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.

The Faded Festival

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Janis Joplin, 1969.)

The telling of rock-festival history tends to start at Monterey Pop in 1967 before jumping to Woodstock in 1969—but there were festivals in between. I’ve written about the Atlanta Pop Festival over the weekend of July 4, 1969, and the Midwest Rock Festival, held in Milwaukee later that month. The weekend after Milwaukee, the festival focus shifted to Atlantic City, New Jersey, and another event now largely forgotten.

The Atlantic City Pop Festival opened on Friday, August 1, 1969, at the Atlantic City Race Course, normally a horse-racing venue. The event featured a rotating stage, supposedly designed by R. Buckminster Fuller. The biggest stars of the first day were Iron Butterfly and Procol Harum; Joni Mitchell played too, but only four songs; it’s unclear why she cut her set short, although she said from the stage that she’d sung the same verse of one song twice and nobody noticed, so it’s presumed she thought the audience wasn’t paying attention. Crosby Stills and Nash were billed but didn’t show (Graham Nash had vocal-cord trouble, it was said); Johnny Winter got there but was unable to play due to some sort of equipment problem. Santana, then known as the Santana Blues Band, was introduced by MC Biff Rose as the “Santa Ana Blues Band.” Chicago and Booker T. and the MGs were also scheduled for Friday (but may also have played on Saturday), and the show was closed that night by the Chambers Brothers. On Saturday, the Jefferson Airplane, the Byrds, and Creedence Clearwater Revival were the top acts; B. B. King, Paul Butterfield, and Tim Buckley were also on the bill. Sunday’s lineup was star-packed: Canned Heat, Joe Cocker, Frank Zappa, and Three Dog Night were among them (although the Moody Blues were advertised, they didn’t appear). The show was closed on Sunday night by Janis Joplin and Little Richard, jamming together.

Among the reasons why Atlantic City Pop has largely been forgotten is because of what it wasn’t. It wasn’t the giant mudhole freakout of a generation; it wasn’t a place where babies were born and legends were made; it wasn’t mythologized by a movie or an album. It was just a show, for $6 per day or $15 for all three. There was no camping on the site (although many attendees slept in their cars in the parking lot). The three-day crowd of over 100,000 came from as far away as Texas and Florida. The weather was hot, and the crowd was occasionally hosed down by water trucks; a pond on the grounds of the track was a popular cooling-off spot as well. At one point, a stage announcement was made that if there were narcs in the crowd, they were unlikely to cause trouble. How anybody could know that isn’t clear, but it was true. Rolling Stone reported that there was so much marijuana smoke that a contact high was nearly guaranteed, at least near the stage.

There was a police presence, however, but according to one of the promoters, none of the cops were armed. Officers patrolled the site on 12-hour shifts, and the track’s owners hired a private security force to make sure nothing would happen that might interfere with the next week’s opening of the racing season. State troopers waited in reserve in case they were needed. Apart from the customary heavy drug use and a few attendees climbing the light towers above the stage on Friday night, the only serious incident occurred when a group of concertgoers ransacked a vendor area on Sunday, making off with about $20,000 in swag.

Approximately 70 vendors were on site, selling art, food, musical instruments, albums, and other merchandise, for Atlantic City Pop seems to have been very well planned in advance. The show was promoted by Electric Factory Concerts of Philadelphia, one of the top promoters on the East Coast. That made it quite different from other festivals, where it was sometimes assumed that quotidian details involving parking and sanitation and concessions would magically work themselves out thanks to the Aquarian spirit, or something.

Another reason why Atlantic City Pop has faded into history is Woodstock’s tendency to overshadow everything in proximity to it. It started on that very weekend 49 years ago: one attendee remembers being handed a flyer on his way out of the race track advertising the upcoming Woodstock Music and Art Fair.

My rock-festival posts often spike in traffic on weekend nights, when old hippies go a-Googling in search of their youth. If you were at Atlantic City, please tell us what you saw and did. I welcome your recollections.

Horror Show

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: the Stones on stage at Altamont; L to R: Mick Taylor, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and tour manager Sam Cutler.)

