A Mountain’s Tale

This article is from the publication Faces of Penn State, Vol 8 No. 1 Winter 1982. The piece describes Mountain legends and history.

Things have changed since it was published. The Outing Club no longer maintains the trails (the Conservancy does it now) or hosts a climb up Mt. Nittany to start the school year. The Halloween “Idiot Overnight” event has also fallen by the wayside.

What remains the same is the “special place in the hearts of Penn Staters” that the Mountain still holds. At the end, we also are given a glimpse into the formation of the Mount Nittany Conservancy.

“Not-any Mountain”

It’s not really much of a Mountain. It measures only 2,077 feet above sea level, or 1,050 feet above the valley floor – hardly a Himalaya, by any standards. Irreverent visitors and tourists at one point dubbed it “Not-any Mountain.”

But Mount Nittany looms regally over Penn State by making up in tradition and familiarity what it lacks in geological fact. And to every true Penn Stater, it’s as much a part of the University as the school song which mentions it.

Mt. Nittany is at the fore of the Nittany Mountains, an 80-mile ridge that stretches from the Centre Region to the Susquehanna River near Lewisburg. It’s visible from anywhere in the Nittany Valley, and is, for alumni, the first verification that they are indeed “home” at their beloved alma mater.

Mt. Nittany seems always to have owned a special place in the hearts of Penn Staters, inspiring romantic and mystic legends as to its origin. As long ago as 1916, when the mountainous surrounds of the then Pennsylvania State College were serious obstacles instead of picturesque scenery, students waxed poetic about the Indian princess, Nitta-nee.

Legends, as quoted in the 1916 La Vie yearbook, holds that an old warrior and his squaw, living in the valley, planted crops that were wrested from them by a cantankerous North Wind at harvest time. After several hungry winters, they were rescued by a mysterious Indian maid from the hills who taught them to build shields against the wind. The appreciative Indians called her Nitta-nee, which meant “wind-breaker.”

When she was stricken by a mysterious illness and died, the warrior and his wife built her a burial mound which, during a cataclysmic night storm, was transformed by the Great Spirit into Mt. Nittany. This version of the legend is joined by many other slightly varying versions in a clamor for preeminence. But that has never been a problem, because the Mountain has always inspired a reverent mysticism that rises above mere fact.

It was with this reverence that sprang to life in the fall of 1945. William Ulerich, then editor at the Centre Daily Times (later to become president of the University’s Board of Trustees), and Russell Clark got wind of the rumor that the Mountain would be sold to a lumber company and stripped of its tress. With only hours left to save the Mountain, the men bought the upper two-thirds of Mt. Nittany in the name of Lion’s Paw, an honorary society which uses the Mountain for its “secret” solemn night induction ceremonies.

The society, which has annually inducted the outstanding senior students leaders since 1908, paid $2,000 for 517 acres – a good deal, even though it’s rumored that the “lumber company” was actually a ruse to speed the sale of the land.

Lion’s Paw, which has long promoted the best traditions of Penn State, has sent many honorees on to fame in various fields, and many have served as University trustees. The society and its Alumni Association were apt choices as stewards of the Mountain. They dedicated themselves to the preservation of the Mountain in its present, unspoiled, “green and growing” state, and designated it “a shrine to all Penn State alumni who were killed fighting all the United States’ wars.”

Since then, the society and association have increased their holdings to 537 acres and weathered several attempts to make “improvements” of all kinds to the Mountain.

Once close call came in 1921, when there was great popular support for the erection of a gigantic “S” on the Mountain’s face. It would either have been made of concrete (and painted white) or of light and dark-leafed trees. The idea was catching on and gaining monetary support until its deflation by famous writer and professor of English Frederick L. Pattee, who called the addition “a hideous scar” that would turn the Mountain into a “sensational object” and “a mere billboard.” Enthusiasm waned immediately thereafter.

Since that threat, there have assuredly been other, lesser attempts. But the society’s stance has been to quietly ward off all challenges with minimal fanfare, letting Mountain defend itself as much as possible. And the Mountain has done remarkably well; in many cases, the best action for Lion’s Paw to take has been no action.

The “hands-off” policy has worked especially well in the case of recreational use of Mt. Nittany, according to Michael “Mr. Mountain” Lynch, chairman of the Lion’s Paw’s Mt. Nittany Committee.

“For many, many years, the Mountain has been a favorite area for students who want to hike and camp,” Mr. Lynch says. “It’s in use every season of the year. And, since it has never been abused, we’ll continue to rely on the good sense of the Penn State students, who’ve always protected the landmark.”

