This article first appeared in the September/October 2021 edition of Home & Harvest magazine.
By Hayley Noble, LCHS Curator
There’s something about autumn that many people find special. The crisp weather, changing leaves, football games, and back to school energy hold a nostalgic place in hearts throughout the nation; Latah County is no exception. The many area high schools and universities make school spirit easy to find. Events such as homecoming remain stalwart traditions to some and bring the community together: both seasoned alumni and current students.
Depending on where and when you went to school, your homecoming experience can take many forms. This is my first fall in Latah County, so I can’t speak to local first-hand memories, but according to photos and UI alum, homecoming is something that almost everyone celebrates. My own experience growing up in a small town with one high school was that homecoming was an entire town affair since there was only one team to root for. Businesses decorated their windows; the week of the homecoming game involved dress-up days and events like karaoke night, pig wrestling in bentonite mud, and powder-puff football. The Friday night game was usually against a rival, with a half-time ceremony that involved crowning homecoming royalty, rodeo queens on horseback carrying flags, presenting the grand marshal with an award, plus the homecoming dance on Saturday night. Occasionally there was a parade squeezed in there somewhere. Homecoming encompassed a lot of pomp and circumstance, as I imagine it does in many college and small towns.
To my surprise, attending college at Boise State meant a fairly low-key homecoming. Yes, there was a small parade and tailgating before the football game, but as a whole it was not like my high school experience or what I’ve heard of the University of Idaho homecoming hoopla.
Thinking about homecoming made me ponder how these traditions began. We see an evolution through newspaper articles and yearbooks, detailing the development of the familiar traditions that we know and love today. Not surprisingly, most homecoming festivities center around a football game and school spirit. The first university to host a homecoming is contested, with multiple universities beginning traditions around 1910. The general consensus is that the University of Missouri originated the modern homecoming complete with a parade, bonfire, and football game in 1911. Most early homecomings took cues from alumni football games played at eastern universities in the late 19th century and the Harvard-Yale games, which had called alumni back to cheer on their schools since 1875.
The concept quickly spread west, with the first homecoming in the Northwest taking place on November 8, 1913 at Washington State College versus UI. The University of Idaho followed suit two years later on October 30, 1915 for the Cougars - Vandals match. UI already had a few other rituals in place, including Campus Day and crowning the May Queen, by the time they added homecoming. That first year the UI newspaper, The Argonaut, called alumni to campus, boasting fraternity and sorority open houses, greeting parties at the train stations, and holding the first “Pullman Rally,” in which anything flammable was tossed onto the pyre for a bonfire the night before the game. The Gem of the Mountains 1915 (UI yearbook) described the rally as beginning with speeches and “culminated in a night-shirt parade around the blazing bonfire and then through the streets of Moscow.” Homecoming parades became an annual event in Moscow, with floats related to sports, local businesses, Greek chapters, and the marching band. By 1978 the parade had become such a big deal that 17 local high school marching bands across Idaho and Washington traveled to perform in the parade. Today it remains the largest and most anticipated annual parade through the streets of Moscow. As time passed, dances, crowning homecoming royalty, tailgating, and other traditions were often added to the annual festivities at high schools and universities, with already established bonfire rallies, parades, dress-up days, and the return of alums back to campus.
Shenanigans were and still are expected to ensue. Many associate the words “air raid” with the Cougar football offense just over the border, but in 1925 a few Wazzu boys took on the term literally. Two students convinced a pilot to fly them over the UI campus to drop phosphorus bombs on the homecoming bonfire pile set to be ignited later that evening. The plane got within ten feet of the assemblage and the boys dropped their bombs, but to no avail. The Latah County Sheriff, who just happened to be on campus that day, pulled out his shotgun and fired upon the plane. It crash-landed just outside Pullman with no injuries and no names uttered to reveal the pilot’s accomplices. According to The Spokesman Review, the raid was enacted in retaliation after UI students “vandalized” a few of the Cougar fraternity houses with yellow paint the night before.
Latah County high schools also embraced the homecoming spirit, although their beginnings were slightly different. Many of the high schools had numerous clubs that would host dances and banquets throughout the year to promote school spirit. Moscow High School began serving an Alumni Banquet in 1910 and by 1921 Old Clothes Day was an annual dress-up occasion that included contests, speeches, a pep rally, and the occasional parade. Because many of the high schools were small, at times they had trouble finding enough boys to field a full football team. Bovill High alum, Dix McDonald, remembered having to forfeit a game to Potlatch after an injury forced the eleventh player off the field. He claimed that at 115 pounds he was the right guard, while Robert Denevan was the left guard at 95 pounds. Many smaller high schools, like Bovill, were committed to sports and homecoming, even if that meant sending scrawny boys to the line of scrimmage. By the 1960s homecoming was a much-anticipated institution. Throughout the 1970s and beyond, articles pepper the autumn newspapers with football scores and royalty crowning announcements from the local high schools.
Various schools continue to carry on their homecoming rituals, regardless of how strange they may seem. In my googling I came across Maudine the cow, who was crowned homecoming queen (winning the title over a person, mind you) in 1926 at Ohio State University. The Jordan High School (North Carolina) marching band has been donning costumes since the 1980s after homecoming fell on Halloween, and the boys’ water polo team at Cupertino High School (California) charges across the football field at half time in nothing but their speedos. The University of Missouri throws the largest student-run blood drive in the country, while University of Central Florida students frolic in the campus reflecting pond once a year. Brigham Young students in Provo, Utah ignited the “Y” on a nearby mountain until electrical wiring was installed in 1985 to give a similar effect. Lastly, Texas State has hosted soap box derby races every year since 1967. I’m sure there are many more, but these are just a few I ran into when scouring the web.
Left to right: LCHS 12-11-032 – Potlatch High School football practice, 1935; LCHS 01-11-138 – Moscow High School cheerleaders, ca. 1961; LCHS SC GEN-4.01 – The Genesee High School football team from “The Pow Wow” 1921 yearbook.
UI and surrounding high schools continue calling former students “home” and carrying on homecoming traditions for the next generation. In one of the most recent Argonaut editions, I saw that in 2019 the UI marching band celebrated its centennial by inviting marching band alumni to perform with the current members. That same homecoming week, UI showcased its volleyball team, set off fireworks, and decorated Moscow, in addition to the big game. Rituals like these foster a sense of community and give people a uniting common ally to cheer for. Homecoming is also a rite of passage for many. The yearbooks and articles I consulted were rife with comments on homecoming initiation for underclassmen and classic rivalry language like “cougar meat.” Homecoming also plays upon nostalgia. Many yearn for a time w
hen they weren’t quite adults yet; homecoming can be a form of escapism where one can be transported back to college days. But I also recognize that high school and/or college experiences were painful for some. Homecoming can be a reminder of negative memories in a time or place one would much rather forget, or it can romanticize partying and destructive behavior. Homecoming can further be analyzed through an anthropological lens, looking at “stadium culture,” gender expectations, impacts of rituals in communities, and other fascinating aspects - but those are all topics for another day. In any case, homecoming is something that most of us went through and are familiar with. It is a distinctly American tradition with an interesting history and evolution. And it is a sign that fall is truly upon us.
Hayley Noble is the new curator for the Latah County Historical Society. Look for a companion exhibit at the Latah County Courthouse curated by Hayley.