The Satsop River Fair Washington 1971

The Satsop River Fair  Washington 1971
Authored By John Nicholson

The Satsop River Fair and Tin Cup Races, to give it its full name (I have no idea what tin cup races are) started its troubled four-day run on Friday, September 3, 1971, as the first "legal" outdoor rock festival in Washington after passage of a state law regulating such events. 

This is quite a story, so strap yourself in for the ride. 

Organizers had to sue Grays Harbor County to get a permit, and the delay contributed to the festival's difficulties but the Satsop River Fair still managed to put on some good music, even though everything that could go wrong, went wrong. It is fondly remembered by many as the last of its kind. The shambolic chaos of the whole thing is very much part of the fun of it, I think. 

By 1971 things were changing. The counterculture heyday was over. The festivals of 67 and 68 and 69 where it felt like something big was happening, were long gone and the money men had begun to colonise the business and the culture of rock. 

One day events, especially those organised by Universities, were making big bucks and the days of the 3 day long weekend gatherings were coming to an end. This was one of the last of them.

The Satsop River Fair was organised by Gary Howard Friedman, who was, what the legal profession might call “an interesting character.” He was later described in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as an admitted  "ex-black marketeer, ex-convict, ex-narcotics agent, ex-computer operator and self-proclaimed promoter" which is quite a charge sheet, but then festivals always attracted ‘interesting’ people who saw a chance to clean up, usually by using someone else’s money.

He had a partner, Bill O'Neill, who was apparently the sane voice of the team. Friedman had raised some initial money to stage the festival by putting on a few concerts, including fundraisers with volunteer bands at taverns that donated space for the shows. By the time O'Neill came on board there was enough cash to start planning the gig. 

On July 7, 1971, they announced that a lease had been signed for a site in Grays Harbor County, conditioned on the issuance of the necessary permit. Now, if you’ve read a lot of my history of festival pieces, you’ll know permits are almost always a problem and usually the first stumbling block to overcome. 

The festival was named the Satsop River Fair and Tin Cup Races, and the site was the 77-acre Reality Farm on E Satsop Road. Great name for a farm! I'm thinking hippies lived there.

It was topographically ideal -- sloping land formed a natural amphitheater that led down to the Satsop River. The farm was owned in part by Max Hausher and Bob Plaja, who described it as a "community" (hippie commune alert term!) comprising "16 people, 70 chickens, six ducks, and a pig" Reality Farm was paid $10,000 for the use of the land. I bet some of that was spent on Rizlas. Jus' sayin'.

On July 9 Friedman and O'Neill met with Grays Harbor County officials and they all took a trip to the site. Friedman said that he believed the meeting had gone "very well". It hadn't. Eighteen days later he was in court, asking for an order forcing the county commissioners to issue a permit, which they had refused to do. See? Permits, man. They’re always such a hassle.

Friedman began schmoozing press and politicians. On August 5 he debated the issues with Grays Harbor County Prosecuting Attorney Edward Brown at a gathering of the County Commissioners Association in Union, Mason County. Friedman argued that "the counterculture -- call it what you want, hippies, yippies or long-haired freaks" rejected "the system" as "hypocrisy, as a failure to live up to its own ideals." The answer, he preached, was for the disaffected to "get back into the system because that's where the power is." Denying the permit, he argued, would only further alienate the young. 

All of which sounds like someone making a bullshit sales pitch rather than expounding a sincerely held philosophy. But somehow, it worked. 

On August 19, just two weeks before the festival was scheduled to start, King County Superior Court Judge Charles Z. Smith ordered the county to issue the permit, conditioned on the promoters posting by August 30 a $30,000 bond and proof of $50,000 in property insurance.

Some preliminary work was underway at Reality Farm, but by the time the permit was granted on August 31, there was very little time and still lots to do. But money, at least at this early stage, was not a problem. A Portland woman, Janet Levin, had provided a $70,000 interest-free loan! Bless her for that. Often forgotten now is that some wealthy people were really onboard with the counterculture and wanted it to thrive, so happily parted with cash to help out. 

Herman Sarkowsky a Seattle developer, also gave Friedman a $60,000 unsecured but interest-bearing loan. There may have been as much as $210,000 in start-up money, and Friedman later said that $60,000 of it came from him, a claim co-promoter Bill O'Neill rejected.

Now what do you think is going to happen to all that money, huh? Yup, You’d be right. 

With just a few days remaining before the gates were to open, festival organizers recruited  800 workers to erect a massive stage with a state-of-the-art, 500-watt sound system (which soon failed!!); built 95 concession stands; made space for two helipads -- one for entertainers, one for medical evacuations; planted a forest of utility poles to carry power from a huge diesel generator to the stage and outdoor lighting; ran water lines; helped place 104 Sanikans; and created a fenced-off area as a campground and parking area for motorcycle-club members. Much of the work was done in pouring rain, as per usual.

Ironically, the county's delay in granting a permit created some of the very problems it had cited as reasons to ban the festival altogether. Even two undercover Washington State Patrol officers who lived for five days in a camper on the site, posing as concession workers, thought so. In their post-festival report, troopers J. D. Young and D. G. Stathas, noting the deteriorating "health standards," wrote, "We feel that if the promoters had at least two weeks to prepare the site and better governmental control most of these problems could have been eliminated." Or to put it in the vernacular of the day, “leave the freaks alone, baby.” 

It didn't rain all the time, but it rained for days before the festival began and frequently during its first two days. Most of Reality Farm became a churned-up quagmire, and a stiff, chill wind often swept the site. The mud made for slippery walking, dampened the mood, and also hid sharp objects -- mostly broken glass. Ouch. 

