The Battle of Iola

(Thanks for stopping by this post about the Iola People’s Fair. If you are interested in the festival, you might also be interested in two podcast episodes about it. One is a conversation with an attendee at Iola, recorded in 2020, here; the other is about Iola and other famous Midwestern rock festivals of 1969 and 1970, recorded in 2019. It’s here.)

(Part 2; part 1 is here. Slightly corrected since first posted.)

The summer of 1970 was America’s rock festival summer. Little Woodstocks proliferated around the country, but where the kids saw them as opportunities to recapture the peace-and-love vibe of the original, local officials saw them as grave threats to public order. In the case of the People’s Fair held near Iola, Wisconsin that June, the cops probably had it right. The festival was haunted by heavy drug and alcohol use, as well as rumors of shakedowns, beatings, and rapes by bikers in attendance. With all that, what happened on Sunday may have been inevitable.

The 200-acre festival site was partly wooded, with a long, sloping field that created a natural amphitheater. The only building on the site was an old barn with a lily pond nearby, which had been taken over by the bikers for a campsite. It was the lowest point on the site, to the left of the stage area. Just before 7:00 Sunday morning, people up the the hill began throwing bottles at the bikers below. Amid the barrage, a few bikers mounted up and charged.

Despite the night of rumors, for many who were there, this was the first indication of real trouble. Scott Thomson, working for a company hired to provide stage security, remembers his boss sounding the alarm like Paul Revere: “The bikers are coming!” Paul and Bob Ericksen, who had traveled to the festival from Escanaba, Michigan, watched it all from their campsite. “Chicks were on the handlebars, shooting,” Bob remembers.

Three people were wounded, but it could have been worse—especially for the bikers. After the shooting stopped, angry attendees kept flinging bottles and rocks at them. Paul Ericksen says, “They were going to get their ass whipped.” The bikers fled, a few leaving their bikes behind, which were promptly set on fire by the crowd. A total of 23 bikers (17 men and six women) were arrested on the road outside. Portage County Sheriff Nick Check later claimed that the bikers had “thanked the pigs—that’s us—for saving their lives” from the beating they took.

After the jump: the rest of Sunday, the aftermath Monday, and what happened in the weeks beyond.

After the shootings, people started leaving. At the festival’s height, estimates put the crowd between 40,000 and 60,000. By Sunday evening, only five or six thousand remained to see the last few bands. “Cops were stopping everybody on the way out,” Bob Ericksen says, asking attendees if they could identify the shooters.

Charges filed against the bikers included causing injury by conduct regardless of life and carrying concealed weapons. Those wounded in the Sunday rumble were reported in good condition on Monday. But in the festival’s aftermath, Sheriff Check was no longer praising the event. He called it “a nice, big, organized, lawless drug party” and vowed that there would never be a repeat: “We’ll keep people out if it means blocking off half the county.”

The same newspapers that had painted the festival as generally peaceable on Friday and Saturday now called it “generally violent and troubled.” Stories stressed the lack of drinking water, rampant drug use, and even the poor sound system. Local residents were scandalized by the whole thing. “I have never seen such filth, so many young boys and girls completely out of it,” one told the Appleton Post-Crescent. “The officers did everything they could, but what can you do?”

Sheriff Check called the violence “a blessing” for calling attention to what went on at rock festivals. And in the weeks following, officials took steps to limit future events. A state Senate committee held a hearing in mid-July at which Attorney General Robert Warren unveiled a proposed festival law for counties to adopt. Among its provisions were minimum requirements for sanitation, shelter, security, traffic control, telephones, and medical personnel. Columbia County, where the Sound Storm Festival had been held in April, was the first to adopt Warren’s proposal, and other Wisconsin counties were eager to follow. By February 1971, 65 of the state’s 72 counties had some kind of restrictions on mass gatherings.

That didn’t mean organizers gave up on Wisconsin entirely. The Iola promoters planned a festival for Galena, Illinois, in August, but when they were slapped with a permanent injunction against it, they briefly considered moving across the state line to Grant County. (The festival was ultimately held in northeast Iowa near Wadena.) A proposed 1971 festival in Adams County never happened. Smaller events were held, such as the event in Rock County west of Janesville that attracted about 8,000 fans on a single day in May of ’71. But after Iola, the brief era of mass, multi-day festivals in Wisconsin was over.

