By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong: August 15, 1969

By on August 15, 2015

Beginning on August 15, 1969, The Woodstock Music & Art Fair — usually just called Woodstock — was held on Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in the Catskills near the hamlet of White Lake in the town of Bethel, New York, 43 miles away from the original site. The cost of renting the land: $75,000. It almost didn’t happen at all.

The whole idea began because two wealthy entrepreneurs signed legally binding contracts with two musicians with the goal of becoming even wealthier. Artie Kornfeld, a vice president of Capitol Records, and and Michael Lang, an aspiring musician, both represented the music-loving counterculture, while John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, two men from wealthy families who were searching for something to do with their lives, were in it for the money.

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John Roberts and Joel Rosenman

They had taken out an ad in the Wall Street Journal“Young Men with Unlimited capital looking for interesting and legitimate business ideas” — which Lang answered, and together they formed a “corporation” called Woodstock Ventures. They wrote up a shareholders agreement, agreeing to take the proceeds of the festival and build a recording studio.

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Artie Kornfeld and Michael Lang

The four had hoped that they could sell as many as 25,000 tickets at $6 each (later $7), and knew if the sales even came near 100,000 they would make incredible profits, but they miscalculated — they didn’t factor in the environmental, travel, and legal problems for a sizable portion of New York State.

Originally Lang had planned for a site near Woodstock, New York, but that fell through because no landowners wanted to lease their property to Woodstock Ventures, and were kicked out of a local meeting in the tow. They later met a farmer named Howard Mills from Wallkill, New York, who was wiling to lease his land to them for $10,000, and he future plans to have an industrial park built on the property after the concert.

Locals realized there would be a lot of drug use in the area, which forced Woodstock Ventures to circulate a memo spelling out the corporation’s strict plans for disciplining anyone arrested for drugs while working on their behalf. The zoning board of Wallkill and the town’s building inspector then refused to issue permits (for building a stage), and now the corporation realized they needed legal assistance in order to work out these issues and deal with the townspeople, who were becoming more and more concerned. They hired the son of a Supreme Court justice, Sam Eager, to deal with local government problems as they arose.

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At a town meeting, local citizens of Wallkill brought up their concerns about safety, moral issues and the overall impact a huge concert event would have on their community, and although the corporation answered their questions, and presented plans, drawings, and contracts, but the meeting got heated, names were called, and the Woodstock Ventures reps realized just how bad it was when they started to hear threats of violence against the Mills and calls from some of the more irate locals to get pitchforks and shotguns and run the hippies out of town.

On July 15, 1969 the Wallkill Zoning Board of Appeals officially banned the concert on the basis that the planned portable toilets would not meet town code. They began looking to find a new location, taking out ads and taking helicopter trips all over upstate New York. Following the ban, Elliot Tiber, who owned the 80-room El Monaco Motel on White Lake in Bethel, New York offered to host the event on his 15 acres. He already had a permit for a White Lake Music and Arts Festival from the Town of Bethel, which was to be a chamber music concert. When it was clear the site was too small, Tiber introduced the promoters to a dairy farmer from Sullivan County, in the Catskills, near the hamlet of White Lake in the town of Bethel, who was willing to make a deal with them. His name was Max Yasgur.

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Tiber initially presented the idea to the corporation, who in turn would present it to the Bethel officials, that Yasgur’s land would rent for $50 for a festival attracting 5,000. On July 20, 1969, Yasgur, meeting with the organizers at a White Lake restaurant, agreed to rent 600 acres for $75,000. Yasgur’s land formed a natural bowl sloping down to Filippini Pond on the land’s north side. The stage would be set at the bottom of the hill with Filippini Pond— which would become a popular skinny dipping destination — forming a backdrop.

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News of the event was leaked to local radio station WVOS (AM) even before Yasgur and the organizers left the restaurant, reportedly by restaurant employees. The organizers paid another $25,000 to nearby residents to rent their land. The organizers once again told Bethel authorities they expected no more than 50,000 people. By the way, during this time, they all stayed at Tiber’s El Monaco Motel, along with members of the band Canned Heat and Arlo Guthrie.

