In the early seventies a small group of Mt. Pleasant Food Co-Op members and local musicians were staging free concerts and benefits around Big Rapids and Mt. Pleasant. Common sites were city parks and public halls. Proceeds enabled the food co-op to pay rent and utilities, barely. Meanwhile some of us were learning the rudiments for organizing indoor and outdoor musical events. There seemed to be just enough help to organize two concerts a month during the summer.
There were only a couple weekend festivals around Mid-Michigan at the time, one in Midland and the Stringbean Memorial in Charlotte. Dick Tarrier told us about the Stringbean Memorial and the Pine River Valley Boys led us to the festival in Charlotte. There is one bearded fiddler from Remus who will never forget sitting around a campfire at Charlotte with some older bluegrass fiddlers playing, “Listen to the Mockingbird.” It is impossible to bottle and sell a jam session, but there are ways to stimulate such foolishness.
Gradually we tried to stir up some interest around Remus to attempt a one-day event and test the waters. Most people laughed at such notions and others were fearful or suspicious as to just what was going on. But the key to our motivation was feeling that enough people would attend a local festival that probably would not attend any of the more popular southern festivals. Mecosta County is not known for its farmers leaving home during the harvest season to travel to a fiddler’s convention in West Virginia. So we thought a local old-time music festival would be welcomed.
The secret was getting enough help to make it happen. We also needed a suitable site, entertainment, electricity, a stage, a sound system, refreshments, first-aid, permits and volunteers. With a core group less than a dozen, and the help of a tractor and brush-hog, the wheels were in motion for the First Wheatland Bluegrass Festival as a benefit for the Mt. Pleasant Food Co-Op, August 24, 1974.
The Rhode family offered their farm, located four miles east of Remus on M-20. June Rhodes’ utility room became festival headquarters, her backyard was the backstage area, and her sister-in-law’s yard across the road was the parking lot. The flatbed trailers were in place along with the first-aid tent, a sound system, and a hotdog stand. Everything was planned to work and we gave it our best effort.
Several hundred people attended the First Wheatland Festival and it did go quite well. Perhaps the single most important attendee was the local postmaster. Before the first festival was even over he had already offered the use of his farm for the next year. The one improvement he could offer was a hayfield instead of corn stubble and dirt. All in all he knew just what the festival idea needed.
Who was that postmaster? And why would he want hundreds of strangers sleeping across his 160-acre backyard? What would his wife have to say about this? Mark and Gladys Wernette were contemplating taking a big step towards an uncertain future. But like their parents, Mecosta County’s Alsatian pioneers, Mark and Gladys were committed to what they thought was their civic responsibility and offered to lend a hand.
By 1975 Wheatland was born. Elections were held and the board of directors was established. Many of the first directors are still active in the organization. This can be attributed to their faith in each other and their commitment to community service.
Attempts were made to keep the new organization as loose and manageable as possible. The only agreement we had was a hug-and-a-handshake understanding with the Wernettes to use their farm, and to take things one year at a time. We now set about fitting the festival to the farm.
It was time to exert some technical muscle. All we had for a stage was a sawhorse platform. But with a few boards, elbow grease and heavy black plastic (in case of rain) our main (and only) stage would be presentable. The pine grove would do nicely as a backdrop. Can jack pines enhance sound? I don’t know, but for want of the perfect amphitheater, this centrally situated field became our main seating area. The backfields were thought to be more room than anyone could imagine for camping. But no fires please! For fire patrols we had a truck-mounted horse trough with some rakes and shovels.
For power we turned to Remus resident Frank Blanzy. Power was running out of the basement of the Wernette farmhouse all the way to the main stage with a series of extension cords. There was no money to install electricity so we used the closest source and the most available material. Frank became the official Wheatland technician for over ten years. When work was needed to power the main stage, Frank came forward. His efforts were tremendous and well done. We thank him for all his contributions to many years of successful festivals. He did have two able assistants for the overhead work. Don Lawrence and David Sands climbed and wired all the poles. And it was Dick Ray who came up with the floodlights for the concert area. Thanks fellows.
The shelter aspect of an outdoor festival got attention after power was figured out. Tents were needed and the Beal City Knights of Columbus had some to rent. If they could endure the Beal City Heritage Days as a beer tent, then they should hold up for our purposes. Don Stover and the White Oak Mountain Boys headlined the second festival with the Williams Family, the Kentucky Grass, the R.F.D. Boys, the Pine River Valley Boys, the Sunset Express, and the Stillhouse Stringband – the first band to appear at Wheatland featuring Dick Tarrier. Tickets were $5.00 in advance or $3.50 per day at the gate. Dan McGuire was well into his collection of excellent artwork for Wheatland posters and flyers. Thanks Dan for many years of fine artistic promotion. The weather became apparent that rain could stifle events in a thunderous fashion as the weekend began. In fact, it was a soaking weekend at best. In between all the fury of a late summer’s storm very little festival happened on Saturday. Bands arrived but there was little hope of performing with so much rain in the forecast. By early Sunday morning most of the bands had left – the festival was a total washout. An hour or two of Sunday afternoon sunshine allowed for an impromptu gathering of musicians and singers to lead a bunch of old favorites, but for all practical purpose it was time to throw in the muddy towel. Several hundred vehicles were sunk down to their axles in the topsoil of what was always a wet farm to work anyway. The scene on Monday was reminiscent of the day following the Battle of Gettysburg when a powerful thunderstorm soaked the landscape. Except in 1863 horses hauled away the remains, whereas in 1975 tractors were recruited to hoist the mud-covered campers out to the road. The ruts that were left from that weekend still stripe the fields. Out of the futility of 1975 the organization still forged ahead. We still had the farm and Mark Wernette had some machinery to smooth out the rough spots. The festival date was moved to the weekend after Labor Day for 1976 where it remains eleven years [now thirty-two years] later.