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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

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Homecoming Bonfire a Hit

Old tradition re-ignited on Saturday of Homecoming week.

2014-10-08
Dan Nienaber, Mankato Free Press, 10-5-2014

A few swipes with a propane torch may have revived a Minnesota State University, Mankato Homecoming tradition that was doused decades ago.

The homecoming king and queen had the honors Saturday night of lighting the Homecoming Bonfire. They used the torch to light straw that had been stuffed into the bottom of a pile of pallets. Within minutes the fire was burning hot as a crowd of 300 or 400 people cheered.

“I feel like it’s an honor,” Kevin Miller, homecoming king, said. “I’m one of 15 or 16 thousand people going to this school and I’m one of two they’ve chosen to do this. I think students forget about the tradition of homecoming and the pride of being a Maverick.”

For awhile it looked like there were going to be more pallets than people attending the event, which was slated to start at 8 p.m. Organizers decided to wait to start the fire because people were lining up at the gate to sign a required waiver.

Senior Jessica Sorenson arrived on time. There were only a few dozen spectators on the Maverick Midway behind the home stands of Blakeslee Stadium about 15 minutes before the original start time.

“Honestly I’m not surprised,” she said. “This is the time people go out. I think, if they keep doing it, more people will come.”

Both Miller and Sorenson said they hope the bonfire turns into a tradition.

It was planned by this year’s Homecoming Events Committee, said Chairman David Schieler. It’s not a new thing for college campuses. Several universities across the country celebrate homecoming or rival football games with a blazing pile of wood. Schieler originally thought piling up some pallets and starting them on fire would be an easy task. He quickly realized he was wrong.

“I had no idea how much work it would be but I’m glad I started last December and January,” he said. “It really has taught me, as a program-managing individual, how much work goes into these events. Students don’t realize how much work gets done behind the scenes.”

A bonfire at Texas A&M became a tragedy before it started in 1999. During the early morning hours of Nov. 18 a 59-foot high structure of logs, much larger that the 20-foot stack of 220 pallets at MSU, shifted as students were still wiring some of the logs together.

More than a million pounds of timber fell as students around the structure attempted to get out of the way. Twelve people were killed.

So Schieler and his committee had to create a safety plan for the Minnesota State Mankato bonfire before it could happen. They also found an engineer willing to volunteer his time for a construction plan.

That plan was carried out Friday by a six-man crew from the university’s Construction Management Student Association. They used a large forklift donated by Dell’s Construction in Le Sueur and a lift provided by the university to get the job done.

Once the pallets arrived, it took the crew four or five hours to build the structure that would become Saturday’s bonfire. Starting with a 12’ by 12’ base, the students used 2” and 3” screws to keep the structure solid, said Brandon Anderson, a senior in the university’s construction management program. They planned to use ropes to anchor the structure when they were done due to the windy weather.

Heath Dewes, one of the builders, said he would be at the event Saturday night. If the bonfire does become a tradition, he said it will be nice to tell people he helped build the first bonfire before watching it burn.

“I think it’s going to be awesome,” he said Friday. “It will be a huge fire. It will be cool building it then watching it come down. Plus there’s the experience because this is the first time MSU has done anything like this.”

Saturday wasn’t the first homecoming bonfire in Minnesota State Mankato’s history. A photograph on the university’s digital archives website shows students watching a homecoming bonfire during the 1957-58 school year. The university was called Mankato State College at the time and its team name was the Indians.

David Cowan, Minnesota State Mankato facilities services director, was a student at the university in 1966, when there was an upper campus and a lower campus downtown. He remembers attending bonfires where logs were burned on the lower campus during homecoming. He started working at the university after graduating, but doesn’t remember when or why that tradition ended.

The entire version of this story can be read in a print copy of the Mankato Free Press. Call the Mankato Free Press at 625-4451 or (800) 657-4662 to find out how to purchase a print copy. The Free Press also prints select stories online at www.mankatofreepress.com.

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