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A rock festival that could have rivaled Woodstock, if it hadn't been cancelled at the last minute because of local opposition, was scheduled to be held at the Powder Ridge Ski Area in Middlefield 35 years ago this summer.
Now largely forgotten, the Powder Ridge Festival was going to feature many of the same performers who had appeared at Woodstock, such as Janis Joplin and Sly and the Family Stone, along with such heavyweights as Van Morrison, James Taylor, the Allman Brothers Band and Fleetwood Mac for three more days of peace and love beginning on Friday, July 31, 1970.
Expectations were high for the Powder Ridge Festival as thousands of fans who had missed out on Woodstock the previous year snapped up the $20 tickets for what they hoped would be another landmark musical and cultural event.
Two weeks before the concert, the festival's promoters, a somewhat shadowy group named Middleton Arts International, claimed it had already sold more than 25,000 tickets.
Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on one's point of view, Middlefield's 4,000 plus residents, fearing that their tiny hamlet would be inundated with traffic, drugs and counterculture types, went to court to try and stop the festival.
"There was no room for a rock festival in a community that was proud of its three Vietnam War veterans and its girl scout troop and its reputation as a town that exhibited a decent moral tradition and a healthy, American atmosphere in which young people could grow into respectable adults," wrote Robert Santelli in his 1980 book, Aquarius Rising.
But a Middlefield woman, whose son had recently entered the service, had a much different opinion. She told The New York Times, "It doesn't seem like it would have been such a bad thing. I think people rejecting it could cause more trouble than otherwise."
Just four days before the festival was to begin, Middlefield residents got what they wanted when State Superior Court Judge Aaron J. Palmer granted opponents a temporary injunction preventing the concert from being held.
The town had previously rejected two requests to hold the festival, but the promoters kept telling the public that the concert was going to be held.
"There was an attempt to run roughshod over a small town; we were vulnerable but not that vulnerable. We proved we could rally our defenses and make a case and the court ruled what was valid," declared John Lyman Jr., one of the plaintiffs seeking the injunction.
Powder Ridge's promoters quickly filed an appeal and offered a compromise, vowing to cap the festival audience at 20,000, a substantial reduction of the 100,000 they had originally expected.
But Judge Palmer denied the appeal and named Middlesex County State's Attorney Vincent J. Scamporino to "supervise the enforcement of his injunction, to investigate possible violations and to prosecute if necessary."
"We don't want any trouble and don't want to ignite any trouble, but at the same time the ban must be respected and obeyed," said Scamporino.
To discourage fans from showing up at Powder Ridge, Scamporino ordered state police to post signs saying that the festival had been cancelled and closed all the roads leading to the ski area to everyone except Middlefield residents.
Scamporino also warned any musicians who violated the injunction and performed at Powder Ridge that they would be charged with contempt of court and subject to possible fines, imprisonment or both.
Despite these steps, a steady stream of rock fans, who either didn't know about the injunction or chose to ignore it, made their way to Powder Ridge and by July 30, 1970, an estimated 15,000 people were camped out on the ski resort's 300 acres.
Adding to the confusion were statements by the festival's promoters, who kept hinting that there was still a chance that the concert would be held.
"It's a total wait-and-see thing," said Gerald Goldstein, a spokesman for the promoters.
Their optimism wasn't entirely unrealistic. After all, Woodstock had faced strong local opposition and was still held, not in Wallkill, NY where it was originally planned, but on Max Yasgur's 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, NY.
However, those hopes seemed to end the day before the music was supposed to begin at Powder Ridge when the Connecticut Supreme Court turned down a request by the festival's promoters to consider the case.
Still the kids kept coming, and by Friday night, according to Santelli, an estimated 50,000 people were camped out on Powder Ridge's slopes with little else to do but hope a miracle would happen and the festival would be held.
It's impossible to say how many fans would have shown up at Powder Ridge if the festival had been held, but it's probably safe to say that it would have been much more than 50,000, given its stellar lineup of artists and easy access via Interstate 91. Remember Woodstock's organizers had only expected a crowd of 50,000 and 400,000 turned out.
Scamporino rejected calls by some to clear Powder Ridge and instead allowed kids who had shown up to remain. "I have no plans to remove innocent persons assembled at Powder Ridge," he said. He did order the ski resort to cut off utilities to send a message to the growing throng that they weren't welcome to stay indefinitely.
With no music, the enormous crowd had little choice but to create its own entertainment.
"At one point, 200 or so young men and women fell into step together chanting and pounding out a beat with sticks and cans, shoes, bottles, tambourines and bongo drums. A young man with a harmonica and a couple of flutes joined in," The New York Times reported.
"The best thing going here is not the music, not the festival as other folks see it—the music this weekend—but the cooperation, the sharing of food, the whole idea of being together," a young woman from Ithaca, NY said. "This is just another stop in the journey."
"It all goes to show that you can have a rock music festival without rock music," another member of the audience said.
