Woodstock was the concept of four young men, Michael Lang, Artie Kornfeld, John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, Lang, a Brooklynite, had been in Miami in the late 60's, running a head shop and involving himself in the Miami Pop Festival.
After Miami, Lang moved to upstate NY and settled in the town of Woodstock, a rural community known to attract artists. The music scene was incredible. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, all the members of The Band, on and on.
Artie Kornfeld was a Vice President of Columbia Records, and a successful music producer. The two met around 1968 and discussed a business venture: a recording studio in the Town of Woodstock to accommodate the music scene.
Roberts and Rosenman were looking for investment opportunities and placed a classified ad in a NY newspaper soliciting for prospective businesses to finance. Lang and Kornfeld responded to that ad. A decision was made to finance the recording studio by hosting a music festival.
Woodstock Ventures was formed, and the rest is history.
Finding Bethel and Yasgur's Farm didn't happen quickly. Woodstock Ventures had an all star production. What they didn't have was a place to put it.
The Town of Saugerties was home to the first potential site, a large farm near the Town of Woodstock. When rumors of hippies attending the festival leaked, the townsfolk pressured the farmer to rescind his agreement with Woodstock Ventures, which he did.
The second site was about 60 miles away from Saugerties, in the Town of Wallkill. There, codes werse quickly enacted to prevent the possibility of noise. In a 1994 interview, John Roberts declared “the Town of Wallkill imposed noise restrictions so tough it made it illegal for children to play outdoors much less for anyone to host a music festival”.
By July, when things were looking grim for the August festival, Max Yasgur, a dairy farmer in the Town of Bethel, 60 miles in the opposite direction of both Woodstock and Wallkill, was approached. Yasgur agreed to allow the use of a 38-acre alfalfa field for An Aquarian Festival for an estimated 20,000 folks a day. Then, he went home and told his wife.
Soon, word got out that Yasgur was hosting hippies and try as it might, the local government did not have enough time to present, vote and enact the necessary codes that would restrict the gathering and save the local farming community. Those codes would come later.
That was how the Woodstock Festival came to Bethel, NY. It was still called the Woodstock Festival in spite of its new location because, just as it was too late to change the codes, it was also too late to change the advertising.
The biggest voice in government comes from within its smallest component.
In 1969, in rural America, if you owned a piece of land, it was yours to do with as you please. No one regulated private property much less outdoor sleeping. If your yard was big enough and it was ok with you, invite whomever you wanted to come sleep on your land. That was the point of ownership.
And then, Woodstock happened.
In 1969 The Town of Bethel had about 4,000 year round citizens. Most of the families lived in the center of the township. The resort community around the lake swelled the summer population to at least four times that. The western end of town, the Woodstock side, was a rural agricultural zone which was comprised of large tracts of sparsely populated farmland. No matter which side of town you lived in, every house had a private water supply designed to accommodate an average family and a septic system, which when full, needed to be pumped. That system of water and sanitation sustained the 4,000 inhabitants and the summer swell.
Then, one night, in the middle of August, in the middle of the night, approximately half a million of the world's youth descended upon the unsuspecting community while it slept indoors. What they awoke to was a nightmare of biblical proportions.
Every well in the town was running dry. There was a torrential rainstorm which turned the soil into mud everywhere. Farmers watched in anger as their crops were being trampled. The crowds of people and their abandoned vehicles kept goods and services from getting through. This created a traffic jam which is still talked about to this day.
The traffic, which began at Yasgur's Farm, didn't end until 90 miles southeast at the George Washington Bridge in Manhattan. No one could move. The 90-mile stretch of highway became one huge tent city. It took several days to relieve the bottleneck at the bridge before the traffic upstate could budge.
Perhaps more than anything Woodstock is most remembered for carrying on peacefully under those circumstances. Contrarily, this was happening against the backdrop of an undeclared war thousands of miles away, claiming tens of thousands of lives, with no end in sight, and no reasonable explanation for being there. Woodstock reminds us of the better side of ourselves. Woodstock is what we are capable of as a race of people. It is the spirit of Woodstock that transcends politics, race, and religion. It teaches us the benefit of being nonjudgmental and opening up to the possibility of being ourselves. We can get along and even look out for each other because that's who we really are.
