Palmerfest: Then and Now - A comparison of the 1991 and 2017 Ohio University street party

You can be in a place and understand it, but once you move on and see it from a distance through time, you begin to see it through the filter of all the memories between now and then, and it becomes something else.

 On April 20th, 1991, the very first Palmerfest occurred*.  Palmerfest is a yearly event at Ohio University where residents of Palmer Street in Athens, Ohio hold house parties and the yards and porches up and down the street are flooded with people drinking and celebrating. While the event was initially held in April, it was moved back to May because we were all sick of possible cold weather.  I have a feeling that Ohio University switched from quarters to semesters so that Palmerfest would have to be pushed back into April and cold weather might dampen the insanity.

(*Actually, it was the 2nd Palmerfest.  The first one happened six months earlier in October.  But we learned our lesson and moved the party to what we thought would be a warmer part of the calendar.)

I lived in the Lakeview Apartments in the spring of 1991, but Joe, Paul, Amy, Betce and Squirrel lived at 19 Palmer.  Most of us had lived together the year before in Martzolff House and so I was very good friends with them.  Due to the party we had the previous October, there was a desire to have another street party when it was warmer.  The day before, Chris and I searched the surrounding area for the shared “stage” that the bands would play on.  It consisted to two sections, both made from 4’x8’ sheets of plywood and 4”x4” legs. I don’t think the stage belonged to anyone, but it floated from party to party as needed.

On the day of Palmerfest, the drinking started at around 1pm when the beer trailer was opened with an astounding 17 kegs of beer.  People that lived on Palmer had each thrown in $10 or so towards the beer, though some threw in more and several did not throw in any at all, which led to future Palmerfests where houses bought their own kegs. Though it was cold, the turnout was sizable and the beer truck ran out sooner than expected. Partiers walked down to the corner stores and emptied the coolers of beer cans and bottles.  Four bands played throughout the day and there were very few issues outside of a bottle thrown at a house, an impromptu bonfire, thousands of cans and bottles strewn through the yards and a huge freaking water bill from people using the 19 Palmer bathroom.  The police shut the party down at 10pm due to noise and people dispersed to pass out or to head uptown.

In the  1991-92 school year, I moved into 19 Palmer.  This year the party was moved to May and houses held their own parties.  We made t-shirts this year.  It was warm enough that we were able to play wiffle ball and volleyball before things go too busy.  We set the stage up again and bands played throughout the day.  I thought it would be a great idea to turn off the water to the bathroom so people wouldn’t use the toilet.  People still used the toilet.  I was shooting bottle rockets out of my large beer cup and didn’t seemed concerned that I was drinking sulfur and ash.  I wish I could remember the girl who offhandedly named the drink, “firecracker juice.”  This year seemed busier than the year before.  More people were coming in from out of town to attend. I was unavailable for consciousness when the police shut down Palmerfest in ’92.  The next morning, I woke up and picked up the cans out of the back yard for about an hour and wondered why my mouth tasted like brimstone.

A still surviving 1992 Palmerfest t-shirt


I went to the 1993 Palmerfest as a guest, though I was involved with the minority faction of people that tried to get the date moved.  I forget why changing the date was important at the time.  This was the year I took the following horrible panoramic photo.  Still fun. Still didn’t get closed down until late.



I then took the next  15 years off.

In 2009, I got a call from The Post looking for an interview about the original Palmerfest.  I spoke to them about what I remembered and I thought about attending, but did not.  2009 was the first year of the “near riots” on Palmer. The 2009 – 2011 Palmerfests were some of the most chaotic, as people escaped the confines of the yards and flooded the streets with thrown bottles, fires and massive arrests. Police patrols had been increasing over the years as well as the arrests.  The Athens Police department purchased what they called a “communications vehicle” that they specially modified so officers could stand on the top and monitor the street. To me it looked like some kind of armored military vehicle.  Parties were beginning to get shut down earlier and earlier. After the incidents in 2009, the City of Athens created the “Nuisance Party” law.

2017 rolled around; it would be the 27th Annual Palmerfest. In some text exchanges with my niece, I discovered she would be attending Palmerfest and my brother would be coming down as well.   I decided to make this an educational /historical trip and I sent a letter to the residents of 19 Palmer. Actually to the residents of 19 Palmer A and 19 Palmer B because the house had been turned into a duplex.   Here’s the letter.




Both sides of 19 Palmer actually responded and invited me to attend. When I asked about what time I should come down and suggested 11am, they both replied that might be a bit late, things would be kicking off around 7am and that I shouldn’t delay.  What happened to sleeping in until noon?

So at 7:30 am on Saturday, April 8th, 2017, I jumped in the family van with an Ohio University shirt, a  note pad, and a sleeping bag in case things got too crazy, and drove to Athens, Ohio. 


I parked on Hocking Street, which is one parallel street over from Palmer. At 8:30 am, things were already started, even on the ancillary streets.  I wandered through the back yards to the front of 19 Palmer Street.

