The Great North Dakota Zap In

Kari Dell was discussing Beach, ND this morning and it reminded me of odd names for towns. Tarzan, Texas was named after the fictional character. So the story goes, a man in what is now Tarzan wanted to incorporate the community and get a post office, but every name he came up with was already taken. He was sitting in his easy chair, filled with frustration and happened to glance at a comic book his son left on the floor. A Tarzan comic book. The man filed the name and Tarzan, Texas was born.

When I was in high school, some brain decided it would be awesome to hold a Woodstock type event at the little town of Zap, N.D. We played zap in our school athletics and our town population was around 400 at the time. Zap was even smaller. Anyone with half a working brain cell would know this isn’t a great idea. Zap was not prepared for a huge influx of people. It certainly wasn’t prepared for the national media attention the event got. Some people say it was to protest civil rights or the Viet Nam war. Bull. It was an excuse for college kids to go someplace “cool” drink, screw and do drugs until they ran out of money and friends.

And thus the Great North Dakota Zap In was born. I noticed some people call it the Zip to Zap, but it was pretty much known as the Zap In and hippies, college kids, motorcycle outfits and news crews from around the nation seemed to converge on this sleepy little town.

Mom was a bartender at the Killdeer Bar and Steakhouse in Killdeer, N.D., hence the name. Ella, an elderly, rather portly woman who always wore a floured house dress straight from the 1940’s and a white bib apron cooked in the “steakhouse,” which could serve about 20 people at a time if everyone scrunched up together. Ella did server good food and lots of it, so that’s where most people ate when they came to town. Plus, the adjoining bar was the hot spot in town and you could eat in there if the café was full or you just didn’t want to interrupt your drinking.

Just about everyone in Killdeer and the surrounding area had serious misgivings about all these kids descending on North Dakota with their drugs, loud music and drinking, but I’m sure a few people in Zap thought the publicity for the little town would be great and they would get rich.

So, two days before the great Zap In, I’m at the Laundromat next to the steakhouse with my younger brothers and sisters doing the laundry. Ella waddled up the stairs from the steakhouse, which was in a basement under the community hall. The streets were quiet with quiet with the exception of the city police officer, Gus Pusechenko who weighed so much the police car permanently sat at an angle even when he wasn’t in it. Thankfully, there wasn’t a lot of crime in Killdeer aside from some rotten kids who placed empty beer cans and down the center line of main street every 12” from one city limits sign to the other. That, and the resulting fine for malicious littering, is a story for another time.

This day, however, there was a motorcycle coming down main street. You could hear it from past the city limit sign. I looked out the Laundromat window to see who it was and recognized Gerald, one of our star football players in his orange and black letterman’s jacket.

Ella, however, who had already vowed to lock herself in her house lest the wanton motorcycle gangs from the Zap In descended on Killdeer, didn’t recognize Gerald. She just saw the black leather on the letterman’s jacket and the motorcycle.

Since Gus was not around, she ran down the streets, waving her white apron and screaming, “Hell’s Angels! Hell’s Angels! Lock your doors!” I suppose she screamed that all the way home where she locked herself in until someone assured her it was just Gerald and not an outlaw motorcycle gang scout.

While Killdeer avoided overspill from the Zap In, Zap took the full brunt of having thousands of people swarming a tiny town with not nearly enough facilities to handle them. Food ran out. Water ran out. Booze ran out and the make peace, not war gathering turned to a full-blown riot. The town asked people to leave and some did, but the remaining unhappy flower children stayed and continued rioting. The National Guard finally arrived to disperse the crowds and that was the last Zap In or Zip to Zap or anything else zippy and zappy aside from some spirited basketball and football games.

The Zip to Zap is the only event in North Dakota history that required National Guard to restore order. Unfortunately, half of the towns bars and cafes did not survive the Zap In and both of them were destroyed in the riot.

As to where the name Zap comes from? Supposedly it’s named after another coal mining town in Scotland named Zapp, but no such town exists.


  1. 1969 in May. Some college kids in ND couldn’t afford to go to the big spring breaks so they decided to have one in Zap. It caught the national media attention and voila! Instant riot.

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