Across the country, the pattern was the same, as young people’s desire to replicate the Woodstock experience clashed with their elders’ desire to avoid future Altamonts. As a result, the festival movement peaked in 1970 and was largely over by the end of 1971. But it wasn’t conflict with The Man alone that caused the festival movement to fade. The new consciousness of the young didn’t remake the world; the bomber-jet planes didn’t turn into butterflies. And people began to realize that what had happened on Max Yasgur’s farm in 1969 and at Sound Storm in 1970 was not repeatable indefinitely. Woodstock and Sound Storm—and Iola—were unique constellations of circumstance, in a moment that passed as quickly as it had come.

(My thanks to Scott Thomson, Paul and Bob Ericksen, Dick Wiegel, Jeff Ash, and several other folks not named here for either sharing memories of the festival, helping me find people who could share memories of the festival, and/or providing general assistance and encouragement.)

29 thoughts on “The Battle of Iola

  1. Thanks J. A. for filling in the details that I hadn’t remembered, (or even known) about The People’s Fair. For readers of yours who might be interested I thought I’d add that my band (The Bowery Boys) followed Iggy and the Stooges who probably went on about 4am saturday night. Not the ideal time slot for a young band like ours. As I was ascending the walkway to get up onstage I walked right past Iggy coming off. He was bleeding and shirtless after a ferocious performance. It was quite shocking. I remember the sun coming up during our set and still lots of people listening to the music. We got to bed about 7am or 8am in the morning and were unceremoniously awoken by someone telling us the Hells Angels were shooting people. We promptly packed up and got out of there, our hides more important to us than sleep.
    Richard Wiegel The Midwesterners

  2. Musically, legend has it that the Festival Express that summer was the bet musically. I was there, but not at the others, so I can’t compare. But the Band, Janis and Buddy Guy gave exceptional performances; as for the Dead, they were a little lackluster, for reasons that Phil Lesh recounts in his fine biography “Searching for the Sound.” The only trouble at the Festival Express was violent gatecrashers (Jerry Garcia put on a free concert outside the festival, but nothing would satisfy the mob.)

  3. Dennis Strand

    Great to see a post on the Peoples Fair. Perhaps in retrospect Soundstorm was in it self a true WoodStock experience at it’s best. The Peoples Fest definitely had a different feel from the start . Forgotten about the one day fest near Janesville. There was a attempt at a second Sounstorm . Stage but no music.

    1. Jim

      I was at Iona. We got there late after being stopped by cops who confiscated what they thought was all of of our booze because one guy with us was under 21. They didn’t ask about drugs and didn’t somehow see the case of beer or gallon of wine under my legs riding shotgun. It was all just a big party till the bikers came. I did see one couple coupling in the crowd during the day. A lot of people were watching them but it did not seem to be force used. The bilers did get fheir asses whooped. I didn’t see any bikes set on fire but there were some tossed in a pond. It was great. Nowhere near Watkins Glen but some good music and great people.

    1. Fred Oksiuta

      I remember Buffy St Marie, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Crow, Brownsville Station and Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes. The above description of what went on is pretty much spot on as they say. A lot of good memories.

  4. Margie Hannes

    Just going through old news clippings of Iola festival – it was fun. I do remember some one on stage telling the crowd about the motor cycle gang and everyone throwing bottles and rocks at the gang. First time I every heard of Buffy St. Marie and the Hari Karisna’s. Ate at one of the free food tenants because we didn’t bring enough. We didn’t know what it would be like we just heard of the festival and jumped in the car. It sure did open my mind to everything going on around me.

  5. Brian Lake

    Will never forget Wisconsin’s Woodstock. I played in a band called Thee Prophets. We played at a bar in Stevens Point on Friday night, and had off Saturday and Sunday, so we decided to drive to Iola right after the gig. We drove all night in my car and a UHaul trailer with our band equipment. As the sun came up on Saturday morning ..all we could see were the tail lights of hundreds of cars waiting to get into the festival. We had no tickets for the fest, and when they stopped us at the gates, they asked who we were. I told them The Prophets. They thought I said Mason Profit ( who actually were playing at the festival ) they had me open the trailer, saw our band gear …and waved us in.
    We saw Buffy Saint Marie, the Amboy Dukes and others.
    We slept in my car that night…but Sunday morning we awoke to the sound of gunfire, and thought this may be a good time to hit the road.
    All in all, it was kind of like a mini-Woodstock, and an experience I’ll never forget.

