Every spring, droves of students congregated on the banks of the Huron River to watch freshmen and sophomores battle it out in a massive tug of war match across the water. The match was over when the anchor of the opposing team was dragged into the icy water.

Kelly Fraser
Freshmen and sophomores engage in a tug of war battle over the Huron River during the 1924 spring games ((Courtesy of the Michigannsian).

A referee – typically an upperclassman and athlete – looked on from a canoe or an island in the river, while thousands of spectators watched from the banks.

Once assembled on the banks just below the dam, the contenders were divided by weight, and captains selected sides. The river’s north bank was considered a heavy advantage, as it’s footing was far superior to the south bank.

In 1918, the freshmen managed an upset from the south bank, marking the first win from the historically unfavorable side of the river.

Some years, the match lasted less than a minute, while in others, the battle of strength raged on for over an hour.

The tug of war was the highlight of the annual spring games, which also included an obstacle race, a game called “pushball” in which the two teams attempted to keep a 6-foot tall leather ball in the air and maneuver it across a goal line. The other game that drew large crowds was a version of capture the flag in which the winner was the first team to climb a greased pole and retrieve the other team’s flag.

The student council started the games in 1905 as an outlet for inter-class rivalries. At the time, tensions between freshman and upperclassman were high and hazing practices were escalating. The games were originally scheduled in late October to signal in end to the hazing period at the beginning of each year. The tug of war continued into the 1970s.


– Information for this article was gathered from materials at the Bentley Historical Library.

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