In the beginning, decades ago, locals figured that Albert Appel was some kind of flake, staring at him sideways at the Elmer Diner in rural Salem County.

"I understand you have belly dancing going on up there," a fellow customer had inquired about the music drifting from Appel's farm.

"No, not belly dancing," Appel corrected the man. "Bal-let dancing."

Appel, now 88, laughed at the memory on a recent afternoon as he took a visitor on a golf cart tour of his 176-acre farm, which this weekend will host a gala to celebrate 50 years as a cultural arts destination.

The Appel Farm Arts and Music Center opened as a summer arts camp for children in 1960, but it traces its roots to the 1940s, when it was a musical gathering place for the friends and relatives of Appel and his late wife, Clare, both amateur classical musicians.

"We wanted to change the world and do it through children," said Appel, still energetic and engaging.

With more than 400 campers last summer, Appel Farm is going strong. Over the years, it has developed into one of South Jersey's most vibrant cultural centers - a "cultural treasure," said Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno - hosting popular summer music festivals and affecting thousands of children through school arts programs.

"Appel Farm demonstrates the great power of the arts to impact people and communities," said Guadagno.

But before all the music, Appel said, there were 10,000 chickens.

The son of a Romanian writer and a Russian seamstress, Appel grew up in Philadelphia, where he studied violin. After graduating from Central High School, he attended the National Farm School in Doylestown.

"I was the only kid in Central to become a farmer," he joked.

In 1944, with $7,500 to his name, he bought his sprawling farm in Upper Pittsgrove Township, installing rows of chicken coops.

Clare Rostan was a refugee whose father had been imprisoned in Dachau. Gaining his freedom in 1939, he fled Germany, settling his family in Vineland, which, at the time, was at the center of a Jewish agricultural and artists colony. Rostan, who played piano, was studying to become a teacher. Her mother held weekly chamber music concerts.

"One night they were short a viola player," said Toby Appel, Albert and Clare's son, and now a renowned viola player and a professor at the Juilliard School. "They heard a rumor there was a farmer down the road who might be able to fill in."

Albert and Clare married in 1945, and life on the farm was filled with music.

Toby Appel remembered evenings inspecting eggs with his two sisters before his father would lead the "family string quartet rehearsal."

Friends and relatives brought their children to the farm for music and arts lessons.

"We couldn't afford to send our children to summer camp, so we started our own," Appel said.

Appel built an art studio next to the farm house, a theater, and a pool. The chicken coops were emptied and renovated for bunk beds.

In those early days, Albert drove the bus and Clare juggled a little bit of everything.

"Her soul was what built the place," Toby Appel said of his mother, who died of cancer in 1990.

Campers were taught music and arts and how to think for themselves, said Albert Appel. "Empowerment," he said.

Diversity was important. Scholarship money was set aside for less privileged children, and counselors came from all over the world. Campers chose from subjects such as classical music, painting, photography, and dancing.

"We wanted the kids to experiment, to try things," Albert said, recalling that when violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman sent his son to camp, he left it as a percussionist.

"His father wasn't happy," Albert said, laughing.

So much talent has passed through the chicken coops.

There's Stephen Oremus, musical director of Wicked, and Amy Burton, the soprano. In the summer of 1977, Adam Schlesinger of the group Fountains of Wayne was awakened every morning by his counselor's clock radio, set to Cat Stevens.

Musician Phil Roy was a "16-year-old, guitar-playing kid" from Dresher when he arrived at camp in 1975, lugging his sunburst-colored Fender Stratocaster.

"It was a utopian summer experience," he said recently, recalling some camp memories: playing the Who, enjoying Clare Appel's fresh basil and homemade pesto, and befriending his counselor from Germany.

"They were wonderful people," he said of the Appels. "They were just Albert and Clare, and you were their kids for the summer."

In the mid-1980s, the Appels hired Mark Packer, now executive director, and Sean Timmons, now artistic director, to help develop the farm into a regional arts center.

With private grants and aid from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the farm began hosting family matinees and evening concerts. In 1989, it hosted its first summer music festival.

"We were thrilled to have a crowd of 800," said Packer, remembering how the headliner, Don McLean, drove his car right up to to a small stage behind the chicken coops. A second stage has been added and, despite a one-year hiatus in 2009 due to the uncertainty of the economy and state art funding, the festival has grown steadily and has included stars such as Randy Newman, Ani DiFranco, and John Prine.

"They are wonderful festivals run with intelligence and taste," said Gene Shay of WXPN-FM (88.5), a founder of the Philadelphia Folk Festival.

In recent years, Appel Farms has partnered with 14 area schools in providing music and arts instruction. The chicken coops stand in the shadows of the new dormitories and art studios.

Every summer, about 110 children get camp scholarships, Packer said.

With her scholarship, Tannah Corbin, 16, a junior at Salem High School, studied jazz and played piano with a rock band the last three summers.

"It's a whole other world where you can be yourself," she said of Appel Farm.

At the jubilee party this weekend, Toby Appel will honor his father by playing a few classics on his viola. "It sure will be nice," Albert Appel said.