Bell-bottoms, disco, shag hair, and peace and love — the 1970s was a tumultuous decade with moments and events that have shaped the world we live in today. Disney World opened to the public, the Beatles released their last album, Americans died in protests against the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal shocked the nation, “Jaws,” “Saturday Night Live,” and “Star Wars” hit the screens, and the U.S. joined together to celebrate the 1976 bicentennial.
Here in Evansville, it was no different — from Funky’s and Bull Island to events like the University of Evansville men’s basketball team plane crash, the erection of the Four Freedoms monument, and the blizzard of 1977. We polled people on social media and in the Facebook group “I Grew Up In Evansville, Indiana” on their memories of the decade to compile first-hand accounts of some of the biggest ’70s moments. Turn the pages to travel back in time through the most memorable parts of the decade and get your groove back.
News & EventS
The 1970s was a pivotal decade in Evansville’s history with major developments, news events, and tragedies. The decade kicked off with a big change in the heart of the city. In 1971, Main Street between Second and Seventh (now Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.) streets was closed to vehicular traffic for a pedestrian walkway. The walkway was later renovated in 1986 and wasn’t opened again to traffic until 2002.
Another new development in the city came in the form of a 35-foot Santa statue built in 1974 and displayed Downtown at the Old Vanderburgh County Courthouse and later Mesker Park Zoo. It was then moved to Highway 41 and Interstate 64, where it stayed for many years. In January 2016, Ron McKeethen saw the statue lying face down in a junkyard. With his help, the statue has since been restored and is standing in its former glory once more on Highway 41.
The entire country joined together in 1976 to celebrate the U.S.’s bicentennial, and Evansville was no exception. The celebrations kicked off with the erection of the city’s Four Freedoms monument along the riverfront. The four columns represent the freedom of speech, freedom from oppression, freedom of religion, and freedom from fear.
“They say the base of it being a circle and having the states around the circle was symbolizing freedom of assembly,” says Randy Wheeler, a long-time Evansville reporter who worked at WGBF as the news director (and later WIKY) during this time. “Of course, that’s what it’s been used for through all the years. It’s been the focal point of Evansville really since it was built.”
The bicentennial celebrations continued with a visit from President Gerald Ford on May 23, 1976, for a rally while campaigning against the other Republican candidate Ronald Reagan (who ultimately was unsuccessful).
The following year of 1977 would become the most eventful year of the decade. It began with a fire at the Upstage Dinner Theater on Jan. 17, 1977, while the city was trying to stay warm during unprecedented winter weather with temperatures as low as 21 degrees below zero.
“It burned on one of the coldest nights I’ve ever seen,” says Evansville resident Joan McKain Fraser. “The firemen’s water even made icicles.”
“This was probably the coldest day of my life,” adds Wheeler, who was at the scene to report on the story. “There was so much ice everywhere — hanging from the building, cars were encapsulated in ice, firefighters had ice hanging from their helmets to the point where they occasionally had to whack their helmets to whack the ice away, hoses were freezing up, firefighters were freezing up.”
The fire was eventually put out and the cause was revealed to be arson to cover the trace of a burglary that had been made earlier in the night, destroying the historic structure that stood at First Street and Riverside Drive.
Later in the year, Evansville experienced another shock when entrepreneur, oilman, and world traveler Ray Ryan died in a car explosion outside of Olympia Health Spa on Bellemeade Avenue, just east of Green River Road.
“As the police investigated and the FBI got involved — because it appeared to be a hit job — it was determined it was in fact a mob hit by gangsters that Ray Ryan had been known to be around,” says Wheeler.
The city continued to experience tragedy when on Dec. 13, 1977, a chartered plane crashed shortly after takeoff at the Evansville Regional Airport carrying the University of Evansville men’s basketball team. The crash killed 29 people.
“When I got to the station, I jumped in with the rest of them,” says Wheeler. “I immediately dispatched the reporters out to the scene of the plane crash. The reporter told me, ‘I’m out here in the field, and I see UE duffle bags and UE jackets strewn all over the field. I think it’s the Aces.’”
The entire city mourned the loss, with then-UE President Dr. Wallace Graves delivering a eulogy at Neu Chapel in the days following. The morning after the disaster, the paper arrived on Wheeler’s doorstep.
“There was the iconic newspaper headline, ‘The night it rained tears,’” he says. “It showed Ace Purple sitting head in his hand obviously mourning, and that’s when it hit me. Through that point I had been the reporter, and now I was the consumer as well as the reporter.”
