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In True Form

Docents at Berkshire’s historic sites bring the past to life––and find inner peace



Interpreters Jack Steffek, Jeffrey Brace, and Stephanie Guelpa in front of an authentic Shaker building.

Photographs by Christina Rahr Lane

During the season she spent as an interpreter at Hancock Shaker Village, Cynthia Wade slowed down, focused on the tasks at hand and listened to the silence. “I needed to get out of my own head—maybe even out of this century,” the local filmmaker and freelance director recalls of her decision to volunteer one day each week at the living-history museum.

Wade dressed as a Shaker woman, circa 1880s, and busied herself with cooking in the Brick Dwelling, weaving in the Sisters Shop, and helping with the Shaker music program. Her friends called it “bonnet therapy” and, despite the fact that her Toyota Highlander was parked in the back lot, Wade tried to channel the Shakers. She became more deliberate, less distracted, and more patient. 

What Wade describes is but one facet of that which drives tour guides—and visitors alike—to historic locales where distant, albeit audible, echoes of the past remain. As a result, being transported to a bygone era, while remaining firmly footed in the present, becomes the real cultural attraction.

Jack Steffek, whose full beard lends authenticity to his interpretation of a Shaker woodworker, shares Wade’s sentiments. “It’s quiet, and I don’t get in a hurry,” he says of his work in the old tannery where the floor is littered with fresh wood shavings. “Hand tools are sometimes better and faster,” he explains, noting how the 150-year-old Shaker tools evoke thoughts of those who used them and an understanding of their life. 

“The idea is that we are facilitators of the past,” explains Cindy Dickinson, director of education at Hancock Shaker Village (HSV). “Our use of the term interpreter is meant to imply perhaps you are entering a world you are unfamiliar with, but you’ll be guided,” she adds.

While historic dress sets the tone of the time period, Dickinson is quick to explain the difference between first-person interpretation—the taking on of a particular persona from the past—versus an exploration of the nearly two centuries that Shakers inhabited the City of Peace. “When visitors share in that experience, it ultimately breeds understanding,” says Dickinson of the years spanning 1783-1960. 

Stephanie Guelpa’s role as an interpreter has allowed her to ruminate on the importance of humanity and all she aspires to. “Simplicity, flexibility, spirituality—all the good stuff,” the volunteer from Copake, New York, recounts. “I respect the Shakers very much. They sacrificed a lot for how they lived—and it worked.” (Photo right: Stephanie Guelpa leads visitors in traditional song and dance at Hancock Shaker Village.)

Which, in many ways, is not always true in today’s fast-paced society. Shaker men and women were celibate, as carnal desire interrupted their underlying belief in “hands to work, hearts to God,” and their belief in “separate but equal” prevailed. Despite separate stairs, separate entrances to communal buildings, and separate seating at meetings, women were never discriminated against. In the absence of options in the 19th century, the Shaker lifestyle was different but appealing.

Interpreter Jeffrey Brace agrees. “I wanted to sense what an 18th century person felt,” he says, clad in a simple linen tunic of his own making, citing HSV as one of the neatest places to work, ever. Brace, who is transitioning into retirement, made a living in the fields of timber framing and non-traditional carpentry, both professions grounded in 18th-century living. His avid love of history coupled with nearly nine years volunteering at HSV have given him what he calls an inside look at the Shaker story, one which has allowed him to connect with the people he talks about on a daily basis. 

This connection is precisely what fuels Anne Schuyler’s (photo left) first-person interpretation of Anna Catherine Bahlmann, the governess-turned-secretary of Edith Wharton. The two had what Schuyler refers to as, “an incredibly enthusiastic relationship about books and writing.” In fact, Wharton’s childhood copy of Dante’s Inferno, inscribed by her brother, Harry, as well as the original correspondence between Schiller and Goethe, a gift from Bahlmann to young Edith in 1878, are housed in Wharton’s library and part of the Backstairs Tour at The Mount.

This behind-the-scenes tour, which offers visitors a glimpse into the daily life of the men and women who ran the estate, is conducted completely “in character,” affording visitors an authentic—albeit staged—experience while exploring the rooms where Wharton once trod.

