Manitoba Music Museum

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  DIANE HEATHERINGTON & the Merri-G-Round {storm clouds forming overhead}







  On Sunday May 24th1970,  the now legendary Niverville Pop Festival took place south of Winnipeg. What started as a sunny day of music turned into a torrential downpour of epic proportions. Below is my Winnipeg Free Press article on the festival. I was there and I remember.

The pastoral rural community of Niverville, some 30 km south of Winnipeg, boasts a population of roughly 3500, most of Mennonite descent. Many of its residence work in the city, commuting back and forth transforming the town in recent years from agricultural hub to bedroom community. The town’s lone claim to history is that it was home to the first grain elevator in Western Canada. 

There is, however, another significant historical milestone not found in the regional historical accounts, one that longtime residents may be less likely to cite. On May 24, 1970, 45 years ago next week, some 10,000 young people, aka hippies, descended on a field outside the town for the Niverville Pop Festival. What began as a sun-filled, fun-filled day of music and hippie ambiance (and all that went with it) turned into a mud bath of epic proportions giving rise to a now legendary experience. For Manitoba’s budding hippie community it was their very own Woodstock. 

Though the Woodstock movie with its distinctive split screen imagery had yet to premiere in Winnipeg (it would open at the Gaiety Theater, Portage and Colony, on June 18), the media excitement surrounding the three-day festival in upstate New York the previous summer had fired the imaginations of Winnipeg youth. It was inevitable that a pop festival would happen here. But unlike its inspiration which was initially organized as a for-profit concert event, the Niverville Pop Festival had a philanthropic purpose. 

The year before, teenager Lynne Derksen fell during a hayride. Her hospital treatment required the use of an oxygenator, a medical device capable of exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood during surgical procedures that may necessitate the interruption or cessation of blood flow in the body. One was flown in from a San Francisco medical facility. Although Derksen ultimately succumbed to her injuries, students and staff at the Canadian Mennonite Bible College on Shaftesbury and Grant established the Lynne Derksen Oxygenator Fund in October 1969 in tribute to her. The goal was to raise $30,000 to purchase an oxygenator for the Winnipeg General Hospital.

“We figured we could make some real money for her by putting on a pop festival,” states Bill Wallace then of the band Brother, “so Kurt Winter, Vance Masters and I organized it with another guy, Harold Wiebe. He was from Niverville and got us the land donated for the festival.” Harold was well-known to the trio for selling 50 pound bags of sunflower seeds in the pubs. “We called him ‘Harold the seed man’.”

“Bill was not in favour of organizing a festival to make a profit,” stresses Wiebe. “It should be for charity. So I told him and Kurt about the Oxygenator Fund. We planned it in my parents’ backyard and initially thought we might do it there with maybe a few hundred people but once radio stations started promoting it we knew we needed a big area.” Wallace took care of recruiting the performers while Wiebe and Brian Toews handled the logistics. Niverville farmer Joe Chipilski donated his uncultivated field 10 km from town and parking was arranged on a property across the road. Local merchant Wm. Dyck & Sons provided a 45 foot long flatbed trailer for the stage.

The organizers didn’t bother seeking permission from the Niverville community since the festival was being held a short distance from town. Nonetheless, some of the churches in the area took a dim view of a throng of hippies descending on their community. Local historian Steven Neufeld feels that had this particular constituency been made aware of the fundraising purpose of the event they might have had a more welcoming attitude. “I think that their focus, especially coming on the heels of Woodstock six months earlier, was the apparent presence of sex, drugs and rock and roll.” Their perception was not erroneous. 

Dozens of local bands including Sugar & Spice, Justin Tyme, Chopping Block, Dianne Heatherington & the Merry-Go-Round, and the Fifth offered their time. The eclectic roster also boasted the Chicken Flat Mountain Boys, Billy Graham’s Jazz Group and folksinger Jim Donahue. My group, the Pig Iron Blues Band, was also on the bill. CFRW deejays Bobby ‘Boom Boom’ Branigan, Charles P. Rodney Chandler, and Darryl Provost were lined up to host. Espousing the hippie ethic of the times, everybody pitched in for free. “We got everything for nothing,” remembers Wallace. “The only expense was $34 to run the power line in. Garnet Amplifiers supplied the PA.” Tickets were a bargain at $1 and the show was set to commence at three PM on Sunday. 

Organizers anticipated 5000 attending. By two PM double that number had taken over the field, spilling onto adjacent fields and clogging the roads in and out. Like Woodstock, many simply abandoned their cars by the roadside and walked the remainder of the way. Wiebe and his crew attempted to collect the $1 from those who simply wandered in but it was futile. “It wasn’t that they didn’t want to pay the $1,” he insists, “it’s just that there were too many people coming through the fields.”

“Our whole band, the Weed, minus one decided to go,” Alex Moskalewski recalls. “We waited for hours on the highway then longer down some side roads, finally parking in the middle of a field along with a few thousand others.” 

