Remembering Woodstock

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Long Read. Definitely Worth the Time(?).

“I can’t believe it’s been that long!”

After seeing a number of retrospectives about the big anniversary of Woodstock earlier this month, I thought I should write my own.

I, too, am fuzzy on many of the details after the passing of more than half my lifetime but do recall with a smile an entirely positive experience of a whirlwind road trip in a Winnebago from the Upper Midwest to Upstate New York, taking in the three-day music festival, and hustling back in a haze of youthful exuberance during a watershed summer.

Readers who know me may be wondering what I’m smoking, since I was born four years too late to be there. I am, of course, referring to the illustrious Woodstock ’94, held on the 25th anniversary of the original. Dubbed “2 More Days of Peace and Music” (a third day was later added), it was maligned by some at the time for being a corporate sellout, what with its $135 ticket price, Pepsi sponsorship, pay-per-view live telecast, and a lineup tainted by bands “without a point of view.”  If I recall correctly, a group of friends and I recognized these “impurities” but decided that, more importantly, it sounded like a blast.

Since my memories of it are truly incomplete and not particularly profound – unlike this guy’s highly detailed and soul-searching recent recollection (dude must have smuggled along a journal) – and I thought it would be more fun and interesting to reminisce with my cohorts from the trip, I asked them to share with me what stands out from that time, a quarter-century later, and how they feel about it now.

The characters

Mike was my high school classmate who would soon be starting his senior year at the University of Northern Iowa and lived in Cedar Falls. Fun, smart guy, who – importantly – had a dad with a Winnebago, which was made in our hometown.

Boots was a native of a nearby town who was part of the crew due to a friendship formed with Mike at UNI. I only knew him on this trip and remember him being hilarious.

Randy was another high school pal. One of the smartest people in our class, he also marched to his own beat. He went to Beloit College but was in Ann Arbor that summer taking an Arabic class in preparation for studying abroad in Egypt the following semester.

Tom was another high school classmate and my roommate the previous year at Wartburg College. An aspiring teacher and coach, he was managing the public pool in our hometown that summer.

Jay, yet another high school classmate, was living in our hometown and had partnered back up with his dad in their construction company after deciding that a few years of college was enough. He had his own house, so we hung out there a lot that summer, our first as 21-year-olds.

Nicole was from a nearby village but had just finished her first year at Waldorf, the (then two-year) college in our hometown and from which Tom, Jay, and I had graduated. She was working at a local restaurant with a basement bar where some of us hung out sometimes, so we’d gotten to know this cool gal who was comfortable hanging with dudes.

Neil was the same age as Nicole, a good-natured local guy who I happened to work with that summer at one of Winnebago’s factories, converting Volkswagens to Eurovan campers.

Then there was me. I was living with my folks, and you can extrapolate the rest of my general station in life at the time from the above.

Why did we decide to drive from Iowa to upstate New York for a festival?

Like a good deal of this, our Woodstock ’94 origin story is a bit fuzzy.

Mike:

I don’t really remember why we decided to go, but here’s a guess from my end. 1. I wanted to see a lot of live music. Around that time, my brother told me I went to as many concerts as the next four people. 2. I’m sure I was looking for a road trip.

Boots:

I have no idea how this trip came about? Knowing Mowwgli (Mike) has perks, I guess.

Nicole:

I don’t have any recollection of how it all came together. I think I really only knew Paul and Jay before the trip. I remember being broke and not having much money to spend on the trip…though not really remembering that I packed much to eat.

Jay:

I was the last one that was asked to go, so how it all came to be, I don’t know.

I can’t remember how it came together, either, but, as alluded to, felt pretty confident that the road trip and festival would be a unique experience, something I should really do.

Randy:

This was in the days before cell phones and widespread internet, so communicating with friends was done via a single landline that was shared between eight people in the co-op house I was living in. With my friend Mike we had been discussing going to the 25th anniversary Woodstock festival, which I almost thought would be one of those many plans that failed to materialize. We had been to many concerts together and shared the idea that it was important to go to as many as possible while we could. But the Woodstock 25th anniversary promised to be a big one.

