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Link to NY Times Travel Section Sunday, Mar. 24, 2002 article on Split Tree's Fool's Fest Dance Weekend Apr. 5-7, 2002


Chattanooga Times - Free Press
Edition: FINAL
Published: Sunday, 07/26/1998
Page: I1
[Photos to come]
Caption: Photo by Split Tree Farm Last nail: On Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend in 1996, Daniel Lee, left, Sid Hetzler, Alice Hunter, Bonnie Davis, Becky Forster, Don Walker and Heitzso completed laying the dance floor. Free Press photos by LAURA WALKER
Serene setting: The loft of the writing cabin features custom-made Japanese furnishings.  Free Press photo by LAURA WALKER
Musical sounds: Alan Dynin, at keyboard, Gwendolyn Watson on cello and Dan Bowles on trumpet play together in an improvisational trio at Split Tree Farm. Free Press photo by LAURA WALKER
Finishing touch: Dewey Stoker hangs a front door on the writing cabin, as Sid Hetzler watches.

Fertile Grounds For The Arts In Kensington, Ga.,
creative talents are being fostered on Split Tree Farm

Byline: By DIANE SISKIN,  Free Press Travel Editor

There's a farm in Kensington, Ga., that is producing music, dance and folk festivals. Vegetables and hay grow there, but are secondary to learning and creativity. What makes this farm even more unique is that the wood to build this unusual endeavor came as the result of a terrible storm.

But, I'm getting ahead of the story. The setting of Split Tree Farm in rural McLemore Cove couldn't be more enticing or bucolic, with gorgeous rolling green pastures surrounded by Lookout and Pigeon mountains. The farm is isolated from the more hectic and frantic lifestyles of nearby large cities, yet near enough to Chattanooga, Atlanta, Ga., Nashville, and Birmingham, Ala., to draw weekend visitors.

What is bringing these talented and creative people to this country farm is also unusual. These artists are coming to further their work in participatory arts, especially dance and music. Musicians, dancers, puppeteers, storytellers and folk festival participants since 1994 have descended on Split Tree looking to learn, create and enjoy the arts.

The man behind these happenings is Sid Hetzler, and Split Tree fulfills his desire to provide a workshop for artists. Sid's full-time profession is that of an industrial food broker, representing such food processors as Peter Pan Peanut Butter, Baker's and Tree Top Apples. His business helps him support the arts. In fact, the growth of his company, which originally started in 1905 in Chattanooga, is what convinced Sid to continue operating it rather than go into teaching.

"Without the support of my business, the farm workshops couldn't take place, they are not self-supporting yet," explains the businessman. "But, the workshops and learning going on at Split Tree have become my classroom." Originally known as the Coulter farm, the land on which the workshop now sits came into the Coulter family in the 1840s. The portion of land that Sid's home occupies was purchased by the Coulters in the 1870s.

In 1977, Sid purchased 130 acres from his aunt, Mildred Coulter Harper, now deceased, and made part of the old Coulter farm his residence. In 1978, he built his home. Sid wasn't a Johnny-come-lately to this valley. Neither is he a modern-day gentleman farmer without roots in the soil. His late mother, the former Doris Coulter, lived in the white farmhouse near State Road 193. His late father, Neal Hetzler, was raised in North Chattanooga. As an elementary school student, Sid attended Cedar Grove in Kensington. He also attended schools in Chickamauga, Ga., and St. Elmo. It was his second-grade teacher, Mrs. Bernice Everett at Cedar Grove, who first stimulated Sid's interest in reading.

"Mrs. Everett, who still resides in the valley, changed my whole life. The love of reading that she instilled in me, started me on the road to learning," says Sid. That road eventually led to a degree in English literature from Vanderbilt University, a master's degree from Boston University and a Ph.D. from Emory's Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts.

While completing high school at the Baylor School, Sid was the director of the drum and bugle corps. It was during Sid's graduate studies at Emory that he got the idea of holding a contra dance (sic) at Hidden Hollow, a resort with a dance hall in the mountains south of Chattanooga.

