Wisconsin’s Woodstock

Yes, it’s the 50th anniversary of the legendary music event. But few know of a similar fest in Iola the year after, which created such an uproar it led to state regulation of festivals.

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Glenn Sanderson/Sanderson Photography

The land just northwest of Iola seems unremarkable today. There are two Highway MM and T intersections, one with a church on one corner with wrought-iron gates. Just down the road is a the road curves around again, another MM and T intersection, with a wide open field at its bend.

This was the site in 1970 of what became known as Wisconsin’s own version of Woodstock.

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair, held in Bethel, N.Y. (not in Woodstock as originally planned) in 1969, happened 50 years ago this month. An estimated 400,000 people flocked to that farm about 100 miles northwest of New York City.

But many people are unaware of a very similar event the following summer in Iola, Wis. The People’s Fair, as the title officially named it, saw 85,000 people pass through a makeshift gate at the intersection of MM and T—hippies and “freaks” from the area and from around the country passed through to hear three days of music, smoke marijuana, drop acid and skinny dip in the pond nearby. If you’ve seen the Woodstock movie, you can surmise what happened here, in central Wisconsin.

And some pretty big names at the time played in the field in Iola: Chuck Berry, Ravi Shankar, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Buffy St. Marie, and Steve Miller, among local and regional acts.

It wasn’t all fun and games though. Motorcycle gangs from Milwaukee and Chicago drove up for the fest, and those who attended, as well as news reports from the time, say the bikers took over the area around the water tank and tried charging a fee for festival goers to access the water. They caused other trouble, shots were fired, and for a time the festival nearly turned into an imitation of Altamont, that notorious California festival organized by the Rolling Stones, which the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club turned into mayhem.

Ultimately a crowd of festival goers in Iola turned on the bikers and drove them fleeing on their bikes. Reports say many of them were tracked down by Portage and Waupaca county deputies.

The People’s Fair left a huge mess and caused the state legislature to draft guidelines for how festivals would be run and what requirements they’d operate under in the future. The property’s current owner still finds artifacts from the fest — beads, vintage bottles and the like — nearly 50 years later.

Some say the festival helped shape the culture of Portage County. Many hippies from outside the area settled in places like Amherst or Nelsonville, according to some attendees and residents who live in that area.

“They just liked the area that much,” says Robert McComb, of Stevens Point, who worked security at the concert.

The weekend all the hippies came to town


Glenn Sanderson/Sanderson Photography

In the summer of 1970, a bus pulled up in front of the Sentry building in downtown Stevens Point. The people who came out of the bus were different enough to draw every employee’s face to the window. It was a bus full of hippies, and they were in town on their way to the festival.

McComb worked at Sentry at the time, as did his father. McComb says he would definitely describe himself as a hippie at the time — long hair, scrubby clothes, the whole works. Enough so that video of him from that time is enough to embarrass his adult children, he says.

McComb was one of the many locals headed 20 miles east to Iola. In fact, he had spent two weeks helping set it up. The fun started even before the festival. McComb says the male and female crew would work until about 2:30 pm, when it got really hot, then everyone would take off for the pond to skinny dip.

McComb can be seen on a video of the festival available on YouTube — just search for Iola Rockfest 1970 and you can see for yourself.

His sister, Mary, was also at the festival. Mary McComb, who later owned a chocolate and stationary shop in Stevens Point and served on the city council, at the time was living in Madison. She had dropped out of college and was involved with a political street theater troupe, which is both a very 60s and very Madison thing to do.

At the festival, she and her companion, Fred, walked the festival performing an act about being pressured into sex. Other members of the troupe who also made the trip joined in on the performance, and got the attention of festivalgoers, though many were more focused on the music or otherwise too occupied to pay much attention.

Mary recalls waking up on Sunday morning to gunshots, as many other attendees did. One of the shooting victims was a member of her theater troupe named Mike, who had a military background and was seriously injured in the melee. Mike’s gunshot injury required serious surgery, Mary McComb says.

Up to that point, the festival had a good vibe. “Everyone knew about Woodstock, it sounded like a huge mess to me,” Mary McComb says. “I don’t think I would have gone [to Iola] if it hadn’t been for the theater group. I think the vibe overall was just fine, I don’t remember any bad stuff other than the shootings.”

