Kenmare ND - Upside Down Under

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Upside Down Under

By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News


Zip to Zap back on the map...

Posted 5/07/19 (Tue)

Imagine living in a town of 250 people and all of a sudden 3,000 college students show up for a party that the townspeople know nothing about.

That’s what happened in the Mercer County community of Zap in May 1969. It prompted Gov. Bill Guy to call out the National Guard to stop the spring break melee. To this day it is known as the only riot in North Dakota history.

Many of you are going to remember Zip to Zap, a huge college party that predates Woodstock by about three months.

In the ‘60s, just like they do now, most college students go on spring break to places like Florida, the Carolina coast, the Texas coast and California.

Early in 1969, Kevin Carvell, the editor of the Spectrum, the North Dakota State University newspaper, wrote an editorial suggesting that college students go  to Zap for spring break instead of Fort Lauderdale.

Carvell wrote the editorial as a sort of satire piece, but it quickly gained traction and many college newspapers picked it up and reprinted it, piquing the interest of college students across the nation.

They began to converge on Zap, 13 miles west of Beulah and the next thing anybody knew, there were an estimated 3,000 people literally dancing in the streets and drinking the local tavern dry.

But when they started lighting fires and urinating on lawns, that’s when the locals had enough.

The Mercer County Sheriff’s Department was unprepared to handle such a crowd of rowdy young people so the mayor requested Gov. Guy activate the National Guard.

Zip to Zap was short lived. The massive party took place on May 9, 1969 and by 6 a.m., on May 10, the National Guard began dispersing the crowd.

Unfortunately, they didn’t just go back to their homes. Many of them drifted into Beulah, Hazen and Bismarck.

Historical accounts of that weekend, indicate some of the students went into a grocery store in Hazen and grabbed products off the shelves and made themselves sandwiches as they walked around in the store looking for  more.

There were gas drive offs, squealing of tires around town and worst of all, some of them taunted the police.

One Zap resident remembers Walter Cronkite talking about Zap on the CBS Evening News.

But not everyone was in a destructive mood. Some of the students came to Zap just to meet other college kids and unfortunately got stuck in that party that escalated out of control.

There was approximately $25,000 in damage that NDSU and UND student governments paid for after feeling responsible for getting the party started and tearing up Zap.

There’s never been anything like it before or since. Some historians call it an histerical historical event and others consider Zip to Zap as a “goofy piece of North Dakota history.”

But the residents of Zap, now they beg to differ. Yes, it was a problem back in May 1969, but it put Zap on the map.

Since that time, Zap has been like every other small town in North Dakota. It has an annual  festival to celebrate the summer and the town’s heritage.

This year Zap is taking it up a notch. Because it is the 50th anniversary of the infamous riot, the town of Zap is putting on a celebration to commemorate the original event.

They’re calling it “Zap, N.D. or Bust.” There will be a 5K run, inflatables for the kids, a classic car show with 1969 models featured, food vendors and two live bands.

Most everyone believes it’s doubtful the 1969 version will be repeated and that’s a good bet because most of those college students are now in their 70s.

But, this event on May 11 is already getting some generous media coverage so don’t be surprised if those who are able to travel, will wind up in Zap. That could include the former college students as well as some of the National Guard troops who squashed the riot.

Nostalgia will no doubt play a part in the 2019 version. Some will want to see how Zap has changed or stayed the same. Others may want to once again meet up with old friends and still others might just be interested in what the community of Zap is putting together.

A Zip to Zap 1969-2019 Facebook page has been established so people can keep up with the countdown. They’re also selling the Zap, N.D. or Bust T-shirts.

Will 3,000 show up? Probably not, but there will be a crowd and there will be media coverage.