On February 9, 1973, Max Yasgur, the New York State dairy farmer who defied his neighbors when he agreed to host the 1969 Woodstock Music and Arts Festival on his land, died, at the age of 53. Almost in spite of himself, Yasgur became a counterculture hero when he agreed to lease 600 acres of his farm to an ad hoc company called Woodstock Ventures, which anticipated some 50,000 participants at the three-day festival it was planning.
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Instead, an estimated 400,000 people showed up in what was up to then the largest known gathering in the Western world.
Maxwell B. Yasgur was born in New York on December 15, 1919, and grew up on his parents’ dairy farm, in Sullivan County, New York. His father was Samuel Yasgur, a Jewish immigrant born in Minsk, in what is today Belarus, and his mother was the former Bella Feder. They also ran a small hotel on their property.
Yasgur attended New York University, where he is said to have studied real estate and business, before returning to Maplewood, in the Catskills region. There, he eventually sold his family’s property, and bought two farms in nearby Bethel, to which he continued adding over the years. In 1940, he married Miriam Miller, who had been a guest at his parents’ hotel. They had two children, Samuel, in 1942, and Lois, in 1944.
Suddenly, a venue problem
By 1969, Yasgur’s dairy farm had more than 550 cows – purebred Holsteins – and its own pasteurization facility, where he processed milk he distributed and sold around the region.
The Woodstock festival was so named because of the original plan to mount some sort of event in Woodstock, New York, which is some 60 miles (96 kms) to the northeast. The organizers had already begun selling tickets to the festival when they were denied permission to hold it where they had planned. Another possibility was a motel owned by one Elliot Tiber in White Lake, but it was too small for the organizers, so, in mid-July 1969, he put them in touch with his friend, Max Yasgur.
Woodstock Ventures originally offered to pay Yasgur $50 a day to rent part of his farm, for what they said they estimated would be an audience of 5,000 people. That didn’t sound right to the farmer.
Michael Lang, the first of the four organizers to meet with Yasgur, recalled in 1994 to the Times-Herald Record, a local paper, “When we started to talk business, he was figuring on how much he was going to lose in this crop and how much it was going to cost him to reseed the field. He was a sharp guy, ol' Max, and he was figuring everything up with a pencil and paper.”
Eventually, Woodstock Ventures agreed to pay Yasgur $75,000 for the use of his land, and when they presented the idea to the local authorities, they now estimated an audience of 40,000. That too was off by a factor of 10.
Have fun and God bless you
Bethel residents were split on the idea, but opponents began posting signs urging neighbors, “Don’t buy Yasgur’s milk. He loves the hippies.”
“The sign did it,” Miriam Yasgur told a journalist, some years later. “When Max saw that, I knew darned well he was going to let them have their festival.”
Yasgur himself addressed the audience on day three, shortly before Joe Cocker took the stage.
“The important thing that you've proven to the world,” he declared, “is that a half a million kids -- and I call you kids because I have children that are older than you can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music, and God Bless You for it!”
Yasgur had had his first heart attack in the 1960s, and by 1971, he was under doctor’s orders to retire. So, he sold the farm and moved to Marathon, Florida, where he died on this day in 1973.
About two years before his death, Yasgur visited Israel. There, according to his friend Lou Newman, he met David Ben-Gurion. “I’m Max Yasgur of Bethel,” he supposedly told the retired prime minister. To which, Israel’s founding father responded, “Oh yeah, that's where Woodstock was, wasn't it?”