I was only 12 years old when the Woodstock Music Festival took place in 1969, so I didn’t have the desire or means to attend. Besides, even if I did want to go, my parents would have never agreed to it.
This summer, I did finally make it to Woodstock, both the town of Woodstock, an artist’s colony that was the inspiration for the music festival, and Bethel, the actual site of the music festival, about 60 miles southwest of the town. We visited each on separate days as part of a weeklong vacation to the eastern part of the state. Both the town of Woodstock and the festival site in Bethel are about five-hour drives from Buffalo.
The Town of Woodstock has been a magnet for creative types since the early 1900s, when Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead and two friends formed an arts and crafts colony they called Byrdcliffe, which attracted a variety of artisans including metalworkers, potters and weavers. It is similar to the Roycroft Arts and Crafts community that we had locally in East Aurora around the same time.
Today, Byrdcliffe is still a center for the arts in Woodstock. Located just north of town, the 30-building colony, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, offers art exhibits, music and theater performances, classes and even summer residences for artists. Visitors can even take a walking tour of the grounds.
We had only a few hours to spend in the town, so we opted to stroll up and down Tinker Street, the main street in town, which is lined with shops, art galleries and restaurants. You could easily spend the entire day here. Some of the shops include Freewheel Pottery, which has a lot more than just pottery; the Golden Notebook, an independent bookstore since 1978; and Legends, which has all sorts of vintage and tie-dyed clothing. As you stroll through the town, you may even see your share of 1969-style “hippies.”
Since we had lunch before coming to town, we didn’t have the chance to try any of the noted restaurants in town, such as Joshua’s Café, a fixture on Tinker Street for more than 40 years, which is known for their farm-to-table cuisine, Provisions Deli, noted for their freshly made sandwiches, or Bread Alone Café, which was voted the best bakery in the Catskills.
We did however, have room for ice cream. We got some of Jane’s Homemade Ice Cream, an award-winning artisan ice cream made in nearby Kingston, from Taco Juan’s, which also serves Mexican fare. It may have been the best ice cream I’ve ever had; the coconut almond tasted just like an Almond Joy candy bar and the pistachio ice cream had real pistachio nuts in it. If we were in town on a weekend, we could have gotten cupcakes from Peace, Love and Cupcakes, which has signature tie-dyed cupcakes, along with others named after famous Woodstock performers, like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.
We also checked out an interesting attraction on our way to Woodstock. The Kaatskill Kaleidoscope, which is certified by the Guinness Book of World’s Records as the world’s largest kaleidoscope, is in Mount Tremper, about 10 miles west of Woodstock. Located at the Emerson Country Store at the upscale Emerson Resort & Spa, the kaleidoscope, which was created in 1996, is inside a 60-foot tall silo.
For the reasonable price of $5 a person, you can watch the 10 minute, multimedia Kaleidoshow, which is an amazing display of color and sound. You can stand against one of the padded boards and lean back to view the show, as my husband did. However, since we were the only ones at the show, the lady operating it suggested we lay on the floor to view it, so that’s what the kids and I did, as it is the best way to get the full effect.
Afterward, we browsed through the gift shop, which has one of the largest selections of kaleidoscopes in the country. We picked out a couple of inexpensive ones to bring home, but they also have some worth hundreds of dollars for serious kaleidoscope collectors.
The music festival site
The iconic 1969 Woodstock Music Festival was held 60 miles away in Bethel. The promoters, who were from Woodstock, had hoped to have the festival in Woodstock; however, there was not a big enough venue. They then picked a site in the Town of Wallkill, but couldn’t get the proper permits. Fortunately, dairy farmer Max Yasgur had 600 acres of farmland in Bethel that they were able to use for the concert. It was here that more than 400,000 people gathered for a three-day music festival featuring the who’s who of rock ’n’ roll, like Jimi Hendrix, the Who, the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin.
A visit to the Museum at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts not only will tell you about the festival and performers, but will educate you about culture and society during the 1960s. A number of multimedia exhibits include footage from the festival. Be sure to see the exhibit in the hallway on the basement level, which features large boards describing each of the 32 acts that performed. Included is a band history, information on their performance at Woodstock, and what their career was like after the festival.
After viewing the exhibits on both floors and visiting the gift shop, you might think you’ve seen everything. But wait, there’s more! Head outside to the grounds next to the museum. Here you’ll see the Bethel Woods Performing Arts Center, a state-of-the-art venue that can seat about 15,000 for outdoor summer concerts. Continue walking until you are looking down a hill over a vast lawn. This is the site of the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival.
There is a commemorative monument along the road at the bottom of the hill; you can either walk to it along a footpath, or hop in your car and drive there (there’s a small parking lot by the monument). From the monument you can see the spot where the festival stage was set up. Close your eyes and envision what is was like in 1969 with all those people assembled on the hill.