Fence With Ivy: Yale Relic In Secret Location Before Auction

Between you, me and the fence post … I've got pictures. Or at least one picture that appears to verify its authenticity.

This 180-year-old fence, which once stood on campus, is thick with history, Yale history, college football history. The Yale fence, long ago reduced to an 8-foot section where captains posed, also is fairly thick with intrigue.

Oh, don't worry, it certainly looks to be part of the original fence. There is the long, distinctive fracture running through the middle rail. There is a large knot at the upper corner of the top post. And the photo appears to match photographs from more than a century ago.

What we don't know is exactly where the Yale fence is. Judging by the photo and the flora, it's in somebody's yard in a temperate climate, maybe in Connecticut, maybe two doors down in your neighbor's backyard.

What we do know is that the owner, who supplied the photo and has asked for anonymity, is looking to auction it off, probably in 2014, the 100th birthday of the Yale Bowl.

Its location is a secret. It has to be. Gangs, you know. Maybe gangs from Cornell, in Saturday for the Yale home opener, or from Princeton. Or the worst gangs of 'em all. The ones from Harvard. Students from the Harvard Lampoon, crazed perhaps by the stock market crash, stole the fence in the autumn of 1929 and didn't return it until a week after the 10-6 victory over Yale. The fence's current owners cannot be too careful.

"Since virtually every Yale captain has been photographed on the fence, including Walter Camp, I think it is a significant part of Yale football history," said Rich Marazzi, author of "A Bowl Full of Memories: 100 Years of Football in the Yale Bowl," to be published by Skyhorse in the summer of 2014. "It is a tradition at Yale to only elect one captain, no co-captains. Every captain is thrilled to be photographed at the fence."

Walter Camp was photographed at the fence. … Albie Booth, Heisman Trophy winners Larry Kelley and Clint Frank. You'll even find the Yale baseball captain who helped lead the Eli to the national finals in 1947 and 1948 photographed on the fence. His name is George Herbert Walker Bush.

The rules changed in college sports a long time ago, of course. Major conferences call the shots. ESPN determines the story lines. Whatever they determine as iconic instantly becomes iconic. Not for a moment is that to take away from Howard Rock at Clemson or the "Play Like a Champion Today" sign at Notre Dame or the Auburn oaks at Toomer's Corner. We're just saying that Yale was deemed to be the best football team in the country 26 times between 1872 and 1909. We're just saying that 70,000-80,000 fans used to pour into Yale Bowl in the 1920s and '30s to see Army and Michigan and all the great opponents.

And we're just saying that Yale captains started posing in front of the fence in 1875, when U.S. Grant was in the White House, when Aristides won the first Kentucky Derby.

Marazzi has written a definitive chapter about the Yale fence in his upcoming book and he explains that William Arnold was the first captain to pose on the fence in 1875. The fence, according to Marazzi's research, stood at College and Chapel streets and ran in front of Old Brick Row for a half century from the 1830s. Evidently, it was quite the hot spot. No less than Camp was once quoted, "Men of all tastes and modes of life were there together. They sat on a common rail."

From there, however, there is no common rail. Judith Ann Schiff, the chief research archivist at the Yale Library, wrote in the 1998 Yale Alumni Magazine that the fence was removed as buildings sprang up around it in 1885, sections first vanishing and later everything going after the Yale crew beat Harvard. Marazzi cited other sources saying that the fence already was fairly wrecked during 1879 rush week. Who knew that college vandalism in the state didn't start with UConn Spring Weekend?

Ever heard of the Pach Brothers? Maybe not. Well, dating to 1867, Pach Brothers was one of the earliest and most famous photography businesses in New York. Twain, Edison, Carnegie, Marconi, Mellon, J.P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington — their photos are in their archives. Anyway, Pach Brothers opened a New Haven studio on Chapel Street and, according to Marazzi, an employee salvaged an 8-foot section of the fence as a prop, and for decades and decades, from Camp to Bush and beyond, Yale captains in all sports were photographed with the fence.

Oh, it had its moments. After those dastardly members of Harvard Lampoon, the famed humor publication, stole the fence, they had the school janitor pose in front of it. Well, it all ended up in Life magazine, which reported that the Pach Brothers valued the fence at $10,000 when the cops were called. Life called the janitor posing a "sacrilegious mockery of Yale's captains."

The Harvard game day program in 1931 had a caricature of John Harvard sitting on the fence. Some Yale alumni weren't sitting on the fence. According to Marazzi's upcoming book, they were so angry that a suspension of the football series was briefly discussed. Love it.

From there, according to Marazzi, the fence went the Pach Brothers to George Weber's studio on Chapel Street and bounced around. Raymond Pratt of Pratt Brothers loaned it to Adam Fusco of Adam House in East Haven, later got it back and sold it to Clarence Whitney. He, in turn, sold it to Frank Conti, co-owner of Kavanaugh's restaurant, formerly Jocko Sullivan's, which, incidentally, is the legendary place where Ben Schwartzwalder and the great Ernie Davis persuaded New Haven's Hall of Famer Floyd Little to play at Syracuse. From there, the fence's ownership has grown hazy and its location a secret.

Here's another twist. Marazzi went through years of photos and determined that Joe Mitinger was the last captain to be photographed in front of the old fence in 1952. He could tell by the long fracture in the middle rail. He said that starting with Joe Fortunato in 1953, captains are pictured in front of the fence that's currently inside the Ray Tompkins House, the building adjacent to Payne Whitney Gym.

In his book, Marazzi cites Michael Lotstein, records services archivist at the Yale Library, saying it is "a piece of the actual Yale Fence." Marazzi, however, says its provenance is unknown. Marazzi likes to use the word provenance. It comes from the French word "provenir," and it means place of origin. A fence's provenance, yes, only at Yale.

There will be plenty of celebration in New Haven next year in conjunction with the 100th birthday of the Yale Bowl. In a salute to the grand old days, Army, which hasn't played Yale since 1996, will bring its cadet corps and play at Yale Bowl. So next year is when the Yale fence's owner is looking to auction off the fence. Who knows how much it will go for? Who knows where all the proceeds will go? Say this much, there are some heavy hitters at Yale who would probably love to own it and keep it out of a Harvard alum's hands.

"This will be a one-of-a-kind vintage piece of memorabilia," Marazzi said. "I wish the buyer and the seller the best."