Everyday History: Before Hillary — Woodstock’s Marion Bullard
No parent of a gifted child could have done more to develop and spread its fame than she did for her beloved Woodstock. Marion’s was the brain and the heart that led every forward step the town took. She crusaded, she cajoled, scolded and exposed until she won for the town what she thought was necessary for its welfare and its growth. (Rose Oxhandler, Publications of the Historical Society of Woodstock, 1955)
She was a woman at a time and in a town that had never elected a woman to anything. She was a liberal in a town that counted Democrats on one hand. She was an artist in a town that, at the time of her arrival, wasn’t all too fond of artists. And yet, when Marion Bullard died tragically just before Christmas in 1950, Woodstock was stunned. Writing about Bullard for the Publications of the Historical Society of Woodstock, Rose Oxhandler summed up the sense of loss that echoed across the slopes of Overlook at her passing, “We were shocked and shaken for our village was truly orphaned by her going. She was one of those men and women of the past who have poured out their lives for Woodstock.”
In reality, there were three Marion Bullards — the artist, the author of children’s books and the woman who, despite never holding office, rallied Woodstock to be better than it was. More importantly, there was one heart that drove each stage of her life. Through her art and through her causes, hers was a rare voice; a voice that drove her own creative self beyond where she thought she could go and, in doing so, finding the strength to push the town she came to love to do the same.
Marion Bullard was born in 1878 in Middletown, New York. As described by her sister, Eva Beard, theirs was an uncomplicated life wrapped within a small town that “had a pleasant, simple culture of its own,” and where “to the old Wallkill Academy came scions of the ‘country families,’ many of them resident in Orange County since before the Revolution.”
It was at the Wallkill Academy that a young Marion began to pursue her art under the tutelage of a “valiant young” teacher by the name of Miss Parker. As further described by Bullard’s sister, Parker, was wont to “sally forth on Saturdays with a sketching class — maidens in straw sailors, ankle length skirts, stiff collared shirt-waists; boys in striped ‘blazers’ who came along less for art than to rescue these pretty companions from bulls, blacksnakes, barbed wire, brooks and like hazards.”
Bullard’s more formal education would later include Mechanics Institute in Rochester, Columbia’s Teachers College, and Cooper Union.
In 1903, Albert Morrison Bullard, an electrical engineer by trade and an associate of her brother Malcom, entered Marion’s life. While theirs would be a short-lived marriage — he would die only five years later — their brief time together prepared Marion well for the life she would find in Woodstock in the not-to-distant future. For it was, shortly after their marriage, that they took up residence in a rebuilt stable along MacDougal Ally in New York’s Greenwich Village.
Following the death of her husband, Bullard found her way to Woodstock by way of the Art Students League. Three summers would pass before Woodstock called her permanently in 1911, joining other artists such as Henry McFee, Eugene Spiecher and John Carlson in the pursuit of painting, exhibitions and living the life of an artist in converted barns along Rock City Road.
At the time of Bullard’s arrival in Woodstock, our once sleepy Catskill Mountain town was in a period of transition. Longtime Woodstockers, unfamiliar with the ways of artists, met the newcomers with skepticism, caution, and, in some cases, outright hostility as they saw their town take on a new and not necessarily welcomed persona. Even Bullard’s own description of her introduction to Woodstock offers an example of why some “locals” might have taken issue with their new neighbors. “There I was sitting high up in the horse drawn stage coach, waiting for Eddie, the driver, to get his weekly haircut, when out of Beekman’s store came a few artists. Among them, (I found out later) were Allen Cochran, Henry Lee McFee and Walter Goltz. They looked up at the strange girl and my eyes popped with shocked surprise. They had their hair shaved in patterns, and to the conventional city girl I was then, it was an extraordinary sight. One had plaids, one polka dots and the third had on the back of his head a face — eyes, nose and mouth done in black hair!”
Such was the Woodstock Marion Bullard found and, to her own surprise, it would be a town in which the “conventional city girl” would flourish. Soon, along with other female artists such as Evelyn Jacus and Margaret Goddard, she was a welcomed member of the Rock City group and her paintings began to receive notice. Commenting on the uniqueness of her style, Helen Shotwell, daughter of Woodstock’s most noted citizen at the time, Dr. James Shotwell, remarked, “The tender haze of apple blossoms against a misty hill; the dark power of the Catskills before a silver, rain drenched sky; or the sparkling gaiety of a little French town; all were illuminated with her sense of singing beauty.”
Helen Shotwell wasn’t the only one who noticed. Soon, Bullard’s works were finding their way to exhibits in prestigious places. Her work hung in the Pennsylvania Academy, the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors, the National Academy, and the Architectural League. She presented a one-woman show in 1923 at New York’s Ferargil Gallery and, in 1928, joined other Woodstock artists at the R.H. Macy Galleries of which, noted the New York American, “The work of Marion Bullard is the chief attraction.”
Creativity, however, is not always orderly — nor is it always content. Such was the case for Bullard who, in the 1920s, began to turn her imagination to the writing and illustration of children’s books — many with a decidedly Woodstock connection. Published, primarily by E.P. Dutton, her stories, in addition to staying close to home, were populated by an imaginative collection of talkative animals. In the Sad Garden Toad, for example, the plot unfolds in a garden along side her beloved Woodstock home. The Travels of Sammy the Turtle sees the book’s hero traveling to New York City and returning to the Ashokan Reservoir, while the action in The Hog Goes Downstream centers on a Woodstock flood in the 1930s.
