We don’t always get to choose our legacy. While many Missoulians may prefer to picture their hometown through the lens of farmers’ markets and fly-fishing, hand-carved carousels and community co-ops, we’re not always portrayed to outsiders in such a pristine, peaceful package. To a significant number of national and international eyeballs, western Montana is better known as host to what’s been dubbed the last best party in the last best place, an annual bastion of breasts, bare asses, bull balls, booze and more breasts: the Testicle Festival.
Curse it as the area’s wicked stepchild or deem it the dirty stain on our collective quilt, but for 25 gloriously gratuitous and gluttonous years, this weekend-long festival has put the mostly anonymous town of Clinton, the otherwise easy-to-miss Rock Creek Lodge and the dubiously watchful city of Missoula on the map. The Testicle Festival—essentially a Montana-style Mardi Gras disguised as a Rocky Mountain oyster feed—has been written up in Hustler
and High Times
and Men’s Heath
, Sports Illustrated
Just last month Playboy listed the Testy Festy among its top 25 things to do this summer. Reporters approaching from both comic and culinary angles have arrived from “ABC World News,” the Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune
and dozens of other daily rags. Last year Comedy Central sent its cameras to tag along as a sketch comedy group took in the proceedings, and this year a British television crew has received permission to film the revelry. It’s been covered by glossy magazines from France (New Look
), Australia (Picture
) and the United Kingdom (Bizarre
). Time even featured the debauchery in 1998 across a splashy two-page spread.
And so the people come: over the last two years, despite inclement weather and a change in ownership, more than 9,000 people attended. At the height of the festival’s popularity in the late 1990s, crowds of 10,000 surged into Clinton over a single weekend. A sign-up board on the front of the lodge catalogs visitors from nearly every state, at least nine foreign countries, and every continent except Antarctica. For all the rivers that run through it, for all the other reasons tourists flock to the Garden City and environs, the Testicle Festival is arguably our community’s most popular calling card.
“I don’t think there’s a party in the world like it,” says festival founder Rod Lincoln, who sold the lodge two years ago to an ownership group that includes his son. “I’ve been all over hell, and there ain’t nothin’—I tell ya, nothin’—like it anywhere.”
“Realistically, the people that show up here, they lose their mind for three days,” says Matthew Powers, one of the new owners who’s aiming to “clean up” the festival’s image. “They pull up in half-million-dollar motor homes wearing Tommy Bahama, go into the body of the motor home and come out wearing leather, or nothing at all. This is their vent, and that’s what makes it great.”
“It’s the funnest, drunkest, four-day coed naked party ever,” says current Rock Creek Lodge bar manager Bernie Lawrence, who attended her first Testy Festy in 2000. “You just don’t see the things you see here anywhere else, at least not in today’s day and age.”
It’s that last qualification—in this day and age—that presents the biggest challenge to the Testicle Festival’s future. As this year’s organizers and the original founder—not to mention all the die-hard regulars or one-time curiosity seekers—reflect back before the silver anniversary celebration beginning Wednesday, Aug. 1, there’s a hint of change in the beer-soaked and bare-chested air.
It all started with a burst of poetic inspiration from a life-long public educator. The Testicle Festival originated, in part, because Dr. Rod Lincoln, a graduate of the University of Montana and a former high school superintendent, had an affinity for alliteration.
“I dabbled in poetry just a little, way back when,” Lincoln says, “and it just sort of rolled off the tongue, if you know what I’m saying. The Testicle Festival. It’s catchy.”
Lincoln coined the title 25 years ago, the same year he bought a little bar off Interstate 90’s Rock Creek exit called the Snake Pit. He renamed the joint Rock Creek Lodge, refashioned it to his liking, and opened for his first day of business on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, Feb. 12.
“And it was a-blowin’ and a-snowin’ and a-snortin’ and, by golly, I had a $14 day,” says Lincoln, now 64. “You see my point? I’m thinking, What am I doing here?
I get up and open the next day and, by golly, I had a $7 day. You see my point? It was not built in a day.”
Lincoln figured the only way he was going to make a living with his new venture was if he had a gimmick, some sort of draw to his watering hole. He wanted a roadside attraction as much as a neighborhood saloon.
“It occurred to me, you go up and down the street and there’s bar, bar, bar—they’re all bars. And forgive me, but they’re all the same, just the same as fast food restaurants,” he says. “Anyway, you have to have something that sets you apart, that makes you somewhat different. And in many cases, places have specialties and some places have things slightly outside the box or off the wall or whatever you want to call it. So I chose a Rocky Mountain oyster feed.”
He dubbed it the Testicle Festival, and hastily pulled the inaugural event together in October 1982. Lincoln was tickled to host an estimated 300-400 people. It was good fun, he says, with the focus on his establishment’s new signature offering: filleted, beer-battered and deep-fried bull gonads, also known as Rocky Mountain oysters, or, even more eloquently, Montana tendergroin.
