What Woodstock Was Really Like

It’s been 50 years since Woodstock, ”Three Days of Peace and Music.” We know about the rain, the traffic, the music. Now, we know these local stories.

Illustration by Ryan Snook

It was an accidental community of mud and music, a tiny spot on Earth that for one August weekend became the Coda of the Sixties. The crowds were jaw-dropping, and the rain torrential. When the sun did poke out, the ground steamed as if a volcano lurked beneath. Clothes were optional, sanitation was Third World, and hallucinogens were easier to find than food. It was a rock concert like no one had seen before, a place where America’s antiestablishment forces gathered to briefly establish our 51st state.

Just saying the word Woodstock—at least for people of a certain age—conjures up all the stereotypes and memories of a world that seems so long ago and so far away. “Three Days of Peace and Music” came to an upstate New York farm 50 years ago this month with perhaps the greatest collection of progressive rock ever assembled: The Who, Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Band, Santana, Canned Heat, and lots more. The famously disorganized organizers expected about 100,000 to come to Bethel, New York, and thought they’d make money. Instead, more than 500,000 showed up, and the promoters lost their shirts.

“It was the biggest thing I had ever seen,” recalls Frank E. Wood, WEBN’s forever-famous disc jockey and Cincinnati’s first rock and roll guru. All these years later, his eyes sparkle and his voice conveys amazement when he speaks of Woodstock. “There were a gazillion people there, and there was no fence, no nothing. You just walked in.”

Wood would later walk out, too, and trek 12 miles back to his car disappointed with the mess. A lot happened that weekend, much of it surprising and eye-opening, and 50 years later the young people who attended—including a number of Cincinnatians—are still trying to figure out what it all meant.

Photograph By United Archives GMBH / Alamy Stock Photo

In 1969, Barbara Lenhardt was a 22-year-old mother of a toddler son and, as she puts it, the “child bride of a jazz bohemian.” Husband Ed Vandenberg was exciting, confident, daring, and a bit older than her. One day, he came home from the Mahogany Hall Bookstore in Mt. Adams, then Cincinnati’s counterculture capital, with two tickets to Woodstock in his hand.

After finding someone to care for son Arie, Barbara and Ed took off in her red Volkswagen Squareback, planning to rendezvous with friends from New Richmond who were already on site hanging out with members of the Hog Farm, a California hippie commune hired to help with festival logistics. Along the way, the couple stopped at roadside produce stands and natural food stores to pick up bags of fruits, vegetables, rice, and beans.

“Huh, we had nothing,” Wood says, laughing when he’s told, five decades too late, of Lenhardt’s largess. “We thought they’d be selling stuff there, like at the Newport Jazz Festival. There was nothing!”

Most of the Woodstock crowd didn’t arrive well provisioned, Lenhardt recalls, so their dry goods came in handy. “When we got there, we found the Doepke brothers [their friends] and set up our camp next to them,” she says. “It was really quite idyllic and lovely, but it didn’t take long for that to change.”

Soon, the overwhelming masses began pressing up against the rudimentary fence Hog Farm had erected to, as Lenhardt notes, “keep the riff raff out.” It wasn’t long before the rolling hills of green grass disappeared under the happy feet of a sea of far-out partiers and the fresh air of a Catskills summer surrendered to the sweet smell of thousands of glowing joints.

For Gary Griffin, Woodstock was an outta sight graduation present to himself. The Oak Hills High School graduate aspired to a career in music, but he never dreamed that, in less than a decade, he’d be a professional keyboard player. Perhaps the devil-may-care attitude that led him to Woodstock led him, two years later, to boldly approach Mike Love after a Beach Boys concert here. After five years of persistent calls, the music legend offered him a job. Griffin’s long career includes a stint with Jan & Dean and television appearances on Full House and General Hospital. He and his wife moved back to southwest Ohio a few months ago.

“I saw a blurb in Time magazine about this thing called the Woodstock Music and Art Fair,” says Griffin. “Sounds like something you’d have seen in Eden Park, doesn’t it? Well, to me and to my friends Steve Cooper and Steve Bluhm [fellow Oak Hills graduates], it sounded like a great adventure.” Times were different back then, he says, and his parents encouraged his exploration of music. “No one knew what this festival was going to be,” says Griffin. “If they’d known I was going to a place where there were a lot of drugs and nudity? Yeah…” His voice trails off with a grin.

