A “Walking Woodstock” Classic: The Founding of Modern Woodstock

(A “Walking Woodstock” column published in the September 29, 2011 Woodstock Times.)

If we think of modern Woodstock as the Colony of the Arts, the description promoted by the Chamber of Commerce to emphasize our hundred year history of fine arts and music with occasional festivals for wild merriment, then we can date the foundation of this modern Woodstock to a summer day in 1902 when Bolton Brown came out of the mountains with grand plans for this sleepy village with lingering Dutch ancestry. To get here, Brown wandered for three weeks through the Catskills wilderness. Where did he go? What did he see? I’ve long wanted to retrace his historic journey.

Brown published his account in the August-September 1937 Publications of the Woodstock Historical Society. Reading it, I’ve learned that in 1902, Brown quit his professorship at Stanford University after negotiating a sweet deal with Ralph Radcliffe-Whitehead, an Englishman under the sway of William Morris and John Ruskin, two advocates for arts and crafts as a pushback against the Industrial Revolution. Fifty-two at the time, Whitehead lived with his wife in Santa Barbara and had “inherited a water faucet that flowed money whenever he turned it on,” Brown wrote. “His first figure [for my salary] I declined, as also his double of it; but when he tripled it, I accepted.” Whitehead was determined to fulfill a longstanding dream of establishing an arts and crafts colony in the East. “’Artists,’ he once remarked, ‘are the only people in the world worth living with, and the most difficult.’”

Whitehead wanted a spot fifteen hundred feet above sea level in keeping with theories at the time about where to find the healthiest air. The valleys were fetid with diseases. The higher elevations got too cold. Whitehead hoped to find his Shangri-la in Ashville, North Carolina. “’And I won’t go to the Catskills,’ he declared, ‘they are full of Jews.’” But Brown insisted upon the Catskills so much closer to New York City, “the centre of population and civilization.” So Whitehead took young Hervey White with him to Ashville—White, “very much the poet” with “long hair, whiskers, no hat, red necktie, and strong for radicalism in every form,” would later split with Whitehead to launch the Maverick—while Brown took the train with his wife and three babies to the Catskills.

In his 1937 memories, Brown wrote:

“My ancestral home is up in Schuyler County. To it I now took my family and there left them. I went down to the town of Catskill. I provided myself with the government Geological Survey maps of the entire region that includes the Catskill Mountains. A stage took me up to the northern side of the range to Windham. To describe my operations from this point would require a book, not an article. [Alas, Brown never wrote this book, leaving us to conjecture.] Sometimes I traveled by horse and buggy, but quite as often on my feet. Much of the country I explored was without roads or even paths, and it was by virtue of my contour maps that I was able to to go, afoot and alone, over the highest ridges and mountains in the group. I scrambled over summits so wild it seemed no man or even animal could ever have been there. Some were flat table rock, covered everywhere with dry grey dead moss a foot thick, the same grey moss hanging in sad festoons from all the branches of the few stunted spruce trees that barely survived. I am an old hand at mountain work, having served by apprenticeship in the wildest of the California Sierra, but for sheer savage impenetrability and utter laboriousness, some of these Catskill trips really capped my experience. I tore and ripped my clothes, on one occasion, to an extent that forced me, on regaining the region of farms, to borrow a threaded needle and retire with it round the corner of the house and sew myself up before I could meet people.

“As the crow flies, the Catskills are only some twenty-five miles across, but I used up three entirely laborious weeks zig-zagging back and forth and plunging up and down in them. I got in a high pocket with steep walls, in its bottom a single minute farm. The man said the name of the place was Mink Hollow. South of this hollow, the map showed that the steep wall terminated in a narrow and high ridge. Still south of this spruce-crested ridge, across a valley, the map gave Mt. Overlook a lake appearing off to the east. Lakes being scarce and desirable, I scrambled some miles down to this one, only to find it no lake at all but merely one of the Kingston reservoirs—named, however, Cooper’s Lake. The day being still young I walked up the back side of Overlook, emerging into the notch at Mead’s Mountain House.

“Exactly here the story of modern Woodstock really begins, for it was just at this moment, and from this place that I, like Balboa from his ‘peak in Darien,’ first saw my South Sea. South indeed it was and wide and almost as blue as the sea, that extraordinarily beautiful view, amazing in extent, the silver Hudson losing itself in the remote haze, those farthest and faintest humps along the horizon being the Shawangunk Mountains. I walked slowly along the highway facing this panorama, passed by the porch of the Mountain House, and a little down the road came upon an old man with a white beard doing something over in an apple orchard—all the trees in full blossom. I climbed the stone wall and talked with him. He registered surprise and disapproval at my coming ‘alone’ over those mountains back of Mink Hollow. It was very dangerous, he said. He did not know he was talking to a chap that had climbed Mt. Shasta, ‘alone.’ I was rude to his mountains, I confess, for I said: ‘These are the littlest mountains I have ever seen.’

“My old man was Mr. Mead himself, who had built the place forty years before. Pointing down to what seemed an earthly paradise, stretched at our feet, I asked, ‘What is the name of that place down there?’ He replied: ‘That is Woodstock Village.’ It looked good to me then; it has not ceased to do so.”

Brown continued down the hillside, leaving the high forest line for the back fields that harbored “some cows and grew nubs of rock sprinkled everywhere” of the farms that Whitehead would buy in the coming months to establish the Byrdcliffe colony, purchases that left Brown with mixed feelings. On one hand Brown had to be a savvy negotiator to get these farmers to part with their lands. For instance, one younger farmer, Fred Kelley, had land “so bad you could hardly call it land at all—mostly cliffs, swamps, and big stones. One day he was plowing, I trailing back and forth at his heels. At the end of the furrow the horses rested and I pointed out to Fred the tons and tons of stone he turned over each year to no good at all. He did not even grin—just punched the tobacco tighter in his pipe and remarked, ‘I don’t mind.’” Yet later in the season when Brown returned in his horse buggy to find the young farmer scything in a field corner where plows didn’t reach he succeeded by laying out the “legal option” to sign, uncorking the ink bottle, and waiting in silence while the farmer ignored him to mow “rod after rod of fence corners.” Finally, without saying a word, the farmer “swung round, signed—and went on mowing.” What could you say after signing your life away?

An older farmer, Mr. Snyder, didn’t say a word, either. “He hardly saw me, after I had spoken, just looked off beyond the river to the hills. And, feeling very mean, I turned away and left him standing there, tears running down his old bronzed cheeks.” That fall and winter Byrdcliffe was built.

Brown’s actual three-week route through the Catskills remains a mystery, though it’s easy enough now to backpack in a few days from Windham High Peak south to Overlook Mountain or over to Mink Hollow on trails that have made a popular recreational wilderness out of the “sheer savage impenetrability” that Brown encountered on his journey. But such a hike would lack his spirit of discovery. Before that summer day in 1902 Woodstock was a farm village with little anticipation for what this worldly art professor from California would bring after a wilderness trek across the Catskills, namely, an utopian vision of art and nature combined for a better life. Though commercialized, nostalgicized, etc., this vision remains our own. Yet I wonder whom the next Bolton Brown might be. And where he take us. And whether some of us will have tears on our cheeks as the old order gives way to the new. It wasn’t just vision that founded modern Woodstock. It was money, Ralph Radcliffe-Whitehead’s limitless fortune. Perhaps there’s a hedge funder with his own dreams for our future. Here’s hoping that he’s been awed by the the wild grandeur of our mountains as Bolton Brown was, especially by the stunted spruce bearded with moss that I’d love to see again myself. At moments like that you feel less need for utopia. You’re already in a strange and wonderful world.

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