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Powder Ridge Rock Festival: The greatest show that never was

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Powder Ridge Rock Festival: The greatest show that never was
The New York Daily News’ original caption for the above photo: “Campers are set up by early arrivals as Powder Ridge becomes another instant Rock City.”  (Photo by Paul DeMaria / New York Daily News via Getty Images)

In late July 1970, tens of thousands of young people descended on the Powder Ridge ski area in Middlefield. They had come to revel in a Woodstock-style rock festival featuring a star-studded lineup of 24 performers including Fleetwood Mac, James Taylor, Little Richard and Janis Joplin. The Vietnam War was raging, and the shootings at Kent State occurred less than three months prior. Townspeople wanted the festival banned. A judge agreed, and issued an injunction. The musicians stayed away, but the music fans did not. The ski slopes were slathered in dangerous drugs, nonchalant nudity and non-stop partying the likes of which Middlefield, and quite possibly Connecticut, had never seen before or since. Here’s how a concert for the ages turned into the greatest show that never was. 


History is written by the victors, or so they say. But who really won when it comes to the Powder Ridge Rock Festival of July 31-Aug. 2, 1970? Many townspeople wanted it canceled, and they got their wish. But the kids still wanted to party, and party they did. They also came for the music. They missed out on The Guess Who playing on a stage, but happily settled for “who knows” playing a guitar in front of their tent.

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Concert posters promoted Powder Ridge’s “natural amphitheatre” that was “already electrified and in operation. Powder Ridge seems the perfect place for a Festival. That’s why we believe that this is the important one for 1970.”

Accounts of what really happened 50 years ago in Middlefield differ depending on who’s telling the story. Some say there were 30,000 people there, some claim there were upward of 50,000. I was told four different names of the first selectman at the time — it was Ferd Olson — and no fewer than five people in multiple Facebook groups claimed to be in charge of security. Concertgoers were described as peaceful and kind, and alternately as addicts and thieves.

Certain things are indisputable facts. Drugs were plentiful. Clothes were scarce. Singer-songwriter Melanie was the only billed act who actually showed up and played. With the power to Powder Ridge cut off, she performed with a makeshift sound system hooked up to the generator of a Mister Softee ice cream truck.

In Connecticut lore, the story of the Powder Ridge Rock Festival is a quaint tale. How did our little state almost end up with Woodstock Part 2? That would have been so cool!

But for Middlefield, and its small-town susceptibility, the repercussions of the controversial festival were felt for more than a generation.

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

Trish Nellis Dynia, a former writer for The Town Times, a local paper covering Middlefield and Durham, wrote a multi-part series about the Powder Ridge Rock Festival 10 years ago to commemorate the 40th anniversary. “The Town Times wanted somebody to write an article on the 30th anniversary, and people in town were still divided over what had happened,” says Dynia, a Durham resident. “There was a lot of controversy. There were neighbors who were still angry with other neighbors. There were people in town who were like, ‘Fine, let the kids come in and have their concert.’ And the others were more, ‘Oh my god. This is terrible, we’re going to have a bunch of dirty hippies in town.’ So even 30 years after, it was like, don’t go there. People are going to be upset. But by the time 40 years had passed it was fine.”

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Early arrivals set up camps for a rock festival that was never to occur.

In the heat of the moment, and underneath the heat of the summer sun, the residents of Powder Hill Road — the only road to the resort — who were so adamantly against the festival still showed compassion. Streets were blocked off to anyone who couldn’t show ID with a Middlefield address on it, so anyone heading to the Ridge had to walk for miles. “They started leaving out hoses for them to get a drink of water,” Dynia says. “They were making them things like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and bologna sandwiches because they were hot, they were thirsty and they were hungry.”

Quinnipiac professor Richard Hanley, who included a snippet about Powder Ridge in his documentary about the New Haven Coliseum, was 14 and living in Northford at the time. “It was interesting to see national news cover something right up the road from where you are,” Hanley says. He remembers the reports of tens of thousands of kids flocking to a canceled event. “If you’re familiar with the geography of that place, it would have been terrific for a concert. Have the crowd sit on the ski slopes and watch the acts.”

On what would have been the first day of the festival, NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report informed the nation what was happening in Middlefield. Standing in front of a crude map of Connecticut, David Brinkley delivered the following: “Even though there is no music, and won’t be, Powder Ridge seems to have become a kind of outdoor folk ritual, or puberty rite, and a social scene offering a variety of fun and games.” On-site reporter Liz Trotta called it more of an “overcrowded country picnic” than a rock festival.

