In August 1972, the Springfield Creamery hit a financial rough patch. Owners Chuck and Sue Kesey had been in business for more than a decade and just introduced a new probiotic product called Nancy’s Yogurt. But debts and back taxes threatened to shut them down.
That’s when somebody got the groovy idea to ask a popular psychedelic rock band for help. And help they did. KLCC’s Tiffany Eckert takes a trip down memory lane with the Kesey family on the 50th anniversary of the day their small, local creamery was saved by the Grateful Dead.
Chuck Kesey had seen the band lots of times, alongside his brother, novelist and Merry Prankster Ken Kesey. “We went to really early Grateful Dead Acid Tests. In the early hours, there were 350 people in the crowd. They would dance all night, a pretty spectacular thing, yeah?”
Chuck and Sue had gotten to know lead guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia and several members of the crew. They said asking the band for help was kind of like reaching out to family. “We went down to San Francisco to talk to the Grateful Dead,” Chuck recalled. “And they said ‘yes.’ And from there we had 28 days to put a concert on, out in a field.”
The Keseys rented a big open field on the Oregon Country Fair site in Veneta. Then? “Uh, start building a stage immediately,” Chuck said. “That whole crew was all volunteer people, these were Hoedads and people that just showed up and they built that stage.”
“It’s almost working. I think it’s now working… yay! We’re back on the air again,” said Merry Prankster and 60s psychedelic leader, Ken Babbs, who emceed the benefit show Aug. 27, 1972 which he dubbed the “Field Trip.”
Dead bassist Phil Lesh saunters up to the mic, “We’d sure like to thank the Springfield Creamery for making it possible for us to play out here in front of all you folks here. This is really where we get off the best,” he told the growing crowd.
“Okay,” Babbs said, “So here ya go, the Grateful Dead!” The crowd cheers wildly as the band breaks into Promise Land.
No one knows for sure how many people made their way to that field for the show, but a common estimate is 20,000. Sue Kesey says most of the attendees bought their tickets which were printed on unused yogurt labels. “Tickets were $3.00 and $3.50 at the gate,” she said. “I don’t know why we would have ever wanted to make change at the gate? But anyway.”
So, what were Sue and Chuck doing during the concert?
“I think I was behind the stage in a kind of a little trailer that was kind of the office,” Sue answers, “and trying to keep track of money or tickets or what we had.” “The money that was coming in was in buckets,” Chuck added with a laugh. “And you’d see girls going across the crowd with two big, five-gallon buckets full of money with no paranoia on either side, yea.”
This might be a good time to mention the blistering heat. That late August day, it was almost 100 degrees. “I’d mathematically figured out how much water I thought that many people would drink,” Chuck explained. “So, I got a creamery tank truck full of water.” His calculations for an adequate supply of drinking water were soon rendered moot when halfway through the concert, people started showering in it.
“And I thought, ‘oh man, we’re in trouble now,'” Chuck remembered. “And about that time — the top popped open on the tank truck and out came a naked hippie that had been swimming inside of it. And I realized, ‘we’ve lost our water.'”
But, Chuck said the massive crowd didn’t seem to mind. Many attendees stripped down to nothing and blissed out to the music. The band told the Keseys there were “more naked people there than at any concert they’d ever given.”
The Dead played a 31-minute version of Dark Star that afternoon. Sometimes playful, sometimes brooding, the extended jam was a but a rumor to those who weren’t there. That is until the 2013 documentary film Sunshine Daydream directed, by John Norris and produced by Sam Field, allowed a bird’s eye view of the entire 1972 Veneta show.
After the sun dipped below the distant tree line and a third encore, the show ended. Those buckets full of money from concert proceeds made all the difference for the future of Springfield Creamery. “When you think back on it, it was kind of a humbling experience that they would do this for us,” Sue said. “Basically, they left all the money, except probably their gas money, with us. And it was just about enough money to get us over the hump we needed to get over.”
The amount was reportedly $12,000. And to this day, Sue and Chuck Kesey remain, quite simply, grateful. With a big smile, Chuck clearly expressed his opinion of the Dead. “This is the greatest band ever invented by humanity,” he said. “It’s a dog.”
Chuck and Sue’s two kids have grown up knowing something pretty amazing went down. Son Keith Kesey, who was 6 at the time of the Field Trip show, has become a concert promoter in Eugene. Daughter Sheryl Kesey Thompson is co-owner and oversees product marketing for Springfield Creamery. She was 11 at the time of the show and remembers sitting under the primitive stage while the Grateful Dead played.
“I think that my generation looks back at that day and that time and looks at it as a pretty significant fork in the road for the Creamery where that hand up made a difference for the next 50 plus years,” Kesey Thompson said. And then she told a tale about her Deadhead parents. “Every time you call their house Tiffany, Grateful Dead is playing in the background.”
On Saturday the Keseys — now both in their 80s — will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s benefit show by wearing T-shirts that read, “The day a rock band saved a yogurt company.” And they’ll listen to Dead Air on KLCC as they do every Saturday night, they said.
Production assistance from Sheryl Kesey Thompson. Audio from Sunshine Daydream recordings used here with permission from Rhino Records.