By LARRY ESKRIDGE of the Daily Ledger
GateHouse News Service
Fri Aug 07, 2009
CANTON - Forty-one years ago, an ad appeared in The New York Times:
"Young men with unlimited capital looking for interesting and
legitimate business enterprises."
The ad was placed by John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, two young men
who were trying to get into business. The unlimited capital came from
Roberts' trust fund, which the pair used as collateral for loans for
any potential projects. While they were both in their early twenties,
the two were definitely not part of the counterculture.
The ad was answered by two other young men, Michael Lang, who had
previously been the owner of a head shop in Florida, and Artie
Kornfeld, who had worked with the pop group The Cowsills. They were
trying to get funding to build a recording studio/cultural center in
upstate New York near the home of Bob Dylan. The place was named Woodstock.
From the beginning, Woodstock was the stuff of myth and
contradictions. Seen today as the height of anti-establishment
activity, the festival was, from the beginning, seen as a
money-making project. The concert became free only after it was
determined there was no way to keep the crowds from tearing down the
fences and entering without paying.
Tickets which had been purchased at $18 a pop are now treasured
keepsakes for the Boomers who bought them.
And for an event which has been known as anti-capitalist, huge
amounts of cash were thrown around by the organizers with little or
no oversight. At least one worker told Joel Makower in the book,
"Woodstock: The Oral History," that she never spent a penny of her
own money during the time she worked for the organization, even for
highly personal items.
Area residents were divided about having the event so close to home.
Many were extremely unhappy about having so many long-haired,
dope-smoking hippies in the vicinity. On the other hand, they were
not adverse to selling the hippies food, water, and other necessities
at highly inflated prices. And many of the organizers later recalled
they rented property for a week or two at the same price for which
the land could have been sold.
At the same time, many of the locals were quite sympathetic to the
young festival-goers. Some private citizens offered food and water
free to those passing by their property, and some merchants either
lowered their prices, gave things away for free, or told the
youngsters to pay what they could.
And while most people think potential disaster at Woodstock was
averted by the attendees sharing what they had, much of the food
eaten at Woodstock was donated by local women and civic organizations
who were supposed to be opposed to the irresponsible young people.
Even the site at Bethel was provided by dairy farmer Max Yasgur, who
felt the young people had been used badly by the residents of the
first site, Wallkill, who pulled the plug on the festival weeks
before. Yasgur, by the way, rented his property to the festival for a
One of the most enduring memories of those setting up the festival
was the almost complete lack of organization of the organizers.
Workers preparing the site switched from one job to another with very
little direction. As time became shorter, workers would often decide
to take the afternoon off and go horseback riding simply because the
weather was nice.
At the same time, answers to many of the logistical problems of
today's outdoor and arena events were provided by Woodstock. The
sound systems used in many large gatherings had their origins at
Woodstock, while solutions to problems such as sanitation,
transportation to and in the sites, and security are traced back to the event.
Oddly enough, many of the ideas used at Woodstock were found by the
organizers in studies published by the U.S. military.
For a festival known for its well-behaved audience, security was a
major concern for the organizers. The man hired to head security was
Wes Pomeroy, who had also been the coordinator for federal troops at
both the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions. After an
agreement with the New York Police fell apart, Pomeroy found himself
dealing mainly with a commune called the Hog Farm, who told the press
they would keep the peace with a "Please" force armed with cream pies
and seltzer bottles.
Wavy Gravy, the head of the Hog Farm, told author Makower his
reaction was, "My God, we're the cops!"
The biggest security threat came from the counterculture itself.
Headed by Abbie Hoffman, the Yippies demanded $10,000 to keep them
from disrupting the festival. The organizers paid the money.
Perhaps the most intriguing incident happened after the festival was
over. The organizers had been working with a bank which had provided
the capital for the event. On the Monday after the event, the bankers
called the organizers in to demand how they were going to meet their
obligations. According to Rosenman in Makower's book, the bankers
were angrily dressing down him and Roberts when one of them noticed
the two had not signed the personal guarantee forms forcing them to
pay. The bankers suddenly became quite solicitous, realizing the
organizers were now under no legal obligation to pay back the money.
Roberts and Rosenman signed the forms. It would be years before sales
of the albums and movie tickets allowed them to pay back their debts
and see a profit.
Reporter's note: With all the myths and misunderstandings about
Woodstock, and with all the time elapsed, I wondered if there would
be any point in writing about the events on Aug. 15, 16, and 17,
1969. I had planned to do three stories, one for each day of the
festival, but I still had doubts whether anyone would be interested.
While taking pictures at this year's Fulton County Fair, I took a
break near the fair office and I sat down to read a book on Woodstock
I found at Parlin-Ingersoll Library in Canton ("Woodstock: The Summer
of Our Lives" by Jack Curry). A man who looked like a typical farmer
attending the fair, dressed in overalls and a baseball cap, sat down
beside me and, looking at the book, asked, "Did you go?"
I replied, "No, I was too young, and from what I heard, it was
probably just as well."
The man smiled wistfully and said, "I wish I had been there."
At that moment I knew the three stories had to be written.