BETHEL, N.Y. — Some come to remember, others to show reverence. A few find their way to the hallowed ground after decades of regret.
All come to honor and pay respect to three days that transcended time and place, that pulled together the counterculture of the 1960s into a defining moment of an era. They still come to feel it — even in the near silence of a summer afternoon a half-century later.
R.J. Pinto of Virginia, originally from nearby Middletown, N.Y., found his way back to what he called “the original Earth” in July. Standing next to a historical monument at the foot of a hayfield turned concert venue turned sacred land, he recalled three days from so long ago — Aug. 15-17, 1969 (though Jimi Hendrix played into the wee hours of Aug. 18).
“It was the most phenomenal time of my life. There was a half a million kids here, man. You know?” Pinto said, his partially unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt revealing a gold chain with a cross and an Italian horn. Sporting a gray horseshoe mustache, his like-colored ponytail swayed behind a white ball cap emblazoned with an American flag. “It was love. It was real.”
He swung his arms around and pointed across the grounds.
“These fields, as far as you can see up in those pastures, and those pastures, all the pastures — they were full,” said Pinto, who turned 83 in early July. (“I thank the good Lord for that,” he said.)
He hopes to make it another week, at least, to mark the golden anniversary of an event that has defined a large part of his life.
“I didn’t make it yet, but I’m pretty determined to make it. You know?” Pinto said. “It was 50 years of my life. And this was a world phenomenon. It can never be copied. Never.”
A single word that still packs so much: peace, love, music. And perhaps a misnomer, given that it forever bears the name of a town some 50 miles from Max Yasgur’s fields, where as many as 500,000 people gathered for a legendary music and arts festival.
“It’s a universal word. You say Woodstock, people know what you mean,” said Charlie Maloney, a Queens, N.Y., native who attended the August 1969 festival as a 20-year-old. “They know what it’s associated with. And once it becomes a universal word, it changes everything. It brings it up to a new level of understanding.”
Three days all those years ago drew him back.
Now 70, he has relocated to nearby Monticello and volunteers at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, working at its Woodstock-related museum and frequent concerts.
“We didn’t expect how it ended up being and what it meant years later. At the time, it was people coming together for a concert. We knew something special did happen. It was a great concert, and we left with a good feeling. But the true meaning developed over the years,” Maloney said. “There was a statement made. Just like history takes a while to unfold, the same with the Woodstock Music and Art Fair” — noting the official name of the festival, which also was billed as “an Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music.”
It took time for Fred Law to finally make it to Bethel — almost 50 years to the day since he first set out to attend Woodstock from Ontario, Canada.
In 1969, he joined a busload of 65 people who made their way to the border at Thousand Islands, N.Y. Customs agents came aboard and asked where they were headed. Woodstock.
“No, you’re not,” Law, 71, of Cambridge recalled an agent telling them. “There’s too many people. They’re shutting it down.”
The bus turned around and went home.
“We weren’t smart enough to figure we should jump in a car and come (through) another border crossing,” Law said, standing outside Bethel Woods’ Bindy Bazaar museum shop. “So I never made Woodstock. Here I am 50 years later. This is amazing.”
Carol Hill had no border in her way, having grown up 150 miles away in Syracuse. A self-proclaimed “hippie in peace marches and all that,” she said she attended lots of concerts in that era.
“But this wasn’t (expected to be) a big deal,” said Hill, 70, of Reno, Nev. “I didn’t come — and I’ve regretted it ever since.”
She stood atop the concert bowl — now a sprawling, 37-acre grassy field owned by Bethel Woods that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2017. Hill read a sign that included an aerial crowd shot of Woodstock and a “you are here” arrow pointing to a spot on the far, upper edge. The historical monument and original stage ground beckoned about a half-mile below.
“It’s great they preserved it,” Hill said as she and her sister, 83-year-old Mary Lord, decided to make their way down.
‘Marking stone in history’
Wilfried Deutsch sat with his friends in a school in Hanover, Germany, and talked about a major music festival planned for the U.S. East Coast, perhaps New York. The then-16-year-olds dreamed of coming.
Considerable circumstances — distance, money, the times and their ages — wouldn’t allow it.
A half-century later, Deutsch finally made his way over from Europe with his son and grandson.
