Woodstock 1969

The poster for the festival

Legendary music fest — an hour away — was 50 years ago this weekend

By Michael Turton

Fifty years ago this weekend, a music and arts festival took place on Max Yasgur’s farm southwest of Woodstock that drew as many as 500,000 people and more than 30 performers, from Richie Havens’ opening set on Friday afternoon to Jimi Hendrix’ iconic take on “The Star-Spangled Banner” on Monday morning.

We asked 10 Highlands residents who attended Woodstock — which took place in Bethel, about an hour’s drive due west of Beacon, on Route 17B — to share their recollections.

John Timmons

I was 22. The size of the crowd was overwhelming. I got a spot about 100 feet from center stage and started using substances, like everyone else.

I had a tent site but didn’t want to lose my spot. I stayed there for three days and don’t remember sleeping, eating or going to the bathroom. I had a 3-inch reel-to-reel and recorded everything.

After Hendrix, I needed to crash for the day and headed for my tent, walking through thick mud. A station wagon passed by and ran over my foot. The passenger window rolled down — it was Hendrix. He said, “I’m so sorry man! Are you OK? Can we help?” They drove me to my campsite. I didn’t ask permission but recorded the conversation. I got Hendrix’ autograph, which years later was stolen by a junkie.

Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock

When I played the tape in my tent I realized I had erased the day’s music. I still have a bunch of the tapes in my garage. They’re pretty poor quality.

I didn’t even know my brother Tom was there until a week later. I had an extra ticket but didn’t want to ask him. I wanted to take a lady, but that didn’t happen.

The Who pretty much destroyed my hearing at Woodstock.

Timmons is a Cold Spring native who lives in Colorado.

Tom Timmons

My most vivid memory is of Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” That, and Canned Heat.

We brought in food and also got a lot from The Hog Farm [a hippie commune founded by Wavy Gravy]. We slept in a tent, stayed all four days. The mud was a hassle but also fun to slide in. Finding a decent portable toilet was not easy.

I saw no fights, no arguments, no unpleasantness. We shared everything. I saw a guy give away his shoes. There was no end to the generosity. There was pot everywhere. Some stands sold it, others gave it away.

My brother Jerry drove a bunch of us there in a blue 1965 Ford van we called “the barn bus.” Anyone from Cold Spring knew the barn bus. He dropped us off and went home and picked up another bunch of kids and somehow found his way back to us on back roads — every main road was shut down. He rolled up to our tent in the middle of this sea of hippies, like Moses leading the tribes to the Promised Land.

Timmons lives in Pennsylvania.

Gary Arceri

We were among the last people to get in before the highway was shut down. People were sitting on the roofs and hoods of cars, hitching rides. The tent city went for miles. Our friend stayed with his car and, like many people, he never saw the concert. Jefferson Airplane drove past us in a station wagon; Grace Slick was sitting on the tail gate.

The first night we ran into friends from Long Island who had built a house out of hay bales. They also had a 10-man army tent. We brought whole-wheat bread, big jars of peanut butter and jam, a gallon of Gallo wine, and a half pound of Vietnamese marijuana that soldier friends had brought back.

Grace Slick at Woodstock

On Saturday night we sat by the stage and fell asleep in the mud. At 6 a.m., Jefferson Airplane came out; they were apparently tripping. Grace Slick said: “We’ve had our sunshine this morning. Have you?” They sang “Volunteers,” a protest song, and put on a tight set for people who were probably high.

It may be passé now but at night when they asked everyone to light a match or their lighter, it illuminated the whole area. It might have been the start of that.

There were no problems. No one was hustling anyone. People didn’t even barter. The police were congenial; they saw how well-behaved the hippies were.

People slid in the mud like they were 10 years old. My girlfriend and I swam naked in the lake; people handed us soap and shampoo. Farmers went by in speed boats, gawking. Their kids were already there!

There was a free kitchen. Farmers donated hundreds of pounds of hamburger. A local store handed out peanut butter and jam sandwiches.

They’d make announcements from the stage: “A baby was just born,” “If you took the brown acid it’s not poison — but it’s crap.” They had a detox tent.

Woodstock was like coming home in a sense. If you were a hippie like I was at the time, living on Long Island, you were ostracized, picked on and hunted by narcs based solely on your looks. At Woodstock everyone looked like me.

Arceri is co-owner of the Ellen Hayden Gallery in Cold Spring.

Terry Lahey

I drove my son Patrick there. We went to a bar not far from the site. The bartender was a former state trooper who offered to take Patrick into the festival. He said it was calmer inside than outside the gates. My son Terry went up too, with Jerry Timmons. My sons stayed until it was over and came back to Cold Spring with Jerry in his barn bus.

Lahey lives in Cold Spring.

Mary Kulis Rapp

I was 16, living in Queens. My older sister, her boyfriend, my best friend and I stayed in a tent on someone’s lawn. We got water from the spigot on the house. I remember eating Cheez Whiz from a can and crackers.

Mary Kulis Rapp didn’t have to use her tickets; by the time she arrived, the fences had come down. (Photo provided)

We arrived in White Lake just before dawn on Friday. We found a place to park and started walking the mile to the festival. Just before we reached the site, we were approached by a young man in a Mad Hatter hat. He told us: “The gates are down! They pulled down the gates!” No tickets would be collected. I held on to my three-day pass, which had cost $18.

