A Brief History of the Threefold Community

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“The past is an illusion, and the future hasn’t happened yet.”

–Norman Davidson, 1933-2007

The first decades of the twentieth century were a time of social experimentation and spiritual exploration. In New York City in the 1920s, a small band of Anthroposophists – students of Rudolf Steiner – ran a rooming house, a laundry, a furniture-making shop, and a vegetarian restaurant near Carnegie Hall. No ordinary entrepreneurs, the pursuits of the Threefold Group, as they called themselves, were all undertaken to put into practice the social ideals indicated in the writings and lectures of Rudolf Steiner.

Threefold Vegetarian Restaurant

It was during the First World War years that Steiner, already a well known scholar and educator, turned his attention to the social question. The times gave the topic special urgency. The war was a catastrophe for all of Europe, and Steiner correctly foresaw that the terms of its conclusion would have dire consequences for Germany's social and economic fabric. Meanwhile, the Russian Revolution of 1917 showed vividly the powerful, widespread yearning for new social forms, and the total inadequacy of existing solutions.

Steiner saw that human development had outstripped existing social forms, even the supposedly forward-looking and revolutionary ones. In response, he offered observations that were neither prescriptive nor Utopian, but rather "how people would arrange things for themselves" if they were given the freedom to do so. Freed from distortions imposed by outmoded political, economic and religious structures, Steiner wrote,

  • every individual would freely express and live by his religious and spiritual beliefs – and would confer that right on every other individual (Cultural Life);
  • every individual would enjoy equal political rights – and would honor every other individual’s political rights (Rights Life); and
  • every individual’s economic life would be based on the recognition of our universal interdependence with other people for all our material needs (Economic Life).

The Threefold Group adopted the task of creating a community where, as Steiner put it, “real cooperation continually renews social forces.” Its members were mostly young Americans; many had encountered Steiner and his teachings while traveling in Europe. Ablaze with idealism, they threw themselves into pursuing work and social lives driven by ideals of service and goals of social and spiritual improvement.

Ralph Courtney and friends at the pond

Their guiding light was Ralph Courtney. Courtney met Steiner while working in Europe for the New York Herald Tribune; soon after, he returned to the U.S. and took it upon himself to find ways to spread awareness of Steiner’s teachings in this country. Indeed, that became his life’s work, beginning with the founding of the Threefold Group and its many ventures in New York City.

In 1926, the Threefold Group purchased a small farm on Hungry Hollow Road in what was then South Spring Valley, New York.  Their aim was to create a conference center, summer retreat, and Biodynamic farm to supply the New York City restaurant.

Main House as it looked in 1926

Biodynamic gardening began almost immediately, making Threefold Farm the first in North America to use the Biodynamic technique that had just been described by Steiner. Anticipating by decades the era of Silent Spring and the organic movement, Biodynamics introduced a consciously chemical-free method of agriculture that has been shown to go beyond “sustainability,” and actually strengthen and enliven the soil where it is practiced.

Biodynamic gardening in the 1920s, with Main House in the background

Fred Heckel (L), Alice Heckel (R), and coworkers, 1920s

The first Summer Conference

With the help of Charlotte Parker, Paul Stromenger, and Alice and Fred Heckel, among many others, improvements were made, and additions and new buildings were constructed, all with the aim of getting the farm ready to host large groups of people, and in 1933 the first Summer Conference was held. The early conferences featured lecturers from Europe who had known and studied under Rudolf Steiner, many of whom gave their first American lectures at Threefold Farm. The first program ran for two weeks and featured classes and lectures on agriculture, art (painting, speech, and eurythmy), science, education, spirituality, and sociology. Within a few years, the “Summer Season” of activities stretched from early June to Labor Day, with a “Summer School” running for three weeks in July.

With the exception of the World War II years, summer conferences have been held at Threefold every year since 1933. In the early years, attendees (who numbered in the hundreds) slept in self-described “shacks” and ate and attended lectures under rented circus tents, while eurythmy and dramatic performances were staged amongst the trees of the nearby oak grove. They also enjoyed swimming in Threefold Pond (a summer pleasure to this day), and meditative walks in the neighboring fields and forests.

A summer afternoon at Threefold Pond

As the community matured in its role as a center for education and fellowship, it also attracted permanent, year-round residents, and Threefold became a center of social experimentation. Innovative forms of land ownership, dispute mediation, and currency were tried.

Script, a Threefold Community experiment in economics

An experiment in land ownership

In the postwar years, the Threefold Community attracted more homesteading families who bought land and built homes on and around Hungry Hollow Road. As the community grew, Anthroposophical institutions arose to meet its changing needs. In 1948, Sabina Nordoff and Stephanie Jones started the kindergarten that in time grew into Green Meadow Waldorf School. Green Meadow dedicated its first building in 1956, beginning a period of construction and expansion that lasted nearly two decades. Today it serves about 400 students from Kindergarten through Grade 12, and is recognized as being among the best run schools in the American Waldorf movement.

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