A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Peace and Power to the People: Celebrating Mohonk’s 150th

By Anne Pyburn Craig

Peacemaking is an art and science with a lot of moving parts. It’s not the absence of conflict—there will always be conflicting needs—it’s the ongoing management of conflict in positive ways, the crafting of just outcomes that satisfy and don’t result in bitter loss. It’s been said, over and over, that if our species were to put anywhere near as much energy and effort into peace as we do into war, we’d be well on our way to a far better world.

At Mohonk Mountain House November 1-3, Mohonk Consultations will host “Creating and Sustaining Peace,” at which passionate practitioners of peacemaking will convene to share insights, progress and challenges, part of a long tradition of “talking things over at Mohonk.” 

Mohonk Consultations is one of two sister nonprofits founded by the Smiley family and associated with the Mountain House; the other being the better known Mohonk Preserve. Mohonk Consultations convenes groups of interested and interesting people—leaders and experts, including students and the public—to discuss the nuts and bolts of achieving a just, sustainable, and compassionate society 

“Our situation and our tactics are rather unique, and I think that contributes to why people are less directly familiar with us,” says board member Brad Berg. “We’re the water people, the food people, the peace people, the people people. Because you really can’t separate any of that.”

Topics at annual conferences in recent years have included watershed protection, food security and justice, renewable resources, and land protection, all concerns that Mohonk Consultations—in keeping with the thinking of its founders, A. Keith Smiley and Helen Vukasin among them—considers inextricably interwoven.

“Most organizations focus on a particular issue,” says Berg. “Our board considers various critically important topics and picks one that we think will convene the right people and galvanize the conversation.” 

“Also, our board members have various areas of interest,” adds Consultations’ secretary Sandra Smiley, Keith’s daughter. “If a board member’s interested in organizing something, they take on that topic.”

This year’s focus on peace is a perfect 150th anniversary celebration for the Mountain House, founded when Albert Smiley fell in love with and purchased 280 acres and a ten-room inn and, soon afterwards, the nearby lake. With his twin brother Alfred, he lost no time in creating a world-class destination that drew the bold-face names and has never ceased to do so. Five former presidents have stayed at Mohonk, along with countless other travelers of all stripes including naturalist John Burroughs and industrialist Andrew Carnegie. 

The property, for those who haven’t been, looks from a distance like a magic castle and transforms into a fascinating and eclectic maze up close. It oozes with the kind of genteel warmth that lets the famous forget fame for a while, welcoming celebrants and vacationers of all sorts, and teaching generations of local youth what it means to be employed. Having Mohonk Mountain House as a neighborhood institution is like having an elderly, well-off Quaker relation with the niftiest place ever, and a tolerant, but eminently sensible attitude. 

And something about growing up with the run of the place seems to imbue generation after generation with inclusive, enlightened world views and a passion for betterment. “We had the run of the place without many rules, so we learned our limits,” says Sandra. “And because I learned the land and operations so well, I left for California, but I came back. My land drew me. I got involved, minimally at first, but it felt increasingly important to carry on the mission.”

The mission begins

Albert and Alfred were Quaker educators and sociable guys who were known to enjoy playing the “which twin is which?” game at dances in their younger years. Having secured a jewel of a lake and established a Victorian castle thereon, Albert soon began leveraging its allure to bring together like-minded and notable souls to discuss important issues of the day. Beginning in 1883, “Let’s talk it over at Mohonk” became an opening gambit for conflict resolution and problem solving efforts of all sorts.

And from 1895 through 1916, conferences at Mohonk focused on the nuts and bolts of peacemaking: arbitration as an alternative to war. Arbitration, a dispute resolution tactic in which parties agree to abide by the decision rendered by a neutral third party, was gaining momentum among the leadership of the day. William Howard Taft, president from 1909-1913, was a fan. Theodore Roosevelt, who’d been president between 1901 and 1909, was decidedly not. Both men are on the list of presidents who stayed at Mohonk.