When the music started on Friday afternoon, it was already packed. We were so far back that we couldn’t see anything, but I remember the smell. It was like a cloud of cannabis was hanging over us. My favorite musical memory was Richie Havens opening the show.

Rapp lives in Philipstown.

Cassandra Saulter

The roads leading to Yasgur’s farm were where the magic began. Cars were crawling, some were stopped, so all shared, adapted and made it festive. That was Friday. We arrived after sundown. Trees were backlit by the illuminated stage. The voice of Joan Baez was an unforgettable welcome. She sang “Joe Hill,” a cappella, and it rang through the night sky.

Cassandra Saulter’s painting, “Post Woodstock,” depicts the tumultuous 1960s.

Our exit was equally memorable. We were still there on Monday when the masses were minimized. “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Hendrix created a warm glow in the late-morning rain. In my memory, the promise was complete, three days of peace, music and, especially, cooperation.

Later, I painted “Post Woodstock” (left) a 4-foot by 4-foot acrylic on canvas that captures many of the events of the tumultuous 1960s.

Saulter lives in Cold Spring.

Toni Vitale

I was 17; there were just so many people, I couldn’t believe it. Back then there wasn’t technology to get the word out. I thought I was going to a small concert! People were pouring in, riding on top of cars. As we entered, someone came out and a guy asked him what it was like inside. He said, “It’s a real bummer — no one showed up!”

We stayed at my brother’s in Middletown. He knew Max Yasgur and was busy working at The Hog Farm. I never did find him.

It was blazing hot that first day and we had brought nothing. People offered us water. When Richie Havens opened, singing “Freedom,” it was remarkable, beautiful. I remember looking at all those people and thinking this really is freedom. It was a unique event that cannot be recreated. I’m glad the anniversary concert fell through.

Vitale lives in Garrison.

Jim Platz

I have a very vague memory of the event and I didn’t even take any drugs! I drove there in my new 1968 VW convertible, traveling with a carton of Lucky Strikes, a few six-packs of beer, and a soon-to-be ex-wife.

We stayed for three days, camping in the backyard of a gracious senior citizen. We shared the yard with a few Hell’s Angels without any issues at all.

I vividly remember the announcements that this person or that person needed to take their meds. That was scary. I recall how much fun everyone had in the cow-pasture mud, and the scent of pot and patchouli oil. Patchouli oil seemed to help define that era.

What pleases me most now are folks’ expressions when I tell them I was there.

This year I was near the Coachella Festival in the California desert, mixing with some concert goers. I told them I was at Woodstock and I’m not sure they knew what it was. Another geezer moment!

Platz, a former Garrison resident, lives in Colorado.

Leonora Burton

I was in my 20s, working in New York City for Fred Weintraub, director of creative services at Warner Brothers. Because Fred owned The Bitter End in Greenwich Village, where many musicians, including Joan Baez, got their start, independent film producer Mike Wadleigh came to us wanting to do a documentary about Woodstock.

A scene from the Woodstock documentary

Wadleigh had no money and asked Warner Brothers to fund it, which they did in exchange for the distribution rights. When the film came out, we started getting letters from people who were in it, saying they were suing because they had not given permission. Warner Brothers’ lawyers would reply, pointing out that because the film was a documentary, a release was not required. Woodstock won the 1970 Academy Award for best documentary.

Burton owns The Country Goose in Cold Spring.

Rich Kaplan

It’s the spirit of Woodstock that matters most — peace, love and music. I was 16 and remember it being cold and wet, a lot of chaos, eating peanut butter without bread. The guy I went with drove his mother’s car and she needed it back. We waited at least two hours in line to use a pay phone; we called her but there was no answer. We didn’t call again. We were supposed to stay for one day but we knew we weren’t going to leave.

After we got home, a friend called who was still at the site and said he needed a ride. We picked him up somewhere on the highway and all he had were his pants.

I went back 30 years later and bought a peace-sign pendant made from the fence. I believe it really is from that fence.

Kaplan owns Max’s on Main in Beacon.

The Woodstock Whisperer

By Chip Rowe

On Friday, Aug. 15, 1969, Jim Shelley and a high school friend, Tony Tufano, began their drive from New Jersey to the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.

They brought sleeping bags; a 35mm camera loaded with a roll of Kodachrome slide film; and meal money. When they reached Route 17B on Friday, they found themselves at the end of a 12-mile line of cars, he recalled. They parked at a closed restaurant and slept in the car.

Jim Shelley at Bear Mountain State Park in 1969, a few weeks before the Woodstock Festival.

At 6 a.m. the next day, the road had become a parking lot four lanes wide — the road and shoulders — pointed toward the festival, he said. The men began to walk. Farmers posted signs along their fields: “Cattle corn, do not eat.” The state police said, “Just ahead.”

When they reached the festival, “we found a spot 100 yards from the stage toward the left,” Shelley recalled. “The music began about 2 p.m. but the evening had bigger names and the music got stronger. The scent of grass overpowered the smell of hay and Tony and I likely got a contact high.”

During the Incredible String Band’s set, the men searched for food. Someone gave them oranges. Otherwise, “Tony and I hardly moved the time we were there” except to use portable toilets. That evening, “we meandered to the Food for Love tents. Empty. Neither food nor love.”

In 2011, Shelley, who is a retired high school teacher, began volunteering as a docent at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, on the site of the festival. Hearing about his experiences, one visitor said, “You’re like a Woodstock Whisperer,” which stuck.

For more of Jim’s photos, see woodstockwhisperer.info.

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