Griffin and his friends motored their way east in a 1965 Volkswagen Beetle, and as they approached the concert venue they spotted a “Local Traffic Only” sign on a side road. They took it, of course. “We plowed right through it, and when we rounded a bend our jaws dropped,” Griffin recalls. “It was surreal. People were everywhere, so of course we parked the car and started partying with the hippies.” He was a bit self-conscious of his clean-cut high school appearance—Oak Hills had a strict hair-length dress code, he says—but was thankful he’d worked all summer on growing his sideburns.

They were still about a mile or two away from the festival grounds, says Griffin, so after a while he and his friends decided it was worth a try to move their car closer. But revving the engine was a bit like opening a jar of canned peaches on an ant hill. Everyone wanted a ride. People draped themselves on the hood, climbed on the roof, stood on the bumpers, and hung partly inside and partly outside the windows. The car’s springs soon sagged so badly they were bottoming out. “We had to stop and just park it where it was,” Griffin says.

The Woodstock stage was built at the bottom of a cavernous hill on Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm. The hay field formed a bowl and a natural amphitheater. The Catskill Mountains provided a stunning backdrop.

Organizers planned for people to camp once they arrived, and set up three campgrounds outside of what was supposed to be the venue’s perimeter. Ticket booths and even a will call table were installed—that’s where Wood was supposed to pick up his passes—but all were quickly overrun. As New York City radio stations spread the news of the “happening” in Bethel, more than 50,000 fans were already on site 24 hours before the festival was to start. Roads got so jammed that police began closing them, and the promoters quickly decided—was there really a choice?—to make the concert free even though many had already paid.

“We got right in it. People were standing everywhere, and there was hardly room to move. We were excited, arms up in the air. It’s just a blur now.”

On Friday morning, Lenhardt awakened to the frenetic beat of bongo drums made from hollowed-out logs. It was the Hog Farm’s wake-up call, and quickly the commune’s compound was bustling with naked men, women, and children preparing breakfast and going about their logistical chores. But it was the tents that grabbed Lenhardt’s attention. Thousands of them—many in Army surplus khaki green—dotted the fields seemingly to the horizon. The first guitar riff was still more than 10 hours away.

Griffin and his friends had made an interim stop in Philadelphia on the way to New York and packed a cooler full of cold cuts, bread, and cheese. That lifeline would last until Sunday, when the meat finally spoiled, and they were left with only a few bags of M&Ms. As the guys ate a rudimentary breakfast Friday morning, they stared in awe at the throngs of humanity and wondered what they’d gotten themselves into. It was intimidating, to be sure, but also special, so the Oak Hills trio started down the hill into the cauldron that, for three days, would become rock music’s holy cathedral.

The crowds freaked out Lenhardt, and she held tightly to Vandenberg’s hand as they picked their way through bodies, determined to get as close to the stage as possible. They found a great spot and enjoyed the opening acts, until nature called. The portable toilets, hundreds of them, were back up on the crest of the hill.

According to their Hog Farm friends, says Lenhardt, the festival had planned to have the toilets emptied periodically by an outside contractor. “But it turned out no one could get in and no one could get out,” she says. Traffic was snarled for miles as people abandoned their vehicles and turned every access road into a parking lot. As the toilets filled up, Hog Farm members spray-painted a giant red X on the door. “You entered at your own risk then,” Lenhardt recalls, pursing her lips. “Some people went in anyway.”

Photograph By United Archives GMBH / Alamy Stock Photo

Getting to the festival site was a problem for many of the musicians as well. Woodstock was slated to kick off with a performance by Sweetwater (“Motherless Child”), but the psychedelic folk band was caught in the traffic. So it fell to Richie Havens, who had already arrived, to sound the first chimes of freedom from the stage.

Wood was about 10 rows from the stage. “We got right in it,” he says. “People were standing everywhere, and there was hardly room to move. We were excited, arms up in the air. It’s just a blur now.”

Lenhardt was also close to the stage, and remembers being mesmerized by Havens. “That African garb,” she marvels. “He wore these sandals and stomped his feet as he played. He was a big man, you know, so you couldn’t help but watch him.” Havens would go on to sing for more than an hour, killing time until Sweetwater finally arrived by helicopter.

And then came the rains. What began as a light shower on Friday night turned into a torrent that only adds to the Woodstock legend. At the time, it was miserable. “We made it into Life magazine because of the weather,” says Steve Schumacher, a former Cincinnati nonprofit leader who recently moved to Connecticut. The magazine photo shows him and a group of five others holding a piece of 4-foot-by-8-foot plywood over their heads to fend off the downpour.

