100 YEARS AGO AT KENT STATE: Happy Anniversary to The Rock!

The Front Campus landmark celebrates more than 100 years of tradition

If “The Rock” could talk, it could tell a colorful tale of all it has seen on Kent State University’s Kent Campus in its 100+ years of serving as a slate for expressing the whims and passions the Kent State community.

The Origin of The Rock

In a consensus of the first accounts of The Rock’s arrival, above ground, on Kent State’s campus, the large, asymmetrical boulder was first seen near its current location in 1922.

Homecoming Rock Welcome Home.

In a 1979 issue of the Daily Kent Stater, Cecil Bumphrey, a retired heating engineer and longtime Kent resident, recalled that in 1922, he was on his way to classes at Kent High School, located in Merrill Hall when he saw a couple of workmen preparing to bury The Rock, which was uncovered by maintenance crews during a campus clean-up. He said none other than Kent State’s first president, John McGilvrey emerged from his office, asked the men what they were doing and then told them, “They weren’t going to bury the rock.” The men rolled the boulder across the sidewalk and onto the grass in front of Moulton Hall.

McGilvrey and Moulton

President John McGilvrey and Trustee Edwin F. Moulton

A story in a 1940 issue of The Kent Stater states that “Moulton Rock” came to campus in 1922 on a large, wooden sled. “It was removed from the ground where the Kent City Hall is now (in 1940)," the article stated. According to this story, John McGilvrey issued the orders for the boulder’s relocation during his time as Kent State’s president.

In a 1992 interview with The Daily Kent Stater, Mary Buell, who was born in Kent in 1919, recalls that The Rock has always been near where it is today. “I grew up in Kent, I went to kindergarten there, can you imagine? I started school in 1925.”

The Rock in 1985.

The Rock’s Distant Past

Whether this particular rock was unearthed near the site where it now rests on campus or came from the downtown dig site, it was first deposited in the part of North America that is now Kent, by a glacier, between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago.

Black and white image of students painting The Rock.

In the Earth’s last Ice Age, glaciers slowly moved across North America, carving out geographical features including glacial grooves (like the ones visible at Kelly’s Island), lakes, hills, valleys and rivers. As the glaciers melted, they left behind rocks of all sizes, from three-story boulders like the ones found at Nelson’s Ledges Park in Garrettsville and the Virginia Kendall area of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, to smaller-sized rocks, like the one that currently rests on Kent State’s Front Campus.

The Rock’s estimated weight is seven tons. It is made of granite, a very hard igneous rock, formed by extreme heat and pressure inside the Earth’s crust and then, over millions of years, pushed up to the surface. Granite is the oldest igneous rock, and it is believed to have been formed 300 million years ago.

Love and School Pride

So, in 1922, on a campus that was much smaller than the campus of today, “The Moulton Rock,” as it was initially called, quickly became a campus landmark, along with the WW I cannon near Rockwell Hall and the stone “K” on the hillside near Kent Hall.

The Moulton Rock in 1927.

This photo, taken in 1927, is the earliest known photo of The Rock. The Greek letters "Epsilon Theta" are visible. This was one of seven campus sororities. 

A story in a 1934 issue of The Kent Stater interviewed a night watchman on campus who reported that The Rock was a popular place for sweethearts to canoodle and that his flashlight regularly broke up romantic meetings there.

It’s likely that The Rock received its first coat of paint in 1922 – the year that fraternities and sororities were first established at Kent State.

That first coat of paint established it as a canvas for expression in a tradition that continues today.

American Flag Rock

A Rolling Stone

On Sept. 23, 1976, The Rock was moved from its place on the grassy area between the sidewalk and the roadway to its current location, to accommodate the widening of Main Street/State Route 59.

When The Rock was moved, a grounds official was quoted as saying, “I didn’t want to lose the rock, I thought might make a good point of interest.” He also said “I wanted to put it away from things – hopefully where they won’t paint anything. If they stopped painting it, I think I would take off all the paint and let it have its natural appearance.”

His opinion was no doubt colored by the associated acts of vandalism that had occurred as rock painters got carried away and painted nearby sidewalks, streets, trees and a utility pole.

Rainbow Weekend Rock

A Coat of Many Colors

For more than 100 years, The Rock has been covered in coat after coat of paints of every type and every color. In 1992, a Kent State professor reported that when the rock was drilled, a paint core showed that one of its earliest paint jobs was blue and gold. (Blue and gold became Kent State’s official school colors in 1925. Prior to 1925, the Kent State Normal College’s colors were orange and blue.)