He continued, remembering more details than most us,

One night I got the phone call that Mike had secured his father’s Winnebago, rounded up a small crew of friends, and bought the tickets.  Now I had to fit in a long weekend trip before the final exam, so between cramming for the final, attending classes, and doing the insane amount of homework, I now had to prepare for a long weekend trip to New York.  We arranged the pickup date and approximate time, and I just had to get ready.  How does one prepare for such and event?  In reality, I did so little prep and relied on Mike to sort out the details.  The excitement grew as the date approached.  My classmates were jealous of course, and most thought it was a crazy thing to do the weekend before a big test.

Somewhat edgy as I fancied myself, I wrote in this regard for the Wartburg newspaper in a review of the Woodstock ’94 double-CD that was released the following winter, we “made the journey not in the hopes of reliving the mystique of Woodstock, but rather because it sounded like a damn good time!”

And, as we all seem to agree, it was.

How did the road trip go?

Jay:

Some met at my place. Drove to Clear Lake to pick up Mike and the Winnebago. Drove to Cedar Falls where we picked up the guy from Osage. Then drove south side of Chicago and the rest is a blur – drove straight through. Stopped at some wineries. Just getting there was half the fun.

The blur included a stop in Ann Arbor to pick up Randy.

Randy:

The day arrived and I still didn’t quite believe it would all happen.  Of course they showed up a couple of hours later than expected, which added to my nervousness.  When they arrived, I was surprised and happy to see quite a few old high school friends pop out of the door.  Paul, Tom, Jay, Boots, Neil, and another girl I had never met named Nicole.  Some I hadn’t seen since high school, and we were an odd ball mix with the common denominator being that we grew up in northern Iowa.  The motor home fit everyone, but just barely.  I threw in what little stuff I had prepared, knowing only that we’d be camping out.  Luckily I did bring a rain jacket, and that would be essential later on.  I was exhausted from all the studying and only hoped that I was prepared for the final, since it would be held on the Monday I got back.  I foolishly brought along some material to continue studying on the trip, but I don’t think I glanced at it even once from the time I left.  Between hanging out with friends and drinking beer, studying Arabic just didn’t fit.

We continued on with a four and a half hour jaunt through Ontario and a scenic stop before driving, in shifts, another five hours to Saugerties, New York. Much beer was drunk, cards were played, and laughter was heard en route.

Early on the road trip.
Later on the road trip.

Mike: Pretty damn good trip although plenty of it is pretty hazy at this point. I don’t know if it’s a good thing that I remember more of the trip than of the bands and music.

Boots: Didn’t we stop at Niagara Falls?

Yes, yes, we did.

Neil:

The stop at Niagara Falls, the Winnebago and its homemade window signs. Listening to my Freedom Rock cassette tapes. I recall Nicole and I buying beer in Canada. Since we were 19!

Randy:

Even though beer is way more expensive in Canada, Neil was happy to load up with more than we really needed.  It was a time when we all could drink pretty much all day with little consequences the next day.  I could never do that now.

Mike:

The road trip stuff was the best. I don’t even remember how we started, but that we had to pick Randy up in Ann Arbor because was he was taking Arabic for the summer (of course). That’s why we drove through Canada, and I remember the same as Neil, buying a ton of beer at a liquor store in Ontario. And for some reason, we just couldn’t wait to get started so we sat down and started drinking in liquor store parking lot.

Randy:

Things got fuzzy, and time passed pretty quickly.  We made a few stops on the way, but pretty much drove straight through, shuffling drivers depending on who was most capable at the time.  I’m pretty sure Mike drove way more than anybody else.  He always was a fine driver.

A couple people from the group decided they should just go ahead and get married at Niagara Falls. Though it would have helped us create our own Woodstock moment, like our time at the falls, this idea was short-lived.

Then what happened?

Mike:

Maybe got to the festival mid-day Friday…By the time we got to Saugerties, it was a complete madhouse. Despite finding a parking spot, the line to enter the grounds on foot was hours long. So, we said screw it, we’re going to sit on top of the Winnebago, drink beer, and eat freezy pops. People in line saw us and mobbed us for freezy pops, which probably saved a dozen people from getting heatstroke.

Randy:

I remember standing on the roof throwing out freezy pops to the crowds.  Mike made sure we had hundreds of freezy pops, and the freezer was stuffed to the limit.

Our perch while we waited, sharing life-saving freeze pops.
View from the ‘Bago as we waited to get a lift.

