This month marks the 49th anniversary of the incorporation of Hawthorne Valley. Originally known as the Rudolf Steiner Education and Farming Association, Hawthorne Valley was founded on February 11, 1971, with the goal of having a working farm that school-aged children from urban settings could visit to learn about where food comes from and engage in practical learning. That farm was located in Harlemville, NY (part of Ghent) in 1972 by Fentress Gardner and Thorn Zay, and officially purchased from the Curtis Vincent family in July of that year.
To honor the anniversary of our founding, we are pleased to share with you this article written by Fentress himself for the Summer 1990 issue of the Hawthorne Valley newsletter. In it, he tells of his journey to Hawthorne Valley, starting with relationships he developed in 1930s and 40s Europe, and a sketch of life at “The Farm School,” as it was initially called by the local community.
We look forward to sharing more about Hawthorne Valley’s history as part of our upcoming 50th anniversary celebration!
A Founder’s Perspective
I was born in 1914 in Colorado, on a large ranch. Childhood was spent in five-year segments in Colorado, Washington State, and Florida, where I experienced pre-tastes of farming (cattle, pigs, horses), forestry, lumbering, and orange groves. At the age of fourteen, I went away to boarding school in Massachusetts for four years. It took six more years to graduate from Rollins College in Florida (in 1938). En route to graduation, I spent a year living alone in a small hermit shack on a Walden-like pond and working in an orange-packing house before trying both Princeton and the University of Florida. This was a period of intense searching for my own identity. In the summer of 1934, a brother and I attended a biodynamic conference in Spring Valley, N.Y., where Dr. Ehrenfried Pfeiffer was lecturing. In the summer of 1936 I visited another brother, who was studying eurythmy in Dornach, Switzerland, and bicycled with him through Europe to the Shakespeare Festival at Stratford-on-Avon. While in Dornach I met Frau Doctor [Rudolf] Steiner, Arvia MacKaye, Christy MacKaye, Henry Barnes, and others, who have been part of my life ever since.
In college I had special interests in anthropology, philosophy, economics, comparative religions, and human relationships, but finally opted for the more down-to-earth biodynamic farming. Since no training school or biodynamic farm existed in the United States at that time, I plotted a three-year apprenticeship in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Holland, starting with Holland in September 1939. Unfortunately, in May 1940 Holland was overrun by the Nazis in their conquest of Europe. I remained until September 1940, under German occupation, but Europe was doomed and my European apprenticeship was ended. I returned to Kimberton, Pennsylvania, where in the meantime Dr. Pfeiffer had started a biodynamic training course. Together with Hans Kaufman and Edward Barnes (brother of Henry), I worked for Dr. Pfeiffer until I was drafted by the U.S. Army in March 1941.
In 1947 I took off my major’s oak leaf and donned civilian clothes under the auspices of the U.S. State Department. Of deeper interest is that as an America Military Government officer in Stuttgart with prior knowledge of Waldorf education, eurythmy, and biodynamic agriculture, I became, in all my innocence, a nearly lone magnet for Nazi-suppressed anthroposophists. These biodynamic farmers, Waldorf teachers, artists, and priests all felt they needed Military Government approval to come out of hiding and begin life anew, or to obtain visas for travel to Dornach, or—as in the case of Karl Ege—to obtain a visa for the United States, where he subsequently married Arvia MacKaye and became a leader in the fledgling Waldorf School movement. In the years before his death he became a major contributor to the conceptual thinking that dared to explore the 180-degree shift in emphasis regarding the original Waldorf School curriculum indicated by Rudolf Steiner. Karl Ege said: “Practical and artistic subjects should be looked upon as the means and substance for education itself.” The purpose of this shift was to give the children “a fuller, more direct relationship to life as a living whole, and a firm basis for finding their way later into some branch of practical occupation.” He also said that “it was naturally be propitious if such a practical and artistic form of school life could be carried on in the country in connection with a farm or agricultural site (emphasis mine).” Voila! Harlemville. These thoughts seem to me to succinctly encompass what Harlemville is all about.
I remained in Germany as a cultural officer until 1952, and in 1953 received my first foreign service assignment to Dacca, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Subsequent assignments took my family to Africa, India, Nepal, the USSR, behind the Iron Curtain in East Europe, and to Scandinavia. In all, I had completed over 30 years of U.S. Foreign Service and was three years short of mandatory retirement when, in Washington, D.C., I received a letter from Henry Barnes inquiring about the possibility of my lending a hand in incarnating a farm project that had already been gestating for about six years. From this summary recital you can follow the thread of my original aspiration to become a biodynamic farmer, and how it was cut short by the intervention of World War II. The Foreign Service, no matter how fascinating, is certainly no substitute for hands-on experience in biodynamic farming and/or Waldorf education. Nevertheless, the opportunity at age 57 to return to my youthful inspiration was a healing gift from heaven!
