The Story of the Threefold Community
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. Led by Ralph Courtney, members of the Threefold Commonwealth Group included Gladys Barnett (later Hahn), May Laird-Brown, Louise Bybee, and Charlotte Parker. Not the first association of anthroposophists in New York, the Threefold Group soon became the most active and lively in their efforts to put into practice the social ideals indicated in the writings and lectures of Rudolf Steiner.
Rudolf Steiner and the Social Question
It was during the First World War years that Steiner, already a well-known scholar, educator, and spiritual researcher, 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. If freed from distortions imposed by outmoded political, economic and religious structures, Steiner believed that:
- Every individual would freely express and live by her or 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).
- 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 took on the task of creating a community where, as Steiner put it, “real cooperation continually renews social forces.” Ablaze with idealism, they threw themselves into pursuing work and social lives driven by ideals of service and goals of social and spiritual improvement.
Their guiding light, Ralph Courtney, had met Steiner while working in Europe for the New York Herald Tribune; soon after, he returned to the US 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 ventures in New York City.
In 1926, Courtney, Charlotte Parker, Gladys Barnett (later Hahn), Louise Bybee, Margaret Peckham, Alice Jansen, and Reinhardt Mueller – acting on behalf of the Threefold Group – purchased a small farm on Hungry Hollow Road in what was then South Spring Valley, NY. Their aim was to create a center for learning about and living anthroposophical ideals.
Biodynamic gardening began almost immediately, making Threefold Farm the first in North America to use the biodynamic method that had been outlined by Steiner in his 1924 “Agriculture Lectures.” 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.
With the help of Charlotte Parker, Paul Stromenger, Alice and Fred Heckel, and 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. In these early years, the summer conferences featured lecturers from Europe who had known and worked with Rudolf Steiner. Many gave their first American lectures at Threefold Farm. The first program in 1933 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 gatherings 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. Eurythmy and dramatic performances were staged amongst the trees of the nearby oak grove. Everyone enjoyed swimming in Threefold Pond (a summer pleasure to this day) and taking meditative walks in the neighboring fields and forests.
As the community matured in its role as a center for anthroposophical education and fellowship, it also attracted permanent, year-round residents, and the Threefold community became a center of social experimentation. Innovative forms of land ownership, dispute mediation, and currency were tried
Following the Second World War, the Threefold community attracted more homesteading families who bought land and built homes on and near Hungry Hollow Road. As the community grew, anthroposophical institutions arose to meet its changing needs. In 1948, Sabina Nordoff and Stephanie Jones started a kindergarten that in time grew into Green Meadow Waldorf School. Green Meadow dedicated its first building (today’s kindergarten) in 1956, beginning a period of construction and expansion that saw the dedications of the Lower School (1966), Gym (1970), Arts Building (1973), and High School (1974). These and many other community buildings were designed by architect Walter Leicht, who also managed Threefold maintenance and construction for many years as a volunteer while maintaining a large private practice. Green Meadow passed a major milestone when it held its first twelfth-grade graduation in 1973.
In 1949, the 200-seat Threefold Auditorium was dedicated, giving a permanent indoor home to the summer conferences and many other artistic and educational events. Mieta Waller-Pyle, Daniel Birdsall, Ralph Courtney, and Carl Schmidt collaborated on the auditorium’s design and construction. In the 1950s, community-based work with Rudolf Steiner’s four mystery dramas began when Hans and Ruth Pusch formed the Threefold Mystery Drama Group, which made its home in the auditorium. That work reached a culmination in August 2014, when the community organized a nine-day festival and conference to celebrate the mystery dramas. Threefold Mystery Drama Group performed all four plays in repertory in English, a historical first.
From its dedication until 1974, the auditorium also housed the research laboratory of Ehrenfried Pfeiffer.