A school bus took us to the festival grounds.


How about the actual festival?  

We must have been there relatively early and compared to many, were well prepared, as we secured a choice camping spot in the woods not far from the main stage and had several tents amongst us. While others may have had a miserable experience being soaked in the rain and trying to sleep on muddy ground, we slept well.

(from L to R) Randy, Jay, Nicole, Neil, Tom, Paul, Boots, and Mike after establishing camp

Randy:

We were told that there would be strict security and they wouldn’t allow in any alcohol.  When we finally decided it was time to go in we finished off one last can of beer and got on the shuttle bus.  There were thousands of people, but the organization at that point was still pretty good so we didn’t have any big delays.  Security was weak, so we all looked at each other and said we should’ve brought at least a case of beer each. 

Randy continued,

We found a decent place to set up tents under some trees, which proved to be a wise decision since the rains would come down hard later on.  There were multiple stages, and we were lucky to be only a ten minute or so walk away but just far enough away to actually have a small space to ourselves away from most of the chaos.  Bathrooms were few and far between, and dirty.  Luckily there were a lot of trees.

Jay, in fitting stream-of-consciousness style remembers,

Meeting people, listening to the bands was great. Mud people. Riding the bus – waiting on top of the motorhome. Niagara falls. Random stranger that slept in the tent with us.

As Jay remembered, our new friend (with blond braids) nearly decided to come back to Iowa with us.
Boots has no recollection of this Woodstock friend, but Nicole recalls that she went by “Kat.”

Similarly, Neil recalled,

The dude from Jackyl cut his hand, Shannon Hoon tosses a conga into the crowd, (we were) nearly close enough to get a John Popper harmonica. All the tents left in the mud in the aftermath of the festival. Those are a few of the memories that come to mind whenever I tell my Woodstock stories.

Tom:

It was a great trip…one I can’t believe I took. I wish I would have enjoyed the moment more.

In my review a few months later I wrote, in what I must have perceived to be appropriately Woodstockian language,

The festival itself was well worth the $135 ticket. Once I got on the magic bus that took us from the parking area to the farm, I never again thought about money, but was focused solely on having a blast. The music was far-out and the vibes of happiness, friendliness and peace, which I perceived to be the spirit of Woodstock, were very much alive. It seemed that everyone was digging the idea of helping each other survive the mud and rain, and nary a fight or argument was seen. Basically, it rocked!

Nicole:

I’d only ever been to one concert before this…So Woodstock was beyond anything I could have ever imagined (in my all of 19 years of life)… I remember encountering people smoking pot for the first time, women with painted breasts walking around completely carefree, and a man resembling Jesus wandering the grounds…I recall watching a couple walk by us, cover up in a blanket, do their “thing”, crawl out, hug and walk their separate ways…astonished by what happened right there in front of us.

Neil also admitted,

Truth be told, Woodstock ‘94 was my first concert! It was all a bit overwhelming. Musical highlights were Blues Traveler, NIN, Collective Soul was WAY better than I expected them to be. Same with Melissa Etheridge. I was impressed with just how tight and professional Aerosmith was.

Reading accounts of the event now, I see that Aerosmith didn’t hit the stage until 3am, and we watched them even though we had to drive back to Iowa later that day. I don’t remember this or anything else from the weekend being a problem.

Randy:

Our group made an attempt to stay together, but everybody wandered off at some point to explore the area.  There were people wherever you looked, all ages, sizes, and styles.  Hippies, yuppies, old geezers, bikers, jocks, and just normal folk all mixed together to create a unique experience.  It was a city that popped up out of nowhere, with walkways between tents and people selling crafts, food, and other party essentials.

Happy kids at Woodstock.

Tom:

I remember really enjoying the music, but more just the whole scene. It’s like going to the Iowa State Fair: people watching, but to the max!

Neil continued,

Surprise special guest the Violent Femmes were awesome!

