By Jeff Blumenfeld
Originally published in The New Times Watkins Glen Edition, 7/28/73.
Presented with thanks to The New Times, Mr. Blumenfeld, and Paul Lichtenberger, who supplied an original copy of the newspaper.
For $85,000 the family of Max Yasgur will sell you the 40-acre birthplace of the Woodstock Nation. While some attribute historical value to that particular tract of land outside Monticello, N.Y., the price merely reflects the going rate for 40 acres of fertile soil in the Catskill Mountain farming community of Bethel.
Most of the land that once belonged to the late Max Yasgur has been sold, yet the “festival field” was one of the last to go because Max and his wife Mimi were sentimentally attached to the property.
When Woodstock entrepreneurs Michael Lang and John Roberts were driven out of Wallkill, N.Y. (40 miles further down Route 17), the maverick dairy farmer rented his land to them for $50,000, despite personal threats against his life and a threatened boycott of his milk.
Two years ago, during a late-night interview with The New York Times, Yasgur said: “I told Lang and Roberts, ‘If you fellows can get complete approval from all safety authorities, you can rent my property.'” Some of the Sullivan County elders were outraged at Yasgur’s proposal. At one of the last town board meetings held before the event, Yasgur was present to defend himself from county and state safety officials.
Yasgur asked each official if there were any legal stipulations within their respective departments that hadn’t been met to accommodate the expected 40,000 people per day. When no reservations were raised, he addressed the entire meeting: “So the only objection to having a festival here is to keep longhairs out of town?” A murmur of dissent swept through the heavily conservative Republican crowd, and Yasgur bellowed: “Well, you can all go pound salt up your ass, because come Aug. 15, we’re going to have a festival!” He stormed out of the room, and the rest became rock history.
In the years to follow, as he sold his business and retired to a winter home in Florida, he became a realtor. It was hard to keep a sign in front of his home, he said, because anything with the name Yasgur on it was a collector’s item.
He could have been a rich man in those post-Woodstock days. All he had to do was join forces with the hip capitalists who approached him with schemes to market Yasgur-for-President T-shirts, Yasgur posters and milk from Yasgur cows. Max refused to prostitute himself that way. He said once: “I’ll be god-damned if I’ll capitalize on what was an accident!”
The use of drugs on his land, however, bothered him a great deal; LSD in particular. “Any kid I can get off from drugs means more to me,” he commented, “than endorsing some nutty product.” Before he died, hundreds of festival-goers wrote to say that as a result of Woodstock and the personal ideals Max publicized later on, they quit drugs. As Yasgur put it: “To me this means everything.”
Ticket sales for the current Watkins Glen Summer Jam have reached near Woodstock proportions, and the state hasn’t seen anything like it since 1969. In early 1971, Yasgur remarked: “The worst thing about Woodstock was that there were just too many. I wouldn’t have done it if I knew there were going to be half a million instead of 40,000…Bethel is a rural town and can’t service a crowd that big…I have no right to have any kind of affair that would block vital services from reaching my neighbors.”
Max Yasgur died Feb. 8 in Marathon, Fla. of a heart ailment. Three days later, 300 of his neighbors attended the funeral in Monticello. Recently, Mimi Yasgur said in a telephone interview: “Someone mentioned to me how strange it was that none of the young people who had come back so often before made it to the funeral.”
Some did come back, but didn’t want to disturb the family by crowding the services. A neighboring Bethel farmer passing the site after the funeral told Mrs. Yasgur that a group of young people had gathered at the field. “We just wanted to say goodbye to Max in our own way,” they told him.
There’s not much left at the festival site to see anymore. The charred traces of campfires still dot the woods surrounding Lake Shore Drive and Hurd Road, but one of the last remaining structures, the skeleton of the performer’s tent, was recently torn down.
Local residents objected to the magnetic attraction it had upon an endless stream of youths who continue to drive through those back roads. The owner of the land directly opposite the stage location was pressured into removing the “eyesore.”
Originally the Yasgurs wanted to donate five acres overlooking the festival crossroads to the Town of Bethel. They had intended to turn the wooden platforms and lean-tos into a park area, but the idea fell through when the community indicated a park would not be welcome. A short while ago, Mrs. Yasgur admitted: “The community did not want to encourage young people to come into the area.”
Employers at nearby resort hotels, summer tourists, and even some local residents come back to stop and walk among the alfalfa, or just slow down to picture 400,000 people in their mind’s eye. Each year there’s talk of erecting some sort of monument to commemorate the event.
Before Woodstock, the only thing Sullivan County could mark in it was an Indian raid during the Revolutionary War and the opening of the Ontario and Western railroad 100 years ago. Although the tourist guide books proudly commemorate the two earlier events, for the past four years the people of Bethel have opposed any publicity in connection with the Woodstock Aquarian Exposition and Music and Art Fair.
Earlier this month a Monticello reporter proposed to buy (store fixtures) the land and turning it into an attractive park to bolster the region’s economy. He recommended buying Max Yasgur’s home and turning it into a festival museum for such memorabilia as Joan Baez’ maternity dress, Janis Joplin’s love beads, a Port-O-San outdoor toilet and a spectacular lighted diorama, a la Gettysburg.
Mrs. Yasgur, however, isn’t about to sell her home or the 70-acres that surround it. “My home is not for sale,” she says. “Certainly not right now!”
Mrs. Yasgur is going through her husband’s papers and stacks of correspondence from throughout the world. In another box is a collection of tapes that she has yet to play because of the deep emotional impact they would have upon her. Before he died, Yasgur completed five chapters of a book he was collaborating on, and all the material has been recorded.
Back in 1971, Yasgur began work along a different theme. The Woodstock Letters would have been a compilation of his favorite correspondence. Work on the title was cancelled when publishers convinced him people would be more interested in an autobiography than in a collection of letters.
For months Yasgur balked, arguing that he was only the “landlord” and really had nothing to do with the festival. Yet with his “I’m a farmer…” speech he became a father image for Woodstock 1969 and its patron saint. He eventually realized people were interested in what he had to say and would respect his idealism.
Grudgingly he recorded personal reminiscences, but chose to espouse a hard line against drugs. He once said: “Provided all facilities were available, if a festival could be held drug free–and i know I’m dreaming–they could have all the private sex and nudity they wanted.”
Someday the book will come out, but Mrs. Yasgur has no strong compulsions about finishing it. For Max, it was much too autobiographical. For his wife and grandchildren, it’s a precious record of a man who was proudest as a successful farmer and as a good provider for his family.
“Woodstock was no achievement for Max,” Mrs. Yasgur revealed, “the festival was just an extraordinary event that widened his experience in life because of his contact with these people.”
The man is best characterized by a comment he once made to his wife: “When I decide that I have to drive by someone in need of help and not stop, that’s not the kind of world I want to live in.”
Such was the lesson of Woodstock, a three-day social experiment in brotherhood that showed the world that man could indeed “get together for fun and music and have nothing but fun and music.”