Time Well Spent: The Berkshire Hills of Western



Time Well Spent: The Berkshire Hills of Western
Then & Now: The Berkshires of Western Massachusetts
Difficult to define, but impossible to miss, is the timeless quality that emanates from the
Berkshire hills of Western Massachusetts—a peacefulness that has drawn visitors and
residents to the region for generations. Many of these fans are creative types—writers,
painters, performers and poets—who find their inspiration in the area’s beauty and serenity.
To understand the Berkshires’ allure, one must look into the region’s past: The county’s
rolling hills are nestled against several mountain ranges, formed from glacial deposits that
created natural boundaries separating the region from Vermont, New York and Connecticut.
For thousands of years, the Berkshires has beckoned visitors—native American tribes;
farming and industrial settlers from England, Ireland, Holland and Germany; and today,
travelers from everywhere around the world.
Rich soil, abundant lakes and fruitful hunting grounds provided a good living to the early
settlers. Ensuing generations continued to discover the area’s many natural attractions. The
missionary John Sargeant built the first Mission House in the Berkshires—in Stockbridge in
1739—on a hilltop offering breathtaking views. It was likened to “Paradise” and became
known as “Eden Hill.”
In 1797, Zenas Crane settled in Dalton and began constructing paper mills along the
Housatonic River. For years, European royal families and American presidents have
purchased Crane’s fine paper—made from “rags”—for weddings and state affairs. Today all
U.S. currency is produced by Crane & Company Paper Makers.
66 Allen Street, Pittsfield, MA 01201
By the mid-1800s, the Berkshires was becoming a popular home for writers, artists and
musicians. Mount Greylock, the state’s highest peak, provided Hawthorne, Melville, Bryant
and Thoreau with inspiration as they wrote their American classics.
Henry David Thoreau, in A Night on Mount Greylock, wrote about the mountain’s magic:
“As the light increased I discovered around me an ocean of mist, which by
chance reached up exactly to the base of the tower, and shut out every
vestige of the earth.…. It was such a country as we might see in dreams, with
all the delights of paradise.”
In 1860, the Shakers fled Manchester, England for the Berkshires, to escape religious
persecution. Living simple lives, “giving their hands to work and their hearts to God,” the
Shakers were agricultural specialists, innovators and inventors—and well ahead of their time.
The Shakers became known for their heirloom livestock, herbal gardens, furniture making,
medicines, cooking, building designs and many other practical means for living. The Shakers
are gone, but today Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, is a living history museum that
includes 21 original buildings surrounded by walking trails.
The late 1800s and early 1900s ushered in the “Gilded Age” in the Berkshires. Wealthy
families from New York and Philadelphia chose the cool and refreshing Berkshire hills to
spend their summers in what they dubbed, rather ironically, their “cottages”—in truth they
were mansions, built on exquisite parcels that typically featured spectacular vistas, elaborate
gardens and enticing wooded pathways. The cottagers created elegant and romantic names
for their summer retreats: Naumkeag, Chesterwood, Wheatleigh, Belvoir Terrace, Blantyre
and Ventfort Hall. As fortunes declined, so, for a time, did many of the cottages. Historic
preservation programs and private investment have revived the estates as luxury resorts,
restaurants and museums.
Classical music was among the plethora of refinements that the cottagers brought to the
Berkshires. In 1936, Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra began a
weekend series of three concerts under a tent on a grassy lawn of the Tappan family’s estate.
A torrential rainstorm during one concert failed to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm—
organizers at once began designing a “music pavilion” to offer the orchestra and attendees
protection from the weather. Built in 1938, the “Shed” at Tanglewood continues to beckon
music lovers year after year.
Tanglewood is the number one attraction for visitors to the Berkshires; the Boston
Symphony Orchestra typically performs three concerts every July and August weekend. In
what is now an enduring Berkshires tradition, patrons’ picnic—often with elaborate meals
and elegant table settings—on the velvety lawn surrounding the Shed.
The Gilded Age also inspired dancing in the hills. In the early 1900s, legendary dancer and
choreographer Ted Shawn and his wife, Ruth St. Denis, bought a farm in Becket to establish
a setting for training men in dance. Thus Jacob’s Pillow, America’s first and oldest dance
school was born. The school, site of a family farm in the 1700s and a station on the
Underground Railroad in the 1800s, has been designated a National Historic Landmark for
its “cultural leadership and prominence in American history.”
