This Fall, the freshman class will run 115 laps around Dartmouth’s 116th Homecoming bonfire (however it is also acceptable just to run 15 laps, although upperclassmen refrain from telling freshmen this fact).
Before the bonfire became an annual event, Dartmouth students were fond of celebrating great victories with large fires on the Green. In 1888, after defeating Manchester at a contended baseball game, the bonfire "disturbed the slumbers of a peaceful town, destroyed some property, made the boys feel that they were men, and, in fact, did no one any good", according to The Dartmouth.
However the bonfire did not become an official event until 1895, when President Tucker instituted "Dartmouth Night" - a celebration to promote a sense of community at Dartmouth and welcome the new freshman class.
The visit of the Sixth Earl of Dartmouth in 1904 marked the beginning of the tradition of running around the fire. Not content with only a bonfire, students wanted to impress the Earl by parading around the fire in their pajamas. The Earl soon joined the parade of men in night-clothes and proudly led them around the flames. Today, students traditionally wear green Dartmouth shirts with their class year.
Part of the rite of passage that occurs every Homecoming is the yelling of two phrases: "Worst class ever!" and "Touch the fire!". Although upperclassmen will generally refer to the freshman class as the “best class ever” throughout the year, the night of the bonfire is the one night when the upperclassmen are not as cordial. The tradition of touching the fire is for only the boldest of freshmen, as law enforcement officers from Hanover surround the fire in order to prevent any one from getting too close. For Dartmouth students, that is a challenge that is too good to pass up. Every year, save the class of 2013 (worst class ever), after the fire burns down a couple brave souls will run past the police to touch the dying coals (In 2008, this practice resulted in two students being severely burned).
Recent bonfires have used 6x6 timbers and other sheets of wood, but it was not always so. Railroad ties were often used and in 1918 The Dartmouth reported that "those too zealous in their efforts laid violent hands upon sundry front door steps and backdoor steps, and likewise fences, not to mention numerous hen houses carried en masse to the scene of the celebration." Although today the Thayer School of Engineering designs the bonfire so that it can only collapse inwards, the bonfire has been built by the freshman class since 1907.
Posted for Thea Stutsman, '13