19 Palmer Street 2017
This is where I stop and correct myself when I said, “back yards.”  When I was at Ohio University, the back yards of 19, 21, 23, 25 and 27 Palmer Street were grassy expanses.  We played volleyball, wiffle ball, laid out blankets, kept ducks and passed out in the soft embrace of the grass.  Around 2004, the owners of those properties added a second house to the back of the original houses and paved the rest of the area to make parking spaces.  It’s a cold, concrete expanse where volleyball would be painful and passing out leads to concussions.  I’ll be bringing up this point later and it will be on the quiz.
21 Palmer Street on the left going down to 27 on the right

When I came around to the front of 19 Palmer, a girl (Ellen) took one look at me and said, “Are you Doug?” I was.  She said they were expecting me.  She got the other Ellen, who I had been in communication with, and they gave me a beer and a tour of the house.  Outside of there being another house strapped to the back of it, 19 Palmer has not changed much in 27 years.  They turned most of the back porch into a 2nd bathroom and used the leftover bits to widen the kitchen.  There were some new windows and all the windows that used to face the backyard were now half windows that faced the addition in back.  Ellen, Ellen, Katie, Kristie and Allie were all super nice and allowed me in their bedrooms which was different from 1991 when I couldn’t get in any girl’s bedroom.  The bedrooms were almost exactly the same with the additions of a few coats of paint.  Same wood floor and trim and plaster walls with old light fixtures.  The kitchen was wider than ours with counters on either side.  They had my letter up on the refrigerator, which made be a little bit proud. 

After sharing some stories about the original Palmerfest, I headed to 19 Palmer B.  Kristen welcomed me and introduced me to (sorry if I get a name wrong) Alexis, Emma, Monica, Emily and Toni.  Their place looked completely updated, even if it was built in 2004.  My letter was on their refrigerator, too. They had a DJ on their porch and a large amount of vodka. 

As I waited for my brother and niece to arrive, I bounced between the front and back of 19 Palmer, observing, taking notes and photos. I think people thought I was a cop. As it got closer to 10:00 am, things were really picking up.  The front yards were filling up and even the concrete desolation in the back started to fill with people drinking, throwing Frisbees and a football. I guess some things don’t change.

Steve and Sydney showed up around 11:00 am. Sydney is the same age I was when the first Palmerfest happened. We drank from the three cases of Miller Lite that Steve brought. We hung out at 19 Palmer for a bit, wandered down to 23 Palmer before heading over to Palmer Place.

Steve, Sydney and HolyJuan



A number of curious people were brave enough to walk up to me and ask me what the hell I was doing there. I got to tell them that I was one of the original people that started Palmerfest. They were interested in listening to grandpa tell his stories.  At one point as I was walking from 19 Palmer to 23 Palmer, a guy standing in a circle of dudes yelled out, “Hey, Dad! What are you doing here?” I do not think he expected me to turn around and confront him and his group with, “Listen here, you mother fucking punk kids. I started this fucking mess and you need to show me some respect.”  With that, we all laughed and I told them about what it was like before electricity.

In the end, we finished drinking around 2:00 pm and I walked past 19 Palmer to see them being cleared out.  We went to my brother’s illegally parked RV and rested for a few hours before heading Uptown to eat dinner.  By 8:00 pm, I was done.  I walked back to Hocking Street, got into the van and drove down the mostly empty Palmer Street and headed back to Columbus.

THE COMPARISON
The difference between the 1991 Palmerfest and 2017 Palmer Fest are many, but luckily there are some things that don’t change. I interviewed both 19A and 19B Palmer and this is what I discovered about Palmerfest now.

DATE:
Back in the 90s, we chose (and sometimes fought about) what date Palmerfest would occur on. At some point, once semesters were instituted, Palmerfest became locked in to the school calendar. There is a drumbeat of weekends that happen after Spring Break: Mill Fest/Congo Fest, High Fest, Mom’s Weekend (MILF Fest – ha!) and Palmerfest (with Palmer Place Fest happening the day before.) In speaking with people, they didn’t even think that you could have ever even created a date for Palmerfest… it just happens.

CASES OF NATURAL (NATTY) LIGHT
Tons of cases of Natty Light, just like the original Palmerfest. Some things never change.  Also saw a few brown bags with 40ozers which brought back memories.

FASHION:
People are still wearing dumb shit. I did notice there were less bras.

BANDS:
There are a lot less bands and more DJs. I saw four DJs as I roamed about. Some of the DJs are sponsored. I didn’t there there was going to be any bands, but one pulled up around 11:00am, played and then got out of there by 2pm.  My understanding is that in the mid-90s, the bands got bigger with larger stages, lighting and sound boards. That all stopped when the back yards went away.


BACK YARDS:
This is a biggie.  As I mentioned before, back in 1991, the houses had back yards and the party was contained to the individual houses and the large back yard area. The only reason to be in a front yard was to cross the street.  When the duplexes were built to the backs of the houses, this pushed people from one big open space to the front yards.  This created more opportunities for drunk people to interact with the sidewalks and street where cops are allowed to patrol. While the number of people I saw at this year’s Palmerfest would have overflowed the backyards, containing the party to that area might have kept the pressure off people creeping on to the sidewalks.   FUN OBSERVATION: almost everyone I saw crossing the street with a cup held it upside down to show it was empty.

