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.”[pagebreak]
It surely couldn’t have started out that way when the two aspiring music promoters from Evansville, Tom Duncan and Bob Alexander, announced plans to hold a three-day music festival at a racetrack in Chandler. The duo was inspired by the stunning success of Woodstock, despite the fact that it was a logistical nightmare; after months of planning, the Woodstock promoters were forced to deal with a last-minute relocation crisis, dwindling money, an overflowing crowd, and the shut-down of a major highway. And that was before a torrential rainstorm hit.
Duncan and Alexander would face an eerily similar set of crises four years later at their rock fest. But the events couldn’t have turned out more differently: If Woodstock welcomed in the era of rollicking outdoor rock festivals for the Baby Boom generation, Bull Island likely contributed significantly to its demise.
That the Soda Pop Festival took place at all may have surprised a battery of local officials who tried to stop it. Just days before it was slated to begin, Warrick County officials were joined by the Indiana Attorney General in a courthouse hearing in Boonville where undercover state police officers showed secret videotapes from surveillance work they’d done earlier that summer at a rock fest in Fremont, Ind. Caught on film were half-naked hippies engaged in heavy drug use and what detectives described as other acts of “filth.” Duncan and Alexander had assured local officials that they’d hired plenty of private security — including teams of karate experts from Los Angeles and Chicago — for crowd control, but they were met with skepticism. So were their plans for waste management: 80-foot long trenches with “box seats” and no stalls — meaning, as the local newspaper reported, “that all persons using the facilities would be on view to each other.” Warrick County succeeded in shutting out the promoters, and officials in neighboring counties quickly followed suit.
That left Duncan and Alexander, who’d already sold 20,000 advance tickets, scrambling to find a location. At the 11th hour, they found one: A 1,000-acre plot of land jutting out into the Wabash River, on a kind of legal no-man’s land just west of Griffin, Ind., known as Bull Island.
Retired Indiana State Police Trooper Ed Lunkenheimer still remembers the mass of humanity streaming into Posey County on Interstate 64 on its way to Bull Island. He was part of a contingent of 100 state troopers brought into the area to deal with the traffic congestion and lawlessness that officials feared would unfold. Like his colleagues, he was in a somewhat strange situation, jurisdictionally speaking. The old riverbed along the Wabash is what marks the state line, but the river had shifted, and Indiana officials were certain that Bull Island fell into Illinois territory. “We made Illinois aware of that,” Lunkenheimer recalls, “but they said, ‘It’s yours.’”
Lunkenheimer was assigned to traffic control along the interstate, near the Griffin exit. “That was impossible,” he says. “It was like an invasion. They were bound for Bull Island, come hell or high water.” By Friday night of the festival weekend, thousands of concertgoers had poured into the area — many simply crashing through the gates without stopping to the buy the $20 tickets — eager to set up camp and claim a spot near the stage. By Saturday, the crowd had swelled; estimates ran between 200,000 to 300,000 people. Cars were lined up on county roads for miles, and scores more were left abandoned on the side of the interstate. Having been frustrated by the long lines of traffic, people had simply left their cars behind and hiked the seven miles from the interstate to the festival site. “We’d never seen that mass of humanity in one spot,” Lunkenheimer says. “Ever.”
Among the festival staff was Shirley Becker, an Evansville woman then in her 20s, who’d been recruited by a friend to work at the event. Becker, now a grandmother and a wife of a physician, recalls how festival promoters were so desperate for assistance they offered to send her and her friend to Bull Island by helicopter. Clad in her low-cut hiphugger jeans, a cropped top, and giant beaded earrings, Becker stood in the middle of a field by herself and hawked tickets.
“We only collected money on the first day,” she recalls. “There was no hope of getting money after that. I think the promoters knew they lost control of the whole event. People were just giving me whatever they had to get in. I was pretty laid back about it. I remember one guy didn’t have any money, so he gave me a beer. I was delighted. I didn’t have any water, and I was so thirsty.” Becker remembers the crowd as happy — intoxicated on Boone’s Farm wine and abundant pot. “Everybody was really nice. I think that’s what I remember the most when I look back on it now,” she says. “People think of hippies as out-of-control people, but they were all just high and happy.”[pagebreak]
Later, after the weekend’s end, folks who lived in and around Griffin recalled most festival-goers as polite and well-behaved, though a little too comfortable, perhaps, in their own skin. Several reported seeing nude water-skiers zipping down the river.
