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Rocky Mountain oysters

Perhaps the most notorious food associated with Montana, Rocky Mountain oysters are not exactly what the name would imply. The breaded and deep fried cattle testicles are a popular item at brandings, and have inspired one of Montana's most well-known festivals, the annual Testy Fest near Clinton. Here, they are prepared for a Montana-themed party in the nation's capital.

After 35 years of drinking, nudity, debauchery and tens of thousands of Rocky Mountain oysters, the Testicle Festival is over.

The summer festival in Clinton known for all things rowdy has also been known for generating its fair share of fights, drunken driving and fatal crashes. Now Matt Powers, owner of the Rock Creek Lodge where the festival is held every summer, says enough is enough.

“At the end of the day I have to be able to hold my head up and be proud of how I make my living,” he said.

Two people were killed and seven others injured during last year’s Testicle Festival when a man who had been kicked out of the event and put on a shuttle back to Missoula allegedly grabbed the wheel, causing the Jeep to roll. Donny Barlow, 36, and 33-year-old Vannessa Anderson, who also was known by the last name Batt, were killed in the crash.

James Bayford has pleaded not guilty to two felonies for negligent vehicular homicide and another six for criminal endangerment in the case, and currently has a trial set for July.

Capt. Jim Kitchin of the Montana Highway Patrol was one of six troopers who responded to the fatal crash on the night of Aug. 5. He said from a traffic safety standpoint alone, he’s glad to hear that Testy Fest is going away.

“It saves my troopers a lot of heartache, not having to go out there and be pulling dead people off the road,” he said. “I will applaud his decision not to do that anymore.”

Anderson’s ex-husband and the father of their children has filed a lawsuit against Rock Creek Lodge, Bayford and the shuttle company that was contracted for transports during last year’s Testy Fest.

After he took over running the lodge, Powers offered bus shuttles between the festival and Missoula in an attempt to reduce drunken driving, and later contracted with another local shuttle company — the one involved in last summer’s fatal crash. But the worst of the rowdy festivalgoers found a way to cause havoc.

In 2012, the vehicle of a Seattle family driving through the area on the way to a vacation in Yellowstone National Park was hit by a pickup truck driving the wrong way on Interstate 90 by Daniel Martin, killing 8-year-old Jacob Gamble.

Martin, who was also killed in the crash, had been partying at the festival when he found a truck owned by Rock Creek Lodge, with its keys in the ignition, according to court records. He got in and took off, driving the wrong direction for nearly six miles before the truck hit the Gamble family’s vehicle, according to the records.

Patrol Capt. Rob Taylor of the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office, which partners with the Highway Patrol and adds additional deputies for Testicle Festival, said it was one of the bigger events every year for the office, which usually dipped into its pool of state funding for additional enforcement to make sure enough officers were available.

“It was an event that had an alcohol consumption element, and driving distances, and unfortunately some people are going to try to risk that,” Taylor said.

In 2005, the year Powers purchased the Rock Creek Lodge, a man was stabbed at Testicle Festival following a dispute. In 2007 a woman was arrested for stabbing a man and a woman with a butterfly knife after an argument that ensued when she flashed her bare breasts at a second man, according to records. That same year, 13 DUI arrests over the weekend were considered related to the Testicle Festival, according to Missoulian coverage.

Powers said the deaths and other highly publicized incidents around the festival weighed on his mind in making the decision to end the popular event. While additional security reduced the number of incidents at the festival, Powers said he’s discouraged by the issues some attendees have caused once they leave.

In addition, Powers said he’s also seen a drop off in attendance at Testy Fest — which frequently brings in more than 10,000 people over the long weekend — in the past six or so years as social media use has become more and more prevalent. While many of the attendees didn’t mind having footage of their festival exploits uploaded to Facebook, it was an issue for others.

“It was always kind of the party where people came and could disconnect and be whatever they wanted to be,” he said.

The festival, whose motto was ''have a ball,'' grew as much in notoriety as sheer size over the years, as thousands came to Clinton to take part in the wet T-shirt contest and the Undie 500 tricycle race.

Author Chuck Palahniuk included an essay about Testicle Festival in his 2004 collection “Stranger Than Fiction.” In 2015, Playboy magazine named the festival’s “Rocky Mountain oysters” — hundreds of pounds of which were fried and eaten there each year — as the signature food of the entire state.

Despite deciding to shut it down, Powers said he also has many good memories from the Testicle Festival, most about the people that he's met.

“I think I’ve only seen a couple of the events there twice because I’m so busy, but it’s a fun busy. You do really get to meet all walks of life out there,” he said. “It was my job to keep them having fun, as safely as I could. I do feel bad because, honestly, for the people who came, they are losing out because this really was their spot.”

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