“That first year, me and the regular bartender pulled a double shift and we really thought we pulled a fat swath,” says Lincoln. “It was a big night, you know what I mean? We made some bucks, and that is the objective when you’re trying to make a living. But what it became? All that? It was the furthest thing from my imagination and, I won’t deny it, it exceeded my wildest imaginations.”
Girls and Boys Gone Wild
“It wasn’t a real big thing when it started. It really wasn’t,” says Gary “The Hoser” Lundberg, who owns the Rock Creek Airport next to the lodge and has attended every Testicle Festival. “It was just a weekend thing where people got together and had a good time. I know I had a good time.”
But in 1985 or 1986—neither Lincoln nor Lundberg can recall exactly when—as the ball eating and beer drinking increased, the clothing decreased. Men mooned women, women flashed men, and so it went in what Lincoln swears was nothing but good-natured adult fun, at least until an accident prompted Lincoln to make a pivotal change.
“The first few years [the nudity] was pretty much spontaneous,” Lincoln says. “There was some, I won’t deny it. We stretched the envelope on the First Amendment, and then several other amendments, for that matter. But that’s when a picnic table broke because a woman wanted to get up high [to flash the crowd] and she broke her wrist. I said, ‘Well, my God, if we’re going to have a wet tee, well, let’s have one!’ So I built the ‘Stairway to Heaven.’”
The stairway is Testicle Festival’s centerpiece. Located outside on the lodge’s expansive grounds and soaring about two stories off the ground, in full view of the festival’s enormous crowd, not to mention honking passersby on the highway, the wooden podium is home to the weekend’s signature wet T-shirt and hairy chest contests. And ever since the first event, Lundberg has been the man providing the water, hence his nickname.
“I just remember one year Rod came up to me, told me I had to be ready to work a garden hose, and I said okay,” Lundberg says. “Rod’s a pretty good B.S.er, so I didn’t think much of it until there I was up on the thing. I’ve done it every year since.”
Once the nudity was officially sanctioned with a contest, the Testicle Festival became as much about bare skin as bull meat. There have been other novelty events throughout the years, such as the ongoing Bullshit Bingo (markers are announced when a cow craps on huge bingo-type cards on the ground) and the Nut Eating Contest (exactly what it sounds like), as well as some that have been abandoned, like Motorcycle Jousting (a biker’s passenger tries to eat Rocky Mountain oysters hanging from fishing rods while navigating a 100-yard course). But nothing compares to the infamous nudity contests on the Stairway to Heaven.
“I’ve seen everything, I think,” says Lundberg. “It’s pretty much the same routine every year, but then something ends up happening and it’s a scene…I don’t attend the whole weekend like I used to, but I’ll keep doing it as long as they ask me. I’ll just come over, work the hose and have a good time. I know, it’s a tough job, but somebody…”
The Testicle Festival’s reputation grew quickly, as did its legends.
There were the regular characters: The Nut Queen (Kathy Newman) and The Silver Fox (Phil Benson); Bruce “Goofy” Fenster-macher; the nudist couple who made the festival their weekend home; the couple from eastern Montana who shut down their bar for a week and arrived in a bus; the man offering free mammograms and the woman offering free mother’s milk; the Hell’s Angels; the Vietnam Veterans of America motorcycle club; the firefighters from Salt Lake City; the mother and daughter who made out on the Stairway to Heaven in an effort to secure a win in the wet T-shirt contest; the man who, trying to park, drove his SUV up the wall of the bar; the man known as Uncle Buck, who wore nothing but assless chaps, red suspenders and a coyote skin on his head; the locomotive engineer who flashed the crowd while passing by on the nearby tracks; and the guy from Hawaii who pit-stopped at the Testy Festy on his way around the world with a pair of donkeys.
There were the celebrities: National Football League Hall of Famer Fred Biletnikoff was the guest of honor in 1997; Playboy
bunny Barbara McNair received a tribute in 1998, and Sen. Max Baucus has attended. The Nashville Network’s Lorianne Cook and Charlie Case—aka Cook and Chase—once featured the festival and its culinary delicacy on their cooking show.
There was also 2001, when the festival followed the attacks of 9/11 by only a week.
“I don’t know if you can tell it tastefully, but one of the highlights for me was 9/11, because we had no idea what was going to happen,” Lincoln says. “I had never seen so many grown-up people half-way sloshed and in tears, just weeping. We all lit our lighters, like they do at events, and had a moment of silence. I have a painting of that moment. I don’t care how crazy you are, you always love your country.”
