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A Montana Tradition: Foresters’ Ball

The days of the Wild West, gold rushes, mining camps, and logging towns are long dead and gone….

…but for two days a year a little piece of that history is recreated on the University of Montana campus. The Foresters’ Ball is a dance held in Schreiber Gym during the first weekend of February. This is not your run of the mill dance. The gymnasium is converted into a turn of the century logging town complete with a saloon, general store, jail, chapel, chow hall, and museum. The Ball takes a week to build, two days to enjoy and less than 24 hours to tear down.

The Foresters’ Ball is on its 99th year of production, second only to football as the longest running event here on the University of Montana campus. Every year a different theme is chosen by the Chief Push. All of the money raised from the Ball is turned into scholarships for students who put in a minimum of 80 hours of work. Preparations start in September with slab runs in the Fall semester. Slabs are the unused sides of a tree cut off to square logs, and it takes almost 20 trailer loads of locally donated slabs to build the Ball.

Construction begins the Monday before Ball and runs 12 hours a day, up to an hour before Friday’s dance. To protect the gym floor, layers of drop clothes and tarps are put down first. A wooden floor which used to be used for basketball games is then installed. Buildings slowly rise from the ground over the days and the final touches are completed on Friday. Any student who puts in 40 hours of work during construction is given two free tickets for the night of their choosing.

A live band plays each night and the whole center of the gym is left open for a dance floor. The Foresters’ Ball is much more than just a dance. Patroons can visit the saloon and buy a soda for a kiss. The Student Recreation Association builds a chow hall and serves free chili and bread. The UM Chapter of the Society of American Foresters runs a photo booth for you and your friends to have a picture taken by Mike Williams Photography.

The chapel, which is run by the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, will marry any willing couple for a few bucks (and divorce you for a few more).  The money raised is donated to Camp Make-A-Dream. Like any western town, a jail is a must and Sheriffs can lock up your friends for a small fee. The jail is built and run by the Student Chapter of the Wildlife Society and is used to raise money for their society.

Sobriety is a condition of entry to the Foresters’ Ball and following campus policy, no alcohol is allowed in the Ball. Bags will be checked and flasks will be confiscated. Campus police are present at the ball as well as a group of more than 20 students called the Posse who run security. The policy keeps partying down inside the ball. Medics are stationed downstairs for injuries and other ailments.

Once you give your ticket and step inside, you’re in for the night. You can leave whenever you want but you will not be allowed back in. The ball is so well attended that a line forms outside. Every time an attendee leaves, another ticket is sold.

Tickets go on sale the Monday before the dance at The Source, in the UC. Tickets go fast, so plan to find your way to the dance and join the thousands that have been to the Foresters’ Ball and had “A Swingin’ Good Time!”