The enduring impact of Madison’s legendary hippie culture

Jay Rath, Contributing writer

There’s a popular misconception that all of us in Madison are hippies, that we wear sandals, tie-dye and batik year-round; that we only put down our protest signs to pick up a joint; that we still watch Cheech and Chong, and are permanently stoned unless we’re at a Badger game, when we’re drunk and wearing red.

None of this is true. Well, maybe some of it.

OK, a lot of it. Rush Limbaugh, among others, has called us the “People’s Republic of Madison.” Bill O’Reilly has scoffed, “You expect those people to be communing with Satan up there in the Madison.”

The New York Times called Paul Soglin  the city’s “hippie mayor” in 2011.

Like the Amish, we’re preserving a vanishing way of life — in our case, it’s the 1960s counter-culture.

We’re still plenty groovy and far out, man, but verifiable evidence of hippies is becoming rarer and rarer. After all, much that was radical 50 years ago is now mainstream. But Madison still has pockets of paisley and patchouli that serve as testaments to its more radical past.

First, though, we have to define “hippie.” Soglin, barely 28 when he was first elected mayor in 1973, recalls, “No one in Madison ever referred to me as a hippie. In 1974, AP did a story about me and the headline writer sent a national feed referring to me as the hippie mayor.”

Soglin was very politically active, took part in protests and got caught up in riots. Police beat him with heavy batons. The proof is in the 1979 Oscar-nominated documentary The War at Home.

But calling Soglin a hippie, he says, makes no sense. “Hippies were disengaged from politics, which was the focus of my entire life.”

Others aren’t so quick to separate political activism from hippie-ism. Sharon Kilfoy is a self-described “hippie artist” who arrived at UW-Madison as a freshman in 1968.

“Hippies were counter-culture,” she says. It was only later that it “became more about sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. But I believe it was political at first, and then really became a cultural revolution.”

Whatever hippie culture was or is, we know it when we see it, and there are still examples all over Madison, including:

The Mifflin Street Block Party: The first block party was in 1969. It was an anti-war street protest/celebration that became a riot, with fires and tear gas. Soglin, then an alderman on the city council, was arrested — twice. Held the first weekend in May ever since, the party’s politics waned as its drunkenness increased. The city has been actively discouraging it since 2012.

“Mifflin should see some celebrants on Saturday, May 4, but if last year is any barometer, it will continue to be a much smaller gathering, consisting primarily of several house parties,” says Joel DeSpain, Madison Police Department spokesperson. “We had no problems last year and don’t anticipate any this May. That said, we will have additional officers on hand and be ready for any contingencies.”

Mifflin Street Co-op: The grocery, founded in 1969, served as an activist and counter-culture center. Facing competition and declining sales, its directors voted to close the store in late 2006. But its lavish, two-story mural remains. Norman Stockwell is operations coordinator for WORT-FM community radio — a hippie institution itself at 89.9 on the dial.

Back when he was a co-op employee, Stockwell and more than 60 others spent nearly a year planning and painting the mural, which features images of lush fertility and capitalist death. “The reason why this mural has lasted so well, and has no graffiti, is that it really is a coming together of the community in which it lives,” he says.

Efforts to restore its chipped surface occasionally arise. The 1987 mural was preceded by several others. The first included a dancing bomb, in solidarity with those who tried to destroy Sterling Hall.

Sterling Hall: On the night of Aug. 4, 1970, anti-war activists set off a massive 2,000-pound bomb contained in a stolen van parked next to this campus building. Their goal was to destroy the Army Math Research Center inside. The explosion killed one person and, adjusted for inflation, caused more than $11 million in damage. Faint blast marks on the building’s southern face bear testament to the tragedy.

The Daily Cardinal: Two of the Sterling Hall bombers worked at the more liberal and far older of the university’s two student papers. The Daily Cardinal, founded in 1892, has seen its pages thin over the years, but it still serves as training ground for fledgling journalists. Its alumni have won 20 Pulitzer Prizes. The paper is available free at many downtown and campus locations.

Otis Redding: In 1967, on his way to a concert in Madison, a plane carrying “The King of Soul” crashed into Lake Monona. Only one of the band members survived. On the shoreline near the Capitol there is a memorial to Redding, best known for the song “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.” 

Wild Hog in the Woods: There was more to music in the ’60s than rock ‘n’ roll. The decade also saw a blossoming of folk music. Wild Hog has kept the spirit of that time alive since 1978. Performances are held Friday evenings. More of a concert series than a venue, Wild Hog has had several homes over the years. These days it’s at the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center. It began at the Green Lantern Eating Cooperative. 

Tie-dye, jeans and fringe: Hippies changed fashion. Men no longer wear hats and everyone wears jeans. Madison dresses primarily for comfort, including an awful lot of sandals. But we also dress symbolically, just as the hippies did.

“I haven’t seen as much tie-dye lately, but I’ve seen more batik and ethnic prints,” says Caitlin Wagner, a junior in the fashion design program at UW-Madison. And — bad news — “fringe is totally coming back,” Wagner says.

