Big Thursday: Part football, part holiday, part fashion show

The USC-Clemson game during State Fair week lasted until 1959

11/28/2013 2:00 PM

11/27/2013 8:52 PM

In the late 1800s, the South Carolina State Fair was looking for more oomph.

“The main event they had was the horse races on Thursday,” said Don Barton, who was South Carolina’s sports information director from 1950–59. “They needed something to draw a crowd besides the horse races, so they proposed that Carolina and Clemson play a game.”

Thus, Big Thursday was born. The upstart college football programs played on the state fairgrounds, and early fans paid a quarter for entrance and often watched from their automobiles.

“It was a state holiday, and it was a fashion show,” said Barton, who has written a book on the South Carolina-Clemson rivalry called Big Thursdays and Super Saturdays. “Dress shops in Columbia did more business on Big Thursday than they did for Easter. The girls would come wearing hats. Their boyfriends or husbands would buy the corsages to wear. It was a fashion show.”

The newspapers of the day reflected that claim.

In 1933, merchants including Belk, R. L. Bryan Co., Haltiwanger’s, J. C. Penney Co., Sylvan Brothers, Reyner’s Jewelers, and James L. Tapp ran ads in The Columbia Record newspaper.

One such ad read:

“Our employees want to go to the Fair tomorrow—they want to see the big game (Carolina and Clemson). We want them to go. We know our customers will be sympathetic with our decision to close our stores on Thursday — we are confident they would prefer to wait until Friday to make their purchases.”

In 1939, the Society Chatter section of The Record discussed the preparation needed for Big Thursday.

“Just about everyone in Columbia has a list of must do’s before the Carolina-Clemson game. Get one of those cute hooded gabardine rain coats in case, a couple pairs of mesh stockings as a protector against the sticky weeds surrounding the stadium, little canvas chairs without feet… they have arm rests and a back that practically rubs one’s aching spine, a good foundation cream and a new moss-green bonnet that goes beautifully with everything from red to black. Then have Bill’s pants pressed, get a feather for the hat you are trying to make last another year, be sure Bill doesn’t leave the tickets in his pants pockets, get a thousand eggs and a bunch of bacon for the out-of- towners dropping by after the game, see there is plenty of gas in the car, for Bill will forget of course.”

The Esso gasoline company paid each year to have Big Thursday filmed and would show highlights the next week in local movie theaters before the feature started.

The Big Thursday games themselves supplied plenty of great stories. In 1946, a slew of counterfeit tickets led to mass confusion at the gates and eventually the fans, whether they had real or fake tickets, overran the gates to watch the game.

“The people occupied every bit of that thing except the playing field itself,” Barton said. “In fact, they had to stop the game a couple times to move people off. Jimmy Byrnes, former secretary of state and governor at the time, he saw the second half of the game on his hands and knees looking out through the legs of the players.”

In 1958, coming off back-to-back shutout wins over the Gamecocks, Clemson coach Frank Howard said he would tip his hat to South Carolina coach Warren Giese if the Gamecocks managed to score a touchdown.

South Carolina scored several in a 26–6 win, and Howard tipped his hat after each score.

“My head was getting sunburned,” Howard said after the game.

The Big Thursday tradition ended after the 1959 game when Clemson decided it no longer wanted to see all the game’s attention and revenue go to Columbia rather than the Upstate.

Barton attempted to capitalize on the tradition’s end with a special game program that was sold for “the outrageous price of a dollar,” he said.

“Howard said, ‘Now don’t you go buying any of those programs down there because Carolina is getting all the money,’ ” Barton said. “They couldn’t sell a program over on the Clemson side. People ordered programs after the game, so we sold them all anyhow.”

The only time the teams played on a Thursday after the 1959 game was in 1963 after their regularly scheduled Saturday game was postponed by the assassination of John Kennedy. Clemson won that game 24–20 on Thanksgiving Day.


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