Schuyler and her colleague, Elric Walker (photo left and below right), embody but a pair of the more than 16 servants, including permanent staff and seasonal workers who were employed at The Mount between 1901-1911 while the Whartons were in residence. Walker, in his role as Alfred White, the Whartons’ longtime butler, greets visitors in the main entry hall as if they were arriving for a weekend visit.

“Good day,” he begins, employing an authentic cockney accent to suggest his character’s hailing from the working-class East London neighborhood. “If at any time you are in need of anything I, Alfred White, am at your service,” Walker declares before leading guests to the main floor, pausing only to make exacting square steps on each landing of the grand staircase as he ascends. 

Walker says that with each tour, he is able to delve a bit deeper into White’s life and personality while simultaneously taking some liberties in the interpretation. Walker points to one of the most poignant moments on the tour—when White relates the story of his wife’s death from tuberculosis in 1901, the year construction began on The Mount—as a moment where, as an actor, he is able to bring some emotional impact to the role. “It comes and goes quite fast but if done well it can leave a lasting impression of this man,” he concludes.  

Schuyler, too, has cultivated a great appreciation for the unsung heroines of the day, thanks to her work at The Mount. Her deepening understanding of Anna Bahlmann, who faced many obstacles in her own life simply to obtain the high level of education and intellectual prowess she possessed, has grown since assuming the secretary’s persona. “Bahlmann doesn’t get the recognition for this that Edith Wharton gets, but in her own way it was just as remarkable,” says the director of visitor services at The Mount. “As a single woman, she was able to fashion a life of humanitarian and intellectual significance. I enjoy bringing her story, and the stories of the other servants, alive for our visitors.” 

That said, if anyone inquires as to life after 1911—the year the Whartons were divorced and left Lenox—they might be out of luck. First-person interpretation requires staying in character, which, even when pressed, Schuyler and Walker do to a fault. “I try not to know too much,” says Schuyler, whose character died in 1916, at which point Wharton had written just a fraction of the volumes she would go on to pen. Walker, on the other hand, remains impeccably in character, employing the utmost discretion when confronted, even with the most impolite of questions. Not one to suffer a foolish question without bristling a bit, White would likely have found a way to answer any question without offending given his position as a servant of the house. In short, the challenges of the job often translate to entertainment for visitors. 

At Steepletop, in nearby Austerlitz, New York, docents lead the way for visitors hoping to gain a better understanding of the life and writings of Edna St. Vincent Millay. The word docent, which can be traced to its Latin root docere, meaning to teach, loosely translates to one who promotes learning or is a knowledgeable guide. There are docents who can recite Millay’s poetry, others who are well versed as to the volumes in her library, and still others who are experts on Millay’s gardens. As to the tie that binds them together? “I think of our docents as storytellers,” says Martha Raftery manager of visitors services at Steepletop. “We start with a script, and each docent makes it their own.” 

T.M. Hawley is one such docent who appreciates the opportunity to share with visitors his passion for Millay’s rich life at Steepletop. “It’s not so much transporting people to her time, as much as getting people to appreciate her in our time,” Hawley says. He is full of amusing anecdotes—which in summer center on Millay’s annual tennis tournament, held on her clay-surface courts, and revolve around participants being chosen based on the level of humor in their application letter. Millay hosted wild parties, complete with drinking, invited guests to swim in her pool sans bathing suits, hosted itinerant theater companies to perform open-air productions, and simultaneously produced some of the greatest American poetry.

“She was a superstar in her time,” Hawley explains, while working to dispel what he calls a one-dimensional view of Millay. Many visitors have heard of her wild life, while others know Millay simply as a highly regarded poet. What Hawley finds fascinating is that both sides of Millay existed at the same time. Hawley is keen on introducing visitors to Millay’s poetry and has been known to recite “Dirge Without Music” upon request. For him, it is a sharing experience: “It’s just so wonderful to encounter true Millay fans. You recite poetry and see how they respond. It feels like such a gift to give that to them.”

Regardless of the approach, or the terminology used to describe those guiding your visit, one thing is certain. A playful examination of the respective time period ensues when visitors wend their way through cultural attractions alongside a passionate guide. In fact, Cynthia Wade was so inspired by her time at HSV as both a visitor and interpreter, the experiences continue to permeate her work. She is currently writing a screenplay based on a true story of two Shakers who ran away from the community and eloped in 1871—with deeply complicated results. Any Friday she is not traveling for work, she and her producer/writer husband, Matthew Syrett, make their way to Hancock. They inevitably slow down while scouring documents and gleaning details for their screenwriting process, with one ear cocked, listening for the distant echoes of a bygone era. 