1994 Satellite photo of Palmer Street. You can see the space behind the five houses in a row.
The five houses with duplexes and parking lots.
POLICE BEFORE THE EVENT :
Full credit goes to the Athens City Police on containing this madness in a calm and orderly chaos.

Here’s their system:
A few weeks before “Fest Season” starts, the City of Athens sends out a mailer with the rules and regulations about parking, open containers, fires, temporary fences, stages, Port-a-Potties, etc. A few days before the specific party weekend, police will go door to door to talk with the people that live at the house and make sure they are aware of the Nuisance Parties City Code and that they will be held responsible for any person on the property who is breaking the ordnance. They also remind houses that any they will be fined for any trash in their yard that is still there at 9:00 am the following day.

This was from the Mill Street Fest, but you get the idea.

POLICE DURING THE EVENT:
At the original Palmerfest, the Athens City Police showed up.  I assume that in the following years that the Sheriff’s Department might have joined the fun. In 2017, I saw the following:

·         Athens City
·         Athens County Sheriffs
·         Glouster Police
·         Logan City Police
·         Lancaster City Police
·         Dublin City Police
·         Ohio State Highway Patrol

The most obvious police were the ones on horseback.  There were at least eight of them that I saw throughout the day.


This horse has a PBR horseshoe.

The police moved up and down the street, keeping a watch on things.  I saw them stop one girl who had an open container that she thought was closed because the wine bottle had a cork in it. They checked her ID, made her dump it out and dispose of the glass bottle, as glass containers are forbidden. The next guy the stopped was on the sidewalk with a can of beer. He “didn’t have” his ID on him, admitted he was underage and got a citation or summons.

As things got crazier, the girls at 19A Palmer maintained order in the front yard. Anyone too close to the sidewalk was told to scoot back. Too much wild behavior would capture the attention of the cops. Early in the day, the cops would warn homeowners if their “guests” were getting out of control. You wanted to party, but not attract too much attention.

At some point around 1pm, the police made their move. They selected a house that was beginning to get out of control.  The eight horsemen of the partypocalypse brought their horses and lined up in front of the selected house. The police on foot would then find the hosts and tell them that they were in violation of the Nuisance Parties code and that they needed to make everyone leave.  At that point, the residents turned off the music and kicked everyone out of the house and yard, front and back.  It is a crazy sight to see three houses in a row, with the yards filled with people on either side of an empty yard.  Two police are left in the front yard to hold the line and ensure a party doesn’t spontaneously combust.  Then the police continue to roam up and down the street,  waiting for the next party to get too crazy. You can probably see what happens here: when the guests of one house party get shut down, they go to another house and that party begins to overflow, thus attracting the attention of the cops. The police did something counter-intuitive which seemed to work: they didn’t start at one end of the street and work their way down, forcing people into a cluster and creating a wall of drunk people. They picked apart the mass, house by house, dividing and conquering the crowd without creating a mass of people in one area. As a student, I would have been pissed about this, but as an adult, I thought it was genius.

19 Palmer made it until about 2:40 pm and by 4:00 pm, Palmerfest was shut down. Parties that were shut down too early secreted their kegs to other streets to continue the party.  Our group went to Palmer Place, an apartment complex across the street from 19 Palmer, and continued there.

DIFFERENCES:
Obviously the size difference is massive. We didn't have social media or anyone sponsoring parties or DJs. The police presence was big and residents were never expected to take responsibility for their guests. The party getting shut down by 4:00pm was a disappointment because we all know that guys like me have a much better chance of hooking up under the cover of darkness.

STILL THE SAME:
Drinking games, though we had beer bongs, they have flip cup and beer pong; there was still beer shot gunning. People still have dogs.  Doors to houses were open and no one was dumb enough to shut the water off to their bathroom. People were nice. People were fun. People were drunk. People let me tell my stories.

CHART OF COMPARISONS:


SUMMARY:
Palmerfest has grown to be an event that seems to have perpetual motion. While there have been riot like bumps in the road, the street party continues to lumber forward. For it's own good, local authorities seem to have contained the insanity without sanctioning the event and turning it into a street carnival and sucking the life out of it. The Palmerfest originators could never predicted where the party is today and many of the people today were unaware of its meager beginnings. Overall, the original reason for Palmerfest was to throw a large, kickass party.



  

 OTHER PHOTOS
From top left clockwise: wiffle ball, the old garage from 19 Palmer, Steve on the back roof of 19 Palmer, the old narrow kitchen of 19 Palmer 

1992 Palmerfest shower beer

I stowed my cup in the bushes, a 1991 party tactic

These sisters saw me taking photos and just asked if I would take their photo too.

Palmer Street 2017 around 11:30am

The back of 19 Palmer around noon

Steve and Sydney

This seems to be a permanent sign on Palmer Street

Not the topless partygoer I wanted to see

Palmer Place around 2:00pm as people were being kicked out of Palmer Street












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