Finding the Fair

(Pictured: the Iola People’s Fair. Photo lifted without permission from the Facebook group mentioned below.)

In June 1970, a rock festival called the Iola People’s Fair was held in a rural area about 80 miles west of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Like other festivals of the era, it was thrown together on the fly and attracted a respectable lineup of national and regional performers. About 50,000 people showed up, and newspaper reports about Friday’s opening day painted the festival as a benign Renaissance frolic, all peace and love. But by Saturday night, with every imaginable drug in use and wine bottles littering the ground, the event took on an ominous vibe. On Sunday morning, after a night of shakedowns, beatings, and rumors of rapes by bikers in the crowd, concertgoers started chucking rocks and wine bottles at them. In response, the bikers mounted up and counterattacked (“chicks were on the handlebars, shooting,” one attendee told me), and the festival dissolved into a riot. The next week’s newspaper reports were all about what a disaster the festival had been, from start to finish—as if the papers had forgotten their own reporting just a few days before. Even the Portage County sheriff had forgotten: on Friday, he praised the organizers for their cooperation and their attendees for their behavior, but by Monday he was calling the festival a “nice, big, organized, lawless drug party.”

In 2010, I dug into contemporary newspapers and interviewed attendees about what happened at Iola and why. My stuff shows up on the first page of Google when you search “Iola people’s fair.” There’s a Facebook group that’s mostly pictures and a sparse entry at a wiki called “Festivival,” which lifts the first paragraph of one of my posts as its description of the show, but apart from that, there’s a 1990 newspaper story, a Pinterest board, and that’s about it.

I seem to be the predominant Iola scholar on the Internets, for whatever that’s worth.

The 1990 story from the Racine Journal-Times contains one item I didn’t find in my research: a baby was born prematurely on the festival grounds and died. That wasn’t reported in any of the contemporary newspapers I read, although it certainly could have happened without making the papers. But nearly every rock festival from the turn of the 70s has its tales of babies born during the event. For years, people insisted that there were births at Woodstock, but nobody has ever identified the babies. It defies belief that someone with that particular claim to fame would keep quiet about it, so it’s likely they never existed. (There’s a story from the 1972 Concert 10 Festival in Pennsylvania that claims five babies were born during that single-day event, but that’s clearly nonsense.)

Any now-legendary drug-fueled rock festival from the height of the counterculture’s glory days, fondly recollected by aging hippies with fading memories, is going to spark its share of misinformation. For example, there’s a story about Iola that angry concertgoers “executed” a group of bikers in retaliation for an axe murder one of them committed. That, of course, did not happen, nor anything remotely close to it. The only death associated with the People’s Fair (apart from the possibly apocryphal baby) was that of a young man who died in a motorcycle accident near the grounds that weekend.

On a recent Sunday, I was traveling in central Wisconsin when I noticed a sign for the Iola Winter Sports Club. Remembering that the People’s Fair was held somewhere near there, I dipped into my e-mail file for some correspondence from a couple of years ago with a photographer looking for the site, and I took off into the wilds of Portage and Waupaca counties trying to find it.

And I’m pretty sure I did. There wasn’t much to see. After a Friday snowstorm, the town road that runs west of the site had theoretically been plowed, although a snowmobile would have been a better ride than my car that morning. I would have needed a snowmobile to navigate what looked like a trail through the roadside trees, a trail that ran into an open area. The county roads along the south and east sides of the site were better-plowed, but there wasn’t much to see from either one. I suspect the look of the grounds has changed over the years, given 50 years of forest growth. But the geography of the place, as far as I could see it, was right.

I didn’t take a picture. You’ve seen snowy woods and fields. It was like that.

One response

  1. […] —Also among the most heavily trafficked posts in the history of this site are the ones about the Iola People’s Fair, a 1970 Wisconsin rock festival (which is one of the subjects of my first podcast episode). Late last winter I found myself in central Wisconsin, so I went looking for the place where it happened. […]

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