Bull Island

On Labor Day weekend, September 1972, two concert promoters put on a rock show in the spirit of Woodstock, but they were woefully unprepared for the overrun of more than 200,000 people. They came. They saw. They got stoned. Two people died. Its official name was the Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival, but for those who witnessed the mayhem, it is remembered simply as Bull Island.
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Traffic on highways into Posey County was backed up for miles and vehicles were left abandoned in medians and roadsides.

It’s not that photographer Sonny Brown had never seen a naked woman at the time he shot one standing near the banks of the Wabash River in the summer of 1972. It’s just that he’d never seen one looking so serene in the midst of the kind of chaos unfolding in front of his camera lens. It was Labor Day weekend of 1972, and he was standing in a sea of dope-smoking, music-loving, long-haired hippies gathered on a remote patch of farmland for an event touted as the Woodstock of the Midwest.

Fifteen years as a photographer for the Evansville Courier had taught the former Marine to expect almost anything, and the news stories that preceded the event — filled with ominous warnings from police that “notorious violations of law” would be occurring — was a tip-off that he should pack extra rolls of film.

Still, he wasn’t quite ready for the shock of full frontal nudity that came courtesy of the attractive young woman who dropped her robe to the ground as she was grooving to the music. It took a moment for Brown to compose himself before he stepped back, focused his camera lens, and snapped his subject clad only in her birthday suit and a sublime smile. It was one of a multitude of photographs he took that weekend that didn’t appear in the city’s morning newspaper — though tamer pictures, more acceptable to public viewing standards, did.

Unlike the hundreds of photographic prints that he would either give away or throw away during a professional career that spanned 40 years, Brown kept the one of the naked lady — along with scores more like it from that long weekend — in a set of photo albums later loaned to curious friends and inquiring law enforcement officers. Though he didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, Brown knew the pictures were more than just titillating images laced with nudity, illegal drugs, and dirty hippies wrapped in American flags. He had a sense, that at a tumultuous time in American history, they offered a potent glimpse of a counterculture mini-nation birthed in peace and love — and taken down by hedonism and greed.

Which may be why, when he offered to show them to Evansville Living, he worried about their impact all these years later. Pointing to a picture of a bare-breasted young woman frolicking in the water during the iconic event that would come to be known as “Bull Island,” Brown asked: “What if she’s somebody’s grandmother?”

We don’t know whose ancestors appear in the pictures over these next few pages, though the co-writer of this story gave her father — Vanderburgh County Prosecutor Stan Levco — a blast from the past when she asked him about his role in what was officially known as the Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival. At the time, Levco was a 26-year-old law school graduate with bell-bottom jeans and long sideburns, studying for the Indiana bar exam. He’d read about the festival in Rolling Stone magazine earlier that summer, and his interest was piqued by the impressive lineup of more than 30 artists scheduled to perform, including Black Sabbath, Joe Cocker, the Allman Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Seger, Ravi Shankar, and the subversive comedy duo of Cheech and Chong. Levco, a connoisseur of the music of his time, had regretted missing out on Woodstock, the legendary 1969 music festival that drew some 500,000 fans to a rain-drenched dairy farm in rural New York. But he thought twice about going to the Soda Pop Festival — then scheduled to take place at a racetrack in Chandler, Ind. — after he received a job offer from the Posey County prosecutor’s office just weeks before. A good decision in retrospect; in an unexpected turn of events, Levco would end up prosecuting some of the disorderly festival patrons who turned the site at Bull Island into a scene of mayhem. As he says now, “A lot of kids who went were just looking for a good time, something fun to do … But a lot of bad things happened.”


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