Reaching for the tam

An almost-comprehensive history of the grease pole tradition

Credit: 
Journal file photo

Every September, first-year engineering students enthusiastically attempt to remove a tam from the top of a grease-covered pole in a pit of mud, an annual engineering Orientation Week event known as the Grease Pole. 

The Journal looked into the origins of the most important player in this event, the pole itself. Though widely believed to be a goal post from University of Toronto’s Varsity Stadium, some people say otherwise. 

1955 — Queen’s steals the goal posts from U of T

During a football game between U of T and Queen’s, Queen’s students rushed the field at Varsity Stadium and knocked down the wooden goal posts.

New steel goal posts were installed in the field, rooted in cement. Queen’s students saw this as a challenge and after successfully dismantling the poles, brought them back to Kingston.

It’s widely accepted that the grease pole originated from the stolen goal posts. However, Vigilantes — the name for Frosh Week leaders at the time — from the first year of the grease pole tell the story differently. 

In an interview with The Journal, Jim Shearn, Sci ’59, who was present at both the dismantling of the U of T goal posts as a member of the football team and the first grease pole climbing the next year as a Vigilante, they were two completely separate events. 

According to Shearn, contrary to popular belief, the first grease pole wasn’t made from the goal posts stolen from Varsity Stadium in 1955. He claims that a taller pole with a narrowing top, designed by the Chief Vigilante and shaped nothing like a goal post, was used instead.

1956 — The Grease Pole tradition is introduced

Another member of the Sci ’59 class, David Scott, in an email to The Journal said that it was during a planning session for the Engineering Orientation Week that Tony Smith, Sci ’59, came up with the idea of first years climbing a greasy pole. According to Scott, the idea originated from a tradition from Smith’s high school. 

Consequently, the first grease pole was held on Queen’s campus. First years stood in a pile of mud and attempted to remove the tam as upper years stood on drier land and threw over-ripe tomatoes.

1976 — Female tradition broken

Until 1976, it was thought that the climbing of the pole was too unsafe for women to participate. But, according to Journal archives, in 1976 three “freshettes” (as they were called back then) participated in the climb. 

According to others who tell the story, the three women disguised themselves as men and it wasn’t until pictures of the climb were published that they were found out. 

1984 — Health hazards compromise the Grease Pole event 

FRECs — engineering Frosh Week leaders — decided to include urine, vomit, animal guts, cow heads, and rotten vegetables into the grease pole pit, according a Journal article.

Unsurprisingly, at least 25 students ended up in the hospital with hypothermia and other injuries. In an unprecedented move, the Engineering Society executives had the pole tipped over, recording a time of 162 minutes. 

1993 — The Grease Pole is stolen for the first time

The pole was stolen post-climb by members of the Sci ’92 class who infiltrated the group of Sci ’93s responsible for hiding the pole by pretending to be frosh and driving away with it. Gord Shearn, originally a Sci ’93, told The Journal that the pole was then ransomed back to the class of ’92 for a truckload of beer. 

1997 — The Grease Pole is stolen by the P.O.R.N. stars

A group of Sci ’99s, otherwise known as P.O.R.N. Stars (Pole Observation and Retrieval Network), stole the grease pole and went to bizarrely extreme lengths to do so, as reported by The Journal.

They used nine vehicles as well as a helicopter using radio communication to track the truck carrying the pole from the grease pole to its hiding spot. Sci ’99 surrounded the truck forcing it to stop, locked the steering wheel and tires and made off with the pole. 

According to the Journal article, rumours that the pole had been hidden at the bottom of Lake Ontario, in the woods of Northern Ontario, and in the cargo hold of a container ship on a round-the-world voyage highlighted the lengths to which students would go to protect it. 

Journal file photo.  

2000 — The Grease Pole is stolen … again

2000 was not a good year to be in charge of pole safety.

The grease pole was stolen before the climb by a group of fourth-year students who found the pole in a Physical and Plant Services shed by a stroke of luck.

The students ransomed the grease pole to the FRECS for: 12 kegs of beer, two Texas mickeys of Vodka, Kool-Aid, chips, pop, pizza, a receipt for hemorrhoid cream from KGH pharmacy, a notice in every Golden Words — Queen’s engineering publication — to say “Sci ’01 displaced our pole”, a letter of apology for “being so silly” to appear in a letter to the editor in The Journal and reimbursement for all expenses — which luckily for Sci ’03, did not include a helicopter. 

The pole was stolen again in late September by U of T’s Brute Force Committee (BFC). They published their ransom demands in a pamphlet cleverly dubbed Stolen Words, which they distributed on campus. The pole was displayed during U of T’s engineering celebration, Godiva Week.

2001— The Grease Pole returns!

Queen’s students heard rumors of the pole’s location at the U of T celebrations and disguised themselves as U of T students enjoying the festivities to investiagte. 

They discovered that the pole was bound by high tension cables inside a building. Luck was on their side that night as the door was left unlocked and the pole unguarded.

Their plan hit a roadblock when it was discovered that one of the legs of the pole wouldn’t fit through the door. However, they came prepared: they quickly cut off the leg with an industrial-strength grinder.

Upon its triumphant return, the grease pole was put on display in front of Stauffer Library.  

2015 — The Brute Force Committee steals the Pole back

In a press release on their website, BFC said they found the pole “neglected and unguarded” on the morning after the Sci ’19’s climb and felt “compelled to bring it to a better home.” 

BFC released their list of 22 ransom demands they hoped to receive in return for the safe homecoming of the grease pole.

The list included 26.3 pounds of Lanolin, one greasy picture of a Polish queen, a filmed re-enactment of “The Strike” episode of Seinfeld, and a recording of Queen’s frosh singing the “Pole-ish” national anthem, among many other things. 

2016 — The Grease Pole returns 2.0

A mass email was sent to engineering students containing a link to the ransom demands released on the BFC website, and a ‘Hotline Bling’ parody video in which BFC members sing about the grease pole and recreate Drake’s iconic dance moves. 

The video was described by Queen’s EngSoc Vice President of Student Affairs at the time, Alex Wood, Sci ’16, as an “impressive audio-visual experience”.

In April, after Queen’s failed to complete the ransom list, McMaster earned possession of the pole after completing the ransom list BFC offered to other universities. McMaster returned the pole in early June.

It’s now eagerly waiting to be climbed by the class of 2020. 

Journal file photo.

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