PITTSBURG, Kan. — A music festival modeled on Woodstock has since become the stuff of local legend.
Dubbed Cornstalk, it was held in a 160-acre field hugging the Missouri-Kansas border in Cherokee County over Labor Day weekend in 1970. It drew between 10,000 and 25,000 area residents and musicians, including Jamie Ortolani, who attended the festival when he was just 13.
He said a strange phenomenon periodically occurs today when those fields — located south of Kansas Highway 171 — are tilled. They sparkle, like thousands of fireflies.
“They’re beer tabs — can you believe that?” Ortolani said. “You know those metal tabs you’d tear off the top of beer cans? There are thousands of metal tabs out there. And they sparkle when the light hits it just right.”
Cornstalk’s musical legacy
Officially called the “Peace at Pittsburg Festival” by organizers Kenny Ossana and Fulton Wilhelm, it was meant to carry on the Aquarian-inspired peace movement launched a year earlier at Woodstock. Yet Cornstalk first and foremost revolved around live music, said local musician Johnny Rose.
His band, Busride, was one of 20-plus local and regional acts that performed at Cornstalk, playing an hourlong gig on the first day, Friday, Sept. 4.
Busride was a nine-member horn band that played music in the style of Chicago. Rose, today a veteran “hired hand” musician who plays extensively throughout the Four-State Area, played guitar for Busride.
“It was a big deal,” Rose said of Cornstalk. “It was a good time.”
Rose said he met a woman soon after their gig.
“That’s when I met my first wife and took off,” he said with a chuckle.
Sammie Ketcher, a bass/trumpet player for Busride, stayed at the festival with his wife, Lisa, all three days, sleeping inside their car at night. He said the participating bands were eager to play at Cornstalk.
“It was a chance to get our name out there. Lots of people were there — they just showed up. And of course, you could hear the music for miles, thanks to the amps we had.
“Remember — New York was a long ways away," Ketcher added. "To many, this was as close as they got to that once-in-a-lifetime experience (Woodstock).”
A crowd of around 20,000 gave Busride the festival’s first standing ovation.
“We were polished,” Ketcher said with pride.
For most of the attending bands, this was their largest audience. Joining Busride on stage were the bands Impluse Federation, Rock Sanctuary, Man Alive, The Chessmen, Grit, Caurosel, Morning Star and Fatty Lumpkin. An early incarnation of the band Kansas made its way to Pittsburg from Topeka. And marking the highpoint of the festival was a surprise gig by Jerry Hahn and the Brotherhood, Columbia recording artists from San Francisco.
Hahn really stood out, Ketcher said with a shake of his head: “(They) were an eye-opener.”
Steve Gaines, of Lynyrd Skynyrd fame, who was born in Seneca and raised in Miami, Oklahoma, also attended the festival and participated on the stage.
“He was sleeping right next to my wife and I. Lisa started cooking ham and eggs in the morning, and he looked like a puppy,” hoping to eat some of the great-smelling food, Ketcher said of Gaines.
When music wasn’t playing, you “mostly talked to other musicians,” Ketcher said. “People would just gather in groups; you go to one group and sometimes they’d sit down and pass something around, and you’d go to another group — and that stuff just went on all day.”
Booze, drugs, sun and fun
Miami, Oklahoma, resident Bob Poole was there for the festival’s first day before he had to fly back to California. He wishes he could have stayed for the entire event.
“I was sorry I had to leave,” he said. “It was one year after Woodstock, and everybody knew what Woodstock was. And this was before the internet, so people just showed up. It went around by word of mouth. That’s how people showed up. Honestly, it was an organic thing. If the internet had been around, there would have been 400,000 people there.”
Pittsburg’s Teddy Stickley, now a retired music teacher, visited the festival with a friend on Sunday, Sept. 6.
“The closest we got was a half-mile, and then we had to walk,” he said. “We got to the field, heard the music, looked around for a while, saw kids sitting around having a good time. We didn’t have video games and all that other stuff back then. We appreciated things like this. If you wanted to do something, you had to get off your rear end and go out and look for it in the real world.”
Some of those who attended said drug use was rampant during Cornstalk. Rose said he remembers drug messages — “Don’t take the brown acid.” — blaring over the speakers.
