It is quite within the realm of possibility that nothing so big as the Rock Acres Peace Festival has ever happened, or ever will happen again, to little Queensborough, Ont. Our very own rock festival started 42 years ago today, on Aug. 6, 1971.
Do you remember the Rock Acres Peace Festival? Did you attend it, or (like me) experience it by living nearby? I would love to hear from you! Please post your comments and share your memories, and perhaps we can build up a bit of an archive about this rather amazing (and now half-forgotten) mid-century event in Queensborough’s history.
And if this is all new to you, well: read on. I have details.
Let’s begin with a note about the name, “Rock Acres Peace Festival.” I happen to think it was rather inspired. It got the word “rock” unsubtly in there, but not to describe the festival itself; the festival was apparently one of “peace.” Meanwhile, given the terrain of the Queensborough area – right on the edge of the Canadian Shield – “Rock Acres” is a pretty apt description for the Quinlan farm where the festival was held. I imagine it was one of the two Quinlan sons who organized the event – Leon, then 28, and James Jr., 24 – who had the brainwave about the name. And to this day I don’t have a clue what their parents, farmers James and Margaret Quinlan, thought about this whole project their sons were putting together. I don’t suppose there’s a chance James and Margaret are still alive, given that (according to the Elzevir Township history book Times to Remember in Elzevir Township) they marked their 40th wedding anniversary the same month as the rock festival was held. But it would be so interesting to talk to them – or Leon or James Jr. – about it. Leon or James Jr., if you’re out there…
Anyway. Perhaps first I’ll share my own memories of the rock festival, which you must understand come from someone who was only 11 years old at the time – and the time in question was quite some time ago.
I remember discussing the festival that was to take place at the Quinlan farm just west of Queensborough – and across the township line, so it was in Madoc Township rather than Elzevir Township, where Queensborough is – with classmates at Madoc Township Public School. Since school let out at the end of June, it must have been common knowledge that the August festival was coming at least a couple of months before it happened.
I remember my father, The Rev. Wendell Sedgwick (minister of the Queensborough-Eldorado pastoral charge of the United Church of Canada), working together with ministers from other local churches to have a helpful Christian presence on the festival grounds when all those kids arrived.
I remember my dad recounting having seen (or maybe having spoken to someone who had seen) a poster for the festival that had the words JOHN LENNON in huge letters, and above that the words “HOPING FOR” in very tiny letters. Hope sprang eternal! (John Lennon did not, by the way, show up.)
I remember our peaceful little village being absolutely thronged with young people, who gravitated to the two general stores for food and soft drinks, and to the nearby swimming hole at the dam on the Black River, for cooling off. I remember one of them having a rather alarmingly large pet snake curled around his arm.
And I think I maybe remember being kept at home at the Manse a bit more than usual. In general in my Queensborough childhood we kids in summer wandered whenever and wherever we wanted; those were simpler times. But I suspect we were quietly kept close to home that rock-festival weekend, for fear we might come into contact with behaviour we perhaps should not have been exposed to. (Which might not have been a bad idea. Not long ago my Queensborough friend Elaine, reminiscing about the rock festival, shared the fact that at the swimming hole at the dam – which is at her family’s property – there was quite a bit of public fornicating going on.)
But whatever: it was all so very exciting! Queensborough found itself in the news, big-time, thanks to the rock festival and the attendant issues and controversies it stirred up.
My father preached a sermon in advance of the festival suggesting that we not condemn these kids (the festival attendees) before we’d even had a chance to meet them, and that we reach out to them and show them Christian kindness and goodness. That didn’t sit well with everyone; there were quite a few people in the area who were more than ready to condemn the event, and its participants, sight unseen. I recall my dad being interviewed about his somewhat controversial stand by one of the big Toronto newspapers (whether it was the Star or the Globe and Mail or the Telegram I’m not sure, and I’ve so far failed to find the article that was subsequently published), and it was quite something to see him featured in the reporter’s news story. (This of course being long before I got into the newspaper business and got more used to such things.)
As for putting into practice that Christian kindness, I recently had a very pleasant chat with Don McEwen of the Eldorado area, who was, with my dad, a member of the local ministerial association that had worked on having a presence at the festival. (A tent, maybe? I’m not sure.) Don and my dad may well have been the most present on site of the local ministers, and without going into detail, Don suggested that it was quite something to behold. Apparently the words “This is Sodom and Gomorrah” escaped my father’s lips. But there those young ministers were, on the ground and trying to do the right thing, and God bless them (as I am sure S/He did) for it.
The last memory I have of the rock festival is that it ended before it was supposed to, with a police bust-up. Some motorcycle-gang members showed up and things got ugly, at which point the Ontario Provincial Police moved in and that was the end of that.
And Queensborough’s day in the sun (at least the sun that shone on rock festivals in that brief shining moment between Woodstock in August 1969 and when mass gatherings at outdoor music festivals kind of trickled out a few years later) was over.
So those are my memories of the Rock Acres Peace Festival. Now let’s see what we can find out there in the wilds of the internet!