Contra dancing is couples line dancing, similar to the Virginia reel. With musicians, callers and dancers coming from Atlanta, Birmingham and Knoxville, the party began on Saturday evening with a potluck dinner. The dancing continued all night and ended with a dawn waltz on Sunday, which just happened to be April Fool's Day. "This was the original Fool's Fest," explains Sid, who had invited people to his house afterward to eat, socialize and play music.

Sid Hetzler's enjoyment of this "Fool's Fest" and his love for music and dance fueled his attendance at festivals all over the country for research on his doctoral thesis on festivals. His goal became to sponsor more and bigger festivals, with his property as the setting. For many years the annual Fool's Fest after-party was the only event he managed to organize.

That is, until two storms came along. In August 1992, an old cherry tree in the back pasture was struck by lightning, splitting it into four pieces. Hence the name Split Tree Farm. Then in March 1993, a blizzard struck the entire East Coast. Dozens of trees on the Hetzler property and that of Ashland Farm, belonging to Cartter and Bryan Patten's family, were blown over. These storms finally provided Sid the "sign" and lumber that he needed to start changing his dream into reality. He hired a local man, who had a nearby mill, to cut the fallen trees into boards. Then, with a "a lot" of help from his friends, the dance hall was built.

This building isn't just any old dance hall. It is a heated pavilion with a floating, 60-by-36-foot, hardwood maple floor. Two long, outside decks are reached through sliding-glass doors. The prize floor is suspended on rubber pads between half-inch sheets of plywood, topped with tongue-and-groove maple. The floor is comparable to that of any performance dance floor.  This pavilion is attached to the large house.

On Thanksgiving weekend in 1996, with tools ranging from human hands to air hammers, air compressors and the like, about 30 volunteers completed the laying of the dance floor under the guidance of Daniel Lee of Chattanooga, Don Walker of Nashville and John Prater of Prater Athletic Floor Construction Co. of Chattanooga. Sanding and sealing were completed a week later.

Everyone gathered for the completion of the floor on that Thanksgiving weekend was "very thankful" the project was finished.  No one was happier, or more proud of the new floor, than Sid, who says, "This floor and my Steinway piano were the best investments I ever made."

Since that time, Split Tree Participatory Arts Center has gotten the momentum to forge ahead. There are all kinds of weekend workshops in dance, music and other arts. On a recent Friday evening, Gwendolyn Watson of Rome, Ga., Dan Bowles of Chattanooga and Alan Dynin of Atlanta, all members of Phoenix III, gathered to play and give instruction. Gwendolyn plays the cello; Dan plays the trumpet with the Chattanooga Symphony; and Alan plays keyboard instruments.

"All members of this group met at the farm," says Sid, "and they decided to form an improvisational chamber music trio."   This group, like most that come to the farm, is a "work in progress," a mixing of energies. "They are all artists who are invited to be one of a group of players," says Sid.

"In the performance pavilion, audience space was erased because the idea behind its concept is learning how to do something, make music, dance or create stories. That is what the workshops are about. The education comes in the actual doing."

Simultaneously with the construction of the dance pavilion, a performance space consisting of a 32-by-54 foot stage was built over the edge of a small pond on the farm's property. This stage is used as a natural amphitheater, with the pasture providing audience space for thousands.

As more guests began staying overnight or spending weekends on the farm, Sid decided he needed to move out of the big farmhouse and create a quiet residence where he could read, write, sleep and maintain an office. During the fall of 1995, he came upon a small cabin in New Salem, Tenn. The owner, Brian Bancett of Rising Fawn, Ga., wanted to sell it, so he agreed to move it to the farm.

On the day we visited, local resident Dewey Stoker was putting the finishing touches on the cabin's door. For more than a year, volunteers and valley craftsmen helped Sid work on the interior and exterior of the cabin. It was ready for use the first time this summer.

"I also plan to make it available for visiting artists," says Sid, who had the Japanese furnishings custom-made for the loft of the cabin. "I've loved things Japanese since I served in the U.S. Air Force in Korea and Japan," he says. The look of the loft in the writing cabin is minimalist, but extremely appealing and comfortable. The loft, reached by a wooden ladder, provides a treehouse ambience with no distractions.

"I like working in this quiet and serene setting," says Sid. "I learned to work like this when I was working on my dissertation, which was a thesis on festivals such as Riverbend and Spoleto."

