A heat wave of 90 degrees drew a sea of 25,000 people to the South Green intramural field on May 17, 1986. Food vendors and beer trucks lined the field, prepared to fuel students for a day of singing and dancing to live music. The wild crowd enjoyed the echoes of Jason and the Scorchers’ performance lingering over the distant hillside. This grand event was known as Ohio University’s Spring Festival, more commonly referred to as “Springfest.”
“[Springfest] was like a miniature Woodstock,” says John Evarts, a 1983 OU graduate. “Everybody was out insac shorts and t-shirts with lots of drinking and smoking going on; it was just a bunch of college students getting together and cutting loose.”
Springfest was a free, annual music festival that began in 1979. After the idea received the approval of the Student Activities Commission (SAC), the budgeted $12,000, one-day event was set to take place on May 19. Entirely self-funded, the festival relied on donations and fundraising events.
To execute the demands of a self-supporting festival, roughly 30 students formed Spring Festival Committee. From beer and food vendors to security and bands, the committee ran the show. Throughout Springfest’s existence, acquiring the money needed to host the event was a struggle. According to SAC Chairman Tony Pierfelice in a 1979 Post article, the hardest tasks for the committee was planning the celebration and raising the funds.
After nearly eight months of planning, the committee overcame the funding issues and hosted the inaugural Springfest, drawing approximately 7,000 attendees. Favorable weather lured in the crowd for headliners like McGuffey Lane, a top Ohio rock band, and Ian Matthews, writer of the hit song “Thunder Island.” The event was deemed a success even after the lead fundraiser, a raffle ticket sale, only collected $1,000.
“[The students] take it for granted there will always be a Spring Festival,” said 1979 Spring Festival committee member Andy Golfield in an interview for the 1980 Spectrum Green yearbook. “They go to all the trouble of inviting friends from out of town, but they don’t take time to spend one lousy dollar for a raffle ticket.”
Jeffrey Anderson, a 1981 Spring Festival Committee chairman and current College of Business professor, says the committee spent a lot of time coming up with creative fundraisers to pay for the stage, bands and other festival expenditures.
Fundraisers included a series of competitions where students lip synced to a recording of a popular band’s song. The three finalists opened Springfest, warming up the crowd before the headliners took the stage . The competition earned $440 in 1981. Along with SAC funding and other fundraisers, such as button sales, movie nights and an ACRN 48-hour radio marathon, the committee earned a total of $13,290 for the 1981 Springfest.
A popular trend among those fundraisers was a dependance on beer sales. At the time, it was legal for 18-year-olds to consume 3.2 percent beer, considered low-alcohol. In March of 1982, the General Assembly began to consider a bill that would raise the legal drinking age in Ohio to 19 for beer, thus eliminating the distinction between “high” and “low” beers.
The bill passed in October 1982, making 3.2 percent beer and 18-year-old drinking a thing of the past. To drink wine or liquor, students had to be 21 years old. For universities like OU, the law had a significant impact on residence life policies, most importantly the “F” permit, which allowed student organizations to sell beer. Beer sales were a huge component of fundraising.
“It was a way for the dorm council to make money for other programming, and kegs were cheap,” says Kristin McCloud, a 1984 OU graduate and previous Housing and Residence Life employee.
On July 17, 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, a law which required states to raise the drinking age to 21 at the risk of a 10 percent cut to their federal highway funding. If Ohio failed to pass the age requirement, the state was at the risk of losing $50 million in highway construction funding.
“The vast majority of well-attended student activities here involve alcohol, and in fact, couldn’t survive without alcohol,” says a 1986 Post editorial. “Indeed, this year’s Springfest committee started off so far in the hole because it didn’t have any beer profits from last year’s rained-out bash.”
Most of OU’s fundraisers on or near campus involved alcohol at the time, supporting a large portion of the university’s social network. In early April, the 1986 Springfest committee was $16,000 behind their $24,000 production costs. The committee began seeking out sponsorships with Miller Brewing Co. and Stroh’s Brewing Co. due to a fear of a beach party fundraiser being unsuccessful.
The Spring Festival Committee relied heavily on profits from the annual beach party, which raised $4,000 in 1985. The Beach Party, known as the “World’s Largest Indoor Beach Party,” was a Springfest benefit held in Bird Arena. Two hundred tons of sand covered the arena floor for students to kick off their shoes while enjoying beer, live bands and volleyball games.
Due to poor weather during the 1985 Springfest, the 1986 committee was in debt. 1986 Springfest booking chairman Mike Webb believed the beer sponsorships might be the only way to raise the needed funds, according to a 1986 Post article.
