Fifty years ago, on Sept. 3, 1971, tens of thousands of festivalgoers went to a music festival on the 77-acre Reality Farm on East Satsop Road.
It was billed as the Satsop River Fair and Tin Cup Races, four days of music, more than a little mayhem, and a chunk of history remembered fondly by the locals who went to the event.
One of those locals was photographer Darrell Westmoreland, then working as a stringer for the Vidette in Montesano. Vidette owner Bud Pritchard sent him to the festival site as the stage was being constructed. There, Westmoreland met the creative mind behind the festival, Bill O’Neill, who hired him as the festival’s official photographer. This would eventually launch Westmoreland into the world of rock photography.
Westmoreland was there to capture photos of O’Neill and his co-promoter Gary Friedman as they met on the site with Grays Harbor County commissioners as they wrangled a permit, which was finally granted, but not until after a court hearing and not until two weeks before the festival’s scheduled opening.
The work to put the stage together in the short time frame was frantic. The massive stage, a couple of helicopter landing pads, a hundred or more temporary bathrooms and more was slapped together, often during some pretty heavy rains.
Westmoreland shot photos of the setup, including O’Neill sitting atop a van talking to the work crew at the beginning of a day shortly before the festival opened. He also got shots of power being strung toward the stage, with crews using trees chopped down at the site as makeshift power poles.
Scheduled acts included such heavy-hitters as Ike and Tina Turner, Derek and the Dominoes featuring Eric Clapton, War, Earth Wind & Fire — Westmoreland recalled Ike and Tina Turner declining to take the stage as they had received half their money up front but demanded the remainder ahead of time. The other acts listed above didn’t take the stage for monetary or other reasons, as did several others.
Still, there was plenty of music. Westmoreland specifically remembers Steve Miller, and other acts took the stage, including Delaney and Bonnie, Spencer Davis and Pete Jameson, Eric Burden, and Wishbone Ash.
There was plenty of the kind of things you’d expect at a music festival at the time, specifically drug use. Westmoreland witnessed his share. One account recalled a confrontation between some bikers and festival-goers that ended in a shooting. Jeff Hammers, now of Spanaway and the owner of the original festival banner, recalled wanting desperately to go but at the time being unable to afford a ticket.
Then there was the “watermelon truck” incident. On Sept. 5, a truck carrying watermelons made its way onto the festival site, its driver hoping to make a few bucks selling them to festivalgoers. That quickly descended into chaos, with the crowd simply swiping them. A photographer with an Oregon newspaper snapped a shot of the chaos shortly before the truck driver got fed up and ran down several people during the escape, slightly injuring three.
It was the day of the watermelon truck incident that local teen John Kirkwood had sneaked out to attend the festival. He was busted for defying orders not to go a few days later when his family saw his face — the only face clearly identifiable in the photo — in an Oregon newspaper.
Kirkwood kept some memorabilia from the event, including a flyer, a T-shirt, and his ticket — presale tickets were $16 for the entire festival, tickets at the gate were $24 for the entire festival, $18 for Sept. 4-6, $12 for Sept. 5 and 6, and $6 for the last day only.
Randy Beerbower of the Chehalis Valley Historical Society has collected some information from those who were impacted by or attended the shows: the co-owners of the property leased it for the festival at the communal farm for $10,000, which didn’t come close to atone for the damage, including the use of on-property poles for powerlines, and they lost the property within a few years of the festival.
Some of those Beerbower spoke to did what many festivalgoers did — park a distance from the festival and hike through the woods to get in free. Another recalled it as the worst rock festival during the time that she had attended, and she had been to many — the biker groups mentioned above screwed it up for the mostly peaceful thousands who attended.
In the end, depending on who you talk to, up to 100,000 attended the festival, now a part of Northwest history.
In the decades since the festival, Westmoreland has gone on to become the official photographer for numerous events centers across the region, including the Tacoma Dome, and has taken some iconic rock imagery, much of which is shared in his book, “Snap Click Flash.” What you don’t see is a lot of the photos he took at the Satsop festival.
As he recalled it, at the end of each day he’d provide contact sheets and, along with the negatives, give them to concert promoters. Despite phone calls and research he’s done since, he’s yet to find out what happened to those photos, but has some he’s recovered of the setup, some of which he shared with The Daily World for this story.