A few weeks ago, Rocky Mountain College hosted its 112th annual Candlelight Dinner. While the majority of students enjoyed the lovely roast beef dinner by candlelight, not many are aware of the history behind this Rocky tradition.
Rocky, or Billings Polytechnic Institute (BPI) at the time, had many difficulties in the beginning. A transcript from the 26th Candlelight Banquet sheds light on Rocky’s rocky start.
The first major issue the Eaton brothers, the founders of BPI, faced was that the construction was not done in the Fall of 1909, when the students and staff of Polytechnic first assembled to begin school. This forced the Eaton brothers to spread the dorms and classrooms across Billings.
Eventually, when Polytechnic was ready for students on Jan. 31, 1910, there were even more issues. The campus—consisting of three dormitories for students and staff, one building that housed the kitchen and dining hall, and the Science Hall—had one massive problem those first few days: the electrical work was left unfinished.
Mrs. Mary M. Valiton, the first matron of Polytechnic, spoke about her memory of the first Candlelight Dinner at the 26th banquet. She recalled how excited the students were to finally be going to campus and how they quickly packed their trunks. The ride to campus was difficult and tiring, as they had to travel in their wagons on the muddy roads during winter.
When they arrived, everyone was exhausted and hungry from their trip, so they rushed to the dining hall for food—only to discover they had no working lights. Luckily, Mr. Ernest Eaton had a supply of candles in case of emergencies. With cans and bottles acting as their candlesticks, the Polytechnic students and faculty ate by candlelight.
Mrs. Valiton stated, “Our cook prepared cold meat, baked beans, boiled potatoes, and doughnuts. Soon the potatoes and beans were warmed. Supper was ready. What dishes could be found were used. Others had tin plates, tin covers—some had a knife, others a fork or spoon. The waiter boys served the meal in pans, passing them around, letting each help himself. Such was the first Candlelight Banquet. After supper, they sang songs, made speeches, and had a wonderful time in spite of all inconveniences.”
The first Candlelight Dinner was thrown together by people dedicated to Polytechnic. It was not fancy, rather it was the result of multiple mishaps. However, the dinner was full of good people who found the light in a bleak situation and came together to have a great time.
The first President of Polytechnic, Lewis T. Eaton, opened the 26th banquet explaining that the candles are symbolic of the light of the school and the people who made it possible. He discussed how the candle almost lost its light at times, but those hardships were necessary to be where they were in 1935.
The Candlelight Dinner tradition today takes a lot more preparation, with a lot of effort from the Rocktivities and Sodexo staff. Yet the heart of the tradition remains the same: it is a celebration of Rocky and the people who make the school possible and a fun place to be.