Kite Day and Country Jamboree Drew Thousands To Thompson Park In The 70s & 80s
It may be hard for younger generations to fathom, but when Kite Day and the country music Jamboree were held annually in Thompson Park during the late 70s and early 80s, sun-baked crowds often averaged between 7,000 – 10,000 individuals sprawled about the hillside. Those numbers dwindled as the years went on and, by 1982, the times they were a-changing.
It was the last years of an era when the legal drinking age was *gulp!* eighteen in a decade that started with Alice Cooper singing about the frustrations of being that very age where, in many states, one had to be older to vote or drink alcohol, but 18 was young enough to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. That being said, the Kite Day event’s genesis started out rather innocuously with the intent to, well, fly kites.
Chuck Dufresne provided some brief history of Kite Day on the You Haven’t Lived In Watertown, NY, If– Facebook page back in 2014—
First Kite day in 74 was purely just a day for flying kites at Thompson Park. The idea was put together at WOTT radio. We expected maybe 30 or 40 people with kites that day. Instead, we had hundreds. My problem was everybody else at the station (Steve Beam, Gary B, Mike Wilson, Len Henry. Don Alexander…. etc) got to go while I was stuck on the air.
Kite Day evolved shortly thereafter, featuring fewer kites flying but drawing larger crowds looking to have a good time with music. The events garnered a bit of an unsavory reputation for the littering and drinking, particularly the amount of broken glass left behind. In 1979 then city manager Ronald G. Forbes noted the cost of clean-up for the WOTT Kite Day in Thompson Park far exceeded the $300 to $500 cost he estimated for cleaning up after the circus the previous year.
The Watertown Daily Times reported, in part, on June 9th that 9,000 attended Kite Day under sunny skies—
There were high times at Thompson Park Sunday as a crowd estimated as large as 9,000 swarmed across the grassy hill below the old water tower for the annual WOTT Radio Kite Day festivities.
Nearly 20 kites were in the air most of the afternoon, some festooned with bright streamers, others as huge homemade assemblages of plastic, cardboard and wood.
Beer flowed freely from the hundreds of coolers hauled up the hill by determined youths.
Entertainment was provided by two local bands, Whirlwind and Fresh.
After sunset all that remained of Kite Day were a few die-hard celebrants and neatly piled mounds of trash across the hillside.
The 1980 affair was scheduled for May 18th from 1 to 4 p.m. with local bands Moteaf, Emerald City, and Snowbird to perform throughout the afternoon. The event drew an estimated 7,000 and went smoothly, with no problems with the large crowd. The Times noted “As usual the kite flying comprised a fairly small portion of the day with the crowds enjoying music provided by local bands while partaking of beer, wine, and marijuana.”
A concerned parent from Carthage wrote a letter to The Times, asking why Kite Day is still allowed and why does WOTT radio continue to sponsor it when it’s really “pot” and “booze” day. The letter drew a response from a Croghan teenager defending the event. Though they didn’t deny booze was involved, the teen stated “a relatively small quantity of pot smoking went on, but the vast majority participate in this event because they enjoy relaxing in the outdoors while listening to rock and roll.”
Though Kite Day drew the brunt of complaints, the general consensus amongst many was that Thompson Park was being tarnished by drinking and after-dark partying. The Times headline in late June reflected upon the growing problem: “City Park: Wasteland of Trash.”
It was once the pride of the north country—513 acres of plush green woods and a view of a valley unequaled in beauty.
The children could play freely in the fields and the older people of Watertown enjoyed an evening’s stroll or an early morning jog there.
Today the 63-year-old Thompson Park is a wasteland of broken beer bottles (this morning, there were 51 in 200 yards), food wrappers and cigarette butts.
The lawns are blemished with tire marks where cars have careened aimlessly. The woods are thick with cardboard beer cases. And the steps near the stone pavillion are drenched in urine, which, when mixed with the heat, gives off a sickening stench.
That would more or less be the end of Kite Day at Thompson Park, at least in that capacity, until it was somewhat revived briefly in name only as part of the Snowtown USA Fall Fest celebration in the late 1980s and then again in the mid-to-late 1990s. A revival was held in 2014, complete with vendors, bands and family-friendly activities such as face painting and, believe it or not, kite-flying were held.
