A section of the “senior parade” of ’05, showing the satiric representation of the barrier Wilson had built around Prospect. This “deeply hurt” him.
Princeton Alumni Weekly. February 17, 1956.

“Have you seen the fence?” “What fence?” “The fence Woodrow has built around Prospect – a tall iron fence right down the side of McCosh Walk.” “What for?” “Hell knows, I don’t.”

It was September 1904. The old steam engine had stopped with its cowcatcher almost touching the steps of Blair Hall where sat Juniors and Seniors greeting those who had just come in on the P. J. and B. R. R.

An iron fence down one side of McCosh Walk, that was news of first magnitude to a Princeton undergraduate. What right had President Wilson or anyone else to build an iron picket fence on one side of beloved McCosh Walk? Besides, said undergraduates, Woodrow was going too fast anyway. It was true of course that in his two years as President of the University, he had done much that needed to be done in Princeton and his course in Jurisprudence and Politics was still so popular that the Examination Hall was required to seat those Juniors and Seniors who elected it. But were not standards being raised too fast and many good men flunked out? A few years before, Woodrow Wilson had been chosen the most popular professor in Princeton but some of that popularity had been lost in his first two years as President of Princeton.

And now a fence along McCosh Walk – that almost sacred spot with its overhanging elms, the old Chapel on the North side and the beautiful grounds of Prospect, the President’s residence, on the South. Of course the students respected the privacy of Prospect as the residence of the President and his family but Prospect itself was just a part of the Princeton campus.

It is difficult to realize how small and intimate Princeton was fifty years ago. Little Hall had just been completed, the new Gym was still in construction. University Hall, the old gym, and the hideous Observatory occupied the space where Commons and Holder and Hamilton Halls are now. There were only 1,500 students and the previous year’s budget was $472,794. The University was just about to embark on an effort to raise $2,500,000 for an endowment fund, an objective of quite astounding proportions in an era when the Guaranty Trust was boastingly advertising in the Daily Princetonian that it had $59 million on deposit. Student could go to the Cornell game at Ithaca and return for a total railroad fare of $6.10. There were only two automobiles owned by students. The most delightful days of our college life were the weekends when practically every undergraduate stayed in Princeton. When the team was out of town, a canoe trip up the Millstone or a walk back of Rocky Hall filled Saturday afternoon. Beer and a bull session at the old Princeton Inn Grill Saturday night. A book and more bull before an open anthracite fire in a dormitory room, took up most of our waking hours on Sunday. We had time for talk and we talked. Princeton was our college. Faculty, athletic teams, campus, everything. In this atmosphere the iron picket fence around Prospect was a live subject.

In that autumn of 1904, the University opened formally on Thursday, September 24. President Wilson presided and made a short address. He did not mention the fence but by this time the whole student body had returned and they talked of little but the fence. Princeton was being changed from the good old place it always was. And Woodrow was changing it. That first Saturday night when upperclassmen gathered at Princeton Inn Grill the fence talk crossed up with beer and got bitter. “Let’s tear it down.”

As Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Princetonian, I realized something must be done. I knew why the fence had been built. The new trolley line from Trenton had recently been completed. It was a short walk from the trolley terminal near University Place to Prospect and the Prospect gardens were being used by Trenton couples as a necking field. The Wilson family and especially the three teen-age daughters were entitled to protection from such intruders. There was good reason for building the fence. I felt that an authoritative statement of the facts should be made and made quickly. Otherwise some of the upperclassmen might be suspended for vandalism or even expelled.

I was received most cordially by President Wilson in his library at Prospect. I had known Wilson since my Freshman year and in my work on the Princetonian I had once or twice seen difficulties arise when a word of explanation from him might have prevented trouble. But I was not prepared for his flat refusal to issue a statement. I told him that I was sure the undergraduate body would respect his wishes if they knew the reasons why the fence had been built. I do not recall his actual words but the sum and substance of his answer was that when a man was right, he need not make any explanation.

