Sky River And Lighter Than Air Fair III 1970

Sky River And Lighter Than Air Fair III 1970
Authored By John Nicholson

Sky River was unusual, if not unique, in that it was held for three consecutive years from 1968-70. 1970’s was held between Fri Aug 28, 1970 and Tue Sep 08, 1970 at the Edwin Tate ranch, Clark County, Lehr Road, Washougal, Washington. Yes it was 10 days long! 

All Sky River fests were very hippie affairs and sound brilliant. With over 10,000 there each day and 40 bands performing across the 10 days, there were also a lot of alternative lifestyle events. At one point 15 couples got married on the stage and then, on the last day of the festival, all got divorced on the same stage. “Those goddamn freaks are making a mockery of the sanctity of marriage!” You got that right, man.

The Edwin Tate ranch was a 160 acre farm consisting of several old decaying buildings, a large open pasture, several springs and dense woods at the end of Keep Road, off Lehr Road, several miles north of the town of Washougal. All very bucolic. 

The full line-up was Big Brother and The Holding Company, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Fox, Good Clean Fun, High Voltage, Jefferson Airplane, Mojo Band, The Factory, The Rhythm Dukes, The Smith Brothers, The Wayne Silversonics Band, The Youngbloods and many other local outfits.

On Monday Aug. 24th, Ric Alba, a spokesman for the third annual Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter than Air Fair, told Seattle press that a massive rock festival, aimed at attracting up to 100,000 persons, was being prepared at a secret site in Washington state. Alba said that the site would be announced late Thursday, Aug. 27th,"to put the courts out of action".

Thus began a cat and mouse game where The Man and his enforcers kept a look out all over Washington state for people gathering for what might be a festival. Many ordinances were in places to stop long outdoor musical events and this was scheduled the festival to run from Aug 28th to Sept 8th, the dates to coincide with the start of the American Legion Convention and the Peoples Army Jamboree in Portland, Oregon

But the authorities got wind of it after some freaks ran out of fuel on the way there and spilled the beans to the cops. “Dude, I told you to keep your mouth shut!”

But when the cops showed up on the site, the workers were keen to pretend ‘no festival here, man, we’re just doin’ up this barn and planning a cookout’, hoping to delay their protests until it was too late to stop it.

On Tuesday afternoon, Aug.25th, to elaborate on plans for the farm. At the press conference Ric Alba said an estimated $68,000 had already been invested which would be geared up to provide facilities for 100,000 persons and that the facilities could be doubled in six hours if the crowd should swell to 200,000. A total of $117,000 had been budgeted for the fair by the (hippie name, ahoy!) Hydra Collective, a socio-cultural organization within the Seattle Liberation Front (yeah!!), which was spearheading the event. Funds for the event had come from private investors and donations. Advance ticket sales produced an estimated $10,000.

Alba explained about the site saying that the 160 acres had been purchased as part of a plan to make a permanent community. He said that 100 acres of the land was a natural amphitheater and that the remainder was a wooded site with plenty of grounds for camping. Three springs and a river were located on the grounds and the springs had been tested for purity and would be used to provide water for the event. 

Seattle's Open Door Clinic would provide medical care. Four ambulances would be onsite and a lifeguard would be posted at the river. Fair supplies would be airlifted into the site by four helicopters. Fire lines would be built and fire fighting equipment strategically located. A free food centre run by the Hog Farm Collective would dole out enough rice and vegetable dishes for 50,000 persons daily. Other food would be sold at cost by different organizations. A parking system would keep traffic flowing continuously and talks were underway to secure an additional 80 acres of parking.

These folk were serious, man. They’d thought of everything and planned to make this a very cool happening.

What happened next depends upon who the story was being heard from. The Sky River people said that Edwin Tate was herded into the courtroom by the Sheriff's office, badgered by the Prosecuting Attorney's office, confused, frightened, and talked into signing an order to kick the people he had just sold his property to, off that property.

Tate's attorney, Robert O'Dell, said that Tate, realizing at last what the festival people were up to, signed the order with the idea of rescinding the deal and stopping the proceedings.

Whichever version was correct, the order telling people to leave was delivered Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 24th, by Chief Deputy Eugene Cotton. Ric Alba received the order at the site, but declined to leave.

