Old Main Homecoming Bonfire

Emily N. Sacket

“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.