War … what is it good for? Absolutely nothing! – “War,” Edwin Starr
August 1970. The U.S. Senate just voted down a resolution by Senators George McGovern and Mark Hatfield to force President Nixon to withdraw all American troops from Indochina. Consequently, young American men continued to be fed on a conveyor belt to Vietnam to die or be forever maimed in a winless war with no end in site.
Songs on the radio included “Bad Moon Rising” by Credence Clearwater Revival; “Come Together” by The Beatles; “Aquarius / Let the Sunshine In” by The 5th Dimension; “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel; “Okie from Muskogee” by Merle Haggard; and “War” by Edwin Starr.
Sometime during the summer of 1970, according to a 1979 Kansas City Star article by Gary Rice, 19-year-old Arma resident, Kenny Ossana, his friend Fulton Wilhelm, and some other young men decided it would be fun to get some bands together and have a rock festival dedicated to peace here in Southeast Kansas.
The year before, a large music festival had been held on a dairy farm near Woodstock, New York. Billed as “An Aquarian Experience: 3 Days of Peace and Music,” the epic event would later become known simply as “Woodstock” and become synonymous with the counter culture movement of the '60s. They expected 50,000. 500,000 showed up.
Fifty years ago this Labor Day weekend, the “Peace At Pittsburg” rock festival (the only one ever held in Kansas) was staged in a pasture south of Pittsburg. They expected between 2,000 and 12,000. Attendance over the course of the three day event was estimated to be as high as 25,000.
Staging it took some doing. Ossana and his friends tried to get some help from big promoters in Kansas City but they declined. Undaunted, Ossana sold his ’63 Chevy to raise money to stage it. They wanted Crawford County but authorities wanted nothing of it (They tried Lincoln Park, the County Fairgrounds and a field near Arma.). So they went just across the line to Cherokee County. Ossana said they didn’t tell the farmer they rented the 150 acres from exactly what they were doing until after they set up … but he said he didn’t care.
Rick Fulton, a reporter for the Pittsburg Headlight-Sun, talked to Fiorn Meyers, who owned the land, and he said they kind of moved in after talking about it but he never actually rented it to them. But he wasn’t putting them off. “My neighbors want me to sign a complaint but I’m not going to.”
Cherokee County sheriff, Dayton Evans, had been telling the Crawford County authorities he would be willing help them out all he could … only to discover they were setting up the festival in his county. “They fooled us,” he told the Star. “We couldn’t believe it … and it was too late to try and stop it.”
So Ossana and friends — Rick Adams, Bill Hayden, Ron Walker and Bob Engelke, among others — set in motion elaborate plans to get generators, mow pasture grass, designate parking, secure water trucks, acquire portable chemical toilets, set up first aid stations, and more. Two flat bed trailers were brought in for the stage and a music store In K.C. provided a sound system.
Rick Fulton was told by Ossana, “Many local businessmen, government leaders, doctors and druggists indicated they would give us a hand whenever they can. The highway patrol were here and they were really cool; said they would be on the outskirts handling traffic but neither they or the other lawmen would come into the festival itself unless they were really needed.”
Ossana said the "gig" had been "talked up" in K.C., Denver, Little Rock, Oklahoma City, Topeka, Lawrence, Chicago, and on the west coast. He expected 25 - 30 bands, and groups that just wanted to get up and jam would be welcome as well. “Although we have no confirmation at all, we believe The Grateful Dead might show up,” he said.
Initial plans called for three main concession stands selling records, leather gear and other items, as well as three water trucks. Also food. “Some girls will start soon to make 15,000 sandwiches … ham, Balogna, and cheese,” Ossana told a reporter on Thursday.
Speaking of concessions, there was only one item available that carried the “Peace At Pittsburg” message — a t-shirt designed and sold by college art student Bill Wilbert, with help from his girlfriend (now his wife) Vicki. “I was working for Jawhawk Specialty and Bob Ellsworth gave me permission to use their equipment to print some festival shirts I’d hurriedly designed,” Bill told me.
Turned out he couldn’t print them fast enough.
“I bought every t-shirt Gibson’s Discount on north 69 had in stock, printed and sold those, and went to Grandpa’s Discount in Joplin for more.” This happened at a point in his life when Wilbert thought he’d finish his art degree at KSC (now Pitt State) and try to get a job with Hallmark in Kansas City. But the festival started him on a path to his own design and printing business — Wilbert Screen Printing — that he has now been operating with Vicki for 48 years. By the way, he still has the original “Peace At Pittsburg” transfers in stock. I went by this week and got one printed for myself.
Just like Woodstock, the Peace At Pittsburg festival ran into unexpected downers, one being rain that fell two days prior to the festival and hampered preparations; the other a bummer with the generators that provided electricity for the bands and the PA system.
College student and organist for Fatty Lumpkin, Bob Golay, told the Star, “When I started to play, the organ was out of tune. We couldn’t understand it at first, then we figured out it was the generators. There wasn’t enough juice.”
Despite the rain and generator problems, the festival — that over the next three days came to be known locally as “Cornstalk” or “Cornstock” — moved ahead to become an iconic Kansas event.
In next week’s column I’ll share more about the concessions and the music, including interviews with band members and attendees, as well as begin to explore the festival’s local and statewide political ramifications.
J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and eulogist. He also operates Knoll Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499 or firstname.lastname@example.org