When the Circus Came to Town

Forty-five years later locals remember when hippies, the 

Grateful Dead and the counter culture invaded Columbia County

August 15-18 2014 marked the 45th anniversary of one the watershed moments in American history when hundreds of thousands of people gathered at Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.  

One week later a much smaller version of Woodstock took place in Columbia County.  This gathering has become an interesting bit of local Columbia County history and lore.  Called Bullfrog III, it is remembered hazily by some who attended, with fondness by others, and remains unknown to others.  Almost as interesting as the details of the concert itself is the story of the few days prior to the actual music and gathering.

Woodstock, with its star-studded  line up of sixties rock stars, including  Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Santana, The Who, Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, was the pinnacle of the 60s counter-culture movement.  1969 was the ‘Summer of Love’ and the hippie movement was in full swing.  Use of drugs, sex and nudity and outlandish clothing was on open display by teenagers.   The summer was marked by large rock music festivals all over the country and in England with massive numbers of young people gathering together to celebrate peace and music. Bullfrog I was held near Estacada in Clackamas County on July 4-6, that same summer.

DeadSt.Helens-BW-webA concert, called “Bullfrog II,” was scheduled for August 22 and 23 but ended up never happening.  Instead, the event morphed into Bullfrog III and was held at an alternative location on the same weekend.   According to original articles published in The Sentinel-Mist Chronicle newspaper in the week prior, Bullfrog II was booked by Walsh and Moquin Productions at the Columbia County Fairgrounds in St. Helens and was scheduled to include national acts Taj Mahal and the Grateful Dead along with local performers “Portland Zoo,” “Sabatic Goat,” “The Weeds,” “New Colony,” and several others.  The plan called for twenty-four hour a day entertainment for two days.   Advertising for the concert also called for “petite mall lites, space balloons, rides and fireworks.” Tickets were $6 in advance, $7 at the gate.

On Wednesday morning August 20, just days before the event was scheduled and crews were showing up to prepare the event site, Circuit Judge Glen Heiber ruled that the facilities at the fairgrounds were not adequate for overnight camping and sanitation and adequate traffic control was not available.

Bruce Moquin and Steve Walsh had entered into a contract on August 6 with the Columbia County Fair Board, represented by their chairman Paul DeShazer, to hold a rock music concert.  Columbia County District Attorney Lou L. Williams disputed the contract and on August 16, Walsh was told the contract was cancelled.  When Walsh and Moquin sued for breach of contract on Tuesday, August 19th,  Williams contended that a contract required the signature of both the president and secretary of the Fair Board, that only DeShazer had signed and that there was no evidence that any other Fair Board member was aware of the arrangements for the concert.

According to The Sentinel-Mist Chronicle, Williams noted problems with Bullfrog I, which Walsh and Moquin also promoted and cited concerns about, “…narcotics, intercourse in the open, and parking on private property, as well as a severe traffic congestion problem.”  In regards to specific problems that might exist at the Columbia County Fairgrounds site, Williams and the Fair Board cited, “…sanitation, parking, and the lack of sufficient law enforcement personnel to cope with a large influx of people, estimated to be about 6,000.”  Also noted was lack of juvenile detention facilities and no “chaperoning” arrangements for the festival.  Williams indicated that he had no knowledge of the county ever entertaining a gathering of this magnitude.

Peg Tarbell, a resident of the Yankton area at the time as well as a current resident and local history buff, remembers the time well and graciously shared her memories of the event with Vernonia’s Voice.

“It was a well-organized and very squared away group,” recalls Tarbell about the promoters of the concert.  “But when they [Columbia County officials] realized what it was, they kicked them out.”

On Wednesday evening, August 20,  after the decision to cancel the festival was announced, ‘hippies’ began arriving in St. Helens, and set up camp on the steps of the courthouse and in Plaza Square,  staging a peaceful demonstration to show their disapproval.

According to The Sentinel-Mist Chronicle, “The ‘hippie’ element numbered perhaps a hundred that evening. The local youth, and a few adults, who converged upon the scene brought the number to perhaps 250 or 300. St. Helens Police called in their reserves, and began circulating in the downtown area about 9 p.m. At first they stayed away from the crowd in the square, then as the evening wore on, they began walking among the group and talking to them.”

On Thursday, August 21, the gathering continued.  A spokesman for the group said the Bullfrog II concert would be held right there in Plaza Square.  “Portland Zoo” played on Thursday afternoon.  According to The Sentinel-Mist Chronicle, “Some danced, others just sat back and listened.
Local people jammed the downtown area, stood on the sidelines and just ‘watched.’”

Some local merchants said business had never been so good. The hippies gathered any garbage they created and put it in receptacles that were provided.  When police requested that the sound be reduced in the evening, the group complied.

Tarbell, who was fourteen at the time, says the locals were dumbfounded by the excesses they were witnessing.  She and her mother walked downtown to go to the Library, which was on the square at the time, in the middle of the gathering, unaware that this event was taking place.  In the span of one block they witnessed a girl walking topless and Tarbell herself was offered a drink from a bottle in a brown paper bag by a passing young man.

“Mother was appalled and never got over it,” explains Tarbell. “I thought she was going to have a stroke.  This was the beginning of girls going around with no bras and half naked.  Certainly for this farm community no one had ever seen anything like this.  It was the first time we had ever seen a girl going without a bra or someone drinking beer out a brown paper bag or smelling pot smoke.”

