Charlie Williams (BA, ‘19) and Courtney Thompson (MA, ‘20) are student assistants in Special Collections and Archives. They curated an exhibit on Homecoming traditions through Cal Poly’s past. The original exhibit was placed on the second floor of Kennedy Library and at the downtown Alumni Office, and many of the materials they exhibited are reproduced for this blog post.
Cal Poly’s Homecoming has been a staple in its autumnal tradition. In 1924, Cal Poly launched its first Homecoming, complete with the football game and the atmosphere of an alumni reunion. And though Cal Poly had a semblance of Homecoming since 1924, the event grew over time to encompass many other celebrations.
From 1924 to the early 1970, Cal Poly students celebrated Homecoming by having a massive bonfire. As part of the bonfire, in 1927, the college introduced an event called the “Serpentine.” This was a rally of sorts where students marched around downtown San Luis Obispo singing, chanting, and cheering in the name of Cal Poly. Often, these students were accompanied by the Cal Poly Marching Band. The Serpentine would eventually make its way back to the school where it arrived at the Homecoming Bonfire and Rally. The bonfire was discontinued in the early 1970s after objections by ecology groups.
Cal Poly held its first Homecoming Dance in 1927. Well, they actually held two. Because in the early years of Homecoming there was more emphasis on the returning alumni, there was also a dance for them as well. The alumni dance continued until the late 1950s, but the students’ Homecoming dance continued until 1995.
Homecoming would not be complete without the Homecoming Court. Though Cal Poly did not allow women to enroll from 1930-1956, it did not stop them from having a Homecoming Queen. They invited homecoming courts from the local community or from other schools that had co-educational programs. It was not until 1956 that Barbara Foley was elected the first Cal Poly student queen. In 2016, Cal Poly instituted a new tradition of a gender neutral Homecoming court.
Homecoming Football Game
The Homecoming football game has been the centerpiece for homecoming celebration since 1924. Cal Poly’s first game was against the rival Fresno State Teachers College (now Fresno State). Football gave alumni a chance to cheer for their team again and show their school spirit.
One of the few times Homecoming was cancelled was for the 1960 Homecoming, which was cancelled due to the 1960 football team plane crash tragedy.
The Homecoming Parade began in 1949, and pomp and circumstance seemed to be the big theme during the 1950s and 1960s. Clubs and fraternities created elaborate floats, which followed a path through downtown San Luis Obispo. The path changed slightly year to year, however, prominent community members always judged these creations with care. A trophy was awarded to the winner for their creativity and design. The Homecoming Queen and her court also had a float and the honored guests often participated, traveling in special chauffeured transport. Most recently the parade looped through Cal Poly’s campus, but has lost popularity over time.
The focus of these festivities has been primarily for the alumni. Prominent and influential graduates are honored at each Homecoming. The Alumni Association hosts special events, including the Honored Alumni Award Banquet, 50th class reunions, and during the 1960s, Cal Poly hosted an “Old Timer’s” breakfast for some of the earliest graduates. Other opportunities for alumni included club reunions which allowed participants to connect and reminisce about their time at Cal Poly.
There have been many changes regarding the institution of Homecoming, from the Royal Court to the dances and the parade, Homecoming has always been about welcoming our alumni home.
If you would like to learn more about the history of Homecoming and other Cal Poly traditions, please visit Special Collections and Archives in Kennedy Library or online at lib.calpoly.edu/universityarchives.