Woodstock Then and Now


Welcome to the Woodstock - Preservation Archives
Dedicated to the Historic Preservation of the Site of the 1969 Woodstock Festival

THE WOODSTOCK SITE
Hurd & West Shore Rds
Sullivan County
Bethel  NY



WOODSTOCK THEN AND NOW:

 

THEN:  It was the summer of 1969.  Gasoline cost 28-cents a gallon at the pump, and the attendant pumped it for you.  You could fill your tank for about $5, and while the tank was filling, the attendant washed your windshield and offered to check your oil.  He usually smiled cheerfully.

 

Richard M. Nixon was living in the White House.

 

Computers cost millions of dollars and were hidden behind thick walls in banks and government building.  No one was allowed inside the “computer room.”  No one had a computer in their home...Or a microwave, cell phone, or even cordless phone.

 

There was no AIDS.

 

The Beatles were still together making albums.

 

I was 18 years old just graduated from high school in Rhode Island.  A high school buddy of mine, Richard, and I went to the Newport Jazz Festival one weekend and saw Led Zeppelin, Johnny Winter, B.B. King, and others.  It was quite amazing to see some guy named Jimmy Page play an electric guitar with a violin bow (Dazed and Confused from Led’s first album).

 

A couple weeks later, we read in the local underground newspaper about a festival to be held in New York that would feature an amazing line up of bands:  The Who, Grateful Dead, Sly and the Family Stone, Joe Cocker, Joan Baez, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Iron Butterfly, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, 10 Years After, and on and on.  We shared this information with our friends and about a dozen of us decided we’d go and check it out.  I had been to New York only once – in 1964 – with my parents to see the World’s Fair when I was 13.  We thought this would be a fun adventure…this thing they called the Woodstock Festival – 3 Days of Peace, Love, and Music.

 

We were a bit disappointed that some great bands would not be there.  It would have been nice to see the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Doors, Jethro Tull, Frank Zappa, etc.; but, hey, this was an impressive line up of bands.  A lot more than we had seen at Newport.

 

As the time got closer, however, all our friends backed out of going.  But Richard and I were still going to this Woodstock Festival thing.

 

In those days, we all hitch-hiked rides to wherever we needed to go.  If you stood out on the highway and stuck out your thumb, within minutes, a “hippie-van” would drive by.  There’d be a long-haired hippie (also called a “freak”) driving, and he/she would stop and pick you up.  You’d make a new friend (even though you’d probably never see him again).  Richard and I figured it would be fun to hitch to this Woodstock festival.

 

Our Moms had a different idea.  They wouldn’t let us hitch-hike.  If they knew in advance what they knew a few days after the festival, they probably wouldn’t have let us go at all!  My mom insisted that we take the bus, not hitch-hike.  What a drag, we thought! A Greyhound bus!?!

 

We figured we’d pretend to go along with our parents’ plan, and then just hitch a ride on our own when we were out of their sight.

 

No such luck.  My mom insisted on giving Richard and me a ride to the Greyhound station.  She made sure we bought our bus tickets and watched us climb up the steps to get on the bus.  She waved goodbye as the Greyhound puffed and snorted its way out of the Providence Rhode Island station heading for New York City.  It was about 8am on Friday morning, August 15, 1969.  Richard and I had a few sandwiches our Moms made for us, and a couple sleeping bags.  We also had our tickets safely tucked away in a pocket of our bell-bottom jeans.

 

Turned out, the bus was an excellent idea.  (Thanks, Mom!)  We had to go to New York City then make a connection onto another bus that would take us to a little New York town we’d never heard of - called Bethel.  Or was it White Lake?  We didn’t know, but the old bus driver guy knew where to let us off.  Turned out, this second bus from New York City to Bethel was filled with hippie-freaks.  We were “home on the bus” – with 50 of our best friends we’d never met before – all heading to the same festival together, rapping and sharing on the bus.

 

We had no idea what roads we were on geographically.  Only that we were going to this “Woodstock Festival” to see some good music groups.  When the bus driver told us all to get off, we all piled out of the bus.  It was about 3pm.  ((We had no idea at the time that this was the intersection of Route 17b and Hurd Road)).

 

There was a “package store” (a place to buy beer) right at the stop.  Since the drinking age in Rhode Island at that time was 21, but in New York was 18, I was able to buy my first legal beer.  There were dozens of freaks in the package store buying beer, and the store owner didn’t even raise the price to take advantage of good business.  Everyone was cool.  Even the Establishment.

 

Richard and I (my name is John, by the way) were thirsty and enjoyed the beer as we walked up a road (Hurd Road heading toward West Shore Road, but we didn’t know it at the time) this hot summer day toward the festival field.  There were hundreds of other freaks walking along with us.  Not crammed shoulder-to-shoulder, but a great bunch of friendly freaks all strolling up the road coming to listen to the music groups.  A few tables were set up on the side of the road with signs selling hash, LSD, mescaline, THC tabs and other forms of entertainment out of huge mason jars the size you see at deli sandwich joints where they sell pickles and hot peppers – about $2 a hit.  Electricity was in the air as we all felt such closeness with all the other hippies even before entering the festival grounds.