Dynia was on vacation with her parents in upstate New York. Her mother found out about the festival in the local newspaper and immediately called home to Middletown. Dynia was only 9 but her brothers were 20 and 18. “She called my brothers and said, ‘Don’t you dare go over to that thing!’ The funny thing was, it was summer; they were working summer jobs during college. They didn’t know anything about it. And it was like, ‘OK, Mom, we won’t.’ And then my brother Jerry gets off the phone. ‘Hey Steve, guess what? There’s a big concert in Middlefield this weekend. Pack up our friends and let’s go!’ So of course they went.”

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A ticket for the three-day festival cost $20, not a bad deal considering the lineup that was supposed to show. An even better deal would have been $2, which is what one poster erroneously listed as the price.

Because of the success and immediate legacy of Woodstock, festivals began sprouting up all over the country, although many were canceled. “A lot of towns were scared of it,” Hanley says. “Not just Middlefield, but all across the United States. They didn’t want any part of this.” Powder Ridge was an outlier in the sense that hordes of people still showed up despite the ban. “A lot of the hard-feelings part that people came away with was the place was trashed,” Dynia says. “When everybody left, it was trashed.”

THROUGH A LOCAL LENS

John Bugai was 9 years old at the time and lived on his family’s dairy farm on the Durham side of Powder Hill Road. Due to the road closures, Bugai says, people were walking by his house for a week before the concert was supposed to begin. “It was a steady stream, groups of four, groups of five. There was always some group walking through,” says Bugai, who still lives in Durham. “Even in the middle of the night you would hear people walking.”

His older sister, Jean Janssen, who now lives in New York, was 15 and in between her sophomore and junior years of high school. “One night, in the middle of the night, one girl was sitting out there with some guys who said let’s stop and take a break,” Janssen says. “The girl kept saying, ‘I’m not leaving till I get some milk!’ Scared the hell out of my grandmother.” Janssen’s grandmother had a rough week. “A motorcycle was up there and the guy and a girl came down to see if they could get food from my grandmother,” Janssen says. “And the girl had no top on. Freaked my grandmother out. It was interesting times.”

Ilene Coman lived on Main Street in Middlefield. She was 15 years old and had just lost her father the month before. Her mother allowed her to go to Powder Ridge and stay overnight under the watchful eye of her 24-year-old brother and his wife. “A lot of people didn’t have clothes on,” Coman says. “That was just so odd, and they were nonchalant about everything.” Her most vivid memory is from the next morning. “I do remember specifically waking up and the guy in the group next to us saying, ‘Would you like some electric Kool-aid?’ ” Coman declined the offer.

Coman, who today lives in East Haddam, got married in 1990 and had the reception at Powder Ridge. (The open bar did not include electric Kool-aid.) “I didn’t actually feel in danger or anything,” Coman says of the rock festival. “You could tell, people weren’t out to hurt anybody. They were just doing their own thing, and if you wanted some of what they had you could have it. If not, then fine. I think that people were pretty respectful even though some of them didn’t have clothes on.”

On YouTube, there’s a 15-minute video of festival footage set to a soundtrack of Eric Burdon & War (“Spill the Wine”), Joe Cocker (“With a Little Help from My Friends”), Alive N Kickin’ (“Tighter, Tighter”) and Three Dog Night (“Mama Told Me Not To Come”). Michael Morello, then an 18-year-old living in Rockfall, a village in Middlefield, says his neighbor wanted to go to the festival to film what was going on but was too nervous to go alone. So Morello went with him and “directed.”

“There was an asphalt walkway on the edge of the pond before you got to the ski shop, and it looked like a Middle East marketplace,” says Morello, now a South Carolina resident. “If you’ve ever been to a casbah, where everybody’s got their goods out on the ground and you just buy and sell. It was all drugs. They were selling LSD, speed, reds — I’ve even forgotten what reds are. Anything that you wanted was there. And I did absolutely nothing. I was not into that culture.”

It must run in the family. Morello says 27 people in Middlefield led the charge to get the court injunction to ban the festival, and his uncle was one of them. “They would go to these town meetings and they’re the ones that got a court injunction against it,” Morello says. “They finally had a state judge ban it because they said the town was not suitable for that amount of people coming in. And they got them on the amount of restrooms and port-o-johns that were there. They got them on every little detail they could.”

Regardless of his feelings about the festival and the drug scene that pervaded it, Morello still provided a service to the out-of-town concertgoers courtesy of his Middlefield ID and Toyota Corona. “You could probably fit two people in the front, three people in the back,” Morello says. “I fit 17 people, in and on. I had people stuffed in up to the roof. I had people on the hood, on the roof of the car, on the back bumper. I’m surprised I didn’t kill my shocks.”