More sad events followed when the last surviving member of the basketball team David Furr, who had not been on the flight because of an injury, was in a fatal car crash with his younger brother Byron near Newton, Illinois, two weeks after the plane crash.
As the decade rolled into 1978, the year began with unprecedented amounts of snow. That January, nearly 30 inches of snow fell throughout the region, causing roofs to cave in and impossible conditions for supplies, groceries, or fuel to be delivered to the city. Then on Jan. 26, winds of up to 55 mph created drifts 10 feet high and a wind chill of 50 degrees below zero.
“It was an era of so many news developments that at times we felt overwhelmed — just one after another,” says Wheeler. “And that continued into the ’80s.”
Food & Restaurants
Sometimes smells and tastes can bring back memories more vividly than a picture can, and Evansville in the 1970s had a unique flavor of its own with many popular restaurants at their peak during the decade.
One of the city’s most remembered restaurants of the decade was the Farmer’s Daughter at the corner of Main and Third streets (and also at Division Street and North Green River Road) that had a 30-year run, opening in 1963 and closing in 1993. Today, the building serves as a restaurant once again to Comfort by the Cross-Eyed Cricket. Just a couple of blocks from the Farmer’s Daughter was KingFish Restaurant, recognized by its paddlewheel riverboat design at Locust and S.E. First streets. The restaurant opened on Nov. 25, 1977, and closed in January 1979, later reopening under new ownership as Riverboat Steak & Seafood. Today, locations of KingFish still are in operation in Louisville, Kentucky, and Jeffersonville, Indiana.
A few blocks northeast at 313 Locust St., The Tennessean opened in 1949. Then six years later, a second location opened at 101 N.W. Fifth St.
“The Tennessean restaurant in Downtown Evansville served great hamburgers,” says Newburgh, Indiana, resident Julie Stofleth Kibler. “I loved to ride the Monroe/Covert bus from my house off of Covert Avenue in Evansville in order to shop Downtown whenever I had saved enough of my babysitting money.”
“You always ordered a cheeseburger with only pickle and onion,” adds Joan McKain Fraser to Kibler’s story. “One trip Downtown I decided to try it that way, and that was the way I ate my hamburgers from that day on.”
By 1987, the Locust Street location was the only Downtown restaurant open around the clock, but both locations closed by the late 1990s.
Evansville in the 1970s also was home to many sweet memories, too, like Honey Fluff Donuts, which operated for more than 50 years at 621 N. Fulton Ave. and closed in the early 2000s.
MerryMobile ice cream trucks also could be spotted driving down city streets until the early 1970s, with franchises of the round merry-go-round-style trucks in Louisville; Memphis; Dayton, Ohio; Jackson, Tennessee; and Evansville.
There may have been turmoil in national politics and sadness over local tragedies, but the Evansville community still looked to continue the freedom and carefree nature of the 1960s.
“Funky’s was during a time where Evansville drifted ahead of itself,” says John Steinhauer, senior vice president of Oswald Marketing and former corporate public relations advertising manager of Funky’s and Good Time Bobby’s nightclubs. “The club was something Evansville had never seen — or Indiana for that matter.”
Considered one of the most notable hot spots in Evansville during the 1970s, Steinhauer says it was a club that allowed people of all ages to gather — parents would eat dinner at the restaurant while their 20- and 30-something-year-old kids would go to the disco. A lot of times, the two would converge in the club’s cocktail area.
“The original Funky’s night club was Evansville’s Studio 54 during the mid and late ’70s,” adds Evansville native Mike Bevers, account manager at Midwest Communications.
“People really came from everywhere to see it because it became a phenomenon,” says Steinhauer. “You went there to meet people, have fun, and dance.”
And if you wanted to mix the night up a little, says Steinhauer, then you divided your time between Funky’s and Bob Folz’s other nightclub on the East Side, Good Time Bobby’s. In 1977, Folz first opened the club as a teen disco called Mr. Funky Monkey. But it lacked the success of its big brother Funky’s.
On Aug. 31, 1977, Folz closed the teen club — the action caught the attention of many news outlets as Steinhauer and crew hired a horse-drawn hearse to lead a funeral parade for the club. At the end of the procession, it was revealed Mr. Funky Monkey would become an upscale adult “supper club” known as Good Time Bobby’s.
