The Iola People's Fair - Wisconsin June 1970

The Iola People's Fair - Wisconsin June 1970
Authored By Johnny Blogger

Rumours of a festival to be held somewhere in central Wisconsin circulated for weeks before the official announcement on June 17, 1970. Earth Enterprises (hippy company name alert!) 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. People's Fair was obviously a euphemism for drugged-up freakout with hairy people an' bands. 

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. I have no idea what a zoning law is, but I bet a lot of people were zoned out.

By Monday, June 22, promoters had begun preparing the site, and underground newspapers were publicizing the show. The bands playing were all festival regulars but not many drawn from the creme-de-la-creme of rock music. The Friday bill was to be topped by 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 Saint Marie, Crow, and Brownsville Station, who presumably spent all weekend smokin' in the boy's room.

Chuck Berry and Ravi Shankar were set for Sunday. Eclectic grooving, baby.  On all three days, local and regional bands would fill out the bill. 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. I bet that was amazing.

On Thursday, June 25, the hairy community began to descend on the site. By Friday morning, 10,000 people were already camped out. The promoters had set up a system of checkpoints to keep out those without tickets in order to prevent the usual descent into it being a free festival. A high wire fence encircled the site, which I'm sure didn't go down well with the freaks. The only road into the site quickly backed up for 10 miles, delaying the start by 7 hours. "The scene was the beginning of a big pot party," a reporter wrote. Groovy use of the word "scene" there, brother.

A Saturday report in the Capital Times - a hippie paper - made the festival sound like a hippie paradise. "In some ways, the festival resembles one of those medieval fairs that preceded the urbanization of Europe and its subsequent Renaissance." Did it? Did it really? Are you sure? "Bubbles were very much in style and they floated through the frisbee-laced air. . . ." Yeah, you didn't actually see a lot of bubbles at actual medieval fairs, dude. They probably didn't smoke much dope, either, let alone drop acid and while we're at it, the frisbee wasn't around either. And they liked jousting. I bet there was no jousting at this festival. OK? So not medieval at all then, except for the toilet facilities, probably.

Despite a lack of toilets (surprise, surprise) and telephones (why would you need to phone someone? Hi Mom, I'm really freakin' high and Ted Nugent is playing guitar while eating a ferret. Bye!) things started well. "Everything has gone real well," a Waupaca County deputy told the Capital Times. Portage County Sheriff Nick Check (great name, especially when he made a list) said, "We've had more cooperation than we thought we would from the festival organizers and the young people themselves."

Yeah man, turns out hippies aren't all crazy people. Who knew?

Under the surface, of course, it was all a bit darker. Wide scale sale of drugs went on, as per usual. Police had taken knives and guns from some attendees at the gate. Rumours of a rape began to circulate. Hells Angels and bikers began to gather and did anything they wanted and took anything they wanted.

On Saturday night, a group of them got onstage while Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes were playing. Where was Ted's crossbow when you needed it? Doesn't Ted hunt bikers? Bikers tossed a guard off the stage, and he broke his collarbone. Even law-abiding bikers were intimidating, with knives and firearms openly displayed. Promoters eventually asked some of the bikers to leave. But with police involved mostly in controlling access to the area and no uniformed force on the grounds, there was no way to make the bikers go. During the overnight hours of Saturday, rumors spread of beatings and rapes, and tensions rose.

Dude, we just came to hear Melanie and now all of this? Bummer.

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.

One fella remembers that "Chicks were on the handlebars, shooting," Mmmm, sexy. This is all sounding like a movie.

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. Hippies were fighting back! Soon, the bad ass bikers fled, a few even leaving their bikes behind, which, in a scene that sounds straight out of the Simpsons, were promptly set on fire by the crowd.

23 bikers were arrested on the road outside. Sheriff Nick Check later claimed that the bikers had "thanked the pigs for saving their lives"!! This all seems unlikely, doesn't it? Hippies didn't usually scare bikers away, especially bikers that had chicks on their handlebars shooting guns.   

After the shootings, people started leaving 'cos nothing puts a cramp in your festival like a shooting, right?  At the festival's height, estimates put the crowd between 40,000 and 60,000. By Sunday evening, only five or six thousand remained to see the last few bands. Maybe they all had body armour.

In the festival's aftermath, Sheriff Check was no longer praising the event. He called it "a nice, big, organized, lawless drug party" (sounds like fun!) and vowed that there would never be a repeat: "We'll keep people out if it means blocking off half the county."

The same newspapers that had painted the festival as generally peaceable on Friday and Saturday now called it "generally violent and troubled." Stories stressed the lack of drinking water, rampant drug use, and even the poor sound system. Local residents were scandalized by the whole thing. Sheriff Check called the violence "a blessing" for calling attention to what went on at rock festivals. And in the weeks following, officials took steps to limit future events. Boo. That's seriously harshed our buzz, man. Now, excuse me, I've got a gun-toting biker chick to put on my handlebars.

*This piece was edited, copied, added to and adapted from the excellent

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