Founder’s Day at the University of Alberta

Written by: Louise McKay and Suzanna Wagner

Imagine inviting the entire graduating class of the University of Alberta in for tea. That’s what Alberta’s first premier, Alexander Rutherford, and his wife Mattie did in 1912. All 20 members of the university’s graduating class attended with their family members. After the first graduation tea, a party they named Founder’s Day, the Rutherfords made the celebration an annual event until 1938. Over 300 grads took tea with the Rutherfords that final year.

The tea party celebrating graduation was held at the Rutherfords’ elegant Edwardian mansion just east of the university campus. Not just neighbours, the Rutherfords had a close relationship with the university. Alexander Cameron Rutherford co-founded the university in 1908. He continued to play an active role at the University, serving as Chancellor from 1927 until his death in 1941. Mrs. Mattie Rutherford played an active role organizing and hosting Founders’ Day. She also hosted, at her home, numerous meetings of the University Women’s Club, of which she was an honourary member. Both the Rutherford children, Cecil and Hazel attended some university classes. Hazel in particular was active within the university community, contributing articles to the university newspaper The Gateway, which helped to keep students away serving during World War One up to date with local news.

Each year, the house would be decorated in green and gold, the university colours. While there is no official record of what was on the menu for the Founder’s Day teas, Hazel Rutherford’s notebook has a page labeled: “Suggestions For Founders Day 1936.” It is filled with delicious sounding treats: orange bread, mocha cakes, pineapple squares, two large chocolate cakes, two large orange cakes, salted almonds and mints. They also made 270 sandwiches. Some had chicken, others ham, cheese, olives and tinned asparagus. Hazel also recorded that the gathering required 100 cups and saucers, 24 bricks of ice cream and 140 doughnuts.

Hazel’s note book also included a suggested itinerary of events and how the guests would be managed. She suggested ice cream bricks be cut into seven pieces, listed who was going to make the sandwiches and who was going to serve tea. She also mused on how many students to invite into the dining room at a time. “About 50” was the number of students she suggested. The next time you visit Rutherford House, step into the dining room and ask yourself if you would be brave enough to serve tea and cake to 50 people inside a room that size!

This should be enough to feed about 50 people. Source: Rutherford House Provincial Historic Site.

One of the maids without whom Founder’s Day could not have succeeded was Elsie Berendt. She was the housekeeper at Cecil and Helen Rutherford’s home from 1928 to 1934, and in a 2010 interview she recalled coming to the Alexander and Mattie Rutherford’s house and staying overnight to clean and help set up for the event.

Hundreds of refreshments were prepared in advance by the Rutherford women. They also had help: not only did the maid at Rutherford house assist, but the Rutherfords also “borrowed” maids from neighbours to tackle plating and serving the food- not mention washing a truly enormous stack of dishes. Source: Rutherford House Provincial Historic Site.

During the Founder’s Day party itself,  Mrs. Rutherford would sit at the end of the dining room table to pour out tea and coffee. Her daughter-in-law Helen or daughter Hazel would help her and Mr. Rutherford would mingle among his guests.

The end of the party, and the beginning of the graduating class’ new life, was marked by a walk from Rutherford House to the university campus where the whole group would plant a tree. The first to be planted in this graduation ceremony was placed beside Ring House 1.

Ring House 1, newly constructed in 1911, was the home of Marshall Tory, the university’s first President and co-founder. Source: University of Alberta Archives Accession UAA-1969-012-235.

If you are craving your own Founder’s Day celebration, take a peek at the historic tree registry to see if you can spot any arboreal reminders of Founder’s Days gone by, and then call Rutherford House Provincial Historic Site to book a private tour of the house’s interior, which has been lovingly restored to its 1915 appearance. You could even bring a picnic to enjoy outside on the grounds!

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