The Enduring Legacy of the “Sunshine Daydream”

Remembering The Grateful Dead’s potluck picnic in Veneta, Ore., 50 years later

Jerry Garcia and Bobby Weir of the Grateful Dead perform “Bird Song” Aug. 27, 1972, in Veneta, Oregon. The famous concert celebrates its 50th anniversary next August. (“Sunshine Daydream,” Grateful Dead Archive, UC Santa Cruz)

By Mac Larsen

Jan. 7, 2022

VENETA, OREGON – On the afternoon of Aug. 27, 1972, Ernie Brown and his friends ran along the Long Tom River channel to sneak into the Grateful Dead concert held on the Olde Renaissance Faire grounds. Climbing over the fence, the young men were caught in the act by Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.

“They stopped me and said, ‘you need to jump back over the fence, or we get to gas you.’ I said, well I'll take the gas, and I proceeded to go ahead and do some nitrous oxide to get in which I thought was worth the $3 admission,” said Brown, a longtime Oregonian and performing artist.

“After being gassed and whatnot, I just remember going pretty much down front and going hog wild dancing and listening to the music.”

Half-naked people smiled and danced as far as the eye could see; 22,000 according to estimates from the Lane County Sheriff’s department. From the sky above, four parachutists careened down toward the sweating crowd.

The performance, now known as the “Sunshine Daydream,” led to a legacy of community aid that still resonates for the concert’s 50th anniversary next year. Long after the band’s trailers had packed up, the food carts had cleaned their dishware, and the last of a miles long traffic jam had been cleared, the concert at the Olde Renaissance Faire grounds would go down as one of Oregon’s most iconic.

“This may be the first time I’ve ever been to Oregon it didn’t rain. And now it’s too damn hot,” Bob Weir said on-stage, recorded on the soundboard of the band’s performance. The crowd cheered. This will be a day that is written into rock and roll history, or at least, the rock and roll history of Oregon.

Separating fact from rock and roll mythology is difficult when tracking the history of the concert, but its legacy is best remembered by those who still celebrate every year at the Oregon Country Fair.

“The fair was just collective energy of people getting together, that's what transferred over into the Dead concert. You had people who've been providing security for the fair, provide security for the concert,” said Suzi Prozanski.  

Prozanski is the author of “Fruit of the Sixties: The Founding of the Oregon Country Fair.” She worked as a journalist for the Eugene Register-Guard and has helped organize the Fair since 1989.

In “Fruit of the Sixties” she connects the “Sunshine Daydream” concert to the early history of the fair. It all began with Sue and Chuck Kesey, owners of the Springfield Creamery, who started a little health food brand called Nancy’s Yogurt.

Nancy’s was named after the creamery’s new bookkeeper, Nancy Van Brasch Hamren, who knew Chuck Kesey’s brother Ken. In 1969, she was tasked with caretaking Ken Kesey’s farm while Kesey, the celebrated Oregon novelist and counter-cultural icon, traveled to London to meet with The Beatles.

By 1972, the Springfield Creamery was facing a large tax bill, so Chuck decided to ask his brother’s friend Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead to help them out.

The band agreed and the concert was billed as a “Potluck Picnic with the Grateful Dead.” The $3 tickets, preserved in the Grateful Dead’s archive at University of California Santa Cruz, were emblazoned with the original Nancy’s Yogurt logo of a laughing cow.

The local commune community in the Eugene area boomed in the 1960s, carrying on the mantle of Kesey’s infamous “Merry Pranksters.” The Pranksters and their psychedelic school bus “Further” began their road trip in Eugene, documented in Tom Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

A ticket stub from the concert, noting the time and place. Hand-drawn to incorporate the Nancy’s Yogurt logo. (Grateful Dead Archive, UC Santa Cruz)

According to documentarian and archivist Adrian Marin, the Grateful Dead brought along filmmakers John Norris and Sam Field to record the performance. The circumstances of a Grateful Dead show did not make this a simple endeavor. Jim Brewer was a local photographer hired after finishing graduate school to assist with filming, and five decades later Brewer still lives in the Greater Eugene area.

“I was kind of standing around with my Nikon, photographing some of the stage construction. I had never actually met Ken Kesey, I had seen him around town and read a couple of his novels by then but had never met the guy,” said Brewer.

“He said: Okay, what are you doing? Take this hammer, climb up that pole and hammer the nail in there so we can rig it. I put my camera down, took a hammer and shimmied up this pole and drove a nail,” Brewer said, amused at his encounter with the famous author.

The poles in question were erected by the Hoedads, a tree-planting co-op founded by Jerry Rust, who’d become a Lane County commissioner four years later in 1976.

“They had land at that time which a couple of legacy people of the Hoedads still own and the lumber they cut down for big poles from that property helped build the stage for the Dead concert,” said Prozanski.

The Grateful Dead performed nineteen songs for almost three hours with late summer temperatures reaching 98 degrees, according to historical weather data from NOAA.

The Eugene Register-Guard reported the subsequent traffic jam. The opening of Don Mack’s article frames the afternoon nicely: “a combination of warm weather, a big name band, free yogurt and food given by the Springfield Creamery, courtesy of the Kesey family, resulted in a monumental traffic jam Sunday as thousands of fans drive to a rock concert held west of Elmira.” Next to the story is a photograph of semi-dressed concertgoers with the caption: “The bare look was in evidence at Sunday rock concert.”

After the concert was over, the Springfield Creamery hadn’t made a single cent. The Grateful Dead decided to give the Kesey’s a $10,000 gift to cover the tax bill.

As for the Oregon Country Fair, in 1982 they held a reunion concert with the Grateful Dead to finalize the purchase of the fairgrounds, which was successful. The 2022 Oregon Country Fair will return in-person after two years of virtual festivities. Brown, Prozanski, Brewer and Marin all plan on attending and celebrating the 50th anniversary of the “Sunshine Daydream.”

The photo from the Aug. 28, 1972, edition of the Eugene Register-Guard, covering the traffic jam that backed up Highway 126 because of the Grateful Dead’s potluck picnic concert. (University of Oregon Historic Oregon Newspapers Collection)