Arts & Culture

50 years ago on an Iowa farm, the Wadena Rock Festival drew hippies and Little Richard

As local officials went to court to try to stop the Wadena Rock Festival of July 31 to Aug. 2, 1970, then-Gov. Robert Ra
As local officials went to court to try to stop the Wadena Rock Festival of July 31 to Aug. 2, 1970, then-Gov. Robert Ray appeared and told the crowd gathered at a Northeast Iowa farm to have a safe and good time. (The Gazette)

There was no documentary made about it. If there is a recording compiling all its performances, it’s a well-kept secret.

Yet the Wadena Rock Festival did indeed happen 50 years ago in Northeast Iowa. It was even voted the No. 1 story in Iowa that year.

About 40,000 people came from near and far to a 220-acre farm 2 miles west of Wadena for the July 31-Aug. 2, 1970, event featuring 30 musical acts. Some were regional. Others were nationally known. Some were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame decades later.

Even then-Gov. Robert Ray made an appearance, telling the crowd to have a good time.

But unlike the massive and well-documented Woodstock rock festival of the year before in upstate New York, if you weren’t at Wadena you pretty much have to rely on the memories of those who were — or those who had connections to it — to relive that summer weekend.

Now a half-century later, here are some of the accounts:

‘Rude awakening’

“I was a month from away from getting my driver’s license,” said Doug Schoon of Iowa City, who grew up in Monticello. “That Saturday, my parents and some of their friends — they would have been in their early 40s — decided to go to Wadena.

“Of course, that got my curiosity up. Knowing they were going there, there must be something exciting. My family ran a farm equipment/auto dealership, and I had to keep the business open until 1 o’clock. Then I just decided even though I didn’t have a driver’s license, I’d just drive up on my own. I’d probably been driving illegally for a number of years anyway.

“I don’t know how I found out about this, but there was a field that you could go in the back way to this thing and sneak in. It was almost like a pathway through this field had been made for people sneaking into the rock concert. It took you through some timber area and then down across a creek. Once you got by the farmer’s fence, you cross this creek area. That’s when you started seeing what was taking place.


“Between smoking marijuana, drinking and literally laying in the creek, you had people having sex. For a 16-year-old it was a rude awakening to the rock world.”

Kurt Langel of Marion grew up in Oelwein, a rock musiclover who went on to play in several bands. He was 12 then, too young to go to Wadena. But he remembers that weekend.

‘Lot of head-shaking’

“I was pretty impressionable back then,” Langel said. “What I remember is working at my dad’s service station, Langel’s Standard Service on Highway 3 East in Oelwein, and kind of seeing the cast of characters come piling out of the vans. And just, you know, my dad’s reaction in general.

“It was a hippie generation, and my dad had been around a while and wasn’t into the long hair, he wasn’t into the flower children.

“A lot of head-shaking,” Langel said with a laugh about his father’s reaction to the visitors to Fayette County.

“I pumped a lot of gas, sold a lot of cigarettes and candy. And I cleaned the bathrooms a lot, I remember that.

“I’ve got to tell you, unless I’m mistaken we really didn’t have any issues. My dad said ‘Watch everybody real close,’ so I was watching everybody real close. He was, too. But I remember them being very friendly, polite. They just looked a lot different.”

Tony Aylsworth is the superintendent of schools in Pleasantville. He is from Wadena, but wasn’t yet born when the Wadena festival occurred. His grandfather, however, may have prevented the event from a premature end.


‘Sack full of cash’

“Five generations of my family have been in the housemoving business in Wadena and my cousin still runs it,” Aylsworth said. “I was told that at one point, the corner of the stage at the concert had started to sag and they needed equipment to raise it up.

“My grandfather was very conservative. He wore bib overalls everywhere, and here he was going out among that crowd to help set the stage back up.

“He did and they handed him a sack full of cash for his trouble.”

Bill Ramsey, a Muscatine Realtor, grew up in Oelwein. He lived 5 miles from the festival, but didn’t attend because “I was 13 and most of the publicity for it was as a hippie festival with weed and LSD and all that kind of the stuff, so my parents kept a tight leash on me.

“But I was indirectly exposed to thousands of people that were coming through on their way there. I heard the music from afar. And I saw the aftermath. I’ve been infatuated with the whole rock festival though I didn’t have the opportunity to be on site.”

Forever curious about the event, Ramsey collected photos and clippings about it and researched who actually performed there and who didn’t. He made a 37-minute video that’s on YouTube with recordings and photos of many of the artists who were there that weekend.

“There were all these planes with a lot of reporters and stuff, aerial pictures of the grounds and so forth. I’ve seen news reports that said at one time or another, there were 13 to 20 airplanes circling the grounds.

“A friend of mine was kind of an assistant at the Oelwein Municipal Airport. One act was (singer/musician) Buffy Sainte-Marie. She flew into the airport and they just kind of had her hanging out there, then a helicopter took her to the stage, she performed, and then came back.


“This friend of mine was awe-struck and said he’s been a Buffy Sainte-Marie fan ever since.”

James Ronan of Decorah has had a career in broadcasting and promoting music events.

In 1970, he was an enterprising 18-year-old. He had thought about driving to Galena, Ill., for the festival before it was moved to Wadena a week before the event began.

‘Just incredible’

“A friend of mine at the time — we were both just out of high school — his mom worked at the newspaper here,” Ronan said. “She got him a press pass to cover the (stock car) races here.

“Galena was kind of a ways and we didn’t know much about Galena. And all of a sudden when it switched from Galena to Wadena, we were going. So I said to my friend, Craig, ‘You already have a press pass for the races, why don’t you try to get me as a photographer? We’ll go down to Wadena and cover it.’

“So he got me that and we went down there. Here we were a couple of teenagers with press passes, and they welcomed us. We went down on Tuesday and checked it all out.

“Then Craig and I were at the drive-in movie theater here that Thursday night, and after the movie got over with we just drove down to Wadena. We had camping, we had everything covered, so we got down there after midnight on Friday morning and got it all set up.’

The music began on Friday afternoon and was supposed to end at midnight. Uh, no.

“It was about midnight and things had gone just fine. Everybody’s kind of getting ready for the next day. So after midnight, who comes out? (Blues-rock singer-guitarist) Johnny Winter plays. It was just incredible.

“You could hear his music 10, 15 miles down the valley. The headline was ‘Cows gave no milk, chickens laid no eggs.’


“After that we thought we’d crash till noon. Well, then came the most-distinctive anything of the whole weekend. Three in the morning, give or take, all the lights come on the stage and standing on top of a Grand piano is Little Richard. He’s wearing a mirrored blue suit, so all the lights on him are coming back. He’s there, saying ‘I’m the emancipator, I’m the originator, I’m the real king and queen of rock ‘n’ roll!’

“I think he was on stage darn near till the sun.”

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