History & Tradition

Stanford University History and Tradition

Stanford, for such a young school, has a fascinating history. Our campus tradition and culture are second to none. See below for a sampling of Stanford spirit.

History of Stanford University

Stanford was founded by Governor and Senator of California Leland Stanford and his wife Jane. Their only son, Leland Jr., passed away at the ripe age of 15, after contracting typhoid fever while traveling in Greece. His parents felt that a university was the only appropriate memorial to their son and Leland Stanford Junior University opened its doors just five years later in 1891.

The Stanford Axe

The Stanford Axe is the phyiscal manifestation of the rivalry between Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley. Originally used by Stanford yell leaders in 1899, the Axe is now the trophy awarded annually to the winner of Big Game. Learn more here.

Big Game Bonfire

Bringing the campus together for a Rally during Big Game Week has been a Stanford tradition dating back to ’98 (1898 that is!). This was the first year that students constructed a gigantic bonfire around which to celebrate the upcoming humiliation of the Weenies. The Bonfire quickly became an iconic part of Stanford’s rivalry week as students and members of the surrounding community gathered each year to rally around the flame in the dry lakebed of Lagunita.

After decades of successful rallies (despite nefarious plots from across the Bay to disrupt them), university officials were eventually forced to cancel the Bonfire in the mid-1970s due to safety concerns over the construction of the Bonfire’s frame. But after a decade-long dry spell, the Axe Committee brought the Bonfire back to Lagunita in 1985 with impressive fervor. The new Bonfire measured 60 feet wide by 40 feet deep, with flames licking 40 feet into the air. As many as 5,000 wooden shipping pallets were used to construct a fire of that size! Unfortunately, research conducted in 1993 indicated that the lakebed was a breeding ground for the endangered Tiger Salamander, and the Axe Committee decided to suspend the Bonfire Rally until further data could be collected.

Since the cancellation of the Bonfire Rally in Lagunita, smaller Big Game Rallies have been held each year in various locations on campus. In recent years, the Axe Committee has revamped this great Stanford tradition with spectacular rallies that have combined pyrotechnic special effects, a full-scale firework show, and fiery tributes to the Big Game Bonfires of years past.

Beat Cal Photos

For decades, Stanford fans traveling around the world have used iconic international landmarks as the backdrops to stage clever and spirited Beat Cal photos.  This tradition has grown especially popular among Stanford students who elect to study abroad, and serves to remind our rivals across the bay that the phrase “Beat Cal” transcends borders and requires no translation.  Explore the Axe Committee’s collection of Beat Cal photos by clicking here.

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