"May the 'M' stand long as a symbol of our loyalty to Montana State and a reminder of what a united class can accomplish."
To some people, the "M" is a symbol of Montana State. To others, it's a hiking destination. In actuality, it's both: the university owns the "M" itself, but leases the land on which it sits in the Bridger Mountains from the U.S. Forest Service.
Regardless of the associations it conjures, the "M," which is at about 7,000 feet on the west side of Bozeman's Mount Baldy, has a long history with the community.
The idea for the "M" emerged in the fall of 1915 when members of the class of 1918, who were then sophomores, decided they wanted to create a monument to the school. The plan the students outlined earned them a vacation from class, and about 60 students made the trip to Mount Baldy, according to the 1918 Montanan yearbook. The class used rocks to fill in the "M" that day and returned on another day to whitewash the new letter, finishing it in the spring of 1916.
Editors of the class's 1918 yearbook called the monument symbolic of several things: "May the 'M' stand long as a symbol of our loyalty to Montana State and a reminder of what a united class can accomplish."
Over the years, university service groups such as Spurs and Fangs and athletic teams have helped maintain the "M," often repainting it and collecting trash from the trails leading up to it.
Many volunteers from the community also have devoted themselves to the monument's maintenance. In the late '90s, university employees, alumni and other interested individuals formed a group to work on a major restoration of the landmark. That effort, which the late Torlief Aasheim, former director of the Montana Cooperative Extension Service and a member of the class of 1937, helped spearhead, brought in nearly $100,000.
"I remember distinctly the days when (MSU students) carried 50 pound sacks of lime and 10 gallon cans of water up the hill," Aasheim recalled in a letter to alumni appealing for donations.
Aasheim, who died in December at age 93, said he took pride in the "M" when he was a student and worked to make it the same for current students. "The 'M' needs help these days to bring it back to a state where we can be proud of it, the way it is maintained, and the way it looks," he wrote.
The money Aasheim and others raised went toward replacing fallen rock and renovating and rehabilitating the trails up to the "M." In addition, the parking area was redesigned and paved.
Aasheim considered the "M" important not only to the university, but also to the Bozeman community.
"The 'M' has served, for many years, as a point of special interest and a landmark for Bozeman, the Gallatin Valley, many other Montanans and the Alumni of Montana State University," he wrote in 2001.
MSU research scientist Stuart Jennings, who was also involved with the renovation of the "M," identified it as a signature of the area. "For a lot of people who pass through here, the 'M' symbolizes MSU and Bozeman," he said.