Joey Gregorash kicked things off fittingly with the notorious Fish cheer from Woodstock (“Give me an F…..”). Brother made what would be their last public appearance as guitarist Kurt Winter had been invited to join the Guess Who the previous week replacing Randy Bachman (along with another local guitarist, Greg Leskiw). Their set featured several songs later to be recorded by the Guess Who including “Hand Me Down World” and “Bus Rider”. 

By the time blues-rockers Chopping Block prepared to take the stage around 5:30 PM, the sun had been replaced by clouds. What began as a light sprinkle quickly became a torrent of both rain and hail. Like Woodstock, the Niverville Pop Festival quickly turned into a mud fest as more than five cm of rain fell on the site. “All I can remember,” stated Mongrels’ guitarist Duncan Wilson, “was hail a bit bigger than golf balls and lots of mud.”

Surprisingly, the rain failed to dampen the communal euphoria. “I remember everyone really having a lot of fun before the rain,” recalls Ron Siwicki, “and even when everyone was sitting in their cars in the rain they were still partying and having fun. It was pretty bizarre, like the spirit of Woodstock transported to Manitoba.”
Vehicles became mired in acres of thick, wet, sticky mud. As local promoter Bruce Rathbone noted, “It took four hours to get four miles through the mud to the highway.” A Winnipeg transit bus had to be towed out of the mud by a farmer’s tractor. Michael Gillespie remembers, “I had parked my CKY-marked Montego station wagon in a field and got out onto a road only to slide sideways and tip into a ditch. The car was on its side. About twenty people lifted the car out of the ditch back onto the road. Unbelievable!” Still others simply abandoned their vehicles. “Roger Kolt went back two days later to get his car and someone had stolen the battery,” says Wallace.

“I wore a brand new pair of very expensive Italian shoes which I had just purchased from Holt Renfrew,” Barb Allen remembers. “My feet were so mud-covered I could hardly lift them. The shoes were a write-off.”

Neufeld witnessed the chaos. “As a nine year old kid I remember driving past the deluge with my parents and witnessing first hand cars in the ditch with water up to their windshields,” he recalls. “I remember being shaken by what I saw.” 

“There was a certain element of the church population that felt vindicated that the deluge occurred and washed out the event,” notes Neufeld. “The police had been to many of those same homes earlier warning people about the event and that for their own safety they should keep their doors locked and closed.” Nonetheless, despite a general feeling of unease for the festival, the community came together to help out wet, hungry and stranded youngsters. 

Susan Friesen recalls, “We owned a small hamburger stand with friends of ours called Snoopy’s in Niverville . After the rain we started getting people coming to Snoopy’s. They were all tired, wet, cold and hungry. We cooked hamburgers, hotdogs and fries. We ran out of everything and borrowed supplies from another restaurant in town called The Pines. We used up all of their fast food supplies then called the local grocery store to get more. They were nice enough to open for us. We fed a couple hundred people. We stayed open later than usual, until we ran out of food.” Others manned trucks and tractors to extricate vehicles trapped in the mud. “Mr. William Dyck from Wm. Dyck & Sons took his cube van and went to the festival to bring people to Niverville,” Friesen remembers. Wiebe’s brother commandeering his dad’s tractor and pulled out cars until two in the morning. 

“I’ll never forget the farmers with their tractors coming to many, many people’s rescue and pulling cars out of the muddy fields,” recalls Richard Denesiuk. 

Neufeld relates the story of a local pastor who had expressed his opposition to the festival. “This particular pastor knew what the right thing to do was in spite of how he felt. He recognized that people were in trouble as a result of the storm. He had access to a large farm truck with a covered box and went and got as close to the site as possible, loaded up his truck with people who were stranded and took them all back to his tiny home in Niverville. There he and his wife fed them, helped dry their clothes or got them a change of clothing, tended to their needs and arranged rides for each one back to their homes in Winnipeg and beyond, without accepting any remuneration.” It was a shining moment for the community.

The event made the front page of both newspapers the following day. It was even the subject of discussion at the provincial legislature when NDP MLA Russ Doern, who claimed to have been at the festival the day before, announced, “There was a sizeable crowd of young people there who first of all participated in the best manner, they were well behaved, they thoroughly enjoyed themselves and I think they made this a great success.” He went on to laud the charitable goal of the event and praised townspeople and local farmers for pitching in when the rain hit. Premier Ed Schreyer suggested that perhaps the festival ought to be called a “Tractor Rock Festival.”

As for me, Pig Iron never got to play. Instead I spent several hours pushing my girlfriend’s little blue Ford through the mud wearing her pink raincoat. With my longhair and pink raincoat, three strapping young lads in the car behind jump out and exclaim, “We’ll help you, miss”. They were rather embarrassed to discover their miss was a mister but nonetheless pushed the car until it was able to get a grip in the mud. I left a pair of shoes stuck in that field. I arrived home late in the evening and went straight into a hot bath.

And what of the money for the oxygenator? “A few days later I delivered $8000 to the head of the Canadian Mennonite Bible College,” states Wiebe. Three years later some $20,000 was donated in Lynne Derksen’s name to the Winnipeg General Hospital for the purchase of the machine.

“I barely got to see the bands,” laments Wiebe. “I was too busy working. It was a lot of fun although it would have been better had Mother Nature held off for 24 hours.”John Einarson