The 1953 Homecoming Riot

‘The great homecoming riot’ of 1953 is by far one of Iowa State’s most memorable student riots. Victory over Missouri University Saturday night, October 17, 1953, led students to storm President Hilton’s front yard and protest for classes to be canceled Monday. The Des Moines Tribune estimated 300-400 students were in attendance, and when they discovered that Hilton was not home, they took to the streets. Over 2,000 students, mostly males, flooded federal highway 30, now Lincoln Way, as well as Sixth Street and Thirteenth Street at 10 pm Sunday night. Some men took to the women’s dormitories to rally more students and had to fight off Birch Hall’s chef, Mrs. Ruth Kallem.

Phi Delta Theta House Homecoming Lawn Display

Phi Delta Theta House Homecoming Lawn Display, 1953. University Photographs, RS 22/7/G, Box 1651.

The riot began with students congregating together to chant and protest class on Monday, but they built into a sort of anarchy lasting 4 1/2 hours. Twenty Ames police officers were called to the scene, but with such an overwhelming amount of students, they called in forty more law enforcers from central Iowa. Students retaliated by throwing eggs and pumpkins at officials, leading officers to throw tear gas into the crowd to try to remove students from the area. They were unsuccessful. Students began to toss gas cans back at the officers along with eggs and pumpkins.

In the midst of the riots, students built a barricade on Lincoln Way constructed of piping, lumber, and homecoming displays to resist police and prevent cars from entering. A caterpillar tractor was used to transfer material and became part of the barricade, because no Iowa riot is complete without a tractor! Students shook cars and buses that made it through the barricades and also took over a semi truck and blew its horn throughout the night. Fire hydrants were also opened and flooded the street. The police distanced themselves from the riot, hoping it would calm down on its own. This happened around 2am. The only arrest from the event was Rolf Frankfurter, 22, found trying to break into a hall, first expressing he was simply going “to try the door” but later stating that he was trying to get information from the building.  Police chief Orville Erickson stated that this was the worst demonstration he’s seen since he joined the force, and called the students “just plain nuts” rather than being resentful.

Marching band performing at 1953 Homecoming game

Marching band performing at 1953 Homecoming game. University Slide Collection, RS 22/7/G, Box 57.

Come Monday morning, students returned to class as if it were any other day, but that night nearly 3,000 students flooded President Hilton’s yard and demanded Tuesday to be a holiday. Hilton then said he would not give them Tuesday off but if they beat Nebraska on November 7, he would dismiss classes. They lost. In reaction to the riots, President Hilton stated in the Des Moines Tribune that, “I don’t feel you can penalize kids for having enthusiasm after their team wins the homecoming game.” Life Magazine arrived at Iowa State to take photographs of the riot and published them in the November 2nd issue. This featured the barricade, police officers confronting students, and homecoming lawn displays. On October 5, 1954, the Iowa State administration board approved homecoming to be from Friday at noon to Monday at noon that year, if in fact they won the homecoming game.

For more information on the 1953 Homecoming riot, stop by the Special Collections and University Archives and look through newspaper articles in the James H. Hilton Papers, RS 02/10.