Thrift shop clothing, which was popular in the ’60s and ’70s, is still popular in Madison. Ironically, today’s thrift shops recycle vintage treasures from the era that glamorized previously worn garb.

But perhaps the most significant carry-over from hippie fashion is the application of social consciousness to wardrobe selection.

“What I see as hippie fashion that continues is the importance placed here on the context of what you’re consuming, how much you’re consuming and who we support by consuming certain products,” Wagner explains. 

Willy St. Co-op: In addition to thrift shops, the ’60s were a time of collectives, communes and, especially, cooperatives. This grocery co-op on Williamson Street — we locals call it “Willy Street” — was modestly founded in 1974. It’s since grown so much that a second location has opened in nearby Middleton. At one time, its selections were classified as “health food.” Now we just call it food.

“It’s amazing that so many of Willy Street Co-op’s core values and ideas that used to be considered counter-culture — natural food, organic food, bulk food, growing your own food, and sustainability — are now fairly mainstream,” says director of communications Brendon Smith.

Madison Community Co-ops: Madison has at least four independent housing co-ops. Twelve others are gathered into this co-op made up of co-ops, known as “MCC.” More than 200 people of all ages, but mostly students, live and eat in MCC houses with fanciful names such as Ambrosia, Hypatia and Syntropy. The largest, Lothlorien, suffered fire damage and is vacant and under repair. The best, because I lived there, is International Co-op House, where I learned to cook for 27 at a time.

“MCC was formed in 1968 by a group of seven or eight independent co-ops that already existed in Madison,” says Steve Vig, coordinating officer. Most houses welcome dinner guests, particularly prospective members, though there may be a small charge.

Tuschen: His first name was John, but locally he had single-name celebrity. Madison’s first poet laureate resisted the “hippie” title. Says his longtime partner, Suni Taylor, “I was the hippie, he was a throwback. Either Bukowski or Ginsberg — I can’t remember anymore — called him ‘the Baby Beat,’ and that really was the generation he fit into best.”

Beatnik or proto-hippie, Tuschen’s poetry was definitely a sign of counter-culture times. He was born in 1949 and passed in 2005, though his work lives on. He published “State Street Poetry Sheets,” collecting his work and that of others, and sold them in State Street stores. A fundraising effort is underway to reprint them.

Cecil’s Sandals: “In the ’60s, suddenly everyone was having custom sandals made at Cecil’s Sandals,” recalls Peter Berryman, half of the touring Lou and Peter Berryman folk/comedy act. Nicknamed “Jesus Boots,” the footwear was actually carefully crafted by Cecil’s son Ron Burke, just off State Street.

“Those are bygone years,” says Burke. “That was the era of the sandal craze. Everybody was a hippie. That was the start of the long hair and crazy dresses and things like that.”

Burke no longer makes sandals — all the getting up and down is too hard on his knees — but he continues to repair shoes at Cecil’s West, on Madison’s Odana Road.

Willy Street: Still the funkiest of Madison streets, with odd shops, coffee and lots of art, Willy Street is becoming gentrified.

“I am the longest surviving hippie resident-artist of Willy Street and have been producing art with the people for many years,” says muralist Sharon Kilfoy. She recalls when her counter-culture peers packed the mixed business-residential street. “The rent was cheap. There was a lot of real freedom of expression here. And the other people living here were poor, just like we were.”

Kilfoy compares it to Greenwich Village. “The artists come into a poor area and it becomes chi-chi. It’s exactly what happened.”

The Great Midwest Marijuana Harvest Fest: Held the first weekend in October each year, this protest and march from the campus Library Mall to the Capitol is “to educate and inform people considering medical marijuana legalization and hemp,” says Dennis Brennan, one of the organizers. This autumn will mark the event’s 45th anniversary.

“We’re a loose cooperative,” says Brennan, who calls himself “just one of the crew.” The last few years attendance has been around 2,500 but, before states started legalizing marijuana, as many as 10,000 showed up from across the Midwest.

“It used to be that we had to go out of our way to get politicians to speak,” Brennan says. “We’re having the opposite problem now. The world’s been changing, and that’s in a lot of things. This city is a great example of that in so many social aspects. Things that were shunned upon and that people fought for 30, 40 years ago, are now part of our society here.”

Sunshine Daydream: Madison’s oldest surviving head shop is surely The Pipefitter on State Street, founded in 1972. But it’s Sunshine Daydream, just down the street, that claims to be “Madison’s favorite hippie store.” It features tie-dyed clothing, Grateful Dead paraphernalia, body oils and incense and a huge selection of glass pipes that could conceivably be used to smoke tobacco. Manager Jamie Strunz says, “We also carry tickets for a lot of the fests and things like that. We try to keep the hippies happy.”

But surely all the real, bonafide hippies are now at least in their 60s?

“This is true,” he says. “But we still have a few hippies left.”