It wasn’t the nudity, or even the proliferation of illegal drugs — mescaline, LSD, marijuana, and heroin mostly — that made Lunkenheimer and other officers nervous as much as the swelling crowd gathering in a remote site that was desperately unprepared for the onslaught. Food, water, and bathrooms were in short supply. Showers were non-existent, which left the river for bathing. Duncan and Alexander later told reporter Terry English, working for what was then the city’s afternoon newspaper, The Evansville Press, that they had transported 300 wooden toilets to the scene the night before the festival began, but that the crowd had dismantled the privies to use as firewood. By Sunday morning, rumors were spreading through the crowd that the food trucks on site were raising their food prices (from 50 cents to a $1 for a hamburger). In response, a mob of an estimated 2,000 people stormed the food trucks, looted their contents, and set fire to them.
Fueling the discontent was the list of no-show artists. The promoters had promised some of the biggest names in rock music, and some did appear. Ravi Shankar, the Indian guru whose music had influenced The Beatles, took the stage clad in robes to play his sitar; Black Oak Arkansas released a flock of doves at the end of their set; the “Motor City Madman,” Ted Nugent, took the stage with his band, the Amboy Dukes.
But headliner Rod Stewart didn’t appear, nor did Black Sabbath, Joe Cocker, Fleetwood Mac, The Doors, or most of the advertised line-up. The promoters later said there were last-minute disputes over money. Late Monday, the third day of the festival, someone in the crowd torched the stage. As English later wrote, the promoters initially shrugged off responsibility, despite the fact that the promised security force of karate experts never showed, and blamed the crowd’s predisposition to anger for the damage that was done: “They had violence in their eyes when they got to the gate, not after they crossed it,” Duncan was quoted as saying. “I’ve never seen such a rough breed of people."
There was consensus on one thing: There were a lot of drugs, being sold and shared. A section of the makeshift campground set up by festival-goers was dubbed “Alice in Wonderland Avenue.” There, almost anything could be found, including powdered bleach being sold as heroin. Not long after the festival ended, Duncan reported he was sued by a neighboring farmer seeking compensation for lost cattle due to “marijuana inhalation.”
Given the stunningly unexpected size of the crowd, police had little choice but to stand back and observe, saving their arrest powers for the most flagrant violators. “We couldn’t really control all the drugs,” Lunkenheimer recalls. “We just hoped we didn’t have too many overdoses.”[pagebreak]
So, too, did the team of volunteer nurses and doctors who manned a medical tent onsite and treated a variety of injuries. They helicoptered out the more serious cases, including a pregnant teenager who went into labor in the middle of the night. There were two deaths: One was a 24-year-old man who drowned in the river. The other was a 20-year-old whose death was attributed to a heroin overdose. His friends, apparently unaware of the medical staff onsite, carried him seven miles to the interstate where state police tried in vain to help. Another overdose victim — a teenager also carried out of the festival site with no breath and no pulse — was saved by a state trooper who performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Late on the final day of the festival, there was a mass exodus from Bull Island, likened by observers to a flood of dirty and dazed war refugees. The throng of humanity — weary, stoned, hung-over — left behind acres and acres of garbage. Sonny Brown documented that as well. “All they left was a mess,” he says.
The weekend ended in a legal and financial mess for the promoters; estimating they lost some $4 million in potential revenues, they were hit with a rash of lawsuits from angry investors and disgruntled vendors. The IRS went after them, alleging unpaid taxes. Months after Bull Island, Duncan told a local reporter that he’d left the music business, disheartened and broke. His partner continued on, attempting to organize other rock festivals around the Midwest, but he was met with opposition almost wherever he went, tainted by the bad news emanating from the festival. Both were tangled up in legal battles tied to Bull Island for years after.
