Zipping back to Zap: Tiny North Dakota town to celebrate event's 49th anniversary
***Editor's note: This story was written by John Lamb and published on May 8, 2009. This story celebrates the 40th annual celebration of the "Zip to Zap" event in Zap, N.D. This week, May 9 - 11, was the 49th anniversary of the event***
ZAP, N.D. - You'd think the annual reminder of an event that supposedly scarred a small town would call for reverence, silent reflection or even complete avoidance.
Instead, the 40th anniversary of the "Zip to Zap" gets the old North Dakota small-town treatment on May 16: a motorcycle ride, plastic duck races down a river, a pig roast as well as a polka/country band and a classic rock band.
Sometimes you have to throw a party to celebrate a party, even if it was one of the biggest debacles in the state's history.
"We don't want to relive that," says the anniversary celebration's de facto organizer, Keith Kasanke, of Zap. "We just want to have a good time."
Not many people would want to relive the events of May 9, 1969, when an estimated 3,000 young adults swept into the small Mercer County town near Beulah, outnumbering residents 10-to-1.
The initial plan, coming from North Dakota State University students, was a northern alternative to traditional spring break destinations. It was set in Zap because, well, why not?
Kevin Carvell, then editor of the NDSU student newspaper - he resigned before the "Zip to Zap" - promoted the event in a story he's called "a lark." It promised "... a full program of orgies, brawls, freakouts and arrests ... Do you dare miss it?"
News services didn't miss the story and ran with it nationwide, creating an even bigger buzz.
The town looked forward to selling Zap burgers, fleischkuechle and, of course, lots of beer to hundreds of college kids. Mayor Norman Fuchs even wrote a letter to student organizations, welcoming them to town for "good, clean, food-munching, tear-jerking, rib tickling fun."
What he got was a drunk, dirty, puking and punching mess.
The night before the scheduled events, thousands of college-aged kids got a jump on the partying. As the night went on, and the temperatures dropped, a bonfire was started with wood from a previously demolished building.
Throughout the night, the town's café and two bars were damaged, though the carnage did not rise to the "nearly demolished" headline that ran in this paper. In the morning, Fuchs had the National Guard called in to roust the weary revelers before the official party had even begun. It stands as the only time in the state the Guard was called in to put down a disturbance.
"I was getting a sinking feeling that night. It was clear it wasn't working out," Carvell, of Fargo, said last week.
After the fiasco, he moved back to his parents' home in Mott, N.D., and laid low.
"I always felt sheepish about my role," Carvell said. But he denies ABC radio's claim that he was a "paid agitator" hired by toy-maker Wham-O to hype its newest gizmo, the Zip-Zap - a game with a sliding piece of foam on a rope, of which hundreds were sent to the town before the event. He's only driven through Zap once in the past 40 years, and he "slunk down real low in the seat."
But Carvell will make his second "zip" next weekend and feels he played a role in its history.
"In a small town, it's one of the most momentous things to happen there." Carvell said. "The fact that it ended in a disaster adds to its reputation in history."
Kasanke said that over the past 20 years, the town has warmed up to marking the anniversary, but always in more peaceful ways. This year there will even be T-shirts such as "Zip to Zap revisited," "Zap's Still Got Zip" or "What's Zap-pening?"
So why is the Zap celebration marked next weekend rather than on the actual dates of the 40th anniversary, which are Saturday and Sunday?
The small town's community venues were already booked. Kasanke says there is a wedding planned for this weekend.