Paul and Ann Scharff arrived at Threefold in 1959 and soon began work to establish an intentional community centered around the care of the elderly – the Fellowship Community. For that purpose, in 1966 the State of New York awarded a charter to the Rudolf Steiner Fellowship Foundation. The Monges family’s Hill Top House, designed by Walter Leicht, became the Fellowship’s main residential and dining facility.
The 1950s also saw further expansion of Main House and the construction of Richard Kroth’s painting studio, which later became the home of Eurythmy Spring Valley. The opening of the Tappan Zee Bridge in 1955 heralded Rockland County’s transformation from agricultural haven to bedroom community. Some far-sighted community members saw that rising property values and burgeoning subdivisions threatened the community’s very existence, so in 1965, the last year of his life, Ralph Courtney oversaw the chartering of the Threefold Educational Foundation and School. The new foundation became an umbrella under which the community’s various property holdings and legal entities were consolidated. Establishing the foundation created a firm institutional framework to house the community’s future initiatives; just as importantly, it preserved the rural feeling along Hungry Hollow Road that is treasured by our residents and visitors to this day.
Summer conferences continued through the 1970s, including “Self Development and Social Responsibility,” a remarkable international youth conference that drew some 600 participants from throughout the U.S. and Europe in August 1970.
Innovations in Adult Education
In 1972, Lisa Monges initiated a training in eurythmy that in time evolved into Eurythmy Spring Valley, which graduated its first class of full-time students in 1976. After some growing pains, Dorothea Mier arrived from Dornach, Switzerland in 1980 to lead the re-founding of the eurythmy school. Dorothea continued as the head of ESV for twenty-five years. The Eurythmy Spring Valley Ensemble embarked on its first performance tour in 1986.
More anthroposophically oriented adult-education initiatives followed. Threefold initiated a Foundation Studies program in the 1970s, and a painting school was added in 1982. In 1986, the Waldorf Institute, a Detroit-based Waldorf teacher-education school, relocated to the Threefold campus and adopted the name Sunbridge College. From 1991 to 2009, Sunbridge College was accredited to grant the M.S. degree in Waldorf education, making it the only state-chartered Waldorf teacher-education program in North America. Responding to changing needs, in 2010 Sunbridge College re-imagined itself as Sunbridge Institute, focused on low-residency programs for aspiring and practicing Waldorf teachers, including a Master’s program offered in partnership with Empire State College. Sunbridge Institute’s programs are recognized by the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, qualifying graduates to teach in Waldorf schools worldwide. Sunbridge’s popular summer programs for Waldorf teachers carry on the Threefold tradition of summer adult education in service of anthroposophy.
In 1993, the Hungry Hollow Co-op Natural Foods Market, which began in 1973 as a natural foods buyers’ club in the basement of a Green Meadow teacher’s home, opened its doors to the public at the location of the old Threefold Corner Store. The Co-op’s building was renovated and expanded in 2004, Threefold extended its mandate for conscious land care by installing a 3,000-square-foot rain garden and starting an ongoing program of ecological landscaping.
In 1996, Renate Hiller and Michael Howard co-founded the Applied Arts program of Sunbridge College. After Michael moved away from the Threefold community, Renate led the development of the Fiber Craft Studio, which in 2008 became an independent institution operating under the Threefold Educational Foundation umbrella. Today, the Fiber Craft Studio offers two year-long part-time trainings, one-day workshops, classes for Sunbridge Institute, and the only Waldorf Handwork Teacher Training in North America.
It was also in 1996 that the Rudolf Steiner Fellowship Foundation acquired neighboring Duryea Farm, one of the last remaining family farms in Rockland County. Biodynamic farming and gardening had always been central to the Fellowship Community’s work and life; the addition of Duryea Farm’s orchards, fields, and forests dramatically enlarged the scale of that work. Among other activities, the Fellowship added a cow barn and dairy to their portfolio.