A burst of interest in hiking and camping, the proximity of the Mountain, and the relative ease of the climb to the top have made Mt. Nittany more popular than ever with Penn Staters, according to Larry C. Brody, president of the Penn State Outing Club. One of the most popular of the Penn State traditions is an annual climb up Mt. Nittany to kick off each school year. The climb is especially “de rigueur” for freshmen.

“We tell freshmen that it’s required for graduation,” Mr. Brody confesses. “After the climb, some even ask us to sign their cards saying they’ve made the climb. We had about 125 people climb it this year, though the crowd varies with the weather; it has been as high as 300. After the climb, we provide a free dinner of ‘tube steaks’ (hot dogs) and lemonade for everyone at the base of the Mountain.”

The Outing Club’s Hiking Division builds and maintains trails on Mt. Nittany, and sells a hiking map of the area that includes hiking trails up the Mountain. The Hal White Trail, named after the retired associate professor of recreation and parks who helped start the Outing Club, is the most popular: it’s the best-marked (and easiest) way to the top.

“There are really only one or two official trails up, but so many people hike up from Penn State that there’s a network of ‘unofficial’ trails,” Mr. Brody says.

“Lots of people are hiking up every day, with more on weekends. If they don’t have classes the next day, they’ll go climb and spend the night. I hear we’ve even gotten calls on the easiest way to roll a keg of beer up.”

Probably the newest Mt. Nittany tradition is the “Idiot Overnight,” inspired by Charles Schultz’ “Peanuts” cartoon. On or near Halloween, groups of students climb to the summit to await the arrival of “The Great Pumpkin.” Though there have been no verified sightings, many students keep the vigil.

But not everyone is as fond and protective of the Mountain as true Penn Staters. Mr. Lynch has all sorts of stories that he could tell of encroachments of all kinds; they include the construction of an unauthorized cable television antenna, a shale pit, ramshackle huts and shacks, and dirtbike riders.

It may be the mystique of the Mountain, but Mr. Lynch says that none of these incidents have ever managed to disturb it for long. All have ceased through little or no action of the society, usually even before they’re discovered.

Probably the only lasting “intrusion” on nature is noteworthy because it occurred more than 6,000 years ago. University archaeological researchers have uncovered the remains of an Indian hunting camp that dates back to 8,000 B.C. The Derry Site, as it’s called, was first located in 1978, and is being researched by Penn State doctoral candidate Christopher Stevenson, with Penn State regional archaeologist Dr. Conran Hay.

Because of its location on the Mountain, the site was undisturbed by farming or building in later eras, and offers valuable relics and information on native American life centuries before Columbus arrived.

A more recent, but less successful, invasion attempt came in the spring and summer of 1981, when the scourge of gypsy moth descended on most of the northeastern Unites States. Centre County suffered the most damage of any county in Pennsylvania, and the defoliation of Mt. Nittany would have been particularly devastating: one portion of the bowl shaped Beaver Stadium had been left incomplete precisely so that Penn Staters could enjoy the Mountain’s flaming fall foliage while the Nittany Lion football team trounced its victims. But the ever vigilant Lion’s Paw was equal to the task.

Lion’s Paw Alumni Association members, who had been following gypsy moth infestation patterns over preceding years, were prepared for the onslaught that caught so many others by surprise. Insecticide sprayings of most of the Mountain had been arranged with the county and state in October 1980. The bill for the sprayings – almost $1,800 – was met through a fund raising drive within its 625 members and a $900 donation from the Delta Chi fraternity.

“We were concerned about it three years ago, and we consulted with entomologists then,” Mr. Lynch explains. “I’d talked to the alumni and members of Delta Chi about it, and the president of the fraternity came to me three years ago to ask if they could run their annual marathon for the Mountain.”

Mt. Nittany’s future can literally be described as “green and growing,” as a motto for the Mountain says. The growing part reflects Lion’s Paw’s continuing efforts to acquire more of the Mountain. It is moving to buy two more parcels of land which will put its total holdings over 580 acres.

The green is appropriate because money is needed to complete the purchases, land surveys, and other costs. And, according to J. Arthur Stober, president of the Lion’s Paw board of directors, the way is being made for all Penn Staters to contribute to the growth and care of their shrine.

“In the past, Lion’s Paw members have contributed money for land purchases, taxes, gypsy moth spraying, and everything else,” he says. “But now, we’re forming the Mount Nittany Conservancy, Inc., a non-profit corporation dedicated to the upkeep of the Mountain.

“Anyone will be able to make tax-deductible donations to the Conservancy, and be assured that the money will go only for the Mountain,” he says. Contributions can be made to the Conservancy in care of Lion’s Paw Alumni Association in 104 Old Main, University Park, PA 16802.