It was also during this period that Bullard’s life began to shift from her art to a larger community purpose and efforts to challenge a town that was not used to being challenged. Beginning in the early 1930s, Bullard undertook writing a column about Woodstock for the Ulster County News. She saw the column, appropriately titled Sparks, as a platform through which she would challenge the inertia of the status quo. To that end she wrote, “We could do with a Jeremiah to stir us out of our indifference in this town, the Republicans feel so sure of reelection that they don’t lift a finger, and the Democrats, knowing they have a small chance of getting in do less. Democracy is hard work and demands of each one something more than a shrug of helplessness.”
While not shy about charging into battle with representatives of Woodstock’s establishment, Bullard was an equal opportunity chastiser. Early on, for example, she waged a campaign to open Town Board meetings to the public. Upon winning that fight, she was, according to Oxhandler, equally “outraged” when “people didn’t care enough to attend.”
Bullard also battled for fiscal accountability and the simple premise that the citizens of a town had a right to know what the village fathers were spending their money on. She won. Along the way, she also was quick to point out hypocrisy when she saw it raise its ugly head. This was particularly true in 1934 when she saw Woodstockers, on one hand espousing their support for the constitution while, at the same time, threatening “to tar and feather any person daring to bring up the subjects of Socialism and Communism.”
While the Town of Woodstock was the primary front for the battles she waged, Bullard’s concern for the region also drew her focus. Marion Bullard hated billboards and she wanted them gone from the Catskills. As a result, she wrote and complained to any elected official she could find. Failing to achieve their extinction, she proposed that they be taxed, preferably based on their dimensions. She wrote letters and complained to those businesses that would dare use a billboard as a means of advertisement and, at the same time, she urged consumers to boycott those same establishments.
As her children’s books might indicate, her concerns were not always centered around human affairs. Bullard wrote regularly in support of the proper treatment of animals and, in this regard, let it be known, “If anyone abuses animals in my bailiwick, I can be about the meanest woman in Ulster County.” Woodstock’s Supervisor at the time, Albert Cashdollar, was on the other end of Bullard’s passion one day when, after learning of the successful development of a new vaccine against rabies, Bullard secured from the foremost symbol of Woodstock power an agreement that every dog in Woodstock would be inoculated.
As further testament to her love of animals — and the influence of her newspaper column — Bullard was contacted one day by the owner of the Woodstock Inn, Earl Snyder, reporting that the Snyder family cat had gone missing. The next day she ran the story with the headline “Come Home Tippy. All is forgiven.” Tippy did come home, escorted by a reader from Kingston.
It was that same power structure as represented by Cashdollar that would be the recipient of one of the more important civic improvements pushed by Bullard. Fearing disease and even “epidemics,” from polluted wells, Bullard undertook a campaign for the construction of a proper water system in the village. Underscoring her tenacity, Bullard worked tirelessly for four years before the Town Board finally voted to construct such a system.
In 1947, the “gospel according to Marion” entered yet another dimension when, on June 22, Bullard took to the airwaves with a new radio program on Kingston’s WKNY. Wasting little time opening another front, she began to push Woodstock’s Town Board to return the names of Woodstock’s main arteries to their previous form. At the time and not unlike many other towns in America, Woodstock’s primary road was simply being referred to as Main St. That wasn’t good enough for Bullard and she urged a return to the two names that that had once served Woodstockers just fine. So it was, recalls Rose Oxhandler, that “the Town Board…voted to stop calling the principle road Main Street, and restored the old name of Tinker Street. It was also agreed that the road going from the Village Green to Saugerties should be known as Mill Hill Road.”
One of the final battles that would engage Marion Bullard’s passion was on behalf of Woodstock’s children. As late as 1949, she continued to urge the building of a new elementary school in Woodstock — making obsolete the scattered system of one room school houses still in place at the time. It was a crusade she had undertaken six years earlier during the height of World War II when she wrote, “Five years from now the babies of 1943 will be ready to attend school. We should have ready for them a school built on the foundations their fathers are now even making sacrifices for, freedom and peace. A new school for Woodstock should be a memorial honoring all those in the township who have fought for freedom. This building could stand with a sculptured façade with freedom as its theme, facing Overlook Mountain.”
In 1949, a majority of Woodstock voters agreed with Bullard and a $220,000 bond was approved for the construction of a new elementary school. It was a victory, however, that Marion Bullard would not see to completion.
On a Monday evening, less than a week before Christmas in 1950, Louise Lindin, noticing Bullard’s Sunday papers still on her porch, summoned friends and neighbors Fred Mower, Kathryn Mower and Charles Rapp to help investigate. Upon entering Bullard’s home, they found a shocking scene. In a report later issued by the State Police, Marion Bullard’s body was found, fully clothed, partially submerged in 12 inches of bath water. According to police, as reported in the pages of the Kingston Freeman, there was “no evidence of foul play,” and that it appeared Bullard “had drawn a tub of hot water preparatory to a bath when she fell into the tub after being seized with an attack of some kind.”
The crusades had ended. The colors on her canvases were without their guiding hand. The animals in her stories would know no further Woodstock adventures.
No one loved Woodstock more than Marion Bullard. Following personal tragedy, she had arrived as a young woman determined to make something of her life as an artist. Along the way she discovered that she could apply that same determination to bettering the town she cared so deeply for — a town seemingly wrapped in the need to maintain the status quo. That wasn’t good enough for Marion Bullard. And, while she would never hold elective office, her “cajoling” and her “scolding” moved Woodstock forward in ways that demonstrated the power of one woman’s voice. While art had originally given purpose to her life, a better Woodstock, ultimately, became the motivation that drove that life.
Richard Heppner is Woodstock Town Historian.