Wild, weird…….and smart.
47 years ago this week, Oregon hosted the only state sponsored rock music festival in American history: “Vortex One”. The story is one of bold, creative, problem solving by then Governor Tom McCall, some young hippies, and other government officials.
The summer of 1970 was a tense one across America. Protests over the Vietnam war had gone from peaceful to dangerous over the past year. In early May, when it was revealed that President Richard Nixon had expanded the Vietnam war into neighboring Cambodia, demonstrations erupted on college campuses in every part of the country. On May 4, 1970, protests at Kent State University in Ohio led to an altercation with the National Guard in which four students were shot and killed.
Portland State University had several large scale protests in the late spring of 1970. Portland was scheduled to host an American Legion convention in late August. President Richard Nixon announced he would come and speak to the convention. Protest groups began planning on traveling to the city to hold massive rallies against the President and the war. The F.B.I. told McCall that they expected at least 50,000 to come from outside the area, which included many radical groups that were sure to wreak havoc on the city. (Later, many believe the F.B.I. exaggerated those reports)
Governor McCall and his staff were rightfully nervous. They did not know what to do, but knew they didn’t want riots and chaos in downtown Portland, especially while the President was visiting.
A small anti-war group known as “The Family” went to Portland city officials with an idea. How about hold a “Woodstock like” event at the same time as the President’s visit? All those who might protest are busy elsewhere. The officials liked the idea, so they arranged a meeting with Governor in Salem.
There was a catch: they wanted the Republican Governor to promise to instruct law enforcement to go easy on low level crimes like nudity and marijuana use. They believed that people would stay at the concert if they were allowed to behave freely without fearing law enforcement. McCall was in a tough spot, as his bid for re-election was coming that November. He reluctantly agreed, but thought it would probably cost him his chance to remain Governor of Oregon.
Organizers secured Milo Mclver State park, about 45 minutes away from downtown Portland. They named the festival “Vortex One, A Biodegradable Festival of Live.” There were no major headlining bands like Woodstock, only local ones. Still, It was a huge success. 35,000 people attended, not one died.
You can visit this website for many strange stories, pictures, and statistics:
On Sunday, when the festival ended, there was a moment of fear that the concert goers were heading to downtown Portland to protest. The fears were unfounded though, as only about 1000 people went downtown. They organized a peaceful march, which caused no major damage or disruption to the city. President Nixon never came.
Kudos to the Governor Tom McCall and many others for being creative, open minded, and daring problem solvers. In our current time of seemingly increasing antagonism, the story of Vortex One should provide a lesson for all who seek to defuse potentially dangerous situations.