The Beating of the Homecoming Drum and the Bonfire
By Frank Chamberlain
One of the best-known and beloved Tarleton traditions is “beating the drum.” This ritual begins on Tuesday night of homecoming week and lasts 24 hours a day until the beginning of the football game on Saturday. Groups of students take turns pounding on a 55-gallon oil drum (not an actual musical instrument) with sticks, clubs, or other various objects that can withstand the impact (Traditions 34).
This tradition began in the 1920s as a way to defend the bonfire from the rival North Texas Agricultural College (NTAC). During these years, both colleges took particular pleasure in invading their adversary’s campus and prematurely igniting the bonfire. The drum was set up near the bonfire site, which was then located on the present day parking lot of the Fine Arts Center. The perpetual noise caused by the pounding would ostensibly dissuade the enemy from attempting any malfeasance. This activity was one of many defense strategies to protect this beloved beacon of school sprit. Tarleton students also placed themselves along the stone retaining walls enclosing the campus to guard against invaders. It was also common for Tarleton students to stake out highway 377 on game day in order to harass and throw objects at cars bearing an Arlington license plate. The homecoming feud reached its zenith in 1939, when a contingent of ambitious NTAC students attempted to ignite the bonfire via airplane. The heroic defense of the bonfire (led by L.V. Risinger and his stick throwing skills) resulted in one of the most (in)famous episodes from Tarleton’s past (Traditions 34, Guthrie 345-350, King 205-207).
Today, the threat of attack on the bonfire seems to be minimal. Since the 1930s, there has only been one premature ignition (in 1983). Still, the drum beating remains an integral part of the homecoming festivities although its viability as a defense mechanism has faded. The bonfire is now held at the school farm instead of on campus. The Plowboys, a campus spirit organization, traditionally builds the bonfire and its members usually camp out on the site throughout the duration of the construction process. The drum beating continues to be held on campus. The various campus organizations and residence halls work in shifts to sustain the activity throughout the week (Guthrie 350).
Guthrie, Christopher. John Tarleton and his Legacy: The History of Tarleton State University, 1899-1999. Acton, MA: Tapestry Press, 1999.
King, C. Richard. The John Tarleton College Story : Golden Days of Purple and White. Austin, TX: Eakin Press, 1998.
Tarleton Traditions: Centennial Edition 1 (1 October, 1999): 1-48.