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One ritual in particular leading up to the Forester's Ball involves the kidnapping of Bertha the moose, who has been called the 'First Lady of Forestry'
“Choppin’ Wood and Lookin’ Good” was the theme of this year’s centennial Foresters’ Ball at the University of Montana, with hundreds of flannel-clad revelers packing Schreiber Gymnasium on consecutive February nights.
Since the original Lumberjack Dance a century ago, the ball has become one of UM’s most celebrated soirees. Its popularity grew so much that the uniquely UM event was featured in Life magazine, and legend has it that Playboy ranked it as one of the top college parties in the nation.
But what keeps folks coming back is a guaranteed good time steeped in long-standing traditions. Forestry students work nearly around the clock the week prior to the ball, transforming the gym into a turn-of-the century logging town featuring a saloon, general store, jail, chapel and museum.
One ritual in particular leading up to the ball involves the kidnapping of Bertha the moose, who has been called the “First Lady of Forestry.”
The beloved Forestry Club mascot dates back to September 1926, when the stuffed head was donated to UM by Carl Schenck. Her antlers were added shortly thereafter, though the date isn’t quite clear. Neither is the reason.
Bertha made her first appearance at the ball in 1929 and was a point of pride for forestry school students. But in the 1930s and ’40s, Bertha was deemed a hot commodity and was repeatedly stolen by different campus groups, none more successful than UM’s law school students. They timed their crime to happen near the ball and demanded ransom for her safe return. This still continues today, and Bertha is given back in time to attend the ball.
Sometimes, however, it’s not just law students who boost Bertha. And with the ball’s centennial celebration in the news, UM wildlife biology graduate Rusty Wells ’71 decided it was due time for his mea culpa.
“It was supposed to be a prank,” Wells begins, a slight hint of guilt detectable in his voice. “But this thing turned into a big deal pretty quickly.”
It was winter 1969, just before the Foresters’ Ball. He and his roommate were hanging out in their room in Miller Hall when the phone rang. It was a buddy calling, and he asked them to come over to the Forestry Building to help with a project.
When the duo arrived, they realized that the “project” was stealing Bertha. She was mounted to the wall securely, and the thieves were struggling. Wells hopped up on a table, parted the scratchy hair on Bertha’s neck, and discovered the deadbolt holding her to the wall. They got a wrench, loosened her up, slid her down easily and snuck her off to a garage up in the Rattlesnake neighborhood.
Thinking that was that – “we didn’t ask for ransom or anything” – Wells and his gang didn’t pay it much mind until a few days later. The chief push of the Foresters’ Ball, who happened to be his resident assistant, was livid when he found out someone burgled Bertha yet again.
“Looking back I completely understand why,” Wells says with a laugh. “He was threatening felony charges because it was worth more than $50. That’s when we started feeling the heat.”
Now rightfully worried, Wells reached out to a campus policeman he knew fairly well.
“I say, ‘I just happen to know some guys who are friends with the guys who might have taken Bertha,’” Wells recalls. “Right then he obviously knew I was involved. He thinks for a minute and says, ‘I just happen to know that the front doors to the Forestry Building will be unlocked at the stroke of midnight on Thursday.’ Being a naïve college kid, I ask, ‘How do you know that?’ He says, ‘I just know, Rusty. Trust me.’”
So Wells relayed the message, and the crew decided to bring back Bertha.
“It was a full moon,” Wells says. “It’s funny the little details that are so clear to this day.”
With Bertha under a blanket, they approached the front doors to the Forestry Building. Sure enough, they were unlocked. After struggling a bit getting her inside, they just left her right there, worried that hanging her on the wall might take too long.
“No one ever found out as far as I know,” Wells says. “We kept it a secret.”
He is reluctant to name the names of his group even all these years later. At his 40th class reunion in 2011, he had the opportunity to tell the story to his classmates, but he decided the time or place wasn’t quite right.
So why share it now?
“I figure the statute of limitations is up,” Wells says.
John Heaney is the editor-in-chief of the Montanan. An Anaconda native, John graduated from UM in 2002 and took the helm of the Montanan in 2010. In between, he worked for the Missoulian, the Spokesman-Review, the Coeur d'Alene Press and the Anaconda Leader.
Todd Goodrich is the University of Montana's photographer. He graduated from UM's School of Journalism in 1988, and has captured images on campus for more than 20 years.