The Testicle Festival was never known for belonging to any one crowd, but rather for attracting a hodgepodge of personalities, and just as many locals as tourists. Lincoln is quick to point out that drunken scuffles were few and far between, and that despite the inebriation and sexual exploits, people more or less behaved. “You can look all you want and you can flash all you want, but never any touching,” he says now, repeating the festival’s code of conduct.
At the height of the festival’s popularity, during the 15th anniversary weekend in 1997, upwards of 10,000—Lincoln insists 15,000—reportedly attended, and a record two tons of Rocky Mountain oysters were served.
“It’s the only event in America in which bikers, yuppies, lawyers, the Winnebago crowd and perhaps even militiamen can team up in a bullchip toss competition…,” Time
wrote the following year.
“The Rock Creek Lodge is a good place for this,” proclaimed a 1999 article in Sports Afield
magazine. “It is surrounded by pathways, all of which lead elsewhere: the highway, the railroad, the Clark Fork River. This is no-man’s-land, the threshold between worlds and, just as the bikers are granted temporary amnesty and admitted to the world of the law abiding, so are the law abiding given license to break the rules they ordinarily live by.”
Lincoln bolstered the festival’s brand by producing two videos—still available for purchase in the Rock Creek Lodge gift shop—touting his increasingly popular event. (Tagline: “Warning: Contains Frontal Nudity and Lots of Balls.”) He also filled his gift shop with logoed merchandise, publicized a 1-800 number for out-of-state orders, launched a website and, to decorate the bar, commissioned a wooden statue of a bull named Ol’ Testy. With increased promotion, the media flocked from across the globe, and while attendance reached a plateau, and some long-timers dropped off because of the crowds or old age, visibility and new visitors increased.
“Forgive me, but I’m probably going to have to take a little bit of credit,” says Lincoln, rattling off all the promotional vehicles he set into motion. “…We’d get inquiries practically daily by letter, website and telephone about the party, but of course the party markets itself and yet we continued to market the party. It never stopped.”
Problems, of course, came with success. In 2000 the Montana Highway Patrol attributed 26 DUIs to the festival, and one fatality from a rollover accident. As the crowds got bigger, local authorities increased their scrutiny of the event.
“It wasn’t really until 1999 or 2000 that law enforcement really started aggressively policing it,” says Captain Tom Hamilton, who says the Highway Patrol often brings in extra staff from across the state to monitor the grounds.
But considering how much is consumed and what exactly goes on—or, more accurately, comes off—during the Testicle Festival, there’s never been an incident that’s threatened its closure.
“There aren’t any assholes,” says bar manager Lawrence, standing under a sign in the main bar that reads, conveniently enough, “No Assholes Allowed.” “That’s what’s different. That’s what I like. It’s wild, it’s crazy, it’s all of that—but for the most part people don’t cause problems. Everyone knows it’s, first and foremost, all about good, clean fun and nobody wants to screw that up.”
New Day Rising
For all the diversity of the Testicle Festival’s crowds, it wasn’t for everyone. In fact, it wasn’t exactly for new owner Matthew Powers.
“Three years ago, to be honest, if I came here I would have never come back,” says Powers, who is also owner of Challenge Financial, a real estate brokerage firm, and head coach at Missoula’s Dog Pound Submission Fighting Academy, which specializes in mixed martial arts. “When we bought the bar, I’d never been here, never been to a festival, so I had no idea what to expect. I had heard the rumors, but I figured by the time it goes around and comes up the chain of command, it’d be so blown out of proportion it’d be ridiculous. And it wasn’t.”
Powers purchased Rock Creek Lodge in 2005 with two partners: Adam Bratland and the founder’s son, Rodney Lincoln, Jr. The motivations behind the purchase were twofold. Powers says he and Bratland teamed with Lincoln Jr., a friend and fellow real estate broker, to help him keep the bar in the family name. Lincoln Jr. says it was a smart investment.
“If you look at that land, and how Rock Creek could be developed—what they’re talking with building subdivisions in the area—it was a good, decent opportunity for us,” he says.
As real estate investors, the partners were operating within their element, but as hosts of one of Montana’s largest and rowdiest parties, the learning curve was steep. Lincoln Jr. had attended his first festival only seven or eight years before, the same year he first met his father.
“I’ve never really been involved before,” he says, declining to speak in detail about the family history. “It wasn’t really my thing.”
In the new owners’ first year, Powers, who’s assumed the role of the festival’s public face, says they made few changes to the event’s existing format. Instead, Powers used it as an opportunity to evaluate what was now theirs.
“The way that I am, I wanted to work every aspect of it. I bounced, I bartended, I barbacked and I even performed a wedding ceremony out back—I wasn’t licensed and I told them I wasn’t licensed, but they didn’t care,” he says, adding later that he also downed six trays of bull testicles in just over four minutes during a Nut Eating Contest. “It was really a trial by fire, but we were able to assess everything that was inherently wrong or right about the weekend.”
