IOLA (AP) - For three days 20 years ago, an estimated 50,000 people crowded onto a central Wisconsin farm field for a rock concert the sheriff at the time called "a nice, big, organized, lawless drug party."
But today, former Portage County Sheriff Nick Check looks back on the Iola Rockfest with some second thoughts. Sure there were drugs, he says, but the extent drugs were used wouldn't seem as shocking now as it did then.
State Supreme Court Justice William Bablitch was Portage County district attorney in 1970 and he drafted a law that county authorities passed after the Iola party to regulate outdoor rock shows.
"As far as I know, it was the first event of its kind in Wisconsin and it hit small town Iola like an atom bomb," Bablitch recalled Thursday.
"We did not anticipate the crowds would be as big as they were," Bablitch added, remembering the "sideshows" that developed at the festival became more of an attraction than the music. "Everybody breathed a huge sigh of relief when it was done."
In retrospect, most of the concert-goers were well-behaved, Check said recently, recalling the anniversary of the festival that produced many of the same happenings as at Woodstock in New York in 1969 - people camping in open fields and woods, nude swimmers, open use of drugs and loud rock 'n' roll music.
Check said his caustic remark in 1970 about the festival was the product of frustration - the inability to control the drugs and huge crowd with a small police force.
Harriet Leach who lived near the site said the festival was unpleasant for local folks. Concert-goers trespassed.
"We heard music all night long," she said.
Leach remembered the North New Hope Lutheran Church cancelled Sunday services the weekend of the festival because the sheriff's department was using the building for a command post.
There was violence at Rockfest, which was held June 26-28 on 200 acres about 5 miles from Iola on the Portage-Waupaca county line. Three people were shot by members of an Illinois motorcycle gang. The bikers claimed they were attacked by a rock-throwing crowd.
Check said the shootings were a culmination of harassment and violence by the cycle gang. Investigations showed the bikers separated couples and took the girls "into the bushes," the ex-sheriff said.
Police arrested 23 bikers.
An Illinois motorcyclist died in an accident near the site and a baby was born prematurely on the Rockfest grounds and died.
After the festival, the promoters were charged with littering and fined $600 because the property was such a mess.
Rumors that marijuana plants had sprouted at the site from seeds dropped by festival participants proved untrue.
Nonetheless, the event prompted Portage County to pass a tough mass-gathering ordinance, which Bablitch said many other counties eventually copied.