While the event was fun for those who attended, the numbers were nowhere near what the 70s drew and despite the attempts to jump-start an old tradition, it appears to have lost any remaining wind to keep it afloat in the following years.
Below: a look at Kite Day in 1977 and 1978 (or 79?) from Steve Weed Productions’ YouTube page:
Country Fest Jamboree
The Country Jamborees that were held at Thompson park in late August also drew large crowds, but appeared to be more family-friendly – though not without incident. In August of 1978, the Watertown City Council initially rejected the request by WOTT/WNCQ to hold the country western show at Thompson Park, Councilman Gaffney stating in The Times—
“I don’t think it was ever intended to be an amusement park where you bring in attractions and such,” and said the park didn’t have the facilities to handle the crowd. Councilmen Thomas B. Roe and Steve D. Alteri agreed with him.
The council told the radio stations that they could use the fairgrounds, but not the park. The decision would be reversed when Katherine M. Plante, who leased the concession stand at Thompson Park, complained that her bid was based on assumed traffic and that the city had already deferred another event to the Fairgrounds.
An estimated 6,300 turned out for the 1978 jamboree featuring 8 musical groups that kicked off at 2 p.m. and concluded at dusk on August 20th. The top-billing went to locals Mike White and the Sliter Brothers who had appeared in Nashville and at the large “Jamboree in the Hills” started in the mid-to-late 1970s by Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Tammy Wynette.
The following year’s event was marred by the arrest of two brothers, one a member of a performing band at Jamboree. The two had become abusive towards police after one of them was hit by an unknown assailant. One had to be restrained as they charged after another person, resulting in their arrests which lead to a rear window in a brand new patrol car breaking after repeated kicking.
1980’s Jamboree saw the same format with the following 8 bands performing: Midnight Sun (Natural Bridge), Northern Lites (Brockville, Ont.); The Watson Brothers and Gary and Micky Code and the Running Kind (Canada); Freddy McLean and the Mack Brothers (Oswego); and Watertown area bands Dave Wisner and the Country Troubadours; Gary Sweet and the Weekenders, and Fred Angel and the North Country Ramblers.
The Times noted the good news for more than 7,000 fans expected to attend that “six extra porta johns would be set up for the comfort of those attending.” 🤔 Comfort…? At least the crowds at the Jamborees had been credited with picking up after themselves.
Subsequent years saw dwindling numbers, with 1983, the year after the drinking age was raised to 21 in New York State, drawing about 1,900. Whether or not the change impacted the attendance is unknown, but an estimated 60 men and women provided additional entertainment after the Jamboree finished by participating in a brawl. Only one arrest was made, but police said around 100 people stayed and watched.
Remembering James F. “Jimmy” Hood 1950 – 1996
One of the largest crowds during either Kite Day or the Jamboree concerts came during 1979 when the local band Fresh, comprised of drummer, Tim Fauvelle; lead and slide guitars, Dave Scanlin; bass, Ed Bazinet; rhythm guitar, Larry Goodwin; and lead vocals and guitar, Jimmy Hood.
Jimmy Hood tragically died in an automobile accident in May of 1996. Many comments on the You Haven’t Lived In Watertown, N. Y., If–‘s Facebook page over the years have expressed his infectious smile and personality as being greatly missed. An article detailing his accident in the Watertown Daily Times reads, in part–
Born Feb. 2, 1950, in Watertown, he graduated from Watertown High School in 1968, attended Jefferson Community College for a year and worked for a brief time at the New York Air Brake Co. before entering the service.
Her served in the Navy for seven years, including duty in Vietnam, until his discharge in June 1975, and received an associate’s degree from JCC in 1979.
He married Jo Allyn Gallup on Aug. 22, 1981, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church with the Rev. Alan Smith, then rector, officiating.
Mr. Hood, a rock ‘n’ roll musician for more than 29 years, performed with several bands throughout the north country. In 1967, he cofounded the Sands of Time and later performed with the New York Times and the Musical Zoo. During the 1970s and ’80s, he sand lead vocals and played guitar with Fresh and later performed with Visitor. Most recently, he was a member of Heavy Fuel and Network.
While serving in the Navy, he organized port-of-call and ship bands.
Mr. Hood also was a volunteer for the Salvation Army.