This blog has written extensively about the rock festival era, the period approximately between the Summer of Love and the summer of 1971, in which young people gathered on farms, at racetracks, at ballparks, and in other large venues for concerts featuring multiple headliners. Some shows lasted a single day, some for a weekend, and some even longer. Some were successful, and some were not. Pre-Woodstock gatherings at Golden Gate Park and other venues in northern California (including the Monterey Pop Festival) were largely peaceable and well-run. Woodstock itself seemed to have worked, although the historical record shows that it was repeatedly blessed by guardian angels or simply lucky. Other festivals became disastrous debacles, like the Iola People’s Fair in Wisconsin. From our vantage point over 45 years later, the average festival looks like a crapshoot: maybe you’d pull it off, but maybe you wouldn’t.

In the fall of 1969, the Rolling Stones, strapped for cash, scheduled a brief tour of America for November. They would be followed by documentarians Albert and David Maysles and hoped to cash in with a concert film, a la Woodstock. An outdoor festival, doubling as a rock ‘n’ roll summit between San Francisco and London, would provide the perfect ending to the tour and the film. What resulted is a story full of twists and turns that ends up a horror show, described in the fascinating new book Altamont: the Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day by Joel Selvin.

The Stones played standard arena shows in big cities including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, and in college towns including Fort Collins, Colorado; Auburn, Alabama; and Champaign, Illinois. But the free festival was supposed to be the capper. It was originally set for Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and the Stones’ appearance (alongside the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane) would be revealed only at the last minute as a surprise. Bu the surprise aspect was quickly scuttled, and then bungling management required the concert to be moved, first to Sears Point Raceway north of San Francisco and then, less than 36 hours before the announced concert date (December 6, 1969) to Altamont Speedway, a broken-down track about 40 miles east of Oakland.

Selvin’s book paints the rolling disaster in moment-by-moment detail—Mick Jagger comes off as astoundingly naive, refusing to permit police on the grounds—along with the out-and-out grifting by some of the participants. For example, a mysterious guy named Jon Jaymes was in charge of transportation and security and signed the contract with the owner of Altamont Speedway, but he wasn’t on the Stones’ payroll or anyone else’s, and it’s unclear how he managed to attach himself to the tour. When Jagger decamped for Switzerland on December 7th with the tour proceeds, $1.8 million in cash, he and the Stones left behind a trail of unpaid bills.

The bad juju that enveloped Altamont was the product of forces that the Stones were capable of unleashing but could not control. Since they last toured America in 1966, the country had changed. Concert crowds were no longer made up of screaming teenyboppers. The news was grimmer—Vietnam was a deeper quagmire and Richard Nixon, the least-trusted politician in America among young people, was in the White House, fostering anger and mistrust. The drugs were heavier: at Altamont, psychedelics and wine were the drugs of choice; in Selvin’s telling, musicians, concert crew, photographers, and a significant percentage of the crowd were tripping all day long. The crowd deserves a share of the blame for the violence that plagued the show. Although the Hells Angels, famously hired to handle security for $500 worth of beer, were accomplished lawbreakers (and were themselves addled by drugs and alcohol), they found concertgoers more than willing to egg them on. Even Meredith Hunter, the man whose stageside murder by one of the Angels was captured by the Maysles’ cameras, was high and looking for a fight.

Well before December 6th, it was clear that Altamont was haunted. The signs were everywhere. Without the guardian angels or the dumb luck that had favored Woodstock, it was a flashpot waiting for a match.

Ten years ago this month, this blog spun a theory that the last months of 1969 were haunted by a darkness you could hear on the radio. I developed it by cherry-picking the nation’s record charts, but Selvin’s book provides some halfway decent support for it—and I recommend it highly.

The Non-Festival Festival

Embed from Getty Images

One of this blog’s more popular posts is about the Atlanta Pop Festival, held on the July 4th weekend of 1969, which was inspired by a collection of evocative photos of the event posted online. Retronaut, a site that collects marvelous old images, has a set of photos from another forgotten festival.

The Powder Ridge Rock Festival was scheduled for a ski resort near Middlefield, Connecticut, at the end of July 1970. The three-day festival was to be studded with Woodstock veterans, including Sly and the Family Stone, Mountain, Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, Richie Havens, John Sebastian, and Ten Years After, along with Fleetwood Mac, the Allman Brothers Band, James Taylor, Van Morrison, Chuck Berry, and even (it was rumored) Led Zeppelin. But as so often happened in the festival era, the good people of Middlefield took steps to keep from having their town taken over by an army of hippies, getting a court injunction to stop the festival. Two days beforehand, signs were put up along the state highways leading to Middlefield saying, “Festival prohibited,” but by then, it was too late. On July 29, 1970, the day before the festival was to open, the number of people already on the grounds was estimated at 15,000.

