Area rockfest tried to duplicate Woodstock
By Gene Kemmeter
Woodstock became the epitome of a rock festival when it opened on Friday, Aug. 15, 1969, and featured 32 musical acts until Monday, Aug. 18, on the grounds of a dairy farm in Bethel, in upstate New York.
Billed as the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, the three-day festival of music and peace attracted nearly half a million people for a rainy weekend that avoided the violence that so many prior and future concerts like it.
Less than a year later, promoters hoped to make Portage and Waupaca counties the site of another successful outdoor concert in the early summer of 1970.
But they weren’t willing to disclose the location of the site until 10 days before the event began.
Fritz von Buchholtz, president of Earth Enterprises, and associate Ron Konkol told The Pointer, the student newspaper at the then-Wisconsin State University-Stevens Point, in its May 14, 1970, issue that Earth Enterprises was planning “People’s Fair,” a musical festival for some 30,000 people with at least 10 well-known groups June 26, 27 and 28 in Portage County.
Organizers formulated the plans about two months earlier, von Buchholtz said, and there were 30 people locally and some 200 throughout the state working on the project, but no location had been chosen for the event yet.
North Central Productions in Madison has been booking musical groups, von Buchholtz said, and “such top names” as Paul Butterfield, Chuck Berry, Buddy Rich, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Steve Miller Band, Taj Mahal, Johnny Winter, Crow, Bowery Boys, Soup, and the Happy Year Band will play.
The groups will play on a canopy-covered stage from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day, von Buchholtz said, and organizers plan to do their own policing of the festival so it remains peaceful, and also so there will be no one entering without tickets, while also providing adequate water and sanitary facilities.
A large parking lot will be available for the 30,000 rock, blues and folk fans expected at the People’s Fair, he said, and tickets sold in advance will be $10 for the entire three days, while tickets sold at the door would be $14 for three days, $12 for two days and $10 for one day. “This festival is different than any before it,” von Buchholtz said, “because the profit motive is down to a minimum.”
He said advance tickets were available through a Stevens Point PO Box, a local music store and the defunct People Street Company in Stevens Point.
He also said tickets would be sold in the University Center tunnel during the week.
News about the event then went quiet until a front-page article in the June 17, 1970, Stevens Point Daily Journal announced, “Rockfest To Be Held In Iola Area,” adding that the People’s Fair would be held west of Iola on the Portage-Waupaca County line June 26-28.
An attorney for North Central Productions of Madison, the talent agency for the event, said the 201.56-acre site had been secured, about five miles northwest of Iola, and is adjacent to where the Iola Winter Sports Club has its ski jump.
The attorney said the rockfest activities would be held in the town of Iola, which was not zoned.
The part of land, 55 acres, in the town of New Hope in Portage County was zoned agricultural, meaning regulations limited the use of the land for certain purposes, so the property would be used as an entrance off County Trunk MM to parking and the event site in the town of Iola.
The attorney said the property had been sold recently, but declined to reveal the new owners.
The Journal reported there were unconfirmed reports that people associated with the event had purchased the property, a report verified the following day when a land contract was filed in the Portage County Register of Deeds office.
That contract said James R. Sitton of Recreational Land Associates purchased the property for $27,000, with $5,000 down and the balance to be paid over five years.
Sitton was also the president of North Central Productions.
The purchasers later stepped away from the contract so the property reverted to the previous owner, Ray Rustad.
Until the attorney’s announcement of the location, rumors had put the site in the towns of Sharon, Almond and Belmont, as well as other sites.
Then-Portage County Sheriff Nick Check said the festival location appeared to be satisfactory from the standpoint of traffic control, but would require sheriff’s department deputies to work longer hours during the event.
The announcement of the location was greeted with “cautious pessimism” by Iola residents, the Daily Journal reported June 18, 1970.
Local government officials took a dim view of the event.
The town chairman of New Hope said the town had troubles enough without the rockfest, while the town chairman of Iola said he was checking with the Waupaca County district attorney about town regulations that might restrict the event.
On Monday, June 22, 1970, the promoters finally released a schedule for the music, with the major groups on Friday being Taj Mahal, BuddyRich, Paul Butterfield, Siegel Schwal and folksinger Melanie until about 3 a.m. Saturday.
Saturday’s music would begin at 11 a.m. and include Buffy Sainte-Marie and the Amboy Dukes; the final day on Sunday would feature Ravi Shankar, Chuck Berry, Terry Reid and others.
The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Credence Clearwater Revival and Jefferson Airplane would not appear, von Buchholtz said, nor would Bob Dylan make an appearance.
They had all been rumored to be on the schedule.
Monday was also the day contractors were putting up fencing, installing a stage and adding electricity and lighting to the concert site which was in a long, sloping field that formed a sort of amphitheater.
The rest of the property was mostly woods and pine plantation, with an old barn next to a lily pond.
Promoters raised the size of the expected crowd to 50,000 early in the week, and local authorities took additional steps to control the expected traffic.
Law enforcement authorities set up roadblocks to funnel traffic to and from the site, on Highway 161, County Trunk T and County Trunk MM.
Roads to Sunset Lake County Park in New Hope, three miles from the concert site, were also closed to restrict traffic to the popular swimming beach.
Boy Scouts from the Stevens Point area at Camp Chickagami, now the site of the Central Wisconsin Environmental Station in the town of New Hope, continued their week of camping.
But, instead of the parents coming to the camp to pick up their children, the Scouts were transported by bus on Saturday to Park Ridge where parents could pick them up.
Stevens Point police reported they received a bomb threat from a female caller to the Stevens Point residence of von Buchholtz, the local promoter of the rockfest, and evacuated the building Thursday, but found no bomb.
The four taverns in the village of Iola announced they would be closed Sunday, the final day of the concert, and town of Iola officials said beer could not be legally sold on the concert property because no one requested a permit to do so.
The town of New Hope is one of the few remaining “dry municipalities” in Wisconsin that prohibits the sale of beer or alcoholic beverages within its boundaries.
Thursday night, the early visitors to the concert experienced a steady rain that dampened dry conditions in the area, and the crowd at the site was estimated at 6,000 by 11 a.m. Friday.
Sheriff Check said authorities were counting the crowd at checkpoints and via airplane.
Fears of drug use on the site also surfaced, and sheriff’s deputies said a Chicago youth, 17, was transported to St. Michael’s Hospital Thursday and treated for “a bad drug trip.” First aid stations were also set up on the grounds.
Next week: The concert days