(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.
(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 a podcast about it, 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.)
By the late summer of 1970, rock festivals were busting out all over, and local government officials across the country found themselves playing defense against them. They passed ordinances to make mass gatherings difficult, and they sought court injunctions against those that planned to go forward anyhow. In July, the same promoters who had put on the Sound Storm Festival in Wisconsin during April planned another festival for Galena, Illinois, but when it was stopped by injunction there, they picked Fayette County, Iowa, as their alternate location, specifically the little town of Wadena, population 251. They bought a 220-acre farm from a local family on July 20, and announced the festival for the weekend of July 31 through August 2.
The immediate reaction from officials was familiar to observers of other festivals, such as the one that had been held near Iola, Wisconsin, in June. “I am against the festival and I think it is an underhanded deal,” one Fayette County supervisor said. “They ought to keep the whole damn thing in Chicago.” He added, “We’re going to do everything we can to get the festival stopped.” There was hand-wringing over the bad example an influx of hippies would set for local youth. In defense of the locals, officials of Chicago-based Sound Storm, Inc., had said nothing about a rock festival to the owners of the farm they bought. All they said was something about building a resort, so the residents’ anger about being blindsided was legitimate. Iowa Governor Robert Ray said that local concerns were justified.
Reaction to the reaction, from the promoters, was also familiar: “Some fine citizens still don’t believe that our culture can get it together for a few days in an air of peace and mutual responsibility,” a press release from Sound Storm, Inc., said. “We’ve tried to rid ourselves of the shortcomings of previous music festivals in the Midwest.” They had arranged for fencing, medical care, parking, food, and security at the site, and promised to issue every attendee a garbage bag to carry out what they’d brought in.
Promoters also announced their list of prospective performers, which featured a mix of superstars and lesser-known acts, as well as local and regional bands. Among those mentioned in news coverage leading up to the event: the Who, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, REO Speedwagon, Poco, Tim Hardin, Buffy Ste. Marie, the Guess Who, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Rotary Connection, the Chambers Brothers, Mason Proffit, Ian and Sylvia, the Youngbloods, and Oz.
After the jump: Both sides bring on the lawyers.
(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.
The Woodstock Nation gathered over an August weekend in 1969 for the single most famous rock festival ever held. In December 1969, a single-day festival at Altamont Speedway near Oakland, California, was a downer from the start—too many drugs, too little security, and too much of the Hell’s Angels, who murdered a fan within a few feet of the stage as the Rolling Stones played. But as the winter of 1970 melted into spring, the burnished glow of Woodstock outshone the fires of Altamont in the memories of young people. Millions craved a communal, outdoor experience of their own.
Wisconsin’s Woodstock was the Sound Storm Festival, held on the York farm near Poynette in Columbia County, north of Madison, in late April. Local law enforcement officials prepared for the worst—rioting, looting, clean-cut rural youth enticed to vice by hippie provocateurs—but at the same time they took a lenient view of drug use and public nudity. As a result, there were only a handful of arrests, and the festival proceeded peacefully. The success of Sound Storm meant that somebody would try to organize a second festival. Unfortunately, it ended up more Altamont than Woodstock.
Rumors of a festival to be held somewhere in central Wisconsin circulated for weeks before the official announcement on June 17, 1970. Earth Enterprises and Concert Promoters International purchased a plot of land that straddled the Portage/Waupaca County line near Iola, about 80 miles west of Green Bay and 140 miles north of Madison, and would hold a “People’s Fair” over the weekend of June 26–28. Although county officials briefly discussed whether the rock festival could be stopped, there was little they could do. Most of the festival activities would be held in Iola Township, which had no zoning laws that could be invoked.
By Monday, June 22, promoters had begun preparing the site, and underground newspapers were publicizing the show. The Friday bill was to be topped by Woodstock veterans Melanie and Paul Butterfield, Taj Mahal, and jazz drummer Buddy Rich. Saturday’s headliners were to include Spirit, Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes, Mason Proffit, Buffy Ste. Marie, Crow, and Brownsville Station. Chuck Berry and Ravi Shankar were set for Sunday. On all three days, local and regional bands would fill out the bill, including Siegal-Schwall, Soup, the Tayles, Short Stuff, Tongue, Oz, SRC, the Bowery Boys (which later became Clicker), and Fuse (which included two future members of Cheap Trick). Not all of the scheduled acts played—Spirit didn’t—and some late additions did. Iggy and the Stooges played one of the weekend’s most memorable sets just before sunrise on Sunday morning.
After the jump, the festival begins.