“We’re not the biggest but we do hope to be the best:” A look at Wakarusa’s beginnings

From humble beginnings in Lawrence, Kan., Wakarusa has grown into a pillar music and camping festival in the Midwest.

Now held at what’s known as Mulberry Mountain outside Ozark, Ark., Wakarusa hosts nearly 20,000 festivalgoers each June who come together to enjoy a diverse variety of live music surrounded by a beautiful Ozarks landscape nestled within the ancient Boston Mountains.

Whether one has attended just once or since its start in 2004, Wakarusians can attest to the magical feelings and experiences this festival can cultivate.

This year’s Wakarusa, set for June 5-8, features a musical lineup headlined by String Cheese Incident, Bassnectar, STS9, The Flaming Lips, Umphrey’s McGee, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and many more.

The EDM lineup is as strong as ever, with names like Infected Mushroom, Adventure Club, Rusko, EOTO, Claude VonStroke, 3LAU, DJ Snake, Alvin Risk, Herobust, and Cherub all set to perform over the four-day festival.

The following is part one of a series of articles resulting from an Electronic Midwest interview with Wakarusa founder Brett Mosiman. In today’s piece, Mosiman explains Wakarusa’s beginnings, its move to Arkansas, and his description of what sets Waka apart from the exploding number of competing festivals.

How did Wakarusa get its start?

“It was a bunch of guys wanting to do a camping festival. We had previously done single day festivals outside of Lawrence, Kan. so we were familiar with Clinton State Park and the people who ran it. It came together really, really quick. This was probably mid-Winter and by March we were already on sale.

The first year was kind of a whirlwind — we didn’t have time to think about it or talk ourselves out of it and before we knew it, there was the first Wakarusa.

It wasn’t financially successful but being there that first weekend was really inspiring. It was a really stark contrast to society. I made comments all weekend that this community that came to Wakarusa just seemed to relaxed, and so happy, and so giving of each other. You could go into town and find the opposite of that. So, we decided to have another and another and now here we are in our eleventh year.”

Where did the name Wakarusa originate?

“It was a Native American name and very common to Lawrence, Kan. — there are Wakarusa roads and rivers but the state park that we were at was actually on a reservoir of the Wakarusa river so that was the original inspiration.

We did some investigating and found it was a Native American word used to describe creek depth — ‘ass deep’ in essence.

Wakarusa 2013 Day 1-5

We like it. Bonnaroo was I think a year old at the time and it had that same feeling. When we made the move to Arkansas we saw no reason to get rid of the name.

From day one, it was really about music and Mother Nature so we’ve always had that “where music meets mother nature” vibe. We went from a state park to a mountain top, added in water falls and float streams and fishing ponds and gorgeous scenery so I think it actually worked better after the move.”

How did you find Mulberry Mountain and decide to use it as the festival site?

“It was a vendor that was aware of our search. We were looking for a new opportunity for Wakarusa and we had looked in Colorado and Southern Kansas and Missouri – really all over – and I got a call or email from a vendor from Chicago saying “you should really check out this Mulberry Mountain.”

I visited shortly after and literally fell in love with it. Within a week we knew it needed to be our home so we signed a long term deal to host Wakarusa there…the first in 2009.

You can look at the aerials and it almost does look like some sort of Aztec clearing. The Northwest Arkansas area is so beautiful and we knew it was perfect for us.

wakarusa mulberry mountain aerial

Mulberry Mountain was originally named ‘Spirit Mountain’ by Native Americans.  We have always thought of it as kind of magic.

It was eventually turned into a blueberry farm from my understanding so that was the cause of the forest clearing and it was operated as that for quite a while.

The current property owners came to it about 10 years ago and really had a vision of doing festivals and events there and put a lot of money into it for structure. It really was one of those field of dreams stories — ‘if you build it they will come’ — and now a couple years later we came knocking on their door and we feel they were the best things to happen to us.”

If you had to describe Waka to someone who’s never heard of it before, what would you tell them?

“Well we really think we have as good of a festival site as as any place in the country so it really does start with Mulberry Mountain…where music meets Mother Nature.

We’re in the middle of a national forest on top of a mountain. The hiking is amazing. You can see videos of the float streams and the waterfalls and the ponds. You can hike, bike, and frisbee golf.

There’s really nothing like it.

You have a lot of these events anymore in parking lots or in rundown fairgrounds or cornfields but we really think we have a destination site.

Other than that, Wakarusa has always been about the community and the people. We’re quoted often as being ‘the little engine that could’ — we’re the festival by music fans for music fans and we mean it.

Wakarusa 2013 Day 1-4

We’ve always reached out to the fans to get their feedback and opinions and I think they sense that. We really do approach it from their perspective and we do things like clean the port-a-potties three times a day and we have enough so there’s never a line and we keep prices really affordable.

We’re not about the corporate money grab. We started our own ticketing company so we could drop our service charges in half.

And of course, it’s also about the music. We think of it as a buffet of music that is as good as any you’ll see. You’ll see five to seven stages…nearly 200 sets of music going from early morning to sunrise. I think we kind of pioneered doing multiple sets –you can see almost every band there because a lot of our artists play several sets over the weekend.

We’re independent. We think of ourselves as maybe the W Hotel — we’re not the biggest but we do hope to be the best.”

Stay tuned for part two of this series, focusing on Wakarusa’s growing art community.

Wakarusa tickets and camping passes are still available via Wakarusa.com.


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Kent Otto

Kent is founder and editor-in-chief. He's always had a love and passion for music of all types, but didn't discover the music festival scene and community until moving to Southern California during his early post-college years. He returned to his roots in the Midwest in 2011 and has since been determined to share the magic and beauty of the music scene with as many as possible. Email kent@edmcalendar.com.