Up Close and Personal: OSU's Homecoming Tradition

By George P. Edmonston Jr.

Mention "Homecoming" to most Beaver alumni today and one word comes to mind...football.

And yet, OSU’s Homecoming tradition dates to long before anyone on campus had ever heard of the sport, all the way back to the earliest years of Corvallis College, the church-owned pioneer academy that would one day become Oregon State University.

In the beginning, the idea of alumni returning annually at a designated time to celebrate their alma mater was reserved for the week of commencement, generally held in June. As was the practice, Oregon Staters would gather to watch the senior class plow through the paces of final exams and the awarding of diplomas, after which they would meet the grads in a special assembly to induct the new class into the alumni association.

When, in 1889, OSU (known then as State Agricultural College or SAC) moved from its downtown 5th Street location to what is now Benton Hall, alumni would gather on the front lawn of the building to renew old ties, hold class meetings and share a meal in a picnic setting. The tradition of welcoming newly minted degree holders into the Oregon State family was generally held at or near the fabled Trysting Tree. To those who lived it, this was Homecoming. In essence, it was a mind-set.

But alas, college traditions have a "fleeting nature" that makes their life expectancy difficult to predict. The "grandest tradition ever invented" to one generation of students may seem corny and old fashioned to the next. This bug began to bite at commencement starting around 1904. Blame football.

According to early stories in the Barometer, it was around this time that someone on campus came up with the idea of how much fun it would be to watch past members of the "Agric" football team go nose-to-nose with the current squad. And so it was done, with the younger lads prevailing 11-0.

Known then and in subsequent years as the "Alumni Game," this annual muscle-bash became a "must-see" favorite among the Oregon State faithful, so much so that the mind-set also began to change. From this point on, alumni began associating Home-coming, to use the original spelling, with a football game, not commencement.

Things rolled along without a hitch until the 1910 game with the University of Oregon. After the final whistle, an ugly riot broke out among the fans and student bodies of the two schools, which resulted in a canceling of the game for the 1911 season. The rivalry resumed in 1912 but only after the two teams agreed to play on a neutral site, this at a hastily constructed stadium in the nearby town of Albany.

At the time, this was the most highly anticipated football game ever played in the Beaver state. More than 10,000 spectators from around the Northwest packed the new facility to watch Oregon’s finest bust heads. The governor was there. So were the presidents of both institutions. For the thousands of Oregon Staters who had traveled some distance (usually by train) to watch the contest, this was the best Home-coming they had ever enjoyed, in spite of the fact the game was held, in a manner of speaking, "out-of-town," and the boys from Eugene had prevailed 3-0.

The 1930 bonfire.Not wanting to mess with a good thing, the two schools settled their differences in Albany for the next two years. Both games were sell-outs, the atmosphere home-coming. The die had been cast. By 1916, the UO game had become Oregon State’s official "Homecoming" game and would enjoy this status for the next 15 or so seasons, even when the two schools met in Eugene.

During these travel years, OSU fans would enjoy a full slate of Homecoming activities in Corvallis, trek to the Lemon-Yellow for the main event, then return north to continue the revelry.

Aside from the game itself, the oldest tradition associated with Homecoming is the bonfire, known early on as the "Rook Bonfire" because it was the responsibility of the freshman class to both gather the wood and guard the stack from pranksters who might want to torch the pile early. No one knows the date of OSU’s first Homecoming bonfire but school records confirm the practice goes back to at least the year 1907.

Homecoming "tidbits" from years gone by:

Graduates from the 1930s recall Washington State as Oregon State’s favorite Homecoming opponent.

During OSU’s spectacular 2001 Fiesta Bowl season, the Beavers hosted the Cougars once again at Homecoming, thumping the men from Pullman 38-9 to up their record to 7-1, the best Oregon State showing at that point in a season since the 1964 Rose Bowl team of Tommy Prothro. The weather was overcast, and the temperature was a chilly 54 degrees, made brisk by a 18-22 mph wind.

Prior to Oregon State’s Nov. 2 Homecoming game in 1957 with Washington State, four athletes from the University of Oregon pulled off what may be the greatest prank in the history of the rivalry between the two schools. Posing as reporters sent down to cover the game by a Seattle newspaper, the Duck lads "kidnapped" OSU’s Homecoming court, keeping court members in Salem for more than 12 hours and pushing school officials in Corvallis to the point of sheer panic. The story made national news.

1942 Rally Squad with BennyPosing at Homecoming for a 1942 Beaver yearbook photo, members of the ‘41 OSC Rally Squad stand before a carved, wooden likeness of a giant beaver atop a flat-bed float mounted on four wheels. A crowd favorite at old Bell Field, the wooden rodent was known affectionately to squad members as "Benny." This is probably the earliest reference in school records to the moniker that would not become the official name for Oregon State’s mascot until after World War II. A year earlier, this same mounted Beaver statue is shown in the 1941 yearbook as it circles the sidelines at Bell Field but is named "Billy."

Homecoming bonfires during the 1930s were the tallest in school history and some of the most spectacular in all of college football. Heights beyond 70 feet were attained, and the wooden structures took days to complete. Did the student builders ever go to class during Homecoming week? One wonders.