The Town That Turned Away Woodstock
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the Wallkill generation doesn’t sound quite the same as the Woodstock generation.
By Sean Braswell
On June 17, 1969, the Poughkeepsie Journal in upstate New York included the following somewhat bizarre headline on page 9: “Wallkill Aroused by Folk Festival.” If you read further, you learned that a “massive rock and folk festival scheduled for August” was indeed arousing the small hamlet of Wallkill, New York. There was widespread “[p]ublic alarm at the prospect of having 50,000 young music lovers invade this small Orange County community.”
Of course, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair’s Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace and Music was not just your typical massive rock and roll festival. The festival, which took place 50 years ago this week and drew more than 450,000 people to a pasture in rural New York, would become known simply as Woodstock. But at the time the event sounded like a really bad idea, especially to Wallkill town leaders. “This thing could cause bedlam in my town,” Wallkill Town Supervisor Jack A. Schlosser complained to the Journal. “The festival would come at the same time as the opening of a new Sears Roebuck store in the area.”
That’s right: Due to what one can only assume was a major scheduling oversight, Wallkill was expecting more than 20,000 customers to descend on the new Sears department store for its opening weekend — shoppers who would have to use the same traffic intersection as thousands of concertgoers. But the Sears grand opening was far from the only issue arousing the residents of Wallkill.
Concerned citizens and festival organizers clashed constantly at town meetings …
The ultimate counterculture bash was organized by four twentysomething capitalists using money that one of them, John Roberts, had received as the heir to a drugstore and toothpaste manufacturing fortune. Roberts had been to exactly one rock concert in his life, by the Beach Boys, but he did have a multimillion-dollar trust fund. In early 1969, the promoters settled on the 300-acre Mills Industrial Park in Wallkill for the event, a nice pastoral location not far from metropolitan areas of New York, Philadelphia and Boston. They approached the town planning board and got a verbal go-ahead. Pretty soon, they were promoting the peace-loving festival everywhere from the Village Voice to The New York Times to Rolling Stone in a carefully calculated PR campaign that appropriated countercultural symbols and phrases.
No amount of public relations, however, could entice the citizens of Wallkill to embrace a horde of drugged-out hippies descending upon them. In addition to the Sears issue, concerns were raised with sanitation, parking, food, drug use, crime and more. Concerned citizens and festival organizers clashed constantly at town meetings, people threatened to blow up the house of the man who owned the proposed industrial park site, and a Wallkill Concerned Citizens Committee was formed that gathered hundreds of signatures asking local authorities to cancel the festival. Such public festival pushback was not at all unusual at the time. “In 1969, there were festivals all over the United States and many of them were extremely crappy,” says Gina Arnold, author of Half a Million Strong: Crowds and Power from Woodstock to Coachella. “Almost every city council was diametrically opposed to having festivals — that kind of chaos was totally normal.”
Woodstock’s organizers initially insisted that Wallkill town leaders lacked the authority to cancel the event and that it would go ahead as scheduled. But, on July 15, 1969, the Wallkill Zoning Board of Appeals officially banned the concert on the pretext that the planned portable outdoor toilets were not up to code. Suddenly, with just a month remaining before the event, tens of thousands of attendees and dozens of musicians found themselves without a venue. Woodstock’s organizers scrambled to find a suitable replacement, and fortunately, a man named Max Yasgur offered up his 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York.
So it worked out, and much better than the recently canceled Woodstock 50 festival. On Friday afternoon, Aug. 15, at 5:07 pm, the music began in Bethel, and Woodstock officially entered the American cultural lexicon. And, as Elliot Tiber wrote in The Times Herald-Record, “they made love, they made money and they made a little history.”
And Wallkill did not. But the Sears in the Galleria at Chrystal Run had a pretty good run: It closed in April 2017 after nearly half a century of serving the residents of Wallkill and surrounding areas. So it goes.