The Meharry Correspondence: University Sports

Throughout the month of November, we’re focusing on sports in Illinois history. Follow along here and on our social media to learn more about the games, athletes, and teams that have made an impact on Illinois. 

The Meharry Family Collection, 1842-1996
The Meharry Family Collection, 1842-1996

The C.L. Meharry correspondence in the Meharry Family Collection offers a unique look at university life and its sports in the early 1900s. Charles Leo Meharry attended the University of Illinois and graduated from the Agricultural College in 1907. During his time there, he wrote many letters to his friend and future wife, Clara Esther Burghardt (referred to as Esther in the letters) who attended Purdue University and went on to become a teacher. The two married in 1908 and had one child, Rachel Elizabeth Meharry, who was born on August 7, 1917. Rachel donated the Meharry Family Collection to the University of Illinois in 1975.

Charles Leo Meharry was born on March 11, 1885. At the age of three he suffered from an attack of diphtheria which left him as a frail child with poor health. He was not able to start school until the age of eight, and due to low attendance related to his health, his first three years accumulated as approximately one term. With the support of his father, Abraham Meharry, Charles completed his grade education in 1900 and entered into his education at the University of Illinois in the fall of 1901.

Abraham taught his son that there were many lessons to be learned outside of the classroom, so Charles took an active interest in university life and activities, frequently balancing his school work with campus life and collegiate activities. Charles took a particular interest in college athletics and often followed the various teams on campus, even going to support them at other universities.

Letter from Charles Meharry to Esther Burghardt
Letter from Charles Meharry to Esther Burghardt

While many of the letters from Charles to Esther throughout their university years express love and friendship between the two and share personal experiences of illness, loneliness, and family affairs, they also offer an insider’s perspective of university life. Amid discussions of social events, exams, and classes, Charles frequently presented Esther with accounts of games and meets he attended, offering play-by-play retellings of some and mentioning other games he had to miss due to classes and his heavy workload. Charles frequently sent news clippings from the sports sections of The Illini and the student-published magazine The Illinois for Esther to follow.

In a letter to Esther in November of 1905, Charles confided that his health and workload prevented him from participating on the cross country team as he had desired. He lamented being too busy, slow, and out of condition to pursue his dream of getting into the inter-collegiate five mile cross country meet in Chicago on Thanksgiving Day. Charles wrote further to describe his case of jaundice and lack of appetite that had weakened him as well.

Despite these personal health problems and restrictions that prevented him from participating in college sports himself, Charles showed no lack of enthusiasm for sports as a spectator. On March 4, 1906, Charles wrote to Esther about seeing his very first game of basketball:

I saw the basket ball [sic] game, and although it was the first good b. b. game I ever saw, (I should be ashamed I know), it seemed very fast, and I guess it was. You see this is the first year we have had basket ball at Illinois and to some of us it is pretty new. This is the first game I have seen.

Letter from Charles to Esther, March 4, 1906
Letter from Charles to Esther, March 4, 1906

The University of Illinois’ first official intercollegiate basketball game took place about 15 years after the game was introduced in Springfield, Massachusetts, by Dr. James Naismith. Illinois’ very first game in January of 1906 was enjoyed by 325 fans, many of whom had never seen basketball played before, and Illinois defeated Indiana 27-24.

Charles’s letters reference numerous games on and off campus that he either attended or followed enthusiastically. Amidst his personal letters to Esther concerning his workload and fears that he would never catch up, his love for sports served as a connecting thread throughout it all. These letters offer a unique look at early collegiate athletes at the University of Illinois and how they fit within the larger framework of student life. You can learn more about these sports and other facets of university life in the early 1900s, along with additional information about the Meharry family, in the IHLC’s Meharry Family Collection, 1842-1996 (MS 119).


IHLC Resources

Mrs. Jessie Crawford Butler, et al. History of the Meharry Family in America: Descendants of Alexander Meharry I, Who Fled During the Reign of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, On Account of Religious Persecution, From Near Ayr, Scotland, to Ballyjamesduff, Cavan County, Ireland; and Whose Descendant Alexander Meharry III Emigrated to America in 1794. Lafayette, IN.: Lafayette Printing Co., 1925. Call number: 929.2 M47H


Pearson, Mike. Illini Legends, Lists, & Lore: 100 Years of Big Ten Heritage. Champaign, IL: Sagamore Publishing, 1995.  

DeMartini, Joseph R. 1976. “Student Culture as a Change Agent in American Higher Education: An Illustration from the Nineteenth Century.” Journal of Social History 9 (4): 526.


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