Yasgur — his health wasn’t good, and he needed the income to deal with his astronomical medical bills — also faced enormous local opposition when locals learned that Woodstock would be held at his farm, including boycotts (residents protested at the site of his dairy farm with signs proclaiming, “Buy No Milk. Stop Max’s Hippy Music Festival”) and even threats of having his farm burned down despite being generally well-liked by most of the townspeople who knew him, but the threat made everyone, including Yasgur, even more determined to let the concert, which was by now being billed as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music,” a nod to the beginning of the astrological Age of Aquarius that was believed to coincide with the approaching new millennium. Woodstock Ventures commissioned David Edward Byrd, then the house artist at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East, to design the poster for the Woodstock Festival.

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Yasgur told the Bethel, NY. City Council:

“I hear you are considering changing the zoning law to prevent the festival. I hear you don’t like the look of the kids who are working at the site. I hear you don’t like their lifestyle. I hear you don’t like they are against the war and that they say so very loudly… I don’t particularly like the looks of some of those kids either. I don’t particularly like their lifestyle, especially the drugs and free love. And I don’t like what some of them are saying about our government. However, if I know my American history, tens of thousands of Americans in uniform gave their lives in war after war just so those kids would have the freedom to do exactly what they are doing. That’s what this Country is all about and I am not going to let you throw them out of our Town just because you don’t like their dress or their hair or the way they live or what they believe. This is America and they are going to have their festival.”

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With Yasgur’s assistance, the corporation obtained the appropriate permits from the Town officials, even as locals continued to voice their concerns. They didn’t believe their small town could handle the huge crowds. As one citizen clearly argued, “From the standpoint of health, transportation on the narrow dirt or stone-bedded town road, especially Happy Avenue which abuts my 88 acres will be taxed beyond its physical capacity.” Despite their opposition to concert, Bethel residents did not threaten attendees or Max Yasgur, who as we’ve said was well-liked.

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Although the validity of the permits were challenged heavily by the local citizens right after construction began. Three hundred and twenty two Bethel residents signed a petition organized to oppose the concert, and demanding the town board to issue a stop order for the Woodstock Festival’s permit. There was a heated town board meeting on August 1st, where the head of the zoning board tried to explain the situation to the angry town citizens that the arrangements had been made at a private meeting, therefore it was not the zoning board’s problem.

On August 7, Woodstock Ventures threw a mini concert for the Bethel site workers that featured a roster of local rock bands, along with a performance from an acting troupe called Earthlight Theater. The eighteen-member group staged a musical comedy titled Sex. Y’all Come, during which they stripped naked. It was exactly the kind of thing the locals were worried about. About 800 town residents signed a petition to prevent the Woodstock festival, and even discussed forming a human barricade across the Route 17B “Quickway” that led into town, but people had already started flooding as early as the Tuesday before the festival officially began.

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The residents then took their case to higher level: on August 9th the Bethel petitioners sent a letter to the Sullivan County Supreme Court, claiming that the town board had given authorization to the building inspector to issue a temporary permit, without the consent of the Town zoning board of appeals. They tried to get local law enforcement to enforce a 1967 law that spelled out what meant to “promote the health, safety, morals, and general welfare of [Bethel],” and the Supreme Court of Sullivan County, three days before the start of the concert weekend, debated for several hours before making their decision in favor of Woodstock Ventures.

The news spread across the country like a late-summer wildfire that Woodstock was scheduled for Friday, August 15, through Sunday, August 17. Word was by now spreading out across the country that this wasn’t just going to be a concert, this would going to be a cultural event: “Head north on the New York State Thruway, get off on Exit 16, take the Quickway west , and look for the signs to the show.” Literally thousands of mostly teens and twenty-somethings across the country began making plans to meet up; no self-respecting member of the counter-culture wanted to miss this one, it was going to be epic.