During a period of about five months, on off-duty weekends from Washington, D.C., I joined Thorn Zay of Great Barrington, a former teacher at the Rudolf Steiner School in New York City, in a farm-by-farm search for the “right” property. We must have researched 40 possibilities in the designated area: two hours from New York City and 20 minutes from Hillsdale/Copake. As we explored, we began to have clearer imaginations of what we were looking for. For example, no power lines, no mobile home developments, no bordering highways, no area subject to industrial waste or insecticide spraying from neighboring farms—in short, a Shangri-la where uncontrollable polluting intrusions would be absent. Usable or adaptable sheds, houses, or barns would of course be a plus for the early class visits envisioned, and fertile fields, clear streams, pristine woods, a swamp, and a pond or two would be ideal—but (a large but)—“You can’t exceed a total price of $100,000.” After months of exhausting many real estate agents and ourselves, we were forced to admit that further development of this proposed project would obviously require more of everything than $100,000 could buy. At this critical juncture, real estate agent Mildred Dreves of Hillsdale cajoled us into a look-see at a 338-acre farm on the verge of being subdivided for real estate housing. It was being offered for three times as much as we were authorized to offer, but otherwise was as close to our “dream” property as she could imagine.
It was a bare farm without animals or equipment, in a protected valley with two livable houses, a large barn, two smaller barns, a chicken house and several sheds, two streams, a swamp, several small farm ponds, cropland, pasture land, and woods. For us, the main problems were that the busy country road ran smack through the middle and the cost was out of reach. Gulp! What to do? By now we were convinced that to be successful the project property would have to be much larger than originally foreseen. Overnight, in our minds, that road so conveniently close to the Taconic Parkway, and only fourteen miles to the five-train-a-day railroad station in Hudson, began to assume very positive aspects: easy all-weather access by car or train for classes from the Rudolf Steiner School in New York City, and a great time-saving convenience for visiting teachers, lecturers, and workshop/conference participants. I had the job of calling Henry Barnes, Karl Ege, and Herbert Koepf, who were meeting together in Europe. My message: This Vincent farm will be lost to real estate unless we act immediately. We cannot find a better-suited place. Give us your okay. They were flabbergasted at the risk and urgency, but after overnight cogitation their answer came: Okay, go ahead—negotiate the best possible deal. The Rudolf Steiner Educational and Farming Association, Inc., closed the sale in July 1972 with owner Curtis Vincent, who gave us a fifteen-year mortgage at six percent (the sale price was $240,000).
By this time I was totally immersed in the project with my heart, and therefore resigned from the United States Information Agency three years early in order to play resident farmer and general midwife amid the birth pangs of the first five years. I moved into the Main House dormitory with my wife and daughter. Brownell and Jeanne Bergen took up residence in the “tenant” house dormitory across the street, and Thorn Zay commuted daily from Great Barrington. Jeanne started a large garden, and Thorn and Brown built bunk beds, clothes shelves, lamps, and dining tables. I collected animals, chairs, and kitchen equipment. Everything hummed in order to be ready to receive the first visiting class—the twelfth grade from the New York City Rudolf Steiner School in October 1972. The girls’ dorm was in the Main House with the Gardners, the boys’ dorm in the tenant house with the Bergens. The only thing missing for a balanced start was a cook and a kitchen! At a critical moment Mr. Vincent’s mother died, and her home (the “red house” now belonging to John and Astrid Barnes) came up for sale. I was able to buy the red house just in time for it to become our first kitchen. Mrs. Marie Fetzer and her friend Linda Blob came up from New Hope, Pennsylvania, to cook for that first class. Over the next few years the Red House sheltered Fran Faust, Anita and Bob Fleury, Richard and Phyllis Mayo, the Kretz family when they arrived in 1974 to take over the Visiting Students Program, and the Christoph Meier family in 1975 when they arrived to take over the farm. The Red House fulfilled its facilitating mission in these first few years, until the Dining Hall was built as a community facility, with its first priority to serve visiting classes and the summer camp.
