Remembering St. Johns Hollow: 40 years before East Green, another local amphitheatre welcomed musical acts
It was 40 years ago that Seneca County hosted a Journey/Pablo Cruise concert that sparked several years of music at St. Johns Hollow, a concert spot on CR 6 near the Sandusky River.
Doug Allman, then 25, was the dreamer behind the project. He and his 22-year-old brother, Jeff, put their money together and began to create an outdoor concert venue on land owned by their father, Albert.
“We saw Woodstock. We were young. We thought, ‘Hey, we could do this,'” Allman said. “My father, who owned the farm, was willing to work with us. He took the risk. I give my father a lot of credit.”
The goal was to host concerts and make money, Allman said.
“Concerts were the trend and I knew it was a growing trend,” he said. “We had heard about Woodstock. We had the hillside. It was a natural hillside like a natural amphitheater.”
Timing was in their favor, he said, when the county decided to replace St. Johns Bridge.
“When they replaced the bridge, they had to buy dirt, so we sold them the dirt,” Allman said. “We sold it to them for less money and they did the excavating for us.”
The arrangement provided the large equipment needed to enhance the hill.
The Allmans as well as good friend Dan Ewald and seven or eight other young people did the physical labor of building a stage and making the area suitable for hosting concerts.
“Dan was there from the beginning,” Allman said. “He brought his own crew, a bunch of guys who wanted to be involved with us.”
Not long before the project began, Ewald said, he had started a business called Ewald Screen Print, and landed the job of creating St. Johns Hollow T-shirts.
“That’s what really got (the business) kind of jump started,” Ewald said. It continued from 1976 to 1984 before he sold the business, which exists as Viewpoint Graphics.
The fledgling crew contacted part-time promoter Chris Benji from Toledo (who later moved on to become a full-time promoter).
“He booked the talent and we got the site ready,” Allman said. “It was a pretty exciting time, I gotta tell you.”
However, Allman said they ran into obstacles.
County officials were unhappy about the plans and filed legal injunctions.
“This was all new,” he said. “They drug us into court. We had to go through all sorts of things. They gave us ground rules.”
The development of St. Johns Hollow was a couple years after another large concert in Seneca County – Heavy Metal Sunday at Boogie Hill in June 1976.
“The headliner was actually Foghat, and there were some other up-and-coming artists on there with names like Bob Seger and Ted Nugent,” said local historian Stephen Hartzell. “There were about six bands in all.”
However, Boogie Hill organizers didn’t plan well for parking, Hartzell said, speaking from personal experience. Roads, including SR 101, were blocked by parked cars, and people trespassed on private property. Lawsuits ensued.
Looking back, Allman said he can understand the concern about a bunch of young people with long hair and big dreams.
“Back then, we were long-haired hippies,” he said. “They were seeing Woodstock with drug-crazed hippies, but we tried to do things the right way.”
The site hosted some smaller concerts to start, but the first big concert was Journey/Pablo Cruise in August 1978. Journey played to about 18,000 people, and ticket were $8.50 each.
“Acoustically, it was marvelous. All up and down that hill it sounded great,” Hartzell said, again speaking from personal experience.
Hartzell attended the Journey concert and the Beach Boys concert the following summer.
“When St. John’s Hollow came about, I only lived about a mile from there,” he said “I walked to all those shows.”
On his website, Ohio History Notebook — www.historynote
hollow.html — Hartzell wrote the story of St. John’s Hollow he found in his research.
After the venue opened, he said he first concert was a bluegrass festival attended by 250 people, which took place in a parking lot June 18, 1978.
Then came Journey.
“At that time, on the strength of the highly successful ‘Infinity’ album, Journey was one of the top concert bands in the country,” Hartzell said. “Many of the residents were very concerned about this event, as the still-fresh memory of the ill-fated Boogie Hill concerts, east of Tiffin, had left a bad taste in their mouths.”
A Fleetwood Mac concert scheduled for the same day in Cleveland was canceled, so the attendance at the St. John’s Hollow show ballooned, he said.
“Even with the huge crowd, the event went off smoothly,” he said. “It proved to be a well-organized event with plenty of parking.”
The show was over well before dark, he said.
Hartzell remembers a classmate worked at the gas station at Market and Sandusky streets at the time. He told a story about how members of Journey came in the store to use the bathroom and buy snacks.
About a year later, a Beach Boys concert in July 1979 also was well-organized and well attended.
“Brian Wilson was with them on that tour,” Hartzell said.
He said a funny story about that concert included The Other Half, a regional band that opened the concert. Details aren’t real clear, he said, but the story says The Other Half was getting so much attention from crowd that the Beach Boys objected to their popularity and threatened to leave.
