A steady roar of chainsaws and fragrant aroma of fresh-cut pine trees emanated from the Adams Center this week, as legions of hard-hatted, Carhartt- wearing workers hustled about the West Auxiliary Gym, building the old-timey logging town for University of Montana’s 96th annual Foresters’ Ball.
“Other people might throw dances,” said construction officer Evan Neal, “but I don’t know of any other people building a town inside of their gymnasium out of trees. “
Keeping with the Ball’s longstanding traditions, this year’s set features such hallmarks as the saloon, wedding chapel, jail, general store, town hall, photo booth and 16-foot wooden slide event-goers will use to enter the festivities.
“The only thing missing is the passion pits,” Neal said with a grin. “Those are all gone now.”
Buildings are fabricated from local lodgepole pine trees and excess saw mill slabs by a motley crew of UM student club members and alumni volunteers alike. Most pieces are cut by chainsaw and tacked together with as many nails, spikes and bolts as necessary.
“We over engineer it till it works,” said Nate Wilson, the unofficial foreman in charge of the wedding chapel. “We’re basically building little boxes. It ain’t exactly traditional architecture, but it’s pretty sturdy.”
Construction began Monday and will last until Friday at noon. With the first volunteers arriving at 7 a.m. and the last leaving around 10 p.m., it’s a constant race to beat the looming deadline.
“Most of us don’t make it to class,” said Kristina Gunderson, a member of the Wildlife Club team building the jail. “Sacrifices must be made.”
To keep the hammers swinging, meals are donated by local businesses and spirits remain high among fellow builders.
“We’re not getting judged on the beauty of our buildings,” Gunderson said while driving thick metal spikes into a porch railing. “But there’s still plenty of playful banter.”
As if cued by Gunderson’s words, a string of passersby hoisting a thick log on their shoulders’ snickered at the half-finished jail.
“They’re just jealous,” Gunderson said, smirking below the brim of her yellow hardhat.
All fun and games aside, Gunderson said the event is valuable practice, especially for students seeking professions in the field of forestry.
“If you ever need to run a chainsaw,” she said, “Foresters’ Ball is one of those places you can learn.”
Veteran volunteer John Fiddling is first to attest. He worked his initial ball as a UM freshman in 1971 and credits the experience for landing him a thinning job the following summer.
From the initial felling of trees in the fall to building the actual structures, Fiddling said the camaraderie and prestige surrounding Foresters Ball makes it a unique opportunity for students.
“Employers know about the interaction involved,” he said. “Those people skills follow you through life.”
Since his first year, Fiddling has helped set up 41 balls, but perhaps just as importantly he’s also taken the same number down.
Deconstruction, he said, is one of the most demanding aspects. Workers have five days to build, but only 24 hours to tear everything down. Most materials are recycled, either given away as firewood or donated as biomass fuel and eco-compost.
Despite the massive amount of work, for 96 years the process has gone off without a hitch, an accomplishment Fiddling credits to dedicated volunteers who every year buy into the Foresters’ Ball tradition, making it such a successful event.
“We may not look it,” Fiddling said with a smile, “But we actually stay heavily organized.“