A Short History of High Valley

The history of High Valley starts with a broken-down farm; it was one of the first in the township to be bought by a "weekender." When my parents bought it in 1945, it had undergone only minimal changes from the farm it had been up until five years before.

It was the tall spruce trees in the front yard that first drew my father to the place. There are only remnants of them now; they don't live that long. In the history of High Valley, those trees have seen a lot of change. The "farm" was still being farmed by a farmer down the road when we arrived; he leased the lands for corn and pasture. The hills were largely treeless, except where there were falling down apple orchards. There was a swamp, some woods ponds, an old woodlot of about thirty acres, and a few fields that were going back to scrub, the first transition from field to forest. And the house and the old "dutch" barns have seen a lot more history: both go back to the early 1800's or late 1700's. At the beginning of the history of settlement in this area, it was all part of the Great Eastern Woodland.

One of the first things those settlers did, back in the early history of Dutchess County, was to cut down most of the forests, and then to cut them down again.

The hills have grown back to forest again now. We are reclaiming one high pasture that went way too far, but is now full of a lot of dead locusts and brambles. Locust trees are being attacked by a leaf thrip; many are dying.

An historic event early on was when Olga had the idea for building a three acre lake/pond. She chose the place where there had been swamp and the ruins of a damp apple orchard. It was the first lake built in the area. Afterwards my father named it Lake Almosta, and sailed on it, as well as swimming in it even when he had to chop a hole in the ice. But it was my mother's idea. He had argued against it at first. Now it looks as if it's always been there; it's been 60 years.

My parents bought the "farm" to start a boarding operation for kids going to the Poughkeepsie Day School, at that point in its varied history an exceptional progressive school affiliated with Vassar College.

High Valley was a boarding "adjunct," to the Day School during the school year, until long after I went away to high school in 1953. But it was one with a special style: a good many of the older kids slept out in tents all year round, by preference. One of the real reasons why we would slog through feet deep snow to sleep in sleeping bags on cots, was that out there, in the tents, it might be cold at night, but it was private. My mother, the real authority, couldn't hear us. No one ever admitted they were too cold; that's the kind of kids we were. Kids! That's a long time ago in my own personal history.

From the very first year of the boarding operation, Olga and Julian ran a summer camp for the month of July: High Valley Camp. There may have been as many as 60-70 campers, as well as junior counselors and councilors. All but the very youngest slept out in tents. Most summers I ran the riding program, which consisted of walking with small riders, and taking older ones on short trail rides.

In 1963, there was a disagreement with the board at the Day School (over High Valley's "weird kids"). So, that's when High Valley's history became independent of the Day School. My parents founded their own school, called, logically enough, High Valley School.

Over time it became a precursor, was the pre-history, if you will, of what has now been formalized as Special Ed. What it became was largely because of my mother, Olga Smyth, who was our resident crone until she was almost 97. She lived there 64 years, until November, 2009.

She directed the school, and was its motive force. She also had a talent for knowing how to work with kids who had problems at other schools, but there were no elaborate categories. She just knew which of her teachers should work with which students, and which ones she should work with. All the teachers had very different styles, all eclectic. Eclecticism: it's a consistent theme in High Valley, running through its history: Someone came up with the motto: education for your own level. Julian, my father, taught math and science, using what was available on the land a lot of the time. He was a steadying presence; he read to the older kids each night: stirring tales like The Count of Monte Cristo.

The history of the school changed radically when Julian died (1968). Olga doubled the size of the staff and the number of students (to almost 20) and the school was sustained, in part, by tuitions from the local school boards; they had not yet developed their own Special Ed programs.

That began an uneasy partnership, one Julian had always warned to steer clear of, but it lasted from 1969-1986, and it built a larger school community .

The school was finally closed by the state, ostensibly for a fire code violation--the offending stove fan/hood is still in my mother's house, and it still works just fine.

After the school closed, High Valley went into a period of quiescence, or, more accurately it became a repository for anything people couldn't figure out what to do with. Former classrooms were filled with all kinds of junk. Then, Elizabeth Cunningham, my wonderful wife (and famous novelist), got the idea that we could use the place, if we cleaned it up. Olga had, providentially, already set up a not-for-profit corporation, the Center at High Valley. Our first idea was a retreat center.

But we had only a few rooms and we couldn't charge much, given the paucity of bathrooms. It quickly became bedrooms for nearby Omega Institute, not a retreat at all. People just looking for a room can often be difficult to please. We discovered we hated the hotel business. That was a turning point in our history.

That's when some friends (Gary and Regina), who had been holding wheel of the year celebrations in their rented office space, suggested that High Valley would be a much better place for them. That was 1996. We already had the land and the meeting rooms, which had been newly cleared out, largely because Elizabeth had a vision of how they could be used.

We have been celebrating here ever since. Elizabeth discovered what might be described as The High Valley School of Ritual Eclecticism. She is, after all, the author of The Passion of Mary Magdalen and a PK (priest's kid). So, we follow in the proud High Valley tradition: whatever works.

We also have what is another consistent theme in High Valley's history; we call it an "unintentional community." People live here, some renting and doing a little here and there, like maintaining the labyrinth, some run a horse boarding farm on the pastures and barns across the road in return for other kinds of work that a place like High Valley needs to maintain itself. Elizabeth and I live on another part of the land and so do some others; I ski or run to High Valley most days, unless I have to drive over for some reason.

We hope, soon, to re-establish some more agricultural pursuits at High Valley: a community garden and some cattle and sheep in reclaimed pastures. When we first came to High Valley we kept three cows, as well as horses and goats. We had more milk than we knew what to do with, until the State mandated (about 1947) that all schools and boarding facilities would have to have what amounted to a fully functioning dairy if they wished to use their own milk: goodbye cows.

There are now some beef cows in part of the horse pasture, a late Fall addition last year.

Olga had a garden in the same place for over 50 years. Two years ago was the first time she couldn't garden it herself at all; others took over part of it and carried it on.

Care for Olga at High Valley became prohibitive and difficult. She now lives at an adult care facility in Rosendale, and is happy to no longer have to care for High Valley, or worry about it, but it's still "home" to her, even if she now says of her Rosendale place: "I'm very comfortable here; I hope I can stay."

We've assured her that she can.

We've not yet determined who will live in the "Main House," or when, but somebody will.

High Valley changes, and yet it remains remarkably itself.