Fraternity initiations call to mind many images, likely none of them involving historical re-enactments that are elaborate, well-costumed, family friendly and even a tad educational. But in 1947 the pledges of Phi Signa Mu at Rider College in Trenton, N.J., re-enacted a defining piece of local history, George Washington crossing the Delaware River. The role of George Washington was played by George Chafey, a U.S. Army veteran. Chafey didn’t like horses, so that is why he leads his troops on a bicycle in the photo above.
The stunt did have its Animal House touches—the reenactment included drunken Hessians, and the showdown culminated in a massive pillow fight. But while Washington’s original crossing helped change the course of world history, the efforts of these Rider students didn’t rewrite fraternity culture. If modern-day pledges traverse a river, it is a metaphorical river of liquor. But the re-enactment, documented by LIFE photographer Bernard Hoffman, did have one lasting echo: Five years later locals began staging their own re-enactments of Washington’s Crossing, in what has become an annual event.