1909 Culver ring found in Wisconsin now on display in museum
Oct. 6, 2022
It took more than 110 years and a strange and unlikely route, including the bottom of a Wisconsin lake, but the oldest known Culver senior class ring is back home and on display at the Culver Academies Museum.
Earning and wearing the Culver ring, of course, is a hallowed tradition for the school -- so much so that Culver has long set aside a special, end-of-year ceremony surrounding the ring and the bestowing of senior or first class status by a Culver elder. As noted by Culver's former historian, the late Robert B.D. Hartman, Culver rings have "sparked conversations in airports, bars, on battlefields, and just about any venue where Culver alumni have gathered."
The longstanding, official design of the Culver class ring dates to October of 1915, when The Vedette newspaper reported that cadets Grainger and Quear, during a class meeting, proposed that Culver rings, beginning with the class of 1916, be of a uniform and patented design, excepting the date and initials of the wearer. The move dovetailed nicely with the change of title of Culver's alumni association from the Culver Military Academy Alumni Association to, simply, the Culver Legion, a shift conceived by Culver alumni during one of the pre-World War I alumni training camps conducted on campus by cadets and Academy officers, and subsequently approved in 1916.
Prior to that, ring designs were proposed by various entities and voted upon by first class, or senior cadets. In the fall of 1912, for instance, it was reported that a ring design by Spies Brothers Jewelers of Chicago was chosen by student vote (a fact reiterated in regular advertisements by the company in the pages of The Vedette).
For the first several years following the 1916 design, Chicago-based C.D. Peacock manufactured Culver rings. By 1925, the L.G. Balfour Company of North Attleboro, Massachusetts, won the contract, which it has kept ever since (in fact, L. G. Balfour himself received Culver's Distinguished Service Award for his support of the school. He had insisted that the Culver ring have the same "no charge" lifetime guarantee accorded to colleges).
In 1919, a smaller "sweetheart ring" design was added, no doubt sealing many a Culver romance. That design was utilized for early female graduates of CMA starting in 1959, prior to the 1971 opening of the Culver Academy for Girls, which promoted the design of today's CGA ring.
The first mention of a senior, or first class ring in the pages of a Culver publication appears, interestingly, in the 1909 Roll Call yearbook, where it was noted that Maurice Henry Hamberg was chosen as "First Class ring and pin committee" chair.
It's difficult to tell if that makes the 1909 ring the first official senior class ring at Culver (which in those days had just over 400 graduates), but it certainly adds to the intrigue of the addition of a 1909 class ring to the collection at the Culver Academies Museum at 102 South Main in downtown Culver.
There, notes Museum and Archives Manager Jeff Kenney, the oldest ring in the collection was previously a 1913 one worn by John H.G. Reilly ’13.
Kenney was alerted to a listing on eBay of the 1909 ring by Jerry Ney ’57, a longtime supporter of the museum and Culver memorabilia collector. Kenney says he checked the listing repeatedly, knowing the $3,000 asking price was high for the museum's budget. Finally, he took a chance and sent a message to the seller explaining that he represented Culver Academies' museum and asking if the seller would consider a reduced price. The seller requested more information about the museum and, within a few minutes, Kenney's phone was ringing.
On the line was Michael Geiger, a "treasure hunter" from Wisconsin who says that Kenney's message "just flipped my thought process from maybe making some money to maybe returning this beautiful piece of history to where it might actually belong. I now was researching this Jeff guy who claimed to be with the school museum.
"After a few minutes of talking it was clear to me he was not only legit, he was very passionate about the history and the ring and just as excited about the story as I was. ... It was at this time I knew eBay didn’t matter to me, the offers didn’t matter, all that mattered was that I return this ring."
Geiger has long enjoyed metal detecting as a hobby, eventually progressing from beaches and yards to bodies of water. Over the years he's found a number of rings and, he says, returned many to their original owners. In fact, one such incident, in which he returned a class ring to high school sweethearts 65 years after it was stolen -- almost as many years as the grateful couple had been married -- became a story that hit news venues across the country and world in 2013.
This past August, Geiger says a friend invited him to treasure hunt in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. While metal detecting along the shoreline, he found a faint signal in about 5 feet of water. After a few tries, he recalls, "I raised it out of the water, shook the scoop to remove the debris from the bottom of the lake, and there was the beautiful sight of gold. Treasure hunters love gold and this one was unique in that it clearly had an eagle and some designs on it."
Eventually Geiger discerned the 1909 date and the Culver name on the ring. Up to the uniform design of 1916, few Culver rings had the owner's initials engraved on them, so Geiger had no way of knowing whose ring was in his possession (that question remains a mystery; Kenney says a few '09 graduates are from Wisconsin, but the ring's original wearer could have been visiting from elsewhere). After researching Culver, and the market for military academy rings, Geiger decided to list the ring on Ebay, with several "watchers" and even an offer coming in. And then came the message from and subsequent conversation with Kenney.
"I actually went on eBay while on the phone with Jeff and ended the auction on the spot," Geiger said. "I told him I would like to donate the ring to the school so it could be added to the museum's collection. It was very clear to me this is where this ring rightfully belongs and I was happy to be able to make it happen."
For his part, Kenney says he's "extremely grateful" for Geiger's "generosity and thoughtfulness in making sure the ring found its way back to Culver. It holds a place of honor alongside the other rings in the museum's collection -- a unique and compelling part of Culver's history."
For a more detailed history of the Culver ring, visit Robert Hartman's article on the Culver Digital Vault, here: https://cdm17320.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/Hartman/id/303/rec/2