The Incident to End an Age: Kickapoo Creek 1970
Just over 52 years ago, between 30,000 and 60,000 people camped out on a muddy farm near Heyworth for Illinois’s own Woodstock: The Incident at Kickapoo Creek.
For college students across Illinois and neighboring states, L. David Lewis could hardly have chosen a better time to hold his “love affair” between “the electronic miracles and the human sounds of the soul,” the Incident at Kickapoo Creek outdoor rock concert. Nixon’s promise of law and order had proven to be nothing but the boot of the man coming down to crush peaceful dissent and hope for a better world. Despite claims he would negotiate a withdrawal from Vietnam, Nixon seemed to be expanding it even further. In April, he expanded the draft and ordered an invasion of Cambodia in support of a coup that had seized power from a North Vietnam-friendly government. Then, emboldened by Nixon’s talk of restoring law and order, the National Guard opened fire on a student protest at Kent State against the invasion on May 4, a massacre that killed 4 students.
Students across the nation protested peacefully in response, occupying and shutting down college campuses across the US. In Champaign, student protests shut down the University of Illinois, National Guardsmen surrounded the campus, and all grades were given as pass/fail. In Bloomington and Normal, Illinois State University (ISU) and Illinois Wesleyan University students demonstrated on May 5 by marching through the two cities, and were met by Normal police in full riot gear, prompting fears of another tragedy like at Kent State. To diffuse the situation, ISU president Samuel Braden agreed on May 6 to lower the American flag on campus for six days out of respect for the dead Kent State students, as well as Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, two Black Panther party members killed in a raid by Chicago Police December the previous year (It was becoming increasingly clear at that time the police had falsified evidence that the Black Panthers had shot first, or at all, during the raid. This was confirmed when attempted murder charges against the other 7 Black Panthers present during the raid were dropped on May 8, 1970). But as the semester ended and campuses emptied, the students saw their chance to demonstrate what a world built on peace and love could look like, and they would do it at Kickapoo Creek.
For Nixon’s “Silent Majority,” specifically that portion of it living in Bloomington and Normal, L. David Lewis could hardly have picked a worse time to hold his “incident.” This Majority had assented to the growth of ISU, even helped furnish new dorms and other facilities, and for it suffered the disruptions and upheavals that came with the student population ballooning to 15,000, Normal’s population doubling, and Bloomington’s adding several thousand to its census count. That Majority was on the front lines of the social upheavals of the 60’s as much as the students. So it spared little sympathy when at Kent State in 1970, a few thousand students found an excuse to cut class, refused to disperse when ordered, and persisted in escalating the situation by pelting National Guardsmen with rocks until it became a tragedy. Nor did the Majority have any sympathy for ISU’s Vocal Minority when it demanded ISU’s president disrespect the flag out of deference to their fallen comrades in the battle against Law and Order. Lest the Minority get the wrong impression, the Majority made itself heard in a counter-rally a few days later in support of the President’s actions in Cambodia, the National Guard, and the local police. The end of the school year should have brought some relief, but L. David Lewis’s “incident” threatened bring all the same elements right back into town, plus plenty extra. Fortunately, McLean County State’s Attorney Paul Welch was already at work seeking an injunction in the courts to stop the “incident.”
Unfortunately for the Silent Majority, while the judge granted the injunction, it came down Wednesday, May 27th, just a few days from the official start of the festival. Work to turn Lewis’s farm into a concert space had been ongoing for nearly a month, and new acts were being added to the line-up as the injunction was being served. Lewis was unwilling to let his work go to waste. He took the injunction to an appellate court and re-branded the event as a farm sale and Frisbee contest, then as a “political and religious gathering,” even booking a state representative, Robert Mann of Chicago, at the last minute to give a political speech during the event. Though, frankly, that the event happened at all had less to do with Lewis’s creative rebranding and courtroom maneuvering than the fact that 1000 people were already at the farm for the festival within 24 hours of the injunction being approved. Police could only mitigate the disruption caused by the festival, not stop it, and did so primarily by diverting traffic not bound for the festival away from the hours-long traffic jam leading to the festival entrance, as well as sending a few undercover officers in to gather photo evidence to be used against Lewis for violating the injunction.
