The Legacy of the Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair Part II

Sky River Festival Tenino
After watching state-produced video footage, the King County council voted to limit music festivals to one day in the weeks after Sky River II. Photo courtesy: Washington State Archives

The expected nightmares of crime and rampant drug use on an old cattle ranch just north of Tenino never really materialized following the Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair Part II. When you go out to the location of the concert now, there is literally no evidence of a massive concert ever being held there.

Northwest Home Team Realty logoToday, most of the site is protected as a state Department of Fish and Wildlife preserve called West Rocky Prairie or subdivided into rural single-family parcels. You can access the concert site by walking just over a mile from an access point on Arrowhead Lane.

Lacking physical evidence of a concert, the impact Sky River II had on Tenino and the surrounding community continues to this day.

Two weeks after the festival closed, the breakdown of the festival was to the point that used two-by-fours and other building materials were available for sale at the ranch site.

But the aftermath of the event was not going to be a missed opportunity for those who wanted to prevent another multi-day concert from happening. The Catholic Archdiocese paid for a full-page ad in the Seattle Times featuring obscured photos of topless women and the limited facilities at the festival. The intention was to shock the audience, but to also call on the county prosecutor to file charges against the handful of people arrested on alcohol and drug charges.

The state patrol and other local law enforcement took the opportunity to gather evidence that played into the public debate of regulating music festivals. After watching state-produced video footage, the King County council voted to limit music festivals to one day in the weeks after Sky River II. The video showed roads filled with traffic, dogs getting into the garbage, nude and possibly stoned concert goers and spectators, and other debauchery.

Sky River Music Festival
With much public attention and comment and the state patrol video presented as evidence, much stricter rules for music festivals were passed that still stand today. Photo courtesy: Washington State Archives

The Thurston County Commission took up the debate of public festivals the next spring. With much public attention and comment and the state patrol video presented as evidence, they passed much stricter rules for music festivals that still stand today. Through the public process, the proposed rules were loosened to become more “regulatory” and less “preventative.”

One notable rule passed as part of the ordinance is that camping at a music festival was effectively banned. Those rules still stand today as the legal backbone for any sort of outdoor music festival in Thurston County.

At one crowded public meeting at the Olympia High School gym, “festival adherents” came to defend the legacy of Sky River II.

The festival even infected statewide politics. Vaughn E. Evans ran for State Supreme Court partially on the platform that the court shouldn’t have allowed the festival to go forward. Despite that, he lost statewide and in Thurston County, 12,000 votes to 4,000.

The committee that put on the festival took a huge financial loss. They blamed the hurried state of preparations, the need to change from Enumclaw to Tenino within weeks of the festival date, and to deal with the requirements of Thurston County, put them in the red.

Sky River
A scene from the Sky River Music Festival in Tenino. Photo courtesy: Washington State Archives

Probably the most lasting impact of the Sky River II festival in Tenino was the creation of the town’s own music festival tradition. While most of Tenino rose up in fear in the run-up to Sky River II – holding meetings and filing lawsuits – they soon just started their own hometown version of a music festival.

“Music has always put the tiny town on the map,” reads a story in the Seattle Times in 1974. “First – and townspeople still shudder – was the Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair, a 1969 rock festival that drew 40,000 people… The town weathered the event and countered with a festival of its own.”

The Tenino Old Time Music Festival will have its own 50th Anniversary next year.

“We believe it is possible to hold a festival without drugs, liquor, and illicit sex,” said Neil Johnston, festival organizer, fiddle player and Tenino Lion Club member in 1970. Like the first Tenino Old Time Music Festival, current versions of the festival have included music instructions, music across multiple days, and meals served for musicians and fans alike.

Shows through the 1970s drew attendance in the thousands, and as time wore on, its origin obscured with the years, the fiddle festival became a normal part of Tenino’s landscape.

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