Sunday, August 16, 2009

Before Woodstock there was ZIP to ZAP!

Forty years ago this weekend was the rock festival which defined a generation and which has become a major part of our national culture, especially since most of us who have any sort of direct memory (or like me, could only buy the album) are now approaching or have reached the age of 60.

Wow! And this from a generation who 40 years ago lived by the mantra “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”
While I was being reminded of Woodstock, another more obscure rock festival (and using the term loosely) came to mind. It predated Woodstock by 3 months but perhaps helped (at least in the upper Midwest) set the stage for what was to come.

I’m referring to “Zip to Zap”, an unlikely event held in an unlikely location—Zap, North Dakota on May 9-11, 1969. I remember this event and the build up to it. I was a high school senior in Grand Forks, North Dakota. I couldn’t go to the event 350 miles away because that was the weekend of the state track meet in which I was competing. (Yeah, like my parents or the parents of anyone else I knew were going to let me go!).
Zip to Zap was the brainstorm of a student at North Dakota State University who first wrote about the idea in the campus newspaper. The idea was picked up by the University of North Dakota campus paper and soon spread to other campuses in the Midwest, eventually even being reported by national media.

It was promoted as an alternative Spring Break to the long, expensive travel to Daytona Beach. Note here that most spring breaks are in late March or April and this event was scheduled for mid-May. Well, it’s just too damn cold in North Dakota to do an outdoor event like that until May.

The townspeople of Zap were enthusiastic about an event like this in their town of 250 people. They readily agreed to host it. More than 2500 college students and other assorted young people from across the Midwest poured into Zap for the event. Trouble started when the only 2 places in town with liquor licenses both overcharged for and ran out of beer very early. And of course, as so often happened during that era, the trouble and violence was attributed to “outside agitators”.
Near riots ensued and there never was much of a rock festival. A few scruffy bands which wouldn’t even be classified as good bar bands were scheduled. Revelers went to nearby Beulah and Hazen in search of more beer where “rioting” supposedly took place. A few angry souls took it upon themselves to trash a tavern in Zap and set it on fire (although some reports say that it was left overs from a demolition project which were burned as a bonfire in the street that night to warm participants in sub-freezing temperatures). Ultimately the Governor called out the National Guard to quell the “rioting”.
Zip to Zap was the lead story on NBC and CBS news on Saturday. Damages to the town were estimated to exceed $25,000 and were ultimately paid by the student government groups at NDSU and UND.

And that is the short-version of the Zip to Zap—an event which helped put North Dakota “on the map” and which “foreshadowed” Woodstock.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Mr. Blevins,

    Former fellow North Dakotan here... my husband, Chris Breitling (West Fargo, N.D.), produced the "Zap Revisited" documentary while a student at Columbia College. It's available at, cheap entertainment at $12 for the DVD, free shipping!! Thanks and enjoyed your post.
    Jackie Flaten