MONMOUTH, Ill. — The current pandemic has caused many time-honored traditions associated with the opening of the Monmouth College fall semester to be put on hold until next year. But one particularly notable fall tradition will not return in 2021, having been banned nearly 70 years ago.
The color rush, an annual battle between the freshman and sophomore classes, was a popular tradition at many colleges beginning in the late 19th century. At Monmouth College, it took the form of a “pole scrap,” in which the sophomores nailed their class colors to the top of a telephone pole and fended off waves of freshmen trying to climb the pole and tear them down. At stake were bragging rights and, in later years, the freshmen earning the privilege to dispense with wearing the hated “freshman cap.”
The first recorded Pole Scrap occurred Oct. 20, 1902, when the sophomores tacked their colors on top of an abandoned utility pole in front of campus. After the regular morning chapel, with the sophomores prodding them, the freshmen rose to the challenge they could hardly escape. The first scrap ended when the pole was broken off and the sophomore colors were ingloriously dragged off.
The date of the annual event was a closely guarded secret. Early on the designated morning, a few weeks after the opening of the fall term, the old steam whistle on the heating plant would sound, signaling the suspension of classes and notifying contestants and spectators to assemble in front of Carnegie Library where, within the hour, the festivities would commence.
A crowd of students and townspeople, often numbering more than 2,000, would gather as freshman and sophomore men, stripped to the waist, prepared to do battle. The biggest fear among the scrappers was losing one’s pants, so contestants appeared with yards of adhesive tape wrapped securely around thighs, waists and ankles.
As the Pole Scrap tradition became entrenched, formal rules were introduced and offensive and defensive strategies were developed. There were two periods of 20 minutes each. In the first, the freshmen were given an advantage of 10 men. In the first half of the second period, each class was allowed an equal number of men. In the second half, the freshmen could have an advantage of two to one.
One of the best offensive plans involved assigning one or two freshmen to a sophomore according to size, with three men tackling the larger football players. With the principal combatants occupied, a concealed freshman would emerge from some bushes equipped with climbing irons and make short work of climbing the pole.
With the coming of World War II, the Pole Scrap had to be discontinued due to a shortage of men on campus. Instead, freshman and sophomore women staged an annual tug of war. The Scrap was revived in 1946, but six years later it was outlawed by a vote of the student government, who deemed it old-fashioned and dangerous.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.