Legendary 1970 experiment gets a fresh look from folks who were in the middle of it all

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Oregon State Park Rangers Lauren Sinclair and Guy Rodrique talk about the original Vortex Festival, held at Milo McIver State Park in August 1970. A retrospective of the event is planned Saturday, Aug. 9 at the Estacada-area park.It’s a story that is too strange to be fiction.

A Republican governor and several conservative Portland business owners organized and funded one of the largest rock festivals in American history: “Vortex I: A Biodegradable Festival of Life,” at Milo McIver State Park near Estacada the week of Aug. 28, 1970.

Called the “Governor’s Pot Party” by locals, law enforcement was instructed to turn a blind eye to the copious public nudity and drug use at the week-long event, attended by roughly 50,000 to 100,000 people. In fact, police served as escorts to vanloads of hippies, who eventually formed a traffic jam that extended all the way to Portland’s 82nd Avenue some 20 miles away. The event itself was free and businesses donated food, outhouses and even high-quality timber and heavy machinery to build a stage.

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF MATT LOVE - Young people from across the region flocked to Milo McIver State Park for Vortex 1, the rock concert organized to avoid protests in downtown Portland. It was all a transparent attempt to draw young people and anti-Vietnam War protesters far away from the city where 25,000 American Legionnaires, a conservative veterans group, were holding their annual conference with President Richard Nixon slated to give a keynote speech.

“It’s a legend in Clackamas County,” says author Matt Love, who published “The Far Out Story of Vortex I” in 2004 and has collected thousands of pictures and stories from the event. “I still get fired up and imbued on it with the incredible risk-taking that went on.”

Love and McIver park officials will host the first-ever commemoration of Vortex I from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 9. “Exploring Vortex I” offers live music, tie-dye, walking tours and a panel discussion. A scanner and recording equipment will also be on hand to collect pictures and stories from the festival, in partnership with the Estacada Public Library.

“We’re going to have different people with different views about what Vortex was out there and that makes it an exciting event,” Love says.

Wrapping up the 44th anniversary will be an historical re-enactment of Gov. Tom McCall’s visit to the park after the event to express his appreciation to volunteers who were cleaning up. McCall even consented to be part of an “om circle.”

“(Vortex I) couldn’t happen today,” says Love, “because we don’t have politicians that think as unconventionally as Tom McCall did.”

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The Clackamas River today is a big draw for people at McIver State Park. In August 1970, the river played a part in Vortex 1, the rock concert organized by public officials and Portland businesspeople who feared thousands of young people would flood the city to protest during a national American Legion conference that featured President Richard Nixon as a key speaker.

Solving a problem

The year of Vortex I, the violent conflict in Southeast Asia was beginning to be a violent conflict at home. Just months earlier, on May 4, 1970, National Guard troops shot and killed four unarmed people during a protest at Kent State University in Ohio.

The FBI had warned Oregon’s governor that violent clashes in downtown Portland were imminent with up to 50,000 members of the loosely formed People’s Army Jamboree planning several anti-war protests in opposition to The American Legion conference.

Lee Meier, who was then a conscientious objector working with the Greater Portland Council of Churches, began to be concerned that the nonviolent plan to protest the Legionnaires conference was being infiltrated by a violent subset.

“Everybody was pretty upset in the summer of 1970,” Meier says.

He and three friends met with McCall’s Executive Assistant Ed Westerdahl to discuss a way to highlight the peaceful aspect of the anti-Vietnam War effort. They threw out the idea of hosting a Woodstock-like festival out in the country.

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF MATT LOVE - Young people from across the region flocked to Milo McIver State Park for Vortex 1, the rock concert organized to avoid protests in downtown Portland. “The next thing you know, it was happening,” Meier says. “Fear is a great motivator.”

Within a week, they were given McIver, a new state park with limited access points. No permits. No insurance. No rules.

Westerdahl died in mid-April 2010 at his Palm Springs home. In a 2010 OPB documentary he explained why he took such a hands-off approach in managing the festival: “I felt it was the lesser of evils.”

Love says he continues to be inspired by the willingness for both sides to listen and work together to come up with an unconventional solution. McCall, who was facing re-election that November, was rumored to have said he had committed political suicide by allowing Vortex I, but he did it anyway to forestall violence.

“Now how many people do that?” Love says. “We don’t have people that just want to solve problems in an unconventional way.”

Telling the story

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF MATT LOVE - Teepees and tents dotted Milo McIver State Park during the late-August Vortex 1 rock concert event.Though it remains an obscure fact of Oregon history, the effects of Vortex I are still felt today.

“A lot of the people who really built the (Oregon) Country Fair, they were at Vortex, too,” says Love, adding that the worldwide Rainbow Family, who host Rainbow Gatherings, got its start there.

Love says he has wanted to celebrate the historic event for a while but in the past, park officials weren’t interested. When he was finally able to put together an event in 2004, it was canceled due to bad weather.

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF MATT LOVE - Matt Love is organizing the Vortex I retrospective for Saturday, Aug. 9.McIver Park Manager Guy Rodrigue, who started there in 2011, says the festival is living history at the park, where visitors often tell their “I was there” stories and the large grassy area is still called Vortex Meadow.

“To be able to tell the story of the only state-sponsored rock concert is pretty remarkable,” Rodrigue says. “For the government to say, ‘This is what we want to see happen,’ is pretty unique.”

Park rangers say they expect between 300 and 500 people, mostly locals reliving memories, at Exploring Vortex I. The event is part of a larger plan to increase tourism to the park, which the state hopes will help improve and develop it.

Outreach Interpretive Naturalist Lauren Sinclair has been a key figure at the park helping to organize and promote the Vortex anniversary event.

“We’re really hoping for that base group who can establish a community that’s interested in coming back here year after year.” But, Sinclair adds with a laugh: “We’re hoping for no nudity and drug use. That’s not what we’re doing.”

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