Music and dancing were choice forms of entertainment in the ’70s. So when it was announced there would be an Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival held on Labor Day weekend in 1972 in Chandler, Indiana, many jumped at the chance to attend a Midwest Woodstock-style festival. No one could have predicted at the time that this festival — known simply as Bull Island to locals — would be more like Woodstock than anyone could have guessed.
Organizers Tom Duncan and Bob Alexander — aspiring Evansville music promoters — felt confident about the festival. Earlier in 1972, the two had planned the Freedom Festival and Ice Cream Social at Bosse Field, which brought in performers such as Ike and Tina Turner. It was a big success.
“The concert at Bosse Field was one of my favorite memories,” says Evansville native Becky Gaw, who attended the concert.
But Bull Island was set to be much bigger. Advertised in Rolling Stone magazine, 30 top artists of the time were named in the line up. There was Black Sabbath, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Seger, and comedians Cheech and Chong. The planned headliner for the weekend was Rod Stewart.
Legal battles in Indiana courts pushed the festival from its intended spot at a racetrack in Chandler to Bull Island, technically within Illinois state borders along the Wabash River.
The weekend brought more than 200,000 people and the quick cancellation of many acts. Many artists did make it to the stage, however, including Santana, Ravi Shankar, The Amboy Dukes, Black Oak Arkansas, and Vince Vance and the Valiants.
It’s hard to forget the festival — much like Woodstock, the three days brought about a shortage of food and water. Rain drenched festivalgoers. Traffic was backed up for 20 miles from Bull Island. The crowds robbed and looted many vendors, food trucks, and RVs. Drugs were sold freely. Two deaths were recorded, and at the end of the weekend, those who remained set the music stand on fire.
“It was a mess,” remembers festivalgoer Joan McKain Fraser of Evansville.
Not all musical events in Evansville were questionable, however. But like Bull Island, they were unforgettable. The city’s top venues — Roberts Stadium and Mesker Park Amphitheatre — are ingrained into the 1970s memories of residents.
Roberts played host to a number of popular bands and performers. Most notably, Elvis Presley made a tour stop in the River City in June 1972. He swung by again in October 1976 and his performance broke an attendance record for Roberts, with 13,500 concertgoers packed inside.
Through the decade, big bands and names from several music genres made their rounds through Evansville — Jimmy Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Neil Diamond, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, and ZZ Top helped start the decade. In the latter years, names like Aerosmith, KISS, David Bowie, Rush, Barry Manilow, John Denver, and Billy Joel took to Roberts’ stage.
REO Speedwagon — co-founded by Evansville native Neil Doughty — made tour stops at Roberts in 1970 and 1979.
Mesker Park’s open, outdoor theater held its fair share of memorable shows, too. The Doobie Brothers took the stage in 1976, as did the Blue Oyster Cult. REO played a show in 1978 there and AC/DC did shows on July 29 both in 1978 and 1979.
Music wasn’t the only way to have a good time in Evansville in the ’70s. As a part of the Major League Baseball expansion in 1969, a Triple-A team came to Evansville for the 1970 season. The Triplets thrived in the league as a farm team for the Minnesota Twins, then the Milwaukee Brewers, and finally for the Detroit Tigers.
“The Triplets games were fun,” recalls Linda Kay Kelley, who worked for radio station WROZ at the time and produced the Triplets’ game broadcasts. “Larry Calton was our announcer at Bosse Field. I would put the commercials in during the games, then read the different Major League game scores to Larry so he could announce them during the game.”
In 1972, the Triplets won the team’s first American Association championship and player Lloyd Gladden won the Most Valuable Pitcher award. In 1974, the team won another AA title and the Junior World Series in 1975. The team lasted until 1984, when it was sold to the owners of the Nashville Sounds, a Double-A club.
The 1970s in Evansville also was filled with growing and popular entertainment fads. Being able to roller skate was a coveted skill for kids who attended USA Skate, Burdette, and the 4-H center.
And of course, there were the movie theaters and drive-ins — big hits like “Star Wars,” “Jaws,” “Rocky,” “Grease,” and more brought everyone out to the big screens.
Things might not have been perfect, but the good memories have stuck around.
“So many memories, I can’t name one,” says Evansville resident Larry Parrot. “It was all great!”
The shopping districts of Evansville experienced a bout of growth and change during the decade as well. In the 1970s many stores were just establishing themselves — one of Evansville’s oldest shopping areas, Main Street, was best known for its unique selection. Shoppers could watch the monkeys in the display window at Baynham’s Shoe Store; browse at deJong’s, Sears, and JCPenney; get a birthday cake from Woolworth’s bakery department; and purchase their children’s first outfits from The Baby Shop.
