Woodstock’s Earliest Festivals

…the Maverick bohemian and Byrdcliffe fairs of 100 years ago were the real Woodstock fests.

The town of Woodstock as an arts and music sanctuary? By all means. But it didn’t start in 1969 with that famous concert – which didn’t even take place here.

Woodstock’s real festivals, which helped carve out the town’s identity, have their roots in the start of the 20th century in the communities of Byrdcliffe and Maverick. And because of them, the town became known as a haven that treasures a simpler life, a spiritual life, an art-driven life free of big-city complications and priorities. This continues today.

peace and the country side

It all started with Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, a wealthy Englishman looking to start an arts and crafts colony, based on the philosophies of his teacher, John Ruskin. Ruskin, a British philosopher known for his passionate defense of the arts, was disillusioned by the Industrial Revolution’s effect, particularly pollution, on the environment.

As Whitehead hiked along Overlook Mountain, he fell in love with the vistas, the solitude and the inspiration it provided. He bought seven farms on the hillside, about 1,200 feet above the hamlet of Woodstock. In 1902, the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony was formed.

Even though transportation there was difficult, artists of all types – painters, writers, dancers, poets — flocked to the little town. Crafts were created by hand. Art lessons were given and taken. Music was everywhere – weekly dances, widely attended recitals, classical music, garden parties. While classical was popular, folk was stirring as well, fueled by beat poets making their way up from Manhattan.

Meanwhile, Hervey White, who had helped Whitehead scout locations for Byrdcliffe, did not always agree with Whitehead’s rigid management style and vision. In 1908, a few miles away in West Hurley, he spun off his own arts enclave and called it Maverick. To help raise money, he started concert and theater presentations in about 1915. Among the early performers at Maverick Concerts: Paul Robeson.

Together, the communities forged Woodstock’s reputation. The lure of fostered creativity, combined with natural beauty, was a combination sought by artists around the world. While the nation coped with World War I and its aftermath, and inventions such as the automobile helped people envision what was possible, Woodstock remained focused on spiritual essence.

The Byrdcliffe Arts Colony Today

Today, The Byrdcliffe Arts Colony is the oldest such organization in the country. Administered by the well-respected Woodstock Guild since 1975, it’s open for tours and has drawn luminary performers such as Helen Hayes and naturalist John Burroughs. Byrdcliffe furniture pieces, noted for their detail and the care that went into them, are now museum pieces. The guild hosts a range of performances and arts and crafts classes. Maverick is America’s oldest continuous summer chamber music series and also offers concerts for kids. The spirit, indeed, lives on, just as Ralph Whitehead and Hervey White intended.

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