Another artist in residence, when we visited, was Anna Sue Courtney, a Huntsville, Ala., resident and a puppeteer, who visits Split Tree for workshops and to aid in planning upcoming events. In her spare time, she also works in the garden that surrounds the main house. She and Bonnie Davis of Chattanooga did all the caulking around the writing cabin. Both started coming to the farm for dance weekends.

Just as the artists who continue to find their way to Split Tree are works in progress, so, too, is the farm. Split Tree Farm seems to evolve as each new participating artist develops his or her skills. With more than 200 acres available for expansion, the Split Tree concept can easily continue to grow in the 21st century.

Cool Your School                 November 2485 issue
When the air gets hot and sticky, air conditioning your studio may be the only resort.

It was too hot to use a glass-enclosed studio in the Southern summer,” says Sid Hetzler, owner of Split Tree Farms Participatory Dance Center in Chickamauga, Georgia. “The rooms were virtually unusable because they lacked air conditioning, limiting the studio’s availability to only spring and fall.” This problem is not unique to Hetzler, as dance studios around the U.S.—especially in Southern states—are aware. Feeling the pinch, many dance teachers turn to air conditioning their studios.

With a little time and cooperation, turning almost any hot studio into a cool space is a possibility. The process can be complicated, so be sure to find a trustworthy contractor within your price range. “As a practical matter, I got several bids,” says Hetzler. “We considered doing it ourselves, but we weren’t technically accomplished, so I asked the man who had [air conditioned] our house. He gave us a very good offer and I trusted him, so we went with him.”

Learn The Lingo
While your contractor can assist you on the path to a cool studio, it’s important to know the basics. Marshall Brain, author of How Stuff Works, explains, “An air conditioner is basically a refrigerator without the insulated box.” Air conditioners compress, liquefy and evaporate Freon gas to attain a certain air temperature set on the thermostat. Their cooling capacity is rated in BTUs, or British thermal units. “A BTU is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of water one degree Fahrenheit,” explains Brain. “Air-conditioning units are measured in tons, and one “ton,” in heating and cooling terms, is 12,000 BTUs. A typical window air conditioner sold at a department store might be 10,000 BTUs. This means that the air conditioner has the ability to cool 10,000 pounds of water one degree in one hour.”

To get a very rough idea of how much air can be cooled, realize that 100 cubic feet of air weighs about one pound. A typical 10' x 12' room contains about 1,000 cubic feet of air, or 10 pounds of air. That means that a 10,000 BTU air conditioner can lower the temperature of a well-insulated room of that size by 10 degrees in just a couple of minutes. Keep in mind that these are all rough estimates and you should purchase air-conditioning units with the help of an HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) contractor.

James Garvin, Certification Engineer for the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute, explains, “HVAC contractors use a complicated formula to determine the most appropriate equipment for your space. An approved and certified contractor will add up the heat-producing qualities of your space—windows, doors, insulation, direct sunlight—to come up with a ‘load calculation.’” The contractor will then determine the correctly sized unit for your space. Too large of a unit will cool the area quickly but won’t reduce humidity, resulting in a cold, clammy atmosphere. If the unit is too small, it will not cool large spaces on hot days, regardless of how long you keep it running. Whichever system you choose, realize that air conditioning your studio can be a large and expensive project. Go to the professionals, ask what to do and, as Garvin says, “Get a lot of opinions and check them against one another.”

Central Air or Window Units?
There are several things to consider when choosing between a central air system and a window unit. Diane Miller-Chapman of Ballet Academy East in New York City is very aware of this distinction. When her studio acquired a larger space a few years ago, it also inherited a central air system. “Air units and fans were sufficient in the old studio,” Miller-Chapman says, “But it’s so much nicer to have central air. This way we have climate control for the whole space, not just parts of the studios.”

A contractor can help you make the decision between central or localized air, but be wary—you are not air conditioning a home. You must take into account the special needs that a dance studio requires: a quiet atmosphere, healthy temperatures for a variety of people and safe installation (the units might need to be at a level inaccessible to young students and you need to make sure all the electrical parts are safe).

