The Caf: Coat and Tie Optional

Howard College Dining Hall, 1914

The University’s food service is an ever-changing institution. In light of the most recent transformations in the Caf, the Bull Pup is looking back over the past century at the many different places Samford students have gathered after a long day of classes to break bread and make plans for the weekend. Constantly adjusting to student needs, trends, and space and funding availability, campus dining evolved from student run co-operatives to the modern centralized cafeteria.

The Dining Hall Council

Howard College students on the East Lake campus in the early 1900s were accustomed to more formal, restaurant-style dining.  By 1919 the college dining hall was student run on a co-operative basis.  Each dormitory and fraternity had a representative, with the exception of Sigma Nu, which maintained its own dining room.  The school dietician, Mrs. M. L. Harris oversaw the kitchen and aided in purchasing.  During World War I, students planted gardens and raised hens in efforts to become more self-sustaining.

East Lake Eateries

Charlie's Place
Charlie’s Place, East Lake

The East Lake campus, situated on a limited quadrangle in the eastern portion of Birmingham, was hemmed in by commercial property and residential developments. It lacked acreage necessary to construct larger buildings able to accommodate a cafeteria to serve the entire student body. Fortunately, America’s dining landscape expanded in 1930s and 1940s to include diners and small affordable eateries. Howard College students frequented local establishments like the Co-op, Charlie’s Place, or the Hash House. The Co-op was a quick stop for sandwiches, cold drinks, cakes and ice cream, while Charlie’s Place catered to, “male boarders and those desiring plate lunches.” When word got out on campus that the new proprietor of the Hash House was an excellent cook, male students hustled for a spot at the dining table for breakfast and dinner at the low price of fifty cents a meal. Lowell Vann ’57 recalled the fellowship at the Hash House:

Lowell Vann: Twenty-eight of us ate at the Hash House and felt very fortunate.  Breakfast and dinner.  Dinner was two tables, had 14 to a table, I think it was.  Twenty-eight people was all she would take and she had six or eight people, maybe ten, living . . . in the rooms upstairs, so they got in and that only left about eight more places for people to get in, but we had good fellowship around that table, lot of good jokes . . . .  Everyone would go into the parlor and [hear] “time for first table!” And [they] would go and eat and [then], “Get up and get out of here!”  And here comes second table.  Everything was passed around and if there was 14 of you, there were 14 pork chops or whatever, but it was good fun . . .

East Lake Cafeteria

East Lake Cafeteria on Second Avenue, 1946

  “The dining hall will mean a great deal not only to the students but to those who prepare the meals as well, for on completion the kitchen will be ranked as possibly the best equipped and most sanitary in the entire city of Birmingham. For the students it will be the ideal place to take visitors and friends.” – Samford Crimson 1946

By 1946, Howard had the economic stability to upgrade and expand the kitchen facilities and dining room. Even in its new location on Second Avenue in the former Home Economics classroom, the cafeteria was just large enough to cater to male students and faculty. The Crimson boasted the new equipment purchased from the War Surplus Equipment Agency in Mobile, “ would quicken the heart of any housekeeper.” The new building even allowed for a screened back porch, “to keep flies to a minimum.” In the spring of 1949, a “new rockola” brought music to the cafeteria for added atmosphere.

While most can appreciate music and efforts to keep flies at bay, some additions to campus dining proved more threatening. In 1949, the Co-op obtained a new vending machine. One student lamented, “Machine is replacing man. Proof of this now can be seen at the Co-op where a new coke and coffee vending machine has been installed. This contrivance is strictly modern… And the machine has brains. It can make change for a dime, change for a quarter, mix a coke and pour a cup of coffee…all at the same time.” 

“The Caf” on the Homewood Campus

With Samford’s move to Homewood in 1957, the cafeteria became a more centralized gathering place for students.  To accommodate a growing student body, changes came more quickly.  In 1961, students could buy a meal ticket for one dollar.  But by 1969 to counter financial losses, meal plans were required.  Students were limited to a “meat, vegetable, salad or dessert, bread, butter and beverage” for lunch.  At dinner, they were allowed both a salad and dessert.  An anonymous gift to the university brought air conditioning to the cafeteria in 1963. But cooler air did not allow cooler heads to prevail in 1972 when conditions drove the student body to protest.

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In March of 1972, students planned a boycott in protest of poor conditions ranging from flies and dirty utensils to hardened meringues on day old pies.  Student leaders canceled the boycott once they worked with the administration to remedy their concerns and accepted that some issues were beyond control for a cafeteria that was designed to accommodate 600-800 students but was then serving 1500.  Student body growth and university food service capacities have not always been in sync.

