The Old Broke Rancher on the Biggest Kegger in the History of Lewistown, MT
In the late 1960s there was a phenomenon known as keggers. I don't know whether the tradition survives into the present day, and if they do, I wouldn't seek them out. At my advanced age, my idea of a party is a shot of pepto bismol and going to bed at 10pm.
But back when the world was young, I liked two things more than almost any others: the great outdoors, and a frothy beer. Whatever patriot first conceived of joining the two was a gentleman and a scholar. If there was a third thing I enjoyed at that time, it was making a fool of myself trying to impress young ladies, which I set about accomplishing by trying inasmuch as it was possible to look like Michael Landon.
Now, I wasn't that genius who invented the kegger, but I liked to think I perfected the complicated dance that was attending one. A good practitioner of the art can walk around with the obligatory tall red plastic cup half full of beer, and meet each and every person at the party, paying special attention to the ruddy-cheeked farm girls who turned my eye at that time.
They are a blast for the socially inclined. You only have to approach someone, perhaps one of the oh-so-sophisticated seeming college girls back in Lewistown for summer break, flash a friendly grin, start the conversation with, "Hi, I'm Gary, yes, just like Gary Cooper, what's your story?" That, with a generous splash of Brut, and I thought I was a paragon of charm. I listened to their story, paying attention to all the details, but as you might have gathered if you're a regular reader, I preferred to talk about myself.
The greatest kegger of all time, not just in the annals of Lewistown history but very possibly of the world's as well, was in 1968. I was a tender greenhorn of 17, and I brimmed over with pride, ambition, and stupidity.
Now, this kegger was well advertised - a little too well, as it turned out later - and nearly everyone in Lewistown under 21 knew admission could be gained for five bucks per head (a princely sum in those days) to cover the beer and brats. The party was to be held on the first long weekend of the summer, just after school got out. It was to be in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains, at a well-known campground 20 or so miles southwest of Lewistown. It was the social event of the year, with apologies to the local Elks Club.
The trick was to make sure that it was widely communicated to the expected attendees but secret from parents and authorities, for what should be obvious reasons.
Four years older than me, my sister was home from college, where she was receiving nurses training in Spokane. She represented perhaps the oldest of the party-goers, at 21. After all, if it was legal to drink, it was a lot less fun. I was a sophomore, just going into junior year high school.
I asked her, "are you going to the secret kegger?"
"Shut up, dummy. Not so loud," she said. "Of course I am."
I began to realize that this party, where almost every high schooler and college kid in the county ran the risk of being, oh, just a trifle too well-attended! Most successful keg parties were a little smaller in size, a little easier to keep quiet, and a lot easier to hide the location.
Still, the social risks of not being seen attending the most important social event in Lewistown's history were too dreadful to be borne.
My best pal Tom and I decided to scout it out. What we needed was a plan.
At the time my old car was a Rambler Classic, not a flashy car at all, and the perfect vehicle for traveling incognito. A fishing pole or two, a creel, basket, hat, and coat completed the look. So we drove out to the party's proposed location and scoped out the lay of the land.
We found a secluded road that ran off into a cow pasture in the creek bottom. It was the typical foothills of the mountains kind of creek, forested in the very bottom. The road then split and went up a slight hill and ended at a cattle stock pond also well hidden in the trees. We looked closely and could not find any signs indicating we could not park there.
The spot was less than a half-mile walk along the original road to the party location.
Next, we did a reconnaissance of the actual party location, noticing a couple of grand old Willow trees near the campground's periphery.
Noting that willow trees are easy to climb, we began to form a strategy.
Some of the organizers had already hauled in several truckloads of firewood and dumped them off at the fire pits. There were probably ten such pits, all lined with rocks, and at the ready. From the looks of the place, they were expecting a couple hundred party goers, and campers.
Having formed a plan, it remained only to brief my sister and her friends.
"Don't take a car, get a ride with someone else, see? I've got a car hidden there already, and don't wear something stupid and colorful like tie-dye. Wear dark clothes, bring a flashlight, and a pair of sturdy boots. For climbing."
"Twerp," she said.
I made it clear that I expected trouble, and they should heed my warnings.
My pal Tom and I were dressed like ninja warriors, all in black. After parking in the aforementioned spot, we proceeded to walk the rest of the way to the party.
As expected, the party was a veritable who's who of teens from Fergus Country. It started just after sundown and raged on into the night. There was a steady stream of car headlights coming and going, to and fro, along the gravel road leading to the event. Starting about 11pm my ninja pal Tom noticed that some of the cars just got near and then turned back. We thought that a little strange and concluded they were most likely from the Sheriff's department.
