Just less than a month ahead of Labor Day weekend 1973, the Midwest Monster Peace Jubilee and Music Festival was billed as a "family-friendly" event to feature ex-Beatle Paul McCartney's new band, Wings, Dr. Billy Graham and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at a venue just a few miles north of Benton, Tennessee.
Right from the start, the planned two-day, round-the-clock festival on 500 acres of then-Polk County Judge Dennis White's farm on the banks of the Hiwassee River drew molten Bible-belt fire. The Vietnam War was nearing its end, President Richard Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate scandal and it had been four years since the storied Woodstock Music Festival had been held on a 600-acre New York dairy farm during the Summer of Love in 1969.
The Polkstock-that-was-not oddly pitted the Republican judge against a Democratic sheriff, but politics might not have played as much of a role as the trying times of the day.
Never heard of it? That's because local authorities and officials successfully blocked the event that at first was expected to draw at least 100,000 people. By the time it was officially canceled just days before the music began, anticipated crowd estimates stood as high as 1 million. An Evansville, Indiana-based company called C.C. Manifest Inc. was promoting the event, according to Times Free Press archives.
At the time, the judge's wife, June — known widely as beautician-business owner "Gemini Red" — said other acts might include T. Rex, the Edgar Winter Group, Buddy Miles, Roberta Flack, Spirit, Dr. John, the Chambers Brothers, Quicksilver, the Earl Scruggs Revue and Black Oak Arkansas, according to archives.
A lot of folks in Polk County in 1973 weren't too happy about the idea.
Opponents ranged from White's neighbors and local residents to organizers of competing events, the health department, District Attorney Richard Fisher, the chamber of commerce and the sheriff, who voiced the community's overall opinion that it was a bad idea.
"Everybody I've talked to says it's just about the worst thing that could happen to Polk County, and it probably would be," Ramsey said in an Associated Press story published in the Aug. 8, 1973, edition of the News-Free Press. He reported festival promoters had already started setting up platforms at the farm. A fellow festival opponent, Richard Fisher, who was the district attorney at the time, vowed to "find ways to stop it."
Ramsey, who still lives in Benton, couldn't be reached this week for comment.
Fisher said this week that he had only the best interest of the people in Polk County in mind and he wanted residents and would-be festivalgoers to avoid problems or violence.
"The trouble is Polk County is a little bitty county," Fisher, now 81, said Friday. "There was very limited law enforcement, very limited medical — and I guess 'hippies' were what you'd call 'fair game' to a lot of the Polk County people — and they're some good people there."
Fisher said his intention was to avoid overwhelming local resources and having to prosecute any Polk Countians for "what they had done when they got descended upon by a whole gob of hippies," he said Friday.
Four weeks before the planned event, one of the promoters, Bob Alexander, who'd done similar festivals, said he had a $900,000 budget. Efforts to find a contact for Alexander this week were unsuccessful.
Alexander said the budget for the planned festival included contracts for 1,200 sanitation units, eight fire engines, 50 tow trucks, two large, closed-circuit television monitors, five helicopters and 300 Oklahoma cowboys to serve as security and perform rodeo stunts, archives show. Bulldozers would construct a 20-lane-wide entrance to the event property to help stem the traffic backup on U.S. Highway 411. A 6-foot-high fence around the entire venue would be patrolled by the cowboys, and 20-30 concession stands would provide food and beverages.
With less than a month to go, Alexander remarked — ominously, in hindsight — "We haven't asked the state yet to see if all this meets their regulations, but I don't see why it shouldn't."
After meeting with state health officials in Nashville, Fisher returned to Benton with stringent health rules for the event. Fisher, who told officials similar festivals had issues in other states, also announced requirements for promoters to put up a $50,000 performance bond and additional $5,000 bonds per 5,000 people expected to attend. Promoters were required to provide 50 square feet of space for each person at the event, not including parking, and each person was to be provided with 10 gallons of water per day.
Events surrounding a 1972 Labor Day festival Alexander and others put on in Indiana stoked fears a similar event was coming to Polk County, Fisher said.
According to an article in the Evansville, Indiana, newspaper the Courier & Press, originally published in September 2012, Alexander's efforts a year earlier to hold a similar festival in the small town of Chandler, Indiana, drew court injunctions that drove the promoters to move the event to another location near the town of Griffin. Originally called the Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival, most who were there called it "Bull Island," according to the Courier & Press.
Bull Island attendees told of rampant drug sales and use, fires, robberies, and impromptu campgrounds popping up all over the area. Accounts from the Courier in 1972 painted the festival as a scene of chaos where the promoter's crews had only hours to prepare for crowds expected to surpass the population of Evansville two times over.
In 1973, Fisher referred to the 1972 Bull Island event, noting "there were only three toilets for several hundred thousand persons" and said that "it became the responsibility of both the state and local authorities."
On Friday, Fisher said that because Tennessee at the time had no regulations governing "mass gatherings" he worked with others to draft guidelines to head off future problems that could overwhelm a small community.
Also vehemently opposed in 1973 was Jasper Woody, the mayor of Benton.
Woody said that of the 12,000 people who lived in Polk County in 1973, 11,000 of them "are against this thing."
In the last week before Labor Day 1973, Alexander and the company failed to get approval from the health department; Fisher sought and succeeded in getting a temporary injunction stopping the festival and barring a promised, replacement "free festival" from being held anywhere in the state; and C.C.Manifest representative Jack Garland called from the steps of the federal court building in Chattanooga for people to stay away from the Benton area over the holiday weekend as the event had been cancelled.
Garland was pictured on the News-Free Press' front page standing on the courthouse steps surrounded by young people who had already arrived for the event. He said anticipated crowd estimates that soared to a million as the holiday weekend neared partly drove the decision to cancel the festival and any other efforts to hold one nearby.
"I don't want to be responsible for any deaths," Garland said, promising the festival would find a home in another state.
In September of this year, Polk County Historical and Genealogical Society president Marian Presswood posted a photo on the society's Facebook page of Judge White posing in a 1970s-era campaign photo and recalled for local residents the controversy surrounding the "Rock-N-Roll Festival."
One man who was a teen at the time wrote in a post that he had been looking forward to the festival and thought it was "going to be a blast," but that locals wanted no "hippies" in town. He noted with amusement that "all the buckshot" in the area had been bought out.
"I remember meeting a lot of people that had already came in and were camping everywhere," he wrote. "Long hairs. Jesus freaks. all good people.
"I was having the time of my life and didn't know it. Man do I miss those days."
As the holiday weekend in 1973 approached, an Aug. 24, 1973, News-Free Press story quoted a "downtown Benton businessman" remarking that many would-be festivalgoers were already on the road.
"They're coming here anyway. We're just going to have to keep them moving," the businessman told the News-Free Press. "The sheriff is pretty good about that. He's done more about this drug thing and hippies than anybody else in this county. Yes sir, he's done a real fine job. Got rid of a lot of hippies."
In the end, the Polkstock-that-was-not set for that Saturday and Sunday still led to trouble for a number of out-of-towners who didn't hear of the cancellation in time.
An AP story in the 1973 News-Free Press Labor Day edition reported 34 people ended up in jail "as a result of their search for that elusive would-be rock festival," according to archives. Authorities in Union County arrested 34 — 11 of them on drug-related charges — over that weekend in the Norris Lake area, and officials reported police were still searching for the driver of a car in which more than a pound of marijuana was found.
"Since plans for a festival in Polk County were blocked by a court injunction, rumors and stories have travelled across the state that a festival concert would be held somewhere this Labor Day weekend," the story reported. "No festival actually materialized either in Tennessee or Kentucky."
Contact Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.