Ashokan Center’s first decade may be topped off by historical designation

Jay Ungar and Molly Mason at the Ashokan Center. (Photos by Alan Carey)

Molly Mason, half of the noted folk duo Jay & Molly with her long-time partner Jay Ungar, who is also a co-founder of the Ashokan Center — which celebrated its 10th anniversary with a concert and very memorable Catskills Conversation featuring artist/Olive native Kate McGloughlin last weekend — spoke this week about some 50 year old paperwork she found in a file drawer recently. It was written by Kent Reeves, the outdoor educator many now credit for having come up with the pioneering idea behind all that the Center is today.

“He mentioned being inspired by his own childhood visits to Greenfield Village in Michigan,” Mason said of the Reeves’ document, which referenced one of the history training sites that brought together buildings from earlier eras in Michigan, as well as such sites as Sturbridge Village, Historic Williamsburg, Mystic Seaport, and the Cooperstown Farmers Museum. “But he remembered how he saw a blacksmith shop there and wanted to be able to try what he was being shown only to be told he couldn’t. That’s where the idea of hands-on living history seems to have gotten its roots.”


Ungar went on to talk about how, simultaneous to the Ashokan Center celebrating its tenth anniversary, the organization is also in the final rounds of shepherding a New York State Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation nomination of the Ashokan Field Campus Historic District to the state and national historic registries. A hearing on the application, which was received enthusiastically by the Olive Town Board at its November 13 meeting, is expected to be scheduled next month.

“We started this process over a year ago with the hiring of Larson Fisher Associates to complete the needed research for such an application,” Ungar said. “The site’s use as the home for outdoor education programs started 51 years ago as the Ashokan Field Campus, a program of SUNY New Paltz, until we came in. Since the qualifying age for something to be considered historic is 50 years, the sort of education that was pioneered here is now part of history!”

Dancing at the Ashokan Center.

Ungar and Mason extolled the vast influence Ashokan programs pioneered by Ken Reeves and field campus director Andy Angstrom have had over the years. They noted the continuing influence of Richard Louv’s 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, as well as the growing number of youth summits on climate change that have been taking place around the globe, set to come to the Ashokan Center with help from Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project in the coming year. 

But they also spoke about the particular history located on the 385-acre site in Olivebridge, including the area’s first grain and saw mill and blacksmith’s shop, later industrialization with ties to the Dupont family, and more recent water release events tied to New York City’s nearby Ashokan Reservoir…and climate change’s effects on water levels and local flooding.

Much of this came out a year ago when Ungar and Mason celebrated the campus site’s 50 years of groundbreaking history with a New York City gala that featured such luminaries as Ken Burns, Tom Chapin, John McEuen, Joe Martens, Natalie Merchant, Paul Winter and many others. “For 50 years, Ashokan has introduced children to the natural world. Through compassionate group learning, music, and dance, young people develop a connection with nature that will help them make informed decisions and responsible choices towards improving the quality of life on our planet,” read to that event in early November, 2017. 

“Ashokan was a pioneer in outdoor environmental education when it was started by SUNY New Paltz in 1967. Our motivation in taking it over was the fact that the world needs outdoor environmental education and local history,” added Ungar at the time. “We need these experiences, these options for exploring nature, to have the world we want to have in our future.”

We asked he and Mason whether there was an element of what they’re doing that also carries on the folk archiving and education that the legendary Camp Woodland pioneered outside of nearby Phoenicia from the 1930s through 1960s.

“The original idea was more focused on the Colonial period than the Catskills,” he replied. “But Kent Reeves always maintained an interest in this region’s indigenous culture, and five years ago we hosted a Camp Woodland reunion here at the Center… Much of what we do is analogous to what they did. We honor a different way of life and a different way that people connect with each other.”

Ungar and Mason added that upcoming Catskills Conversations and locally-oriented events — beyond the now-almost-historic outdoors education the Ashokan Center and former Ashokan Field Campus have long specialized in — will include a December 2 tribute to historic Catskills folk singer and storyteller Grant Rogers, and a talk by author Gail Straub (The Ashokan Way) in late winter.

For more about all that the Ashokan Center is, was, and plans to continue being, visit