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From left, two workmen on the dome of Old Main, date unknown (larger image); Old Main decorated as a teapot, 1955 (larger image); Roald Fryxell climbing Old Main, date unknown (larger image).

Teapot Dome: a great gag by a serious geologist

Eagles Rest Peak, Grand Tetons, June 28, 1953: A. E. Creswell, left, and Roald Fryxell (larger image).

On Monday morning, Nov. 14, 1955, the Augustana community awoke to a strange apparition: Overnight, an enormous handle and spout had materialized on the dome of Old Main.

"Teapot Dome" was an instant sensation. A few days after the incident the Augustana Observer reported, tongue-in-cheek, that "no one was exactly sure how Old Main's dome turned into a teakettle Monday, but there were some who speculated that the Pugs and Osos were having a tea that afternoon. The cardboard and wood framework was soon removed."

The Rock Island Argus, too, attributed the prank to Augustana's Pi Upsilon Gamma and Omicron Sigma Omicron fraternities. But Augustana campus and Rock Island community members were not the only ones to notice Teapot Dome. The spout and handle were large enough to be visible for miles, and the incident received media attention as far away as Chicago.

Teapot Dome was but one particularly notable feat in a long tradition of pranks known as Augustana "phrigs," a term that likely arose from a slang expression for quickly fixing or adjusting a thing to work in a particular way. Old Main, the most easily recognizable symbol of Augustana, was always a popular target. In November 1950, for example, a group of students set up "Crazy Connie's Used Car Lot" overnight on the lawn in front of Old Main; seven cars sported humorous for-sale signs the following morning. On another occasion, students managed to hoist an entire small car to the top of the steps at Old Main's 7th Avenue entrance.

But no Augustana phrig impressed onlookers and made news stories quite like Teapot Dome. The mastermind of this spectacular prank was PUG Roald Fryxell ('56), the second-oldest son of Augustana geology professor Fritiof M. Fryxell. Having been raised by an experienced mountain-climber (the elder Fryxell wrote his dissertation on the geology of the Grand Tetons and ascended every major peak in that range), Roald had participated in numerous climbs in the Rock Island area. In the middle of the night of Sunday, Nov. 13, he gathered a group of his peers to scale Old Main, then hoist the spout and handle to the top of the building and attach them to the dome. The giant teapot was meant to advertise -- of course -- a tea.

A minor accomplishment

In the long story of Roald Fryxell's life, Teapot Dome was a minor, if diverting, accomplishment. In the mid-1960s, as a geologist in the Anthropology Department at Washington State University, he helped found an interdisciplinary program in quaternary studies. In 1965, while excavating a rock shelter above the Palouse River in Washington, he discovered the bones of an ancient figure who became known as the "Marmes Man": radiocarbon-dated to over 10,000 years old; these were the oldest human remains found in North America up to that time.

In 1969, Fryxell was one of the first scientists to examine the rock samples brought back from the moon landing; three years later, he organized a Seminar on Space Exploration at Augustana, which Neil Armstrong attended. He received his doctorate from the University of Idaho in 1971 and an honorary doctorate from Augustana in 1972.

Fryxell died in 1974 at age 40, when his car went off the road near Othello, Wash. He is remembered for his contributions to both Augustana and the broader scientific community.