and deaths on the field. In 1914, Minnesota faced the Badgers for the Gophers’ first Homecoming game; likewise, Wisconsin hosted Minnesota for the Badgers’ first in 1919. Between the years 1923 and 1925, the teams battled to three straight ties.
To symbolically capture the amazing atmosphere of the annual match-up, Dr. R.B. Fouch of Minneapolis fashioned a bacon slab out of black walnut to serve as the traveling trophy that he hoped would compare to the well-known “Little Brown Jug,” which Minnesota and Michigan played for every year. The “Slab of Bacon,” first played for in 1930, had a football carved on top inscribed with an “M” or “W”, depending on how you held it. The idea was that the winning team would “bring home the bacon.”
But in the early ’40s, the Slab of Bacon became the “Missing Slab of Bacon.” Peg Watrous, who was the president of Wisconsin women students at the time, relates that she and her counterpart from Minnesota were to have a symbolic exchange after the game, whereby the trophy would be awarded to the winning team. Minnesota won, but in characteristic fashion, a postgame melee broke out on the field, with students and spectators running crazy over the field. Watrous couldn’t find her counterpart, and was left “holding the bacon,” as it were. “I have no memory of what happened after that...The whole thing was a dud, as I feared it would be,” Watrous remembered good-humoredly, “and someone in charge probably hid the bacon.”
But the two teams had to play for something, so in 1948 the Wisconsin W Club instituted “Paul Bunyan’s Axe” as a trophy more befitting the grand rivalry between the two schools. The annual battles have survived so long that in the ’60s the teams started to print the games’ final scores smaller and smaller, scrunching the letters in order to avoid reaching the end of the axe’s shaft. But the series continued to roll, and the last game to be painted on the broad face of the handle was in 1980. The 25 subsequent games appear on the narrow side of the handle.
The Slab of Bacon was back in the news in the summer of 1994, when the long-lost trophy was found after a Camp Randall Stadium storage room was cleaned out. Wisconsin officials estimated that it had been missing since 1945; yet the scores of every Wisconsin-Minnesota game from 1930-70 were printed on the back of the slab. It is one of those Twilight Zonesque mysteries that remains unexplained, and contributes to the legend of Minnesota’s and Wisconsin’s “Border Battle” rivalry.