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.
On Thursday, June 25, young people began to descend on the site. Paul and Bob Ericksen, brothers from Escanaba, Michigan, were among the early arrivals, driving a bread truck they used for a camper. By Friday morning, 10,000 people were already camped out. Unlike Sound Storm, where many festival-goers had been able to sneak in for free, promoters set up a system of checkpoints to keep out those without tickets. A high wire fence encircled the site. The only road in quickly backed up for 10 miles, delaying the festival’s start. Music supposed to start at 11AM Friday didn’t begin until 6:00 that night, although nobody seemed to mind much. “The scene was the beginning of a big pot party,” a reporter wrote.
A Saturday report in the Capital Times made the festival sound like a hippie paradise, and portrayed the event in a largely positive light: “In some ways, the festival resembles one of those medieval fairs that preceded the urbanization of Europe and its subsequent Renaissance.” And also: “Bubbles were very much in style and they floated through the frisbee-laced air. . . .” Despite a lack of toilets and telephones (and an abundance of mosquitoes), “What was important was that thousands of like-minded youths had gathered together once again to reaffirm their own culture far from the boarded-up windows of State Street [site of frequent student protests at the University of Wisconsin] and the bumper-to-bumper traffic of the cities.” The police claimed to be surprised: “Everything has gone real well,” a Waupaca County deputy told the Capital Times. Portage County Sheriff Nick Check said, “We’ve had more cooperation than we thought we would from the festival organizers and the young people themselves.”
But the bubbly Renaissance frolic was actually much darker than advertised. Paul Ericksen agrees it was a carnival atmosphere, “except the cotton candy was LSD.” Bob Ericksen described “an outdoor drug market, almost like a street you could walk up and down, [where] whatever you wanted you could have got.” Plus, Paul says, “There was a lot of alcohol. The ground was covered with wine bottles.” The negative vibrations weren’t just chemical. Police had taken knives and guns from some attendees at the gate. At least one couple had sex openly while a large crowd watched them, and the woman involved may not have been participating willingly.
Dick Wiegel, a member of the Bowery Boys, remembers another factor. He says there was “a definite Hells Angels or biker element” along with the heavy drug vibe. Bob Ericksen says that the bikers “did anything they wanted and took anything they wanted.” Saturday night, a group of them got onstage while the Amboy Dukes were playing and scuffled with a security guard. The bikers tossed the 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.
What happened next may have been inevitable. We’ll tell that part of the story tomorrow.