History of the M

by Kira Stoops

The M Trail in all its glory.

The whitewashed M at the mouth of Bridger Canyon seems to symbolize Bozeman itself, welcoming travelers from a western perch at 7,000 feet and looming peacefully over the entire town. Technically, however, the huge letter stands for Montana State University, and was bought by the hard labor of the enterprising class of 1918.

In the fall of 1915, MSU sophomores pledged to create a monument to the university. Drawing up a proposal and wrangling a U.S. Forest Service permit, the students earned a day off of class, and 60 young men trudged up Mount Baldy to kickstart the project. In one day, they carefully drew outlines for the 240’ x 160’ letter, pried rocks from the hillside, and carried them by hand to fill in the site. When the snows cleared in spring of ’16, they returned to whitewash their masterpiece.

The M Trail is repainted yearly.

From then on, whitewashing the M became a ritual for MSU freshmen. An honorary society of seven senior men called the Septemviri was established in ’20 to safeguard campus traditions. Alongside a sophomore unit called the Fangs, the two societies prohibited freshman from dating until the M had received its annual coat of lime.

A women’s counterpart to the Fangs emerged, the Spurs, and eventually the two groups joined into one: the Fangs and Spurs. (This past year, they changed names once more to the more descriptive and humdrum “Student Alumni Association”.) Over time, the Fangs and Spurs, alongside various athletic groups, gradually accepted the responsibility for the upkeep of the M, returning annually to re-lime the letter and collect trash along its two approach trails.

Still, by the late 90s, the M needed more than another coat of paint. Led by the late Torlief Aasheim (former director of Montana Cooperative Extension Service and graduate of ’37), university employees, alumni, and community members organized a major restoration of the landmark. They raised $100,000, promptly redesigning and paving the trail’s parking lot, replacing fallen rock, and repairing and improving the trails.

The M Trail offers spectacular views of the valley only a few miles away from the city.

Since then, a new tradition launched at the renovated M. In honor of the first football game of the season in 2007, the Spurs and Fangs lit candles outlining the M, letting the symbol glow into the night.  The candle ceremony seems to honor a caption from the 1918 MSU yearbook: “May the ‘M’ stand long as a symbol of our loyalty to Montana State and a reminder of what a united class can accomplish.”

Want to learn more about the M Trail? Visit Outside Bozeman’s guide to the trail.