What Powers found was an event he felt was in need of major changes. The new owners turned over the entire Testicle Festival staff, hired substantially more security (all from the Dog Pound), brought in outdoor lighting to eliminate dark corners on the grounds at night and increased the number of free shuttle buses to and from Missoula to cut down on drunk driving. Last year, the Montana Highway Patrol reported only one DUI associated with the event, and Powers says not a single fight occurred all weekend.
“By and large we’ve seen a real good steady decrease over the years,” says Cpt. Hamilton, who attributes the drop to both increased police presence and diligence from the new owners. “It’s one of the most graphic success stories in our area for traffic safety.”
The new owners also made changes to the weekend’s schedule.
“We wanted to create something where, no matter who you were, you were going to enjoy yourself,” Powers explains. “I’m not going to enjoy myself if I’m standing at a bar and there’s two 60-year-old people standing next to me having sex. I mean, that’s disgusting. I don’t want to see that mess. Nobody wants to see that mess. But, then again, that’s the festival. So if those 60-year-old people come in and the guy’s wearing an overcoat with nothing on underneath, as long as he’s wearing the overcoat and not trying to rub up against somebody, more power to him. Good for you, buddy, you got more balls than I do.”
Power’s recognizes that efforts to “clean things up” tread a fine line, and he laughs listening to his own explanation.
“Listen, there’s a lot of things out here that are in bad taste, but we’ve thrown out everything that is so far beyond bad taste you can’t even get a laugh out of it,” he says, emphasizing the increased security, the enforcement of at least minimal boundaries to public displays of affection and taking more risqué events like Coed Naked Pool off the schedule. “What happens is, if you change it too much you lose your base, and we don’t want to lose our base. I don’t think we have.”
Over the last two years under new ownership, the Testicle Festival has attracted annual crowds of approximately 4,200, according to Powers. That’s down from Lincoln’s best years, but the festival is more profitable than ever, according to Powers, and with continued changes he foresees attendance growing again. For instance, this year, to avoid what’s become consistently bad weather in mid-September, the new owners moved the event up to the first weekend in August. The new date also happens to be just before the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, an enormously popular event in South Dakota beginning Aug. 6, and just after Butte’s popular Evel Knievel Days, which ends July 28.
“We’re not afraid of change,” says Lincoln Jr. “I don’t think we’re alienating any of the old crowd. We’re just making it safer and more accessible to everyone. You’re seeing our crowds are a little bit younger and more Missoulians are coming now. That’s a good thing.”
And while the elder Lincoln doesn’t totally agree with some of the changes being made—“but that don’t make them wrong,” he adds—other old-timers are just fine with the changes.
“It’s still insane,” says Gary “The Hoser” Lundberg. “They’ve made some changes, and they’re still coming up with them, but the tradition is there. The spirit is there. I still think it’s all fucking crazy.”
What to Expect
Starting Aug. 1, a day dubbed “No Panty Wednesday,” 40 bartenders and barbacks, 55 security workers, four production personnel and six gift shop employees will open the doors for the Testicle Festival’s silver anniversary. Rock Creek Lodge typically employs five.
“It’s about a $100,000 party,” says Powers. “It’s just a monster.”
Lincoln Jr., meanwhile, has already ordered approximately 180 cases of liquor and stocked the gift shop with more Testicle Festival merchandise than ever before. Included in the expansive store is everything from specially made Ball Bustin’ Hot Sauce ($4.95) to sports bras for women made of men’s BVD underwear ($14.95), and hundreds of adult T-shirts (one reads: “If you can read this, the bitch fell off”) to onesies for infants ($9.95). The kitchen is stocked with more than 1,000 pounds of filleted bull testicles.
“It’s weird,” says Lincoln, Jr. “It’s kind of a rush leading up because you never know what to expect each and every year.”
Expect a large crowd. Expect flashing, mooning, music and eating. Expect the same attention from local enforcement agencies—the Montana Highway Patrol, for instance, will unveil its new “DUI Wagon,” a mobile DUI processing unit, at this year’s event. And expect the same hands-off approach from Missoulians, many of whom were interviewed for this story and told tales of festivals past, but requested they not be mentioned by name.
“We don’t include it in our materials,” says Barb Neilan, executive director of the Missoula Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Don’t misunderstand, we respect them as business leaders and members of the business community, but they’ve never asked to be included. And to be honest, I’m not sure they need us. They get so much publicity as it is, I don’t even think we’d be any assistance.”
Case in point: at the bar a few weeks before this year’s event, a rumor begins circulating that another television crew—this one from Germany—wants to film this year’s festivities. And so it goes: another chunk of the civilized world identifying western Montana, for better or worse, as the home to a mostly naked Rocky Mountain oyster feed.