*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.
School has been in session now almost two weeks and you need a break—one last goodbye to summer before saying hello to serious studying! Let us look at a recreational activity chosen by many back in 1972.
Two young and inexperienced promotors had been promoting the Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival for Labor Day weekend. They promised a star-studded line-up that included Black Sabbath, The Allman Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, Ravi Shankar, The Eagles, and even Cheech and Chong. It was going to be “bigger than Woodstock.”
One big problem arose—where were they going to hold this festival? Over 8,000 tickets had already been sold, and there was no venue. The original location was to be the Chandler Raceway Park, now called Chandler Motor Speedway. Local officials, however, concerned about security, water, sanitation, traffic, etc. in dealing with the 60,000 expected attendees, got a restraining order in Warrick County Circuit Court. Evansville and Vanderburgh County, Posey, Gibson, and Pike Counties all followed suit. Not in MY backyard!!
WLS Radio in Chicago got wind of the festival and began to talk about it on air a lot. With a signal that reached all the way to New Orleans, news of the festival spread quickly and widely. With avid fans arriving in the area a week ahead of time, it was clear that some location had to be found or a riot would ensue. At the last minute (literally—this transpired August 31 and the three day Labor Day weekend began September 2) a location was found—the festival was going to be held at Bull Island. The festival quickly became known by this name.
Bull Island is not really an island. It is a peninsula that juts out into the Wabash River—really just a swampy area of farmland. Even though it is on the east side of the Wabash River, the small town of Carmi, Ill. has legal jurisdiction. Here is Bull Island before the festival.
It is only accessible from Indiana. And only via 2 roads. Chaos ensued. People left their cars alongside the road and hiked the rest of the way.
Sex, drugs, and rock and roll was the order of the day. So was pandemonium. Crowds far exceeded expectations, rising to as many as 300,000.
Security was completely inadequate, with only three deputy sheriffs on duty, although later the Indiana State Police were called in to keep order and help with injuries or overdoses. Sanitation was non-existent—the Wabash River became a giant bathtub. A torrential downpour did nothing to improve the situation.
Many of the promised bands did not show up. Ravi Shankar was there, and Cheech and Chong came in on a helicopter during the rain, played for 15 minutes, and then left. Food was inadequate, and when it began to run low, there were tales of price gouging. A riot ensued, and one of the few catering trucks was destroyed. The stage was torched. Garbage was everywhere. “It would be months before Bull Island was cleaned up. “This 900-acre ‘island,’ although not completely evacuated,” one news report said, “looked like a sanitary landfill … Piles of trash covered hundreds of acres, and the smell of campfires, burning garbage, marijuana and human waste permeated the area.””
When all was said and done, the promoters faced lawsuits for many years to come, there were two deaths (a drowning and an overdose), and very little music was heard. Festival goers were disenchanted—this was a far cry from the “peace and love” found at Woodstock.
May your Labor Day plans be far better! Enjoy, and come back ready for a good fall semester.
Sonny Brown photographic collection, MSS 228. Everett “Sonny” Brown (1932-2015) was a photographer for the Evansville Courier and Press.
Chamberlain, Patrick. “Was 1972’s Bull Island the Worst Festival in History?” Everfest magazine online, August 12, 2015.
Hayden. Maureen and Jessica Levco. “Bull Island.” Evansville Living Magazine online, July/August 2008.
Khawaja, Jemayel. “How Hippies Put on the Worst Music Festival in History.” The Daily Dose online, October 16, 2017.
Mcdevitt, Sean. “Woodstock on the Wabash: The Bull Island rockfest, 40 years later.” September 2, 2012 Evansville Courier and Press online.