Part 2: Origin of tailgating
RV tailgating is an American tradition and likely has its roots in college football. RVers have been tailgating since the very first game at College Field in New Brunswick, New Jersey, between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869, when fans traveled to the game by carriage and buckboard—think very early RVs—and grilled sausages and burgers at the “tail end” of the horse. Local authorities insist it was both a fine game and a fine party.
Of course, Yale’s version, as verified by no less authority than Yale University itself, says it all began at Yale in 1904. Private train cars brought fans to a Yale game. The train stopped at the station and the fans then walked to the stadium. Upon arriving at the stadium, they were naturally hungry and thirsty. So the idea was born to bring along a picnic hamper of food for the next game—and tailgating was born.
Twelve years after that first Rutgers-Princeton game, in 1881, the first collegiate football game south of the Mason-Dixon Line occurred on the bluegrass at Old Stoll Field in Lexington, Kentucky. In those days it was customary for the fans of each team to put on a fish and wild game supper before the contest and enjoy the leftovers after the game where they relived the on-field exploits.
The party and its basic elements, though, might have earlier origins. Two historical events occurred a few years before the landmark Rutgers-Princeton game, and together they speak to both the role of managed conflict in bringing people together socially and the American approach to a, vehicle-based cuisine.
At the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861, also known as the First Battle of Manassas—the name used by Confederate forces and still often used in the South—near Manassas, Virginia, enthusiastic Union supporters arrived with baskets of food and shouts of “Go Big Blue!” to watch the opening battle in America’s Civil War. Historians generally agree this was a case of the right idea at the wrong time, war not being a spectator sport.
Secondly, in 1866, Charles Goodnight, a Texas rancher, addressed the cowboys’ need for a rolling chow hall by transforming a U.S. Army Studebaker wagon into the first chuck wagon—think another early RV. The design was simple, compact, and enduring. In fact, Goodnight’s fully equipped mobile kitchen differs very little from those used by the modern tailgaters.
The draws that pull today’s fan to the stadium parking lot are the same ones that drew that crowd in 1869—the friends, the party, and the game. In fact, two out of three are sufficient for many fans. And probably in that order: One survey found 30 percent of tailgaters never set foot in the stadium.
What started out with a few sandwiches and a couple of beers before the game…has evolved the tailgate party into great American sports tradition.