“JC Penney store was across the street from my office Downtown,” says Evansville native Jacquelyn Jackson. “It was very convenient when it came to hiding gifts until Christmas!”
As successful as Main Street was, it also faced major challenges during this time. The opening of Washington Square Mall — Indiana’s first enclosed mall — on the East Side in 1963, combined with construction on Main Street to create a pedestrian mall in 1971 and a national shift from cities to the suburbs, caused a decrease in shopping downtown.
This lack of business wasn’t the end for Evansville’s retail industry. Instead, Downtown stores simply moved to the expanding East Side. While Sears’ Main Street location — the first stand-alone retail store — had to close in 1975, the company found success as the south anchor of Washington Square until 2016. Others followed and joined already flourishing businesses, such as Great Scot Supermarkets.
Washington Square became a cultural hub that hosted concerts and community events, like the first Easterseals Telethon in 1978. Shoppers flocked to the mall and surrounding shopping centers, such as Shoppers Fair, now Plaza East Center; Lawndale Shopping Center on South Green River Road, which housed Ayr-Way, the Evansville Store, deJong’s, and National City Bank in the ’70s; and Ross Center, home to the popular Ross Theater until 1991.
Evansville spent the 1970s successfully settling into its new shopping habits, unaware the 1980s would bring another round of changes with the opening of Eastland Mall in 1981. Now, the ’70s represent the heyday of shopping in Evansville as the charming businesses that so many are nostalgic about today brought quality products and economic stability to the city.
When thinking back, it’s easy to focus on the fun, the events, and the weather. But even the landscape of education was changing in Evansville during the 1970s.
One of the biggest events to happen to the city’s school system was in 1972, when U.S. District Judge Hugh Dillin ruled in a case against the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation that the school system would have to enact a plan to fully integrate all of its schools.
“That was one of the memorable parts of the ’70s for me,” says Evansville native and North High School graduate Lindseye Greye. At the time of the case, she attended Stockwell Elementary School.
African-American children began to be bussed to different neighborhood schools throughout EVSC to achieve an integrated balance. It wasn’t a smooth transition for all — tensions were high in various schools, especially high schools, as students did not want to be bussed to new neighborhood schools and others did not want new students from outside the neighborhoods.
Though it was slow and at times difficult, integration was completed throughout the school system.
“There was only one girl who joined my class. She was nice, and we quickly became friends,” says Greye, who remembers watching her new schoolmates arrive at Stockwell. “I don’t think any of us understood why new children had come to our school that day, but they became part of our school, part of our lives, and part of our culture.”
Also in 1972, one of the first schools in Evansville to desegregate, Catholic high school Rex Mundi, closed its doors along North First Avenue. The spot now is the location of the Evansville Ivy Tech Community College campus. The decision came from the diocese after falling enrollment began to plague the school in 1971.
Another big move came the year before, when EVSC announced the move of Central High School in 1971. The first high school building in town (in 1868) was situated between Vine and Court streets along Seventh Street.
The reason for the move was simply because the school building had become too small to house the students living in the Downtown and northern Evansville areas. After the new school was completed, the campus moved in 1971 and the former school building was razed in 1973. However, Central’s original gymnasium remains — it recently was vacated by the YMCA after its move in 2019.
Changes were happening in secondary education too. For the University of Southern Indiana (then the Indiana State University-Evansville campus), the school was still capitalizing on the successful 1967 fundraising campaign operated by the Southern Indiana Higher Education, Inc. Those efforts and support from the community and businesses allowed the university to obtain 1,400 acres on the expanding West Side to establish itself by the end of the 1960s.
Construction on a science center and the Wright Administration Building began in 1968, leading the momentum that would continue into the 1970s for USI. The campus continued to grow, as did Evansville, welcoming in more students. Since 1971, more than 40,000 students have earned degrees from USI.
Thank You! Unless otherwise stated, photos were provided courtesy of Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library, Willard Library, the David L. Rice Library University Archives & Special Collections at the University of Southern Indiana, John Steinhauer, Sonny Brown, David Brown, and the “I Grew Up in Evansville” Facebook page members. Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library, Willard Library, the David L. Rice Library University Archives & Special Collections at the University of Southern Indiana, John Steinhauer, Sonny Brown, David Brown, and the “I Grew Up in Evansville” Facebook page members.