They traveled to Memphis, Tenn., Washington, D.C., and New York — with a must-stop in Bethel.
“It’s music that brought us here,” said David Deutsch, 28, an audio engineer in Hanover.
Music and history, his father explained.
“This is a very special place,” Wilfried Deutsch, 66, said. “It’s an honor for me to do this.”
When he was a teen in 1969, the Soviet Union controlled East Germany and had invaded Czechoslovakia the summer before. (“We in Germany were always living at the borderline, because our country was divided,” Deutsch said.)
The United States was embroiled in the Vietnam War. President Kennedy had been assassinated in 1963, his brother Robert in 1968 — two months after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis.
Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon in July 1969. Less than a month later, Woodstock arrived.
Deutsch said they were aware artists such as Hendrix, Santana, Joan Baez, Ritchie Havens and others would be performing.
“These people were over here celebrating music and celebrating peace in a time period when peace was something which was required more or less all over the world, not only here in the States but in Europe as well,” he said. “Since the people were coming over here to celebrate not only music but peace, I think it really was a marking stone in the history that the young population in those days was against war. … It was of highest importance for me to come over here to see the place, even if there is no more music these days, or even if there is no festival today.”
Yasgur saves Woodstock
The festival came close to not happening at all.
After experiencing rejections in other locales, promoters made plans to hold the festival at the Mills Industrial Park in Wallkill, N.Y., about 45 miles east of Bethel and 40 miles south of Woodstock.
The town was told to expect 50,000 people. After complaints from local residents, Wallkill officials moved to require special permitting for any gathering over 5,000 people and ultimately nixed the concert over portable toilets, according to “Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life,” a book by Elliot Tiber.
Yasgur, who owned a 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, population 2,700 at the time, stepped in to save the day. He leased a sizable hayfield in a natural bowl to the promoters for a reported $10,000, a sum equal to about $70,000 today.
New York State Route 17B runs past Yasgur’s Farm and was backed up more than 10 miles before Woodstock, forcing police to shut it down. Today, the area remains rural farmland.
American flags wave from red barns and front porches. Fields and dairy farms line both sides of the highway for miles. A sign reads “Welcome to the Town of Bethel, Home of the 1969 Woodstock Festival.” Just behind it, a farmer on a tractor drags a mower to cut hay.
Other signs announce the sale of local honey, acreage, used trucks and farm equipment. The only tie-dyed anything is a sign offering real estate and another outside an ice cream parlor.
Turn down Hurd Road toward Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, and another sign foreshadows what awaits ahead: Please drive peacefully.
Still living it
Standing in the shade of a message tree along the edge of the Woodstock grounds at the corner of Hurd and West Shore roads, Peter “Uncle Pete” Clineman talked about Yasgur as he chain-smoked cigarettes. The bill of a black Husqvarna baseball cap exposed only his wire-rimmed glasses. A long gray beard that split at the chin and hung below his chest flowed in the breeze.
He still holds the farmer, who died less than four years after the historic concert, in the highest esteem. While others might have seen them as “a bunch of dirty hippies,” Yasgur didn’t, Clineman said.
“He took everybody for what they were worth,” said Clineman, 72, of Narrowsburg, right along the Delaware River that divides New York from Pennsylvania. “It’s amazing how many people were here and got along. … They came for a good time. And a good time was had by one and all. I didn’t see anybody that had a bad time.”
The New York State Police reported 109 were arrested at Woodstock — and all but four for drug-related charges, “but no instance of violence came to the attention of troopers,”according to The Poughkeepsie Journal.
Clineman took back roads to get to the festival 50 years ago, pulling up behind the stage near the same corner where he now stood. Woodstock and the anniversary had been on his mind for a few weeks, he said, so he drove over to see the site. As he lit and smoked, and then lit another cigarette, random visitors came and went.
“People come just to see the place,” Clineman said. “It’s a peaceful place.”
Maloney, who some call the Mayor, said visitors and alumni alike help keep Woodstock alive.
“I get to talk the Woodstock experience, what it means today,” Maloney said. “It’s heartening to see people who weren’t here, that weren’t even born yet, embrace what the Woodstock festival really meant. It was three days of peace and music, and we made it.
“We showed people that we can come together, we can make a statement without really demonstrating. And that is needed today as much as it was needed back 50 years ago.”