Meanwhile the Hawthorne Valley School had opened its doors on September 10, 1973, with grades one through four. The bulk of the students transferred from the school in Camphill Village, Copake, that had been begun by Gladys Hahn. The first class teachers were James Pewtherer, Fran Faust, Gail Boring, and Rudolf Copple.
The second issue (Volume 1, No. 2) of the Farm School Newsletter (produced by Jeanne Bergen) appeared in the spring of 1974. It contained reports on the VSP, the garden (a VSP and community collaboration), and the farm. The farm report gives a vivid picture of what had been accomplished to prepare for Christoph Meier’s arrival in the fall of 1975. I believe it is worth recalling here in toto:
Spring was ushered in by Jenny the goat, who produced twin kids on April 2, followed by one of the mares (Dulcie), who foaled April 12. A roll call of animals on the farm as we begin the spring is as follows: twelve heifers, two steers, 90 chickens (including 50 pullets, already laying), ten boarding horses, and four goats. We are looking for two to four piglets, which we hope to add to the population soon. About 25 to 30 roosters and hens were weeded out of the flock this winter and put into the freezer for community use. (We discovered how truly delicious chicken can be.) From the new flock, we are getting over 60 eggs a day, although the pullet eggs are still diminutive and sell for 60 cents/dozen instead of 90 cents/dozen. Our two pigs, donated a year ago by Arthur Soybel, were butchered in October and dressed out at 498 pounds. This meat also went into the freezer for hostel and community use, as did the beef from our steer slaughtered in April.
Fifty fruit trees, donated by the senior class of 1973 from the Rudolf Steiner School in memory of Stephanie Takacs, have been set out. The trees, both standard and dwarf, include pears, cherries, and apples (Cortlands, Macintosh, Red and Yellow Delicious, and Ida Reds.) The senior class of 1974, at the farm during the last two weeks of April, did most of the setting out of these trees, and also of a stand of red pines planted on the eroding west end of the north pasture.
Of the nine tons of rye harvested in July, some was sold as seed rye to two dealers, some as supplementary chicken feed to farmers at Threefold Farm in Spring Valley, and some used as feed supplement for our own pigs, chickens, and goats. Several tons remain, and after curing over the winter, the grain is now available for grinding and use as bread flour; it has been used for this purpose with good results. Although our small grains (wheat and barley) planted in September did not winter well, the 17 acres of alfalfa planted following the rye look very good. Projects for the coming weeks include pasture improvement and fence repair, planting five acres of oats, and harvesting the alfalfa.
It can be noted from this report that the VSP classes from New York were real hands-on farm helpers—feeding animals, planting trees, repairing fences, collecting eggs, haying, harvesting, and helping with erosion control.
In retrospect: what were the principal ideas that guided Henry Barnes and Karl Ege in their efforts to pioneer something unique and new? To throw light on Henry’s thinking, I would like to include a paragraph from a 1971 Rudolf Steiner School newsletter on the proposed Farm School project. These are my words, describing what I had understood at that time as the imaginations of Mr. Barnes:
Mr. Barnes pictures initially a hostel within a working diversified farm, with vegetable and fruit gardens. Around this nucleus he sees developing – in time – practical craft and artistic workshops in which teenagers and young adults can work as apprentices under the guidance of experienced practitioners (i.e., farmer, gardener, forester, woodworker, potter, builder, metal worker, mechanic, and the like.). But from the very beginning he sees the project offering real work experiences to its young visitors, according to their age and interests, coupled with class instruction on subjects for which the farm setting will provide a particularly apt laboratory, such as biology (animal care), botany, mineralogy, astronomy, surveying, farming arithmetic, forestry, wildlife study, home arts, rural ecology, economics, and sociology. There will be opportunity to gain work experience with resident professionals who are directly involved with problems of soil fertility, animal husbandry, crop management, forest management, marketing, food preparation, preservation, and processing, and pollution and environmental controls. From the beginning there will also be the unique social discipline of living together as a class in work, study, and recreation 24 hours a day.
Karl Ege’s thoughts are clearly portrayed in his booklet, An Evident Need of Our Times, published by the Adonis Press in 1979. In 1971, Karl Ege wrote:
Artistic and handcraft activities are far too often carried on merely as supporting and enlivening factors. It could, however, be the other way around, that they would be the starting point and that out of such creative, self-active, and practical work the elements of knowledge and scientific understanding would be developed. This would be an ascent from “below to above,” rather than the present descent from above, dominated primarily by the head. Hereby, both will and feeling would be basically activated and trained and could more strongly enliven the intellectual sphere, bringing about a balance and harmony between the two poles.