The ‘Cow in the Cupola.’ Udderly ridiculous

According to classic MSU legend, a cow was once responsible for causing damage to the most famous building on campus, Montana Hall. The story, which is referenced in MSU’s self-guided walking tour, says that a cow was led to the cupola (the small dome on the roof) at the top of Montana Hall, and to remove the cow, the cupola had to be removed.

Montana Hall was built in 1896, but the cupola has gone through several stages of change. In 1914 the top part of the original cupola had to be removed because wind had compromised its stability. This left the bottom square piece, which had stairs that led to the top.

The cow was allegedly led to the top of these stairs around 1928, but, as the students learned, the cow would not walk down the stairs. According to the self-guided MSU walking tour, “As a solution the cow had to be removed from Montana Hall (still living), and as a result the cupola was removed.” The president at the time, Alfred Atkinson, ordered that the remaining piece of the cupola be removed and from this point until 1993 Montana Hall was without a cupola.

Robert Lashaway, director of MSU Facilities Services, says a cow, or even a small calf, may have been taken to the top of Montana Hall but believes there would likely be some evidence to prove it actually happened. In addition, MSU is not the only university with a story similar to this. “It’s suspicious because so many other universities have that particular story,” Lashaway said.

During the period that Montana Hall was without a cupola, there was a rack of megaphones constructed on top of the building to play the hourly chime. Not nearly as appealing as the original ornate cupola, the megaphones did not stay.

In 1993, in honor of MSU’s centennial then-president Michael Malone decided campus needed some upgrades. A new cupola was put on Montana Hall as part of the improvements. Designed by Cecilia Vaniman, the campus architect at the time, the new cupola was constructed to replicate the original and was referenced from the archival drawings.

With the help of Fred Videon, MSU engineering professor emeritus, the cupola was built and placed back on Montana Hall and remains there today. Made with lightweight steel, the current cupola has brass railing around it and the carillon inside. Turning Garfield Street into Centennial Mall was also part of this project.

No pictures or evidence exist to prove a cow actually ended up in the top of Montana Hall, but when the new cupola was constructed the carpenters did commemorate the legend with a plaque for the people who worked on the cupola and a different kind of cow. “In acknowledgement of the cow story they added this plastic cow from some kid’s farm set,” Lashaway said.

The inside of the new cupola is constructed of steel columns that are tied into the attic. The structurally sound, light materials make the new cupola much more stable. There is no proof that the cow incident actually happened but it is plausible that a small calf may have been carried to the top of the building and through time morphed into the cow story. Although no one knows for sure, the story will remain a classic at MSU.