Eventually, the battles stopped everywhere but in Bethel. There, in the home of peace, love and music the battle of Woodstock was an annual event. It would be fifty years before the shock of those 3 days wore off the Town of Bethel.
After 1969, outraged townsfolk sued Yasgur for lost crops among other things.
At the same time, Hippies continued to gather on the field every year in growing numbers as if the laws on outdoor sleeping were irrelevant. As if the codes didn't pertain to them. They didn't realize the codes were written for them
As a response to Woodstock, New York State spent much time and tax dollars to write a book of codes which made it illegal for more than however many people can fit into four tents, to sleep outdoors for more than 60 consecutive hours in one year. (NYS Sanitary code 7-2). You may sleep in your vehicle but only if that vehicle is not intended for sleeping. The NYS camping codes are restrictive, hard to understand and mostly ignored.
The objective was to regulate outdoor sleeping in order to regulate gatherings, even on private property, via the invention of permits. The codes can only be selectively enforced because, unless you are applying for the permit to sleep outdoors the authorities would have no way of knowing if there was illegal outdoor sleeping going on.
New York State has 62 counties and 932 townships. The stack of documentation leading to these code developments are known as “The Woodstock Laws”. Bethel is the only town that knows about, and imposes, the Woodstock Laws.
After Max Yasgur died in 1973, his widow, Miriam, sold off the 1,500 non-contiguous acres of the former Yasgur Farm. The original site of Woodstock was returned to an alfalfa field and sold to Louis Nicky, a Brooklyn based businessman. The 100+ acre homestead of Max and Miriam Yasgur was purchased by Roy Howard, a local businessman with deep family roots in Bethel.
For the first twenty-five years one of the arguments raised was over who owned Woodstock. Was it Woodstock Ventures, who owned the license, the townsfolk who owned the surrounding farms and homes and wanted it stopped, the town council who owned the permits which were quite valuable, or the hippies who were creating a market value by spontaneously showing up every year? While all parties argued the gatherings grew and extended for weeks. Hippies didn't believe in licenses or permissions, they preferred kindness and forgiveness. It was becoming apparent that illegal sleeping was still occurring and there was no way to stop it. For twenty-five years, Hippies defiantly slept outdoors and endured arrests, parking tickets and towed vehicles in protest.
It all ended in 1996 when Bethel Woods acquired the 38-acres and turned it into a performing arts center. The site was made inaccessible, whether it be by ditching the perimeter of the field or dropping 10,000 tons of chicken shit on it, the message was clear, the party was over.
That solved town's problem, but it didn't solve the Hippies problem. Their sacred ground was lost to them. When they customarily arrived that August, they were greeted by a heavy police presence, blocked roads and nowhere to sleep. It was wrongly assumed they would go home.
Instead, they spread out. It only got worse. They were all over the place!
That's when Roy Howard did what Max Yasgur did before him. Roy opened his heart and home to the Woodstock Nation. Then, in the tradition of Max Yasgur, Roy went home and told his wife.
The Howards and the Town of Bethel led the Battle of Woodstock annually for twenty-five years. The town imposed an injunction making it illegal for them to do anything without a permit. The violation was a criminal misdemeanor with a $25,000 fine attached to it. Try as they might, the permits were always denied to the couple. It ended when, one August, standing up for freedom of assembly they followed their hearts and opened up anyway. They paid the price. The town won that battle. Everyone lost in the bigger picture.
There are somethings that never die. Woodstock is one of those things. Stopping the annual Reunions does not stop Woodstock. Woodstock is a spirit, so much so that it is now a word recognized around the world. Add “stock” to any gathering and the spirit of Woodstock is there. Every festival since has had its genesis in that spirit.
Some things never die.
Roy Howard died in 2013. He never was able to get the permit for his final farewell to the Woodstock Nation. His heart was broken for that when he passed.
That was not to be the end of Yasgur's.
Max Yasgur and Roy Howard are Bethel's greatest heroes. They put themselves in harm's way to stand up for what is right. Today, the former Yasgur homestead, financed by the estate of Roy Howard, is a permanent home for peaceful assembly, human kindness, the expression of the human spirit through art and music and at long last, permission to sleep under the stars. In honor of Bethel's greatest heroes welcome to the Yasgur Road Campground.
On behalf of Roy Howard and in honor of Max and Miriam Yasgur: Welcome Home! Jeryl Abramson Howard