Food & Culture

Sex, Drugs and Sky River

By Knute Berger September 5, 2016


Today we have Hempfest, legal marijuana retail outlets, and naked Fremont cyclists. Outdoor rock concerts thrive at places like The Gorge, White River and Marymoor Park. We have music and cultural events like Bumbershoot and Capitol Hill Block Party, and in 2017 Paul Allen’s Upstream to entertain music fans who want to stay in the city.

What we take for granted today had to be won by long-haired pioneers. Back in the late ‘60s, Washington hosted a series of homegrown rock festivals, starting with Sky River hosted in a field near Sultan in 1968, the year before Woodstock. It was organized by guys like historian Paul Dorpat and the late Historylink founder and commentator Walt Crowley who wrote a good account of that first local rock fest in his book, “Seattle in the Sixties.” Fortunately, Walt remembered just enough of the ’60 to provide an entertaining account.

The State Archives in Olympia remembers too. They recently posted photos and documents relating to the second Sky River Rock Festival, in 1969 in Tenino, For a few years, rock fests were bacchanalian gathering for us hippies—I attended the first Sky River, and the last festival of the era, Satsop in 1971. Yes, there were sex, drugs and rock and roll—and often these festivals weren’t pretty: they were sometimes chaotic, drug-addled and some real jerks showed up (Satsop wasn’t Altamont, but the vibe was pretty bad). But the overall experience was a blast: music, peace, love, raising social awareness (the first Sky River was a benefit for “Indians and Black People,” or so said my ticket). Bands like the Grateful Dead, Steve Miller, the Youngbloods, Country Joe and the Fish and tons of groups from up and down the West Coast appeared. A good time was had by all.

Except some of the observers. The Archives has some entertaining commentaries that give a peek into establishment attitudes prevalent at the time. The ’60s we were a long way from when the Seattle Police handed out bags of Doritos at Hempfest! Youth culture was in full rebellion and the authorities did not approve.

In 1968, Lt. G. Shea of the Washington State Patrol was dispatched to try and keep order in Sultan where the Sky River rock fest was being held in a country pasture. His report to headquarters is a classic. He witnessed nude swimming, the open sale and use of marijuana, vandalism, rude hippies, and lousy traffic snarls. Shea complained about press coverage saying none of the stories were portraying “the filth, low morals, intemperance, vice or disrespect that was publicly displayed at this event. Between 20,000 and 30,000 persons…individually cast off their inhibitions and revert[ed] to a near animal status.” He concludes: “I have never seen anything was degrading to the human race as the exhibition put on in the Sultan area.”

No wonder it was so much fun. I must say, my experience there was hardly debauched—a little weed, some dancing, lots of great music—I was a teenager and had a blast. I can also think of a lot of things more degrading than a dirty naked hippie—like war, slavery or the conditions of the homeless. But the rock festival spectacle unhinged some folks. 

One media member who didn’t sugar-coat her opinions was the late conservative syndicated columnist Adele Ferguson, a fixture in Olympia for many years. A news clipping from her column on the ’69 Sky River fest in Tenino is in the State Archives attached to a letter to then Gov. Dan Evans. Ferguson criticized both the hippies for nudity and drug use, and too-tolerant law enforcement not cracking down on the wickedness. “How many youngsters flocked to Tenino over the Labor Day weekend to stock up on narcotics or give narcotics a try, knowing they would be available? Equally shameful is the fact that this all occurred in Thurston county, just out of Olympia, the seat of this state’s government where such laws as those outlawing sale of narcotics are made.”

I don’t know what you did over the Labor Day weekend, but if sex, drugs, and rock and roll were any part of it you should pay a brief tribute to the “pioneers” of events in rural outposts like Sultan, Tenino, and Satsop who flummoxed the law and blazed a trail for you.

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