These days, if you Google “Bull Island” or “Soda Pop Festival,” you’ll find thousands of pages with references to the legendary event. Many are filled with anecdotal accounts from those who were there, waxing nostalgically about “chicks” and “freaks” and a weekend on the Wabash where sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll flourished. As one festival patron notes on a Bull Island blog: “Yep, all of us late hippies are now getting close to being ‘senior citizens.’”
Continue to the next page for experiences from people who were there! »[pagebreak]
City: Mount Vernon, Ind.
Bull Island Experience: I was 22 at the time. We parked our car near Griffith and walked many miles to the concert area carrying a case of Boone’s Farm Apple wine, a tent, and a duffle bag full of food. We camped within sight of the Reis Catering truck that was later torched. We settled on a bank of dirt to watch the multitudes of people coming up the road. It was like an army of freaks. We felt empowered as a generation for a short while. We hoped this would be another peaceful Woodstock. Actually, a recording by White Duck has a song called Bull Island Boogie. Food was short, and I remember sitting by a early morning fire as a girl came up, and seeing me eating a box of pretzels, told me she would give me a bag of weed for a handful of pretzels. I gave her the whole box. Cheech and Chong came on stage early one morning screaming at everyone to get up. Matches, torches, lighters, flashlights, etc. lit up the crowd. Also the band, Black Oak Arkansas, dropped thousands of sun visors from helicopters with the band name on them. Helicopters were constantly overhead from police to television crews. Years later, a friend from Bull Island and I journeyed to Woodstock ‘99 in New York to relive the experience again with our sons. The bands were different, the kids were young, but one thing remained the same. They burned the stage at the end as anarchy prevailed.
City: Grayville, Ill.
Bull Island Experience: There were four or five of us that walked into Bull Island in 1972. There was a path to the stage, and our goal was to get to the stage. The path got smaller and smaller as we got closer to the stage to the point that there were people laying across the path. I lost a contact, and I stepped on someone, and he woke up ready to fight. My friend was a big strong athlete, and he just stepped in front of me. He told me to hold on to his belt loop and everything would be O.K. We went back several times after that and saw some pretty amazing things happening right in front of the police — all illegal. A woman wore nothing but a sign made out of a paper plate, hooked to a string hanging down around her pubic area, that said $5.00. A guy had his car parked near the police cars with his pot for sale, displayed on top of his car, with the different prices next to them. An announcement came over the P.A. system that said, “Don’t take the purple acid.” I guess it was some bad stuff.
City: Owensville, Ind.
Bull Island Experience: I was only 15, and my mother wouldn’t let me go. But, she let me fly over in a crop duster to get the aerial view. Wow! It was huge and looked like a sea of people. I think that’s what turned me into a "flower child."
Bull Island Experience: We spent the night rolling joints on the access road in my ‘65 Chevy pickup. Parked in the first row above the crowd, we drank Boone’s Farm and enjoyed the music until they set the vendor’s truck on fire.
City: Owensboro, Ky.
Bull Island Experience: I had a great time. I woke up one morning with a crick in my neck. I later learned I had used a Beanie Weenie can for a pillow. Those were the good ‘ole days. Too bad my girlfriend was at Purdue…
City: Gilbert, Ariz.
Bull Island Experience: I went with brother and friends from Washington, Ind. Man, was it a trip and a half! The four of us walked from the stage area to the river and drank a gallon of wine on the way. We bought what was supposed to be opium but was actually shoe polish. I feel that this was the last great cultural happening.
Name: Mike Hunt
City: Morehead, Ky.
My Bull Island Experience: Got real high, watched the feds fly by. Luckily I didn’t die. Rock on!
City: Carmi, Ill.
My Bull Island Experience: It was the first time I had seen naked people taking a bath out in the dirty water. I was only 15 and couldn’t imagine people got naked in public.
City: Newburgh, Ind.
Bull Island Experience: I was pregnant when I went to Bull Island. I went with my husband, brother-in-law and sister-in-law. We went just to see it. We stayed for a half a day and just walked around. I was the only one I saw who had a pregnant belly and was sober!
City: Mt. Carmel, Ill.