The Open Door medical clinic on the site spent nearly as much time patching up cut feet as talking down bad trips. On Saturday a bus ferrying people between the site and parking lots up to 10 miles distant slid off a 30-foot cliff, injuring eight people seriously enough to require hospitalization, one by airlift. Oh dear. 

Drug consumption was commonplace, as per usual, but so was booze. Gallons of cheap wine were consumed - something called Cribari apparently, which sounds more like a fungal infection. Some bikers shot a couple of kids, as they were prone to do.

Reds were widely on sale. Seconal mixed with drink is a bad combo as it has a tendency to turn you into a blank-eyed zombie. So there were some freaks so out of it that they had no idea where they were or what they were doing, which is no fun at all. 

And then there was the watermelon truck. Oh yes. On September 5, a truck nearly overflowing with watermelons was making its way slowly through the mud, and a few people decided that the melons belonged to the people and should be liberated. Yeah man, watermelons should be free. Don’t oppress them with your capitalist fascism, maaaan. 

This spirit of sharing was unsurprisingly seen by the driver as theft, stepped on the gas and ran some freaks over. The image of a truck full of watermelons crashing through a mob of sodden hippies became emblematic of the Satsop River Fair, rarely left unmentioned in later accounts. You’ve got to laugh, at least until an out-of-control watermelon truck hits you.

A little more than half the major advertised bands and performers would eventually appear and play; others were at a motel in Olympia, about 35 miles distant, but came no closer. As the festival descended into confusion and financial disarray some, notably Ike & Tina Turner, Derek & The Dominos (with Eric Clapton), Quicksilver Messenger Service, War, Earth Wind and Fire, Leo Kottke, the Everly Brothers, and Captain Beefheart, either demanded payment in advance or found other reasons to not show up. 

Even so, and despite problems with the sound system, some great music was heard -- Delaney and Bonnie, John Hammond Jr., Wishbone Ash, Eric Burden, Jimmy Witherspoon, Charles Lloyd, Spencer Davis and Peter Jameson, Albert Collins, Steve Miller Band, the Youngbloods, and others all played. That’s a good bill in itself. A few of the acts played more than one set to help make up for the no-shows..

The Satsop River Fair became more shambolic each day, with something new going wrong seemingly every hour. Late Saturday, only its second day, it ran out of money. Remember the money? That big juicy $210K? All gone, brother, all gone, sister. 

The firm that provided 40 security staff (some on horseback!!) threatened to leave. Clean-up crews, electricians, ticket takers -- in fact almost everyone who had been promised pay for work -- were threatening to bail out. Even the helicopter pilots who flew in performers and flew out medical emergencies were getting antsy

Perhaps most ominous, the man who owned the sound system warned that he would pack up his equipment and leave by 9 p.m. Saturday if he wasn't paid. At an emergency meeting shortly before that deadline, Ed Geering, nominally the festival's head of security, said, "If the sound system is turned off tonight, then that's not a crowd out there anymore -- that's a mob" There was even talk of calling the cops to keep control. Seriously heavy.

Although as many as 100,000 people (accounts varied widely) may have entered the site, ticket sales were something else less, shall we say, definable. All the money was gone. Where it had gone, well, it just goes, doesn’t it? It’s only bread, man. Friedman took most of the blame for this fiasco. It looked like the whole thing was going to collapse under its own terrible organisation. 

Enter Janet Levin, once again. Even though she’d loaned them $70k and must surely have suspected she’d never see that money again, like a true hero she personally paid enough bills to keep the show on the road. What a star! That is true altruism. I wonder who she was and where the money came from? I’m hoping it was her old man’s fortune and she was getting back at him for his intolerance of hairy folk and kiss ass rock n roll. 

As if to thank Janet, the sun came out Sunday, the show went on, and the Satsop River Fair and Tin Cup Races cruised to an unexpectedly soft landing. Monday and Tuesday saw a muddy but quiet exodus from Reality Farm. Left behind were a jumble of abandoned campsites and garbage, a less-than-enthusiastic clean-up crew, and an estimated $150,000 smackeroonies financial loss.

Bill O'Neill later became active in the back-to-the-land movement in Arkansas. In 1973 they were instrumental in organizing the Ozark Mountain Folk Fair, a music festival and craft fair on 120 acres of wooded hills near Eureka Springs over the Memorial Day weekend. 

It is unclear whether Herman Sarkowsky was repaid his $60,000 loan, but Janet Levin, whose was eventually fully reimbursed, according to her attorney. Hurrah! Good old Janet. See? Give a little love and the love will be returned.

The owners of Reality Farm were not so lucky. Bob Plaja and his partners had received the $10,000 for the use of the property for the festival, but were left with substantial cleanup and road-repair expenses. They stopped making payments on the land in the spring of 1972 and it was ordered returned to the previous owner in August that year. The commune dispersed. Hopefully the pig was tasty.

However, there was another twist in this tale. In December 1971, Gary Friedman was revealed from March to the end of June that year, including while he was lobbying for passage of the festival law, was being paid $150 a week to work as a "special operative" for the Drug Control Unit of the state patrol. He would set up drug buys for an undercover officer, who would then arrest the sellers. A nark, sir, a nark! Suspicion swirled around Friedman, including allegations that he was responsible for the counterfeiting of tickets to his own festival. Nothing was proven though and Friedman simply receded from view and presumably went on to other adventures.

It had been an almost classic 3-day festival of the period. Absolutely chaotic, but somehow quite thrilling all the same. The sort of festival that would soon be outlawed and legally prevented from happening. It is difficult to see why it is fondly remembered in many rock n roll war stories of the era. 

I wrote this piece by adapting John Caldbick’s fantastically well-researched original article


Scroll To Top