Woodstock Changed The World. Here’s The Inside Story Of How Max Yasgur Made It Happen.
On the afternoon of August 17, 1969, during a rare clear-skied moment in a weekend of driving rain, dairy farmer Max Yasgur addressed a crowd of thousands assembled on his Bethel, New York property for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.
“I’m a farmer,” Yasgur said to the applause of the 400,000 people gathered for the now-legendary festival, which had opened on August 15. “I don’t know how to speak to 20 people at one time, let alone a crowd like this. But I think you people have proven something to the world — not only to the Town of Bethel, or Sullivan County, or New York State; you’ve proven something to the world… a half million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music, and I — God Bless You for it!”
The speech, as seen in Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary, “Woodstock,” plays out in contrast to the festival’s main attractions. The 49-year-old Yasgur, with close-cropped, thinning hair, glasses with full black rims and a white short-sleeved button-down, delivered his remarks in a flat, nasal voice. He was followed onstage by 25-year-old Joe Cocker, with his gravelly, British baritone, mane of hair, and a tie-dye shirt with a wide-open collar, who went on to perform a now-iconic set.
Without Yasgur stepping in to host, the festival would have likely been a wash. But the life-long farmer was not the most obvious partner for an event that, 50 years later, is still regarded as one of the great counterculture spectacles of the 1960s. So how did Yasgur, a clean-cut conservative and well-regarded entrepreneur, come to welcome a muddy mass of hippies?
Decades after Yasgur’s death in 1973 — time enough for him to become something of a hero to the free love generation — the farmer was committed to film once more, portrayed by Eugene Levy in Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock” (2009). Some time after the film’s release, Yasgur’s brother-in-law, Daniel Miller, caught it on television at his home in Florida. He thought it was great casting, although he noted that Yasgur was a little taller than Levy. But Miller’s approval of the movie quickly turned to agitation. As Miller’s son, Marty, told the Forward, as the film began to show how Woodstock found a home at Yasgur’s farm, “My father screamed ‘What a crock of shit! That’s not what happened! None of this is accurate!’”
What really happened? Elliot Tiber, the son of local Bethel hotel owners, wrote in his 2007 memoir “Taking Woodstock,” the basis for Lee’s film, that he introduced Woodstock co-organizer Michael Lang to Yasgur, suggesting the farm as a venue. But Lang told a different story, both in numerous interviews with the press and his own memoir, “The Road to Woodstock” (2009). Lang says he came upon Yasgur on an alfalfa field, where the farmer jotted down figures with on a loose piece of paper with a pencil.
Miller, who spoke with the Forward on the phone from his home in Monticello, New York, subscribes to Lang’s tale of the farmer and his on-the-spot figures. But Miller thinks — and Lang soon realized — that Yasgur’s relaxed approach to the encounter was all a bit of showmanship. Yasgur was a canny businessman who had crunched the numbers in advance, expecting that the Woodstock people would send a scout his way.
According to Miller, Yasgur decided he was open to hosting Woodstock — named for the Ulster County town where Lang originally wanted to hold the festival — before he was even asked. Yasgur made up his mind during a family dinner at Miller’s parents’ house one Saturday in May 1969; Miller, a 20-year-old Cornell student at the time, was home for the summer.
That day, the Middletown Times Record-Herald had run a story on Woodstock, whose venue at the time was an industrial park in the town of Walkill in Orange County, New York. Seated at the round dining room table, Miller predicted that Orange County, then overwhelmingly conservative, would, through its local politics, prevent the event from happening there.
“I remember saying ‘They’ve already been thrown out of Ulster County. They’re not going to be able to do it in Orange County, they’re going to come to Sullivan. It’s the next county up,” Miller said, adding “I’m willing to bet they’re going to eventually come to us and want to rent the farm.”
The farm was a perfect fit. It had plenty of ample acreage and was laid out like a sloping bowl, forming a natural amphitheater. Yasgur concluded that he would lease the farm to the concert producers — but they had to ask first.
When they did, in July, Max had a ready answer. Lang proposed $50 a day for the space to host 50,000. By the time he brought the rest of the Woodstock Ventures crew to take a look at the space, Max had arrived at a much higher figure, widely reported as $75,000 total for the use of 600 acres, although Miller remembers it being significantly lower.
It was a shrewd financial move. The summer was a wet one, meaning the field where the stage would be built was unlikely to yield quality crops for the season. Hosting the festival was a way to monetize a fallow period.
While perhaps the most unconventional business decision Yasgur ever made, Woodstock was far from the only bold one. He took over the family farm, which was originally in Maplewood, New York, in the 1940s, from his father, Samuel, who died in 1937. Yasgur soon relocated the farm’s operations, buying up larger plots along Route 17B in nearby Bethel. In the mid-1950s, Yasgur brought a radical innovation to the property, installing a state-of-the-art plant, designed to be operated by one person, that could pasteurize, bottle and refrigerate the milk of his herd of Guernsey cows, as well as make other dairy products like sour cream and chocolate milk. Yasgur enlisted Miller’s father to assist with the restructuring of the dairy’s operations, including the construction of the plant. Together, they transformed the farm into the largest milk producer in Sullivan County.
Yasgur was always focused on his business, but he was civic-minded, too.
In the 1950s, when route 17B was undergoing construction, there was only one, hard-to-reach doctor in the Bethel area. Yasgur and others founded the Bethel Medical Center, a permanent clinic situated at the current site of the town hall. Yasgur also spearheaded the creation of the airport in White Lake, a hamlet of Bethel, and was president of the local Lions Club. He was also involved in Jewish charities and was a congregant of the Liberty Street Synagogue in Monticello. Family lore has it that Yasgur, who was active in Republican politics, was considered for posts within the Department of Agriculture, which he declined.