We are Kent State Rock

In the decades since 1968, people have joked that underneath all those coats of paint, The Rock is actually the size of “a dime” or “a bowling ball."  Several times over the years, Kent State’s scientists have stepped up to take core samples of these many layers of paint and have, disappointingly revealed that at its thickest, the coating of paint on The Rock is only about three-quarters of an inch in thickness.

Students painting The Rock.

A laser scan performed by a grad student from the University of Florida measured the depth of one layer of paint to be about three-one thousandths and eight one thousandths of an inch. He determined that at this rate of deposit, without allowing for weathering, it would take about 200 coats of paint to increase The Rock’s thickness by an inch.

The Many Moods of Kent State

In 1979, a writer for The Daily Kent Stater compared the ever-changing colors of The Rock to a mood ring. The reference is especially appropriate as the liquid crystal technology inside that popular color-changing jewelry item was pioneered at Kent State.

Trans support at The Rock

The frequency of The Rock’s change in paint jobs widely varies. Sometimes, The Rock’s message can change again and again over the course of a few hours. During Winter Break and Summer Break, and in periods of cold, snow and rain, The Rock can remain unchanged for weeks.

Memorial messages for deceased friends usually remain on The Rock longer than other messages, in respect for those who are grieving.

Bruce Birthday Rock 1980

Kent State alumna Tanya Andulics Bradley, '81, shared her story of painting "The Rock" on the night of Sept. 22, 1979. She said she "prayed it would remain through the 23rd, since that was Springsteen's birthday. It actually survived for about 96 hours!" 

Traditions and Controversies

As a message board for the community, The Rock has displayed many widely diverse sentiments. Campus fraternities and sororities would compete for its space during rush weeks and have minor wars as one organization would cover another organization’s letters sometimes even before the paint was dry.

Family Guy Rock

One campus legend says that some groups would smear petroleum jelly on The Rock’s surface, to discourage others from painting over their message. In May 1987, a group made their statement by coating The Rock with tar and feathers.

In 1990, the Phi Kappa Tau organized a “Rock Squat” to raise money for the American Heart Association. The object of the squat was for participants to climb onto the rock and sit there as long as they could.

USG Week of Kindness Rock

Some people regarded the painted boulder as an eyesore, as was expressed in an editorial in the Kent Stater in 1988. Others were saddened that some organizations chose to paint the trees near The Rock. (Thankfully, that practice stopped when university administrators and University Facilities Management asked students to stop.)

Carol Cartwright calendar photo with The Rock

Photo by Jerry Naughton, provided by Standing Rock Cultural Arts

1n 2006, Kent State President Carol Cartwright posed for a photo near The Rock, holding cans of spray paint. The photo was for a calendar created by Standing Rock Cultural Arts in celebration of the city of Kent’s 200-year anniversary. The caption read “And you thought only students painted the rock!”

The Rock has borne messages of athletic encouragement and victory. It has held messages of sympathy, in memory of the deceased and remembrance of tragedies like 9/11.

Wedding Pic at The Rock

Throughout its long history it has been a canvas for messages of activism and protest.

It has shown messages of love, exchanges between sweethearts, congratulations, expressions of school pride, and on some occasions, it has also shown messages of hate.

Paint against Asian hate at The Rock

Hate Has No Home Here

With sad regularity, hateful symbols and words have been displayed on The Rock. Workers from University Facilities Management (UFM), when notified, take quick action to paint over these kinds of messages, as well as those using profanity. Sometimes, members of the community take action to cover the offensive images even before the UFM workers arrive.

BLM support at The Rock

Very recent incidents of hateful messages and imagery painted on The Rock caused university administrators to establish policy and procedures for people who wish to paint the Rock. New lighting and cameras were also installed in the area for added security.

Flashes take care of Flashes Rock

Standing steadfast and serving

From its earliest days as a popular “make-out spot,” The Rock has continued to be a place for students to gather in friendship, camaraderie and shared purpose. Some student groups make meeting at The Rock a regular activity for their members – a social event with folding chairs, blankets, snacks and beverages. Other groups and individuals plan quick, stealthy raids on The Rock, rapidly painting their messages under the cover of darkness. Vigils have been held on the site to remember the deceased and for people to share their grief after local and national tragedies. It has been both a starting point and an end point for marches, walks and runs.

Even though it can’t speak, The Rock has had a lot to say over the past 100+ years as a message board for the Kent State community. By far, the positive messages outweigh the negative ones as students continue this Kent State campus tradition.

You Belong Here Rock
POSTED: Wednesday, August 16, 2023 03:13 PM
Updated: Tuesday, September 5, 2023 10:09 AM
Phil B. Soencksen