Fall is the time of year for the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Annual Starvation Gulch Bonfire. The long-standing tradition began in 1923, when the Alaska College of Agriculture and School of Mines (the precursor to UAF) held a bonfire known as the “Bonfire Weenie-Roast” which was intended as a freshman (frosh) initiation ritual. The freshmen had to find the combustibles, stack them up on the brow of the hill and the whole thing was then lit off by Dr. Bunnell, the college president at the time.
At the first fire in October of 1923, Dr. Bunnell offered this toast
Here’s to the howling malamutes
Most liked of all the brutes,
Consumers of everything made to eat,
From fish and fritters to pickled pigs’ feet.
In life you worry the musher-man;
In death you fill a labeled can.
Now by the ever-blazing log
To your allegiance I pledge, hot dog!
Ten years later, the bonfire had become a tradition, growing into quite a local spectacle as the following newspaper article suggests:
Fairbanks Daily News Miner – October 9, 1933
Frosh Bonfire and Circus Thrill Crowd
A roaring inferno, blazes sweeping high into the sky, enthralled spectators at the annual Frosh Bonfire, Saturday night. Gallons of old oil, piles of boxes, brush and tires gathered by the “rookies” at College went to make up this spectacular phenomenon on College Hill, a hallowed tradition symbolical of the fires of learning. Freshmen ceremoniously burned their green caps in their individual fires.
A throng of Fairbanks partisans viewed the iridescent display, laughed at the circus and joined in the subsequent dance.
The “big show” amused a packed gym as pretty popcorn venders in costumes of delicate green sold out their stock to hungry purchasers. Each performance was announced by two trumpeters attired in B.V.D.’s, gaudy socks and garters. Accompanying each act comical clowns amused with freak antics.
Pretty co-ed hula dancers strutted acts that would put any Hawaiian to shame. Trainers put their beasts (animated frosh) through weird performances. Elephants, horses, wild men, savages, and a gorilla, tight-rope walker, opera singer, a seal and every innovation that no one but a collegian could originate made up this “greatest show.”
With the finale, a song by Jim Jacobsen of the gay nineties, the parade marched off to give way to the dance. The taking of photographs and moving pictures will keep the memorable event alive.
The following dance, a vivacious affair, lasted until midnight. The College orchestra of six pieces enlivened the dance. Credit for the success of the circus goes in large measure to “Chuck” Herbert, Lois Spencer, Aileen Neimi and Jim Johnson.
Note: This annual bonfire has been held since 1923, but not continuously. There were no bonfires during the years of World War II and a few years were skipped after 1969. This flaming hot history nugget has been proudly brought to you by Men’s Igloo No. 4 and Women’s Igloo No. 8 of the Pioneers of Alaska, who would like to extend a big welcome greeting to the 2019 freshman class at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Campus.