Charles H. W. Talbot, Seattle, an attorney representing the Hydra Collective, said that Sky River youths have rights to the property as a check for $1,000 binding the sale of the property had been presented to an escrow company on Monday, Aug. 24th.

OK, are you keeping up? Good. Because more is to follow:

A temporary compromise was worked out which left the people on the property as Tate's guests until the legal ownership of the land was straightened out.

That evening the Sheriff's office instituted a short lived roadblock near the entrance to the property with the intention of keeping more people from coming in and to eventually move the original 70 people out.

Site manager, Charlie Locke, was too busy to talk with reporters but a representative of the festival who identified himself as Puzzleman (“I put the pieces together” - yeah man, that’s, like, profound)) questioned the legality of the roadblock. "This is our land. Everyone who buys a ticket becomes a part owner and has a right to go in and out", he said. Yeah, right on, brother. He really was the Puzzleman because it was decided not to clear the Sky River people out, the roadblock was lifted.

Chief Deputy Cotton explained,"we received advice from people who had worked at other rock festivals that to block the road would be asking for trouble. They said that the people would just park their cars in the road and tramp in over private property. We decided to institute a policy of containment".

As long as the people were Tate's guests there could be no trespassing charges and the rock festival ordinance did not take effect until more than 1,000 people had assembled, which they hadn’t...yet. The county felt it had no legal basis to act upon. "We could not deprive people of the right to assemble on conjecture", Prosecuting Attorney R. Dewitt Jones said. "No one can say in advance that people are assembling at a certain place for illegal purposes. Evidence acceptable to a court must be gathered first", he said. By the time evidence had been gathered it was too late. Freaks 1. Straights 0.

Meanwhile up at the site, the workforce, consisting of young men, women and children, with an assortment of dogs, were busy tearing down the barn (which they considered unsafe), putting up a large scaffolding across the clearing, building a temporary stage and painting signs along the road pointing the way to the festival.

"Now that the location of this place is out, we are expecting a lot of people up here. We've got to be ready for them. If they start pouring in before the work is done, it's going to be chaos", Puzzleman said. Clearly, the legal problems didn't seem to be deterring the spirits of the Sky River people.

"It'll happen", said Puzzleman (who it turned out was actually called Mike Hill and he was from Seattle) but Puzzleman is his true identity.  "There's no stopping it now. The word is out up and down the coast and people are headed here by the thousands. The festival officially starts today (Wednesday Aug. 26th) since the site has been officially announced. No music is planned till Friday, then it will be three days of music, five days of workshops and then four more days of music. 

Those last four days will be the big portion of the festival. Those people (the music chairmen) will be here this afternoon (Wednesday Aug.26th). The bands are basically west coast groups and the biggest name I can think of is The Jefferson Airplane. Bands are anxious to play Sky River because it has a good reputation (since it has been held two years previously). The groups aren't paid. They're happy to donate their time. All we do is pay expenses for them", he said. When questioned about the workshops Puzzleman said, "they would include sessions on news and media and how to curb drug use."

The steady but relaxed pace of Wednesday picked up considerably on Thursday. By this time 1,500 to 2,000 persons had gathered. Volunteers were constructing a row of concession stands and a field hospital out of the old barn siding and a metal and plastic swimming pool with 18,000 gallon capacity was set up as a water reservoir. An officious little one armed man named Robert Harris (no relation to the county assistant prosecutor) announced that he and someone named Joe would be manning the KVAN radio controls during the festival. "We already paid for the time", Harris said, "and will be broadcasting live from Sky River for the first 11 days from 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

People who had the bread could pay the entrance fee, or part of it if they were short, or if they were skint, you could work on site to pay for your entrance. Seems very fair. 

On Friday Aug. 28th, the day the festival was to start, the incoming rush began in earnest. About 8,000 people were on the site by nightfall and Saturday the ranks swelled to about 15,000 people.

What the people did there that sunny, warm, chaotic weekend is a matter of record. Some put every conceivable type of drug into their bloodstreams. They swam in the Washougal River the way nature intended (naked), built campfires, and a thousand makeshift tents , and occasionally they even listened to music. Residents across the river were shocked at the hundreds of naked bodies frolicking before their eyes and reported more than a few bizarre sexual exploits. “I’m disgusted but can’t stop looking!” Yeah, right on!