The Mohonk International Arbitration Conferences gathered together some high-powered leadership during the birth of the American progressive movement, and catalyzed a series of events and a handful of organizations dedicated to the science of peace: the American Society of International Law, the New York Peace Society, the World Peace Foundation, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace all have Mohonk conferences embedded in their DNA. 

The concept of a world arbitration board led to the International Peace Conferences at The Hague, Netherlands in 1899 and 1907 and the founding of the International Court of Justice, popularly called the Hague Tribunal. The Hague Conferences served as a model that contributed to the formation of the League of Nations and later the United Nations.

Like Albert and Alfred before them, Keith and his brother Dan loved the place and everything about it. The third generation, they grew up playing in and learning from the woods, and working in the family business. Like Smileys before and after them, they saw it as a sacred trust of sorts, to be deployed to the benefit of all. 

Daniel specialized in conservation science; Keith continued the tradition of seeking out and bringing together thought leaders to brainstorm together about living in harmony with and on the planet. The brothers founded Mohonk Trust in 1963 (Mabel Craven Smiley, who took on housekeeping and employee relations as her special mission, kicked in the first $100) to facilitate land preservation and the overall mission. Keith, his wife Ruth, and their colleague Helen Vukasin led the trust’s International Affairs Committee, working with foreign students, international development issues, and collaborating with the UN.

The Mohonk Trust, was reconfigured as Mohonk Preserve in 1978. Keith and his associates founded sister organization Mohonk Consultations in 1980 to further facilitate conferences, forums, awards, publications, public meetings, and service projects, all devoted to the practical nuts and bolts of helping all life to thrive.

Still talking things over

Most annual conferences are just a day long; attendees sit at round tables and break out into small groups to plan concrete actions that will address the issues being discussed. Past conferences have resulted in the founding of a number of related initiatives: Phillies Bridge Farm Project, the Hudson River Watershed Alliance, and the UlsterCorps Hunger Project, as did the regional Transition groups that have spawned all sorts of resilience initiatives, including Repair Cafes, and a free medical clinic in Marbletown.

“There’s some deep magic there,” says Berg. “That parlor is a sacred space; you can feel the vibe, the energy from generations.The UN diplomats Sandra’s father entertained. It’s a living tradition. And it’s wide open: you’re welcome to work with us, volunteer, join the board, collaborate. If there’s a particular mission you’re excited about and it relates to the interrelatedness of all life on earth, come get us excited and we’ll take it on.” 

Mohonk Consultations also hosts Spring Forums (2019’s was devoted to supporting farmers and farmworkers) and recognizes a regional leader with a Distinguished Achievement Award each year.

The weekend of November 1-3 will feature keynote speakers Philip Hellmich and Dr. Sakena Yacoobi addressing the emerging art and science of peace, and the importance of educating girls and women. Panels and breakout sessions will address the progress of nations in meeting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, programs offering peace building skills, youth-led initiatives, and a practical look at what can be done locally and regionally to build more peaceful and productive communities in this challenging time.

The gathering will also take a look back at the legacy, well over 100 years old and going strong, of talking things over at Mohonk—from the first arbitration conferences to the most recent iteration, “Realizing a Culture of Peace,” held here in 2016. 

Ample opportunity will be available for networking, as the tradition of conferencing at this most special location affords participants the chance to share ideas and intentions, leading to effective efforts in our own communities.

The fifth generation of Smileys has taken the helm. Cousins Eric Gullickson and Tom Smiley, who have a combined 25 years on the property, are “co-leading” as president and CEO, taking the property and all it means forward. 

Registration for the conference opens on September 6; the parlor holds a maximum of 120. If you’d like to get in on the conversation, visit mohonk-consultations.org/2019-fall-conference for more information.

Photo: Main buildings surrounding the Mohonk Lake at Mohonk Mountain House.