Once A Cowboy, Always A Cowboy: The History of Homecoming at the University of Wyoming

Today, homecoming celebrations are often associated with fall and football, but it may not always have been true.  The tradition of homecoming is generally a celebration of welcoming former students and members of high schools, colleges, or churches within the United States to celebrate an organization’s existence.[1]  This definition does not explicitly involve football, so the question remains about the origins of homecoming celebrations within the United States and at the University of Wyoming.

two people on a parade float that reads "Once a Cowboy, Always a Cowboy"
Homecoming Parade, 2015. UW Photo.

The history of homecoming celebrations is ambiguous.  It is often recognized as taking place in September or October and revolving around a central event such as football, basketball, or soccer game so that alumni and former students can join in rooting for their alma mater with current students and the community.  Historically, most homecoming celebrations include a homecoming court, parade, tailgate or picnic, pep rally, alumni band, and homecoming dance.

large group of dressed up people standing in gymnasium
University of Wyoming Homecoming Dance, Laramie, Wyoming, 1927 (Negative Number 14851.1), Box 11, Ludwig & Svenson Studio Photographs, Accession Number 167, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Many schools have claimed to have held the first homecoming celebrations.  The list includes Baylor University in 1909, Southwestern University in 1909, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1910, and the University of Missouri in 1911.  The main events for these homecoming celebrations were the parade and football game, where the opponent is usually the home team’s rival.

paper with text
ASUW Homecoming Committee, Box 30, Folder ASUW Correspondence Telegrams, 1919-1920, Samuel H. Knight papers, Collection #400044, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The University of Wyoming Alumni Association, established on March 26, 1895, established an annual gathering for former students and alumni of the University of Wyoming centered around commencement.[2]  The gathering usually took place in the summer months, primarily in June, and activities took place over five days.  The reunions usually included music recitals, baccalaureate ceremonies, the Cadet Ball, an alumni banquet, an alumni play, commencement, an official meeting of the alumni association, and many small-group gatherings. [3] 

letter with text
ASUW Alumni Invitation Letter, Box 30, Folder ASUW Correspondence Telegrams, 1919-1920. Samuel H. Knight papers, Collection #400044, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The first annual banquet and business meeting of the Alumni of the University of Wyoming occurred on June 20, 1895 at the Ladies Study Hall.  Annual dues for the members were set at 25 cents per person; in addition to the annual dues, members in attendance of the annual gathering were required to pay an extra dollar per person.  To put this in perspective, one dollar in 1895 is approximately equal to $29.89 in 2018.  Mrs. Reiger furnished refreshments for sixteen at $11, and members provided ice and cake.[4] At the annual business meeting, elections were held.

Despite previous years of alumni gatherings, October of 1922 is attributed as the official documented date of the University of Wyoming’s first homecoming. Dr. Samuel H. Knight, an alumnus of the University of Wyoming and professor of Geology, served as the president of the Alumni Association from 1921-1924 and served on the athletic committee.  Knight was keen on the national movement of coinciding football with homecoming celebrations and was instrumental in collaborating with the Alumni Association to move the alumni celebrations to coincide with the first football game of the 1922 season. Part of this effort included having an official setting for alumni, former and current students, faculty, staff, and the community to enjoy the games while creating a revenue stream to continue the athletic programs.  Although Wyoming football origins date as early as 1893, the football games were played in Prexy’s Pasture. 

black and white photo of group of men -- a football team.
Black and white photograph of the University of Wyoming football team, 1895 (Negative number 21209 and 25483), Box 11 A, Folder 9, Holliday Family Papers, Collection #347, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

In 1922, Knight fundraised, used his own monies and sweat equity and community connections to establish Corbett field as the new football field.   Knight also worked diligently with alumni and students to finish building the bleachers on the old Corbett field in time for the game.  It was a true community effort.

letter with text to citizens of Laramie
Thank You Letter to the Citizens of Laramie, Box 8, Folder Office-Homecoming 1929, University of Wyoming. College of Engineering and Applied Science records, Collection #550000, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Over the years alumni reunions have been replaced with homecoming and as a result of and in conjunction with societal changes, the traditions of homecoming have changed.  In 1921, the University granted its first honorary degree, an LL.D. degree, to Carrie Chapman Catt, a leading advocate for women’s suffrage.[5]  That year, Catt not only received the honorary degree but also gave the commencement speech.  Despite the first honorary degree being awarded 11 years earlier, it wasn’t until 1932 that honorary degrees became an accepted procedure. 