Around 9:00 PM on Thursday evening Mrs. Melvina Pelletier of St. Helens offered her property in the Happy Hollow area of Yankton for the festival. Details of the newly created Bullfrog III were  worked out on Friday. Original promoters Walsh and Moquin had already pulled out of the event, and Bob Wehe of Faucet International Promotions took over as promoter, agreeing to provide sanitation and security.

Tarbell remembers Mrs. Pelletier as “…a unique person.”  Tarbell says Pelletier was probably in her late fifties or early sixties at the time of the festival.  “One of my great regrets was never asking her why she agreed to take this on,” says Tarbell.    She was a bit different.  She ran her own farm and thought her own way and dressed her own way.  I think she just wanted to rattle everyone’s cage.  And quite frankly I think maybe she felt bad that this well organized group had been screwed over by Columbia County.”

The Sentinel-Mist Chronicle reported that as the youths left the Plaza Square to head to Yankton they said the police had been “cooperative, polite, and hadn’t tried to make trouble.”  When they took down the Bullfrog II flag, which had been flying along with the American flag and the State of Oregon flag at the Courthouse, they presented it to St. Helens Police officers Dick Dressler and Dave Novak.  “They told the officers that their faith in law enforcement officials had been restored in St. Helens. That the people had been nice, hadn’t tried to cause trouble, and moreover, the police were the finest people they’d met,” stated The Sentinel-Mist Chronicle report.  ‘We thought about putting up a flag that says ‘St. Helens — We Love You’ but we’ve kind of run out of time,’ said one of the youth. ‘It’s a great little town. You’re lucky to live here.’”

The City of St. Helens paid to charter a bus to transport the remaining thirty-five to forty hippies left in the square to the new concert site.  Reports note that the gathering cost the City of St. Helens about $400, including $360 for extra police patrols and $30 to charter the bus.

On Friday evening the County again geared up to be invaded for a rock festival.  Oregon State Police arrived and twenty officers patrolled the roads in the Yankton area and along Highway 30 throughout the weekend. District attorney Williams called in narcotics specialists.

The concert began on Friday night and ended Sunday morning in the newly dubbed “Hippie Hollow.”  Reports indicate the festival was, “…characterized  by loud music, monumental traffic problems, motorcycle clubs, large numbers of people, and the open use and sale of narcotics.”  Vehicles were parked in local fields and lined local roads and were parked as far as four miles away.  Columbia County Sheriff Roy Wilburn was reported as saying that his officers were too busy dealing with local traffic issues to ever enter the festival and make any arrests.

According to Tarbell, who lived about three miles down the road from the festival site,  the Hells Angels motorcycle club were turned away at the City limits.  She also remembers cars lined up bumper to bumper on her little country road trying to get to the concert site.  She says she sat several times in her front yard and counted 300 cars an hour crawling by.  “Almost everybody had to pass by our house to get there,” says Tarbell.  “It was a nightmare.”

Tarbell says a lot of the traffic was locals driving by to get a look at the craziness.  “It was a big deal around here because none of us had ever seen those things,” she explains.  “Everybody was driving out from town to drive past to see if they could see a naked girl exposing her breasts.  It was crazy.  Little old ladies and their husbands were driving out here to see the horror that was going on in Yankton.”

Tarbell says security was tight and you had to buy a ticket to get into the festival, but she gained entrance by riding in on the back of a garbage truck.   “For the most part locals weren’t allowed in,” says Tarbell.  “A guy I know well and grew up with was in charge of the garbage service.  I went in with him one time.”

Little is reported about the actual music and concert, although there are numerous locals who still live in the area who say they were in attendance.  Many say their memories are hazy about the festival.

Tarbell says she remembers a lot about the weekend.  “It was a blast…but the grown-ups hated it!,” remembers Tarbell.  “The rest of us had a ball.”

The Grateful Dead, the headliners for the event, didn’t take the stage until very late Saturday night.  Tarbell says twenty years later, she was backstage at a Grateful Dead concert in Eugene when the topic of the Bullfrog III festival came up.  “I met several people that had come from all over the country to see the Grateful Dead in Columbia County.”

Tarbell was home and safe in bed when the Grateful Dead finally took the stage.  “Me, I listened to them in my bedroom, live at 2:00 AM.”

Fortunately the Grateful Dead are well known for letting their fans freely record their concerts.   Live recordings exist for almost all their shows beginning in 1965.  For true Grateful Dead fans there are three different recordings of the 8-23-69 show at Pelletier Farm on the Grateful Dead archive website.  The show features an extended version of Hard to Handle to open the two hour, single set performance.  The set includes versions of ‘Casey Jones’, a bluesy ‘Easy Wind’, a typically spacey ‘Dark Star’ into rousing versions of ‘St. Stephen’, ‘The Eleven’ and an extended and rambling twenty-seven minute jamming version of ‘Turn on Your Lovelight’ to close the show, followed by an encore of ‘We Bid You Good Night.’

By Sunday mid-day, The Sentinel-Mist Chronicle reported most of the crowd had left the farm. Their follow up to the event mostly reported on drug use during the event.  “Narcotics Prevalent at Rock Festival” was the headline to the last article, in which District Attorney Williams was quoted as saying , “…one of the aspects which concerned him most was the number of youngsters — from 13 years on up — who were at the festival, and thus were subjected to observing the use of narcotics…Williams said he saw marijuana, LSD, hashish and various other narcotics and drugs in use, and was even offered some of them.”

Tarbell remembers the festival being a seminal moment for small town St. Helens and rural Columbia County.

“This small town was so out of the loop,” says Tarbell.  “This was big stuff to us. It really changed the whole dynamics of St. Helens for many years.  It really shook us up, especially the older generation.”