Powder Ridge Owner Hopes To Resurrect Music Festival

Concertgoers who stayed around despite the lack of musical acts depart Powder Hill in Middlfield.

MIDDLEFIELD — They say you can't go home again, but Sean Hayes wants to ride the magic bus back to 1970, when 30,000 young people invaded the Powder Ridge ski area for what became known as "the greatest rock concert that never happened."

Hayes is one of the owners of Powder Ridge Mountain Park and Resort, which last year revived downhill skiing on Besek Mountain after a lull of half a dozen years.

Now, Hayes hopes to resurrect the spirit of the Powder Ridge Rock Festival of 1970, in which hordes of shaggy-haired youths from across the country sprawled on the sylvan slopes from July 31 to Aug. 2 waiting for bands that never came.

The rock festival promised the same headliners as a second Woodstock – Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Van Morrison, Sly and the Family Stone, and more. But all were no-shows, except for the folk singer Melanie, who sang her anthem, "What Have They Done To My Song Ma," her amplifier plugged into a Mr. Softee Ice Cream truck.

"We want to start small, no more than 4,500 people over two days," Hayes says of his plans for a music festival, planned for Oct. 4 and 5. "Already, 15 bands have contacted me saying they want to perform."

Hayes said no decisions have been made yet on music, except for Shakedown, a Grateful Dead cover band. He said the lineup will be finalized in the coming weeks and ticket sales will begin Sept. 1 via an announcement on the website at powderridgepark.com and Facebook page at facebook.com/PowderRidgePark

Hayes was 5 at the time of the Powder Ridge Rock Festival 44 years ago."I think you can honor history but in a respectable way," he said. "This will be a family-friendly event, but with a hippy feel and attitude."

Hayes has experience "leveraging history," as he describes his philosophy. In 2009, he and several partners started Brownstone Exploration and Discovery Park, which now draws thousands for zip lining, kayaking, wake boarding and scuba diving in the old Portland brownstone quarries.

The same vision inspired the purchase of Powder Ridge in 2012, when he and four investors bought the defunct 225-acre ski area for $700,000, according to published reports. "We want to make this a destination, a full-service urban sports facility, with not only skiing and snowboarding, but mountain biking and tubing," Hayes said when he bought it. In its first season, Powder Ridge drew about 40,000 visitors, Hayes said.

Powder Ridge opened in 1959 under the name Powder Hill. It was started by brothers Herman and Lou Zemel, successful appliance salesmen from New Haven. Lou Zemel was also known for his left-wing politics, which brought him into contact with the folk singers Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and the Weavers.

Lou's son, David Zemelsky, ran the 20-trail ski area in the 1980s, before selling to White Water Mountain Resorts, which operated the facility until 2006. In 2008, the town of Middlefield purchased Powder Ridge for $2.55 million.

Zemelsky, who now runs an organic farm in Durham, said he supports the idea of bringing music back to Powder Ridge. "The place is just ideal for music," said Zemelsky, who was present at the 1970 event. "It's a natural amphitheater and a beautiful setting like Tanglewood. I hope Sean succeeds."

Zemelsky said the idea for the original festival sprang from a curious mingling of his father's political views and the practical problem of running a ski area in southern New England with just a few months of cold. "That's the problem with a ski resort," Zemelsky said. "What do you do in the summer? My dad saw music festivals as a way to get some cash flow in the offseason."

Lou Zemel's friend Pete Seeger played at Powder Hill in 1965, followed by Joan Baez. However, when neighbors complained about traffic, he decided to take a break.

Then, in 1969, Woodstock happened. A few months later, Zemel was approached by a group of New York businessmen, who offered a handsome sum to lease the ski area for a Woodstock-like rock festival. Zemel agreed, and 50,000 tickets went on sale. Half were sold in just a few weeks.

But the fear of a Woodstock youth invasion prompted a Superior Court judge to issue an injunction barring the concert from taking place and threatening musicians with arrest if they set foot on stage. Meanwhile, the mysterious New York promoters were nowhere to be found, having made off with perhaps $500,000 in ticket sales.

The trouble didn't stop thousands of young people from flooding into Middlefield for what they hoped would be another Woodstock. For nearly a week they camped on the hillside, strumming guitars, pounding drums, and — it was later reported — ingesting various illegal drugs. (Life Magazine would describe the drug scene at Powder Ridge as far worse than Woodstock, with hundreds of "bad trips.")

Sanitation was another problem, and the pond at the foot of the slopes, where crowds stripped naked to cool off, was closed due to high bacteria counts.

The failed festival was a blow to Zemel, who spent years trying to make it up to people, offering free lift tickets to kids stiffed by shady concert promoters.

David Zemel, who adopted the original family name of Zemelsky, likes to think about all the good times at Powder Ridge – how the crews were like family, and love that blossomed on the ski slopes. "You wouldn't believe how many marriages Powder Ridge is responsible for," Zemelsky said. "It's really amazing."