Woodstock was not in Woodstock

What do brussels sprouts, bikinis, and tarantulas have in common with the legendary Woodstock festival? Let’s have a closer look at each and eliminate possible connections. Brussels sprouts. Feeding more than 450,000 visitors during the three days of the festival turned out to be a huge challenge; and although those miniature cabbages are quite nutritious, we most probably all agree that they are not the typical festival staple. Bikinis. Sure, it was hot and rainy during those three days in August 1969. With that said, which self-respecting human being would even consider wearing clothes in that humidity? No bikini needed; let’s take off that top and have a dive in the pond! Tarantulas. Yes, they do look hairy, and Samson’s haircut was in fashion at the end of the sixties. But that is not the answer we are looking for. Brussels sprouts, bikinis, tarantulas, the legendary Woodstock festival: they are all named after a place.

Woodstock Festival, August 1969 (Album/Alamy Stock Photo)

This makes sense, except that the festival did not take place in the town of Woodstock, but in Bethel, a 1.5-hour drive to the south west. Both are located in the Catskills. The organizers and creative minds behind the festival were Michael Lang, Artie Kornfeld, Joel Rosenman, and John Roberts. Lang and Kornfeld had the initial dream to build an audio recording studio in Woodstock, similar to the one that Roberts and Rosenman had established in Manhattan. Roberts and Rosenman were not convinced and came up with the idea of a concert featuring the artists known to frequent the Woodstock area, most famously Bob Dylan and The Band. Kornfeld and Lang agreed, and soon after Woodstock Ventures Inc. was formed. They thought the name suggested a simple rural setting that would appeal to concert goers. Due to protests of residents and town boards, several locations in the running got scratched from the list. Long story short: the venue in Bethel got agreed on very last minute, long after marketing for a festival named Woodstock had started.

A hike from the town of Woodstock to the actual festival site would take almost a full day.

Although the town of Woodstock did nothing more to the festival than lending its name, it was successful in its efforts to capitalize on its connection. The area still attracts artists of all sorts, and many of the boutique stores and farm-to-table restaurants of this town short of 6,000 cater mainly towards weekenders from NYC. Its popularity reflects in real estate prices, which are among the highest in the Catskills.

It is not before 2006 that Bethel began to embrace the festival. That year, the amphitheater of the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts opened on the original 37 acres (15 hectares) festival field, offering a diverse mix of performances and inspiring arts programs. The Museum of Bethel Woods opened two years later, showcasing a broader scope of the music festival by honoring the decade of the 1960s that ushered in a new world. The festival site became listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017.

Impressions of Bethel Woods Center of the Arts and festival grounds.

Picture left: Benjamin Spock, whose ideas on child rearing influenced several generations of parents to be more flexible and affectionate with their children. At the time, his books were criticized for propagating permissiveness which allegedly led young people to join the New Left and anti Vietnam War movements during the 1960s and early 1970s, in which Spock was an activist. Picture right: Spock’s wife, whom I met accidentally in NYC a couple of years ago. She gave me a copy of his most successful book, which has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide since its first publication in 1946.

Max Yasgur, back in 1969 the farmer-owner of the festival grounds, considered Woodstock a triumph of social harmony and empathetic values. He spoke of how nearly half a million people spent the three days with music and peace on their minds using the following words: “If we join them, we can turn those adversities that are the problems of America today into a hope for a brighter and more peaceful future… ” Words that, more than fifty years later, are unfortunately still not outdated.

How to get there?

Interested in visiting Woodstock or the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts? Both take around 1h45 minutes by car from NYC (George Washington Bridge). The closest airport is New York Stewart International Airport.

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