My Bull Island Experience: Wow! What an experience it was! At the age of 16, three of us hitchhiked to the infamous spot. We were like everyone else, just looking for a good time and good music. It was an unbelievable when we arrived. Of course we had miles to walk just from where our ride had to park his car to even be able to get to the stage area. There were bodies everywhere and everyone shared whatever they had. I can’t begin to explain the experience of so many people in such a small area, but it was definitely worth it. Thanks so much for letting me relive the memories of so long ago!
My Bull Island Experience: A friend and I hitchhiked to Bull Island from Evansville the day before –– arriving late at night. We had actually bought tickets, they were red velvet and cost $20. We were 18 at the time. When were arrived, the concert-goers had already trampled the barbwire fence, and there was no one at the gate to give the tickets to. We brought canned food and a little camp stove. We woke to find that we had camped right in front of the stage to the left of Tower 2. Amazing sights and sounds when we looked back, it was nothing but a sea of humanity. We weren’t into drugs, or drinking or any other shenanigans. Just two long-haired guys on an adventure. We stayed till the end and lost 10 pounds, as we only ate a can or two of Vienna sausages the whole time. On our way out we gave away all of our food and everyone wanted to trade us for drugs. Hey, it was 1972. But we declined.
My Bull Island Experience: It was an unforgettable time. I was 19, ready to get married the next month. We just bought a new 1972 Ford van. It pulled our camper. We parked next to the Wabash and could see all the naked people. At night we could see people shoot up with the lanterns we had placed outside the camper. We walked up to the stage and could hear the music. Just a river of young kids having the time of their life. No port-a-potties present so we used the field that had high grass. Saw a lot of drugs for sale. Didn’t see any fights, but back then it was "love & peace.” Saw a lot of young kids getting frisky under the blankets.
Bull Island Experience: A good friend was working for the promoter, so I became an unpaid "go-fer" of sorts. It was mostly chaos – I’ sure the organizers had no idea how many people were going to show up or how to accommodate them. A lot of the bands flew into Evansville, but would not travel out to Bull Island because their safety and security could not be guaranteed. A couple of us drove a truck loaded with the equipment for the band "Canned Heat" over there. They wanted to play no matter what, as did a number of bands. I had a backstage pass, but spent most of my time wondering around the crowd –– it was definitely "anything goes" from nudity, drug use, drug dealing, you name it, but I never saw any fighting or violence.
My Bull Island Experience: I was 22 at the time and I remember the walk to the area where we were going to sit and watch. It was like a market. People had spread all the drug paraphernalia on blankets and tables. I am glad I went. The experience was something else. My kids were surprised when they found out that their father and I had been there. The thing that stuck out the most was when Black Oak Arkansas (at least I think it was them) was playing a man climbed one of the towers and stripped down naked and danced.
City: Evansville, Ind.
My Bull Island Experience: My friends and I were home that weekend from college so we all decided not to tell our parents and go to the concert. We went for two days, it was great, the music, the people …we ran out of food and needed to get home before our parents found out. About two months later one of my friends who went with us called and said that her dad’s VFW post was going to show home movies of all the dirty hippies at Bull Island. We were all afraid that we were going to be in the pictures. I guess we weren’t because I didn’t tell my parents about it till years after that.
Bull Island Experience: I wasn’t there but we had a river camp at the old dam in New Harmony. There is a guy there who has a camp and he said that people paid him to take them to Bull Island on his boat. I think he made quite a bit of money at the time. Wish I could have been there myself.
My Bull Island Experience: I was 24 and had met a state trooper the night before who told me if I came out to the concert he would see that I got in. We found the trooper and he flagged us through in my car. What a mistake. As we drove thru, people kept jumping on the car for a ride in. There were so many people, coolers, grills, sleeping bags, backpacks, etc., on the car that I couldn’t see to drive. That didn’t stop people from just hanging on. Eventually there was so much weight on the car that it couldn’t move. The hitchhikers on the car were so mad that when the car stopped, they threatened us. It’s a wonder we left with our lives. We actually did get to the stage and witnessed everything everybody else has described. It was an incredible experience that resembled an X-rated movie.
