Storm in Wadena

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.

On the Wednesday before the show, the Iowa Supreme Court issued an injunction stopping the festival, claiming that proper preparations had not been made to ensure the health, welfare, and safety of those attending. The Iowa Highway Patrol and Iowa National Guard blocked access to the site and began turning people away. At the site itself, preparations continued. On Thursday, a second court hearing was held, but it didn’t resolve much. A judge ruled that the festival could go forward if state and local regulations were met. The promoters promised they would be met, but officials believed there was no way to be sure. As a result, on Friday morning, the scheduled opening day, nobody knew what would happen.

By Friday, about 12,000 people had managed to make their way to the site by walking in or taking shuttle buses provided by the promoters. (The roadblocks turned cars away, telling people they could not park at the site, but did not physically block people otherwise.) Ten of the bands scheduled to play were waiting at hotels in nearby Waterloo. All everyone could do was wait for the latest round of legal maneuvering. On Friday afternoon, a judge ordered Fayette County to make an exception in its health and safety regulations and let the festival proceed.

Rumors had been circulating for days about what was happening at the site—starving workers, bikers running wild, orgies—but once reporters arrived on the scene, what they found was cooperative kids, surprised locals, and a relaxed vibe. There was a problem with inadequate electric power at the site, although a power company official told promoters that the amount of available electricity could be boosted once the local dairy farmers were done with their milking machines. Governor Ray showed up and spoke to the crowd on Saturday. One news report noted he was presented with flowers by a young girl wearing “the bottom of a bathing suit and a t-shirt with no bra.” A wide variety of vendors sold food, souvenirs, and other paraphernalia, including drugs, to attendees. “Drugs are plentiful; food good,” read one headline. Frequent stage announcements asked the crowd to donate drugs for the stage crew—“We want to be high just like you do”—and the donations flowed in. News reporters did not dwell on the widespread drug use—and neither did the police. The chief of the Iowa Highway Patrol told a reporter, “You have to wink your eye at a few things out here.”  On Sunday, a stagehand took the microphone to tell the crowd, “The pigs in Iowa are really groovy.”

The bands played, the attendees frolicked; a little bit of Woodstock came to Iowa.  Coming tomorrow: The conclusion and the aftermath of the Wadena Rock Festival.

4 responses

  1. Nice, can’t wait for the rest

  2. […] the record of what actually happened there practically from the moment the festival ended (part 1 here, part 2 here). This kind of research sends me digging into old newspapers, which are endlessly […]

  3. I was there! The best event was when everyone threw their frisbees up in the air all at once. Looked like an invasion of the colored space ships

  4. Hundreds camped on my grandparent’s farm, remember the event well for only being 7 at the time, this event has interested me for years, getting picture’s and other info from family,

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