According to the Kansas Historical Society, a Pittsburg Headlight-Sun article also noted the problem, writing: “Marijuana dealers abound everywhere. Shouts of, ‘Black hash over here,’ ‘Get your organic mescaline in the grey van, only $1.50 a hit (tablet),’ are common.”
“I was one of those rare people that didn’t use drugs,” Stickley said. “I just went out there for the music. I was a college goody two-shoes.” He did admit, however, that “I was feeling a whole lot better about myself” after leaving the festival because of the lingering smoke in the air above the fields.
“Let’s just put it this way: ... There was a lot of smoke in the air,” Ketcher remembered. “And smoke on the water too.”
There was also a brief fire during the festival as well as the hospitalization of an 18-year-old who had been run over by a car. Authorities later arrested two 16-year-old boys.
“It was the end of the summer, and everybody wanted to have a good time before they went back to school,” Poole said. “That’s all it was. (But) people still remember and talk about it today.”
'I had to do it'
Today, Jamie Ortolani is a member of The J3 Band, a classic rock and blues band that’s a regular at Kansas Crossing Casino in Pittsburg. But even at the age of 13, he knew he was a budding musician.
So when he heard about Cornstalk over dinner one night from his 18-year-old brother, Art, he knew he had to see it for himself — despite a warning about “hippies” from his parents, something that he admitted, “kind of scared me.”
Undeterred by his age, lack of transportation and a guaranteed grounding from his parents if he got caught, he decided to hike the 20-plus miles from his home north of Pittsburg to Cornstalk.
“I just wanted to hear the music,” he said. “I had to do it. I couldn’t miss this epic moment. Even if I was grounded for a month, this was an experience I wanted to be a part of.”
He figured it would take him five hours to hike to the festival, so he left early that Saturday morning. It helped that it was summer — no school — and kids back in the 1970s could disappear for an entire day without parental worry.
“We were all Boy Scouts back then," he said. "My (Troop 73) had done a 50-mile scout from Pittsburg to Joplin, so I knew I had the hiking ability to get there.”
About halfway, he ran into his brother, who was riding with a gang of friends on motorcycles. Art immediately chewed out his younger brother, telling him to get back home. Ortolani hotly reminded him that he’d been forbidden to go to Cornstalk too. That pretty much ended the conversation.
“They left me in a cloud of dust,” he said.
Soon after, a Volkswagen bus — the exterior decked out with brightly colored flowers — pulled up next to him. It was full of the same “hippies” his parents had earlier warned him about — three men and three women. He decided to break another parental rule that day: "Never get into a car with strangers.”
“They were nice,” he said, describing the men as shirtless and the women as wearing “hippie dresses” — all of them with long hair. “I think they thought it was funny that this little kid wanted to go to Cornstalk. But I was bound and determined.”
Ortolani said the rest of a day was a “blur” of new sights and experiences as “I walked through the sea of people.” He mostly stayed close to the stage; he was excited to see the bands play, in particular Fatty Lumpkin, a local band that had become his favorite.
At one point, Ortolani said he spied Robert Blunk Jr., a professor from what is now Pittsburg State University, filming the event. His grainy footage can now be found on several YouTube videos. Ortolani at first thought Blunk was a photographer from one of the Joplin TV stations.
“I was terrified my parents would see me there,” he said. In Blunk’s YouTube footage, you can catch a brief glimpse of Ortolani sitting near the music stage, purposely keeping his head turned away from his camera.
“I just laugh about that now,” Ortolani said.
Between acts, he wandered the grounds, veering at one point toward a nearby creek. There, to his amazement, the 13-year-old Ortolani said he saw his very first naked woman. Well, 30 naked women, to be exact; they were skinny dipping, he said.
“Needless to say, that was an eye-opener,” Ortolani said with a laugh. “My jaw definitely dropped.”
Stumbling away from the creek and back toward the grandstand, he came across a man lying face down in the woods.
“Being a Boy Scout, I turned him over ... cleared out his wind pipe," Ortolani said. "I was thinking this guy’s dead.”
He ran back to the festival, yelling, and got a few men and women to follow him back to the comatose man.
“Once they saw who it was, they burst out laughing,” he said. “‘Don’t worry about him, kid,’ one of the men told me. ‘He’s just out.’ I guess it was either drugs or booze. I was still shocked by that.”
By midafternoon, Ortonlani left the festival grounds. He made it home — safe and sound — “right around the time the street lights were coming on."
“My parents never knew,” he said with a chuckle.