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The Dartmouth
April 15, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Bonfire dates back a century

As freshmen attempt running 109 laps around the bonfire Friday night, they will be partaking in a tradition more than a century old. Sprinting around the bonfire cements freshmen to upperclassmen and alumni as they participate in a ritual that is one of the pillars of the Homecoming celebration.

The first documented bonfire took place in 1888 following a baseball victory over Manchester College. Students gathered whatever flammable material they could carry to the middle of the Green and lit it, creating a makeshift fire. At the time, The Dartmouth reported, "the convulsive joy of the underclassmen burst forth on the night of the first Manchester game in the form of a huge Campus fire."

Due to the increased popularity of bonfires, the College administration had to step in "to save what was left of town outbuildings and other combustibles not firmly pegged down." In 1893, after Dartmouth defeated Amherst in a 34-0 win, students celebrated with twelve cords of pine wood and two barrels of kerosene, "the first strictly honest bonfire that the college ever saw... not a borrowed box, barrel or contraband combustible of any kind."

The tradition of freshmen building the bonfire began in 1946, when the building materials consisted of randomly scavenged items. In the 1950s, an alumnus who owned a railroad company in Maine offered railroad ties for the structure, creating yet another tradition of the College.

In 1971, a local farmer contributed his barn to be used as fuel for that year's fire. When students arrived at what they thought was the correct barn, a stockpile of wood lay inside and they found no need to burn down the barn. Two days later, a different farmer came to the Hanover Police claiming his wood had been stolen. The situation was parodied in a comic of a local newspaper in which the students actually took apart the barn, causing the farmer to threaten to disassemble Baker-Berry brick by brick.

While in most years the bonfire tradition has run without problems, there have been instances of foul-play and mischief. One of the biggest concerns regarded premature burnings, which led freshmen to guard the structure day and night in order to protect it from malicious upperclassmen.

The guard system turned out not to be foolproof. In 1953, a group of upperclassmen managed to toss a match into the construction while the guard was looking the other way. Thanks to the quick work of Hanover firemen, the blaze was extinguished, enabling the Class of 1957 to still have an adequate bonfire.

The next year, three students were injured when upperclassmen rushed the bonfire to cause it to burn prematurely, resulting in one freshman receiving second degree burns from a flying torch.

In 1976 the Class of 1980's partially-complete bonfire was burned down two days early. In an effort joined by upperclassmen and faculty, the freshman class members rebuilt the 80-tier bonfire in time for the festivities.