The present site of Woolman Hill was occupied in the 1600s by Pocumtuck native Americans. In 1672 a portion of their land was sold by Mashaliske, a native woman, to John Pynchon, the first Euro-American to settle on the Hill. Through the years there were a series of owners and redistribution of the land. The Keet family farmed the land for three generations. The Spruyt family bought the farm in 1937, and operated ‘Traprock Farm’ (named after the rock formation on which it stands) as a hobby farm. Goats and cows were stabled in the vestibule of the conference center, and chickens were kept in the green farmhouse. The Spruyt family also significantly expanded the main farmhouse (now called the Conference Center) with the addition of the present meeting/dining room. Young Harry built the bunkhouse known as Harry’s Cabin (currently the office).
In 1953 Antoinette Spruyt gave Traprock Farm of 110 acres to Friends who at that time were associated with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). Woolman Hill was incorporated in the fall of 1954. The initial aims included the development of a conference center with an emphasis on peace education and outreach to the various colleges in the area. Russell Brooks was the first director.
In the 1950s and 1960s various activities were undertaken, including seminars on peace, in conjunction with the Boston office of the AFSC, and the development of a program for training in overseas service, all of which were interrelated under the mission statement of Woolman Hill which continues to be:
To foster, develop and strengthen the testimonies of the Religious Society of Friends by securing and maintaining suitable premises for holding Meetings for Worship, meditation and study, for retreats, conferences, seminars and other religious and educational activities.
Many changes have occurred through the years. The following account merely highlights some of these.
During the first ten years, until the mid 1960s, the emphasis on the Hill was on conferences devoted to peace, and summer work camps for local and international students. Per diem charges for a conference in 1964 were $5.00. At that time, registration often included 1/3 young people. For a few years following this, several educational experiments were launched, but none with enough foundation to continue. During this time the Brown House was built, to house the philosopher Milton Mayer and his family, Mayer having previously developed an association with Friends and with Woolman Hill. A large capital campaign was undertaken on the 10th anniversary of the Center to renovate the old barn for additional dormitory and conference space.
By the late 1960s it became clear that Woolman Hill would need to redirect its activities in order to sustain itself financially. An alternative school was established on the Hill, whose purpose was to offer education for students whose mode of learning did not fit into traditional academic settings. Student-staff ratio was low. Enrollment reached its peak with 20 students. The school ran for ten years. During this time some of the outbuildings were put up to house staff. It was also during this time, in 1971, that the newly-renovated Barn burned. The school was laid down in 1979 and the Board contemplated the sale of the property.
It was clear after twenty-five years of experience, however, that Woolman Hill could become self-supporting by looking again to its original goals. The question then revolved around use of buildings and grounds. Rental of the Brown House seemed to provide one solution and its availability was widely advertised. Some fifteen proposals were submitted, but the one coming closest to the Quaker message was that of the then-nascent peace activist organization Traprock Peace Center. Traprock led the way in pioneering grassroots organizing, primarily against the nuclear threat. The national Nuclear Freeze campaign was launched by Traprock right here at Woolman Hill. In 1974 homesteaders Wally and Juanita Nelson, long-time war resisters and organic farmers, joined the Hill community. Wally died in 2002 and Juanita continued to farm her small plot until she moved off the Hill in 2012. A demonstration fruit tree and nut project, begun twenty years ago, continues under the direction of Dave Gott.
In 1982 the Board decided to re-establish Woolman Hill as a conference center. Alan Eccleston was engaged as the director. Six Quaker-related weekend conferences were offered in the first season, while at the same time major updates were undertaken on the buildings and grounds. Thus began again the development of closer working relationships with Friends in New England that continues to this day. Woolman Hill now hosts an average of twenty Quaker retreats and conferences each year. Friends also enjoy the use of the cabins for individual and family study, retreat and renewal. The Farm House and Brown House are now staff housing, and Harry’s Cabin is the office. Many groups use the conference facilities year-round for retreats and events, and the Hill is a popular spot for weddings.
In the early 1990s the last few remaining members of the North Dartmouth Meeting in Massachusetts offered their historic Meeting House to the Board of Woolman Hill, to be moved and resurrected on the grounds of the conference center. In 1996, the one hundred-and-fifty-year-old meetinghouse was carefully disassembled, loaded onto two trucks, and transported to Woolman Hill from North Dartmouth. In 2001, after much fundraising and planning, the new foundation was poured, and reconstruction began. The Meeting House is now completed, painstakingly restored to its original condition, thanks to the generosity and hard work of many Friends and friends of Friends. Woolman Hill undertook another major capital campaign from 2002 to 2004 to help finance the reconstruction and to fund other capital needs for the conference center.
In the fall of 2007, Traprock Peace Center moved from Woolman Hill into downtown Greenfield. Subsequently the Brown House was renovated into two units – the upstairs for staff housing, and the downstairs for sojourners on extended retreat. The Red House, no longer needed for staff, was also refurbished as guest space.
Woolman Hill stands solidly as both an historic and a contemporary reminder that Quakers have a proud tradition of educating, both Friends and those who are friends of Friends, through our testimonies of harmony, simplicity, community, equality and peace.
Written by Mary Lee Morrison and Mark Fraser
August 2003 (revised June 2012)
With grateful thanks to previous and present historians:
Gordon Bowles and Claire Bateman