By Brad Reynolds
A decade is not easily defined by a single event. But we’re quick to make associations.
The Thirties are characterized by the Great Depression. The Forties had WWII. Elvis’ television debut reflects the zeitgeist of the Fifties, and just mentioning “the Sixties” almost certainly conjures up images of Woodstock.
An event which defines life in the 1970s is a bit trickier to pinpoint, but if we narrow the focus to Montana, then perhaps the Aber Day Kegger—the Treasure State’s own Woodstock of sorts—best typifies the decade.
From 1972 to 1979, this ambitious fundraiser grew into an annual event so large that it made its way into the Guinness Book of World Records. For years, tens of thousands gathered on the outskirts of Missoula for good vibes, great bands, and gallons upon gallons of beer.
Thousands of Students
Sociology Professor Marty Baker was new to the University of Montana in 1971, but students quickly took to him. His distaste for school politics endeared him to many. His unconventional, down-to-earth teaching style inspired them.
It was in this typical freewheeling fashion that Baker challenged his social action class to develop their own community service project. The class mulled it over, and though there were plenty of causes worthy of their time and effort, it was suggested that Missoula’s most pressing need might be right there on campus.
The school’s budget had been cut considerably, and the library had been all but defunded. Without proper backing, new books and resources couldn’t be purchased, and the library’s accreditation was in jeopardy.
So, there in Baker’s class an idea sprouted; What if the students organized a benefit for the library? Could that work? Would their peers support such an event?
At lower Deer Creek in 1972, the first library fundraiser was held—a colossal benefit kegger with live music and unlimited beer. University Liquid Asset Corp. (ULAC), the student group that organized the kegger, had no problem getting the student body to turn out for the event; Montana had dropped the drinking age to 19 the year prior, allowing most college kids to consume beer legally. Furthermore, under the advisement of UM Dean Robert Panzer, the event was scheduled the same day as the recently revived “Aber Day” campus clean-up, which provided students a one-day hiatus from classes.
With every reason to go, students flocked to the kegger by the thousands.
And by thousands they drank.
Thousands of Kegs
With the success of the first benefit kegger, the library fundraiser became an annual tradition. On May 16, 1973, students swarmed Bonner Flats to drink 200 kegs of beer and jam to the lineup of five (relatively obscure) performers.
By 1975, the event had exploded in size. Now at the K-O Rodeo Grounds, the “Aber Day Kegger” (as it was colloquially known) featured acts like Doug Kershaw and the Mountain Mission Wood Band. Musicians played not only to the crowds flooding the arena, but to the solid wall of kegger-goers on the hillside facing them.
Olympia Brewing Company supplied the kegs—15,500 gallons of beer total, with 36 tap stations and 108 kegs tapped at any given time. For just $8, you could get in and drink as much ice cold Oly as you wanted.
As Olympia continued year after year to truck in kegs by the thousands, ULAC contracted the best in musical entertainment. Jimmy Buffet and Heart played the Aber Day Kegger in ‘76, and most years, Mission Mountain Wood Band appeared in—or headlined—the event.
Even in ‘78, when the sky let loose a constant drizzle, ten thousand sloshed and soggy kegger-goers stood on the hill to listen to the likes of Elvin Bishop and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
Rain or shine, the benefit was always a success.
Thousands of Dollars
Aber Day may have been Zoo Town’s favorite party of the year, but it was first and foremost a fundraiser. Tens of thousands of dollars were raised on behalf of the university campus library, the local Red Cross, the Missoula County Humane Society, various student organizations and activities, and other worthy causes.
In later years, the actual Aber Day was among ULAC’s beneficiaries. The kegger had become so closely associated with the campus clean-up that the two had practically merged into a single event. In 1975, two posters were plastered throughout the UM campus: one for the Aber Day Kegger, its lineup, price of admission, and other details, and one for the Aber Day campus clean-up, which was to be followed by milder activities, such as a BBQ on the Oval, a sack race, and a silent movie screening.
Whether you were a wild child, flower child, or wall flower, you could support your community and enjoy yourself in the process. Aber Day was a day of altruism and togetherness; that’s how it was envisioned by Professor William Aber (for whom the event was named) at the turn of the century.
Aber Day occurred annually but was discontinued in the Thirties because students kept turning it into a raging party. It was revived in the Fifties, but again, students became too rowdy, and the university put a stop to it.
Aber Day’s third incarnation was not long for this world either. Despite all the money the kegger benefit had raised and all the good it had done, by the end of the Seventies, ULAC had hit some insurmountable obstacles. The budget had grown too large, there was pushback from local politicians, and the university had distanced itself from the event altogether. In fact, ULAC changed its name to MLAC (Missoula Liquid Assets Corp.) at the request of the school.
Ultimately, the Aber Day Kegger went the way of Aber Day’s previous incarnations; it fizzled away with one final shebang and faded into memory.
Millions of Memories
“Aber Day is part of why I wanted to move back to Missoula,” says Monte Dolack, the renowned Montana artist whose works are featured in the Library of Congress. “The music scene, the deep connection to the outdoors and community—I liked everything about it.”
Dolack left Missoula the year Aber Day started but returned in ’74. The trip home coincided with that year’s benefit kegger, and it blew the aspiring artist away.
In ’77, he designed the Sixth Annual Aber Day Kegger poster.
“That show was so much fun,” he remembers. “I walked right up to Bonnie Raitt. She was so good, so drop-dead beautiful; I was star-struck! I kick myself for not asking her to sign my poster.”
Dolack is one of many illustrious Montanans with stories to share about Aber Day. In 2009, thirty years after the final Aber Day Kegger, a documentary about the Missoula phenomenon aired on Montana PBS. Mission Mountain Wood Band provided the score for the film, and band members Rob Quist and Steve Riddle offered their musings on the subject, along with 30-some other interviewees.
Additionally, the documentary (which can be purchased at aberdaykegger.com) contains actual footage of the benefit keggers, 1977-1979. MLAC had hired Bruce Barrett to film the last three keggers, but at the time, no one had any real plans for it.
Bob McCue—who presided over Aber Day’s last hurrah in ’79—put the footage in a box, where it sat in his basement for the next three decades. But as the 30th anniversary of the final benefit approached, it became apparent that Aber Day was a story worth revisiting. McCue and his MLAC predecessor, Jeff McNaught, pulled the footage out of storage, and with the help of filmmakers Becca Sayre and Marcus Chebul, they set to work putting together their movie—an exploration of Aber Day’s history and its significance to their community.
“After thirty years, people still have memories about it, but after forty years they may not,” said McCue in 2009.
It was important to all involved that those memories—and the story of Aber Day—not be lost to time.