Interest in the visual arts was likewise stimulated, as painters, photographers and others
sought to capture the region’s places and faces. Artist and icon Norman Rockwell, the famed
chronicler of American life, moved to Stockbridge in 1953. Rockwell had a close personal
relationship with the townsfolk, many of whom served as models in his paintings. His “vivid
and affectionate portraits of our country” earned him America’s highest civilian honor, the
Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge possesses
the world’s largest collection of his works. The artist’s original studio, complete with the
original easel, brushes and furnishings that served Rockwell in his work, has been relocated
to the site.
In addition to the Rockwell, museums of nearly every description—housed in venues that
range from vintage homesteads to sprawling factory complexes—dot the Berkshires from
one end to the other. Chesterwood, in Stockbridge, is the 122-acre estate of sculptor Daniel
Chester French. Visitors can tour his original studio and see French’s working models of
such masterpieces as The Lincoln Memorial and The Minute Man.
Another Stockbridge gem is Naumkeag House & Gardens, a picturesque Stanford Whitedesigned house, built in 1886. Surrounded with extraordinary gardens and filled with period
antiques and art, the home was built for prominent New York attorney and US ambassador
Joseph Hodges Choate. Among the notable events at Naumkeag was a visit from President
and Mrs. William McKinley in 1897. Impressed by his host, McKinley two years later
appointed Choate Ambassador to Britain’s Court of St. James’s.
Nearby Lenox is also home to similar historic attractions, including the Berkshire Scenic
Railway Museum, which offers a 20-mile narrated trip in vintage coaches, hauled by a diesel
engine. The Mount, the early 20th century estate of writer Edith Wharton, has undergone
extensive renovation, inside and out, to restore the original grandeur of the home and
gardens. Wharton, author of The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome, and The House of Mirth, created
the Mount based on design principles she advocated in The Decoration of Houses, a book that
remains a standard work for designers.
George L.K. Morris and Suzy Frelinghuysen began their careers as abstract artists in the
1930s. In the early ‘40s they built their uniquely designed Lenox home, now the
Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio museum. The house features the couple’s artwork,
along with pieces by colleagues and contemporaries including Braque, Picasso, Gris and
Moviegoers will recognize Ventfort Hall, The Museum of the Gilded Age, as the orphanage
in The Cider House Rules. This 1893 mansion, which is open while it undergoes extensive
renovation, was built for Sarah Spencer Morgan, sister of J.P. Morgan, the famed financier
and art collector. Not a penny was spared during the original construction: among Ventfort
Hall’s interior features is a grandly ornate wooden staircase, overlooking the structure’s
Great Hall.
In Pittsfield, Moby-Dick fans can tour Arrowhead, writer Herman Melville’s home of thirteen
years and the place where he penned his most renowned work. Legend has it that Melville
was inspired to create Moby-Dick’s great whale as he gazed upon Mount Greylock’s stark gray
visage from the window of the study in which he toiled.
Further north, in Williamstown, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute is both a
museum and an international center for visual arts research and discussion. The Clark’s
outstanding collection includes a series of intimate galleries displaying French Impressionist,
American and Old Master paintings; master prints and drawings, English silver and
porcelain; and early photographs. Here visitors will find the works of Claude Monet,
Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir along with those of Winslow
Homer, John Singer Sargent and Frederick Remington. A breathtaking 140-acre campus of
meadows, lawns and hiking trails surrounds the museum itself.
Also in Williamstown is the Williams College Museum of Art, one of the country's finest
college art museums. The museum houses 11,000 works spanning the history of art, with an
emphasis on modern and contemporary art, American art throughout the nation's history
and the art of cultures from around the globe. It also features the world's largest collection
of works by Maurice and Charles Prendergast.
North Adams, next door to Williamstown, boasts the largest center for contemporary arts in
the United States. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA)
occupies a 13-acre campus of renovated 19th century factory buildings. With facilities that
offer huge spaces and the latest fiber optic, digital and new media technologies, MASS
MoCA is able to mount exhibits unlike those of any other museum venue in the world.
Just a block from MASS MoCA, two smaller museums grace North Adams’ Western Gateway
Heritage State Park. The park’s Visitors Center offers changing exhibitions and programs, along
with permanent displays covering the fascinating story of the building of the Hoosac Tunnel.
