ND’s Zip to Zap remembered 50 years later
ND’s 1969 spring fling brings back memories for those who were there
A freshman at Minot State College in May 1969, Bruce Christianson and some of his fraternity brothers were curiosity seeking when they drove 100 miles to Zap because they’d heard there was going to be a party.
It was a party that made national news and went down in state history when law enforcement and the National Guard came in to clear the tiny town reportedly trashed by an estimated 3,000 young people who had responded to a promotion in the North Dakota State University student newspaper.
Christianson, a former Minot city alderman who now manages a Minot property company, said he didn’t witness any trouble but had enjoyed his night of socializing with other students and participants in the gathering billed as “Zip to Zap.”
“It was promoted by the big universities in Fargo and Grand Forks. We knew there would be a lot of students from there, and we didn’t know if we would really fit in or have a lot of fun, but we went out of curiosity,” Christianson said.
Chuck Stroup, now a Hazen banker but then student body president at NDSU, had proposed a spring fling for students like himself who couldn’t afford a trip to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Stroup, a Hazen native who grew up attending the garage band dances in neighboring Zap on Saturday nights, dropped by offices of the student newspaper, The Spectrum, and spoke to a staff member about his idea for a Zip to Zap event. He took out some teaser ads but the concept never went anywhere until The Spectrum itself began promoting it, he said.
Kevin Carvell, editor at the time for The Spectrum, often shares credit, or blame, for Zip to Zap, despite his efforts to avoid the notoriety. His recollection is of planning an end-of-the semester event for his staff. One of his staff suggested holding the event in Zap, so they made inside-joke references to the upcoming picnic in small type on the masthead. When the want ads for the event began appearing, Carvell said, he didn’t realize Stroup was behind it or had been the source behind the Zap suggestion in the first place.
Soon a fraternity, veterans club and the football team were wanting to attend. The newspaper embraced the spring fling idea, and Carvell made a trip around the state, including a stop in Minot, to distribute flyers and visit with student newspaper editors. Carvell also made a reconnaissance trip to Zap to write an article that was picked up and distributed nationally by the Associated Press. Stroup said it was a Minneapolis radio station that really got the buzz going.
By then, Carvell said, he hadn’t been to classes for two months and was flunking. He dropped out of school to return home to Mott. Don Homuth, who now lives in Oregon, took over as editor of The Spectrum and promoter of the Zap event.
The Zap community initially welcomed the students, planning a barbecue, music and dance to entertain them. However, Mayor Norman Fuchs had warned in a letter that the peace-loving community would take strong measures to discourage riots, according to a May 5 article in The Spectrum. The article speculated that several thousand students might attend.
Although the actual crowd has been estimated at 3,000, Carvell said there never was any kind of count and estimates are speculative. The number of out-of-state students also is uncertain, but Carvell said they likely were a small number of the largely North Dakota crowd that included both college students and young non-students.
Christianson and his friends left Minot on Friday evening, May 9, arriving in Zap before sunset to find the paved roads into town blocked by law enforcement. Turned away, they were disappointed but not deterred.
“I grew up on a farm and I knew how to get in,” Christianson recalled. They found a back road into town, joining the crowd on Main Street.
“There were students all over the place,” he said. “Everybody was having a great time.”
A bonfire was burning on Main Street, but Christianson said he didn’t see any participants engaging in behavior warranting law enforcement. He and his friends hung around, enjoying the music, visiting with other students they knew and getting acquainted with new people. Veterans clubs, including the Minot club, also had members there.
Christianson estimates it was around midnight that Friday night when he and his friends motored back to Minot.
Meanwhile, back in Zap, students, many of them becoming increasingly inebriated as the night wore on, became more rowdy. Carvell, who had arrived in Zap that Friday, became aware of trouble when he woke Saturday morning to find Highway Patrol and National Guard members rousting them from the town. Fearing repercussions were coming from the event, Carvell fled.
“I went and hid in my parents’ basement,” he said, “but calls kept trickling in.”
One media caller insisted Carvell was a paid agitator for the toy company Wham-O, the maker of the Zip Zap toy.
Gov. William L. Guy had told the National Guard on May 2 to be on the alert. The official call-out came at the request of Zap’s mayor early on Saturday, May 10. In an account recorded by the Guard 10 years ago, retired Brig. Gen. Jerry Engelman remembered commuting to Bismarck from Grand Forks, where he attended UND, with the intention of attending the Zap event. Instead, Engelman, a second lieutenant at the time, joined his Guard unit, the 816th Engineer Co., to review civil disturbance training and respond to Zap.
Al Jaeger, North Dakota’s current secretary of state, was teaching in Killdeer in May 1969 when his National Guard unit was told to arrive early for its weekend drill in Bismarck that Friday. A Beulah native who grew up attending the dances in Zap, Jaeger served in the National Guard from 1966 to 1972.
Jaeger recalled his unit was trucked from Bismarck to Beulah, where they stayed overnight in the basement of a motel. Awakened in the wee hours of Saturday, they made their way to Zap to join other units.