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The corporation — with an on-scene staff of 346 — still had a lot of work to do, scrambling to figure out where people were going to park their cars. They also continued working with NY State police to figure out what they were going to do about crowd control (helping to get a 1967 regulations against “moonlighting” for police overturned so they could have enough cops on-hand), dealing with the local Hog Farm Commune, who agreed to assist with security. The commune had originally planned to have their own “please force” (a pun on police force), and run a free food stand, as well as have an on-sight treatment center for concertgoers who had bad acid trips. The Hog Farm were devout followers of the free love movement, and their peaceful and brotherly manner helped to set the tone for what happened, right from the beginning.

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By now, just days before the concert, young people started to arrive from all over the country, in cars and pickup trucks and station wagons and buses and motorcycles and moon buggies and hearses. Townspeople stood on the curbs in the surrounding villages and watched as a veritable army of semi-naked hippies and bearded freaks rolled into their town in the rolling hills of the Hudson River Valley.

It is estimated that about 500,000 people actually made it to the Woodstock Festival, but Police had to turn away thousands of cars, so who knows how many made the attempt but didn’t actually get to attend. It could have been closer to a million people. By Friday, traffic had literally backed up for as many as fifteen miles, creating the worst jam in the history of upstate New York. Hundreds upon hundreds of cars were temporarily abandoned, and many thousands of fans with tickets were unable to make it to the festival.

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Despite Arlo Guthrie’s stage announcement that “the New York State Throughway is closed, man,” the Throughway remained open during the Woodstock festival. State police, however, did close the Newburgh and Harriman exits for a time in an attempt to keep even more people from streaming to the festival.

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“Automotive casualties looked like the skeletons of horses that died on the Oregon Trail,” wrote Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus. “Fat, bulbous vacationers (for this was Jewishland, the Catskills, laden with chopped liver and bad comedians) stared at the cars and the freaks and the nice kids, their stomachs sticking out into the road. It was a combination of Weekend and Goodbye, Columbus. Here we were, trying to get to the land of Hendrix and the Grateful Dead, all the while under the beady eyes of Mantovani fans.”

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The facilities were not equipped to provide sanitation or first aid for the number of people attending; hundreds of thousands found themselves in a struggle against bad weather, food shortages, and poor sanitation. Although it was supposed to be a profit-making venture for Woodstock Ventures, it famously became a “free concert” only after it became obvious that the event was drawing hundreds of thousands more people than the organizers had prepared for. Around 186,000 tickets were sold beforehand and organizers anticipated approximately 200,000 festival-goers would turn up. The fence was purposely cut in order to create a totally free event, prompting many more to show up.

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During the three days of the Woodstock festival, there were no reported incidents of violence among the half-million people in the audience. We’ll leave you with two quotes that sum up what the experience was like for those who actually attended.

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First, photographer Henry Diltz, who took many of these photos: “The famous thing about Woodstock is that there were so many of us. We were peace-and-love hippies, we were against the war, we were for peace and love and getting along in the world and brotherhood, we all smoked pot…and out of all 400,000 of us, there wasn’t a bad vibe there. It was kind of like, “Hey, we did it!” We showed the world that we really are a viable generation, and that our ideas are correct…”

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Finally, this scene from the directors cut of the Woodstock film. An interviewer from ABC puts a microphone in front of a man wearing a police officer’s uniform:

Interviewer: What do you think about the kids?

Police Officer: From what I’ve heard from the outside sources for many years I was very, very much surprised and I’m very happy to say we think the people of this country should be proud of these kids, not withstanding the way they dress or the way they wear their hair, that’s their own personal business; but their, their inner workings, their inner selves, their, their self-demeanor cannot be questioned; they can’t be questioned as good American citizens.

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Interviewer: That’s kind of surprising coming from a cop.

Police Officer: [smiling] I’m not a cop, I’m the Chief of Police.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.