An Incident To Remember | WGLT

An Incident To Remember

May 28, 2016

On Memorial Day weekend in 1970 an estimated 60,000 mostly hippies and college-age students invaded the village of Heyworth, Illinois. They descended on this small McLean County town to attend a rock festival named "Incident at Kickapoo Creek." 

Canned Heat, Country Joe & the Fish, and the Butterfield Blues Band, all who had played Woodstock nine months prior, were there. B.B. King was there, as was Ted Nugent, and Michael McDonald. There was even wild speculation that the Beatles might reunite that weekend at the festival.

It was one of the largest and most infamous events to ever happen in McLean County. But it's almost as if, officially, it never happened. Documentation of the event is scarce, including footage of the stage show.  Enter Normal native R.C. Raycraft, producer of the documentary he named after the festival.

"There really isn't a whole lot written about this thing, and it really has taken this long to tell the story accurately," Raycraft said.

Raycraft is a producer by trade, with credits including The Discovery Channel and BBC. He said even 25 years after the festival, the village of Heyworth was still giving him and his fledgling movie a cold shoulder.

"Going in 1995 and 2000 to meet with the Heyworth city council to see if we could do something with 'Kickapoo' ... it was like going to the parole board. They were embarrassed by it and didn't want anything to do with it."

Raycraft's interest in "Incident at Kickapoo Creek" began as a teen. He was intrigued by a poster of the festival given to him by his father. His interest grew when he acquired bootleg vinyl of the stage show. The "aha" moment came in his 20s when he was working in Champaign-Urbana as a producer of police shows similar to "Cops."

"There was a guy who owned a production company that transferred films to video. One night while I was waiting to cut my programs, he was finishing transferring films. and there were three rolls of 3-minute films about the 'Incident at Kickapoo Creek.'" 

But the film that caught his attention wasn't a documentation of what happened on-stage. Raycraft was viewing police film. But we're getting ahead of the story.

The "Incident of Kickapoo Creek" rock festival was the brainchild of Bloomington's L. David Lewis, whose family owned a farm outside of Heyworth. Raycraft said Lewis saw what happened at Woodstock and tried to recreate it in McLean County.

"I think he saw financially if they would have done a couple things differently they could have made a lot of money. He took advantage of the weaknesses of Woodstock as far as being a free festival and monetized it."

Paul Welch was the McLean County state's attorney at the time. He was not amused by what Lewis was trying to pull off. So he filed an injunction against Lewis the day before the festival. When Lewis moved forward with the festival that included a motorcycle gang as security, Raycraft said Welch had two undercover police officers crash the event.

"The officers were from Normal and were there to record all the wild and bizarre happenings that took place."

The police video became instrumental to Raycraft's documentary, and said it was Welch who later helped him acquire other evidence still in storage.

"This was years later. There was a box inside the state's attorney's office in the closet. When I approached him about it, he said they were waiting to get the next intern to throw all this stuff away. So if there's anything in here you want ... take it"

Raycraft took the boxes and said one of them had exactly what he was looking for, including paperwork, film, and the basic skeleton of the story.

"And I think the reason it was all there is because the promoter left. So they had all the evidence, but they never used it against him in court because he disappeared and they tried him in absentia."

With police film and paperwork in hand, he knew he had something special, and realized the real story of the festival is what happened off-stage. Partially because there wasn't much film of what happened on-stage, but mostly because Raycraft said he was riveted by the dynamic between the gentleman farmer L. David Lewis and Welch.

"And both made it clear in the newspaper. Welch (said) 'I'm going to stop the festival.' Lewis (said) 'The festival is going on.' Something was going to happen one way or the other."

"Incident at Kickapoo Creek" did happen. And Welch had the 42-year-old Lewis arrested at a bank following the festival. Lewis, who had been armed with a loaded .38 and a bag full of cash, made bail and left nearly everything in his life behind, including his wife, his work, and his country. He took with him the cash he made from the festival. And he took his teenage secretary.

"Everybody talks about D.B. Cooper. David Lewis was the D.B. Cooper of rock and roll a year before D.B. Cooper, and Lewis took off with more cash, never got caught, and lived to tell the story."

Lewis eventually returned to the United States, and Raycraft said he eventually tracked him down.

"That's something that's the 4th act of my film I don't like to go into detail about because you have to have that 4th act twist in any noir documentary. There was a lot of animosity between those guys. They hated each other's guts."

Now Raycraft had a storyline to go along with the bootleg vinyl of the stage show and the police video and evidence of what happened off-stage. The missing part was the principals telling their side of the story.

"The smartest thing I ever did regarding this project was asking everyone the same questions. That's the magic in the film, people start talking about something, then somebody else starts talking about the same thing, like they're having conversations on film."

The film has been shown in central Illinois every five years since 1995. Raycraft said tinkering over the years and being able to transfer the original police tape to high-definition has allowed the film to evolve and improve.

"There are a lot of things I missed in the past because I was working off of a working copy. When you start over from scratch with something, a lot of light bulbs go off because you find these hidden jewels.  Character development has certainly changed, which has been great for the story. You feel for these characters, you like them one way or the other.  The movie's a western, OK? There's the good guys and the bad guys. I present it in a way where you get to choose who are the good guys and who are the bad guys."