Jaeger said the Highway Patrol did the real routing of the students ahead of his unit as Guardsmen marched down Main Street. While he heard of pushback from students, he did not experience it.
“Not everybody who came was downtown causing problems,” Jaeger said. But he added it was the 1960s, when there were protests and riots around the country.
“There was a tension,” he said. “Our training at that time was riot control training.”
His unit helped move the youth out of Zap, prompting them to gather in Beulah. After cleaning up beer cans and broken glass that littered Zap’s Main Street, the Guard moved the youth out of Beulah and then had to move them out of Hazen before they ended up in a Bismarck park.
An article in the Minot Daily News on May 11, 1969, reported that Guardsmen swept taunting college students down a Hazen street on an overcast day with rain showers from time to time. Tight-lipped Guardsmen, whose World War II vintage M-1 rifles were adorned with bayonets, looked for all the world as though they would rather be tinkering with automobiles or fishing as students hurled obscenities at them, wrote reporter John Elliott.
Elliott, now of Salem, Oregon, remembers traveling to the community in advance of the “Zap In” to interview people.
“My recollection is that citizens and officials were upbeat about the event – more than one predicting a ‘fun’ and unusual weekend in a tiny North Dakota community,” he recalled in an email.
“It was decided that I would travel there for the gathering but not until Saturday. That, of course, meant I was there to watch the clean-up begin, hear a few curses by departing students and provide copy for our next edition on Monday,” he added. “Many citizens and officials seemed more upset about the actions of the few unruly participants than they did about the damage done to their town.”
Loss of lumber from the floor of an abandoned building, torn out to build a bonfire in the middle of Main Street, damages to a cafe, and a bar that was torn apart helped bring total damages to about $25,000.
The news article stated some goodwill was restored the next day when college students still present pitched in to help Zap residents with cleanup work. Among the volunteers were many from Minot State College.
Fund drives were held at UND and NDSU to pay for the losses.
His memories of Zap stand out less than they might have because the event occurred during such tumultuous times, Elliott said. Minot was in the midst of a major flood. Man landed on the moon weeks later on July 20, and there was growing unrest over the nation’s role in Vietnam, including a protest march by Minot State students. In addition, people still were reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, and President John Kennedy’s assassination Nov. 22, 1963.
Stroup also sees Zip to Zap as a product of tumultuous times, with Vietnam protests occurring on campuses across the country.
“That keen awareness of what was going on in the other university systems and colleges around the country certainly couldn’t be ignored,” he said. “This was not a protest, and sometimes people confused it as a protest.”
Looking back, he said, it’s unfortunate that instead of forcing students from the streets, the Guard didn’t simply move the bonfire to a safer location and shut down the bar where trouble started when alcohol prices were raised. The event might have played out more as intended had that happened, he said.
Stroup plans to attend the 50th anniversary event, and Christianson is considering it as well. The two are acquainted from having served together on the N.D. Board of Higher Education 32 years after Zap.
One of the souvenirs Christianson had acquired in 1969 was a “Zip to Zap” commemorative button. He said he was never sure what became of it until contacted one day by a researcher who found a button with his name on it in the N.D. Historical Society collection.
A small exhibit about the 50th anniversary of the event is on display all this month at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck.
ND zips back to Zap 50 years later
ZAP – Organizers of the 50th anniversary observance of Zip to Zap are planning a family-oriented celebration on May 11.
The event begins at 9 a.m. with the Zap ND or Bust 5K race. A car show runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and free inflatables will be set up from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Shakey Jake performs from 4 to 8 p.m. and Slamabama from 8:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. People are encouraged to bring their own chairs.
Admittance is free, and the event open to everyone.
Richard Simenson, who is organizing the car show, said he expects a large number of vehicles from two car clubs and numerous individuals. The first 50 entries will receive commemorative plaques. The original Zip to Zap sign that hung along the highway will be displayed on a 1969 Dodge pickup. Other memorabilia from the original 1969 event will be on display, and vendors will have souvenirs for sale.
The town is preparing for 1,000 to 1,500 people, Simenson said.
Simenson, who lives on a farm near Zap, was a 16-year-old high school student in Zap in 1969. Curious, he had come downtown to see long lines of young people, shivering in the cold while waiting to get into the crowded bar. The local grain elevator sold bags of wheat screenings as Wild Zap Weed for 25 cents, and students played a Zip Zap game that involved catching a foam sponge that slid along rubber bands.
Simenson said he left about midnight when beer prices went up and things started getting rowdy. He knew something had gone wrong when he awoke the next morning to see the National Guard.
“The townspeople weren’t prepared for the large group of people,” Simenson said. “There wasn’t enough food for them and there wasn’t enough shelter.”
Visitors shouldn’t expect those problems this time. The Zap Fire Department will put on a fleischkuekle feed at 10 a.m. Ida’s Chuck Wagon, J&J Chinese and Kimi’s also will be serving food, beginning at 11 a.m. A free shuttle provided by West River Transit will run from Beulah, where lodging is available.