Public nudity. Drugs. And rock ‘n’ roll. The July 4th weekend of 1970 was wicked wild, especially for the small town of Byron.
“It was kind of a culture shock for us Southern rednecks, with all the hippies,” said Tim Thornton, current owner of the site where all that grooved into rock history.
It was the Second Atlanta International Pop Festival, a concert Jimi Hendrix headlined that drew hundreds of thousands to rural Middle Georgia for music and freedom.
The Georgia Historical Society will memorialize the festival at 3 p.m. Saturday when it places a historical marker at the Middle Georgia Raceway, near where the concert was held July 3-5, 1970.
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“It was the biggest thing that happened in Byron, Ga., if not the whole state,” Thornton said. “It’s great that we can commemorate it, and this historical marker that will kind of permanently mark its place in history is icing on the cake.”
The festival, put together by renowned Atlanta concert promoter Alex Cooley, isn’t as well-known as the 1969 Woodstock Festival but is revered by rock ‘n’ roll enthusiasts all the same. It’s also known as the Woodstock of the South and was the largest American crowd Hendrix ever played in front of.
Estimates of the size of the audience range from 200,000 to 500,000.
Even at the low end, it was a lot more than the town of 1,500 had ever seen and a spectacular site according to Steve Rash, who shot film of the event, Thornton and news archives.
“It was madness,” said Rash, who in 1970 was a young Atlanta music show producer. “The bands would play all night. And we were right there.”
At the time, Thornton was a 17-year-old ice cream truck driver who convinced his parents he could make money at the Byron pop festival, as it’s known to local residents.
“I sold out the first day and just stayed,” he recalled. “I’d never seen anything like that. It seemed hippie-ish and some of the wild music that went on ... it was a three-day wild party.”
Somewhere in the mix, Rash and his team put it on camera.
He and his friends had pooled together money and found a spot close to the stage, where they tried to divvy out the proper footage allotment for each music act from a limited supply.
“We had become huge fans of this local band, called the Allman Brothers,” Rash recalled.
The Allman Brothers Band, of Macon, became a national hit and was later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“We shot about 5,000 feet (of film) of them at a time when it was questionable whether we should spend any film on them at all.”
Rash said his crew wanted to produce a concert documentary on the tail of the successful Woodstock film, which had been released four months earlier and which won an Academy Award in 1971 for Best Documentary Feature.
At first, the young filmmakers couldn’t afford to do it on their own. Then, a big company stalled them. Interest in the subject waned. Later, the film -- shot pre-digital age -- had deteriorated and couldn’t be developed.
A twist of fate in 2006 ago brought Rash face-to-face with his very own conscience -- in the form of his wife’s co-worker, who insisted Rash was sitting on history.
Six years, a Kodak chemist and Colorado antique film developer later, Rash has viewable footage. He’s edited it down from 100 hours to just under two hours.
“It’s viewable. It’s not perfect, but it’s there,” Rash said.
Rash, whose other credits include titles include “The Buddy Holly Story” and “Eddie,” said the Byron festival film will be completed soon. No release date has been set, but Rash said he would like to have it ready for the spring.
When it is released, Rash said he expects the impact will be quite different than it would have been as a topical film 30 years ago.
He has shown it to friends and family, and the younger generations focus on the audience.
“We all thought we were so hip, (but) we were so square,” Rash said. “There’s nudity, but it’s not sensual at all.”
Saturday’s historical marker at the racetrack will be the 190th placed around the state since the Georgia Historical Society took over the process in 1998, said society spokesman Brian Williams. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources used to oversee the program.
The national economy is the reason there is still a racetrack to place a marker at, Thornton said.
Thornton, owner of Thornton Realty Co., bought the racetrack land for real estate development.
The national housing collapse suspended that plan until residents could show Thornton their interest in the site’s memories.
In 2011, Thornton opened the track for car commercials and special events. The second annual Middle Georgia Raceway Racers’ Reunion was held there this year and will be there next year. Thornton said he’s open to similar events.
“At least in this economy, it’s a much better special event facility than it is a real estate facility,” Thornton said. “And there’s so much history here, it’d be a shame not to preserve it.”
To contact writer Christina M. Wright, call 256-9685.