 

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January 2019

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Cost: Free

Where:
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370 Beach Road
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View map »


Website »

More information

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Cost: Free

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View map »


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Website »

More information

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Cost: Free

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View map »


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Telephone: 860-868-7586
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More information

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Cost: Suggested donation $10 for adults, kids are free

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View map »


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Telephone: 203-438-5821
Contact Name: Peter Parley Schoolhouse
Website »

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Join us for a conversation between collector Jeffrey Horvitz and Alvin L. Clark, Jr., (Curator, The Horvitz Collection and The J.E. Horvitz Consultative Curator, Department of Drawings, Division...

Cost: Free

Where:
Fairfield University Art Museum
1073 North Benson Road
Fairfield, CT  06824
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A French Affair: Drawings and Paintings from The Horvitz Collection will be on view in the Bellarmine Hall Galleries from January 25 - March 29, 2019; an Opening Reception will take place on...

Cost: Free

Where:
Fairfield University Art Museum
1073 North Benson Road
Fairfield, CT  06824
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Grab a glass of wine and join us in exploring the basics of drawing the figure with artist and Aldrich staff member Noah Steinman. With a live model as inspiration, use a variety of materials such...

Cost: $12; $10.80 member

Where:
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
258 Main Street
Ridgefield, CT  06877
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Doctor of Oriental Medicine, Jampa Mackenzie Stewart of Valley Spirit and Wellness Center in Washington Depot, CT presents TaiChi & Meditation an Introduction.  Join us for a...

Cost: Free and open to the public

Where:
Gunn Memorial Library
5 Wykeham Road
Washington, CT  06793
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Sponsor: Gunn Memorial Library
Telephone: 860-868-7586
Contact Name: Margaret Ferguson

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Thursday, Jan. 24 Author Talk: Stephanie Land - Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother's Will to Survive, 7 – 8:30 p.m. Maid is showing up on almost every best of, must read, don't miss list of...

Cost: free

Where:
Wilton Library
137 Old Ridgefield Road
Wilton, CT  06897
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Sponsor: Wilton Library
Telephone: 203-762-3950
Contact Name: Wilton Library
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Members and guests are invited to join us for the Election of Trustees, followed by an artist talk by eight photographers with work in the current exhibit. Visit our website at...

Cost: 0

Where:
Carriage Barn Arts Center
681 South Ave.
Waveny Park
New Canaan, CT  06840
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Join New Morning Market’s new knitting club! We’re crafting wearable items for Safe Haven of Greater Waterbury and welcome all levels to join! Instructors will be on-hand for beginners. Yarn,...

Cost: Free - registration requested

Where:
New Morning Market
129 Main St North
Woodbury, CT  06798
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Sponsor: New Morning Market
Telephone: 203-263-4868
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Blending nature and spirituality, Connecticut artist Lori Barker explores the rhythms of life in a new collection of mixed media works on display at the Gunn Memorial Library Stairwell Gallery from...

Cost: Free

Where:
Gunn Memorial Library Stairwell Gallery
5 Wykeham Rd.
Washington, CT  06793
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Sponsor: Gunn Memorial Library
Telephone: 860-868-7586
Contact Name: Sharon Morrissey

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The Bruce Museum is organizing an exhibition of small artworks created entirely by the public for the public. We invite art lovers of all ages, interests, and abilities to submit a depiction of...

Cost: Free

Where:
Bruce Museum
One Museum Drive
Greenwich, CT  06830
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Sponsor: Bruce Museum
Telephone: 203-869-0376
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In this key moment in our national history and the struggle for women’s equality and freedom of expression, the Fairfield Museum’s exhibition “Flappers: Fashion and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Fairfield Museum and History Center
370 Beach Road
Fairfield, CT  06824
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Zachary Zaitzeff is a painter living in the Hudson Valley who has incorporated his extensive world travel, including his 2011 summit of Mount Everest, into his artwork. Zachary spent 2018 studying...

