Off the Shelf: Winter 2005
Author: John Kirkland
Posted: January 19, 2005

The Far Out Story of Vortex I

Matt Love ’86 has written a new book on the 1970 Oregon rock festival that may have diffused a riot.

It was the summer of 1970 and Gov. Tom McCall had a problem.

Portland was to host the annual convention of the American Legion in August, and President Richard Nixon was expected to speak before 25,000 veterans rallying around the convention’s theme, “Victory in Vietnam.”

Portland antiwar groups had rally plans of their own. They organized what was to be called the People’s Army Jamboree, which was to include a series of demonstrations that would draw as many as 50,000 protesters. This, at a time when the war was being expanded into Cambodia, and when the country was erupting from the aftermath of the Kent State shootings.

In May, in response to Kent State, Portland State students held a general strike with hundreds of antiwar protesters occupying the Park Blocks. On the seventh day of the demonstration, the Portland Police Bureau’s riot squad swept through the area in an incident that left 32 protesters and bystanders injured.

McCall didn’t want a repeat of May or, considering the numbers, something much worse.

His solution? A rock festival.

It was called Vortex I: A Biodegradable Festival of Life, and was held at Milo McIvor State Park in Estacada. Matt Love chronicles the event in his new self-published book, The Far Out Story of Vortex I (Nestucca Spit Press, Pacific City, Oregon, 2004). It’s a 272-page treasure trove of first-hand accounts by people from all sides of the political spectrum and includes dozens of photographs of what Love swears is the only state-sponsored rock festival in American history.

peace sign painted on the road
The road to McIvor State Park was embellished in honor of Vortex I: A Biodegradable Festival of Life.

The picture Love paints is like that of a father (in this case, McCall) bribing his hippie kids to stay away from an important dinner party he’s throwing for his boss. He, in essence, sends them to the basement with a keg, a kick-ass stereo, and the promise to leave them alone as long as they don’t come upstairs.

The mini-Woodstock was a high-stakes gamble for the governor, a diversionary tactic that could easily backfire. “I’ve just committed political suicide,” McCall reportedly said after approving the event. But it could be worth it: the U.S. Department of Justice determined that Portland had the highest risk of violence of any city in the nation that summer.

Love cites a 3,000-page FBI report that read: “All current information indicates that thousands of dissidents, hippies, anti-Vietnam and anti-military protesters, and other individuals generally bent on bringing down society, the government, and all its representatives, will be gathering in Portland for the American Legion national convention, August 28-September 3.”

Even before the Kent State shootings, Ed Westerdahl, executive assistant to McCall, said, “We were told by all the federal agencies that it was going to be worse than Chicago . . . the biggest disturbance the country had ever seen. ”

McCall got the picture, and in July 1970 he wrote directly to the People’s Army Jamboree trying to dissuade the group from going through with its plans. The amusing effect of the letter is less an effort to prevent a fiery confrontation than to communicate a simple scheduling conflict:

“I am flattered that so many people believe Oregon to be a beautiful state. Everyone is entitled to groove on its beauty. However, the City of Portland has limited facilities for the holding of conventions, and I am informed that these facilities cannot accommodate two major conventions being held simultaneously.”

Not surprisingly, the People’s Army Jamboree rejected McCall’s request to reschedule. The group went ahead and busily planned a week’s worth of rallies and workshops from Delta Park to southeast Portland to coincide with the American Legion convention. The activities were to cover a gamut of issues, from the war, to women’s rights, to labor issues. Organizers cautioned participants to keep it cool:

“Please remember that the Jamboree does not wish to initiate violence. Those who do so in a potentially dangerous situation may bring down some heavy s--- on their brothers and sisters, and may be viewed as Pig provocateurs trying to cause an excuse for the Pigs to come down on us. So please use your head.”

McCall went ahead with the plans for Vortex. City of Portland business leaders loved the idea. To many, it was a brilliant way to divert protesters away from Portland, and they backed it with cash.

“I remember going into the Arlington Club, explaining what the city faced, trying to raise money for Vortex, and the wallets coming out,” says Portland venture capitalist Craig Berkman, who was 29 at the time.

Love estimates anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 people attended the six-day Vortex festival, noticeably reducing what the Oregon Journal called “the number of long-haired youth on Portland streets.” The festival peaked on Saturday, Aug. 29, when traffic stretched from the front gate of McIvor Park to 82nd Avenue in southeast Portland, a distance of about 18 miles.

“Rumors of big-name performers guaranteed to play flew around the festival: the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Cream, Deep Purple, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Janis, Jimi and the ubiquitous apparition known as Santana,” Love writes. But no superstar acts were actually scheduled. Organizers downplayed the lineup—which consisted primarily of local bands—because they didn’t want anybody to be disappointed and leave.

Despite the lack of superstar performers, attendees looking for a Woodstock-like experience found it: rock ‘n’ roll, copious nudity, psychedelic drug use (including emergency tents to deal with overdoses), skinny-dipping, and an aura of free self-expression.

image of crowd at music festival
Only local bands entertained Vortex festival goers.

Vortex by day is an unbelievable mass of people,” wrote Leonard Bacon of The Oregonian. “By night, it is a fantasy that defies reality. Thousands of campfires break the blackness of the campground. The scene is tranquil, with small groups gathering low voices to the accompaniment of guitars. Long hairs and straights sing for the love of people. The night air is also split by sudden ‘Cherokee’ screams of a ‘freak-out’ in terror of his self-induced hallucinatory nightmares. Commune families gather in close circles, holding hands in the dark, singing their mysterious ‘om’ chant calling on an inner spirit. On roads and paths throughout the park, a flowing river of humanity moves continuously, seeming to never stop or to be going anywhere.”

Vortex was doing such a good job of pulling attention away from the People’s Army Jamboree that about 20 Jamboree members—accusing Vortex organizers of being tricked by the governor—tried to take the stage to make an appeal.

“As they got close to the bottom of the stage, all of a sudden, ladies all around them dropped their clothes,” Westerdahl recalled. “Every one of these men had two ladies on him saying ‘peace brother, love brother.’ It was the most effective technique in non-violence I’ve ever seen in my life.”

A mental health counselor who worked at the festival summed up Vortex this way in a letter to McCall: “A young man said to another, ‘I think you did that on purpose, brother; but I’m here to love everyone, so I won’t kick the s--- out of you.’ And indeed there was a good spirit of love, of sharing, of friendliness, and of good times in the park.”

In Portland, the convention went on (without Nixon, who reportedly cancelled at the last moment), the Legionnaires paraded through the streets, and the People’s Army Jamboree went about its activities without triggering the riots that many had feared.

When it was all over, McCall received some letters of criticism, but mostly enjoyed widespread praise—a far cry from the political suicide he predicted. That November, he won a second term as governor, beating Bob Straub with 56 percent of the vote.

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