Time Machine

Time Machine: 1970 Wadena Rock Festival

Midsummer event drew 40,000 at peak

A father and daughter listen to the music at the Wadena Rock Festival in 1970.
A father and daughter listen to the music at the Wadena Rock Festival in 1970.

WADENA — “It had all the elements, people, drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll, lawsuits, tripped-out hippies and parents looking for their runaways,” wrote a Gazette reporter who covered the Wadena Rock Festival in 1970.

The festival was supposed to be held in Galena, Ill. An injunction against Sound Storm Enterprises Inc. of Chicago, sponsor of the festival, put a stop to that, and the company began looking at sites in Wisconsin and Iowa in case its appeal fell through. They had invested $89,000 in the venture and were determined it would be held somewhere from July 31 to Aug. 2.

An announcement of the purchase July 25 of the 220-acre Clarence Schmitt farm, about two miles west of Wadena, by Wadena Development Co., an associate firm of Sound Storm, came as a shock to Fayette County officials. They tried feverishly to get an injunction filed against the rock festival in the three days before it commenced.

“We are not crotchety old men — instantly opposed to rock festivals — but we have no alternative other than to take action against the one planned in Wadena,” Fayette County Attorney Walter Sauer said July 28. Officials voiced concerns about safety, pollution and sanitation. The state health department was called in, while highway patrolmen studied traffic problems, especially the dusty gravel road leading to the site along the Volga River.

As the town fought to keep the rock festival from happening, it happened. More than 12,000 people already were at the site July 30 and thousands kept coming. At the peak of the event Aug. 1, the crowd was estimated at 40,000. The concert attendees told reporters they had known about the festival for several weeks.

A legal tangle surrounding the festival started Tuesday with an injunction filed by Supreme Court Justice C. Edwin Moore. The festival sponsor challenged it in Clayton County. The injunction was modified Friday to permit the festival if sanitation rules were met and a permit obtained. The tangle unraveled. Sound Storm rushed 100 portable toilets to the scene and several farmers leased farmland to Sound Storm for parking.

Festival attendees, waiting in the scorching, 90-degree heat for an afternoon without music, cheered the decision as the festival got underway.

Some of the rock groups that played in the continuous program were Johnny Winter, The Fuse, Illinois Speed Press, Rotary Connection, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Chicken Shack, Mason Profit, Buffie St. Marie and Little Richard. Wine, beer and drugs were easily available along with sno-cones in the searing heat.

Gov. Robert Ray even made an appearance, telling the crowd to “have a good time.”

Many overheated attendees cooled off by skinny-dipping in the nearby Volga River.

The crowd was peaceful and drug use was under expectations. A Gazette reporter described it as “the social thing to do. For instance, the stage announcer kept asking for donations of drugs of any kind for the stage crew. ‘People, we want to be high just like you do,’ he put it. Donations came. Even the drugs at Wadena were successful. A doctor in the medical tent said the festival had ‘the best (most potent) drugs of any festival I’ve been to.’ But he also said there was far less serious drug abuse than most festivals.”

One problem developed Saturday when private planes, as many as 10 at a time, flew low and repeatedly over the festival grounds.

As the crowds dwindled Sunday night, Sound Storm was slapped with a $1,041,550 lawsuit because Attorney General Richard Turner said “everything Sound Storm Inc. has done has been illegal from start to finish.” The $1 million was for punitive damages, the rest to cover the expenses of law enforcement and staff of the attorney general and county attorney’s offices.

The Wadena festival and the ensuing lawsuit registered as the top Iowa news story of 1970.

All that was collected from the festival promoters was $22,500.

The farm, the sole asset of the Wadena Development Co, stood abandoned until it was sold at auction in 1973 for unpaid taxes. The new owner, Rex Niles, turned it into a cornfield, but still found remnants of the festival a decade later, including two sacks of marijuana in his barn.

The festival was repeated on July 29, 1995, at the Jerod Miller farm, one mile east of Wadena. It was restricted to 12 hours and 5,000 tickets to see bands such as Starship, Dr. Hook and the Edgar Winter Band. Most attendees were 35 to 40 years old. Relief from the heat was a water hose.

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