Historical Society of Woodstock
An Historic Journey
By Richard Heppner, Woodstock Town Historian
More than ninety years ago, Martin Schutze, the guiding spirit behind the formation of the Historical Society of Woodstock, addressed the Society’s early members by stating, “The Historical Society of Woodstock originated in the realization that an important period in in the history of Woodstock, with its characteristic personalities, was passing and that the memory of that period and those persons would soon be lost in the rapid pace and the confusion of the present (the present is always confusing!) unless a proper record were made of it.”
More than most at the time, Schutze understood the unique changes that had transformed Woodstock from a decidedly rural town into what we now proudly proclaim as “the colony of the arts.” At the same time, and ever cognizant that no one era exists disconnected from the whole, he also saw the need for the generations of the present to continue to chronicle the totality of Woodstock’s story.
The work before the newly formed Society began in earnest on September 20, 1929 in the home of Konrad and Florence Ballin Kramer. At that meeting, with Schutze providing the guiding hand as the Society’s first president, early members put forth a mission that still holds true today, stating that: “the purpose of the Historical Society is to preserve records such as letters, diaries, memoirs, recollections, books and periodicals.” Also of vital concern and importance to the newly installed president was the preservation of “illustrations and other works of fine art” reflective of the town’s extraordinary landscape and its people.
It was an ambitious start. It was also a start that, with little money and the absence of a permanent home, would prove unsustainable at first. As a result, the newly formed organization turned to publishing essays by those with knowledge of the town’s early history: the formative days at Byrdcliffe and the Maverick, our town’s physical environment, genealogies, and reflections on noted personalities. Those remarkable essays would eventually form the content of a series of booklets titled, Publications of the Woodstock Historical Society. For over thirty years, essays penned by such Woodstock luminaries as Anita Smith, Hervey White, Bolton Brown, Alf Evers, John Carlson, Carl Lindin and so many more, documented the foundation upon which today’s Society now stands.
As the years passed, newly arrived members began to turn their attention to the acquisition of artifacts, ephemera and objects reflective of Woodstock’s past. Guided excursions to relevant sites such as the ruins of the Overlook Mountain House or the remnants of the Shady glass factories were also conducted. Exhibits were mounted in the windows of town businesses while efforts also centered on establishing the historical markers that dot Woodstock’s roadsides.
Still, one goal eluded the organization, that of a permanent home for its archives and exhibits. In the 1970s, it was hoped that the former Longyear home on Rock City Road would be that location. After temporarily occupying the building, however, that dream ended when the bank that owned the building decided to tear the stately home down. The next stop would be a move to the building HSW currently occupies. The building, which transferred to the Town of Woodstock with the purchase of the Comeau property, was, however, severely lacking. And yet, despite a dearth of amenities, members at the time went to work and substantially rebuilt and rewired the building in an effort to make it presentable for exhibitions and gatherings. Without heat, however, concern grew over protection of the ever-increasing archives. Beginning in the early 2000s, thanks to the assistance of the Town of Woodstock, the entire archives were moved to the top floor of Woodstock’s Town Hall. Once there, the Society entered a new phase in its archival efforts. With the addition of professional archival software and a move into the digital age, the Society’s preservation and storage efforts took on a systematic process of research, identification, classification and organization of the archives into defined and searchable collections.
During this same period, the Board of Directors decided to make a determined effort to further rehabilitate the building on Comeau Drive. Again, with the help of the Town, a grant was secured that would permit the installation of heat, insulation, and new window treatments. Once again, operations were moved to the Comeau and the Society began a new chapter in its history. The work did not end there, however. More recently, through the generosity of the community, the Society converted the building to include a handicap accessible bathroom, a kitchen from which to serve exhibit openings and special events, climate control, new lighting and an accessible research and office room.
The archives, inherited by the present day Society, offer a remarkable testament to the efforts of members over the years. From the town’s earliest documents to images that display our town’s changing nature over the course of a century, to family chronicles, to documents depicting the social and commercial changes Woodstock has seen over the years, the current archival database captures a comprehensive record of our town’s remarkable story.
Equally impressive is HSW’s collection of artwork donated through the years by numerous artists. While specific individuals or families have donated a number of works within the collection, the main thrust of the collection – numbering some 700 works - was acquired through the determined effort of one man, Sam Klein. Klein, imbued with the same spirit that drove Martin Schutze, believed it vital that the Society include within its archives representations of the many artists that have, over the years, made Woodstock the artistic center it has become. Literally going from artist to artist and requesting a sample of their work, Klein provided the Society with an extensive record featuring the works of Woodstock artists over the decades. The Historical Society of Woodstock and the citizens of our town are forever in his debt.
For over ninety years, the Historical Society of Woodstock has endeavored to honor the vision of its founders. As with life, it has been a journey with its share of ups and downs. And yet, the Society continues to grow and has emerged as a vital home to the story that is Woodstock. Even more remarkable, the Historical Society is an institution that carries on its work through the efforts of an all-volunteer Board of Directors and contributing members. With the generous support of the Woodstock community, the Historical Society of Woodstock looks forward to the future as we approach a century of commitment to the preservation of our community’s history; a history that honors the individual and the landscape upon which we have built our lives.