Updated: Apr 9
The long-standing rivalry between the University of Idaho and Washington State University was punctuated by a unique occurrence on Friday, October 16, 1925. At this time, WSU and UI students practiced a tradition whereby each school would build a large bonfire the night before a Homecoming game, or the night before a game against their arch rivals.
Construction of the bonfire would begin with three poles obtained form the Washington Water Power Company arranged in a tri-pod fashion. Freshmen then filled the open space at the bottom with flammable material. According to Rafe Gibbs from Beckoning the Bold : Story of the Dawning of Idaho, “favorite items for the bonfire were old wooden outhouses. Usually one crowned the collegiate ritual pyre, and was likely to be labeled the administration building of the opposing school”.
Naturally, it was the ambition of each school to prematurely light the bonfire constructed by their rivals.
On Friday, October 16, 1925, the day before a football game with Washington State University, Idaho students were in the finishing stages of building their bonfire. The bonfire was located in the Fair Grounds (now Ghormley Park). Gibbs writes:
Nearby, a football game was in progress between Moscow and Kellogg high schools, with a large crowd in attendance. The game, however, became a secondary attraction. From the west droned an airplane. It circled over the Fair Grounds, then dived. As it roared over the target of debris, a homemade, phosphorous bomb was dropped. The aim–or timing–was poor. It was so poor, in fact, that the bomb came closer to the football crowd than it did to the bonfire in the making.
The plane repeated its actions twice more. Here we’ll let the Daily Star Mirror describe the action:
…each attempt was foiled by removing the cakes [bombs] before they set fire to the pile of wood. Three shots were taken at the plane by Sheriff Charles Summerfield, who happened to be on the grounds.
The airplane swept down within, what looked like ten feet of the top of the pile to drop its ‘bombs’.
This was a novel thing for the Idaho students, and caused considerable excitement on the campus. During Thursday night freshmen guarded campus against any invasions and Friday were surprised by the ‘air attack’.
According to Gibbs, Sheriff Summerfield shot to frighten, not to hit. After three shots, the plane flew away.
The plane had been chartered by a WSU fraternity in an effort to prematurely light the UI bonfire. The fraternity had put one of the brothers on board as a bombardier. Gibbs writes:
The bombardier claimed that when the plane landed a nick was discovered in the propeller, and ‘it looked like a bullet mark.’ The pilot, however, said the nick had been there long before Summerfield went into action.
Sadly, the bonfire tradition was discontinued after 1935. This probably made for a less exciting pep rally.
This story was uncovered when Bruce Kitt contacted LCHS requesting information about an “airplane attack” on the Vandal bonfire before the UI v. WSU football game in 1925. Upon his referral to UI Library Microfilms, Kitt sent the Daily Star Mirror article. Kitt was researching the life of barnstormer Nick Mamer. Mamer was a participant in the air attack, possibly the pilot.