The story of the Threefold community has always been intertwined with the development of the biodynamic agriculture and land care in North America. In its earliest days, Threefold Farm was home to the first biodynamic gardens in North America. Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, whom Rudolf Steiner selected to be ambassador of biodynamics to our shores, taught at the first summer conference in 1933, and at dozens more courses in the years that followed. He lived and worked at Threefold from 1946 until his death in 1961, and work at his biochemical laboratory in Threefold Auditorium carried on its until 1974.
In 1996, Threefold built upon this legacy by creating the Pfeiffer Center for Biodynamics and Environmental Education. The Pfeiffer Center’s first director, Gunther Hauk, brought to Threefold many years’ experience as a Waldorf teacher, biodynamic practitioner, and beekeeper. In its first ten years, the Pfeiffer Center’s programs for adults and children earned it a national reputation. When Gunther retired in 2007, direction of the Pfeiffer Center passed on to Mac Mead, a former Fellowship Community co-worker and farmer whose ties to the community reached back to the 1970s.
The Seminary of the Christian Community in North America, which was founded in Chicago in 2001, relocated to the Threefold community in 2011. The influx of seminarians, and the Seminary’s public workshops and courses, was a valued addition to the community’s cultural life through the spring of 2019, when the Seminary relocated again to Toronto.
The Otto Specht School, a Waldorf School for children with developmental delays, social and sensory sensitivities, and learning challenges, which operated for many years within the Rudolf Steiner Fellowship Foundation, came under the wing of Threefold Educational Foundation in 2010.
April 2018 brought the retirement of the Foundation’s Executive Director, Rafael (Ray) Manaças. In his 29 years as Director, Ray guided the Foundation and the community through significant growth, including the construction of Holder House, our 40-room student dorm; a major renovation of the Threefold Corner site for the Hungry Hollow Co-op; and capital improvements at Threefold Auditorium. With Mimi Satriano, Ray spearheaded the founding of the Pfeiffer Center in 1996. The Otto Specht School and the Fiber Craft Studio both moved their operations under the Threefold umbrella with Ray’s guidance and encouragement.
Under Ray’s leadership, Threefold Educational Foundation consistently supported the work of the anthroposophical movement by organizing and hosting many conferences, including several National Conferences of the Anthroposophical Society; a series of six annual Research Conferences (2008-13); a 2010 national meeting of the Biodynamic Association that sparked the rebirth of the BDA; and a series of performances of Rudolf Steiner’s mystery dramas that culminated in the 2014 nine-day festival and conference.
Eric Silber, the Foundation’s new Executive Director, came to the Foundation after six years as business manager at Green Meadow Waldorf School. He aspires to continue Threefold’s development as an outward-facing organization, confident in its future, that is fully engaged with the outside world and actively putting the fruits of anthroposophical research – in education, agriculture, the arts, and more – within the reach of every person who could benefit from them.
In Eric’s first year as Director, a historic project neared completion: To combine the agricultural and educational programs of Threefold Educational Foundation (the Pfeiffer Center) and the Fellowship Community into a new, mutually supportive association of work and community. Encompassing nine acres under cultivation, 38.8 acres of pasture and hay, a dairy, an apiary, and a CSA, and deeply entwined with both Fellowship and Threefold community life, this new enterprise is a large and tangible expression of our ideas and ideals for care of the land, new social forms, education, and the future of agriculture.
The residents and institutions of the Threefold community have been promoting spiritual values in the arts, education, and community life since 1926. The 1965 charter of the Threefold Educational Foundation created a secure but flexible foundation upon which all our affiliated institutions – present and future – can evolve in freedom. Today, Green Meadow Waldorf School, Sunbridge Institute, the Otto Specht School, Eurythmy Spring Valley, the Fiber Craft Studio, the Pfeiffer Center, and many other projects and enterprises thrive under Threefold’s physical and institutional umbrella, while innovative new impulses in education, agriculture, land care, and the arts are continually arising. The Threefold Educational Center gives each one a fertile bed in which it can germinate, take root and grow.