 

A couple blocks up the road, some people told us the festival had become a free concert, and we should just walk over to the right and up over the little hill, over a small fence (which was lying down on the ground), to the stage area.  I had already bought a ticket ($18 for the whole weekend – what a deal, even at 1969 prices), but we walked over the hill anyway.  We figured we’d avoid the line at the ticket gate.

 

When we topped the hill, we had a view of the festival field.  The stage was in plain sight, and there were thousands (maybe 10s of thousands) of people sitting comfortably on the soft ground facing the stage.  Richard and I just stood there in awe at the number of people and the beauty of the hill, and the closeness and clarity of the stage, and the size of the speakers and scaffolding.  We silently took it all in, each of us thinking “I’m glad we came to this after all.”  After a few moments, we turned to each other and said “Wow, a lot of people came to this concert.”  Yes, it was a lot bigger than Newport!

 

We settled into a comfortable plot of real estate, faced the stage, and introduced ourselves to our neighbors.  There was an aura of peace, love, camaraderie, and sharing, on this clear, pleasant Friday afternoon.  Within about a half hour, the music started playing.

 

The rest is history.                                                                         

 

It was really something special to have heard Arlo Guthrie tell us that “the New York State Thruway is closed, Man” and to hear just how scared Crosby, Stills, and Nash were to be playing in front of so many people.  On Sunday morning, when they announced they would be serving “breakfast in bed…” thanks to Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farm Hippie Commune, we slowly worked our way toward the food, stopping at the Port-o-Sans on the way.

 

We met a nice couple on Sunday evening who gave us a ride back to New York City.  We left Festival Field at midnight Sunday night, so we missed Jimi Hendrix’s Monday morning performance – bummer (I never did get to see him live, since he died a couple years later, along with Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin).  When we returned to Providence on Monday, our parents – who had been reading and listening to the news -- asked us about the “disaster area” the “sea of mud” and the deaths, drugs, lack of food, torrential rain, etc., and asked us desperately if we were OK.  We hadn’t heard much about this negative stuff since we weren’t spending the weekend reading the newspapers.  Sure it rained, but that didn’t seem to interfere with the love, peace, music, and amazing experience we’d had that weekend.  We informed our parents that it was perhaps the best weekend of our lives, and we were just fine, thank you.  As it turned out, that experience left us never to be the same again………

 

NOW:  It was the summer of 2004.

 

In 35 years, I had never been back to the site of that Festival.  A “lifetime” has gone by for me.  I’m 53 years old now.  Spent four years in college after high school graduation, completed a masters degree in graduate school, taught high school math for five years, moved to Virginia, and built a career in information technology and information security for 26 years, got married, have four incredible children, ran 3 marathon races, and am now approaching retirement.

 

But Woodstock has never left my blood.  I’m still a hippie at heart, though I’ve grown more conservative in some ways as I’ve aged.  I guess the necessity of being a responsible husband, father, mentor to the younger generation, and responsible contributor to our great country and my local community has tempered some of my wildness.

 

This year, I thought I’d make the pilgrimage back to Bethel…back to the garden…to the reunion at Roy and Jeryl’s place – the homestead of Max Yasgur…visit the original site…maybe buy beer again at that package store (if it’s still there)…walk up the road and look at the field again…listen to the music at the Reunion…chat with the returning hippie freaks…play some guitar music reminiscent of the Woodstock Generation 1969 era.

 

This time it was different.  Thanks to the Internet, I was able to connect with Roy and Jeryl and their web site, join the Internet chat rooms, join the Woodstock1969 e-group, and find suitable accommodations at a local hotel (since there was dispute as to whether it was legal to “camp.”)  I have to admit, at this point in my life, I didn’t want to sleep on stony ground, in the mud, in the rain, not having a shower, etc.  I stayed at a chain hotel in Liberty – about 10 miles from Bethel.  Glad I did, too, ‘cause it rained and got real muddy.  The hotel had a nice, free breakfast included and a good, strong, hot shower, as well as a comfortable bed.  I went with an adult friend of mine who was too young to have gone to the original Woodstock Festival, but who shares the Woodstock mentality.  Our wives and children would not have been interested in joining us.

 

The people at the reunion were wonderful. It was organized, safe, well-appointed, plenty of vendor food, easy access in and out, secure, legal, controlled (though not oppressive).  It was great to see Yasgur’s homestead, sit on the field, mingle with the campers, listen to the music in the camp area, and generally stroll around.

 

We also took a ride up Hurd Rd. and stood at the Woodstock Memorial.  It was breath-taking to see the festival field again after 35 years.  It struck me how much it looked the same.  That is, the land contour was unchanged.  This time, it was quiet and peaceful.  No one else was there.  It was almost a religious experience to stand in the quiet and take it all in.  I could find the approximate place on the hill where Richard and I had sat 35 years ago.  I could mentally walk the path from our place on the hill to the Hog Farm hippie commune to get the food they distributed on Sunday morning.  I could see where the stage had been set up and where all the bands played so long ago.  I took a couple pictures.  After awhile, another car drove up and three people got out to see the site.  We chatted for awhile about the old times, and then we returned to the Reunion site.

 

I don’t know that I’d go back again.  But, I am certainly glad to have returned to that geographical site and that place in my heart.  Woodstock is a place we carry with us wherever we go.

 

I guess in some ways, you can take me out of Woodstock, but you can’t take Woodstock out of me.

 

John



Used with Permission
Edited for this website
 





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