The “Crazy-Idea-to-Reality” Highway

When one reads up on what happened at the Woodstock festival,  it is hard to say who actually came up with the original idea for the concert. To this day, John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfeld, and Micheal Lang, the four organizers of ”Three Days of Peace and Music,“ disagree.

In his article “How Woodstock Happened...” (The Times Herald-Record News, 1994), Elliot Tiber writes that Lang and Kornfeld, who were in the music business, from the beginning had planned Woodstock as "the largest music festival ever held.” They claimed that the idea of organising a concert popped up in 1968, the year when the two of them met. Lang shared an apartment with Kornfeld and his wife Linda for a while, and long nights of conversation, “fueled with a few joints,” resulted in the idea for a “cultural exposition/rock concert/extravaganza." 

Kornfeld and Lang also had another dream. They wanted to build a recording studio in the Ulster County Town of Woodstock. Woodstock was the adopted hometown of Dylan and the Mecca of many well-known artists at the time. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Van Morrison, and The Band were but a few of the big-name musicians who in the late 60s moved to the area. With Manhattan 100 miles away, a state-of-the-art studio, reflecting the spirit of time, was wished for by the prominent musicians in the area around Woodstock. (see maps)

Neither Kornfeld nor Lang had the money, though, to realise their ideas/dreams. So, in order to finance the festival and the planned recording studio, they started to look for money in the beginning of 1969. Their lawyer recommended that they contact Roberts and Rosenman, two young men who were looking for investment opportunities. The four of them met for the first time in Roberts’ and Rosenman’s apartment in 83rd street. Kornfeld and Lang presented their concert idea, and where it ended up we all know.

Roberts and Rosenman recollect the whole situation a bit differently. They claim that “Kornfeld and Lang primarily wanted a studio, hyped by a party for rock’n’roll critics and record company executives.” 

“We would have cocktails and canapes in a tent or something. ... We’d send limos down to New York to pick everyone up. Tim Hardin or someone could sing. Maybe, if we were lucky, Joan Baez would get up do a couple of songs, Rosenman said.”

Somewhere along the way he and Roberts started to focus on the party idea and agreed that they really should try and organise a huge concert.

The list of myths concerning whose idea it was can be made longer, but this page will focus on some of the problems, and then especially communicative problems, which the sponsors faced along the way when their original idea—a little party in Woodstock to raise money for the recording studio—snowballed into a concert for over, at first, 50 000 people—then, 100 000 and, at the end, approximately 450 000 people showed up.

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair of 1969 caused one of the biggest traffic jams ever known in American history. But before getting so far as to the actual festival days, there were other communicative issues which had to solved by Woodstock Ventures, Inc. Apart from the traffic chaos, Woodstock also brought about a major generational and cultural clash. 

The founders had to walk a pretty long and rough way in order to create their “Three Days of Peace and Music”—three days which just as well could have ended on the planning stage or, later, in a catastrophe.

The Bumpy ‘Finding-a-Site’

To come up with the idea to organise the biggest concert ever held is not very hard—crazy maybe, but not hard. What turned out to be hard for the Woodstock team was to find an appropriate site which could be rented for a few months. The location had to fulfil two requirements; it had to have room for at least fifty thousand people, and it had to reflect the counter-cultural image which the concept of the festival was based upon.

The ideal, and part of the original idea, was to find a site close to the town of Woodstock. However, the Woodstock team never succeeded with that part of the plan and decided to borrow “some of Dylan’s mystique by naming their concert after his adopted home town.”

Real estate agents searched frenetically for the perfect location. But as time was running and they needed to find a location rather quickly, one of the requirements had to be given up.

In March, 1969, the Woodstock team signed a contract which gave them access to a 300-acre Industrial Park in the Town of Wallkill (see map). The owner, Howard Mills, Jr., received $10 000 for putting his land at disposal for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.

In one respect the place was perfect. The area was, among other things, zoned for music festivals, and it offered perfect access.

The Town of Wallkill was right off Route 211, a major local thoroughfare, and less than a mile from Route 17, which hooked into the New York State Thruway. Apart from communicative advantages, the Industrial Park also had essentials like water lines and electricity. One very important thing was definitely missing, though—the ‘back-to-nature’ feeling Woodstock Ventures was selling.

The Woodstock team disliked the site in Wallkill. Michael Lang said afterwards that he hated Wallkill, and Roberts admitted that "the vibes weren’t right there. ... It was an Industrial Park."