A few years ago, I wrote about the Femmes in another Oshkosh Independent column,

The only other time I had seen the Femmes was at Woodstock ’94, and in the haze of memories from that experience I remember their set as also being a total surprise. After doing some quick research, I was able to confirm that this was, in fact, an unscheduled set that took place after Sheryl Crow wrapped up her show. I recall that it was after midnight and my friends and I had already started the long walk in the dark to hopefully find our tent again in the sea of thousands of other tents, when we heard the familiar intro to ‘Blister in the Sun’, after which screams erupted and we flocked back to the stage with many others. An article recapping the day of music from the Poughkeepsie Journal at the time argued, ‘the only disappointment was the Violent Femmes, whose set was totally flat and unenergized. They led off with the usual crowdpleaser ‘Blister in the Sun,’ but it never reached out to hook in the audience. But by that time, it was 1:30am. Maybe they were just tired.” I certainly was, but what I most remember is the bassist playing conch shells and the Femmes being great.

Mike continued,

The undercard bands were super strong: Live, James, Collective Soul, Del Amitri, and King’s X had some really trippy guitars. Blind Melon’s lead singer came out in a dress and they put on just a great set, and for some reason I remember loving Cypress Hill too. And the headliners were just so damn entertaining. The Peppers came out in light bulb outfits. And NIN went berserk in the muddy mosh pit, AND then went on stage and went berserk. whoa.

Overall, my recollection was that the music, from a very diverse collection of many of the most successful commercial artists of the time, as well as several repeats or at least contemporaries of the original Woodstock scene, was outstanding, but that that Nine Inch Nails – who was a bit too electronic and nihilistic for me at the time – gave the standout performance overall because of their mud-covered intensity.

From my college newspaper article (again, a review of the album that followed the event), though:

Perhaps the greatest musical moment from Woodstock ’94 was inexplicably omitted. When Blues Traveler vocalist/harmonica player extraordinaire John Popper launched into a feedback-enhanced, soul-screaming version of our national anthem (a la Hendrix) on the mouth harp, 350,000 people collectively held their breath and had to fight off goosebumps. This ‘Woodstock Moment’ was rivaled only by the astonishing feats of the old hippie artist (I forget his name, but he was on those MTV commercials) who got the entire crowd to its feet and screaming as he threw paint on a 10-foot canvas, and soon flipped it around to reveal that he had created a perfect portrait of Jimi Hendrix! But, that obviously could not have been included on the album.

Some of the scene in between the rain.

Boots remembers,

Seeing a gal body surfing and crash down in front of us. The crowd wasn’t tight enough. Then trying to get security’s attention for help. I’m sure it just looked like screaming fans…Oh, and obviously fanny packs.

Nicole:

I feel like I remember a couple of you guys hiking to find us some beer at a small time gas station and paying something like $80 for two cases.

Randy:

Jay was able to slip out and buy some needed supplies, which were cheaper than onsite but still more than hoped for. 

Neil:

Day two was such a Molson Ice-fueled haze that some stuff has been forgotten. I recall climbing on Jay’s shoulders and seeing the ocean of people all around…The stench of 3,000 port-o-potties. There was a point, when we were heading down to see the Allman Brothers when the path became so crowded that I was moving forward with my feet completely off the ground. That was a strange sensation. Good times!!!

The spirit of Woodstock with our new friend in tow.

Nicole:

While I was blown away by many things, being the naive girl I was, I don’t remember ever being afraid. You guys kept pretty close tabs on me, thanks for that! My hubby, aka my high school boyfriend, has been enjoying all these stories…though he’s also recently shared with me how mad he was that I went on this trip—Despite the fact that we weren’t dating at the time. Deep down I think he’s just a little jealous that he wasn’t there with us taking in all the incredible bands.

She continued,

I think the thing that blew me away most was seeing the family packing things up as we were leaving. All the things we experienced, those kids also likely witnessed. As a mom of four, I can’t even begin to know how I would explain all that stuff to my kids today.

Randy:

There were people sliding all over the place, falling down, smearing mud on other people, and turning it into a game.  A lot of the cheap-o tents didn’t hold up and those poor people had no refuge at all.  Luckily our tents mostly held up and we could briefly escape the weather.  But all the fun was outside so we didn’t want to miss anything.  I remember seeing several people just bare naked sliding in the mud.  On hippy looking dude stayed naked all weekend and we saw him wandering around in his own state of bliss.

Neil:

One story that I often tell people is about the time we were walking to get food (maybe) when four familiar looking guys were walking towards us. It was Live. They had just finished a set. That was cool…I wished I had something cool to say to them at the time.