Cost: free

Where:
RT Facts Gallery
8 Old Barns Rd
Kent, CT  06757
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Sponsor: RT Facts
Telephone: 860-927-1700
Contact Name: Natalie Randall
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Here’s a holiday idea for the whole family – a private tour of the Peter Parley Schoolhouse! The Ridgefield Historical Society maintains and operates the 1756 Schoolhouse, also called the...

Cost: Suggested donation $10 for adults, kids are free

Where:
Peter Parley Schoolhouse
Intersection of West Lane and CT Rte 35
Ridgefield, CT  06877
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Sponsor: Ridgefield Historical Society
Telephone: 203-438-5821
Contact Name: Peter Parley Schoolhouse
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We invite families to drop-in and enjoy interactive pop-up activity stations, gallery games, and art projects around the KMA.  Get inspired by Outrageous Ornament: Extreme Jewelry in the 21st...

Cost: Member price: Free Non-Member price: Free with Museum admission

Where:
Katonah Museum
134 Jay Street
Katonah, NY  10536
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Sponsor: Katonah Museum of Art
Telephone: 914-232-9555
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Calling all fans of Scottish food and Diana Galbaldon’s Outlander series. Don your tartan, make like Jamie’s clan motto and be ready! You’re invited to an amazing Outlander...

Cost: 100.00

Where:
Hunt Hill Farm
44 Upland Road
New Milford, CT  06776
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Telephone: 860-355-0300
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Friday, Jan. 25 Wilton Library Mini Golf Tourney for Adults, 6:30 – 9:30 p.m. The kids had so much fun at last year’s Mini Golf fundraiser, that Wilton Library is holding one for adults only...

Cost: $50 and up

Where:
Wilton Library
137 Old Ridgefield Road
Wilton, CT  06897
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Sponsor: Wilton Library
Telephone: 203-762-3950
Contact Name: Wilton Library
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Original members of the Billy Joel Band featuring Liberty DeVitto on drums, Richie Cannata on saxophone and Russell Javors on rhythm guitar. The band recorded and toured extensively with Billy Joel...

Cost: $40

Where:
The Ridgefield Playhouse
80 East Ridge
Ridgefield, CT  06877
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Telephone: (203) 438-5795
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Born from humble beginnings in the Black Rock section of Bridgeport, CT The Alpaca Gnomes cut their teeth in the neighborhood bar scene by playing marathon shows filled with originals and a wide...

Cost: $15.00 - $20.00

Where:
Wall Street Theater
71 Wall Street
Norwalk, CT  06850
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Sponsor: Jeanne Moore
Telephone: (203) 831-5004
Contact Name: Jeanne Moore
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Are you a lifelong with a passion for sharing history? Find out about becoming a Museum Docent! Docents are trained volunteer educators who present guided tours and other education programs to...

Cost: Free

Where:
Fairfield Museum and History Center
370 Beach Road
Fairfield, CT  06824
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Bring the baby and enjoy a lively conversation inspired by the art on view. Enjoy light snacks while socializing with newly-made friends. Crying babies welcome and activities provided for older...

Cost: Member price: Free Non-Member price with Museum admission: Free

Where:
Katonah Museum of Art
134 Jay Street
Katonah, NY  10536
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Sponsor: Katonah Museum of Art
Telephone: 914-232-9555
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Heather Gaudio Fine Artis pleased to present “Jae Ko: 漂流 Drift,” the artist’s first solo exhibition at the gallery.   In addition to showcasing...

Cost: Free

Where:
Heather Gaudio Fine Art
66 Elm Street
New Canaan, CT  06840
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Sponsor: Heather Gaudio Fine Art
Telephone: 203-801-9590
Contact Name: Rachael Palacios
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In this key moment in our national history and the struggle for women’s equality and freedom of expression, the Fairfield Museum’s exhibition “Flappers: Fashion and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Fairfield Museum and History Center
370 Beach Road
Fairfield, CT  06824
View map »


Website »

More information

Blending nature and spirituality, Connecticut artist Lori Barker explores the rhythms of life in a new collection of mixed media works on display at the Gunn Memorial Library Stairwell Gallery from...