But Yasgur’s idea of community and model citizenship was more wide-ranging than is generally known.
“Max hired people without regard to their ethnicity, their political leanings, there were often people there that were on parole or on probation,” Miller said. “He was the kind of guy who would give second chances. It was a very integrated, in many respects, place to work. If you were willing to work, he was interested in having you as an employee.“
So when Yasgur sealed the deal with Lang, it was in keeping with his nonjudgmental spirit.
After the festival, Yasgur told Life magazine that the deal included some interesting conditions.
“If anything went wrong, I was going to give [Lang] a crew cut,” Yasgur said. “If everything was OK, I was going to let my hair grow long. I guess he won the bet, but I’m so bald I’ll never be able to pay it off.”
In the summer of 1969, the Miller and Yasgur families mobilized to help the staff of Woodstock Ventures for what was becoming a massive undertaking.
“It was organized chaos,” Miller said.
Through July and August, preparing for the event became Miller’s part-time job. He would punch out of his shift at another dairy distributor and go to Yasgur Farms to hammer nails for the stage structures and campsites popping up along the property.
As the festival grew closer, it became clearer by the day that the promised 50,000 attendees was a low estimate. So someone in the family, either Miller’s father or Yasgur, reached out to the Breakstone yogurt factory in nearby Youngsville, New York, fearing that the concertgoers would run out of food. The factory pushed into high gear and, by the final day of the festival, a tractor-trailer stockpiled with yogurt had parked on 17B near the Yasgur Farms office. The factry wasn’t alone in its efforts. The residents of Sullivan County did what they could to feed the crowd, opening school lunchrooms to mass-produce sandwiches.
While the community came together in the end, the plans for Woodstock were not made without resistance. As Yasgur’s son, Sam, recalled in his book “Max B. Yasgur: The Woodstock Festival’s Famous Farmer,” the family received threatening phone calls in the leadup to the festival, and a sign appeared in town urging a boycott of Yasgur’s milk.
That only strengthened Yasgur’s resolve
“The sign did it,” Mimi Yasgur, Max Yasgur’s wife, told Sam. “When Max saw that, I knew darned well he was going to let them have their festival. You didn’t do that to Max.”
Before the festival started, Yasgur, civically responsible as always, went to a town meeting to defend his decision. When he judged that the complaints from the town elders were not related to legal or zoning concerns, he told his fellow residents, “So the only objection to having a festival here is to keep longhairs out of town? Well, you can all go pound salt up your ass, because come August 15, we’re going to have a festival!”
As is now legend, the festival happened. Its aftermath wasn’t always pleasant for Yasgur or the Millers.
“Our families collectively became pariahs in the community for the most part — with many people, not everyone,” Miller said. “It was a common occurrence to have people dump garbage on my parents’ lawn and also, probably, on my aunt and uncles’.”
Some neighbors even sought damages, with the adjacent farm of Roy and Dolores Gabriel suing Yasgur for $35,000, claiming that a number of concertgoers had camped out on their property without permission and left it littered with refuse.
Miller believes that while some of the Bethel and Monticello residents’ anger was due to the raucous festival, latent anti-Semitism might have also played a role. After Woodstock, Yasgur’s farm even became a target of ire for Bethel’s postmaster, Miller said. The family and he had a disagreement, and the Yasgur’s opted to change farm’s address to Cochecton, New York — a different town that was formerly a part of Bethel.
But while many neighbors shunned Yasgur, a larger community embraced him.
His change in address didn’t stop the flood of letters. “People were writing to him to reunite with their kids, and some kids were writing to reunite with parents,” Miller said. (Many concertgoers, leading a hippie lifestyle, had left home and lost touch with their families.) “I remember him sitting in that chair in the den and working on it — I think he did it longhand.”
According to a Village Voice article from September 1969, Yasgur received 1,500 letters within a month of the festival’s last day. He took the time to respond to as many as he could while running his business.
“He wanted to put people back together,” Miller said, “I think that he longed to have families connect to each other, and he longed to have kids work with their parents. That was really important to him.”
In 1971, Yasgur was well into the process of writing a book compiling highlights from his correspondence. The publisher cancelled it, Sam Yasgur wrote in his book, believing there’d be greater interest in an autobiography. Sam’s son, Stuart, currently has the letters in his possession.
That same year, Yasgur sold his business and moved full-time to his winter home in Marathon, Florida. Before he left, he offered the town of Bethel the Woodstock festival site to be used as a park or public space. The town declined. Yasgur speculated they didn’t want the area to become a site of pilgrimage for young people.
Yasgur died of a heart attack in 1973 at the age of 53. His obituary in The New York Times recalled his decency, recounting how, when he learned that some in Bethel were charging the concert attendees for water, he placed a large sign reading “Free Water” on his huge red barn along 17B.
“They really just looked at them as being kids,” Miller said of his family’s attitude toward the Woodstock attendees. He recalled that his mother, Elaine, when describing the anticipated crowd to Max, said they’d be “nice college kids, just like Marty.’”
Yasgur, who, on the third day of Woodstock, called the assembled masses “kids” — “because I have children that are older than you are” — was a farmer. He was a businessman, and an upstanding member of his community, but, a month after the festival ended, he seemed to have come to want something different for himself.
“If I had a job where I could work with those kids on a national level — gratis — I’d do it,” Yasgur told the Village Voice. “I think there is a rapport between kids and me. I went out on a limb for those kids and they bore my faith out.”
Correction, August 16, 2:15 p.m.: A previous version of this story claimed that Max Yasgur was paid $75,000 for the use of his farm for Woodstock. While that figure is widely reported, its source is unknown, and Miller contests that Yasgur received a much lower fee.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at email@example.com