In May 1986, Dean of Students Joel Rudy made the decision that alcohol would no longer play a major role in student organization fundraisers if the 21 drinking age was passed. An OU task force was formed to study the effects of the proposed drinking age on the university after student organizations were named in suits involving alcohol-related injuries and serving underage people.
In anticipation of the proposed legislation being passed, the University Planning and Advisory Council allocated an extra $15,000 to the Student Activities Commission for the 1987-88 school year.
“As it stands now, beer sales are the major source of funds for many campus activities, including Springfest,” says a 1986 Post editorial. “...The more people drink at a fundraising event, the more cash an organization adds to their coffers. It’s in an organization’s best interest, therefore, for people to get drunk.”
To prepare students for the possibility of the drinking age raising to 21, the Department of Housing and Residence Life decided to decrease the amount of time that beer would be sold at Green Weekends. Green Weekends were fundraising events that took place on each of the residential greens. The weekends used live music, contests and their biggest contributor– beer sales– to raise money for Springfest and other charitable contributions.
In February, fundraising began for the 1987 Springfest. After raising $46,387 the previous year, the Springfest fund had $4,050, according to a 1987 Post article. The committee projected costs to be about $20,000, but hoped for $30,000 to afford better bands.
Unfortunately, the 1987 Springfest lineup was not well-received among attendees. With only $11,000 spent on entertainment, the headlining act was a “mostly unheard-of band” called Little America. After the original headliner, The Replacements, dropped out due to misunderstandings between the Spring Festival Committee and the band’s agents, students were disappointed by the lack of popular bands.
Still, the event attracted nearly 15,000 people. “I think we outdid last year [financially], but it’s too early to predict how much money there will be for next year’s Springfest,” says Springfest Committee Chair Paula Schmelter in a 1987 Post article.
By 1988, Ohio had adopted the 21 drinking age requirement. According to the 1988 Athena yearbook, that year’s Springfest earned over $40,000, despite only selling 285 kegs, a result of the increased drinking age. A large amount of the profits had to be taken out to repair damaged equipment of a band that played at the beach party after sand was thrown at the group in protest of their folk style music.
The next year, the university restricted drinking alcohol at all school-sanctioned events. The change caused the 1990 Spring Festival Committee to apply for funds from a City Council ordinance that supplies grants to organizations working toward increasing economic development and tourism in Athens. The request was denied because the committee did not turn in the proposal on time, missing out on at leat $1,500 towards Springfest, according to a 1990 Post article.
Although the committee intended to follow through with the proposal, OU officials opposed the funding idea. At the time there were rules restricting the Springfest Committee from advertising outside of Athens, as the event was designed specifically for OU students. “It has always been our intent to keep Springfest a local event,” says Joel Rudy, Dean of Students, in the article.
“See, Springfest is meant to be an all-campus OU event, not an event for a minority of ‘suburban’ students’ tastes, or an event for Columbus residents,” said Daniel Spiegel, chairman for the 1980 Spring Festival Committee in a Post editorial. “Didn’t it bother you to see a fence around the Mill Street [South Green Intramural] fields last year? That fence and the admission charge represented exactly what Springfest shouldn’t be.” He ended the letter with a warning that the high expectations put on Springfest must stop or Springfest itself would become but a memory.
Springfest met its ultimate demise in 1990 when only 500 people attended. The Marshall Tucker Band, which Anderson describes as “past their prime,” headlined the final festival. Students attributed the lack of interest in Springfest to a poor choice of bands, but more importantly, to the alcohol policy preventing the sale of beer.
Where Springfest failed to draw in crowds, events like Mill Fest, Palmer Fest and Lakeview Fest picked up the slack. “People quit going to [Springfest] because, it sounds bad, but if there was no alcohol there people just weren’t interested,” says Jay Morrison, a 1991 OU graduate. “They had bands, they had entertainment, but there were so many other bars and house parties that you could go to to drink and have fun.”
The first street to begin the block party tradition was Palmer Street. When students found out Springfest was going to be non-alcoholic, the residents of Palmer decided that every house on the street would provide one keg.
“[My girlfriend] was at 19 Palmer, and I just remember sitting around for a long time wondering if anybody was even going to come, then eventually the crowd from Springfest came over,” says Morrison. The first official Palmer Fest consisted of 15 kegs and about 500 people in attendance.
There are now six “official” neighborhood fests, each bringing in thousands of students and their guests for early mornings of drinking and partying.