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There was no shortage of mind-altering substances, which meant peddlers had to go to bargain-basement levels to move their stuff.

THE ADULTS IN THE ROOM

Music fans and party people weren’t the only ones preparing for the rock festival. The volunteer fire department and state troopers had to be ready as well. Ken Way was a volunteer firefighter in his late 20s and right in the thick of things throughout. About six to eight firemen set up a makeshift headquarters at a clubhouse on nearby Lake Beseck because there was no way to get a truck across town.

Way sent his wife and kids out of town as a precaution, just in case there was a riot when the concert was called off. “The thing I got the biggest charge out of I guess — there were nudes and everything else but that wasn’t it — you’d stumble over somebody’s feet laying in the grass or alongside of a road, and then, ‘man, man, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, excuse me, I didn’t mean to be there,’ ” Way says. “My age group, 10 years older, you would want to fight right off.”

Just months earlier, Way had opened a gas station on Route 147 but closed it down for 7-10 days because of the anticipated lack of traffic due to the festival. “They had I-91 backed up for 7 miles,” says Way, now living in Maine. People would drive as far as they could, and when traffic stopped they got out and walked. Initially, Way regretted not purchasing a wrecker for the amount of towing that would take place. A friend reassured him he made no mistake. “None of them had any money,” Way says. “They’d sneak in at night and steal them back or they’d give you some sob story and you’d end up giving them the car back.”

Instead of sitting in a wrecker, Way spent most of the week on his Harley-Davidson weaving through the crowds on Powder Ridge. “There was this one hippie,” Way says. “Every time I stopped, ‘Hey man, give me a ride on that.’ The last day, when [the state police] were breaking down — they had used the firehouse for the state police headquarters — I look out and here comes a bus. And here comes that hippie. I thought, they finally got him. But it was a damn state trooper, undercover.”

One state trooper who was not undercover was RJ Cabelus. He had been a resident trooper in Middlefield for about five years before he transferred out of that job and ended up at the state police academy as an instructor. “I was in the middle of teaching a class,” says Cabelus, now 93 and still living in Middlefield. “I was called out of class to take a phone call, and it was from the commissioner’s office. He says, ‘Hey, what the hell is going on down there in Middlefield? What’s this about a festival’ and ‘maybe 200,000 people’ and all this kind of stuff. I say, ‘I don’t know about the 200,000 people but I know they’re planning on putting a little music on.’ And he says, ‘Well, go home and find out everything you can find out and call me before 5 o’clock.’ So I became his No. 1 gopher.”

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Would-be concert-goers took to skinny-dipping to escape the heat.

Cabelus was in charge of getting highway signs up, traffic patterns, road closures, gassing the troopers’ cars and making sure they were fed. A field hospital was set up at a nearby school and they brought in volunteer doctors from Middletown and got the Red Cross and local fire departments involved.

Understandably, Cabelus’ perspective on the festival differs from some of the attendees. It wasn’t all peace, love and harmony from where he was standing. “Don’t polish it up too much,” Cabelus says. “They were stealing clothes off of clotheslines, vegetables out of the gardens, leaving garden hoses running because they wanted water. They had a very negative attitude toward law enforcement. I think our guy, Leo Mulcahy, who was the commissioner, did one fantastic job of keeping that thing from getting violent. If 100 troopers showed up to start showing people the way out of town, we would have had all kinds of problems.”

After the festival, Cabelus and fellow trooper Bill Leonard were surveying the neighborhood to make sure everyone had cleared out. When they went back into the ski area they saw a young woman naked in the street. “She had a bamboo rake in her hands and she was raking the road,” Cabelus says. “She no more saw us or heard us or anything else. Bill and I called for the ambulance and sent her off to the hospital.”

A 14-year-old boy who was being treated at the field hospital for a bad drug reaction ended up staying with Cabelus and his family for a few days. The doctors gave instructions on how to care for him. Eventually his parents arrived from Ohio to take him home.

THE HIPPIES ON THE RIDGE

These days Karen Ercolani Wines lives off the grid in Washington state close to the Canadian border, up in the mountains. In the summer of 1970 she was a 21-year-old who spent the whole festival weekend up on the Ridge. She grew up on nearby Lake Beseck, so she did enjoy the luxury of not having to bathe in the “Powder Puddle.” The little pond at the base of the slopes was used by many during the festival for swimming, bathing and god knows what else. It had to be closed off due to the skyrocketing bacteria level.