A quick and easy way to get cool is to install window air conditioners around the studio. They prove to be much more economical, but there are certain drawbacks that can make them less desirable. While these small machines make it difficult to evenly cool the entire studio, many dancers prefer them because they can decide when to turn them off and on and how high to set them. Additionally, with wall units you can keep different parts of the room at separate temperatures, accommodating those who need to cool off and those who like the room warm. Many studios can be made sufficiently cool with large standing and window fans. A plan of window a/c units with several fans also works well, but windows are often unavailable and this type of cooling system can be noisy.

An existing duct system can make room coolers more economical to install. You simply purchase a unit, mount it in the window and plug it in. Window units usually use a 240-volt receptacle rather than the standard 120-volt, which may require new circuits in your electrical panel. Many studios do not have this choice because they lease their space and are not allowed to tinker with the foundations. If this is the case, you can try to talk your landlord into agreeing to a structural improvement that will raise the value of the space.

Adding central air conditioning can be a costly affair. It will run you at least a couple of thousand dollars, but contractors usually have a financing option. It is a preferred method because it is more convenient, effective and permanent, but it will also raise your electric bill. However, this might be balanced by new students who are attracted to an air-conditioned studio or by a small increase in class fees.

“When we started, no one would have dreamed of dancing in an air-conditioned room,” Miller-Chapman says, “But now dancers expect air conditioning from a professional studio. It’s very important to the students, as well as to staff members and observers in the office.”

A Prime Example
When Hetzler realized that Split Tree couldn’t function any longer, he made the air-conditioning project a grass-roots effort. By getting students and parents involved in the project (raising funds and donating handiwork), the process of air conditioning the studios became a community affair. A special benefactor offered a matching grant of $5,000, and a “Cool Studio Weekend” of dancing and master classes raised enough money to get the job done. Realizing that insulation was a major and expensive part of the plan, volunteers from the studio insulated the roof (with professional coaching.) Then a local air and heating company put in the a/c system. The studio saved money, and now everyone feels like they own a part of their dance space.

Whether you’re planning a major renovation or just a minor adjustment to your studio’s atmosphere, adding air conditioning is a project that may require a serious investment of time and money. But keep in mind that, with enough planning and research, it’s certainly doable and the professionals out there can help you keep your cool.

   This story appeared in The Times Free Press on Friday, April 6, 2485

Fool's Fest

By Lindsay Riddell

Staff Writer

Whether you know how to dance or just want to learn, Fool's Fest Dance Weekend, which begins today at the 200-acre Split Tree Farm in North Georgia, has been designed for dance enthusiasts of almost all ages and skills.

Fool's Fest Dance Weekend began in 1996 on April Fool's Day and provides a forum and instruction for contra, waltz, swing, blues, tango, Cajun/zydeco, ballroom and other dances. People come from all over to camp, eat, dance and hear live music, said Split Tree Farm owner and event coordinator Sid Hetzler.

"It's very high energy and very good exercise," said Hetzler, who has studied festivals of all kinds and even wrote his dissertation on festivals. "For people who want a full weekend of exercise, there's nothing better -- good people, good music, good food, good dancing."

Hetzler said his event is "highly participatory." Children as young as 11 years old and seniors come to dance.

"Here, you're part of it," Hetzler said. "You're not on the outside watching."

Fool's Fest will name Dan Bowles "Fool of the Decade" at the Fool's Ball Saturday night in honor of an artist who has been involved with the festival since its inception.

Hetzler said the studio was built with help from local artists and musicians who donated muscle as well as material. This year's Fool's Fest will raise money to insulate the roof of the 60- by 36-foot dance studio where dance and music events are held throughout the year. Hetzler is also raising money for the studio by selling a CD -- "The Waltzes" -- a 1999 live recording at Split Tree Farm. He is also soliciting donations from dance groups around the country who send old dance T-shirts and a $5 contribution to the farm. The T-shirts are then made into quilts, which are used as insulation to cover the 10 huge windows in the studio.

Food, which costs $15 for the weekend, includes five meals. Total price information for the fest and maps to Split Tree Farms are available online at

Participants must register online or by phone at (706) 539-2485.

E-mail Lindsay Riddell at lriddell [@]