Sullivan County Historical Society History Maker Award 2004
Max Yasgur (12/15/19~02/09/73)
A history maker is hard to define. Some earn that reputation after a lifetime of dedicated service. Others earn the distinction based on a single courageous act. The man we honor this year is best remembered for one event, but he also earned a reputation for excellence and dedication throughout his life.
Max Yasgur was a dairy farmer in Bethel who suddenly found himself in the middle of the controversy about a rock concert. By standing by his convictions and fighting for the youth with whom he did not always agree, Max brought the most famous concert event in American history to Sullivan County and thereby dramatically influenced the County’s self-perception and future.
The son of Sam and Bella Yasgur, Max was raised in Maplewood. He initially went to a one room school on 17-B and then to the Monticello school. His parents ran a small hotel and farm. In January, 1937, when Max was 17 and his brother Isadore was 13, his father died. Later that same year Miriam Miller came to the hotel to vacation and met Max. In February 1940, Max and Mimi were married. After a stint in college at New York University, studying real estate and business, Max returned to the farm and the life he loved. In 1942 Max and Mimi’s son Sam was born and in 1944 they had a daughter Lois.
In 1948 Max bought two small farms in Bethel. He worked both the Maplewood farm and the Bethel farms until 1952 when he sold the Maplewood farm and moved the family to Bethel. Over the years he built up a prized purebred Holstein herd, built a pasteurization plant and began selling milk directly to residents, stores, hotels and schools. He also kept expanding the farm, acquiring six additional farms in Bethel. The last of these, the former Mel Stevenson farm, was acquired after a devastating fire destroyed Max’s main barn in 1963. The 127 head of cattle were saved, but Max now needed a barn to house them for the winter. It was on that farm that the Woodstock festival was held. By 1969 Yasgur farms housed over 550 head of cattle.
The Woodstock festival was created and organized by Michael Land, Artie Kornfeld, John Roberts and Joel Rosenman. Originally it was to have been held in Woodstock, New York. When that did not work out they attempted to move to Wallkill, but the Wallkill Zoning Board of Appeals said no.
Needing a site shaped like an amphitheater and owned by someone who had sufficient surrounding land for camping, administration and the like, the promoters scoured the area by air. Seventy miles from Woodstock they found their site, Max Yasgur’s farm.
The weather, a prominent part of the Festival itself, also played a part in Max’s initial decision. The summer of 1969 was very wet, making it difficult to get crops in and causing financial pressures. Any additional income, even a small rental for a weekend concert, was welcome. Since the original projections for the Festival were quite modest, Max first saw the Festival as a reasonable business deal. However, within a few days Max’s resolve to champion the Festival was based on the reaction to the proposed event rather than the rent. When some objected to the Festival because of the anti-war hippies, Max got angry and he was no one to be trifled with. A conservative, clean shaven farmer, he was initially turned off by the appearance and some of the political views, of the members of the Hog Farmers commune and others who came to build the facilities. But he fervently believed in their right to express their views and their ideas. “Look beyond the labels, see the person” he told the Town fathers and others. Later, when confronted with the widespread use of drugs, something then foreign to farmers in Bethel, he said “You can’t lock up a whole generation” and he fought for the kids, making every effort to assist them.
A series of things during the week leading up to the Festival turned it from the planned modest event into one which became famous world-wide. In just a few days the promoters lost their off-site parking, lost the shuttle buses which were to have connected off-site parking with the Festival site and lost the bulk of their security force. The day before the Festival thousands were already camping at the site, having gained entrance through the unfinished perimeter fence. The promoters, fearing injuries if they attempted to control access with the fence, ordered it torn down. A New York City D.J. then announced to the world that Woodstock was a free concert. That did it. By Friday, cars were parked, or stalled on every highway, road and lane for miles around. Some left their cars on route 17 and walked the 12 miles to the site. As crowds increased, Max concerned about his neighbors, even those who were angry at him and at the event, was making every effort to work with the promoters to open up the roads and provide access. Then, seeing hungry thirsty youths and learning that some people were gouging them for a simple glass of water, he opened his milk cooler and his faucets and gave the kids whatever he had. By the weekend an estimated 450,000 muddy, tired, but happy concert goers were being filmed on national television.
George Ardito, a director of the Historical Society, writes of the Festival, “Despite traffic jams, lack of food, shelter and sanitation and despite blustering rainstorms that turned the crowded hillside to mud, all was love. When it finally ended after 60 wet wonderful hours, Woodstock had gone into the national vocabulary as the biggest, loudest, lovingest Happening of the Twentieth century.”
Ever after, those who attended and others of their age would simply be known as the Woodstock Generation. On the last day, when Max went from the home farm to the site to meet with Roberts and Lang about some security issues, the kids saw him and carried him to the stage. They will forever remember what he said that afternoon as he praised them, “Three days of peace and music and noting but peace and music.”
On that stage he also said, “I am just a farmer.” But he had become a lot more than just a farmer to an entire generation, he had become a hero. He had supported them, defended them and made the Festival possible. No, he didn’t always like their dress and their appearance. No, he didn’t agree with their political views. No, he didn’t like the drug culture, in fact he hated it and later worked very hard, quietly and behind the scenes, to help the kids deal with drug addiction and to help reunite many of them with their families. But he looked for the good in them and found it and they knew it. He respected them as individuals and they knew it. He treated them as what they were, the generation who would soon lead and he did his best to help ease their path and they knew it. While others later attempted to profit from the Festival, Max did not. He simply devoted his spare time and his energy to working with young people, as he always had through his involvement with 4-H and other organizations. Scores of parents wrote to thank him for helping to persuade their children to give up drugs and for helping to reunite them with their own children.
After the Festival, Members of Congress, concerned an anti-war rally in Washington might turn ugly, asked Max to address the kids not on the war, but rather to ask them to be peaceful and cool. He did and they listened. By then many of the kids had bumper stickers on their cars and VW buses reading “Max Yasgur for President.”
Many who saw Max as a physically and resolutely powerful man were not aware he had suffered from a serious heart condition for many years, or that during the Festival he had been forced to close his office door and take oxygen a number of times. Three and a half years after the Festival his magnificent heart finally gave out.
Thirty five years after the Festival the Woodstock era is still a matter for debate. However, most people would probably at least agree that Woodstock helped define a generation and perhaps even the nation at the time. It certainly became one of the events by which the County is known. As for Max, a simple decision to share his farm for a weekend with a new generation and his resolve to support and help that generation inevitably made him a part of history. A century from now his name will still be known in the County.