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Class of 1970 Alumnus Jeff Blumenfeld recounts his Woodstock experience

"By the Time They Got to Woodstock, I was Already There" by Jeff Blumenfeld

January 3, 2013

Max Yasgur was a customer of my father’s clothing store in Monticello, NY, just 10 miles from the site of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in Bethel. Two years after the festival, when I was a student reporter for the Syracuse New Times, an alternative weekly newspaper at Syracuse University, I prevailed upon my fellow Monticello High School graduate (albeit 31 years apart) to tell me how the festival came about despite fierce local opposition.Jeff Blumenfeld in high school

Yasgur remembered how some Sullivan County elders were outraged at his agreement to rent land to Woodstock entrepreneurs Michael Lang and John Roberts.

“Don’t buy Yasgur’s milk. He loves hippies,” read two signs bordering his property before the festival. Several customers switched milk companies and he was threatened personally.

At one of the last town board meetings held before the event, Yasgur defended his plan to county and state safety officials.

Yasgur asked each official if there were any stipulations within their respective departments that hadn’t been met to accommodate the expected 40,000 people per day. When no reservations were raised, he addressed the entire meeting: “So the only objection to having a festival here is to keep longhairs out of town?”

A murmur of dissent swept through the heavily conservative Republican crowd, and Yasgur bellowed: “Well, you can all go pound salt ***, because come August 15 we’re going to have a festival!” He stormed out of the room and the rest became rock history and a missed opportunity for one local 17-year-old.

It was the defining moment of my generation. Four hundred thousand baby boomers were making a pilgrimage to Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel. It seemed as if the world was coming to my backyard. This was the biggest thing to happen to the county, well, ever. Certainly bigger than Frank Sinatra, Milton Berle and Don Rickles playing the now closed Concord and Grossinger’s hotels.

Bigger than the grand opening of the Sullivan County International Airport which was, sad to say, wishful thinking since only one charter flight a week from Canada earned them that “international” title.

Three days of peace and music. Some of the greatest bands of all time. *** And what do I do? I leave after two hours.

“Too crowded,” I told my mother later that night Friday.

I was hot, thirsty, and within minutes became separated from my friends. By the time I decided that I was out of there, I managed to reach Freddie Rausch’s mother, the neighbor who had kindly dropped me off and had plenty of room in her car to take me back to Monticello.

But the story doesn’t end there for my sorry self who still regrets, now almost 40 years later, that he heard not a note of music *** didn’t even see a naked woman, which would have been something for a teen who was still sneaking peaks at his dad’s Playboy magazines.

I was one of those small town kids who used to hang out at the local fire house on weekends. I worked on an ambulance and was a ham operator. Sounds pathetic, I know. Others my age, I was sure, were surfing off Malibu, meeting tall and tan girls in Ipanema, or were salsa dancing in Miami discos. Me? I was “talking” in dots and dashes to other nerds somewhere out in the ether.

Just back from the festival site that Friday I dropped by one of my teenage haunts – the Civil Defense headquarters in the county
courthouse where, as a volunteer, I was allowed to talk to truckers, delivery people, and assorted oddballs who had CB base stations in their homes.Jeff Blumenfeld

I logged on, gave the call sign – KQD2840 – and was shortly swamped with requests from mobile CB operators in the vicinity of the Bethel festival site. I was dispatching emergency calls for water and drugs, relaying messages from authorities, and calling nervous parents by telephone to tell them their kids were fine, if not a bit freaked out by the crowds. In fact, I was one of the few links between the Yasgur farm site and town. The phones were overloaded, and emergency services were taxed to the breaking point (this being well before the introduction of cell phones).

At precisely 5 p.m. the Civil Defense secretary said, "I'm leaving." I pleaded with her to stay but instead, she said that there was no need to stay because, "They're hippies. They don't need any water." She was half-joking, of course, but left anyway, telling me to be sure to turn off the lights and lock the door of the office behind me.

I continued to work the radio well into that Friday night, eventually developing a strain in my thumb from holding down the “talk” button. I returned the next day until I could stand it no longer and retired from my emergency services position that Saturday afternoon.

The local newspaper was besides itself, as you can imagine, that this hippie tsunami rolls through the county, clogs roads, crams festival medical tents with drug overdoses, and Civil Defense decides to “go home,” leaving the office in the hands of a 17-year-old radio operator.

Yasgur recalled that in the years that followed the festival, it was hard to keep a sign in front of his dairy farm because anything with his name on it became a collector’s item.

With his impromptu “I’m a farmer …” speech he became almost a patron saint, and was called the “Father of the Woodstock Nation.” He turned down an appearance on To Tell the Truth, but agreed to an interview on The Merv Griffin Show, “just to see what it would be like.” Years later, for that Syracuse newspaper story, the strong-willed Yasgur told me in his modest two-story farmhouse off Rt. 17B, that he could have become a rich man in those post-Woodstock days. Hip entrepreneurs often approached him with one scheme or another: Yasgur-for-President t-shirts, the national roll-out of his milk, offering empty milk cartons with his name on it, and selling Yasgur posters. “I’ll be *** if I’ll capitalize on what was an accident,” the strong-willed farmer said.

A local community that once even fought an historical state marker on the site has rethought its Woodstock legacy. High unemployment, the shuttering of once world famous resort hotels and the lack of state approval for Vegas-style casino gambling to help bail out the economy has made the $100 million Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, an outdoor performing arts center and museum that opened in 2008, an economic lifesaver for an otherwise depressed region.

Max Yasgur died of a heart ailment on February 8, 1973 at the age of 53. “Woodstock was no achievement for Max,” his wife said. “The festival was just an extraordinary event that widened his experience in life because of his contact with these people.”

Despite his (Jeff's) best efforts (to tell his story), his friends still ask him how he liked Woodstock.

In 1973, Jeff interviewed Max Yasgur. The story can viewed at:

http://www.woodstockstory.com/woodstock-land-for-sale-but-yasgurs-legacy-lives-on.html

Jeff Blumenfeld runs a public relations agency in Stamford, Connecticut - www.blumenfeldpr.com