Cost: Free

Where:
Gunn Memorial Library Stairwell Gallery
5 Wykeham Rd.
Washington, CT  06793
View map »


Sponsor: Gunn Memorial Library
Telephone: 860-868-7586
Contact Name: Sharon Morrissey

More information

Winter Guided Hike @ Woodcock Nature Center Saturday January 26th, 10-11:30am, FREE ​ Join Mr. Sam for a hike where we'll investigate whats going on in nature in the winter season and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Woodcock Nature Center
56 Deer Run Road
Wilton, CT  06897
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Sponsor: Woodcock Nature Center
Telephone: (203) 762-7280
Contact Name: Sam Nunes
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The Bruce Museum is organizing an exhibition of small artworks created entirely by the public for the public. We invite art lovers of all ages, interests, and abilities to submit a depiction of...

Cost: Free

Where:
Bruce Museum
One Museum Drive
Greenwich, CT  06830
View map »


Sponsor: Bruce Museum
Telephone: 203-869-0376
Website »

More information

Heather Gaudio Fine Artis pleased to present “Jae Ko: 漂流 Drift,” the artist’s first solo exhibition at the gallery.   In addition to showcasing...

Cost: Free

Where:
Heather Gaudio Fine Art
66 Elm Street
New Canaan, CT  06840
View map »


Sponsor: Heather Gaudio Fine Art
Telephone: 203-801-9590
Contact Name: Rachael Palacios
Website »

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Saturday, Jan. 26 Mini Golf Family Day in the Stacks at Wilton Library, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Wilton Library will hold its 2nd mini golf fundraising event. There will be food (each paid admission will...

Cost: $5

Where:
Wilton Library
137 Old Ridgefield Road
Wilton, CT  06897
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Sponsor: Wilton Library
Telephone: 203-762-3950
Contact Name: Wilton Library
Website »

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  Touchon transforms verbal language into handsome geometric compilations, to reveal the beauty and musicality of language characterized by warmly colored shapes, interlocking irregular grids and...

Cost: free

Where:
Canfin Gallery
39 Main Street
Tarrytown, NY  10591
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Sponsor: Canfin Gallery
Telephone: 914-332-4554
Contact Name: Jean-Claude Canfin
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Zachary Zaitzeff is a painter living in the Hudson Valley who has incorporated his extensive world travel, including his 2011 summit of Mount Everest, into his artwork. Zachary spent 2018 studying...

Cost: free

Where:
RT Facts Gallery
8 Old Barns Rd
Kent, CT  06757
View map »


Sponsor: RT Facts
Telephone: 860-927-1700
Contact Name: Natalie Randall
Website »

More information

Here’s a holiday idea for the whole family – a private tour of the Peter Parley Schoolhouse! The Ridgefield Historical Society maintains and operates the 1756 Schoolhouse, also called the...

Cost: Suggested donation $10 for adults, kids are free

Where:
Peter Parley Schoolhouse
Intersection of West Lane and CT Rte 35
Ridgefield, CT  06877
View map »


Sponsor: Ridgefield Historical Society
Telephone: 203-438-5821
Contact Name: Peter Parley Schoolhouse
Website »

More information

Saturday, January 26th from 1:00 - 2:00 PM, Ages 4+ Attend for groovy crafts, snacks, games, and more in celebration of the Pete the Cat book series. This event is free and no registration is...

Cost: Free

Where:
Keeler Library
276 Titicus Road
North Salem, NY  10560
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Sponsor: Keeler Library
Telephone: 914-669-5161
Contact Name: Carolyn Reznick
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Hudson Chorale, the area’s largest mixed voice chorus, is poised to please.  The group will begin its 2019 season with two matinee concerts on Saturday, January 26, 2019 at 3:00 pm and Sunday,...

Cost: Advance Sale-$25; Door-$30; Students-$10.

Where:
The Chapel at Maryknoll
55 Ryder Rd
Ossining, NY  10562
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Sponsor: Hudson Chorale
Telephone: 1-800-838-3006
Contact Name: Anne Norum
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Join us for a very special evening of music from these four accomplished singer songwriters: David Ray, Mike Latini, Dave Goldenberg, George Mallas.  

Cost: 20.00

Where:
Hunt Hill Farm
44 Upland Road
New Milford, CT  06776
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Telephone: 860-355-0300
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Join us for another incredible evening of music featuring four local singer songwriters performing original music! Doors open at 7pm in New Morning’s handicapped accessible Community Room on the...

Cost: Free

Where:
New Morning Market
129 Main St North
Woodbury, CT  06798
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Sponsor: New Morning Market
Telephone: 203-263-4868
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