Beginning in 1922, the homecoming celebrations evolved and included class reunions, open houses, the homecoming dance, homecoming parades, and the football game.[6] Homecoming served as a way for the alumni, current students, and the community to come together to celebrate.  Most memorable is parade floats, which usually the fraternities, sororities, and campus organizations funded themselves.  Each year a theme would be announced and the parade floats would relate to the theme. Due to the costs of creating floats, there was discussion of canceling the parades certain years, but significant pushback from students and the community makes it one of the most beloved activities to this day. 

paper with text
Homecoming Schedule of events from 1931. AHC UW Photo Files, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Fast forward to today. Homecoming traditions of old exist and new traditions have come to be. One of the oldest traditions for UW’s Homecoming is the annual Homecoming Sing. The program is hosted by Iron Skull – UW’s junior honorary organization. The group coordinates many student organizations, fraternities, and sororities participating in an annual sing and dance competition. Groups take the music to songs and change the lyrics to match the homecoming theme.

In recent years, student group competitions have become popular to get students excited for Homecoming. The competitions often incorporate Homecoming Sing, UW Athletics annual car push competition, and other various competition-style programs throughout the week. In addition to alumni and community-focused programs, other student-focused activities occur throughout the week such as the ASUW annual barbeque.

a student on knees in a pile of shaving cream searching for words
A Homecoming Week Spirit Relay was held on Prexy’s Pasture on Oct. 13, 2015. Student teams participated in a variety of tasks to race against the clock. The Latter-day Saint Student Association (LDSSA) won the relay. Aaron Anderson, of LDSSA, searches for phrases in the shaving cream tarp. The winning phrase was the Homecoming theme, “Once a Cowboy, Always A Cowboy.” UW Photo.

One newer tradition that started in the fall of 2013 is The Big Event. Since it’s creation The Big Event has acted as the annual homecoming week kick-off event. The purpose of the program is to promote campus and community unity as UW students come together for a day to do service-oriented activities in the surrounding community. Hundreds of students gather early in the morning to receive their volunteer assignments and then go out into Laramie to provide support to community residents through the afternoon. The program serves as a way for students to say “Thank You” to their community.

person with shovel doing yard work
The Big Event, UW’s annual Homecoming Kickoff event was held on Oct. 10, 2015. Hundreds of students visited dozens of locations and homes across Laramie for a day of community service. Some painted homes, helped out with yard work or cleaned up trash. UW Photo.

The culmination of the student competitions ends with student groups, departments, and community groups taking part in the annual parade. The parade happens the same day as the football game – and is another great way for community members, students, and alumni to come together and celebrate.

And though some things have changed throughout the years — the purpose of Homecoming has always remained the same for the University of Wyoming. It will always serve as a way to build and reinforce our Poke Pride for students, alums, and the community.

Homecoming 2019 kicks off on Saturday, October 12 with The Big Event and this year’s theme is “Breaking Through.” For a complete listing of events and activities taking place, please visit the UW Homecoming website. Additionally, the AHC will have University of Wyoming items on display the October 1 – October 19. Our hours of operation are available on the AHC website.

The American Heritage Center serves as the official repository for the University of Wyoming (UW) Archives. The UW Archives not only collects the official records of the university but also accepts donations of materials documenting experiences of alumni, former students, staff, administration, faculty, and affiliated entities of the University.  Please contact Sara Davis, university archivist, by email, sarad@uwyo.edu, or 307-766-6832 for more information.

Have fun memories of Homecoming as a student, alum or community member? Leave us a comment below!

[1] Wikipedia. Homecoming. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homecoming

[2] Minute Book, 1891-1899 Box 2, Folder 2, University of Wyoming. Alumni Relations Records, Collection Number 512002, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

[3] Hardy, Deborah, Wyoming University: The First 100 Years, 1886-1986 (Laramie, Wyo.: University of Wyoming, 1986), 100.

[4] Minute Book, 1891-1899 Box 2, Folder 2, University of Wyoming. Alumni Relations Records, Collection Number 512002, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

[5] Hardy, Deborah, Wyoming University: The First 100 Years, 1886-1986 (Laramie, Wyo.: University of Wyoming, 1986), 232.

[6] Hardy, Deborah, Wyoming University: The First 100 Years, 1886-1986 (Laramie, Wyo.: University of Wyoming, 1986), 101.

Research and blog written by Sara Davis, University Archivist with contributions from Jennifer Kirk, the AHC’s Marketing & Communications Specialist


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