Gunfire curtailed Iola Rock Fest
By Gene Kemmeter
Continued from previous segment, click here to read
The “People’s Fair,” more commonly called the Iola Rock Fest locally, got off to a late start Friday, June 26, 1970; and the crowd began dispersing early Sunday, June 28, after gunshots rang out on the festival grounds straddling the Portage-Waupaca County line.
Then-Portage County Sheriff Nick Check estimated the event had a peak crowd of about 45,000 people (some estimates were larger) and said the shooting incident triggered the early exodus, with about half of the crowd remaining by midafternoon Sunday.
The music continued past midnight, and about 3,000 to 4,000 people remain at the heavily-littered site Monday morning, June 29.
While proposed plans for “People’s Fair” were announced in May, the bands, location and scope of the event weren’t revealed until June 17, nine days before the rock festival began.
That lack of planning also led to delays in constructing the stage and setting up the sound system. But a six-foot, chain-link fence around the festival grounds was completed to keep out the bulk of people unwilling to pay the admission prices to the three-day festival of $10 in advance, $14 on Friday, $12 on Saturday and $10 on Sunday.
For those who wanted to get a bird’s eye view of the festival grounds, Wayne Parsons, a commercial pilot, offered air flights from the Stevens Point Municipal Airport.
An ad in the June 27, 1970,Stevens Point Daily Journal (SPDJ) offered: “See: The Rock Festival from the Air. Thousands of tents. Tens of thousands of young people doing their thing. The whole bit from 1000 feet in the air. Bring your camera and binoculars.”
Tents for concessions and first aid were set up by Friday, and members of the crowd were erecting their own tents and spreading blankets in front of the partially-completed stage.
Rich Riggs, a reporter for the SPDJ at the time, wrote in an article without his byline that Friday, “Traffic of two varieties (cars and drugs)were predicted as potential hazards and early indications were those foresights may have been correct.”
Riggs wrote that one potential problem that was evident on the roads leading to the site was a shortage of money.
Several persons on the side of the road leading to the site were looking for “some spare coins,” he wrote. Most of those lacked the money to buy a $14 ticket to gain entry to the festival grounds.
An editorial by Sherman Sword, Journal editor, in the June 26 SPDJ relayed the fears of older area residents about the event. “This is the weekend anxiously awaited by some, anticipated with curiosityby others, and dreaded by many more.It is the weekend of the three-day People’s Fair, the rock festival over inthe towns of New Hope and Iola,” the editorial said.
“Most of us have not seen a rock festival of any kind;we’ve only read accounts of them whenthey were held elsewhere. The publicity has been far from favorable, andmany shudder at the thought of theiryoungsters caught up in that sort ofexperience. They pray for a three-dayweekend of drenching rain,” the editorial said.
George Rogers, the city editor of the Journal at the time, toured the grounds on Friday and wrote a unbylined story that was printed in the Saturday edition of the Journal, identifying himself as “the reporter, a little old forthis sort of thing but curious, had come early Friday afternoon. before the rush.”
He continued in his story, “Wandering through thegrounds, the reporter was surprised to see people advertising grass for sale; pointless, he thought, in view of the fact that grass was growing everywhere, free for the taking.”
“Amusingly, one young fellowwalking around had forgottenhis clothes. Well, not quite. Hewas wearing boots.”
“Some people were drinkingliquid out of ripply-looking bottles, but it was pleasing to notethat few were consuming beer.Overhead, several planeswere flying, enjoying the rural scenery, no doubt.”
Tom Kujawski, a photographer for the SPDJ starting in 1968 and continuing into the 21st Century, took photos that appeared in that newspaper during and after the event.
He said he went out to the site of the event before it began to get an idea of the setup to help him get pictures.
He went back to take photos on Friday and Saturday, then returned Saturday evening to take photos and also to stay on the grounds into Sunday, bringing along a blanket and pillow to get some sleep overnight.
The Gunfire segment continues next week