The Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair

The Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair are pictured in these images provided by the Washington State Archives.

Last weekend marked the 50th anniversary of the conclusion of a rock festival in the Tenino area that was, in many ways, the Pacific Northwest’s version of Woodstock. 

The Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair brought an estimated 25,000 to 40,000 people to the 360-acre Rainier Hereford Ranch for three days of music from Country Joe and the Fish, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Buddy Guy, Steve Miller, the New Lost City Ramblers, and dozens of other acts with names such as Frumious Bandersnatch and the Cleanliness & Godliness Skiffle Band.

The Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair

The event came just two weeks after the similar and larger Woodstock festival in New York.

Organizers called the Sky River festival “an unqualified success,” but they ended up losing money because so many attendees snuck in rather than paying at the gate. 

This was the second annual performance of the festival. The inaugural event was held in May 1968 on a raspberry farm near Sultan, and included a performance by the Grateful Dead, Santana and comedian Richard Pryor. That festival was held along the Skykomish River (giving it the “Sky River” name). It took the “lighter than air” moniker from inflatable balloons floating above the scene (one of which quickly broke loose from their moorings and floated away). 

The Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair

There were no balloons at the Tenino performance in 1969, although the cattle ranch was marked by the bulbous mima mounds that spread through the area. 

Neighbors and concerned citizens fought against the festival all the way up to the state Supreme Court, but the event was allowed to continue.

The festival kicked off at noon on the Friday of Labor Day weekend, and the music ended about 3 a.m. on the Tuesday after the holiday. 

The Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair

Home video of the 1969 concert posted to YouTube shows bands rocking out on a stage bedecked with an enormous American flag, playing flutes, saxophones, drums and guitars, along with a homemade instrument made of driftwood. Audience members, a few in various stages of undress, dance enthusiastically. Attendees recline on sleeping bags under makeshift tents and a few teepees. What appears to be a donkey relaxes in the shade of a powder blue pickup truck. Volkswagen vans are well-represented in the vehicles parked among the rolling grass and ferns of the cattle ranch.

The succession of bands played for 18 hours each day, then quieted for some sleep and down time. 

The Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair

Washington State Archives

A reporter from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer noted a particularly ludicrous scene, when an officer from the state Department of Revenue walked straight past people openly selling mescaline, LSD and marijuana, and instead banned the sale of a truckload of unstamped cigarettes brought in by a vendor from Oregon. 

By the final day of the event, those selling mind-altering substances had lowered their prices in hopes of selling out before the concert concluded. 

While many neighbors in Tenino had opposed the concert, after it was over the townsfolk said the impacts had been much better than expected. Merchants in Tenino, population 950, said they had little trouble and had sold plenty of gasoline, food and drinks. 

The Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair

Law enforcement officers also said attendees were fairly well behaved, but at least one officer took issue with the cleanliness of attendees, or the lack thereof. 

“They were so dirty you could scrape it off them,” a Thurston County Sheriff’s deputy said. 

At least three marriage ceremonies were performed during the festival by a minister of the Universal Life Church, marrying people who had met at the concert and known each other for days or hours. 

Festival organizers had a massive cleanup job, with thousands of cans and bottles, plus tons of general litter, scattered across the concert site. 

The Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair

One attendee, Pamela Davis, remembers going back to the ranch after the festival with a few friends to help clean up. They built picnic tables and a fire pit, then invited the local law enforcement and their families out for a barbecue to thank them for handling the crowd so well.

“They were very surprised and grateful,” David wrote in a comment attached to the YouTube video.

The festival was held a few more times, including the 10-day Sky River III held near Washougal in 1970. The final Sky River was held in 1971 in Grays Harbor.

As for the the Tenino event, the concert shut down in the early hours of Sept. 2, 1969, as several thousand people still danced while a few final musicians continued playing. 

As the Seattle P-I wrote, “The festival just faded away, happily.”

•••

Brian Mittge can be reached at brianmittge@hotmail.com. 

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