Following the “Hippie Tide” as it crept into Heyworth were a few representatives of the Silent Majority—namely reporters for Bloomington’s Pantagraph, who despite their silence could not help but editorialize in their reporting, providing many colorful descriptions of the festival-goers, such as the quotation at the start of this paragraph. Despite their best efforts though, they could find few in Heyworth who were seeing what they were (perhaps the reporters would have benefitted from a minute in one of the medical tents at the festival, which treated the similarly-afflicted). Some number of families left Heyworth to escape the oncoming “tide,” but with only 40 out of 453 elementary students absent Friday May 29th, it seems most decided to weather it. Among those Heyworth residents interviewed who had actually spoken to festival-goers, the consensus was that the hippies were quite polite and well-behaved, as well as a boon for local businesses. If anything the Bloomingtonians were more resented—Pantagraph reporter June Simpson was twice rebuffed by residents as she investigated the situation and a gas station owner noted the only trouble of note up to Friday morning was caused by a drunk from Bloomington.
Perhaps Heyworth residents changed their tune though, when the “tide” was fully in. Lewis had expected at most 15,000 attendees, but at least twice that many people attended the “Incident.” Illinois Public Health Department determined that the plans he had submitted for providing food service, water, and restrooms during the festival were insufficient even for the expected 15,000. Fortunately, enterprising attendees supplied water to paying customers, as well as food ranging from various fruits to radishes to ice cream (all marked up in response to demand, of course). Food and water was not the only thing festival-goers were looking to buy, and plenty of attendees met this demand as well. Alcohol, marijuana, and LSD were the most popular, but there were drugs available, and plenty of mystery pills were going around.
Unsurprisingly, Lewis and his team had skimped in other areas of the event as well. Only $37,000 ($275,000 in 2022) had been budgeted for booking bands, which makes the size and quality of the roster at the event quite surprising. While many local bands were booked, a number of national names like Canned Heat, BB King, and The Amboy Dukes also signed on. However, no schedule was for when the bands would perform was made before the event. One was created as the event went on, but this slap-dash approach meant bands got nearly as backed up as the traffic leading to Lewis’s farm, with many bands stuck waiting for hours after they were told they would go on stage, while others appeared on stage multiple times throughout the weekend. One notable group of repeat-performers was REO Speedwagon, then only a local band. Meanwhile, BB King, one of the biggest names on the line-up, was pushed back from a 10pm Saturday night start time to 3am Sunday morning. King made sure to get his due though, playing a set that lasted all the way until dawn, at which point he and his band moved to the banks of Kickapoo Creek and started a jam session that drew quite a crowd. Security was also a mess, as Lewis realized near the last minute the ushers/security he had hired would not be sufficient. His solution was to hire the Grim Reapers motorcycle gang to supplement the ushers, a decision that worked out surprisingly well all told. Despite some disturbances at the gate, things were always brought back under control, and importantly for the profit-minded Lewis, security kept The Incident at Kickapoo Creek from becoming a free concert the same way Woodstock had. One good thing did come out of the improvisational nature of the operation, at least from the perspective of attendees. After the rain storm Friday, Lewis’s crew quickly built a mud slide into the Kickapoo Creek, which became a favorite attraction.
