Bonfires at Guilford

“Quakers Defeat A&M [NC A&T] in Close and Exciting Game. Great Improvement of Team Arouses Students’ Enthusiasm---Bonfire Celebration.”
(The Quaker, 1916, pg. 142.)

“Beat Elon 14-0! Big Thanksgiving dinner and a bonfire on Hobbs Field.” 

(The Quaker, 1927, pg. 33.)

Guilfordians love a good bonfire. Always have. In fact, an old dairy barn on the campus once became a bonfire following a basketball tournament semifinal win. It seems removal of the dilapidated "ol' barn" was already planned but following the victory and berth in the title game, joyous students took matters into their own hands by torching the structure, removing it ahead of schedule! I guess it was their ode: a funeral pyre for a timeworn relic of the campus landscape. Well that, and like most Guilford students past and present...they favored bonfires.

From the 1949 edition of The Quaker :

"Guilford went into the North State tourney and upset all the dope-buckets by beating the stuffing out of top-seeded Catawba...Mann and Ralls were high scorers as everybody in Chatham Gym was hollering for the Quakers...Coach Lentz and Hank were carried off the floor...
down went the barn in a burst of long awaited glory."

Guilford College dairy barn goes up in flames following the Guilford men's basketball team upset of top-seeded Catawba College in the semifinals of the North State Tournament, Feb. 24, 1949. 
(Source: The Quaker.)

Only a year prior, there was this entry in 1948's The Quaker noting the campus response to a football loss at an away game:  

October 25—Up at 5:00 a.m. to welcome the returning football team, 
built a bonfire and cheered.

(Let that sink in for a minute...most of the student body awoke before dawn and built a bonfire to greet the team, returning from a loss on a field at least 4 hours away!)

The Guilford College bonfire tradition goes back decades and generations. As I recall, we didn't need much of an excuse to torch a few old stumps or dead trees near the lake. Homecoming? Always. Weekends? Usually. Serendipity? Of course. A random Tuesday night during mid-term exams? Sure, why not. There is nothing quite like carousing around a big, raging fire in tribal fashion with several hundred of your fellow students. Back then, we didn't need to notify administration or apply for a "burn permit" from the city fire department days in advance; we just had them whenever. As long as it was on the lake shore and things didn't get too out of hand, the administration, campus security and the fire department let us be. Things were "consumed" but folks made it back to their rooms safe and sound, the fire was snuffed out at a (reasonably) decent hour, and we always left the beach tidy. (Of course, back then, burn permits weren't needed, droughts were less frequent and "public safety officers" were more akin to night watchmen - just a few students in "Security" shirts with flashlights, walking around campus.) Bonfires facilitated campus unity and were a fun, cheap diversion from the bars and nightspots of neighboring Quaker Village.

However, in recent years, our love of bonfires has created a bit of a schism on campus, pitting students against the administration over the location and intensity of the impromptu blazes. It seems the students had migrated their preference for the burns from the lakefront to deep in the Guilford College woods.

This upset the admins due to the implications should things get out of control and a venerable, historic forest (that predates all of us) become one massive bonfire! Students rebelled, admins pushed back. Neighbors of the campus woods, including some alums and professors, weren't crazy about the raucous late-night burns and resulting litter so close to their abodes. Student safety was of paramount concern for the school, the woods being too remote to monitor, as was the possibility of liability and litigation should injury occur. The students felt the bonfires brought differing campus groups and cliques together, thus building community, and that the school was being heavy-handed. There was talk of compromise, with the admins suggesting a return to the lakefront (with appropriate permits); the students felt that would negate the offhand nature of the burns. Both sides had legitimate points and concerns.


"The Mosaic" bonfire pit (and its frequent litter). At one point, there was an adjacent "Bar Pit," with an actual bar made from a plank of the old rock climbing wall. 
(Photo Credit: Meg Stern; The Guilfordian)

True to Quaker fashion, the debate raged on and the two sides hashed it out to ultimately achieve consensus. The seniors of the class of 2012 decided to bestow as their class gift, a beautiful, safe, sturdy "bonfire pit" on the shore of the lake, where hundreds of bonfires were built over the years.

Bonfire pit donated by the Class of 2012. 

(Photo by: Guilford College.)

Is everyone happy now? Can we all get along? I hope so, because the Guilford bonfire tradition needs to be upheld. Note to the administration: this is essentially a large fire pit, similar to backyard pits everywhere. It's safe, and it looks like you've supplied ample trash/recycling bins. So, tell "P-Safe" to back off and let the kids party a little. Note to students: pretty good compromise. Now, how about actually using the trash bins?

(The debate and related stories, courtesy of The Guilfordian here:

(* Photo of Guilford College Woods sign from personal collection.)

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