How Woodstock Changed The Little Town Of Bethel, N.Y.

Aug 15, 2019
Originally published on August 15, 2019 11:39 am

Fifty years ago, the tiny town of Bethel, N.Y., was transformed into a teeming city of more than 400,000 people brought together by peace, love and music. Today, the site of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, as it was officially called, is on the National Register of Historic Places. For some who were there, it's a place of pilgrimage, memories and the site of a museum full of memorabilia.

"I remember that sign. A farmer put it out on the side of the road," Carl Porter says as he tours the Woodstock exhibition in the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts Museum, which sits on the actual site of the festival. Porter was 21 years old in 1969 and his leave from the service coincided with Woodstock. But as thrilled as Porter was to be there, lots of other locals weren't.

"It's actually an old porcelain tabletop that he scribbled that sign on to chase away the hippies," Porter continues. "It says, 'Local people speak out. Stop Max's hippie music festival. No 150,000 hippies here.' "

(The sign refers to Max Yasgur, the owner of the dairy farm where Woodstock took place.)

John Sebastian wasn't scheduled to perform at Woodstock, but he decided to go anyway. He had heard that getting there by car was impossible, so he hitched a ride in a helicopter and got a view that has become iconic. "It's all sleeping bags and Volkswagen buses and little tents," Sebastian says. "It was astonishing; I'd never seen anything like that."

In the midst of that sprawl of people stood Bobbi and Nick Ercoline, the couple whose image was used for the cover art of the 1970 live album, Woodstock: Music from the Original Soundtrack and More.

The album cover to the original soundtrack of Woodstock.
Courtesy of the label

"Our intent was just to go up and check it out, see what all the hubbub was and be home so I could go to Mass the next day on Sunday," Bobbi says. "That didn't happen."

As the Ercolines tell it, they were expecting "a party," but they weren't prepared for what was in store.

"We were very excited," Bobbi remembers. "So we brought beer, wine and a little weed, but nothing else. No food, no change of clothes, nothing to sit on. In fact, we picked the blanket up that we are photographed in on our way into the site."

That famous image on the cover of the Woodstock album shows a young couple enveloping each other, wrapped in a blanket. An original print of the image usually hangs near the long-married couple's dining room table, not so far from the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, where it is currently on display.

"I'm just very grateful to be a very small part of Woodstock," Bobbi says. "There's a lot of sadness and viciousness and selfishness in today's world and there was none of that at Woodstock."

Sebastian still lives about an hour and a half away from Bethel and says he doesn't feel like Woodstock happened five decades ago. "In many ways, it's an experience you carry with you your whole life," he says.

Hear the full aired story at the audio link.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Fifty years ago today, the tiny town of Bethel, N.Y., was transformed into a teeming city of more than 400,000. Today the site of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, as it was officially called, is on the National Register of Historic Places. And for some of the folks who were there, and others who weren't, it's a place of pilgrimage, memories and a museum full of memorabilia. Karen Michel went to Bethel Woods and brought back this report.

KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: Carl Porter and I are sitting in what used to be the town of Bethel's post office and general store. Now it's a family-run cafe. We're looking out the window at the 1963 Pontiac Tempest that he's had for more than 50 years, when his family had a home nearby.

CARL PORTER: It's like a Disney World ride to drive in here in the same car that I drove in in 1969. That just takes me away. It's wonderful.

MICHEL: Porter was 21 then. He was in the service, and his leave and the Woodstock Music and Art Festival coincided. Thrilled as he was, lots of the other locals weren't.

PORTER: I remember the sign, when the farmer put it out on the side of the road.

MICHEL: It's the first thing he notices at a Woodstock exhibition in the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts Museum, which sits on the actual site.

PORTER: That's actually an old porcelain tabletop that he scribbled that sign on to chase away the hippies. And it says, local people, speak out - stop Max's hippie music festival. No 150,000 hippies here.

MICHEL: Max was Max Yasgur, owner of the dairy farm on whose land Woodstock took place. In the days leading up to the festival, Porter says he'd often check in at the general store, monitoring the chaos.

PORTER: This was ground zero of the pictures you see, of the traffic jams, and people camped on people's lawns and just thousands of people off in the distance in every direction. Two, three, four lanes of abandoned cars on this two-lane road. People just left their cars and walked away and didn't come back for days.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED WOODSTOCK RECORDING)

JOHN SEBASTIAN: (Singing) Why must every generation think their folks are square, and no matter where their heads are, they know Mom's ain't there?

MICHEL: John Sebastian wasn't scheduled to perform, but he decided to go, anyway. He'd heard that getting there by car was impossible. So he hitched a ride in a helicopter and got a view that's become iconic.

SEBASTIAN: All sleeping bags and Volkswagen buses and little tents. And it was astonishing. I mean, I'd never seen anything like that.

MICHEL: And in the midst of it stood Bobbi Kelly and Nick Ercoline.

BOBBI KELLY: Our intent was just to go up, check it out, see what all the hubbub was and be home so I could go to Mass the next day on Sunday. That didn't happen.

NICK ERCOLINE: (Laughter).

KELLY: I'm not sure what we anticipated.

ERCOLINE: A party.

KELLY: A party, yes. We were very excited. So we brought beer, wine, a little weed, but nothing else. No food, no change of clothes, nothing to sit on. In fact, we picked the blanket up that we are photographed in on our way into the site.

MICHEL: That famous image on the cover of the Woodstock album shows a young couple enveloping each other wrapped in a blanket. An original print usually hangs above the now long-married couple's dining room table not so far from the Museum at Bethel Woods, where it's currently on display.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIND BLOWING)

KELLY: Boy, I could feel that.

ERCOLINE: Yes, I do.

MICHEL: So we went down to the site and looked for the place of that immortalized dawn embrace. But as the saying goes, if you really were there, you don't remember.

KELLY: He tells me we were up there someplace (laughter).

ERCOLINE: Well, you can actually see it.

KELLY: Directions are not my strongest point. And if he says we were there, that's where we were.

MICHEL: There was a young Polish couple there that day, too. It was a pilgrimage for them, says 24-year-old Oscar Sula (ph).

OSCAR SULA: To see the place where the history happened.

MICHEL: What do you know about Woodstock?

SULA: It was a festival. Yeah. Right now in Poland, we have the Woodstock Stop. This is the - another festival, 600,000 people every year. And it's the same idea, peace and love. And we just wanted to see the origins.

MICHEL: The Ercolines introduce themselves as that couple.

KELLY: Would you like a picture?

MICHEL: A few selfies were taken.

KELLY: I took a bunch.

MICHEL: For Bobbi, nostalgia and reflection ensued.

KELLY: I'm just very grateful to be a very small part of Woodstock. There's a lot of sadness, viciousness and selfishness in today's world. And there was none of that at Woodstock.

MICHEL: When you talk about it, it doesn't feel like it's 50 years ago.

SEBASTIAN: I think that's a fair assessment.

MICHEL: John Sebastian still lives about an hour and a half away.

SEBASTIAN: In many ways, it doesn't feel that way to me because it was such a high point, that kind of amazing experience that you'd carry with you your whole life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED WOODSTOCK RECORDING)

SEBASTIAN: That kid's going to be far out.

(APPLAUSE)

MICHEL: Sebastian adds, it couldn't happen today. So perhaps to experience what Woodstock was then we now have to go to Poland. For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel in Bethel Woods, N.Y.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED WOODSTOCK RECORDING)

SEBASTIAN: (Singing) I've been waiting my time... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.