By mid-day Sunday, May 31, much of the crowd was already leaving, with a few newspaper articles noting that, as the crowd thinned, the smell of marijuana lifted and was replaced by the smell of trash. The Incident had passed, largely without incident. The apocalyptic language in the papers that preceded the event gradually softened as the event progressed, though they still frequently made sure to include their sympathies to the police for controlling the event, even though none were officially on the grounds. Only one attendee died during the event, and it happened as he was driving back, not as a result of anything that happened on the festival grounds. Many were injured or hospitalized, but very few were in need of serious attention. Quite a number were arrested or fined, including L. David Lewis himself, as a result of his defying the injunction against the festival. Lewis, apparently determined to fly by the seat of his pants in all parts of his life, paid his bail then promptly skipped town, laying low somewhere for the rest of his life with his roughly $200,000 (about $1.5 million in 2022) haul from the event. Whatever chaos the hippies brought with them was almost entirely confined to the event grounds, and whatever statement the hippies had wanted to make seems not to have escaped there either. Plenty of attendees certainly brought their political convictions with, or at least talismans of them, one newspaper article noting the profusion of upside-down American flags, red flags of communism, and black flags of anarchism posted at the festival. But those convictions came second to having fun, and rather than pioneering any new social-economic order, the event’s legacy is largely in helping develop the modern music festival. While the aesthetics may have changed, I doubt the scene at Lollapalooza in Chicago each year is all that different from The Incident at Kickapoo Creek. Still, the hippies did eventually affect some social change, and one can see it germinating in the shift in tone in the newspaper articles covering The Incident as it happened and passed. The Silent Majority eventually came to realize that the hippies could be assimilated into mainstream American culture and politics. The Incident did not turn into some sort of commune. Instead, food, water, and anything else you could need went to those who could pay, just like anywhere else in America. While Lewis broke the law in holding the festival and nearly every attendee used illegal drugs, they didn’t turn into some anarchic, tweaked-out horde pillaging Heyworth and nearby communities. Law and Order, those two most precious values to the Silent Majority, were ultimately maintained. The Incident at Kickapoo Creek helped show that most of the hippies were in it to have fun, and over the coming years space would gradually be made for them to have their fun, while the real devotees were left to their tiny political parties and occasionally larger cults.
The lead singer for the Amboy Dukes performing Saturday night at Kickapoo Creek, 1970. This performer is a not-atypical example of the journey many members of the counter-culture took: From performing psychedelic rock for 60,000 hippies and dodging the draft, to claiming he’d “have killed all the hippies in the foxholes” had he served and reposting anti-Semitic memes on Facebook, Ted Nugent still generates headlines to this day.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Kickapoo Creek 1970, 40th Anniversary, by RC Raycraft. Raycraft is better known for his documentary film on The Incident, but unfortunately the film is nearly impossible to find these days. This book, which our library rather unique in possessing, was released as promotional material alongside the documentary. Absent the movie, there’s almost nowhere better to get an in-depth look at the event. The book is part of the library’s reference collection, and so cannot be taken outside of the library. However, staff will be happy to retrieve it for use inside the library building.
The Shattering: America in the 1960’s, by Kevin Boyle, is a brand new history of the 1960’s, and is an excellent source for more context on the social and political upheavals that allowed so many people to imbue the Incident at Kickapoo Creek with so much meaning in the run-up. Boyle closely examines the 1950’s social order of the United States, then shows how some of the major social movements of the 1960’s challenged the pillars of that social order, and ends with Nixon’s ill-fated attempts to force the genie back in its bottle.
HIST > U.S. > 1960s > BOY
The Vespasian Warner Library’s standing files! Yes, again! All the research for this blog came from the standing files or the above book, and the “Kickapoo Creek Rock Festival” folder’s newspaper clippings are great for getting information on both the event itself and the social and political climate locally at the time. The standing files cabinet can be found behind the circulation desk on the main floor of the library.
Begley, Sarah. “Ted Nugent Posts Anti-Semitic Facebook Message About Gun Control.”
Time, Feb. 8, 2016.
“Excerpts From Summary of F.B.I. Report on Kent State U. Disorders Last May.” New York
Times, Oct. 31, 1970.
Kickapoo Creek Rock Festival folder. Vespasian Warner Public Library standing files.
Vespasian Warner Public Library, Clinton, IL.
Kickapoo Creek Rock Festival. Mchistory.org. McLean County Museum of History. Accessed
May 19, 2022.
Mitchell, Robert. “The Police Raid that killed two Black Panthers, shook Chicago, and
changed the nation.” Washington Post, Dec. 4, 2019.
Raycraft, RC. Kickapoo Creek 1970, 40th Anniversary. Bloomington, IL: Raycraft Productions
“’Ted Nugent Grows Up?’ The Detroit Free Press Magazine, July 15, 1990.” Scribd.com.
Accessed Jun. 1, 2022. https://www.scribd.com/doc/214489436/Ted-Nugent-Grows-Up