We’ve all heard of Woodstock at one time or another—that famous (or infamous) concert held in August 1969. It was scheduled at different venues, but the final location was actually in Bethel, New York, about 60 miles from Woodstock. For many who lived through three major homeland assassinations, the Vietnam War, and the racial riots of the turbulent 1960s, Woodstock was an event representing peace, love, and freedom. It’s considered a defining moment of that generation, and a great memory for those who attended (estimated at 400,000).
Many subsequent concerts were planned, though most never came to fruition. What few people know is that one of the major follow-up concerts to Woodstock was scheduled for just nine months later, and the location was in the North Country, near a tiny community known as Churubusco. Signed to appear were many top acts of the day, including Chuck Berry, Steppenwolf, Bo Diddley, Grand Funk Railroad, Richie Havens, 3 Dog Night, Judy Collins, Sly and the Family Stone, B. B. King, and Canned Heat.
In spring 1970, a company called Fest-I-Rama announced that the three-day Churubusco Live-In would be held on Memorial Day weekend. Similar events were planned at the same venue for the Fourth of July and Labor Day. The complete story of the controversial event occupies a full chapter in my latest book, History of Churubusco. With subtitle, it’s History of Churubusco and the Town of Clinton, Clinton County, New York (to avoid confusion with well-known Churubuscos in Indiana and Mexico). The book is a new release available this week from Bloated Toe Publishing’s North Country Store.
Churubusco is a tiny, square-shaped settlement only a quarter-mile long on each side. It was named after a historic battle fought in 1847 during the US-Mexican War, and is located in the northwest corner of Clinton County. Amidst farmer’s fields and plenty of forest, the setting is remote, and that’s one of the reasons it was chosen to host a major rock concert. The entire town encompasses nearly 70 square miles, but is home to only around 700 residents.
The history of this tiny village and the agrarian town of Clinton is truly remarkable. One citizen became lieutenant governor of New York, served for years as a top state politician, and at one time was FDR’s closest advisor. Another was one of the founders of the city of Seattle and the state of Washington, and is highly honored there. And there were the famed “monks of Churubusco,” who actually have their own pope on the international stage. Many other very surprising details led me to the realization that the town’s amazing history should be recorded.
Among my favorite stories connected to Churubusco is the proposed rock concert. At the time the Live-In was announced, I was 16 years old and sometimes dreaded the trips (nearly every weekend) from Champlain to Churubusco to visit relatives. (My mom, now in her 90th year, was born there, and that’s where she and my dad, 86, met in the 1930s.)
There’s not much to do in Churubusco, and a day in the remote countryside was not exactly heaven for a teenager. But heaven arrived in early 1970. A huge rock concert, and with one of my favorite groups (Steppenwolf), was incredibly, impossibly, coming to Churubusco. Better than that, the venue was located across the road from my grandfather’s 100-acre farm. This was fantastic!
Well, fantastic for teenagers, maybe, but not so much for Churubusco or Clinton County. The call to arms went out, and that can just about be taken literally. During the battle to stop the event, attorney and local legend J. Byron O’Connell issued this statement: “That Live-In will turn into a lynch-in. People up here aren’t used to long hair. They don’t fool around with legal niceties, and they’re not going to put up with any nonsense from college kids. If they come up Rt. 189, they’re just liable to get shot.”
O’Connell was an outstanding trial attorney, and he was doing his best for his clients. He was bombastic at times, and that aggressive quote appeared in major newspapers in Boston, New York, and elsewhere. As Churubusco’s representative, he sought to derail the concert and preserve the hamlet’s quiet, rural life, while the promoters, Hal Abramson and Raymond Filiberti, fought back.
I wasn’t much interested in the adult perspective at the time. I had protested against the Vietnam War, and my draft time was rapidly approaching. If you were a male teenager in the 1960s, your future was on display nightly in national news reports on television, where body counts were offered like baseball’s daily box scores. Unless the war miraculously ended, it was only a matter of time before you went. If I could be sent off to kill people as soon as I graduated from high school, couldn’t I be allowed the privilege of enjoying myself first? I figured the Churubusco Live-In would at least give me that.
Still, there was that rational adult viewpoint. The feeling voiced most often was that all those hippies will be drug-crazed, and we don’t want them here. And, who would pay for everything? Extra police, medical facilities, food—the logistics seemed impossible even if someone did pay for them. Why did it seem impossible? It was fully expected that upwards of 200,000 fans would attend the Live-In, drawing from Montreal, Boston, New York City, and the other cities of New York State.
For three days of rock music, it wasn’t just Churubusco that would be bursting at the seams. A crowd of 200,000 would more than triple the entire county population virtually overnight. Battle lines were drawn, and the ensuing struggle lasted for weeks over whether or not the concert would be held. While the promoters and local authorities went back and forth, ticket sales continued and more bands were signed.
Thrown into the mix was a remarkable ordinance concocted by J. Byron O’Connell and Clinton town officials. When the ordinance was passed, it gained widespread attention for the unusual clauses it contained and the American liberties it surrendered, all in the name of stopping the concert.
It was a wild time. The subject dominated the news media in the region, and developments were followed by youth across the nation. If this was the second coming of Woodstock, nobody wanted to miss it, even those on the West Coast.
In the end, the adult viewpoint won, and the concert was canceled (along with subsequent Churubusco concerts). It may have been the right thing to do, but who knows? For three days of love, peace, and music (described by others as sex, drugs, and rock and roll), and a huge mess to clean up afterward, Churubusco might have become a must-see site for millions of baby boomers. Those tourist dollars sure would come in handy today.
(Note: Anyone in the Northern Tier is welcome to join us at Dick’s Country Store on Rt. 11, a few miles east of Chateaugay, on Friday, November 19, from 4-8 pm, for the official release of History of Churubusco. I’ll be on hand to sign copies and chat with visitors. My other books, including 3 reprints just received, will also be available. Among the reprints is Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow.)
Photo Top: 1970 Poster advertising the Churubusco Live-In.
Photo Middle: Map showing location of Churubusco.
Photo Bottom: Cover of History of Churubusco, with Live-In poster at center of collage.
Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.