Lacking a statement, I did the best I could. I wrote a long editorial, giving the facts and the need for the protection of President Wilson and his family. This editorial appeared in the Princetonian Saturday, October 1. It was too late. Friday night somebody, presumably upperclassmen, tore down great sections of the fence along McCosh Walk. I wrote another editorial for the Monday morning paper condemning such vandalism. Curator Bunn rebuilt the destroyed sections. For the next week, talk continued but there was no further vandalism. Then on Saturday, October 8, occurred the incident which almost broke President Wilson’s heart, an incident remembered by the family throughout the years.

That Saturday was the day of the 1905 Senior Parade. Every senior was in costume. There were chorus girls, German bands, Carrie Nation, clowns, tramps, frogmen, pirates and Revolutionary heroes. I was the Unkissed Son of Dowie the Evangelist who was forever proclaiming the coming of Zion and the end of beer. There were two fences in the parade. One was quite harmless – six large panels with pickets painted on them. The other fence was made up of about ten very tall seniors in long tightfitting black gowns, black masks, and tall peaked black hats. They walked in a hollow square chained together by horizontal strips of black muslin – the fence. In the hollow square, a small toy wagon was drawn. In that wagon was a pig bound down by ropes. One sign said “Picket Lane formerly McCosh Walk,” another “Don’t feed the Animals,” another, “Peek-A-Boo.” Tradition says there was a fourth sign, “Hogging the Campus.” It does not show in the photograph I have before me today. The toy wagon and the pig do. The implication was there if the sign was not.

I saw President Wilson the following Tuesday. I had called on another matter but he immediately brought up the subject of the Parade. He was deeply hurt. He could not believe that anyone could so misinterpret his action in building a fence around Prospect. I remember telling him the whole parade was nothing but a joke – that I was not a Dowieite because I dressed up with golden curls and short pants as Dowie’s Unkissed Son. My effort came from my heart. I was fond of Wilson. I admired him greatly. I thought then and think now that he was accomplishing great things for Princeton. I wanted to help but the wound was too deep. My efforts came to naught.

I had one other experience which throws light on Wilson’s unwillingness to smooth the way. All through the Autumn of 1904 undergraduate talk about raising the standards continued. After the mid-year examination in February 1905, it broke out in a torrent of criticism. More upperclassmen had failed than ever before the students said and soon there would be no Princeton. It might be all right to raise standards but certainly undergraduates were entitled to a warning. Besides, who wanted an undergraduate body of “polers” – those who did nothing but study. So went the talk.

Again I saw that the publication of some facts were necessary. This time I went to Dean Fine and on February 27, 1905, the Princetonian gave the number of failures in each class and a comparison with previous years. The facts were far different from the rumors. Standards had been raised since Wilson had become President but undergraduates were not meeting the higher standards so that failures in the upper classes in the 1905 mid-year examinations were no higher than in 1904. I have framed the appreciative letter from President Wilson thanking me for presenting the facts. The torrent of criticism died down. But I doubt if it was in Wilson’s makeup to take the initiative and to suggest to the Dean that some facts about failures would clear the campus atmosphere. When one was right no explanation was necessary.
Undoubtedly Woodrow Wilson carried as long as he lived the wound inflicted on him by the fence incident. A few years ago my classmate Norman Thomas told me that he had just seen one of the former President’s daughters. When he mentioned the fact that he had graduated in 1905, she said “Oh, that was the Class that was so cruel to father.” There was no intention on the part of our class to be cruel. I have talked or written to all the Parade “pickets” who are still living and their admiration of Woodrow Wilson is as great as mine. Even in our critical undergraduate days the debt Princeton owed to Woodrow Wilson was recognized.

Every human being has his or her weaknesses and I think the fifty years which have passed since the fence incident have served to heighten our sympathy toward a man who in all his greatness apparently was unable to comprehend that a word spoken at the proper time was sometimes advisable even though one’s position was absolutely correct.

This was originally published in the February 17, 1956 issue of PAW.