A Catskill Catalog: January 4, 2012

I’m writing this thing on a laptop computer. My smart phone is within reach. Technology has wrought a communications millennium, an opening to the world that seems to eclipse all other openings. The ridgeline-walled world of Channel 6 on the TV, of WGY and WDLA on the radio, is within my memory. I love to remember those simpler times, while embracing technology.

Not all do. I have friends who fear technology, distrust its effects on our lives and the lives of our children, abhor the way it has changed how we interact with one another. I get their point.
We lose something when we gain. This column, essentially, uses technology to try to describe history. And history, these days, seems like the time before technology; say, anything before the first Macintosh computer, 1983 or so.

Those were the simpler times, before desktops and laptops, smart phones and tablets.
One hundred years ago, simpler times meant the days before industry rather than technology. The industrial revolution of the 19th century had changed everything, similar to the changes wrought by our communications revolution. Some folks resisted.

One resister was Hervey White.

Hervey White was born on the prairie, an Iowa farm kid. He was exceedingly bright. His parents were exceedingly poor. A prairie farm provided plenty of nutritious food and little spendable cash. If young Hervey was going to get an education, he would have to work for it.

He did, working his way through two years at the University of Kansas before wrangling a scholarship to Harvard through contacts he made on a scientific expedition to Mexico. In 1894, he graduated from Harvard with a B.A.

The 1890s were full of young people and idealism. Post-Civil War babies had come of age, and a bit of a counter-culture emerged. Two social movements grabbed Hervey White’s attention and enthusiasm.

The first was the settlement house movement. Based on a British industrial-reform model, Hull House, in Chicago, was a settlement house, where talented and educated young people would “settle,” living as neighbors among the poor, acting as advocates and organizers within the community, providing social, cultural and educational programs to their neighbors.

Hervey White moved to Chicago and took a job at Hull House. While there, he met and worked with many immigrant artisans and craftsmen, who brought old-world handcraft skills to the Hull House workrooms. He also found time to write, producing several novels and short stories.
From England, the Arts & Crafts Movement railed against the bland industrial sameness that characterized modern factory-made goods.

Craftsmanship and artistry seemed to have been lost in the industrial haze. Hervey White was drawn to the idea of craftsmanship. He warmed to the idea that one could build a life around making quality things by hand.

Find a friend with money and a piece of land and a fellow could create an ideal community, a place where artisans and craftsmen could build quality products and turn the clock against the mechanized, industrialized conformity of the world.

That’s how Hervey White found himself in Woodstock, a hundred years ago, first as the brains and personality behind Ralph Whitehead’s Byrdcliffe community, and then as host at his own: The Maverick, Harvey White’s Colony of the Arts.

In 1905, Hervey bought 100 acres, a farm in West Hurley, a couple miles south of Woodstock, the then-fading mill town and farm village beginning to attract the bohemian set.

There was a barn on the property. Hervey lived there. Only in the summers, of course. He began to invite friends, fellow writers, artists, and musicians to come spend the summer with him. He’d build them a small cottage, a shack, really, where they could live simple and close to nature. First, Paul Kefer, a cellist, came. Then others, including the intellectual glitterati of the day: defense attorney Clarence Darrow, economist Thorstein Veblen, feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

By 1910, Hervey was living full time at The Maverick, managing the arts and crafts colony, establishing a publishing house and a concert series. The concert series continues to this day, on summer Sundays. The publishing house put out hand-printed literary journals, The Wild Hawk (1911-1916) and The Plowshare (1916-1935). Each issue was filled with the poetry and prose, ideas and experiments of the utopian community that was The Maverick.

Painting, drawing, and sculpture abounded. The community produced handcrafted tools and artifacts. An annual festival raised money and the public profile of the Woodstock artist colony.
In the late 1930s, year-round mountain living became a bit much for Hervey. He bought a small farm in Georgia where he spent winters. His last years in the Catskills, Hervey spent summers sleeping in a six by eight foot cabin on The Maverick grounds. There he died, in his sleep, October 20, 1944.
Woodstock, counter-cultural town, is his legacy. It started with resistance to industrialization. Wonder where resistance to technology could lead?