Headliners, contracted or rumored, were understandably not eager to violate the injunction against the festival and stayed away. But when it became clear that there would be no show, the crowd began to create its own. The New York Times reported, “The youths provided their own music—from guitars, chants sung to the beat of tin cans and elaborate stereophonic equipment set atop psychedelic buses and mattress-lined hearses.” Folksinger Melanie, who had been on the original bill, risked arrest by performing on the night of July 30. (The sound engineer hired for the show was arrested after ordering his people to get the PA system ready for Melanie.)

At its peak, the non-festival festival attracted anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 people—and dozens of drug dealers. Festival medical director Dr. William Abruzzi, who had filled the same role at Woodstock, said that there were nearly 1,000 “bad trips” over the course of the festival, telling the media at one point that the heavy use of hallucinogens was causing a crisis. Abruzzi credited the eventual appearance of musicians with keeping the number from being greater. “The whole spirit of the place changed when the kids heard there would be music. Drug use went down precipitously.” A news report at the time claimed there had been 73 arrests; a later count put the number at 237.

Continue reading “The Non-Festival Festival”

Come and Love: Pictures 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.)

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.)

A Midwest Fest

The rock festivals of 40 years ago, Woodstock and Watkins Glen, as well as lesser-known regional festivals in places like Poynette, Wisconsin, and Wadena, Iowa, were born when a unique moment in cultural history coincided with the timeless desire to cash in. Promoters would find a field, book some bands, gather the tribes, and hope that the Aquarian spirit (or pure dumb luck) would result in good vibrations—and a big fat bankroll.

Three weeks before Woodstock, on the last weekend of July 1969, a festival in Milwaukee brought together an impressive list of legends-to-be. The first night of the three-day Midwest Rock Festival was headlined by Led Zeppelin. The newly formed Blind Faith was the star of Saturday, a day that was interrupted by rain. Christopher Hjort’s Strange Brew, a chronology of the British blues-rock boom of the 1960s, quotes a report from an underground newspaper published in Minneapolis the next week:

Dark clouds rolled in about 3PM. Rain was responsible for the cancellation of seven local groups. However, the show went on. Shag and SRC repeated their Friday night show. MC5 came on loud and strong, Ireland’s Taste trio proved very refreshing, and the rain gushed as John Mayall took the stage. Thousands sat receptively in the cool summer rain. Mystically, the clouds parted at 9:00PM, [and] everything fell into place like an act of Providence as Blind Faith played. Eric Clapton’s guitar mastery and Ginger Baker’s superb drumming pressed the crowd into frenzied enthusiasm. After the performance, Ginger Baker admitted that his 20-minute drum solo had been the very best he had ever done. Both Blind Faith and the dazed audience agreed: it was a classic. The night was capped with Faith’s “Presence of the Lord” and a “Sunshine of Your Love” curtain call.

(The Zeppelin and Blind Faith sets from Milwaukee have been bootlegged, and you can probably find ’em online if you want ’em. There’s no video of the show, but you can watch Blind Faith at Hyde Park the month before doing “Presence of the Lord” right here.)

Other sources indicate that rain continued Sunday, causing the curtailing or cancellation of sets by acts including Joe Cocker, Jethro Tull, Jeff Beck, the Bob Seger System, and Johnny Winter. Delaney and Bonnie were also scheduled to appear at some point during the weekend, along with the usual glut of local bands.

As with future festivals in many places, controversy erupted afterward. The festival had been held at State Fair Park in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis. The state assemblyman representing the area, Robert Huber, complained that Fair Park officials had not notified West Allis officials of the festival in advance, and he decried the way that Greenfield Avenue, a street adjacent to the Fair Park, had turned into “a Haight-Ashbury district.” Assemblyman Huber said he did not “intend to sit idly by and allow the same street to be the show window of semi-sex orgies.” Yet while Huber, who had not been in the area during the festival, was criticizing the kids who had attended, local merchants praised the kids’ behavior.

Despite the assemblyman’s high dudgeon, controversy over the Milwaukee festival died down quickly. July turned to August, and the focus of the rock world turned to upstate New York. All these years later, the Midwest Rock Festival is nearly forgotten.

A question remains, however: Precisely what constitutes a “semi-sex orgy”?

(Revised from a post originally written for, a now-defunct website to which I contributed from 2008 to 2012.)