By Jared Olar
Bonfires, parades, dances, and football. Homecoming is a well-loved annual high school tradition, but a survey of Pekin high school yearbooks indicates that it’s a tradition that isn’t even 100 years old locally. With the growing popularity of high school football in the early 20th century, however, it was only a matter of time before celebrations designed to stoke school spirit would become a regular feature of the football season.
We can begin our survey in 1910 – in the days before shoulder pads and football helmets. As is the case with the other early Pekinian yearbooks, the 1911 Pekinian’s account of the 1910 football season never uses the term “homecoming” and makes no mention of any homecoming celebrations or traditions. However, it does describe the game that would have been Pekin’s homecoming, using language suggesting the team and school saw that game as special or important.
“The boys were put through a hard practice during the next week in anticipation of a game with Lincoln on the home grounds. The Lincoln team had been considerably strengthened since the first game and expected to wipe out their defeat. However, the Pekin eleven, with the defeat of the previous Saturday fresh in their minds, went into the game to win, and so desperately did they play that when the whistle blew the score stood – Pekin 47, Lincoln 0.”
It’s only in the 1930s that we begin to find references to recognizable homecoming traditions in the yearbook. For example, although the 1934 Pekinian still doesn’t use the term “homecoming,” we do find a reference to a night-before-the-game bonfire in this paragraph in the account of the 1933 football season:
“Everyone was stirred over the Urbana loss and looked forward to the Lincoln game. Big signs appeared around the school. ‘Beat Lincoln’ was the cry. The night before the game a pep meeting was held on James’ Field around a roaring bonfire.”
By 1950, Homecoming was well established as an annual school tradition. In the 1951 Pekinian, we read, “A week later Streator, a Big 12 powerhouse, gunning for a share of the conference crowd, sneaked by the Chinks 27-22 on a last minute tally. The Bulldog win transformed a joyous Homecoming crown (sic – crowd) into a sea of glum faces, as Pekin suffered its second and final Big 12 loss.”
It was a very different story the following year, 1951, though, when Pekin’s football team enjoyed its first undefeated season since 1926.
Three decades later, the high school yearbook told of a homecoming game with a very different outcome than in 1950. In fact, in addition to the narrative of the 1981 football season, the 1982 Pekinian devoted a two-page spread to the pre-game homecoming festivities and game, including a full-page photo of the traditional homecoming bonfire.
Under the headline, “Homecoming Win First In 11 Years,” the yearbook tells of the traditional celebrations that year, with the theme of “Nights On Broadway.”
“The Homecoming festivities began with coronation of the new royalty. Queen Beth White and King Bjorn Gustaffson crowned by 1980 Homecoming Queen, Lori Christensen. The court included Melanie Perrin and Mike Hill, Karen Miller and Randy Leitner, Debbie Peters and Dan Tosi and Teresa Fulk and Toni Bianchi.
The festivities included skits put on by the senior, junior, and sophomore classes (“First place went to the juniors who amused the audience with their adaption (sic) of ‘East Side Story’.”), followed by an “Almost Anything Goes” games competition won by the sophomores. After the games was the traditional bonfire. The homecoming parade featured a procession of Corvettes, the traditional “fire truck adorned with the football players and cheerleaders,” and German Club’s first-place parade float, “Knights On Broadway.”
“Highlight of the Homecoming festivities came Friday night,” the yearbook says. “The Dragons topped East Peoria with an overtime victory of 21-20. This was Pekin’s first Homecoming win in eleven years!”
The 1982 Pekinian headlined its account the 1981 football season with the words, “4-5 – Best Dragon Season Since ’77,” noting the great improvement “over the previous year’s 0-9.”
“East Peoria then came to Pekin’s homecoming,” the yearbook says. “At the end of the fourth quarter the score was 14-14. [Brian] Benassi scored and [Jorge] Garza kicked both times. In overtime, both teams scored a touchdown. However, Pekin edged them 21-20. It was Pekin’s first homecoming victory in eleven years.” It was also the team’s first homecoming victory under the new name of “the Dragons.”
Shown below is a slideshow of images from Pekin’s high school football history. The Local History Room is also currently displaying an exhibit of items from Pekin High School’s football history.