Road trip tales: Rediscovering the secret history of Woodstock '69

We at Modern Mississauga are big fans of road trips. Whether it’s a spontaneous "let’s drive south till it’s warm" kind of trip, an "if you don't stop fighting right now we're turning this car around" family jaunt, or a journey to explore whatever your passions happen to be, we want to inspire you to hit the road.

Our first featured road trip takes us to Bethel, New York, and the site of the Woodstock festival. We came across this remarkable site last summer on a New York State family vacation that took us through Rochester, Ithaca, New York City and to the Catskills. 

Discovering Woodstock

Woodstock Plaque  (Jennifer Merrick)

Woodstock Plaque (Jennifer Merrick)

“If I were alive, I would’ve been there,” declares my 13-year-old son.

We’re at the site of Woodstock, visiting the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.

I would’ve liked to have been at the famous 1969 festival, too. After all, it was here that a half a million people gathered for three days of music that included such legends as Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker and The Grateful Dead.

Glenn Wooddell  (Bethel Woods Museum)

Glenn Wooddell (Bethel Woods Museum)

“It also planted seeds of social change and discontent,” says Glenn Wooddell, Woodstock alumni and volunteer guide at the museum. “Though we didn’t know it at the time.” Having festival attendees give the tours adds an extra dimension when exploring the informative and engaging displays at the museum. As we walk through exhibits that provide insights on the culture of the era, Wooddell feeds us tidbits about the festival. Apparently, there were 400 impounded cars that were never claimed. “The roads were blocked and people just got out and walked,” he tells us, adding that there were a million and a half more people who came but weren’t able to get in.

As we take pictures of the brightly colored ‘hippie van’ on display, we learn that Max Yasgur, the dairy farmer who rented out his land for the festival, could have made more money from the documentary that was filmed in 1970, but he never did. We find out that food ran out after the first day, but resourceful attendees gathered produce (with permission) from the fields and fed hungry concertgoers.

Interior Bus  (Bethel Woods Museum)

Interior Bus (Bethel Woods Museum)

One of the biggest surprises for me is that Woodstock didn’t take place in Woodstock, but in the nearby town of Bethel. The festival was originally slated to take place in Woodstock but town councils objected, undoubtedly nervous about problems that might arise with a gathering that large.

There were none. Despite the rain, mud, clogged roads and lack of provisions, it was relatively peaceful. “The police were on standby but never had to come in,” says Wooddell. An impressive feat, and it was acknowledged by Yasgur on the last day of the festival, when he addressed the crowd:

“I think you people have proven something to the world…that half a million kids can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music."

Duke Devlin  (Jennifer Merrick)

Duke Devlin (Jennifer Merrick)

One of these ‘kids’ was Duke Devlin, whom we meet when we venture outside the museum to take a look at the actual Woodstock field. Duke looks the part with his long grey beard and tattooed skin. He hitchhiked from Texas to attend Woodstock. Why? “Smoking and looking for girls,” he jokes. Duke never made it back to Texas, and instead married a farmer’s daughter who, in fact, wasn’t even allowed to attend the festival.

“Her father was probably afraid she’d meet someone like me,” says Duke. As he banters with the group, he points out on a map what was happening where from August 15 to 18, 1969.

It’s hard to imagine this bucolic green field teeming with flower children and youth of the sixties rocking out to music that has been memorialized in our collective conscience. But after visiting the museum and hearing Glen’s and Duke’s stories, it’s easier to picture, and all of us have a greater appreciation of this historic event in rock’ n roll history.

The site will never host another Woodstock, but many original acts have returned to do concerts, and the museum regularly holds concerts in the summer. Occasionally there are Woodstock alumni reunions too. “Brunch with mimosas was served at the last one,” says Woodell.

The times are a-changin’ as Bob Dylan famously sang.

VW Display  (Jennifer Merrick)

VW Display (Jennifer Merrick)

About the Museum

Located about 90 miles northwest of New York City in the Catskills region, the museum houses a growing collection of artifacts and permanent exhibitions including The Sixties, The Woodstock Festival, Three Days of Peace and Music, and The Impact of Woodstock. Guests also have the chance to record their own personal experience of the festival if they attended, or say what they were doing when it took place.

Price: Adults $15; Seniors (65 and up) $13; Youth (8–17) $11; Children (3–7) $6; Children under 3 are free

Hours: The museum is closed for the winter, and re-opens Saturday, April 2, 2016. Summer hours are 10-7.

About the Region

The Catskill Mountains, located about 100 miles northwest of New York City, was a popular summer destination in the 19th century, often frequented by artists who depicted the region’s rugged wilderness in their work. It continues to be a go-to getaway for busy urbanites who flock here on the weekend to escape the city and enjoy the region’s lakes and rivers, mountain valleys and winding country roads.

Accommodations: Catskills is known for their family-friendly resorts, and we had a blast at the Villa Roma Resort, where we enjoyed all-inclusive dining, indoor/outdoor pools and a full roster of activities. It was the ideal base for visiting the Bethel Woods Center of the Arts, and going on other excursions like rafting on the Delaware River with Lander's River Trips.