Then on Friday a makeshift sound system powered by generators from a couple of Mister Softee ice cream trucks was set up, and Melanie, the diminutive folksinger who had performed at Woodstock, appeared on stage under the threat of arrest after some local bands had played.
"I was sure this festival would happen," Melanie told Rolling Stone magazine. "When I heard it was off, I wouldn't believe it. I was just another person going up. I just happen to carry my guitar all the time."
After Melanie played virtually every song she knew, including "Lay Down" and "Beautiful People," rumors spread that some of the other advertised artists were going to play but none did.
The crowd remained optimistic. "They could take down the stage and everything—they could shut off the electricity and take out the phones," said another young man from New Haven, who was only wearing a leather belt and a bead necklace. "It's the people who do it. The music doesn't make the festival—it's the people.
But over time, the searing summer heat, lack of music and bathroom facilities began to sour the mood of the audience. Drugs became the only diversion for many.
"Powder Ridge was a disaster waiting to happen, and it happened," Middletown author William Manchester wrote in his 1974 book, The Glory and the Dream.
"A cloud of marijuana hung over the central portion of the resort last night, and drug dealers sold their wares openly. Some moved through the crowd crying, ‘Acid, mescaline, acid, mescaline,'" The New York Times reported.
"On a busy road near the main office, hawkers intoned like hot dog salesmen in Shea Stadium—‘get your white lightning, Electric Kool-Aid here.' A cluster of competing marijuana dealers provided corncob pipes or swiftly rolled joints for customers to sample their wares. A price war had forced them down to $8 an ounce," the newspaper said.
Dr. William Abruzzi, the festival's medical director, said drug use was far more widespread at Powder Ridge than Woodstock, where he had the same job, because there was no music and nothing for the kids to do other than get high.
"Woodstock was a pale pot scene," said Abruzzi. "This is a heavy hallucinogens scene."
"Because of the prolific use of so many drugs," Santelli wrote, "the scene was incredible and ugly at the same time."
"By Saturday afternoon, Powder Ridge had become less a music festival and more of an enormous drug orgy," Santelli said. To some observers, including Manchester, Powder Ridge had turned into just a plain old orgy.
The drug situation was undoubtedly made worse by the fact that a lot of the acid or LSD being sold at Powder Ridge was laced with strychnine or mescaline. And because there wasn't a public address system like there had been at Woodstock—remember emcee Chip Monck's stage announcement on the album and in the movie—it was hard to get the word out.
By Saturday. August 1, 1970, Abruzzi was telling the media the drug problem at Powder Ridge was approaching a "crisis" with 50 people an hour being treated for bad trips.
"At one point we had 150 kids freaked out simultaneously. I'm not talking about the kid who is a little spaced out saying, ‘Look, baby, I don't know where I am.' I mean the horrendous kind, the paranoia, muscular activity, hostility, aggression, kind of frightened-out-of-their-minds scene that is unbelievable unless you've seen it happen," Abruzzi told LIFE magazine.
Fortunately, that problem eased on Sunday when fans, finally convinced that there would in fact be no music at Powder Ridge, began leaving the ski area en masse.
But the news wasn't all bad. An 18-year-old woman went into labor at Powder Ridge and gave birth to a daughter at a hospital in Middletown.
Instead of passing out cigars, Peter Roland, the baby's father, gave away marijuana to his friends at the festival, according to The New York Times.
"I'm really glad this happened here," Roland said. "It's a groovy world here and the baby's going to be a beautiful person."
Although Powder Ridge, which had aroused such high expectations, ended mostly in disappointment, it still has managed to achieve some notoriety in the annals of rock history.
In an article published a few weeks after Powder Ridge ended, LIFE magazine dubbed it "the festival that never was."
Trying to summarize what happened in Middlefield, LIFE wrote, "The kids, deprived of the distraction of music, made it a festival of boredom, drugs, sex and nudity. So the townspeople had their public nuisance anyway."
To Abruzzi, Powder Ridge's legacy was a little more troubling.
"The kids at Powder Ridge turned their hostility and frustration inward. They arrived in relatively good faith, but filled with doubt, questions, uncertainty, boredom, futility and resentment," Abruzzi told LIFE. "Gradually, they felt they'd been taken, co-opted, utilized for financial reasons, for political reasons. Because of this they did a lot of things they wouldn't have done otherwise. There were a lot of kids who had never tried heavy drugs before. They lost their sense of discrimination in the drugs they used."
Powder Ridge's promoters balked at offering refunds to the thousands of fans who had bought tickets to the event in Middlefield, saying they were going to hold the festival at Yankee Stadium in New York City. But those plans fell through, as did similar attempts to hold the concert at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington, DC and at a rural location in North Carolina.
In the end, no money was ever refunded to the ticket holders, and as Santelli writes, "someone-no one ever learned exactly who-was half a million dollars richer."