To be able to say you have the world’s largest of anything is pretty impressive.
Think about that the next time you drive Wisconsin 81 east from Lancaster, or U.S. 151 west from Belmont. As soon as you head down one of the hills on 81, or get around the south end of Platte Mound, you will be looking at the world’s largest hillside-mounted M.
The U.S. has about 500 hillside letters, or “mountain monograms.” Most of them are in the West, the most famous of which probably being the Hollywood sign above Los Angeles. The Platteville M is the only hillside letter in Wisconsin, and the only one in the Tri-States, since Illinois and Iowa have no listed hillside letters.
At about 24,000 square feet, the M is larger than the Ms in Maricopa, Mayer and Miami, Ariz., Moreno Valley, Calif., Montpelier, Idaho, Magnolia, Mont., Moapa Valley, Nev., Magdalena and Socorro, N.M., Marathon and McCarney, Texas, and Fillmore, Marysville, Morgan and Moroni, Utah. More importantly, it’s larger than the University of Montana’s M above Missoula, Mont., and the Colorado School of Mines’ M west of Golden, Colo.
The M was the creation of students of the former Wisconsin Mining School, now known as UW–Platteville. Despite there being no M in the phrase “University of Wisconsin–Platteville,” the M is in UWP’s logo to memorialize mining’s historic role in the university.
UW–Platteville is commemorating its Homecoming and the 75th anniversary of its M with the annual lighting, using coffee cans containing kerosene, Saturday at 9 p.m., followed by fireworks.
The M is on Platte Mound, elevation 1,427 feet, which sits 436 feet above Platteville. (The Platte Mound isn’t in Platteville, it’s in the Town of Belmont. Belmont Mound State Park, to the east, contains the Belmont Mound, which is 27 feet shorter.)
From the top of the Platte Mound, you can see the Mississippi River bluffs in Iowa (including, on a really clear day, Sugar Loaf, at 1,065 feet the fourth highest point in Iowa, south of Cassville), and what pass for high points in Illinois, including Charles Mound, Illinois’ highest point (which is 192 feet lower than the Mound), and Scales Mound (which is 267 feet lower than the Mound).
The Platte Mound is the 34th highest point in Wisconsin, lower than Blue Mounds (1,719 feet in Iowa County — the highest point in the Driftless Area — and 1,489 feet in Dane County), and Sauk Point (1,593 feet) in Sauk County. It’s also higher than Grant County’s highest point (1,240 feet) on Military Ridge west of Fennimore, which is ironic to those who think the Mound is in Grant County.
The Platte Mound sits within the Driftless Area, the parts of Wisconsin (and, for that matter, southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa and northwestern Illinois) the glaciers never flattened.
On a clear but windy fall afternoon, a visitor saw colors — red, gold and green leaves, blue and violet flowers, and tan and brown ground — and shapes: the contours of farm fields below, cirrus clouds underneath a blue sky.
The first proposed M came from a December 1924 meeting of the Wisconsin Mining School’s Engineering Club, in which members voted to place an M on the mound. The committee of five students formed to investigate the logistics of an M didn’t investigate, and the idea went away for a dozen years.
It fell to Mining School students Raymond “Pat” Medley and Alvin Knoerr to do the actual work, which involved creating an M with their feet through heavy snow in 1936. Another student, Larry Roe, planned the M.
“It took several trips in parallel to widen out the path so that it would show up at a distance,” Knoerr was quoted in Jubilee! A History of the College of Engineering, the University of Wisconsin–Platteville, 1908–1933. “Shortly before sundown we walked back to Platteville and were happy to note that the ‘M’ could be discerned at a distance.”
That M lasted that winter, which according to Jubilee! was particularly cold. “This freeze contributed to the life of the snow ‘M’ and to its visibility, because a noticeable amount of dust or other material accumulated in the frozen pathway to make it more visible.”
The snow M disappeared when the snow melted away, prompting a Mining School student to suggest a permanent M.
That summer, Medley and Knoerr went to Colorado to work as student miners, when they met students from the Colorado School of Mines, which had an M on Mount Zion, elevation 7,044 feet.
“When Pat and I had worked at Climax in Colorado during the previous summer as student miners, we resented the way some of the Colorado [School of Mines] students would look down on Platteville miners as being inferior,” said Knoerr in Jubilee! “Maybe that had something to do with the decision to outclass Colorado as ‘M’ builders.”
The Mining School got permission from William Snow, who owned land on the west side of the Platte Mound, to build the M. Mining School students used picks, crowbars and wheelbarrows to move an estimated four tons of limestone up the Mound to form the M.
Since construction was completed in May 1937, students from VECTOR, an umbrella student organization within UW–Platteville’s College of Engineering, Mathematics and Sciences have been maintaining the M, whitewashing the M with lye at least once a year.
To the south of the M are 266 steps up to the observation tower. The M Step Project was a UW–Platteville fundraiser for a classroom in the Engineering Building. Roe purchased the first M step in memory of Medley and Knoerr.
After Snow’s death, L.R. Clausen owned the land on which the M sits. Clausen donated the land in 1960, one year after the Wisconsin Institute of Technology and the Platteville State Teachers College merged to create the Wisconsin State College and Institute of Technology at Platteville (in the title of which an M also cannot be found). The area at the base of the mound is called Clausen Park.
The world’s largest M got national attention three times. The first was in the May 23, 1949 Life magazine, which highlighted the annual lighting of the M and compared it to others, including Montana’s. The second was in November 1987, when 650 students created the letters T and V to create a version of the MTV logo.
The third was on July 4, 1998, when Platteville hosted Disney’s Mickey’s Hometown Parade. Platteville was selected in part because of the 250 people Platteville Jaycees recruited to form Mickey Mouse ears at the M.
UW–Platteville’s Exponent student newspaper reported around April Fool’s Day 2004 that McDonald’s was purchasing the M. The office of UW–Platteville Chancellor David Markee had to field phone calls the following day to deny reports that UW–Platteville was selling its M.
Dan Wackershauser of UW–Platteville contributed to this story.