  6. Ken B.

    I was there yes. I can only state what I saw but yes the bikers ( I always remember them as being the wheelmen from Chicago? ) I went down to the water truck,Sunday? by the barn in the morning to get water from the water truck there and their was a biker sitting on top with a shotgun I didn’t need water that bad. There was a rumor going round about a rape or two by the bikers by the barn ? Started walking up the hill to a few people I knew by a bus up on a raise . Saw the crowd spilt and a number of bikers coming up the path swinging different things,one thing I do remember is one biker swinging a chain and someone stuck something like a 2 x 4 into his front wheel and he was airborne !! Got to the bus got on top and watch the crowd serprate from the bikers who were on the move ,then the crowd re massed and flowed over them likes ants. Don’t know what happened but no more trouble from the bikers. Sorry don’t remember too much about the bands except for Ted Nugent and the Amboy DukeS and Quicksliver ?Was down by the stage for them. And yes the state police stopped every one leaving and asked if you saw anything in regards to the biker mayhem. It’s funny what can stand in your memory oh there sure was a lot of smoke there ! Biggest bong I’ve every seen !!!

  7. I was on stage Sunady morning playing with a band called Moses Godfrey Blues Band. And yes, bikers were waving guns and we had to stop playing for a while but I didn’t see any of the action down front. BTW . . . I’m looking for a poster of the festival or a photo representation or a reproduction of any sort. Thanks for any help . . .

  8. Frank B

    Hey all, here it is 40 + years later and this is still fairly clear in my head. I was one of the 23 who were arrested on leaving the festival. Let me say that it was a turning point in my life. Fortunately there were no charges against me so on Monday I was released to go. Young and stupid (I was 22 and a VN vet) are terms that come to mind.

  9. Wasn’t at the fest, but had friends in Appleton where I grew up who went and told me some stories. I have lived in Iola since late 1981 and am involved with the Iola Historical Society. We’ve talked about having a two-year exhibit about the Iola Rock Fest, so if anyone has any pics, etc. let me know!

    1. Michael Johnson

      I was 19 and my girlfriend and I drove over from SE Minnesota to the festival. Neither of us had ever been to one. We pitched our small tent in a spot not far from the old barn, and I remember the bikers arriving, and soon there was allot of constant commotion coming from the barn area, and I remember feeling uneasy about it. I remember being awakened by loud sounds Sunday morning, and I emerged from my tent to see people charging the barn, lots of people, and the air was thick with bottles raining down on the barn area, as all hell broke loose around us.
      I grabbed my girlfriend by the hand and we headed for the top of a small hill nearby, which got us out of the fray, and gave us a birds eye view of the amazing scene unfolding below us. Thousands of bottles glistening in the morning light flew through the air, the roar of motorcycles, people screaming, gunshots and the piercing sound of breaking glass filled the air.
      Upon getting to the top of the hill, where we felt safe, we encountered one person sitting in a tree, seemingly oblivious to the violence taking place. The funny thing is, he was wearing white robes, and could have passed for the spitting image of a Hollywood Jesus! So, we ended up talking to this guy throughout the siege as the long line of authorities arrived to restore order. I don’t know who the dude was, or where he was from, but I must confess, that his calm laid back manner, gave a couple of scared kids a little comfort in the midst complete anarchy.

  10. Robert Martin

    I was also there. I remember the Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes who I remember providing speakers for the sound system when the one that the organizers had failed , Buffy Saint Marie and I think Chuck Berry. and also the barn and the biker’s. My friend Dennis and I were walking down towards the barn and the bikers were beating two black dudes with a chain. I believe they were brothers ’cause the one was pleading with the bikers to stop hitting his brother. I ran to the stage and told one of the stage crew what was going on. That was when they announced to the crowed and many people did grab rocks and bottles and there was a charge toward the barn. The bikers, El forest arrows or something like that, did pull guns and shot into the crowed running at them. I saw a biker chick with a shotgun and she fired off a shot but I think it was above the heads of the people. Freaky time! I have searched for information about this before thinking it was Steven’s Point Rock Festival. Glad I found this site.

  11. harold reid

    I was there all 3 days and never saw anything like what is described in this article. Nothing but good music and good memories.

  12. My friend and I hitchhiked to the festival from Minneapolis. I remember sitting on the back of BB King’s black limo late on Sat. night, partying with his band and roadies. After hearing about the (alleged) rapes by the bikers the next morning, I remember siphoning gas from a school bus into an empty half-gallon Gallo wine bottle and stuffing a rag in it to make a (potential) Molotov cocktail and heading for the fray to toss it at the bikers. Fortunately, it was never lit and tossed. I heard that the cops, after stopping the bikers on their way out, made them strip naked and stand along the side of the road prior to arrest.
    I also remember meeting a beautiful girl of Greek heritage named Athena, zipping our sleeping bags together and enjoying a beautiful night with each other. Athena, where are you now?

  13. Pingback: The King in His Castle – The Hits Just Keep On Comin'

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