Nicole: I remember that too, Neil, we must have been together. I just looked through my old pics and think I even snapped a photo of them!

Ed Kowalczyk, lead singer of Live, looking a bit uncomfortable in this setting.

A story that Neil did not share was that at some point, I’m guessing on Saturday afternoon and maybe during Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s set, we found him dead asleep on the ground, with one eye nearly half open, leading to a somewhat enduring nickname, One-Eyed Neil.

Kind of like this.

After sleeping for a few hours after Aerosmith (who supposedly attended the original as fans, as I understand it), I recall a very pleasant awakening on that Sunday morning, listening in the tent to Woodstock original Country Joe McDonald, followed by some sweet gospel sounds coming from the nearby North Stage. What I didn’t know at the time was that this was Sisters of Glory, which included some heavy hitters, including soul legend Mavis Staples. I also know we heard Arrested Development but may not have made it up to the stage until The Allman Bros set.

We took in Traffic and then realized we needed to hit the road to get Randy back to Ann Arbor.

Randy:

When it finally got to the day to leave, nobody really wanted to go.  I had that final exam waiting for me, so I felt a little guilty being the cause of the earlish departure.  As we waited for the shuttle bus I remember hearing Bob Dylan, who I always wanted to see but was now missing.  His live performances are notoriously bad, and his voice wasn’t at its best that day.  I was still saddened to leave, feeling that I just wanted a bit more.

We had no choice but to roll on towards home.

Then what?

Mike:

The rain during the festival completely swamped the field we parked in and when we were trying to leave, we thought there was no way we were getting out of there. But an enterprising farmer was pulling vehicles out of there with his tractor, so we cobbled together $150 in cash to pay him. Once we got out of there, we drove hell bent for leather (well, as much as you can in a Winnebago with 130 hp). Randy had an Arabic final exam (verbal, of course) at 9am on Monday. I think we pulled up to his apartment at 8:30am.

Randy:

I quickly showered and changed and ran to the exam.  I ended up getting the highest score of the class, which was ironic since everybody else had been cramming all weekend together.  It must have been Woodstock magic.

Mike:

The rest of the drive was a blur, except that I think we got back to Cedar Falls and decided to drink some more. Youth… I wouldn’t have been surprised if my dad had decided to burn the RV after I returned it to him. Instead, I think he just traded it in. It had been through some stuff: Mt Rushmore, Wisconsin Dells, Panama City, Woodstock.

Though I don’t know what we ate or how we satisfied all of our needs, I also can’t recall any issues with hunger, lack of water, or being bothered too much by the rain. We got along with each other and everyone else. We documented the trip and made it to where we needed to go, more than 2,500 miles in all, with no smart phone or phone of any kind. I think the experience exceeded our expectations and more than lived up to the hype.  

How do you feel about the experience, 25 years later?

Neil:

I was so naïve then.

Nicole:

(I still get) shifty looks from people when I talk about it…’you were the only girl with a Winnebago full of college boys that drove to New York for Woodstock?!?!’ Honestly, I hadn’t thought about it for quite awhile. And I’m a little more nervous now that I know who (Boots) is—he’s brothers with the dad of one of my oldest daughter’s besties…

Boots:

College was a huge opportunity for me to march to my own beat being the tenth of ten kids from a farm…(this discussion) definitely brings me back to another time in my head.

Randy:

25 years later it’s hard to believe that I was there and that so much time has passed.  I am eternally grateful to Mike for making it all happen, and to all the other members of the crew for making it the fantastic experience that it was.  On the rare times we see each other we’ll bring it up and smile, knowing that we were a small part of history.  And we have bragging rights for the rest of our lives.  Was it the best festival ever?  Probably not.  Did it change my life? No, but it was a highlight that I am happy to have been a part of.  I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Mike:

My life has been one long, slow decline since that trip.

I’m pretty sure he was joking since it seems like he’s gone on to have a great life, with a PhD and plum research job, living with his family in North Carolina. He elaborated,

Looking back on it, that was probably the last big adventure of the extended childhood that was my college years. Things settled down pretty quickly after that. Grad school, and more grad school, and more…Married a beautiful and brilliant woman. And I have two daughters who are deeply into music. My 16-year-old is in Charlotte Children’s Choir, and my 11-year-old plays electric guitar in School of Rock, playing Black Sabbath, Blondie, Joan Jett, and Pearl Jam.

