The history behind Wisconsin and Minnesota’s “battle for the axe”

The Axe Game is one of college football's most enduring rivalries, but did you know how the tradition came to be?
Wisconsin football players celebrating with the Axe in hand after a win against Minnesota.
Photo courtesy of UW-Madison Athletic Department.
Wisconsin football players celebrating with the Axe in hand after a win against Minnesota.

The Axe, the Border Battle, the Badger Gopher Game. A tradition like no other. A rivalry only comparable to that of the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers. The Minnesota-Wisconsin rivalry goes back to the 1800s and is regarded as the oldest and most-played rivalry in college football. This year, the game makes a long-awaited return to a full Camp Randall. But how did “The Axe Game” become about an axe? The century-long story starts with – of all things – bacon.

It all began on Nov. 15, 1890, in Minneapolis: the first time the University of Wisconsin Badgers and the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers played each other. The Gophers defeated the Badgers 63-0; it still remains the largest victory of the century-long series. The following year, the Badgers returned to Minneapolis. Though still not victorious, Wisconsin lost at a much more respectable score of 26-12. Ever since, the game has switched off between Minneapolis and Madison every year with the only exception of 1906, when then-President Teddy Roosevelt had expressed concerns about the brutality and violence of football. After 19 deaths and 137 serious injuries in the 1905 football season, Roosevelt urged teams to halt play until the sport reformed and became safer for players.

After decades of establishing a sense of tradition and camaraderie between the teams, Minnesota decided to add a physical trophy to the game. In 1930, Minnesota’s R.B. Fouch unveiled the Slab of Bacon trophy: a symbol of “bringing home the bacon.” The black walnut wood had a football carved in the center with an “M” or “W” in the middle depending on its orientation. The Bacon served as the prize until 1943 when it “disappeared” in Wisconsin’s custody after a Minnesota victory. 

The Slab of Bacon was lost for over 50 years until it was uncovered in a Camp Randall storage office by an intern in 1994. The Bacon is now proudly displayed in a Camp Randall office, but whether or not the Bacon was truly “lost” is up for debate. In 1992, Coach Barry Alvarez quipped: “We took home the bacon, and kept it.”

But back in the 40s all hope for finding the Bacon was lost, and a new trophy was needed. In 1948, Paul Bunyan’s Axe was presented by the National W Club. Inspired by the lumberjack folk hero claimed to be from northern Minnesota, the six-foot-long axe became the new traveling trophy, with the scores of each game etched in the handle. 

Over 131 years of play, the Wisconsin Badgers have the most wins in their pocket, with 62 victories compared to Minnesota’s 61. There have been eight ties in the series, though the last tie was in 1956. The 132nd game of the enduring series with our western neighbors will take place at Camp Randall Stadium this Saturday, Nov. 26 at 2:30 p.m – the first game played in the Camp to a full crowd since 2018.

Abby Bradbury is an editorial intern at Madison Magazine.

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