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We can’t do any better than the original New York Daily News caption ­— “Tents? Nobody’s tense in the environs of Powder Puddle. And not too many bathing suits are getting wet. It’s too hard to get ‘em dry and pack ‘em for the trip home.”

“I partied most of the time up there,” Wines says. “Left now and then to go get cleaned up again and feel human, but then right back up there. I even took my dad up there. He wanted to see what the festival looked like, and he was a little shocked at the undress of the people. There were not a lot of clothes being used. And you didn’t dare go swimming in the lake that was there.”

Wines says she’s glad she experienced the Powder Ridge festival, but it’s difficult for her to speak about that era without conflating Vietnam and Kent State into the memories. She mentions that her husband was in Vietnam and that she lost friends in the war, and there’s always a hole when Kent State comes up. She laments that college-educated and wealthy Americans were detached from the realities of what others were facing. “But I do digress because that is a time that’s still inside me,” Wines says.

Quite a few Vietnam vets were in Middlefield and at other similar gatherings, she says, because they wanted to promote the anti-war movement. “Festivals like that didn’t last long enough.” She also says the opposition from locals helped to increase attendance. “Word went out that Middlefield wasn’t really behind it at all. And so, all the people who were not really thrilled with the government at that point in time said, ‘Oh, well, we’re going to show up anyway,’ ” Wines says.

Barbara Mroczka knew from a young age that she would never conform. She was “married for about five minutes” when she was 16 and had her own apartment on Main Street in Middlefield in 1970 when she was 20. She had a friend who lived in Meriden and offered to babysit Mroczka’s son the week of the festival. “That was one of the best weeks of my life,” she says. “I wasn’t responsible for anybody but myself.” The year before, she had wanted to go to Woodstock but her baby was just an infant. Her boyfriend, now husband, talked her out of it.

For the week leading up to the festival, Mroczka and her friend across the street who owned a bakeshop would take day-old bread, doughnuts and anything else down to Powder Ridge to feed the growing masses. “That was my first introduction to public nudity.”

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The original caption to this photo, from the New York Daily News: "They're Going Home Loaded. After a week of drugs and disappointment, youths abandon the Powder ridge ski area in Middlefield, Conn., yesterday. The rock festival, which had been scheduled, had long been canceled by court order. But 30,000 squatters had gone to site anyway. It turned out to be a bad trip."

When the weekend arrived, Mroczka’s friends left their cars at her apartment and they all made the 4-mile walk together. “One of our friends had just come home from basic training and he had the shaved head,” Mroczka says. “And so we dug up a wig for him because he really felt like he would be targeted for being in the military, because obviously in that time period nobody had hair like that unless you were in the military. And we got halfway up the Ridge and it was too hot. I remember him just sweating bullets. He said, ‘I’m taking off this stupid thing. If somebody wants to give me a hard time they can give me a hard time.’ And the most interesting thing is no one said a word to him ever. No one commented in any way. To this day I find that so interesting.”

She says they walked in and saw card tables set up with all types of drugs. “What was hysterical is they were having price wars. They’d start off at like $4 or $5 and cross it out and everything got down to $1,” Mroczka says. That sounds a lot like capitalism. “Yeah, definitely. At a time when everybody believed that wasn’t the way they were going.”

The way things are going is what’s befuddling and concerning now for Mroczka, who makes her home on the Virginia shore. “It still amazes me today ... how we could bring up children and grandchildren who are not at all like we were in the late ’60s and ’70s,” she says. “They protest now and they have their automatic weapons with them. It just catches my breath because that’s not who we were back then. How did we produce these children and grandchildren?”

The legacy of Powder Ridge is that it didn’t happen. It’s the festival that wasn’t. The most famous concert never played. But still, so much happened. A town remained divided for a generation. Melanie played on an ice cream truck. There are probably people who say they were there when they weren’t, and people who actually were there who don’t remember.

“Anybody who talks about Woodstock, I say, ‘I can one-up ya.’ Not with the music, but the humanity,” Mroczka says. “The kindness, the generosity, the sharing, the sheer compassion for each other was … kind of life-changing. I thought at that time, I truly remember this thought perfectly, that there’s hope for us. Now I wonder. But then, I felt very hopeful that as a generation we were going to make a difference and we were going to change the world. But then some of us forgot.”

This article appeared in the July 2020 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get the latest and greatest content from Connecticut Magazine delivered right to your inbox. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.

Mike Wollschlager, editor and writer for Connecticut Magazine, was born and raised in Bristol and has lived in Farmington, Milford, Shelton and Wallingford. He was previously an assistant sports editor at the New Haven Register.