In 1958, Stephen and Audrey Currier bought a small farmhouse and several tracts of land in Danby Four Corners after seeing a photo of it in a 1954 Vermont Life magazine. They spent nearly the next decade turning the land into “Smoky House Farm”, a country estate with the intention of preserving the beauty and serenity of the area.
In 1967, however, the Curriers met an untimely death when their airplane was lost over the Caribbean sea on a short flight between San Juan, Puerto Rico and St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. At the couples bequest the land was given to the Taconic Foundation, a foundation also established by the Curriers, though with no specific use of the land given. The trustees decided to first maintain the couples ideals and used the estate to create the Smokey House Center and its YouthWork Program, bringing rural troubled youth to work and learn through direct participation in the management of the land. In the late 1970’s the Smokey House Project became a non-profit corporation, though it was still owned by the Taconic Foundation. In 1995 the land was finally gifted to the Smokey House Center, who has since brought more than 4,000 acres of surrounding land under conservation. Still today the Smokey House Center preserves the rural character of the Danby and Mount Tabor valleys through forest management, partnerships with farmers and educational opportunities.
The Curriers made a spectacular entrance on the stage of American philanthropy by concentrating a substantial portion of their inherited fortunes into a new charitable enterprise, the Taconic Foundation, through which they hoped to encourage programs of forward-looking social change in the United States. Stephen Currier, descended from a distinguished Jewish family that included the lithographer Nathaniel Currier of Currier & Ives fame, had spent most of his boyhood in Italy and then had gone for a time to Harvard before turning to other interests, among them art and architecture. It was Marshall Field, the Chicago merchandising magnate and a close family friend, who helped to open Stephen Currier’s eyes to progressive causes and a vocation of service.
During his brief stay at Harvard, Stephen met Audrey Bruce, a Radcliffe student and daughter of diplomat David E. K. Bruce. Though they were both from upper class families, Audrey Bruce’s inheritance was of a different order of magnitude: far more than a hundred million dollars from the estate of her late grandfather, the industrialist/financier/philanthropist—and Republican—Andrew W. Mellon. All in all there were more than enough differences in the two families to generate some consternation on both sides when Stephen Currier and Audrey Bruce eloped in 1954 and then pooled their resources to make a forceful impact on the philanthropic community.
Within four years they had established themselves as sensitive, caring, intelligent and generous benefactors with the creation of the Taconic Foundation (the name coming from the mountain range in Vermont where the young couple had chosen their favorite retreat in Danby). Stephen and Audrey Currier were ready, in the words of their soon-to-be counselor and friend Jane Lee Eddy, “to look out over the edge of the social horizon and chart a course with real meaning for their generation.”
Along with New York attorney Lloyd K. Garrison, Harold Fleming, and the Southern Regional Council the Curriers founded the Potomac Institute in Washington, DC. Here began what was destined to be a brief but brilliant partnership in the fine art of public service.
Currier Memorial School
On January 30, 1964 a gift of $80,000 was presented to the Danby School Board by Stephen and Audrey Currier to study and work on plans for a new elementary school. At a joint meeting of the Danby Selectboard and the school directors in February, 1964 a committee was appointed with William Nichols as chairman and Vernon Carabeau Jr., Goodwin Crosby, John Griffith Sr., Michael Halligan, Virginia Keeler, Edith Raiche, Muriel Scally and Leo Thaler as members. In December of that year the State Board of Education recommended the formation of Union District #23 for the towns of Danby and Mt. Tabor. On April 24, 1965 a bond issue was passed in the amount of $100,755.00, State Aid in the amount of $43,440.00 was received as well as an additional gift from the Curriers in the amount of $116,848.47 and a gift of $100.00 from Goodwin Crosby.
The land was purchased and the building constructed by the John A. Russell Corporation and the school opened in September, 1966 with approximately 200 students attending is grades 1 – 8. A kindergarten program was not approved until 1972 at Town Meeting. Mr. Currier endowed the school with a special Principal’s fund which purchased library books, easels, teachers’ supplies, and an overhead projector. He also gave a Valentine’s Day party in February of that first school year.
The professional staff consisted of Georgia Carabeau, Teaching Principal; Virginia Colvin, June Greene, Philip Lidstone, Frances Mitchell, Frank Salengo, Marion Clemons, and Catherine Moriarty. Teacher’s salaries averaged $155.00 paid every two weeks.