Why Max Yasgur – the Bethel, New York Dairy Farmer who owned the land the Woodstock Festival took place on – became so Beloved to Millions of Young People Around the World
“The important thing that you’ve proven to the world is that a half a million kids–and I call you kids because I have children that are older than you–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!” – Bethel, New york dairy farmer Max Yasgur, in a short address he delivered on August 17th, 1969 to the more than 400,000 Woodstock festival-goer s assembled on his land, 50 years ago this summer
One more look back at Woodstock at 50, by Niagara At Large reporter Doug Draper
Posted August 17th, 2019 on Niagara At Large
Before the 50th anniversary celebrations of Woodstock, one of the most pivotal events in 20th century pop culture history, draws to a close, let me leave you with a few nice memories of a most unlikely individual who helped make the legendary festival possible.
The individual’s name was Max Yasgur and in the age we live in today, where people seem so divided along so many lines – race, gender and age, just to name a few – and we have leaders more interested in exploiting those divisions for their own gain than bringing people together, Max Yasgur’s role in the Woodstock story should serve as inspiration to all of us.
It was July, 1969, just weeks before the Woodstock festival took place on August 15th, 16th, and 17th, and continued on into Monday, August 18th to accommodate a backlog of entertainment, including Jimi Hendrix, that had their sets delayed due to off and on pouring rain during the weekend, that the festival organizers negotiated a deal with Max Yasgur to hold the even on parcels of land on his large dairy farm in the Catskills.
Yasgur had read in the newspapers about public opposition the organizers were coming up against from people in other communities in upstate New York who did not want what they described, in so many words, as a “hippy fest” taking place in their backyard.
Yet this farmer, who was born almost 50 years earlier, in 1919, and was reportedly a conservative Republican who had his share of disagreements with the so-called counterculture and the lifestyle many young people embraced during the 1960s still believed that “the kids,” as he called them, should get the chance to have their festival.
So Max Yasgur agreed to lease some of his vast lands and he took a good deal of heat from some of his neighbours in the town – at least a few of them posting signs reading; “Stop Max’s Hippy Music Festival” and urging people not to buy milk from his farm.
Yasgur did not cave on his belief that it might do everyone well to reach out to these kids, however, and a short time before the festival was scheduled to get underway, he delivered the following remarkable words to sceptics on the Bethel, New York town board (the equivalent to one of our municipal councils) who were playing around with some last-minute schemes to keep it from happening –
“I hear you are considering changing the zoning law to prevent the festival,” he said as he appeared as a delegation before the board. “I hear you don’t like the look of the kids who are working at the site. I hear you don’t like their lifestyle. I hear you don’t like they are against the (Vietnam) war and that they say so very loudly. . .
“I don’t particularly like the looks of some of those kids either. I don’t particularly like their lifestyle, especially the drugs and free love. And I don’t like what some of them are saying about our government.
“However, if I know my American history, tens of thousands of Americans in uniform gave their lives in war after war just so those kids would have the freedom to do exactly what they are doing. That’s what this country is all about and I am not going to let you throw them out of our town just because you don’t like their dress or their hair or the way they live or what they believe.
“This is America and they are going to have their festival.”
I say WOW!
That is what I call opening up your heart and mind, and reaching out over the divides.
Max Yasgur quickly became a hero to the multitudes who showed up on his farm, and to millions of other young people around the world, and his name, from that time on, has been immortalized in Joni Mitchell’s song.
On the last full day of the Woodstock festival, he was invited onto the stage to say a few words, to cheers and standing ovations rolling up the hill for as far as the eye could see. You can watch that by clicking on the screen here –
Max Yasgur, who had long suffered from a heart condition, unfortunately died in 1973 at age 53.
When I visited Bethel, New York in the summer of 1989 to do a 20th anniversary tribute to the festival for the newspaper I worked for at the time, The St. Catharines Standard, I met older residents in the town who spoke about Max Yasgur with reverence, and there were a few who were still upset that he agreed to lease some of his land for the event.
As for me, I knew I had to visit Max Yasgur’s grave in a Jewish cemetery before I came home, and I did what you apparently do when you visit the grave of a Jewish person who have a good deal of admiration for. I placed a pebble on his tombstone, along with so many others that had been put there by others.
Max Yasgur would have turned 100 this year and I can’t help but think how proud he would feel if he knew the festival he helped make possible was being celebrated 50 years later, and that the land it was held on – once his land- is now officially designated in his country as a historic site.
The Woodstock festival actually came to an end on the morning of August 18th with a legendary performance by Jimi Hendrix and with the festival’s emcee, Chip Monck, signing off with these words –
“Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you very much. …. It has been a delight seeing you. … May we wish you anything that the person next to you wishes for you – good wishes, a good day and a good life.”
One piece of sad news before we leave the subject of good lives and the counterculture –
Peter Fonda, brother of legendary across Jane Fonda and son of the late legendary actor Henry Fonda, died this August 16th at age 79.
Peter Fonda produced, co-wrote and starred in ‘Easy Rider’, one of the most popular counterculture films of the 1960s that was released just weeks before the Woodstock festival took place in the summer of 1969.
Here is a trailer for Easy Rider –
To read another Woodstock festival remembrance posted on Niagara At Large, click on – https://niagaraatlarge.com/2019/08/15/remembering-the-fleeting-magic-of-woodstock-50-years-on/ .
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