The tubing business has been a constant wellspring (well, except that one year they banned alcohol on the Apple River). The once-prevalent row of strip clubs came and went (well, except that one out on Hwy. 35). The old liquor laws are definitely changed (that one crazy era when 18-year-old Twin Citians could drive across the border to drink).
For those reasons and more, the rural western Wisconsin town of Somerset has long been on the radar for young Minnesota fun-seekers. Arguably the one thing that kept it a hotbed of hedonistic activity in the '90s and early '00s, however, was the concert business. But even that slowed to a trickle in recent years.
The muddy heavy-metal festivals of old dried up around 2005. A costly country music fest held there the past three years finally went belly up last year. Were it not for Jack Johnson, who has played River's Edge four times in recent years, Somerset likely would have lost its place on the back of concert T-shirts.
Now comes a hip, two-day indie-rock festival that's part of a bold reinvention of Somerset's tubers + tents + ticketed-concerts formula.
Next weekend's SoundTown Festival is Somerset's first big concert of the year. It's also the first event ever hosted by Matt Mithun, the 34-year-old son of Minneapolis advertising mogul Ray Mithun, who bought up the 60-acre Float-Rite Park amphitheater grounds last year as well as an adjacent 100-acre plot of farmland. He hopes to turn the two properties into the one big haven for music festivals and other big campout events.
"There was already a lot of groundwork and infrastructure here for hosting concerts," Mithun said. "It would've been a shame to see it go to waste."
If it succeeds, SoundTown could introduce a new generation of music fans to the scenic river town and its colorful history. Here is a primer for those newbies on its sometimes rocky past.
1938 (down the tubes): While local legends vary, the most often-cited account of the first professional tubing business in the former logging town begins around this time at the Terrace nightclub and restaurant on the Apple River. Then a plug in Life magazine in '38 really opened the floodgates.
1953 (dam): Northern States Power Co. remakes the Apple River dam nearest Somerset, greatly increasing water-flow control.
Late 1960s (quite a stink): Problems with sewage overflowing into the river hurts tubing companies for several years before the local plant is upgraded. Amazingly, it didn't stop business altogether.
1976 (teenage wasteland): Minnesota boldly raises its legal drinking age one whole year, from 18 to 19, setting off a decade of interstate beer runs to Wisconsin border towns, where the age remains 18.
1981 or 1982 (hell breaks loose from Georgia): The exact year is a bit of a blur (go figure), but the first major concert held at Float-Rite Park features the Charlie Daniels Band, still hot from "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."
1985 (a dry run): Prompted by too many empty beer cans and empty-headed incidents, alcohol is banned from the river. The ban lasts a whole month before its impact is deemed too severe on local businesses.
1994 (into the "Black"): Stage upgrade at River's Edge draws Metallica and 21,000 fans.
1994-99 (on the Edge): Float-Rite hosts six annual Edgefests, sponsored by alt-rock radio station the Edge (93X's predecessor), with the likes of Green Day, the Ramones, Violent Femmes, Soul Asylum, No Doubt, Garbage, Iggy Pop, Korn and Faith No More -- the latter five of whom all opened for Candlebox in year No. 3.
1997 (hell breaks loose from Somerset): With Black Sabbath and Marilyn Manson on the lineup, Ozzfest is bounced out of Float-Rite Park to the Metrodome following protests by local residents fearful of the "satanic rock concert."
1998 (a giant two-fer): Ozzfest and the Warped Tour are held together as one concert for one day only, drawing 39,000 fans and bringing national media attention to Somerset.
2000-05 (banging away): Edgefest becomes the 93X Fest. Along with several more returns by Ozzfest, metal rules at Float-Rite.
2008-10 (country thud): The ambitious Apple River Country Splash at Float-Rite fails to land the big crowds to pay its big-name headliners Kenny Chesney, Rascal Flatts, Gretchen Wilson and the Zac Brown Band. Chesney would be among the many creditors to file suit against organizers for nonpayment.
2011 (a new Sound): Sold through a sheriff's auction, Float-Rite's concert venue is renamed Somerset Amphitheater and expanded to include 100 extra acres for camping, which are being readied for next weekend's SoundTown festival with the Flaming Lips, New Pornographers and other favorites from the Current (89.3 FM) rotation.
- Look for an extended feature on the Somerset Ampitheater's new owner and its rebirth from a post-Country Splash bankruptcy in this week's Vita.mn or Friday's Variety section of the Star Tribune.
- Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisRstrib