It was May, 1969 — Yasser Arafat had just been appointed to lead the Palestinian Liberation Organization, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were celebrating their marriage in Gibraltar, Apollo 10 launched for the first full dress-rehearsal of a lunar landing and the only national park dedicated to the performing arts was about to break ground.
"It's the only one of its kind," said Ann McPherson McKee, who has been with Wolf Trap for 31 years and is now senior vice president of performing arts and education. "It came about with our founder Catherine Filene Shouse. In broad strokes, she bought the land back in the 1930s after the stock market crash."
Now celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Wolf Trap Foundation and the 25th anniversary of the Barns, much has changed on the parcel of 160 acres.
IN THE BEGINNING, the land was used as a working farm, complete with chickens, milk cows and turkeys. Keeping with the tradition of the land, Shouse chose the name Wolf Trap Farm, which she derived from Wolf Trap Creek that runs through the land.
"She said that she had a choice of what to call it — Beulah Road Farm or Wolf Trap Farm," joked McKee. According to McKee, the name "Wolf Trap" is part of Fairfax County's early history, when in the 1700s hunters were paid more if they trapped wolves, rather than killed them.
But there was more to Wolf Trap Farm than dairy. By the late 1950s the farm had become a popular destination for Washington D.C. socialites who needed a break from the district. Weekend parties featuring live music gave the land a reputation for entertainment.
By the 1960s the suburbs of D.C. had become reality and with the development of Washington Dulles International Airport, the Department of the Interior needed room to build a toll road.
"In the '60s, Uncle Sam came knocking at the door and said they were going to build an airport and took a bit of land," said McKee. "She [Shouse] had the clarity to realize that this wasn't going to be a nice country getaway anymore."
Wanting to save the farm from suburban sprawl, Shouse struck a deal with the government.
"With the Department of the Interior, she found like-minded folks," said McKee. "She said that she would give the land for the toll road if they would put in an amphitheater and turn it into a park for national arts."
In 1966, legislation was signed.
"As they got closer and closer to the amphitheater being a reality — and not just something on paper — our elected leaders said 'this is great, but who is going to run the place?'," said McKee. From this, the Wolf Trap Foundation was born. While the National Park Service oversees maintenance of the grounds and buildings, the Foundation took over the entertainment and educational aspects of the park.
"The government really didn't have the expertise to make artistic decisions, nor did they have the money," said McKee.
SINCE ITS OPENING in 1971, Wolf Trap has seen many changes in both variety of performers and additions to the park — most notably, the Barns. During a trip to see friends in Maine, Shouse discovered the acoustic potential of an ordinary barn. Wanting to install a number of composer cottages at Wolf Trap, Shouse traveled to up-state New York, where she purchased two barns and had them shipped board by board to the park.
"The original barns were reassembled the same way they did it in the late 1700s," said McKee. After measuring the sound of the barns, McKee said that they realized the Barns "ended up being this stunningly acoustic performance gem."
And little known to Wolf Trap at the time, the Barns would end up showcasing internationally known musicians in the early years of their career.
"Vince Gill, Mary Chapin Carpenter, the Dixie Chicks — all of these folks we sort of brought up since they were tiny," said McKee.
With the success and notoriety that Wolf Trap gained over the years, McKee recalls Shouse deriving the most pleasure out of being part of the backstage scene.
"Mrs. Shouse used to have a baby-blue golf cart that she would drive to the Filene Center," McKee said. "She wined and dined with kings, but would come backstage during the night to help with the lighting. She would come tooling over in her golf cart with cookies. She loved hanging out with the crew."
NOW 35 YEARS SINCE the founding of the Wolf Trap Foundation, and 25 years since the construction of the Barns, Wolf Trap's season has evolved to provide something for everyone. In addition, the park recently built an education center, which houses a variety of programs from art appreciation to music lessons.
"Our charge is to broaden our diversity always and try to anticipate what our people will be wanting," said McKee. "We firmly believe that there is never going to be something that replaces the performing arts."