(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.)
Two of my favorite posts out of the more than 1,700 that have appeared at this blog are the ones from 2010 about the Iola People’s Fair, a Wisconsin rock festival held in June 1970. (part 1 here, part 2 here). I dug up newspaper articles about the fest and collected memories from a few attendees, all in an attempt to flesh out the details about an event that was remembered mostly in hazy fragments sprinkled across the Internet, many of them distorted or flat wrong.
Recently, a friend of the blog pointed me to a collection of photos from Iola that have turned up on Facebook, posted by Sanderson Photography of Green Bay.
Before you get to the pics, though, look at this publicity poster for the event, which is the distilled essence of 1970, promising “Fresh Air! Nature! Music! Love! Fun! Water! Ponds and Streams!” and exhorting, “Street People, Come and Love.” The poster promised an eclectic lineup from Buddy Rich, Ravi Shankar, and Chuck Berry to Buffy Ste. Marie, the Amboy Dukes, and Sugarloaf. Neither the advance publicity nor the news stories following the event (which were notoriously terrible nationwide about mentioning artists, probably figuring that their adult readers wouldn’t care) say anything about Iggy and the Stooges, although their 3AM Sunday morning set has come down as the single most well-remembered performance of the festival. Advance tickets: $10.
Iola is most famous for the Sunday morning incident in which bikers mounted up and charged angry concertgoers who had been chucking rocks and bottles at them in response to thefts and violence committed by the bikers. (“Chicks were on the handlebars shooting,” one witness told me.) One of the photos shows a large number of motorcycles parked on the grounds, although no bikers are in sight. Another concertgoer reported an incident involving a tanker truck full of water. It was supposedly the only source of drinking water on the grounds, until some of the bikers took it over, opened the top hatch, and went swimming in it. (I am a little skeptical about that story, given that there was a lily pond on the grounds that could have been used for swimming, but it could have happened.) Madison-area musician Tony Menzer also remembers the bikers and the water. “I camped up on the hill above the path to the lake and water supply . . . Not where you wanted to be when the bikers tried to take over the water. A buddy of mine jumped on some biker’s bike and drove it into the lake . . . during all hell breaking loose down there. This is the day I realized that some bikers are mere posers . . . once again the hippies ruled!!” (There are more concert memories in a separate post here, although I am not sure if Facebook will permit you to see it.)
There’s an excellent shot of the stage here, a good look at the array of tents pitched by attendees here, and a terrific crowd shot here. I especially like the couple with their arms wrapped around each other’s waists, listening to the music in the distance, and the girl wearing an American flag as a sundress. There were giant bongs and hippie art. There were guys who looked like Jesus and girls with their tops off.
And there’s this photo: the flags, the tents, the people, and the fading light at sunset. Nobody knew, neither the people in the photograph nor the photographer, how evocative that moment would become, an incalculable 44 years in the future. We look at it and we wish, for just a moment, that we could have been there, to see it and hear it, to enjoy the Renaissance Fair atmosphere the newspapers wrote about (before the bikers ran amok), to gather with the tribe during America’s rock festival summer, in a world we dream as more innocent. To come and love, as so many did, before the 60s were completely over and the 70s truly begun.
(An entirely different collection of Iola photos is here. Thanks to Richard Menning for putting my original Iola post on Facebook and tagging me so I could see this stuff.)