Sunday, May 29, 2011


Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of the tourist season here in the Berkshires. And we welcome them with open arms (and sometimes a bit of grumbling...) 
I live in a very beautiful area of the US. Of course I think that most areas of any country have their own special beauty but, being slightly biased, I think my area has a slight edge.
Of course we welcome tourists. A part of our area's economy depends upon it. We are located almost equidistant from Boston Mass, Burlington VT and New York City NY. I guess the grumbling comes when some tourists treat us as uneducated hicks (we aren't) or servants - on the street (again - we aren't) or just plain old figure they are on vacation so they leave their manners at home. (Simply put - DON'T DO THAT!) I've had people walk into my house because they thought it looked really nice and they wanted to see what was inside. Hmmm - I have signs posted at the entryways to my drive that say "No Trespassing." Now tell me - who is uneducated? I live 1/4 mile from a popular concert venue. When there is a popular concert I've had people park their cars in my driveway without asking for permission. (Yes - I've had them towed. Remember - my driveway is marked with a sign.) I'm not a nasty person and I do understand that I live in a tourist area. During the summer I expect that it will take a lot longer to get places and that I have to plan my grocery shopping around "tourist schedules," etc. meaning go shopping in the early morning or during a concert and get home by intermission. That's OK. And if you enter my property and ask me if you can park your car there during the concert I'll probably say yes. But don't take liberties like that unless you know me. OK - enough with the rant.

