They’re coming out of the woods for this one.
Hundreds of University of Montana school of forestry alumni, some from the 1950s, are in town this week for the 100th Foresters’ Ball at the University of Montana.
The traditional two nights of dancing and frolic return to 95-year-old Schreiber Gym from 7 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday, but there’s much more to it this time.
A fire management lecture on Tuesday, alumni-led tours to the Blackfoot and the airport museum and firefighting facilities, and a $50-a-plate dinner and auction Saturday before the dance and festivities at Schreiber all add to the 2017 version of the Foresters’ Ball.
It was called the Lumberjack Dance when it started in February 1916, and prearrangements were top secret, according to a history assembled by Carlie Magill, archives specialist at the Mansfield Library. A Montana Kaimin reporter asked about the plans the previous November.
“The committeemen shifted their chews and replied, ‘The features of the entertainment will be unusual and will be staged by forestry talent. We refuse to divulge more,’" the UM student newspaper reported.
Details emerged as the one-night gala approached. The dance would be free, and students, faculty and townspeople were invited. There’d be a five-piece orchestra and vaudeville acts by the foresters, a lumberjacks’ dinner served at long tables out of tin dishes “patterned after the noon meal of a lumber camp.”
Appropriate garb was expected. The wearing of a white collar would cost the wearer 10 cents. The presence of dancing pumps would be “an unpardonable breech of etiquette.”
“Flannel shirts, high boots, corduroys and hunting outfits are the order of the day,” the director said, adding the whole purpose of the dance was to introduce the rangers or "shorthorns" to the other students.
The new ball survived through the World War I years, though to attend the third one in February 1918 you had to sit out a dance and write a letter to a UM student serving overseas. Each letter mailed was accompanied by a dance program.
The ball was suspended during World War II, but shortly thereafter, in 1947, it was expanded to the current two-night format to accommodate the growing crowds.
Longstanding traditions like invitations to Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe, the theft of the head of Bertha the moose by law school students, and the installation of a Chief Push to oversee the ball started in the 1920s and '30s.
Chief Push for the 100th is Kate Page, a senior forestry major from John Day, Oregon. She selected the theme – there’s always a theme – of “Choppin’ Wood and Lookin’ Good.”
It’s not on the public schedule, but they’ll probably still hang a lawyer in effigy on the Oval this year. You can still buy a soda for a kiss, or get married for a few dollars at a chapel run by the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. A divorce costs a few bucks more.
George Hirschenberger, a retired rangeland manager and forester from the Bureau of Land Management, was Chief Push for the 56th Ball in 1973.
He recalled the annual convocation during Foresters’ Ball week, a joke- and stunt-fest once held at the University Theater, which he said was “on the ribald side.”
“I had a good friend who put it on and one year he was MC for the convocation,” Hirschenberger said. “He rode his motorcycle into the theater, down the aisle, up the steps, parked the bike on the stage and held the convocation. Then he jumped back on and rode out.”
In the 1950s, the ball was held in the new Adams Field House and became a fall event.
“The fall start date did not allow enough time to hold the popular beard-growing contest so it (the contest) was cancelled,” Magill wrote. “Eventually the event returned to being held in the spring semester and the beard-growing contest resumed.”
When the dirt surface was overlaid by Tartan rubberized surface in the early 1970s, the Old Men’s Gym (now Schreiber) became the venue again.
It remained there until 2012 when the gym’s lack of fire sprinklers forced a return to Adams Center.
Heavy drinking has always been an issue, and it reached a peak in that 2012 event when hundreds of students were kicked out or denied entry because of alcohol consumption.
Facing an ultimatum from University of Montana President Royce Engstrom, the students in charge of organizing the next year’s Ball crafted a new plan that shifted the focus from a rambunctious late-night party to a “community-outreach opportunity” focused on education and networking.
The forestry student in charge of publicity in 2013 called it an “awesome opportunity.”
“The binge drinking of the past has overshadowed how awesome this event ix,” Dylan Brooks said.
The prohibitive cost of renting the Adams Center prompted a return to Schreiber in 2015, with the contingency that the committee pay to have a fire engine and crew on hand to meet fire codes.
Sobriety is a condition of entry. Bags will be checked and all alcohol will be confiscated. For the second year a beer garden will be open for 2 ½ hours starting at 7:30 p.m. Attendees 21 and older can purchase beer, but must drink it in the beer garden.
Hirschenberger, who organized a “little rendezvous” of forestry school alums several years ago, talked another former Chief Push into running this one. Steve Shuck of Belle Fourche, South Dakota, was on his way to Missoula on Wednesday.
Hirschenberger said 9,000 alumni have been invited. There’s no telling how many will attend but one of the oldest surviving graduates of the School of Forestry is expected. Zane Smith of Springfield, Oregon, graduated from UM in 1955.
He’s biased, but Hirschenberger thinks the heyday of the Foresters’ Ball was his era, in the late '60s and early '70s when he was going and helping.
“Crazy people but very capable,” he said. “It was our identity. For all fall quarter and into the winter we dressed like we were going to the Foresters’ Ball.”
He expects to see at least 100 people he hasn’t seen in a long time.
Dick Claunch was the Chief Push at Hirschenberger’s first Foresters’ Ball in 1968 and “like a god for me,” he said.
The event of the 100th enabled the two to talk, Hirschenberger from Missoula and Claunch in South Africa, for the first time in 42 years.
“We had a dialogue via email and then on the phone,” Hirschenberger said. “That encounter has probably been repeated thousands of times. I've lost track."