Wadena Rocks On

(Second of two parts. Part one here.)

Wadena was—and is—a town in Fayette County, Iowa, population about 250. It’s located approximately as far from Dubuque as it is from Waterloo, northeast of one and northwest of the other. Forty years ago this week, it was the flashpoint for a conflict between concert promoters planning a rock festival and local and state officials trying to stop it. On Friday, July 31, 1970, while bands loitered in hotels and fans waited at the site, attorneys argued in front of a judge. Late that afternoon, the festival got grudging permission to go ahead, and the first band, Fuse, hit the stage.

The festival crowd was estimated at 40,000. From Friday night through Sunday night, their every need—for food, drink, souvenirs, and drugs—was met by vendors on the site. And all the while, there was music. News stories appearing in Iowa newspapers that weekend did not usually mention the performers, perhaps believing the names would mean little to their adult readers. And as was the case at other festivals of this type, not all of the publicized acts appeared—the Who didn’t make it to little Wadena, as advertised at the beginning of the week—but the Everly Brothers and Little Richard did, with Little Richard going on at 4AM Saturday morning.  Johnny Winter, Rotary Connection, Buffy Ste. Marie, Mason Proffit, Chicken Shack, Luther Allison, and Albert King also played that weekend.

When the music ended Sunday night, most of the attendees cleared out, with only a few hundred hanging on into Monday. They, too, eventually dispersed, leaving only trash behind.  The general consensus of local residents was that things were not as bad as they could have been. That, too, was part of the pattern from earlier festivals. But so was the post-festival legal retribution.

On Sunday night, Sound Storm, Inc., was slapped with a million-dollar lawsuit by Fayette County, claiming that everything the promoters had done was “illegal from start to finish” and seeking restitution for the county’s expenses as well as damages. The Fayette County attorney noted that there were only a dozen-or-so drug arrests, and he criticized law enforcement officials for “turn[ing] your heads not to make arrests.”  Iowa Governor Robert Ray, who had attended the festival on Saturday and mingled with the kids, joined in the criticism. (Pundits would wonder whether public reaction to the festival would have an impact on Ray’s reelection bid that fall.) Officials of the Fayette County Fair, which had been going on over the weekend, blamed the festival for cutting its gate receipts by 25 to 50 percent. The U.S. Department of Agriculture even got involved, to determine if the festival had violated any federal regulations.

After the jump: The festival aftermath keeps lawyers employed for years.

Legal wrangling over the festival went on for a long time. In March 1971, promoters were hit with contempt of court citations for not fully complying with the terms of the ruling that permitted the festival to go forward. In April 1973, the promoters were ordered to pay the $1.04 million in damages the state had asked for in 1970. In June 1973, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the contempt citations. Fayette County gave up trying to collect the contempt fines in 1975, and the state would receive the last money it expected to get from the million-dollar judgment against the promoters in 1976. Sound Storm Inc., was defunct by then, having lost the farm on which the festival was held to foreclosure in 1974; they paid only $22,500 all told.

But nearly all of the latter-day Wadena developments were consigned to small stories on the inside pages of the papers. Not until 1995 was Wadena front-page news again. Twenty-five years after the original show, an anniversary concert was planned for Wadena, although not on the original festival site. Just as they had done 25 years before, locals turned thumbs-down on the idea originally, but the show eventually went ahead. It was headlined by the Starship, the Greg Kihn Band, Edgar Winter, Rare Earth, and Dr. Hook, and featured Enoch Smokey, an eastern-Iowa band that had played the original festival. Only a few thousand people showed up— nothing like the throng that had put Wadena on the map years before.

Forty years after the original festival, Wadena’s population is almost exactly the same today as it was then; the festival site is a weedy field with an abandoned house and a couple of mobile homes on it. But this week, Wadena is noteworthy again. Last Sunday the Des Moines Register published a story about the festival with pictures, and the State Historical Society of Iowa will mark the anniversary with an event on Sunday, August 1. Special guest: former governor Robert Ray, now in his mid-80s. On that festival weekend, he told concertgoers, “We want you to remember you had a good time when you leave here.” Although some people would say, as some do of Woodstock, if you can remember Wadena at all, you weren’t really there.

2 responses

  1. I wonder whether the big-name bands even knew their names were being tossed around in connection with some of these festivals.
    I imagine John Entwistle finding out about the Wadena festival a couple of weeks later and saying, “They said we were gonna be *where*, exactly?”

  2. Savoy Brown!

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