“I know they were cut off in mid-song,” Hartzell said.
Mike Martien, now head of security of Findlay City Schools, said he has fond memories of St. Johns Hollow from attending concerts and later as a Tiffin police officer.
“I went to Mohawk High School, so St. John’s Hollow was close,” he said. “My very first job was at St. Johns nursing home,” he said. “I worked right across the street from the St. Johns Hollow.”
As they did yard work, he and a friend watched the site come to life.
“We’d always see people coming and going as they fixed it up and got it ready,” he said. “I went to a couple concerts there.”
Those were the big shows in 1978 and 1979.
“It was a nice crowd and they weren’t unruly, from what I remember,” he said. “But it was always a mess trying to get in and out.”
Martien said he would see other people from different states, and the memorable vehicles were Volkswagen vans.
“They were painted up like they used to do in the ’60s,” he said. “It was like the ’60s all over again.”
He also remembers the clothing.
“The guys didn’t where anything but shorts,” he said. “The girls wore short shorts, T-shirts and bathing suits.”
Martien has later memories, too.
“The funny thing is, a couple years later, I had a full-time job at Tiffin Police Department,” he said. “I never went back out there. There were a lot of drugs and alcohol, but I don’t remember anybody hurting anything.”
As a young cop walking a beat, he said, he would get stopped by people in the same kinds of VW vans and buses who needed directions to St. Johns Hollow.
“You would think it was Woodstock all over again,” he said. “There were posters everywhere when they had something going on out there.
“It was just fun to see this type of people, how they dressed, talked and acted,” he said. “I used my discretion I had back then and probably left quite a few of them off.”
Back then, fans had to attend concerts to see a band perform.
“People were concert crazed in those days,” Hartzell said. “To put it in perspective, you could buy an album (for about $7) and could buy a concert ticket for the same price.
“Back then, bands used live shows to promote their albums because that’s where they made their money,” he said. “Today, it’s the other way around.
“There was still a mystique because you didn’t have access to the music as you do today,” he said. “Portable music back then was tucking a couple albums under your arm and walking to your buddy’s house.”
The relationship between musicians and fans was more personal then, Hartzell said.
“The late ’60s and into the ’70s, I believe, was the most creative period in the history of pop music,” Hartzell said. “Our generation had a unique love affair between artist and fan. We loved our musicians.”
He said bands even wrote about the relationship. For example, Journey’s song “Patiently” is about band/fan interaction.
And that’s the album — “Infinity” — that Journey was promoting when the band played at St. Johns Hollow.
“When Steve Perry joined a band, it created an entirely different dynamic,” he said. “That swelled the numbers, too. And Pablo Cruise had just released an album.
“It was the perfect storm,” he said.
Allman said he was happy with how the concerts went, except they never really made much money.
“They all went as we expected,” he said. “But your costs are enormous and everything is paid for up front. Bands won’t play if they aren’t paid in full. We had gourmet dinners made and served to these guys.”
There were unexpected costs as well.
“Robert Palmer came in late to that show and we had to charter a helicopter to bring him in,” he said. “It was a real challenge all the way around.”
Allman said his dad made a bit of money because he charged $1 per car to park.
“That’s how we paid his rent. He took the parking,” he said. “It’s not like we got to do it for free.”
He met the band members.
“They’re nothing like you think they are,” he said. “Most of them are prima donnas and they want everything their way.”
Allman said he learned to negotiate.
“They were all good lessons,” he said. “You couldn’t really enjoy the show because you were the one responsible for everything. You couldn’t relax because you were in charge.”
Allman said he learned a lot, and the small amounts of money they made were used to make site upgrades such as flush restrooms and a concrete stage.
“Any money we made, we plowed right back into the site,” he said. “We had to have an onsite electrician. There was rain insurance. Things you don’t think about. If there was no show, we still had to pay the bands and pay to give everybody their money back.”
The venue continued into the 1980s, hosting smaller concerts and private parties until he said it died a natural death.
“Eventually, we didn’t continue because bands got too expensive,” he said.
His father later sold the land to an adjoining farmer.
But Allman said it was an experience he’ll never forget.
“It was pretty incredible,” he said. “I can’t tell you how exciting it was. It was just off the chart.
“The excitement was non-ending,” he said. “You can’t really explain it to somebody because they’ll think you’re bragging. The adrenaline rush is just amazing. After all the work you put into this, it’s just amazing to see it come together.
“I thought, ‘Here were are, young with a dream, and we pulled this off even through everybody said we couldn’t pull it off from the county on down,'” he said. “It was just phenomenal.”