How charming that a little local newspaper a hundred miles northeast of Queensborough off in the Ottawa Valley considered our rock festival newsworthy! The columnist is Bruce Paton – who, I think, later became a photojournalist and photojournalism instructor. But in August 1971 he was very young, and (no disrespect intended, Bruce) writing some pretty awful small-town-newspaper prose. The column, in fact, makes no sense at all (judge for yourself by reading the full thing here), but we have to remember that it was 1971, and free-form everything, including writing, was all the rage.
Next: a Canadian Press report published in – of all places! – the Montreal Gazette, where Raymond and I now work. It tells of the rather disastrous and abrupt end of the festival, and you can see the full thing for yourself here:
And here is a totally wonderful period piece that the internet turned up, the first page of the typewritten minutes of the first meeting of Hastings County council after the festival (the biggest thing to hit sleepy Hastings County for quite some time, back in 1971) had come and gone. There is mention of the rock festival – and a bus excursion!
I also discovered some small bits of information about the bands that played at the festival. For whatever reason, the details of the musical entertainment do not seem to loom large in anyone’s accounts or memories – including mine. The Manse in downtown Queensborough is only a mile and a half or so from Quinlan Road and the scene of the action, but it might as well have been a light year. I had no idea who might actually be performing at our rock festival. But multiple sources – here is one – tell us that the Stampeders were there; you remember the Stampeders, right? (Sweet City Woman, people.) That posting on a Stampeders-concert-history site also lists other bands (Lighthouse, most notably) that might or might not (you can’t tell from the entry) have been there at Rock Acres. And one source – in a forum for musicians, on the topic of “Your First Show” ; go here, and scroll down to the entry by “snowdragon” – intriguingly suggests that Steppenwolf was there too, though I’m not sure I entirely believe it. Could snowdragon have got Steppenwolf (which would have been monstrously famous at the time, thanks to Magic Carpet Ride and Born to be Wild) mixed up with the somewhat-less-huge Stampeders?
Okay, that’s the sum total of what I know, or can find out, about the music at our rock festival. Now here’s one last quirky thing before I get to what is probably the definitive (for now – until you people share your knowledge and memories) accounting of the Rock Acres Peace Festival. Believe it it not, the obscure rock festival on the outskirts of Queensborough is cited in a 1987 article in the McGill (University) Law Journal, headlined “From Delegatus to the Duty to Make Law.” (Boy, that sounds like a real page-turner. Read it here!) I’m afraid life is too short for me to actually absorb the article (which looks to be brutally dull) and find out what it’s about, but I can tell you that our rock festival and the legal case it entailed (Madoc v. Quinlan) is cited on Page 62.
All right, on to some actual rock-festival reportage!
At one point during my research the internet coughed up this text…
…which I immediately recognized as pages from the excellent history of Madoc Village and Madoc Township called Way Back When…, a book written as a summer-job project by two of my contemporaries at Centre Hastings Secondary School in Madoc, Ardith McKinnon and Garnet Pigden. The book, published in 1975 and an invaluable resource for local history, is long out of print and desperately hard to find. (Copies start at $60 on used-book site abebooks.com, and go up to $100. So you can imagine why I almost went into hysterics of joy when I found a copy for a dollar a few months ago at a Madoc yard sale.)
Way Back When… has a lengthy report on the festival – 11 pages’ worth. It really seems like Ardith and Garnet did their homework. There is so much interesting detail! Obviously there’s way too much text for me to reproduce it all here, but let me give you some highlights in point form:
- The municipal authorities learned by accident – literally – of the plan by the Quinlan boys to hold the festival. In February 1971 posters and tickets for the event were found by the OPP in a car Leon Quinlan had been driving that was involved in a minor crash.
- Once the secret was out, the Quinlans reported that they had been advertising the festival across North America since September 1970. “They said that they were prepared to spend $3,600.00 to hire thirty off-duty police to patrol the farm in three shifts daily…They were supposed to have planned four tenting areas, a service area for police, and for medical facilities, plus two sound stages, water and sanitary facilities,” Way Back When… says.
- Madoc Township council immediately started looking into what it could do to put the kibosh on the Quinlans’ plans, at the behest of the populace: “Angry and terrified township residents began besieging the council members to try and stop the event.”
- The township and county councils and the medical officer of health subsequently passed various bylaws and established regulations setting out strict rules for extra policing, insurance, sanitation, etc. They were doubtless aimed at making it impossible for the Quinlans to comply, and sure enough, they did not meet the various deadlines and whatnot. The township then tried to get an injunction to ban the festival – and won its case.
- The Quinlans promptly rescheduled the festival from its original dates of July 3, 4 and 5 to Aug. 6, 7 and 8, a Friday, Saturday and Sunday. They said “that the festival would go on ‘come Hell or high water,’ in spite of the injunction.” And they reported that they’d sold 5,000 advance tickets at $10 a pop.
- The council tried for a new injunction to ban the rescheduled event. The hearing was held in Toronto. The township lost. It sued the Quinlans “for violation of its Land Use By-law.” And it tried for yet another injunction. The hearing was July 30. The township lost again. At this point, it seems everybody resigned themselves to the fact that this sucker was actually going to happen.