Originally inhabited by the Mahicans, the first English settlers appeared in the Berkshires in the early 1700’s.
The original British settlers had farms, quarries, sawmills and textile mills. Potash production and glassworks were also early industries. At one point in the 1700’s iron ore was found leading to the establishment of several ironworks in the county as well.
In the 1800’s the area also saw the beginning of an influx of artists and writers including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Ward Beecher, Fanny Kemble, Catherine Sedgwick, Edith Wharton and Herman Melville to name but a few. In fact Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick in this landlocked area of the country!
The site of Pittsfield High School was originally the farm of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s family!
            Since then a number of artists, poets, actors, musicians, sports stars etc. have all been born or made homes up here – either part-time or full-time. Some of them include the late actor Christopher Reeves, musician Yo-Yo Ma, singer/songwriter James Taylor, poet Rosemary Starace, the late writer William Shirer, actress Elizabeth Banks, Arlo Guthrie, painter Norman Rockwell, sculptor Daniel Chester French, actress Maureen Stapleton, actor Matthew Perry, baseball player Dan Duquette, baseball player Jim Bouton and many more.
            The first of the large estates had construction commence in 1844. From 1880 through 1920 the wealthy managed to transform this sleepy area into a Gilded Age resort similar to Saratoga Springs NY and Newport Rhode Island. As these millionaires built their “cottages” for entertaining parts of the area developed a “hoity-toity” reputation. Ironically land in some towns went for as much as $20,000 an acre (remember this was in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s) while in a neighboring town it might only cost a few dollars an acre.  Today the cottages that have survived are museums, hotels or performing arts venues.
            Today the Berkshires are a very popular tourist destination for people of all backgrounds.
            You like to hike? Hiking trails abound here including a segment of the Appalachian Trail. Into nature? In addition to several Audubon maintained facilities there are the Berkshire Botanical Garden and the Hebert Arboretum for nature lovers. The Housatonic River and the many lakes in the region offer canoeing, kayaking, fishing, etc. There are campgrounds galore as well. Bicycles are welcome and the country roads make for a wonderful ride.
Photo postcard taken by my father in the 1950's.
Into something a bit more upscale? The area is famous for the performing arts and visual arts with such well known venues such as the Barrington Stage Company, the Berkshire Theatre Festival, Jacob’s Pillow, Shakespeare and Company, Tanglewood, the Williamstown Theatre Festival and more all based here. It is also home to the annual Berkshire International Film Festival.
Museums include Chesterwood, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the Williams College Museum of Art and the Norman Rockwell Museum are complimented by a large number of art studios and galleries that are open to the public. 
            Prefer historical sites? How about visiting the Hancock Shaker Village or Mount Greylock? You might also want to visit the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace, the Colonel John Ashley House, Naumkeag, The Mount - home of Edith Wharton and many other places.
Just want to hang out on a porch? Summer rentals are more popular every year and there are even timeshares available.
Spa fanatics will love Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires while people into yoga will prefer Kripalu. And don't forget The Kushi Institute for people into macrobiotics.
But not to worry. The Berkshires is not just a health food destination. With a wide variety of restaurants run by people from all over the world disbursed throughout the county you won’t lack for different types of food. Many places will even make you picnic boxes to take to an event.
If you’ve ever handled a United States currency note (i.e. a dollar bill) then you have a connection to the Berkshires. Crane Paper Company manufactures the majority of paper used for United States currency right here in Berkshire County.
            Interestingly, despite being home to the largest currency paper manufacturer, the Berkshires also has its own local currency called BerkShares. Usable as real currency by participating stores, banks, etc. they have become a very viable alternative to US currency because one purchases them at a discount over US dollars. So, to use the example from their site, “You go to the bank to purchase BerkShares to spend at a local restaurant. You go in with 95 federal dollars and exchange them for 100 BerkShares. You go to dinner, and the total cost comes to $100. The restaurant accepts BerkShares in full, so you pay entirely in BerkShares. Therefore, you've spent 95 federal dollars and received a $100 meal - a five percent discount for you. The owner of the restaurant now has 100 BerkShares. They decide that they need to deposit them for federal dollars and return them to the bank. When they bring them to the bank, the banker deposits the 100 BerkShares you spent on dinner and gives the restaurant $95 federal dollars, the same 95 dollars that you had originally exchanged for BerkShares. The end result? You receive a five percent discount because of the initial exchange, but the same $95 you originally traded for BerkShares all goes to the business where you spent those BerkShares.”  BerkShares are available to anyone who wants to buy them at several local banks.
The first street to have an AC transmission system allowing the distribution of electric power over large areas using a transformer was here in the Berkshires. The demonstration took place in Great Barrington where William Stanley the inventor of this system lived. He lit offices and stores along the main street. His design became the basis for all transformers and the AC distribution system formed the basis of  electrical power distribution. His Electric Manufacturing Company eventually moved to Pittsfield and eventually became General Electric (GE).   
And that all-American pastime baseball – let us not forget that. The earliest reference to baseball was published as a Pittsfield by-law in 1791. It prohibited anyone from playing “baseball” within 80 years of the new meeting house in Pittsfield and was written after someone broke the meeting house windows in a game. 
1791 Bylaw Stating In Part " that no Person, an Inhabitant of said Town, shall be permitted to play at any Game called Wicket, Cricket, Baseball, Batball, Football, Cat, Fives or any other Game or Games with Balls within the Distance of Eighty Yards from said Meeting House " 
In 1859, the first intercollegiate baseball game was played in Pittsfield, MA and the area has provided many professional baseball players as well. Also located in Pittsfield is Wahconah Park – one of the last ballparks in the US with a wooden grandstand. Built in 1919 and seating 4500 people, the stadium has had a variety of associations including being a minor league affiliate of the New York Mets and the Houston Astros and many professional Major League Baseball players have come out of these teams. 
This scenic area boasts year round activities with the busiest seasons being summer and winter.
Now I’ve been writing about Berkshire County but the term “The Berkshires” has slowly spilled over to include parts of New York State, Northern Connecticut and Southern Vermont.  These places also have some wonderful activities and places to visit but I’m still a bit biased!
Well – I could go on but instead I’d just like to invite you to visit the Berkshires. It’s truly a wonderous vacation spot.
            So let me know when you’re coming up and we’ll meet for a cuppa someplace.


  1. Peter, I'm sold! What a beautiful home and rich history. Good luck with la turistas. Best, Alison

  2. Alison - Thanks. So where's your blog? I'd love to take a peek.
    My house was actually built in 1898 as the main gatehouse to one of the cottages.
    As for la turistas - they are a fact of life up here and one either accepts them or should move. But once in a while one has to rant! :-)