Old Main Homecoming Bonfire

“The Carls are coming! The Carls are coming!” or "The Oles are Coming! The Oles are Coming!" These familiar war cries epitomized the rivalry between Carleton and St. Olaf colleges in the post-World War II era. For students from both schools, the strategic objective was to prematurely set ablaze the stockpiled firewood that was to be used for the homecoming bonfire.

The exact origins of the bonfire rivalry are murky, but for St. Olaf the first homecoming bonfires date to the mid-1880s, when Oles annually gathered below Old Main, celebrating the founding of the St. Olaf College on November 6.

As people warmed themselves by the crackling fire, they witnessed an "illumination of Old Main." A team of about thirty students created illuminated patterns by lighting candles in the windows. This annual practice lasted until the early 1920s, when it was deemed a fire hazard. It was said that Carleton College had the best view from across the Cannon River.

Traditionally, either the newly elected homecoming queen or the captain of the football team would have the honor of lighting the bonfire. Students would then organize the “snake dance,” in which all of the students danced around the fire before “slithering” in a line down the hill and into town. The occasion was a campus favorite, with “band music, college yells, and songs."

Raiding each other's homecoming camp was in full swing by the late 1930s. The Carletonian student newspaper reported in 1945 that the tradition began in the late 1890s, when the Oles raided Carleton’s bonfire woodpile because “they were jealous of the nice handiwork.”

For both Oles and Carls, getting caught trying to set the other school’s stockpile ablaze meant getting your head shaved. In 1954, one unlucky bunch of five Oles had letters shaved into their hair that, when lined up, spelled C-A-R-L-S.

As the rivalry intensified, so too did the importance of protecting the bonfire. In the 1940s and 1950s, St. Olaf freshmen men gathered wood and guarded the pile under the supervision of the upperclassmen. The upperclassmen kept the younger men on their toes by yelling “Carls! Carls!” if the freshmen fell asleep on the job while guarding the logs at night.

In 1951, the St. Olaf men even tried to pull off a Trojan horse against the Carls, sending a supposedly peaceful envoy of two freshmen with a log for the Carleton fire. Little did the Carls know the log held an electrical timer that would ignite the log with a broken flashlight bulb. The Carls quickly discovered the Oles’ deception and, of course, “treated the bearers to a free haircut.”

The traditional raids came to a halt in the mid-1950s. Carleton apparently asked for a truce [see site story "Mud Tug"], finding their raiders frequently outnumbered. For St. Olaf, the annual homecoming bonfire was generally held in front of Old Main until 1987.

Images

Lighting Up the Hill

Lighting Up the Hill

Oles gather 'round the Homecoming Bonfire, ca. 1964. | Source: St. Olaf College Archives View File Details Page

The Big Burn

The Big Burn

Participants in the bonfire keep their distance from the flames, ca. 1956. | Source: St. Olaf College Archives View File Details Page

Homecoming Celebration

Homecoming Celebration

Students celebrate with their elected homecoming court at the annual bonfire, ca. 1964. | Source: St. Olaf College Archives View File Details Page

A Social Event

A Social Event

Students socialize at the bonfire, ca. 1955. | Source: St. Olaf College Archives View File Details Page

Preparing the Pile

Preparing the Pile

The bonfire pile is assembled by some capable freshmen, ca. 1952. | Source: St. Olaf College Archives | Creator: St. Olaf College Annual, 1952 View File Details Page

All Hail the Queen

All Hail the Queen

Homecoming Queen Ruth Kelly performs her royal duty by lighting the bonfire, ca. 1954. | Source: St. Olaf College Archives | Creator: St. Olaf College Annual, 1954 View File Details Page

 … Those were the good old days

… Those were the good old days

Dr. Darold Wobschall ‘53 recalls: A cavity was cut with a wood chisel after the bark was removed in a section. Thermite was the incendiary. A broken flashlight bulb ignited it (we did tests first). An electrical timer was used (about 1-2 hours). As an electrical engineer, I could do a much better job today. Two freshman were assigned to carry the log to Carleton, and they were allowed to put it onto the pile of logs there. However, a Carleton student got suspicious and found it. The two freshmen had their heads shaved. | Source: St. Olaf College Archives | Creator: St. Olaf College Annual, 1951 View File Details Page

Old Main by Candlelight, ca. 1916

Old Main by Candlelight, ca. 1916

St. Olaf's first homecoming bonfires date to the mid-1880s, when Oles annually gathered below Old Main, celebrating the founding of the college on November 6. As people warmed themselves by the crackling fire, they witnessed an "illumination of Old Main." A team of about thirty students created illuminated patterns by lighting candles in the windows. | Source: St. Olaf College Archives View File Details Page

Current View: Old Homecoming Bonfire Location

Current View: Old Homecoming Bonfire Location

This location once housed the annual homecoming bonfires. Today, it serves a recreational field for students. | Creator: Melanie Jones, April 13, 2015 View File Details Page

Video

Nothing Like A Crackling Good Fire!

Homecoming 1949. | Source: St. Olaf College Archives/Moving Image Collection. | Creator: Trostrud Family Home Movies, 1949-1958. View File Details Page

Rivalry Reminiscing

Paul Fjelstad, St. Olaf College Class of 1951, recalls the famous log bomb incident. | Creator: Across the River: The Story of a Rivalry (Northfield Historical Society, 2011). View File Details Page

Fire Bugs!

St. Olaf College Alumni Tom Porter '51 and Randy Cox '59 provide personal insights on protecting the home bonfire. | Creator: Across the River: The Story of a Rivalry (Northfield Historical Society, 2011). View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Emily N. Sacket, “Old Main Homecoming Bonfire,” NorthfieldHistorical, accessed May 26, 2017, http://northfieldhistorical.org/items/show/25.
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