I began keeping an eye on the constant whereabouts of my sister.
Walking over to her, I hissed, "standby for further notice - at my word, prepare to climb that willow tree yonder! I smell a rat..."
"Moron," she said.
She and her companion Mary Alice surely understood that I, being a notorious escape artist with a reputation for being as yet uncaptured despite my penchant for making trouble, they should probably do what Tom and I suggested.
Just as Tom and I predicted, we noticed a line of vehicles approaching the event traveling slow but steady. The closer it got, the more it looked like a parade, complete with busses. That is when I noticed the lead car bounced along the dirt road with the unmistakable poor shocks of the County Sheriff's beat-up old Ford Fairlane.
I gave the alarm to my sister and Mary Alice to take quietly to the tree.
They quickly signaled their assent by calling me a half-wit. Even so, they beat a path to the tree - and I noticed that they were both in the suggested boots and jeans.
The tree was near the entrance to the campground from the gravel road, where Tom and I reasoned it would be the last place they would look; and since they parked almost directly under it, we were correct.
Suddenly the field was awash in red and blue lights, sirens, and the squawking cacophany of a bull horn announcing, "Sheriff Department, stay where you all are! Put down those beer cans now!"
Of course, all hell broke loose.
For those who had not planned their egress ahead of time, escape was impossible. Nevertheless, the youth of Lewistown scattered as precipitously as a gaggle of astonished antelope.
The party was busted. The kids were rounded up and herded into the busses to be sorted out in town. A few runners attempted to hide in the trees, but all were taken into custody over the next half hour or so.
All, that is, except for our little group up in the tree, sitting quietly with our feet dangling down just a few feet above the Stetsons of the deputies who never, not even once, thought to shine their flashlights into the trees just overhead.
The final tactic for the officers, to account for all, was to walk among all the parked cars, record license plate numbers, and check for hidden kids.
Soon the bust was over, and the whole parade took off back to town, we presumed to their bookings. We waited about 30 minutes more, climbed out of the tree, and headed the half-mile down the creek to my parked car. From there we exited stage east. One good thing about the country is that along most section lines you'll find a dirt road. That leaves many possible routes to take back to town, giving us many possible vectors of escape.
Sunday after dinner, Dad sat smoking his cigar and perusing the Sunday News Argus. The News Argus "covers Central Montana, like the stars," and sure enough, under the police beat, there was a lengthy write-up about the constabulary's success in having busted the colossal party.
Adding insult to injury, they even listed the names of the offending underage teens, meticulously arranged in alphabetical order by last name, then first, followed by the listed citations.
The few adults, among whom my sister could well have found herself were it not for my careful planning, were cited for contributing to the delinquency of minors, mostly listed as being in possession of alcoholic beverages. There were also an unhappy few that resisted arrest, and were listed as such, rating a mention of disorderly conduct. The haul was impressive, to say the least, and I have no doubt that for at least a handful of the more despotic sheriff's deputies of Lewistown it was among the proudest moments of their lives. Some of them probably remembered it for years after.
Dad read the whole article, dragging a calloused forefinger down the column of names until he reached the bottom.
"Well, would you look at that, Marion?" he mused out loud to Mom, "our children weren't arrested this weekend. But the rest of the whole damn town was. Does that strike you as strange?"
"Not in the slightest," she spat, pursing her lips. "Our children wouldn't be caught dead at a fracas like that. We didn't raise no heathens."
Yet Dad turned it over in his mind while he chewed his cigar, and I could tell from the set of his jaw that he found it a little strange that his children were not listed.
He turned to my sister, knowing she would be incapable of lying to him, and said, "what did you do last night, then?"
She replied, "I just hung out with Mary Alice."
Just then, Mom nodded in pious approval and got up to clear the table. Dad, who I have gathered in the years since was himself a bit of hellion in his youth, looked at me sideways.
"Went to bed early with a book, sir," I said. Then, pushing it a bit too far, I added, "studied the catechism." Under the table, my sister kicked my shin.
"I suppose that's how your boots got muddy," Dad said, looking over his glasses. "And why the car was gone last night."
My cover blown, I set about trying to swallow a mouthful of dry biscuits. But to my relief, the Old Man just winked.
Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy. Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV. Hell, scratch that. Enough to buy the whole RV. He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations. Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.
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But there could be only one Gary Sheldon in Lewistown during that time. It’s really you.! Great story. Great trip down memory lane. Was this up Cottonwood creek?
Thanks for writing it and I’m really glad Susie sent it to me.