“The Emergency Health Services Division of the Ontario Hospital Service Commission set up a field hospital on the site. It had an operating room with two tables equipped to handle major surgery,” Way Back When… reports. The St. John Ambulance, the Addiction Research Foundation, and the Madoc Fire Department prepared to deploy people. The OPP “set up a command post at the Hart’s-Riggs’ Women’s Institute Hall” (about four miles away from the farm, I’d guess). The Quinlans apparently had no telephone(!), so “the Bell Telephone Co. ran a line down the mile-long dirt road to install two pay telephones.”
- One of the most colourful parts of the book’s reportage is about the outdoor toilets: “The impressive ‘holers’ were thirty feet long and eight feet wide, divided down the middle thus making two sides each thirty feet long. Each side was sectioned into compartments with each section having four circular, roughly hewn holes. The most magnificent of these mammoth ‘outhouses’ was a ‘forty-holer’ complete with all the modern styling such as a natural barn-board look in unisex compartments. Users could sit in these stylish structures fighting the termites and slivers, as they did their daily duty.”
“Males with long hair…most needing a wash”: the masses ready for peace, love and music in a photo (which I believe is from the Kingston Whig-Standard originally) that appears with the entry about the Rock Acres Peace Festival in the definitive history of Elzevir Township, Times to Remember in Elzevir Township. (I should maybe note for the record, though, that the book gives incorrect dates for the festival, saying it was Aug. 9-11, 1971. In fact it was Aug. 6-8.)
- And the throngs started arriving, “many in their bare feet, males with long hair, many with beards, and most needing a wash.” As seemed to happen at most rock festivals of the era, a lot of people got in without a ticket by climbing over fences. The kids slept in tents or the open air.
- The Children of God and the robed Hare Krishnas showed up to add to the festivities. “Drug peddlers were in full operation,” the book reports.
- The magnificent outhouses didn’t hold up too well. “By the third day of the festival, the backs were off most of the privies, openly exposing the thrones. Seeking a little more privacy…most festival-goers took to the bush.”
- There was music! The bands started playing on Friday, Aug. 6, and continued till 1:30 a.m. They played again the afternoon and evening of Saturday the 7th. “It was said that at times the loud rock music could be heard almost a mile away” from the Quinlan farm. (My brother John remembers hearing the music from the Manse, which he says he considered the coolest thing ever at the time.)
- Late Saturday afternoon, the bikers started to show up: “By late in the evening about fifty members of the motorcycle club ‘Satan’s Choice’ and ‘Para-Dice Riders’ were on the grounds…They terrorized the fans and took over the stage area, creating a ‘no-man’s land’ between themselves and the fans, as the latter took flight before danger could reach them.” The police moved in and arrested a bunch of people on drug and liquor charges.
- “By noon on Sunday, in the sweltering heat, the fans drifted away. Many went to Queensborough’s Mill Pond to cool off and bathe, a few of them were in need to say the least. Seven hours earlier than anticipated, the rock festival came to an abrupt close.” The book says it was “reliably stated” that peak attendance was 7,000.
- Okay, so you’re thinking it’s over. Ha! Things continue to get interesting. I totally could not make up this next paragraph from Way Back When…: “About twenty-five young people, recruited by Leon and James Jr. to construct privies, park cars, and collect tickets, as well as try to keep non-paying guests from swarming over the fences, were not paid in full. Boys were given verbal promises of $2.00 per hour and girls $1.50 per hour [note from Katherine here: do not even get me started at this disparity – but those were the days, my friend] for wages. The promoters claimed that $1,000.00 of gate receipts was stolen during the festival. Actually, the money had been hidden in a second-storey bedroom over the kitchen in the Quinlin [sic] farm house, which could be reached by a back stairway.” Hello? I wonder how the authors of the book knew this. Were there charges laid? Was there court testimony? Was it reported in the newspapers? Those allegations strike me as dicey unless they were proven somewhere. A wild story, if true – but is it?
Anyway. After all of this, I think we have to give the last word to the late Clayt McMurray. Clayt was co-proprietor (with his wife, Blanche – and I remember them both very fondly) of McMurray’s General Store, which was overrun with young, long-haired, free-lovin’ customers in those three days in August 1971. This comes directly from an interview with Clayt recorded in Times to Remember in Elzevir Township:
Clayton recalled the Rock Festival in 1971. He had a man helping him and the customers kept him busy putting out chocolate milk and soft drinks. He put them in the deep freeze to cool them off fast and then in the pop cooler. There would be a policeman in front of the store all the time. He was on a motorcycle, and he would be around all day long. Festival visitors swam in the mill pond. They would jump right in, clothes and all, or, in some cases with no clothes at all. It was about 90 degrees for those two or three days. The ones that had jumped into the water with their clothes on would sit on the sidewalk and their clothes would dry in about an hour. A motorcycle gang came in and the festival was closed down. It was a wild week-end, and put Queensborough on the map.
That pretty much sums it up: It was a wild weekend, and put Queensborough on the map.
Let’s conclude this report on the Rock Acres Peace Festival with some music. I think we owe it to our younger selves to hear the Stampeders do Sweet City Woman one more time, don’t you? Here we go: