(a 14 minute read)

The Museum at Bethel Woods in upstate New York is a mecca for music lovers, history buffs, and old hippies obsessed with retaking Woodstock for themselves.

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I was a guest of the Sullivan Catskills, but all thoughts and opinions are my own.

Retaking Woodstock

The Ang Lee motion picture Taking Woodstock, based on Elliot Tiber’s 2007 memoir, is a poignant comedy-drama about a semi-closeted gay man who was instrumental in bringing the historic music festival to Bethel, New York in the summer of 1969. When he learns promoters are facing opposition at the concert’s planned location, he offers a pre-approved permit and negotiates a new site, essentially “taking” Woodstock for his hometown.

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Photo courtesy of Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.

Under separate circumstances, Woodstock was again “taken” in 2006, with the opening of a 15,000 seat pavilion and amphitheatre in Bethel Woods near the location of the 1969 concert .

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Photo courtesy of Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.

In 2008, the Museum at Bethel Woods “retook” Woodstock as a place to celebrate the historic event and the decade it came to represent. With the construction of additional event venues, a conservatory, and more than a dozen dining outlets, the 800 acre facility was complete.

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Today, the non-profit Bethel Woods Center for the Arts is a popular destination for history buffs, music lovers, and other vagabonds like me, driven with the passion of “retaking” Woodstock for themselves.

The 1969 Woodstock Music & Art Fair

In January of 1969, four concert promoters and investors formed Woodstock Ventures with the purpose of hosting a for-profit outdoor concert in upstate New York. Billed as An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music, the event appealed to young Americans who longed to experience first hand the “spirit of communal living, creative expression, and personal freedom embraced by the hippie counterculture.”

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Like most major events, the project faced its share of detours and roadblocks, but surprisingly more than 180,000 advance concert tickets were sold by mail order and at New York City area record stores.

The Woodstock Music & Art Fair was ultimately scheduled for August 15-17, 1969, at a bowl-shaped pasture on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm near White Lake in Bethel, New York. As the date drew near, word of the outdoor concert spread like wildfire, and traffic was backed up for miles as more than 400,000 attendees made their way to the now “free” event.

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The concert lineup featured 32 major acts, including Joan Baez, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix. Although the outdoor event was plagued by rain, mud, food shortages, and poor sanitation, for three days peace and love reigned supreme, making it a defining moment in the history of popular music and the American struggle for equality.

My Woodstock Story

Before you get excited, let me be perfectly clear. I did not attend Woodstock.

I was ten years old in August of 1969, and living in rural Central Florida with my parents and younger sister. I was a church boy, a bit of a nerd, and naive in the ways of the world. My family did not have a television, but my Granny Hinson who lived in a single-wide trailer on our property had a small black and white set. I watched TV at her house whenever I could, and had just one month earlier watch the Apollo 11 moon landing.

I was an avid reader, but aside from a subscription to LIFE magazine and a few religious publications, very little national or world news penetrated my sheltered existence on Durant Road.

There were no sanitation services in the remote areas of Hillsborough County in those days, so it was my job to dispose of garbage in a burn pit located in our back pasture. While taking out the trash one day, I discovered a copy of the LIFE Woodstock Special Edition.

Why had my mother tossed it without letting me read it first?

As I turned the pages, my eyes were opened to a whole new world. I had never seen anything like it. It was my introduction to hippie culture, rock concerts, and free love. And the skinny-dipping pictures scandalized my virgin eyes.

But something far more transformative was about to happen, uprooting and forever impacting my unremarkable life.

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In January of 1970, midway through my sixth grade year, my parents pulled me out of school, and we embarked on a two-month mission trip to Latin America. For the first time I encountered other cultures and lifestyles beyond the pages of a magazine.

Eventually, my parents assumed longer assignments, and during my teen years we lived in Mexico, Chile, and Paraguay. I had no say in the matter, and my adolescent development was affected by lengthy separation from my friends, schoolmates, and extended family. That said, I got to travel the world and learn a new language, two factors I suspect heavily influenced my perpetual wanderlust.

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I was now an MK (missionary’s kid) with a much broader worldview. I never rebelled against authority or experimented with drugs, but my curiosity had been piqued. I read every news magazine I could get my hands on. I learned about the counterculture, began listening to rock music, and even met a few real-life hippies, one of whom became my Algebra tutor.

My fascination with Woodstock, birthed long ago at the burn pit, never left me and followed me into adulthood. Through the years I learned more about the event by watching documentaries and movies, and I have even been privileged to meet a handful of Woodstock attendees during my travels.

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My journey to the site of the Woodstock music festival was not exactly a pilgrimage, as it has been to some, but it would be the fulfillment of a lifelong desire.

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So when the opportunity presented itself, I enlisted my comrade Melody Pittman from Wherever I May Roam, and we made Bethel, New York, the first destination on a 12-day upstate New York road trip itinerary.

The Museum at Bethel Woods

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The Museum at Bethel Woods is a LEED-certified green building that houses the Main Exhibit Gallery, Corridor Gallery, Special Exhibit Gallery, Event Gallery, museum shop, and café.

The Main Exhibit Gallery

The museum’s main exhibit, entitled Woodstock and the Sixties, opens with a gallery of reflective quotes by locals, musicians, and concert attendees.

A timeline of key events from the turbulent decade lines one wall, and multiple displays interpret how the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War, Anti-War Movement, and other forms of civil unrest contributed to Woodstock’s popularity.

As I made my way through the introductory exhibits, parallels between the social upheavals of the 1960s and the politically-divided landscape of today were clearly evident.

The creativity of 1960s fashion magnified the generation gap and echoed the growing disillusionment with mainstream America. The Baby Boomer generation traded their bobby socks, penny loafers, tailored suits, and pillbox hats for miniskirts, go-go boots, bell bottoms, fringed vests, suede jackets, and love beads.

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Rock music evolved and changed in the 1960s as artists experimented with new sounds and rhythms. Lyricists composed freedom songs and cultural anthems that resonate with audiences to this day.

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A vintage school bus painted with peace symbols, flower power, and other popular images from the era is a key fixture in the Woodstock gallery. The “hippie bus” trend began with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters as they embarked on a 1964 cross-country road trip in their multi-colored bus named “Further.” The journey is detailed in the 2011 documentary Magic Trip.

The bus interior is a mini-theatre that plays a continuous-loop documentary on the windshield.

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A psychedelic VW Beetle is also on display.

Gallery exhibits include original artifacts such as T-shirts worn by concert security and a section of the chain link fence that failed to keep out non-ticket-holders.

Museum visitors can see the artist lineup that extended beyond the original three-day schedule and concluded with a set by Jimi Hendrix. A fine collection of artist artifacts and memorabilia is also on display.

The watershed musical event almost immediately became a cultural icon, and in 1970 the concert film Woodstock was released with the tagline “No one who was there will ever be the same. Be there.” In spite of the film’s original X-rating, it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Woodstock: Music from the Original Soundtrack and More, a 3-album companion to the film was also released in 1970, followed by Woodstock Two in 1971. Bobbi Kelly and Nick Ercoline, the quilt-wrapped couple on the original album cover, married in 1971 and live not far from the concert site in Pine Bush, New York.

Multiple remastered recordings and boxed sets of the documentary and soundtrack have been released over the years. Although the concert itself was a financial bust, leaving the promoters virtually bankrupt, recording rights from product sales have produced multi-million dollar profits.

The Corridor Gallery

The Corridor Gallery on the museum’s lower level continues the narrative with displays that interpret the political landscape of the 1960s and highlight the careers of Woodstock artists.

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A bend in the stairwell holds a motorcycle patterned after the “Captain America” bike from the 1969 motion picture Easy Rider. The custom chopper was commissioned in 2008 to commemorate the Woodstock 40th anniversary and the opening of the museum.

The Special Exhibit Gallery

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The museum’s lower level also houses the Special Exhibit Gallery. During our visit, Peter Max Early Paintings was the featured exhibit.

The early “Cosmic creations” of Peter Max, characterized by bold splashes of color and imaginative shapes, helped define the psychedelic pop art era between 1967 and 1972. Many of Max’s paintings were adapted as poster art and were popular fixtures as college dorm room decor.

Although Peter Max was not a fashion designer, his name and style were branded for clothing lines sold by major retailers such as JCPenney.

Peter Max was the cover story for the September 5, 1969, issue of LIFE magazine, and in 2013, the artist’s memoirs  were published as The Universe of Peter Max.

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As part of the exhibit, guests are encouraged to dress in Max-inspired clothing for a “red carpet’ photo shoot. Melody and I could not resist the offer, and the composite image was delivered to us by email.

Bindy Bazaar Museum Shop

The Bindy Bazaar museum shop carries an eclectic inventory of T-shirts, tie-dyed clothing, books, art, and other Woodstock memorabilia.

Woodstock is a backdrop setting for the 1999 motion picture A Walk on the Moon starring Diane Lane and Viggo Mortensen. The film’s realistic depiction of life in a Jewish summer bungalow colony makes it a favorite of mine.

The Woodstock Festival Monument and Stage Location

The Woodstock Festival Monument overlooks the hillside location of the stage and natural amphitheatre for the 1969 music festival, now listed on the National Register of Historical Places. Visitors have the option to walk or drive from the museum to the historic landscape.

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In 1984, a monument designed by local sculptor Wayne C. Saward was erected at the concert site. The historical marker features the Woodstock logo and lists the names of the concert artists.

A small picnic area is situated adjacent to the monument, and at the time of our visit one of twelve vintage doors painted by local artists inspired by the Peter Max exhibit was installed on site.

The iconic Message Tree where concert-goers left notes for other attendees is now also called the Peace Tree. Visitors to the site continue to leave messages as before. Samples of the tree have been pruned for cloning so the tree can be replaced when the time comes.

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The Museum at Bethel Woods is open 7 days a week from 10 AM – 5 PM, closed only for Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day. Admission is $15 or less for seniors, youth, and children.

Filippini Pond

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The adjacent Filippini Pond was one of the popular skinny-dipping spots during the concert. Although the former swimming hole is within walking distance of the stage site, it is located on private property. I grabbed this shot from a roadside pullover.

Bethel Woods Maps

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Map Credit: Bethel Woods Center for the Arts

The Bethel Woods “Around the Grounds” map depicts the center and museum property as they appear today.

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Map Credit: Bethel Woods Center for the Arts

The Woodstock Festival: 1969 and Today map provides an expansive birdseye view of Bethel Woods and superimposes the original locations of key sites from the historical event. Most properties beyond the red outline are privately owned.

Stacy Cohen

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Later in the afternoon, we met up with local businesswoman Stacy Cohen at the Stray Cat Gallery, located in a restored historic home believed to be the oldest house in Bethel. Stacy was age eleven when 400,000 music fans descended upon her town. Her vivid accounts of the historic event kept us entertained and gave evidence that the spirit of Woodstock is alive and well.

Gallery rooms feature an international collection of pieces by artists in various media, as well as works by official Woodstock photographer Elliott Landy and photojournalist Jason Lauré.

The gallery is an onsite triad with the Dancing Cat Saloon and the Catskill Distilling Company, both situated directly across Hwy. 117. Art installations, such as the pictured patina on steel sculpture of singer Marian Anderson, populate the grounds of all three properties.

The craft distillery produces a range of spirits from locally-sourced water and grains, and with names such as Peace Vodka and Most Righteous Bourbon, they too embody the spirit of Woodstock.

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Stacy guarantees there will be lots of singing and fun around the bonfire in her field in honor of the Woodstock 50th anniversary.

Click here for Bethel area lodging options on TripAdvisor!

Design Your Own Upstate New York Road Trip

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Design your own upstate New York road trip with Backroad Planet’s suggested destinations and activities, plus our exclusive itinerary planning resources.

Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring AWD

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Transportation for our upstate New York road trip was provided by Mazda USA. The Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring AWD is the perfect ride for your American journey with family and friends.

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Map It!

We Would Love to Hear From You

We enjoy dialogue with our readers, especially when they share off-the-beaten-path destinations and useful travel tips. Have you ever visited the site of the Woodstock music festival in Bethel, New York? If so, we would love to hear about your experience. We invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and we always respond!

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Howard Blount is founder and editor of the travel web site Backroad Planet. He has traveled internationally since boyhood and lived abroad in Mexico, Chile, and Paraguay. Now his passion is navigating the roads-less-traveled of this amazing planet in search of anything rare and remote. On the stuffy side, “Mr. Blount” has been a writer, consultant, and published author with the likes of Simon & Schuster and McGraw-Hill. Recently retired from a 35-year career as a middle school teacher, Howard enjoys spending his time on anything that includes mountains, waterfalls, dachshunds, gospel choirs, books, restored classic movies on Blu-ray, HDTV, autumn, sandhill cranes, hot springs, Florida springs, rain and other gloomy weather, log cabins, cracker shacks, abandoned sites, unearthed history, genealogy, museums, documentaries, To Kill a Mockingbird, scenic and historical sites, castles, cathedrals, the Civil War, cold sheets, National and State Park Passports, quotes, the Rambos, Dionne Warwick, Steely Dan, Doobies, Diet Pepsi, Fish City Grill, anything Apple, all things British, Jesus, and lists. And on a random note, Howard is a fourth cousin once removed to Truman Capote.