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Texas Aggie Bonfire 10 Year Commemoration

November 21, 2009 – 28 years ago when I moved to Texas, I heard about the Texas Aggie Bonfire and watched it a number of times on TV. I always wanted to go to one, but never seemed to find the time. Then, ten years ago, a tragic accident claimed the lives of 12 students. Texas A&M University banned future bonfires, and with the ban, my hopes of ever experiencing one was over. That changed this past Saturday night when we attended (and participated in) a commemorative bonfire put on by an Aggie couple in Conroe, TX. How we came to be part of this special event is an interesting story as well.

This past summer a number of very old, very large pine trees on epic property died. The drought made the trees susceptible to invasion by pine bark beetles. Some of these trees were 60-70 feet tall, and measured 36 inches in diameter at the base. One was close enough to our building that there was no doubt it needed to come down (in a very controlled way). I was not sure the best way to handle this, so I called the Montgomery County Extension Service to see if the trees could be harvested by a timber company, and to find out what to do with them after they were cut down.

The Extension service suggested I speak with a private forestry company, and gave me the numbers of three companies in the area. At the Burditt Company of Conroe, I spoke with John Ross, a Sr. Forester, who explained that the amount of wood I had was too small to be of interest to a logging company. Taking down this many trees could be expensive and time consuming, but he mentioned he just talked with John Leggett, a fellow looking for trees for a Bonfire. He put me in touch with John who I called to talk with about removing the trees.

At the start of the conversation, I was not sure if John was planning to charge me to remove the tress, and John seemed unsure as to whether he was going to have to pay for them.  Almost instantly we both realized we could help each other with no need for any kind of monetary exchange. I told John he was welcome to the trees, and I would even help him cut them down - as long as we got an invitation to his Bonfire!

The deal was made, and he came the next day with his wife Kristi and their 4 year old twins. One of the big pines had snapped off about 30 feet off the ground and with chain saw in hand, he went to work on that one first. Over the next three weeks, John, Kristi, the kids along with a host of family and friends came to help cut trees for the Bonfire. The amount of work these folks did was nothing short of amazing.  In spite of all the hard work (or maybe because of it) we all had a blast - we had a sense of mission and purpose. Over 20 trees were cut down, and turned into 3 foot lengths, perfect for use on the wedding cake style stack they had planned.

John and Kristi are both A&M grads (class of ’95 and ’97 respectively). John always takes the full week off before the bonfire to build it, and get this property ready for the approximately 200 people who come out for the evening. They have been doing this for 10 years, and the theme of the event is Friendship, Loyalty and Tradition, but it also helps if you root against the UT Austin football team.

In an effort to better understand more about the Aggie Bonfire, and specifically the accident, I found some very interesting videos on Youtube. One was a segment from the TV show Modern Marvels which examines the tragedy and explains (from an engineering standpoint) what went wrong. The bonfire was a project created by students for students. Mechanization was shunned, to allow for as many students as possible to participate. The video ends with an interview of former student Jim Mc Tasney. He said “Any success I have today can be traced back to Aggie Bonfire. It was the most rewarding and educational leadership experience I had at this University, and ever since”

For many the experience in being part of a project like this is one that will remain with them forever. I know it will for me – thanks to the Leggett family.

Check out the photos on the right which tells the story of the harvest along with the festivities of the night.

Posted by Vic Cherubini on November 22, 2009

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John and Keith taking down a pine tree within striking distance of the epic building.

They were able to get the tree to fall exactly where they wanted it to go using a chain and come-along.

The twins ask John to blow on their dandelions and make a wish.

John and Kristi getting ready to move yet another load of logs to their home.

Kristi took down her first big tree, and it landed right on the center of the wheelbarrow.

The wheelbarrow looked like a fatality of the harvest...but

...a little bit of convincing from a 10 pound sledge hammer brought it back to life.

On the epic property, the crew that help cut and move the trees take a minute to pose for a photo. This was a real family affair.

When we arrived at the Leggett ranch we were greeted by a big screen video and awesome DJ playing all kinds of great music.

Keith did all the cooking using his OTC (One Ton Cookers) rig featuring a 36 inch diameter smoker.  The brisket went on at 7:00am and cooked all day at 250 deg. F.

Ice cold beer flowed from a keg with tap in the side. BBQ, Beer, great music, family and friends - Life doesn't get much better than this!

The fire crew plan a strategy for setting the stack on fire. Since some of the wood was green and wet, 50 gallons of diesel fule was a big part of the plan.

Moving the tractor in place - Ron's 30hp Kabota did the heavy lifting.

The stack is doused with the diesel fule

Dousing the stack with the t.u. outhouse at the top.

Preparing the torches to light the bonfire.

John lights a smaller fire next to the big stack for all to use to light their torches.

John and Kristi said some words in memory of the Aggies that died 10 years ago, and thanked all who helped make the night possible.

John and Kristi Leggett - what the Aggie Spirit is all about.

John and Kristi recgonize several  special guests.

We were treated to a very moving rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.

Those who helped make the night possible were invited up to light the fire.

The lighting of the fire.

As the fire begins, Aggies surround the stack to sing the school song.

The warm glow of the fire was very romantic.

Heath helps to get the fire going.

By 11:00pm the stack was fully engulfed.

A close up of the fire shows the intensity of the flames

Fireworks donated by epic and supplied by Fireworks-Superstore (HW 105 Store in Conroe) were fun.

Guests enjoy the music with the stack burning in the background.

Mr. and Mrs. Leggett enjoy the glow of the fire.

Three Amigos. Ronnie (on right) helped cut the logs for the fire.

A&M Stats Prof. Dr. Alan Dabney, wife Andrea, and children Louise and Elliott enjoy the warmth of the fire.

Guest young and old enjoyed watching the flames.

The Leggett twins had no trouble finding the deserts. These are some cute kids!

The twins were decked out sporting some very cool boots.

A cooler full of jello shots always makes for an interesting evening.  More to follow...

Caution - Jello shots may cause you to jump up on a cable reel and begin dancing wildly!

Late in the evening the top of the stack falls creating a cascade of burning logs and flying embers.

Many great memories were made that night - Thanks again John and Kristi for all your hard work.