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The origin of Woodstock

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New York State — Michael Lang gets the most credit—or blame—for launching the original Woodstock Music and Art Festival in 1969, but the three-day event was brought about by Lang and three associates who called themselves Woodstock Ventures. The boys were brought together by a Wall St. Journal advertisement seeking “young men with unlimited capital.” It nearly did not take place at all because local officials in three different locations, as well as many people in the ultimate location, wanted no part of it.

The rocky beginnings of the Woodstock story are laid out in a scholarly paper called “What Can a Hippie Contribute to our Community? Culture Wars, Moral Panics and The Woodstock Festival,” written by Prof. Ronald Helfrich and published in 2010.

At first, Lang, John Roberts, Artie Kornfeld and Joel Rosenman wanted to hold the event in the Village of Woodstock, which had become known as a home to Bob Dylan, The Band and other musicians. Village officials, however, moved to stop it dead in its tracks. Hellfrich writes, “The village board passed health, safety and traffic regulations, basically putting the festival out of business before it had even begun.”

Woodstock Ventures then tried to rent property in Saugerties, not far from Woodstock, but the reception there was just as cold. “The residents and town fathers of Saugerties were no more sympathetic to a rock festival that would draw hippies and what they saw as the inevitable health, sanitation, traffic and safety problems associated with it to their town any more than the citizens and village fathers of Woodstock had been,” writes Helfrich.

Lang and crew then moved on to the Orange County Town of Wallkill, where they reached a deal with a property owner to rent 200 acres of land for the event. Once again, local officials stepped in to block the festival. They quickly drew up and passed an ordinance that required detailed plans of how the organizers intended to deal with food, sewage and other details. The ordinance also called for high levels of property and life insurance.

“A Concerned Citizens Committee, chaired by Frank Jennings, expressed concern about the loud music, pot smoking and traffic the festival would bring and obtained 500 names on a petition opposing holding the festival in Wallkill. John Birchers from nearby Middletown also strongly expressed their opposition to the festival,” Helfrich writes.

On July 14, town officials denied Woodstock Ventures’ petition to hold the event, so Lang and associates turned their gazes to the Town of Bethel in Sullivan County. Woodstock Ventures produced papers showing they had purchased a $3 million insurance policy, and, by July 24, the town board granted permission for the concert to go forward. A disagreement, however, then arose among town officials. Some members of the town zoning board of appeals (ZBA) expressed the opinion that the ZBA also needed to sign off on the event by issuing a special permit, and the board had not done that and had not been included in the approval process.

“This territorial squabbling came to a head at a heated meeting of the town board on in August 1969. At that meeting, the opposition of a number of Bethel leaders to the festival became clear. Richard Joyner, member of the zoning board, presented a petition to the town board containing 322 signatures of town citizens opposed to the festival. At the same meeting, Milton Cobert, president of the Civic Association of Smallwood—an organization whose opposition to the festival, and those who allowed it, became particularly apparent in the months after the festival—asked members of the town board whether a building permit had been issued to Woodstock Ventures, allowing the construction of a stadium. Highway Superintendent Clark said that no such permit had been issued.”

Eventually, Town of Bethel Supervisor Daniel Amatucci, along with other members of the town board and the town attorney, decided that a permit from the ZBA was not necessary for the event to go forward.

Woodstock Ventures took a number of steps to address the concerns of the local residents, such as agreeing to hire nearly 150 off-duty New York City police officers to provide security at the festival. Helfrich writes, “Despite these preparations, local opposition to the festival did not diminish. Max Yasgur’s wife, Miriam, recalled that a sign that appeared just prior to the exposition urged town residents not to buy the milk from her ‘hippie-loving’ husband [the festival was held on Yasgur’s property].”

The weekend eventually came and so did the hippies in their hundreds of thousands, with most estimates saying the event drew more than 400,000 people. It turned out the NYC Police Department would not allow officers to moonlight as security guards.

Helfrich writes, “Neither the festival organizers nor the town of Bethel could handle such a large influx of people. Traffic into the festival grounds was backed up for miles. As a result, festival-goers abandoned their cars and walked or hitchhiked to Yasgur’s farm. Areas set aside for campgrounds were unable to accommodate all the festival-goers. Squatters began to camp anywhere they could near the festival site, on land without water, waste disposal and sanitary facilities. They left garbage in their wake, crushed crops beneath their feet, and swam and bathed in ponds utilized by cattle for their water needs.

“Despite all of this, a type of order developed out of this ‘chaos.’ The citizens of Sullivan County, the promoters and the festival-goers generally responded to a difficult situation with compassion, kindness, good will and even humor. Many residents near the festival grounds gave water, food, parking space and camping space to those who had come to experience Woodstock. The Jewish Community Center in Monticello provided food to concertgoers. The local Red Cross gave them blankets. Residents with first aid experience moved to help the overtaxed medical facilities at the festival grounds.”

As local residents are well aware, the divisions over the Woodstock Festival in Bethel and Sullivan County ran deep and lasted for decades. For some, now 50 years on, the ghost of Woodstock still triggers bad memories. But for many in the community, the legacy of Woodstock has become a source of pride, as reflected in Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.

The full article by Helfrich can be found on his blog: www.bit.ly/TRRhelfrich.

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