(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.)