The whole group seems to have gone on to have good lives and do interesting things. Randy, for example, a few years later rode his bike to Argentina and never moved back, Tom has become arguably one of the greatest high school track coaches in Iowa history with a current streak of three straight state titles in the state’s largest class, and Jay started, with his wife and two other couples, an improbably-successful craft beer and conversation joint on main street in our hometown. Lots of kids are being raised, some in college already.

But my travel companions didn’t offer much else about bigger meanings. That’s not too surprising, given that it was so long ago and not their idea to recall and consider the relevance of the whole thing. Meaning is a human construct, so experiences like this essentially have none until someone pauses and considers them. That’s my job here.

As the author of the other recollection referenced above noted, such an exercise can function as a contrived effort to imbue an experience with meaning. My initial take – as I started the discussion with my old friends, read some articles about Woodstock, the original and the one I attended, and jotted down a few thoughts – was very similar to that of an Arizona reporter, who covered the ’94 event and argued a couple weeks back that it,

…was not the cultural landmark the first one was. It couldn’t be. But it wasn’t the sell-out others claimed it was, either. There was a real camaraderie among the people gathered there (and maybe that was something it shared with the first one). The music, the mud, the mild mayhem — it’s a memorable combination.

In summarizing his experience he concluded, “Once the sun peeked out and your clothes dried a little and another set started, it didn’t need to be anything other than what it was: a giant, muddy music festival, and it turned out to be a pretty great experience on its own.”

There was some of this happening. We generally avoided it.

I couldn’t agree more, and maybe it doesn’t have any bigger meaning beyond that.

But all this recollecting has conjured up some things. I don’t really know what the zeitgeist of our generation was at the time, other than maybe an overarching sense of disillusionment and apathy (or, more accurately, powerlessness), but there was also an enduring foundation of optimism, despite the destruction and lost innocence that had occurred since the original. The Iron Curtain and Apartheid had fallen, AmeriCorps had recently been launched, popular music had gotten more interesting after the ‘80s, and the first emails were starting to be exchanged.

For me, Woodstock ’94 was an undeniably great experience. It was also part of a momentous transitional period, because soon afterwards my shift into actual adulthood also began to gather steam. A couple weeks later I drove to Denver to start an internship and semester of urban studies classes, that spring went on a five-week European choir tour and graduated from college, then went on to a year with Lutheran Volunteer Corps in Delaware and the rest of a two-decade-plus adventure into marriage, parenthood, and my career as a professor in Wisconsin.

Reflecting on it all to write this piece, though, I feel a tinge of sadness. It doesn’t seem to stem from regret exactly, as I’m happy with how things have worked out overall and feel like I live a mighty privileged life. It may simply be what happens when one considers the arc of more than half their life, and their mind returns to a simpler time and a feeling of unencumbered freedom. I’m guessing it’s also how a lot of the original Woodstock generation felt in 1994, perhaps wondering, “Why is the crowd so overwhelmingly white? Why do I have so much stuff? How has this whole thing not turned out better? How’d we let the world go off the rails so much? What does the future hold for my kids?”

With the Amazon burning, children in cages, a spike in racism and xenophobia encouraged by the megalomaniacal buffoon in office, and me facing, as I write, a beer gut that seems to be here to stay and a large hole that is part of an extremely unsettling road construction project for which I have to pay a huge sum, it all seems rather bleak. But I guess I can take comfort in knowing that this isn’t the first time in our history that the future has looked dark, and we’ve managed to keep on keeping on. If anything, the spirit of Woodstock tells me to smile, do what I can, and roll with it, and hopefully we’ll be okay.

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About Author

Paul Van Auken

Paul Van Auken has been a member of the sociology and environmental studies faculty at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh since 2007, after completing a Ph.D. in sociology from UW-Madison. A native of Iowa but resident of Wisconsin since 1999, Paul conducts research on issues related to neighborhood, community, land use planning and access to public space, sustainability, and teaching and learning. He also practices public sociology, regularly writing a column called “Shortening the Distance” for Oshkosh Independent. He lives with his wife and two daughters on the historic, walkable, and interesting east side of Oshkosh, near the shores of Lake Winnebago.

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