First, a little free association. When you hear the word “Woodstock,” what’s the first thought that pops into your head? Chances are, when this question is posed to the general populace, something to do with long-haired hippies is likely to arise: Birkenstocks and tie-dyes? The wafting scent of patchouli and reefer? Peace, love, and mud? Janis and Jimi?
I landed in Woodstock 15 years ago to help promote a few musician friends and, admittedly, I had a few preconceived notions of my own. I found that the hippie-dippie top coat of the town, a caricature of itself, grew old—fast. Like many newcomers, I was surprised to discover that “that concert” of the late `60s actually took place in a completely different town—Bethel—which is 43 miles away in Sullivan County. But a little research uncovered a lot more than what met the eye.
What I didn’t know about the scenic rural vista of Woodstock was that it became a township in 1787 following the American Revolution, as farms and settlements took shape. Industries popped up—glass factories, sawmills, and particularly the tanneries, which required a plentiful water supply and a great amount of hemlock. Bluestone was quarried from the Catskill Mountains for pavement around the time that Irish immigrants poured in. Woodstock remained a poor, quiet farming community for a century, though the area became increasingly attractive to city dwellers with its Overlook Mountain House and other resorts. But it was in the early 20th century that Woodstock made its major shift—it became a colony for the arts.
In 1902, Ralph Whitehead, along with his colleagues Bolton Brown and Hervey White, brought the Arts and Crafts movement to the little town, drawn by its gorgeous scenery and proximity to New York City. Byrdcliffe Arts Colony was born as a creative flipside to industry, an experiment in utopian living, artistic vision, and intellectual climate (today, Byrdcliffe is known as the oldest continuing arts colony in America). The establishment of an art school attracted painters, sculptors, musicians, writers, weavers, potters, metalworkers, furniture makers, and other creative types who wished to find inspiration and share artistic goals. The bucolic setting encouraged the building of the hand-hewn wooden music chapel known as Maverick Concert Hall in 1916, which, with its perfect acoustics, hosts America’s oldest continuous summer chamber music festival and attracts the most prestigious classical musicians. Throughout the years, Woodstock has been home to famous artists, including Isadora Duncan, Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, David Bowie, Johnny Cash, Brad Pitt, and Thelonious Monk, among countless others. (And one great historian; Alf Evers, who wrote definitive histories of Woodstock and the Catskill Mountains.)
Yet it was one pivotal event initiated by Michael Lang, John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, and Artie Kornfeld that put Woodstock on the international map forever. Initially, the four men didn’t know what kind of profit-making venture they wanted to delve into, but they wanted it to be lucrative. The town’s famous namesake, the Woodstock Festival, made rock-and-roll history in August of 1969 as a half million concert goers flocked to Max Yasgur’s 600-acre farm in Bethel. Since that time, the “Three Days of Peace and Music” has seemed to overshadow the image of the town.
Today, Woodstock summers are jammed with tourists who flock to its shops and galleries, restaurants and cafes, coming from all corners of the world, from all walks of life, to get a glimpse into what Woodstock is really all about. The town’s residents, business people, and politicians are often eager to paint a true portrait of the town to the curious. Exactly what do people need to know about Woodstock to truly understand it?
Julia and Weston Blelock are a brother-sister business team who recently moved back to the stone house in which they were raised, launching the publishing and production company Woodstock Arts. They also host a sister website, Roots of Woodstock. According to Weston, there are three legs to the stool that supports Woodstock. “There’s wellness and spirituality, art and music, and eco-consciousness. Woodstock is very much like a disco glitter ball in that everybody can find their little facet. Woodstock is what you make of it. It attracts all people of the world who are trying to catch the vibe and spirit.” He notes that just prior to the recent 40th anniversary of the music festival, visitors were migrating between Woodstock and Bethel trying to figure things out. “Is that spirit still active today? That’s a question you’d have to send out to those tourists wherever they may be now,” says Weston. “The hippie thing is a smoke screen, and unfortunately, even the tourist office in Kingston thinks that’s what Woodstock is all about. We’ve been involved in an initiative on behalf of the arts to reach out to museums to offer tours.”