campus news

UB’s first shovel holds a century of memories

The "groundbreaking shovel" has been in service for more than a century.


Published October 17, 2023

Bill Offhaus (left), reference archivist and Marie Elia, interim co-university archivist presented a small collection of archive materials commemorating the 100th anniversary of Samuel P. Capen's innauguration.
“Chancellor Norton used that shovel for the Foster Hall groundbreaking over 100 years ago. ”
William Offhaus, reference archivist
UB Libraries

Editor's note: This story is part of "UB Then," an occasional feature highlighting people, events and other interesting elements of UB history pulled from the University Archives. 

By all indications, it is just an old wooden shovel. The wood has weathered and lost its veneer. There’s some rust along the edges of the rectangular, silver blade.

The handle reads, "This spade turned the first soil for." Metal plates beneath it are inscribed with the locations and dates of historic groundbreakings.

But the “groundbreaking shovel,” as it has come to be known, holds a unique place in the history of UB, where for more than a century it has been used as the ceremonial shovel to break ground for some of the university’s most iconic places and spaces.

Today, the shovel — still sturdy for its age — remains safely tucked away in the University Archives until called upon for its next dig.

“The historical nature of the groundbreaking shovel makes the University Archives the ideal place to keep it,” says William Offhaus, UB reference archivist. “Chancellor Norton used that shovel for the Foster Hall groundbreaking over 100 years ago.”

Little is known about the shovel itself — where it was made, who purchased it when and from where. The words “Buffalo Steel” stamped along its collar offer the only clue.

But dig deeper into the archives, where the shovel reappears in photos decade after decade, and you begin to appreciate how this humble tool has played a small part in some of the major milestones of the university.

The black and white photos below, from June 11, 1920, are of the shovel with Chancellor Charles Norton breaking ground for Foster Hall.

Here’s the shovel in a photo from Oct. 22, 1945. The seven men in fedoras are breaking ground for Parker Hall. That’s Chancellor Samuel P. Capen on the far left.

Here’s the shovel in the 1950s, in the photo on the left, when it’s being used to break ground for Allen Hall. On the right, Chancellor Clifford C. Furnas poses with the shovel during groundbreaking for Sherman Hall.

Here’s the shovel again on Oct. 31, 1968. You see the man wearing the overcoat and smiling for the cameras? That’s New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller using the shovel to break ground for the North Campus in Amherst.

And here’s President Steven Sample leaning on the shovel as he huddles in the Buffalo cold to mark the groundbreaking of UB Commons on Jan. 29, 1990.

“The groundbreaking shovel is usually used by the president, but I have seen pictures of it being used by others,” Offhaus says. “At the groundbreaking for the North Campus, I believe it was used by Governor Nelson Rockefeller. At the groundbreaking for Foster Hall, it appears that Chancellor Norton pushed the shovel into the ground, but (treasurer) Wiliam Crosby pulled it back out.”

The handle of the shovel bears a small plaque with the words, “This spade turned the first soil for.” Along the shaft of the shovel, small metal tags — 10 in all — were added to commemorate the date of each groundbreaking.

June 20, 1978, Baird Point.

Oct. 3, 1980, the Center for Tomorrow.

April 3, 2003, the Alfiero Center.

There were groundbreakings where the shovel was used but not noted with a metallic tag, Offhaus found. But based on archival photos, the shovel likely wasn’t used at every UB groundbreaking, for whatever reasons, he says.

That’s why you’ll find a number of other ceremonial shovels kept in the University Archives — just none so admired as the original.

“Yes, there are other groundbreaking shovels,” Offhaus says. “When there was no longer room to add tags to the original groundbreaking shovel, the university began making commemorative shovels for each groundbreaking while still using the original shovel at the ceremony.”

In fact, University Archives is also the keeper of the Ivy Spade, a shovel that was used at the annual Ivy Planting Ceremony each spring through the 1920s, Offhaus says.

“But maybe that’s another story in itself,” he says.