The museum depicts, in photographs and artifacts, the construction of the Hoosac Tunnel,
which in its day was the longest tunnel in America. Under construction from 1850-1874, the
five-mile long rail tunnel—one of the greatest engineering feats of that century—took 196
worker’s lives and cost the then-astronomical sum of $21 million. Adjacent to the Visitors
Center is North Adams Museum of History and Science, which features more than 25 exhibits
on three floors, which portray a microcosm of America through the history of North Adams
and the Berkshires.
The Berkshires' cultural panorama also includes a range of theatre offerings. Even the
theatre venues—both existing and planned—underscore the timeless quality of the area.
Shakespeare & Company in Lenox is planning to build the world’s only historically accurate
reconstruction of Shakespeare's first theatre, the Elizabethan-era Rose Playhouse. The
theatre will be surrounded by medieval gardens and buildings that evoke a village of the
1590s. Patrons currently view plays written by Shakespeare and others in one of three
theaters, including a tented outdoor site where the Rose Playhouse will one day be erected.
The Berkshire Theatre Festival’s Stockbridge facility was designed and built by Stanford
White in 1888 as the Stockbridge Casino. Once a center of the town's social life, it fell into
disuse by the 1920s. Reopened as a theatre in 1928, the former Casino’s stage has attracted
stars including Ethel Barrymore, Montgomery Clift and Claude Rains. Today it is one of the
oldest professional performing arts venues in the Berkshires.
Pittsfield’s Colonial Theatre and The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington,
have been magnificently restored, and offer year round live performances and film. In
Pittsfield, the Barrington Stage Company, established in 1995, is a relative newcomer to the
theatre scene. Barrington Stage nevertheless offers award-winning musicals, comedies and
dramas and is already well known for innovative programs to make theatre more accessible
to all. Pittsfield is also home to the Colonial Theatre, an incredible restored masterpiece.
Each summer, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, established in 1955, presents more than
200 performances of new and classic plays, attracting actors such as Olympia Dukakis,
Blythe Danner, Richard Dreyfus, Gwenyth Paltrow, and others for summer productions. In
2002, the Williamstown Theatre Festival became the first summer theatre to ever receive a
Regional Theatre Tony Award, for the institution's artistic achievements and contribution to
the world of theatre nationally.
No amount of time spent in the Berkshires would be complete without sampling the region's
wealth of musical offerings. Live music abounds, whether it's popular music at clubs such as
the Lion's Den at the Red Lion Inn, Stockbridge, Mission Restaurant & Bar in Pittsfield,
Infinity Music Hall just across the border in Norfolk, CT or chamber music performances at
one of the many venues, such as Close Encounters with Music in Great Barrington.
Sheffield’s Berkshire Choral Festival brings chorus music to the hills. In Great Barrington,
the Aston Magna Festival offers an intimate setting for music that ranges from Baroque to
early Romantic.
The timeless aura of the Berkshires is underscored by tradition as well. For well more than
half a century, the city of North Adams has ushered in the area's spectacular fall colors with
its annual weeklong Fall Foliage Festival, which culminates in a huge parade of floats, bands,
parade vehicles and performers.
For nearly as long the Sheffield Antiques Show has attracted collectors and dealers to
Sheffield for three days of buying and selling. The Berkshire Crafts Fair, Great Barrington,
has presented its juried show of traditional and contemporary crafts for more than 30 years.
For over 30 years, the Annual Great Josh Billings RunAground team triathlon has featured
biking canoeing and running and you can also come and run in the Berkshire Marathon,
happening over Memorial day weekend.
No holiday season is complete without a visit to the Festival of Trees at the Berkshire
Museum, when more than 200 creatively decorated Christmas trees are displayed throughout
its galleries. A true family museum, the Berkshire Museum is a treat any time of year, with its
eclectic mix of history, art and interactive science displays.
The Berkshires’ well-established traditions are continually growing, through newer events
such as the Berkshires Arts Festivals, when 200 juried artists and artisans come to Butternut
Basin, Great Barrington for three days in the summer and Lift Ev’ry Voice a countywide
celebration of African-American Culture and Heritage in the Berkshires, which will take
place for the first time this summer.
It is not surprising that a place of the Berkshires’ singular beauty and tranquility has helped
breath life into so many creative individuals and institutions. Berkshire County continues to
serve as that rare refuge where life—then and now—simply moves at a difference pace. Get
out and about in the Berkshires!

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