The One-Way Street in Wallkill

The sponsors were not the only ones who disliked the fact that the concert had to take place in Wallkill.  The inhabitants of Wallkill, too, were not particularly keen on the idea that the biggest festival ever would be held in their town. After some harsh discussions and threats the Woodstock Ventures, Inc. got kicked out of Wallkill—on July 15, 1969, a month before the scheduled opening day.

There were two main reasons why the Woodstock sponsors got tossed out of Wallkill: the town was conservative and did not want to have anything to do with hippie culture; moreover, the residents felt mislead by the Woodstock company. Some of the inhabitants in Wallkill were artists, but they were rich artists, part of the older, more conservative school and therefore differed widely in their ways and ideas from those artists the Woodstock team had contracted.

In April, 1969, the ads about the concert started to run in newspapers and radio. The Woodstock slogan promised "Three Days of Peace and Music" and "a weekend on the country." It appealed to the spirit of independence which was in the air at that time, a spirit of independence which to some extent was connected with the hippie culture. People in Wallkill equalled hippies with long hair, shabby clothes, left-wing politics and drugs. A feeling of fear spread among the residents when they realised what kind of people the event would attract and, as the sale figures rose, how many of them which actually might descend to their little town. And as always,  people driven by fear do stupid things.

The confrontations between the Woodstock Ventures and the residents of Wallkill worsened. The residents threatened to shoot the first hippie that walked into town, and the Woodstock's landowner, Howard Mills, received anonymous phone calls. Someone wanted to blow up his house.

Apart from the resistance against the counter-culture, many residents also felt that the Woodstock Ventures was misleading them. The town had been told that the concert would feature Jazz bands and folk singers—NOT rock music. They had also been informed that 50, 000 people would attend if they were lucky that was. Wallkill Supervisor Jack Schlosser said that they felt as if the sponsors were deliberately misleading them. It also appeared to the residents that the organisers did not really know what they were doing; their plans were unstructured and incomplete.

The appearance and looks of the organisers themselves were also most certainly to their disadvantage. They definitely looked like hippes, especially Michael Lang, with his long black, curly hair (see picture—who also hardly ever wore shoes, which must have made people in Wallkill wonder what kind of people they were dealing with.

On July 15, 1969, Woodstock was banned by the Wallkill Zoning Board of Appeals. The Board passed some laws which excluded one thing, and one thing only - the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. 
For instance, from now on one needed a permit for an event which might gather more than 5, 000 people and, the kind of outdoor toilettes that were going to be used during the Woodstock festival were classed as illegal in Wallkill.

The Infamous Wallkill Moving Poster speaks for itself.

But as they say, ‘the morrow bringeth counsel, wait and see what the morning brings’ and..., help was on its way.

“Elliot Tiber read about Woodstock getting tossed out of Wallkill. Tiber’s White Lake resort, the El Monaco, had 80 rooms, nearly all of them empty, and keeping it going was draining his savings. But for all of Tiber’s troubles, he had one thing that was valuable to Woodstock Ventures. He had a Bethel town permit to run a musical festival. “ I think it cost $12 or $8 or something like that, “ Tiber said. “It was very vague. I just said I had permission to run an arts and music festival. That’s it.” The permit was the White Lake Music and Arts Festival, a very, very small event that Tiber had dreamed up to increase business at the hotel. ...

Tiber called Ventures, not even knowing who to ask for. Lang got the message and went out to White Lake the next day, which was probably July 18, to look at the El Monaco. Tiber’s festival site was 15 swampy acres behind the resort. “ Michael looked at that and said, ‘This isn’t big enough, “” Tiber recalled. “ I said, ‘Why don’t we go see my friend Max Yasgur? He’s been selling me milk and cheese for years. He’s has a big farm out there in Bethel.’“ (see map)

While Lang waited, Tiber telephoned Yasgur about renting the field for $50 a day for a festival that might bring 5,000 people. “Max said to me, ‘What’s this, Elliot? Another of your festivals that doesn’t work out?’” Tiber said.

Yasgur met Lang in the alfalfa field. This time, Lang liked the lay of the land.

“It was magic, “ Lang said. It was perfect. The sloping bowl, a little rise for the stage. A lake in the background. The deal was sealed right there in the field.” The Woodstock Ventures, Inc. rented 600 acre from Max Yasgur. The 600 acres did not only reflect the back-to-nature concept the Woodstock team was looking for, but also had good communicative access.

Getting the site ready

The main stage

(quotations from Elliot Tiber, “ How Woodstock Happened...” The Times Herold-Record News)