The Berkshires: Hills Of Heaven

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The mountain ranges that hikers and campers speak of with familiarity and affection—the Adirondacks, Smokies, Catskills, Rockies, Berkshires—are all but unknown to me. When I was old enough to plan my own vacations, air fares to Europe were so cheap and my hold on high school French so uncertain that it seemed prudent to nail it down every few years with a trip abroad. If I chose to stay on American shores, I was drawn irresistibly to the ocean. So when I set off for the Berkshires last fall, it was unfamiliar territory. It soon became clear why the area inspires such loyalty.

The Berkshires are really hills more than mountains, it turns out, none rising higher than thirty-five hundred feet. The Mahican Indians, who lived and hunted there in the seventeenth century, were largely driven out by Dutch and English settlers in the eighteenth, people who proved their mettle during the Revolution. In the summer of 1774 Berkshire residents seized the Great Barrington Courthouse to prevent the royal judges from meeting, and fifty-seven of the Green Mountain Boys who helped Ethan Alien seize Fort Ticonderoga in 1775 were from the Berkshires.

Not long after the Revolution, the artists and writers who are so helpful in turning rural areas into popular resorts began to arrive: the poet William Cullen Bryant; the novelists Catharine Sedgwick, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edith Wharton; the sculptor Daniel Chester French. On their heels came the lawyers and businessmen and their thirty- and fifty-room cottages. They built so many of them that the region became known as the inland Newport. A number of residents apparently pondered the absence of waterfront and decided that it hardly mattered: French called the sight of Monument Mountain from his front door the “best dry view” he had ever seen, and the landscape gave Melville a “sea feeling....I look out of my window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a porthole of a ship in the Atlantic.”

 

Route 7 runs north and south through the Berkshires, beginning at the southern Massachusetts border with the village of Ashley Falls, site of the oldest house (1735) in Berkshire County. Here Col. John Ashley and his neighbors drafted the Sheffield Declaration in 1773, resolving that men were equal and should have the right to enjoy their property without a lot of interference from Great Britain. Then comes the town of Sheffield proper with its cluster of antique stores and the oldest covered bridge in Massachusetts, followed by Great Barrington, where, in 1886, William Stanley lit up Main Street with the world’s first alternating-current electric power system.

But the heart of the Berkshires is probably the stretch between Stockbridge and Pittsfield. Stockbridge’s most famous resident was Norman Rockwell, who moved there in 1953 and used the town as the setting for a number of his paintings. The Corner House is a museum devoted to exhibiting his works. On Prospect Hill above Stockbridge is Naumkeag, the twenty-six-room house Stanford White designed in 1885 for Joseph Choate, the New York lawyer who became ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. The name is an Indian word meaning “place of rest,” and the seven acres of formal gardens are still a good place to spend an afternoon. And no traveler should bypass Mission House, built in 1739 for the Reverend John Sergeant. Sergeant was the first missionary to the Mahican (later the Stockbridge) Indians and was prepared to live humbly among them, but he married a woman with grander plans. The house was constructed with a conspicuously elaborate Connecticut doorway, and the chimneys were placed off the center line of the house to make the front rooms larger than usual. (The Indians called on Sergeant in the more cramped quarters at the back.) In 1928 Joseph Choate’s daughter Mabel bought the house, moved it to its present site on Main Street, restored it, and filled it with colonial antiques, a handful of which actually belonged to Sergeant. A tour takes less than an hour and is time well spent.

Just west of Stockbridge is Chesterwood, the summer home and studio of Daniel Chester French, creator of, among other works, the statue of Lincoln for the memorial in Washington, D.C. Of all art forms, I’m least drawn to sculpture, especially the idealized figures of “Truth” and “The Western Hemisphere” so beloved in French’s era. But I’d hardly stepped through the door before a guide grabbed my interest, pointing out a birdwatching notebook French had kept as a boy and a wedding dress French’s bride never wore because, when the great day came, it was so hot in Washington she decided to get married in something else. The guide then went on to make French’s sculptures come alive for me. She even had an explanation for pointing tools, used in that process I’ve never understood whereby a small figure sculpted in clay by French becomes an enormous statue carved in marble by six Italian brothers in the Bronx. There was also an oddly affecting home movie of French and his friends dancing and carrying on at Chesterwood in August 1925—the movie turned up in a neighbor’s attic, and the staff dated it based on the sculpture he was working on and the English flower border in bloom in the background. After touring the house, you can visit French’s studio and see more accouterments of the sculptor’s trade, including the ingenious railway French had built so he could roll his works outdoors and the sweet-faced, life-size “lay figure” he propped into position when his real model was taking a break.