He was working a summer job in the Oberlin College cafeteria when a student told him about Woodstock. Schumacher’s parents were out of town on vacation, but he had a ’62 Ford Falcon and the student had bought two tickets at Tower Records. They threw caution to the wind, of course, and drove to New York with a couple of friends, arriving in Bethel three days before the festival started. “My friend Roger immediately got high as a kite and was taking anything he could get his hands on,” remembers Schumacher. “People were selling just about everything.”

From the stage came between-act announcements like, “Do not take the brown pills. The blue pills are OK, but do not take the brown pills.” That was bad acid, says Wood, and a lot of the time people simply didn’t know what they were ingesting.

As the rain intensified into the wee hours of Saturday morning, people scrambled to find a place to sleep. Lenhardt huddled in her tent, but water seeped in and soaked her sleeping bag. Schumacher remained exposed to the elements, opting to stay on the plywood overnight in front of the stage.

Wood and his wife found an unlocked Coca-Cola truck. It was empty, but the cargo area had been sectioned off in compartments for tightly packing the cases of glass bottles it carried. Wood compresses his body into a near fetal position to demonstrate how he and his wife tucked themselves into two compartments and spent a restless, but dry, night.

“We got up the next morning and looked around, and it was muddy as hell,” he says. “Wet everywhere. People were higher than kites. It was just a giant pot thing. People were running around naked. It was innocent, but by noon I knew it was gonna be terrible. So we started walking out.” They hiked 12 miles back to the car they’d abandoned the day before, joining hundreds of others who apparently decided they preferred civilization and a hot shower over psychedelics and starvation.

Little did Schumacher know, but his time at Woodstock was about to end as well. He recalls a soggy but beautiful dawn on Saturday morning, with the last strains of Joan Baez’s “Joe Hill” from the night before still ringing in his head. At 9 a.m., someone on stage grabbed the mic and announced, “Steve and Roger! Eric is sick and going home!” They raced back to their tent a mile or two away, and Eric was indeed sick. Homesick. “Even today, after all this time, it’s not hard to say to him, You owe us,” Schumacher says, sighing.

Lenhardt and Griffin stuck it out for the rest of the weekend, and both ended up making it into the 1970 film Woodstock: The Director’s Cut and seeing themselves on the silver screen a year later at the Albee Theatre downtown. Griffin’s appearance was so fleeting that he initially missed it. Lenhardt’s moment was more prominent, and she remembers standing up in the dark movie palace and whooping, “That’s me!” She had been skinny dipping in Filippini Pond on the farm, trying to wash off layers of mud, when a reporter came up to her in a rowboat and began asking her questions. Lenhardt is sure her responses were absurd—“I even spoke with an accent and sounded British,” she says—and her scene would have been left on the cutting room floor except that, at the last minute, she spontaneously shouted “We’re taking over!” while looking at the camera.

Ten days later, a flatbed truck pulled up to the Cincinnati Zoo, and weary workers unloaded a set of mammoth, mud-splattered speakers. They now belonged to Jim Tarbell, who planned to use them at his once-and-only-once Midwest Mini-Pop Festival.

Cincinnati’s future vice mayor was preparing to open the Ludlow Garage rock club, and he thought an outdoor music festival would be a unique PR opportunity. Already a well-known music promoter, he’d traveled to New York earlier in the year to shadow Bill Graham, the nation’s most successful rock and roll ringmaster. That’s where he met Bill Hanley, who told Tarbell he could provide him a speaker set after “this event no one ever heard of.” Hanley was driving all of the Woodstock sound equipment out to California and would be happy to stop in Cincinnati to offload some of it.

The Midwest Mini-Pop Festival made a second connection to Woodstock once rain turned the zoo grounds into a muddy mess. Drugs were plentiful, and a few over-exuberant fans climbed a fence and walked on top of the Ape House. Zoo officials were not amused.

Woodstock was the surprise final chapter of a turbulent decade, a gathering of more than half a million soaked people free of violence and full of drug-addled hope. While the festival featured a series of mistakes and miscalculations, it worked itself out mostly because everyone wanted it to.

Wood believes the sheer size of the crowd made everyone cautious. Maybe it was the pot, which tends to calm people down, and maybe it was the rain and the hunger creating the kind of camaraderie one feels when faced with a common adversity. “Or it could have been the nakedness,” he says with a big grin. “Pretty girls taking their clothes off? That’s always fun. And naked people really don’t make much mischief.”

Facebook Comments