Half a century ago Riverside Park, a combination dance hall, roller skating rink, race track and rodeo ground, was the place to go to see and hear musicians who would become country legends. Among them was Johnny Cash, who as locals tell it, either called Potlatch the meanest or toughest or rowdiest town he ever played.
“That’s not the image we’re projecting now. This is a family event and we’re trying to be nice people,” said Dave Cada, chairman of the Potlatch Riverside Festival Association, with a chuckle.
Return to Riverside will feature local and regional country musicians Saturday at Ponderosa Park. The group hopes it will become a signature event and plans to
use proceeds to help build a bandstand in the city park.
Here’s Riverside’s most famous legend retold using information gathered by Barbara Coyner of Princeton for the Potlatch Historical Society.
The beer was cold and so was the night, Nov. 7, 1958, that Johnny Cash came to town.
The wind was howling and snow was flying. Inside Potlatch’s Riverside
Park, local loggers and millworkers shouldered up to the bar next to college students with familiar and foreign accents. Logs and creosote railroad ties crackled in the glowing woodstove working overtime to heat the octagon-shaped building next to U.S. Highway 95 and, unfortunately each spring when it flooded, the Palouse River.
The locals just called it “Riverside.” Built sometime in the 1930s, it was advertised as the “largest hall and best dance floor in Palouse Country.” In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, it featured Nashville legends like Marty Robbins, Dolly Parton, George Jones, Porter Wagoner, Hank Snow, Little Jimmy Dickens and Faron Young who drew a record-breaking crowd of 900, according to an interview that former owner Leonard Zahnow gave to Coyner in 2014.
Zahnow and his wife, Marlene, tacked posters up in every town from Moscow to Coeur d’Alene to spread word about the show featuring Cash and his Tennessee Two Big Recording Band. Not that people didn’t know who he was. Cash had five songs on the billboard charts that year, including “Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” No. 1 on the country charts and 14 on the pop charts. A week after his Potlatch show he would release the album, “Johnny Cash Sings the Songs That Made Him Famous,” which included “I Walk the Line.” With two weeks notice from the booking agency, they’d landed him for $1,000 plus 70 percent of the gate proceeds as he passed between larger cities. Admission was $2.
Riverside had a reputation as a rowdy place. Potlatch was a company town built by Weyerhaeuser in 1906 and its timber workers liked to blow off steam on the weekends. Some recall young women being told not to go there unescorted. Cash knew rough crowds. He’d started 1958 playing on New Year’s Day at San Quentin State Prison where Merle Haggard was in the audience. Cash took the stage at 9 p.m. and played until 1 a.m. It’s now legend that in a local radio interview Cash supposedly called Potlatch the meanest town he ever played. According to Coyner’s research, the quote has proved impossible to attribute correctly. Some people say Cash referred to the town as “tough” not mean. Others say he called it one of the “rowdiest” towns he ever played. Moscow musician Josh Ritter spread the Cash quote in Paste Magazine in 2006 and at a Moscow concert is said to have quoted Cash as saying it was the “meanest damned town” he ever played, although Ritter was born 18 years after Cash played there. Whatever the choice of words, Riverside seems to have left an impression on Cash and although it fell into disrepair and was dismantled in the 1960s it lives on in local lore.
IF YOU GO
What: Return to Riverside Country Music Festival
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 6
Where: Ponderosa Park, Potlatch
Cost: $10 adults, $5 kids ages 6 to 15, free ages 5 and younger
Tickets: At the gate and in Potlatch at U.S. Bank, Latah Federal Credit Union, BlackBird at the Depot and Hatter Creek Land Company.
Of Note: Gates open at 9 a.m. People should plan to park around town and bring blankets and chairs for seating. Food and drink vendors will be on site. T-shirts will be for sale.
10 a.m. Beargrass
2 p.m. Blue Highway
4 p.m. The Hankers