I admire the leap-takers, and Jay Ungar and Molly Mason are two exemplary ones. Not content to rest on their considerable laurels as composers, performers, teachers and enthusiasts of traditional music, this husband-and-wife duo stepped up in 2006 when they read a local paper’s erroneous report that the Ashokan Center’s campus had been sold. “The property was actually on the market, and people were looking at it, but it hadn’t been sold yet. None of the potential buyers would keep 385 acres of preserved land,” says Ungar, “and some were interested in logging it.”
“We got the courage and said, ‘Let’s try,’ and a number of people banded together, including Ulster Savings Bank, Catskill Watershed, Open Space Institute, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and many individual donors. To start with, we were riding a wave of entities who wanted to help save Ashokan, and we pulled them together and did it. Then,” he says, “Oops…the next thing was that the old buildings were condemned by the City.”
By late 2012, the newly established Ashokan Foundation (a New York State 501 (c) (3) not-for-profit organization) had completed an ambitious $7.25 million renovation project. A 200-seat performance hall, classrooms, dining rooms for 200 people and lodging for 150 guests (semi-private and shared) were sustainably built, and the new buildings – though 50 percent larger – cost less to heat than the creekside buildings once owned by SUNY-New Paltz.
The historic site, which has invigorated generations of young students who’ve attended outdoor and environmental education programs there since 1967, is now a multi-use facility that attracts educators, students, conference and wedding planners – and, on New Year’s Eve, revelers who love traditional music and dance. The festivities begin with a ring-in-the-New-Year dinner at 6 p.m., followed by music and dancing until the wee hours. And, for those who wish to continue the celebrations, there’s a weekend package of meals, singing, dancing and lodging through Sunday afternoon.
Ungar and Mason first came to Ashokan to offer one of their popular Music & Dance Camps in 1980, and have hosted the lively gatherings there every year since 1985. The New Year’s Eve events are open to the public and feature many of the musicians and dancers who have taught and performed at their Music & Dance Camps over the years.
“One of the great things about this weekend is that people really party out on New Year’s Eve. There’s dancing in two rooms, and three or four bands play until 2 or 3 a.m.,” says Mason. “And if you stay over, you don’t have to drive home. You get up late, have a late breakfast and then you start playing music and dancing again.”
The music is “pretty cool; it’s diverse. There’s swing and there’s Cajun and zydeco every year. This year we’ve got the Yanks, an amazing Irish band who played at this year’s Hoot,” says Ungar, “so it’s like a musical smörgåsbord. It’s couples and singles, a small number of kids, and it’s just very relaxed and friendly.”
“There’s a pretty big number of people who return every year, and that’s a lovely thing,” adds Mason, “a lot of people who know each other, and new people too.”
Looking ahead a few years, Mason says that it’s exciting to see more music events and weekend camps coming up. To give just two examples, the Ashokan Center will host the Winter Hoot (January 29-31) and Maple Fest (March 13), both of which are very kid-friendly, with lots of activities planned for all ages.
“The Music & Dance Camps that we started back in the ’70s and ’80s attracted a very small subculture of people who were into traditional fiddle and dancing,” says Ungar. “Now, lots of people in their teens and 20s – who are amazing musicians playing in many genres – are coming. We’re excited to see where they will take it, and trying to mentor them. They’re the leaders of the future, and I have a lot of curiosity about where they’ll take it. Many of our environmental instructors are also in their 20s, and some stay with us for a while, some for a semester or a year, and each brings a new and interesting perspective. They’ve changed the face of things in wonderful ways.”
“It’s surprising how much time and energy has been required,” Mason adds. “Way back in the beginning, we thought we’d be involved for a year or a couple of our time and attention, and then Ashokan would take care of itself like it had for the past 40 years. But the DEP building project kept us busy for all these years. At times, it was a little daunting,” she admits, “but it’s a great place now, and we’re enjoying what we’re doing.”
When the environmental programs began at the former SUNY-New Paltz Field Campus at Ashokan in 1967, they were among the first such educational offerings for schools – though, as Mason says, “People didn’t realize how important water is. It wasn’t talked about in school so much back then. Now it’s very important and people are often talking about it. Here, with the Ashokan Reservoir and partnerships with the DEP, we’re very well-poised to concentrate on water. Several DEP and environmental groups have held their meetings here, too.”
The Ashokan Center facilities offer distinctive settings for weddings, residential and day programs for schools and retreat groups and private gatherings of all kinds. Its longstanding relationship with schools has evolved over the years: Though the focus remains on environmentally oriented programs for middle school, high school and college-age students and teachers, these days natural science and environmentalism often pair up with history, graphic/visual arts, technology and music, too.
Ashokan’s trails and outdoor offerings include the 350-million-year-old Cathedral Gorge and the Turnwood/Ashokan Covered Bridge (built in 1885 and recently restored). An 1817 schoolhouse and several 18th- and 19th-century buildings and working craft shops in the Ashokan Village give visitors the chance to be inspired and learn about traditional methods of blacksmithing, printing, broommaking, tinsmithing and much more. Outpost classrooms – the 1830 Homestead, Lenape Village, Writer’s Cabin and Ropes Course – enhance the comprehensive learning environment.
And a new membership structure will be introduced in 2016 to allow members to visit Ashokan on designated days for tours and other activities. “We can’t be open to the public at all times,” says Ungar, “because people rent our facilities for private events. There are about 15 events each year – like our New Year’s Eve Dinner and Dance, the Summer and Winter Hoots, our Music & Dance Camps – that are open to the public; and now, with our new membership situation, Ashokan can be used by more people.”
“It really comes together here, thanks to partnerships with the Woodstock School of Art and others,” he says. “A group of technopreneurs came to Ashokan via a Summer Hoot, and enjoyed the square dancing, singing, blacksmithing. When they were designing their Catskill Conference – held here last year – they wanted to give attendees a more rounded exposure to networking and the learning environment, to encourage people to get into nature and building community through shared experiences.” The result was a success, and Catskill Conference organizers plan to make it an annual event; other tech-based events were spawned too. “It’s the same ethos – history and nature and the arts – and we’re very gratified to see that happening.”
This year’s New Year’s Eve Dinner begins at 6 p.m., followed by dancing at 8 p.m. with swing, Cajun, zydeco and waltzing in one room and contras and squares in another. Jay & Molly will perform with their band, Swingology, and other featured musicians include John Krumm, Jesse Lége & Bayou Brew, the Yanks and ZydeGroove. Dinner tickets must be purchased no later than December 28, and á la carte prices are offered for dancing, dinner and bunk/breakfast tickets. Dress up fancy if you like, or go vintage in keeping with the style of the musical entertainment; just make sure you wear comfortable dancing shoes.