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NIVERVILLE POP FESTIVAL
MANITOBA'S MUD-FEST
The Niverville Pop Festival was a wild and crazy time.
By: John Einarson (photos by John Einarson and Hans Sipma

The following article originally appeared in the WINNIPEG FREE PRESS publication, Winnipeg Boomer, June 2012.


On Sunday, May 24, 1970, Manitoba experienced its very own Woodstock, complete with torrential rain and mud.  Lots of it.
Niverville Pop Festival Poster
Billed as the Niverville Pop Festival, the multi-band event was staged in a farmers’ field near the quiet rural community of Niverville, some 25 kilometres south of Winnipeg.  What began as a sun-filled, fun-filled day of music and hippie ambience (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, the Niverville festival was their coming-of-age moment.

Though the Woodstock movie with its distinctive split-screen imagery had yet to premiere in Winnipeg (it would open at the Gaiety Theater, at Portage Avenue and Colony Street, on June 18), the media excitement of the three-day festival in upstate New York the previous summer had fired the imaginations of Winnipeg hippies.  It was inevitable that a pop festival would happen here.

All that was needed was the inspiration.  That came when teenager Lynne Derksen fell off a hayride and suffered a serious injury requiring a $30,000 oxygenator to keep her heart and lungs going.  Efforts to raise funds for the machine had been relatively slow until three of Winnipeg’s most respected musicians, performing as the city’s one and only supergroup – Brother – took the bull by the horns.

“We figured we could make some real money for her by putting on a pop festival,” says Brother’s bass player, Bill Wallace, “so Kurt Winter (guitarist), Vance Masters (drummer), 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 Winnipeg pubs.

“We called him ‘Harold the Seed Man’.”

Once word of the charitable event got around, dozens of local bands offered their time, including Sugar & Spice, Justin Tyme, Chopping block, Dianne Heatherington & the Merry-Go-Round, and The Fifth.

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.  DJs 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," Wallace remembers.  “The only expense was $34 to run the power line in.  Garnet Amplifiers supplied the PA and the stage was a flatbed truck.”

Tickets were a bargain at $1 and the show was set to commence at 3 pm on a Sunday.

“There was no schedule for the bands,” Wallace notes.  “We kept getting all these phone calls from more and more bands who wanted to play.”

Organizers anticipated 5,000 attendees.  By 2 pm, double that number had taken over the festival site, spilling onto adjacent fields and clogging the roads in and out.

As at Woodstock, many people simply abandoned their cars by the road and walked the remainder of the way.

“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.  We barely got near the stage before the skies opened up.”

Joey Gregorash and his band, Walrus, kicked things off fittingly with the notorious Fish cheer from Woodstock (“Give me an F…”).

Brother made what would be its last public appearance, as guitarist Kurt Winter had been invited (along with another local guitarist, Greg Leskiw) to join the Guess Who the previous week, replacing Randy Bachman.  Brother’s set featured several songs later to be recorded by the Guess Who, including Hand Me Down World and Bus Rider.  By the time the fifth act, blues-rockers Chopping Block, prepared to take the stage at 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 turned into a mud fest as more than five mm of rain fell on the site.
And then the rain came ...
“All I can remember,” says 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,” local guitarist Ron Siwicki recalls, “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.

“It took four hours to get fours miles through the mud to the highway,” recalls Bruce Rathbone, a local music promoter who went on to become a partner in Nite Out Entertainment.

A Winnipeg transit bus had to be towed out of the mud by a farmer’s tractor.

“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,” Michael Gillespie recalls.  “The car was on its side.  About 20 people lifted the car out of the ditch back onto the road.  Unbelievable!”

Others simply abandoned their vehicles.... which made for lots and lots of mud.

“Roger Kolt went back two days later to get his car and someone had stolen the battery,” Wallace says.

My band, Pig Iron, was slated to follow Chopping Block when the rain hit.  We never got to play but we did do our share of pushing others’ vehicles.  My girlfriend gave me her pink raincoat and, with my long hair soaked, I attempted to push her little Datsun – only to have 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 traction, and I left a pair of shoes behind as I hopped into the now-moving car.  I arrived home late in the evening and went straight into a hot bath.

The event made the front page of both newspapers the following day.

According to Wallace, “we never collected the money.  The Derksen supporters did and years later we tried to track down where the $10,000 went.  We found out it had gone into this trust fund and nothing ever happened with it.”

Even so, the cause was noble and the effort both heroic and memorable.




Site Editor's Update - February 15, 2014:
Until a bitterly cold, snowy afternoon in January 2014, we had no further information as to the whereabouts of the monies raised that day.  And then we came across a scanned document -   THE MENNONITE MIRROR published March 1973.  On page 30, there was one small reference to the Lynne Derksen Oxygenator Fund.  Following that article, we have been able to trace the final disposition of those funds.  Please see the UPDATE.




Onstage is Dianne Hetherington & The Merry-Go-Round 

John Einarson is a music historian and author of 15 books on music history/biography.
He teaches a popular course on rock music history at the University of Winnipeg.
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