How Woodstock got to be an arts colony

The Maverick Festival of 1929 (Coursens Studio, gelatin silver print)
Historical photos courtesy of the Gaede/Striebel Archive, Center for Photography at Woodstock Permanent Print Collection, on extended
loan to the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, State University of New York, New Paltz NY.

As mid-Hudson Valley residents, it appears to be our solemn, lifelong burden to explain to non-locals that the Woodstock festival did not happen in Woodstock. Those three days of peace, love and music, we clarify, were spent in Bethel, a town not especially close to Woodstock geographically or spiritually. We might go on to observe that “Woodstock” was already an important and ideologically charged word in the American language, and thus a fitting, iconic name for the remote farm festival. Then comes the confusing part: explaining that, more than half a century before Woodstock became famous as a counterculture Utopia, Woodstock was famous as a counterculture Utopia.

Woodstock owes its colorful history and its outsize stature as a center for art, music and cultural experimentation to the turn-of-the-century relationship – a friendship and a falling-out – between two men: the wealthy Englishman Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead and Hervey White, a charismatic Harvard-educated Kansas farm boy 12 years Whitehead’s junior. For the best telling of this essential story, read Alf Evers’ account of it in his wonderful regional history, The Catskills. For the digest version, read on.

It is a story that involves British intellectuals and the pervasive influence of Walt Whitman on thinkers and artists; a generation of idealists bent on undoing the damages and depredations of the Industrial Revolution, or at least finding an alternative for themselves; the disarmingly-named-but-revolutionary Arts and Crafts Movement; and an unlikely pair of art colonies that embodied these radical ideals in our own backyard: Byrdcliffe and Maverick. One was ambitious, well-financed and run somewhat autocratically; the other was scruffier, more truly communal and anarchic. Both attracted the attention of a Who’s Who of 20th-century artists and intellectuals, drawing them in force to the small community beneath Overlook Mountain.

Revolutionaries are often groomed for the job by the very institutions that they design to overthrow. Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead roughly fits this mold. The man and the money behind the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony, Whitehead grew up in Saddleworth, Yorkshire, and was heir to a large Industrial Age milling fortune. Alf Evers conjectures that a tragic factory chimney collapse at the Whiteheads’ mill – which killed 11 workers, including an entire family of nine – might have instilled in Whitehead a distaste for the family business and for the ugliness and inequities of the industrial society.

In any case, the radicalization of Ralph Whitehead began in earnest at Oxford, where he studied with the great Victorian thinker John Ruskin: a vocal critic of the Industrial Age, its defilement of nature and its degrading social structures. In his own career, Ruskin had evolved from a lofty art theorist into a passionately engaged social and humanitarian activist. Ruskin’s vision of an alternative social order based on the cooperative values of the medieval craft guilds inspired a generation of fervent, reform-minded idealists. His own attempt to build a model community, the Guild of St. George, had proven unsustainable, but Ruskin’s followers – including Whitehead, the designer and poet William Morris and many others – would continue to pursue the practical application of Ruskin’s ideals in their own businesses and affairs.

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