The university initially envisioned the dining hall as an idyllic establishment that would bring students together – they probably did not imagine it would cause them to gather in protest.  Although students still like to complain about the caf, the 1919 Howard College Dining Hall Council could never have imagined the Class of 2019’s dining options in our newly renovated caf.  Regardless of how each generation of students and administration revamp food service on campus, community and friendship grow out of the places we gather to eat together.

Exhibition Station in our recently renovated Caf
Exhibition Station in our recently renovated Caf

Adapted from:

The Howard Crimson, October 29, 1946.

The Howard Crimson, January 7, 1947.

The Howard Crimson, March 4, 1949.

The Howard Crimson, October 28, 1949.

The Howard Crimson, March 21, 1958.

The Howard Crimson, October 3, 1958.

The Howard Crimson, December 15, 1961.

The Howard Crimson, August 16, 1963.

The Howard Crimson, September 19, 1969.

The Howard Crimson, March 24, 1972.

Bull Pup Student Handbook 1947-1948, 1950-1951, 1951-1952, 1991-1992.

Oral history interview with Lowell Vann conducted by Chase Trautwein, 2015.

Oral history interview with Bill Lankford conducted by Chase Trautwein, 2015.

Oral history interview with Sarah Arthur conducted by Chase Trautwein, 2015.

160 Year of Samford University, by Sean Flynt

Howard College Entre Nous 1925, 1946, 1949

Doak S. Campbell Report, Higher Education in Birmingham, Alabama, March 1946

Diners and Greasy Spoons in the 1930s and 1940s, New York Eater, June 14, 2012

Toward a History of Samford University, by James F. Sulzby

Fallen Plaster

barracks
The barracks on the East Lake campus.

We rap at the door and Poverty ushers us in. The plastering lies fallen, the massive pillars are crumbling, the gate is hingeless, the fences down, the barns leaky. All about are scattered signs of decay and distress, and in no place do you find the touch of improvement.”  –Howard College Alumni Oration, by W. L. Sanford June 8, 1892 

W. L. Sanford, an 1884 graduate of Howard College, was not describing the East Lake campus in his Alumni Oration in 1892, but his vision may have been prophetic.  On a sunny afternoon in May 2013, nine more recent Howard College alumni gathered to recall the transition from East Lake to Homewood.  Joseph Wheeler McDade, Jr. ‘61, Lowell Vann ‘57, Stephen Allgood ‘61, Dr. Myralyn Frizzelle Allgood ‘61, Virginia Head Gross LaVallet ‘61, Dr. J. Roderick Davis ‘58, Sara Pate Bryan ‘62, Dr. Tom Cleveland ‘60, and Lucy Jane Dunn Daniel ‘61 reminisced over coffee and lemon squares in Brooks Hall’s SIM Forum.

Lowell Vann recalled the familiar saying around the East Lake campus, “If the termites quit holding hands the campus would’ve fallen apart!”  In spite of, or perhaps in some way because of, those decaying buildings that served as the physical plant for Howard College all those years, the school maintained a tremendous heart.  Tom Cleveland first visited Howard College as part of a youth revival team dispatched from Georgetown College where he attended freshmen year.  He decided to sit in on some classes while on campus.  After witnessing plaster fall from the ceiling during Dr. Dobbins’ lecture, Cleveland concluded in awe that, “this must be a pretty good place if people would come somewhere like this.”  He transferred to Howard for his sophomore year.

Others found the East Lake campus equally dog-eared.  In 1946, Birmingham commissioned Doak S. Campbell, President of Florida State College for Women, to survey and study problems associated with the city’s higher education.  Campbell and his staff examined and collected data on each building and dormitory, faculty qualifications, teaching loads, salaries, student body composition, and library services.  In March 1946, Campbell’s survey reported these findings:

It must be said that in spite of the low salaries paid, the lack of retirement funds, and the lack of modern buildings and equipment a very high morale was found among the faculty at Howard.  A loyalty and enthusiasm was manifested which seemed most striking and unusual.  Every faculty member and administrative officer seems to feel a personal responsibility for the success of the work done at the College.  Great interest was shown by the faculty in the welfare of the students and there seemed to be a most desirable relationship existing between the faculty and the students.

East Lake students living in the barracks and attending classes in Old Main could never imagine the luxuries of our modern Homewood campus with newly appointed West Campus apartments, Hodges Chapel, Corts Arena, and the Wright Center.  Yet there is something invaluable here that was evident even among those dilapidated buildings of East Lake.  Samford has a heart and soul, a close knit community of caring faculty and staff that will always stand out above all else.

in front of old main 1950 EN (2)
Howard College students in front of Old Main, 1950.

Adapted from Joe McDade Group Oral History Interviews May 20, 2013, Campbell, Doak S., Higher Education in Birmingham, Alabama, March 1946, and Fiftieth Annual Catalogue and Register of Howard College 1891-1892.