My Bull Island Experience: I went to one of the greatest experiences of the 70’s against my parents advice. I crawled out a window and caught a ride as far as you could ride. Then we hitched rides the rest of the way. It was fantastic. People connecting to people and experiencing what we all did in the 70’s. It was not just sex and drugs. It was great music, meeting hundreds of new friends, and just loving the experience. We skinny-dipped and watched people. There was little violence except when they ran out of food. It is an experience I would never trade for anything.
City: Owensboro, Ky.
My Bull Island Experience: I was recently divorced from my first wife and the straight life. I had been to Washington, D.C., to protest the war and to a few concerts where I got a taste of the hippie persuasion, but Bull Island was a total immersion baptism into the counterculture. I took a double-wide sleeping bag and two girls, who said they were cousins, to carry the cooler. The experience was exhilarating. I still have the newspapers about the festival. Sonny Brown’s photos resurrected scenes from a faded memory and brought back to life some of the characters I’d forgotten, just like it was yesterday.
My Bull Island Experience: First time I saw a naked man. I went with a couple friends & stayed over night thru the next day. Told my Dad I was staying over a friend’s house. I was 16 at the time. Pretty wild time. Smoked a lot …You could get pretty much anything you wanted in the way of getting high. Couldn’t see the stage from where we were but could hear the music. Wall-to-wall kids. No food except what we brought. I think that’s why we left. Probably needed to get back home before Dad found out.
My Bull Island Experience: I can vaguely remember Bull Island. We lived in Posey County but southwest of Griffin. I can recall the helicopters flying over our house, picking up the overdosed concert-goers. My parents, who were as green as grass, went down to check it out and to haul people back and forth to their vehicles. My mom said she could see people shooting up in front of headlights on cars and bikes, etc. It was quite an eye opener for them coming from the farm families they did!
City: Lewisburg, Ky.
My Bull Island Experience: I only got to stay for half of it, but I never wanted to go home.
City: Owensboro, Ky.
My Bull Island Experience: From what I remember, it was excellent.
City: Franklin, Ky.
My Bull Island Experience: Whoa. What a blast from the past.
City: Grayville, Ill.
My Bull Island Experience: I was going to school over in Evansville and I was working part-time for Double Cola. A catering company (at the festival) came in and hired several of us guys to help. I had to work in Evansville Saturday morning and was supposed to drive down after I got off work …On Sunday, the catering company raised all the prices to be “even” money, to make it easier to make change. Cokes were to sell for 50 cents a can or $3 a six pack, and cigarettes were a $1 a pack. (The normal price at this time was 20-25 cents for a Coke and 40-45 cents for cigarettes.) By afternoon the crowd was a sea of angry people; some were climbing over the fence and grabbing cases of Cokes and throwing them over to the crowd. This just kept getting worse. The catering people came by and asked us to stay at it till they could get the money out. They were putting the money in empty cigarette cartons and running it out of the area on a moped. Suddenly everything went wild and the crowd overran the place and we bailed out. The crowd destroyed the place.Some people said there were close to 500,000 people there. It was pretty wild. I saw all kinds of drugs and naked people.
City: Grayville, Ill.
My Bull Island Experience: A bunch of us walked in the first time and it took several hours to walk in and out. Then a friend showed me a shortcut and we road our dirt bikes in and out and it only took about 30 minutes or so. I went back with my friend three or four more times after that and we saw some pretty odd sights.
City: Grayville, Ill.
My Bull Island Experience: I was 8 or 9 …My dad and one of his friends took me in on a Jon boat. Dad had his hand over my eyes the whole time because of all the naked people. I don’t think he was expecting that!
City: Mooresville, Ind.
My Bull Island Experience: See my blog at bullisland.blogspot.com
City: Morehead, Ky.
Bull Island Experience: Got real high. Watched the Feds fly by. Luckily I didn’t die. Rock on!
City: Mt. Carmel, Ill.
Bull Island Experience: Wow! What an experience it was! At the age of 16, three of us hitchhiked to the infamous spot. We were like everyone else, just looking for a good time and good music. It was an unbelievable when we arrived. Of course we had miles to walk just from where our ride had to park his car to even be able to get to the stge area. There were bodies everywhere and everyone shared whatever they had. I can’t begin to explain the experience of so many people in such a small area, but it was definetly worth it. Thanks so much for letting me relive the memories of so long ago!