In the days before World War II, the Annual Thanksgiving Day Military Classic was played in Roanoke between Virginia Polytechnic Institute (V.P.I.) and Virginia Military Institute (V.M.I.) to determine the state football championship. In addition to the game, there were many festivities, parades, dances at the major Roanoke hotels, dinners, and parties in Roanoke followed by formal dances at the German Club and Cotillion Club when the cadets returned to Blacksburg.
In 1917 Pop Owens served his first Thanksgiving dinner for more than 500 hundred on the Sunday after Thanksgiving at the Mess Hall. Young ladies who remained over from the dances were guests in the private dinning hall along with their dates. The Thanksgiving repast became a much anticipated tradition at V.P.I. for as long as Pop Owens lived.
John Joseph Owens (V.A.M.C. class of 1879) was appointed Mess Steward for the 1917-1918 school year to replace the late John H. Shultz. Owens had experience with large dining operations at the University of Chicago and at Johns Hopkins University as well as with the Roanoke Elks Club. Under his stewardship, Mess Hall (soon to become the Dining Hall) took on a new excellence, and he became a favorite of the cadets and earned the affectionate nickname Pop. For Christmas 1917, the members of Company B presented him with a $50 gold piece in a handsomely wrapped box.
Pop Owens was legendary as the dining hall steward. Of course, there were a few bumps along the road. Owens introduced soft-boiled eggs for breakfast that first October. The eggs all disappeared up the sleeves of the cadets. None were eaten. After the cadets marched back to barracks and were dismissed, the air was suddenly filled with flying eggs in a brief but fierce battle. Pop never served soft-boiled eggs again.
Thanksgiving week of 1921 was an exciting time as the Corps of Cadets was invited to participate in the celebration in Richmond in honor of Ferdinand Foch, Marshall of France and Generalissimo of the Allied Armies during World War I. At the Thanksgiving Day classic the next day, V.P.I. triumphed over V.M.I., 26 – 7.
The 1921 Thanksgiving Dinner menu includes Fatimas, a brand of cigarette marketed as exotic Turkish tobaccos but produced in the United States by the Liggett & Myers tobacco company. Collectible cards of popular actresses of the day were included with each pack.
The outcome of the 1929 Annual Thanksgiving Day Military Classic of the South would once again determine the state football championship. Although Floyd Hard Times Mead drove a pair of turkeys instead of the usual one, regaled in orange and maroon ribbons, V.M.I. won the game 14 – 0.
V.P.I. avenged the past three years of losses to V.M.I. with a 24 – 0 win in the 1930 Thanksgiving Classic. Once again V.P.I. claimed the title of State Champions.
The 1930 Thanksgiving menu indicates a locavore concern with eating local foods with the Montgomery County raised turkey and Virginia salt peanuts and creamery butter.
To learn more about the history of Virginia Tech, visit Special Collections on the first floor of Newman Library.
Source: Harry Downing Temple, The Bugle’s Echo: A Chronology of Cadet Life (Blacksburg, Virginia: Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets, Inc., 1998), vol. III, IV, and V.