Looking back

Speaking to the Associated Press 20 years after the festival, Nick Check, Portage County Sheriff at the time of the People’s Fair, said most festivalgoers were well-behaved. Immediately after the festival Check had admonished the event because of the violence that ensued between bikers and hippies, calling it “a nice, big, organized, lawless drug party.”

Many people I spoke with, now 49 years after, described the festival as mostly peaceful, though biker gangs proved a menace and took over the barn on site for their headquarters, took over the water tanker and tried to separate women from their boyfriends. Tensions between the crowd and the bikers grew and erupted on Sunday morning. Members of an Illinois biker gang are said to have shot three people as the crowd attacked the bikers, and police ultimately arrested 23 bikers. None of those shot were killed; most were in good condition, news reports after the festival show.

Accounts vary on what kind of biker gang it was — a Hell’s Angels chapter, or some other group. 

The festival and its aftermath led to the formation of a state senate subcommittee, at which Wisconsin’s attorney general at the time, Robert Warren, proposed a festival law for counties to adopt requiring minimum levels of sanitation, shelter, traffic control, telephones and medical personnel. By 1971, most of Wisconsin’s counties had adopted it.

Photographic evidence


Glenn Sanderson/Sanderson Photography

Glenn Sanderson had just finished a college degree in photography in Milwaukee when he and some friends came across a poster for the Iola show in a record shop. They quickly made plans to get themselves north for the festival.

It’s a good thing he saw that poster. Sanderson ended up taking some of the best photographs of the festival, and the most. His collection of images show the festival in some detail, and reveal an event that one might almost mistake for Woodstock if they didn’t know better.

Men with those circular-framed glasses made famous by John Lennon, long hair, and Jimi Hendrix style hats. Rows of tents with little flags to let their friends find them. A wooden stage with huge stacks of speakers.

Sanderson, who today runs a professional photography studio in Green Bay and has photographed Packer greats such as Brett Favre, says the festival was one of his first major photography events after college and it taught him the difference between photographing an event and being part of it. Meaning, photographing an event creates a separation, as the photographer becomes an outside observer.

He had no idea he was capturing a piece of history at the time. For Sanderson, it was a weekend of time with friends, peace and love and music. Even the Sunday morning melee, which Sanderson says woke him up around 5 am, seemed to be quelled within a few hours and the festival went on.

“I would describe it as a youth movement,” Sanderson says. “We were all children of the 60s and early 70s, and we had high hopes for our future. This was a nice way to get together with others of a like mind to celebrate this sort of freedom. The music was a great draw.”

Some of Sanderson’s photos show the stage and some of the music, but most focus on the people, which he found most interesting. A video of the festival, which can be seen on YouTube, mostly focuses on the people too.

Though Sanderson wouldn’t necessarily describe himself as a hippie — he knew he would soon be looking for a job — many of the people at the festival could be described that way. Looking through the photos today gives Sanderson fond memories of a sort of last hurrah as he and friends left college and searched for employment.

Archeology of the festival

Jane Anderson was vaguely aware of the property’s history as a big rock festival when she bought it in 2007. She learned much more about it afterward.

Her Iola property includes a big portion of the land that comprised the 201 acres of the People’s Fair property, including the stage location. On a recent tour with me, Anderson pointed out where the stage was, the four acre pond into which a couple of Harley Davidson motorcycles were supposedly thrown (someone offered to scuba dive to see what is down there but that hasn’t happened yet, she says), and a small site where they currently hold a small music party called Pine Camp.

Anderson finds remnants of the festival all the time while mowing or walking the property: everything from beer and wine bottles from that era, to “hippie jewelry,” meaning hemp and beaded bracelets and necklaces and the remnants of makeshift fire rings.

She’s since heard from plenty of people who were there, though concrete memories are a bit more scarce. “A lot of them say, ‘Whoa, what a party man! I don’t remember much of it, but it sure was fun!’”

The site doesn’t look much like it was. The area is far more wooded than the empty field that once was home to the People’s Fair, and part of the Iola Winter Sports Area trails traverse through the site.

In 2010, Anderson held a small party for the 40th anniversary of the festival, and still has a homemade sign from it. She’s considering some kind of celebration for the 50th anniversary next year, though she hasn’t decided what that might look like.

One thing is for certain: it won’t be for a crowd of 85,000. That will remain in another era.

Clarification: The lede paragraph was updated to reflect that there are two MM and T intersections. Both are significant but the previous version didn’t make clear that they were separate (but very close together).