Along with the drugs, alcohol was part of the festival scene over the weekend. Festival goers either brought their own or found ample supplies to purchase on the festival grounds. Most of the drug selling was in the open with a few concession stands offering mescaline, marijuana, LSD(acid), Beer, wine, or foodstuffs. Concessionaires , who made prior arrangements with the organizers, sold such items as peanut butter and organic jam sandwiches, hot dogs, leather goods, beads , watermelon, hot German potato salad, chicken, spaghetti, tamales, brown rice, flags ($1),soft drinks, bread, one stand was selling Goofy's Goulash, a sort of poor man's lasagna, milk, dry cereal, pancakes, toilet paper, roach clips, and cigarettes. A veritable feast.

Other vendors moved through the crowd, hawking their wares. Generally the crowd was calm with most of the boisterous action being brought on by the liquor. There were some unconfirmed reports of beatings and fights in the area where the bikers were camped out , however. Periodically it would be announced over the P.A. system when a bad drug appeared. People were warned to watch out for bad "Mexican reds" and LSD laced with strychnine. Oooh bad vibe. Up at the stage, a table was set up for drug donations to be given to the bands.

The lack of parking spaces resulted in people parking illegally along the sides of these roads. So many people parked illegally that the Sheriff's office couldn't see the value of ticketing them or having them towed. They did however issue tickets to people who stopped their cars on the Washougal River road to gawk at skinny dippers. “I ain’t never seen a nude nuthin’ before, momma”.

A daily Sky River newsletter was produced using a mimeograph and handed out to everyone who turned up.

One poor dude flipped out on acid and drowned in the river. Ach, man...that’s so sad.

The music for that weekend were local acid rock bands and a light show was put on, almost certainly involving gel plates.

Then everyone left to go back to work on Monday morning. Got to earn the bread for your head, man. But not Puzzleman  - I love this guy - who told the media, "That's to be expected. You've got to realize that half our people, or more, work or go to school. They had to cut out after the weekend, but they will be back". 

Everything was going real smooth, he reported. The sanitary facilities were being pumped out (they had filled to overflowing) and would be ready for the next weekend's influx of people.

The authorities, still uptight about the gig, tried to stop it.  A temporary restraining order was granted in Superior court by Judge Edward Reed, Monday, ordering a halt to all festival activities and stopping suppliers of the festival from delivering food and water. They thought this would put people off. It didn’t. Freaks live on air and light, baby. 

Legal wranglings continued all week, but had no effect on anything. The cops didn’t stop people arriving for the next weekend and there appeared no shortage of water or food. The weather turned from sunshine to rain and that was a bummer. Someone gave birth up on the hill - I wonder who they are and what they’re doing now?

Airplane CSNY and Big Brother all played and were loved. But this festival was about the people as well as the music. Even after the last Sunday, the legal fussing continued. 

In court, a $100,000 lawsuit was filed against the festival organizers for damages and claiming that the buyers broke the earnest money agreement. One stipulation of that agreement had called for the board of the WPCA to okay the purchase and apparently that never happened. The Tates felt they would not see a penny of the money. "We can't find out who the Washington Planned Associates is, and it's pretty hard to get money from something that does not exist", said Robert O'Dell, attorney for the Tates.

"This is the rock festival that could bring the law to a head", said Georgia Wardall, real estate agent who handled the sale of the land and the person said to have handled the festival finances. "We bought the land. It's ours and the county is sticking its nose into something that's none of its business", she said. "I don't think there's any question that those laws against rock festivals are unconstitutional and we'll take it to the courts if we have to", she added.

By Wednesday, Sept. 9th only a few hundred people remained on the site. Thursday, their numbers were down to less than a hundred. On Friday, Judge Robert D. McMullen issued a permanent restraining order to the rock festival fans to disperse, with bench warrants for anyone who might not obey the court order. The last residents of Sky River were herded out on two donated buses and taken to Delta Park in Portland.

And that was it. The last and longest Sky River Festival was over. This was a proper festival; a counterculture phenomenon the like of which would not be repeated. There was talk of turning Sky River into a commune but that never happened. 

Even so, the spirit lives on in the hearts of those that were touched by Sky River. For a fuller story, this dude writes a beautiful account from which I’ve harvested some of this piece  

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