The famed arts colony of Woodstock is still a picturesque and unusual spot, inhabited by an idiosyncratic bunch of artists and craftspeople, individualists and ne’er-do-wells. But the place is often so overrun with tourists that it’s hard to tell.
Woodstock the town dates back to the 1700s, but Woodstock the arts colony dates back to 1902, when a wealthy Englishman, free thinker, and lover of the arts named Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead came here to set up an arts-and-crafts community. A student of John Ruskin who railed against the evils of the Industrial Revolution, Whitehead envisioned his colony as living apart from the modern world, surrounded by scenic splendor, and supporting itself with its arts and crafts.
With two partners, Whitehead bought 1,300 acres and built a small village, Byrdcliffe, just above Woodstock. A few years later one of his followers, poet Hervey White, became fed up with Whitehead’s authoritarian demands and started up a second arts community, Maverick, on the south side of town.
Then, in 1906, the Art Students League of New York City arrived, opening a summer school in Woodstock’s downtown. The village thronged with ever-increasing numbers of painters, potters, weavers, poets, dancers, musicians, novelists, hangers-on, and tourists eager to “see the artists.”
In the late 1940s, folk singers Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary discovered Woodstock, and in the 1960s, Bob Dylan moved in, buying a farm on an isolated mountaintop. The town’s first recording studio was built, and a series of small concerts, the Woodstock Soundoffs, was staged.
The Soundoffs were the immediate forerunner of the legendary 1969 Woodstock Music Festival that took place in Bethel, 60 miles away. The concert organizers wanted to hold the event closer to home, but Woodstock had no open space large enough, and last-minute ordinances imposed by nervous officials prevented the concert from taking place in Saugerties as originally planned.
© Avalon Travel and Sascha Zuger from Moon New York State, 5th Edition