The main street of New Lebanon catches the summer sun.
The main street of New Lebanon catches the summer sun. (Kate Abbott / Berkshire Eagle)

Berkshire Eagle

NEW LEBANON, N.Y. -- Alex Olchowski's house will soon fill with harvested hops drying on screens. He grows three of the dozen kinds of hops that do well in New England, he said. The mildest kind flavors English lagers, and the strongest goes for IPAs. He supplies two local brewers, the Beer Diviner in Stephentown, N.Y., and the Chatham Brewery.

Close by, Jerry Grant, director of collections and research at the Mount Lebanon Shaker Museum, and his wife, Sharon Koomler, have made a hobby of 19th-century printing presses. They enjoy finding old type and etchings to turn into cards, he said, and they enjoy thinking about the printing press's role in the fight for freedom of speech.

New Lebanon has depths.

Henry Hudson Kitson’s ‘Blessing the Waters’ honors the Mohicans.
Henry Hudson Kitson’s ‘Blessing the Waters’ honors the Mohicans. (Kate Abbott / Berkshire Eagle)

The small town sits just west of Pittsfield -- across the Taconics on Route 20 -- as close as Lanesborough or Lenox. But until Behold! New Lebanon drew me over the border to learn about a living museum of contemporary country people (see page 9), I knew New Lebanon from occasional forays to a single place.

I might spend a summer evening at the Theater Barn, laughing over musical comedy with monsters. "The Addams Family" will finish its run there this weekend. Joan Phelps specializes in good cheer, mysteries and slapstick and music. The theater is small and informal -- and the lobby smells rich and buttery from the popcorn stand.

New Lebanon is spread out, and it's easier to drive from place to place than to leave the car and walk.


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But, as Ruth J. Abram suggests in her unusual shape for a new museum, a close look will find some colorful and flavorful places.

My way into town led past the Mount Lebanon Shaker Village, where the old North Family buildings are taking shape as the Mount Lebanon Shaker Museum.

The old South Family dwellings now house the Abode of the Message, a Sufi community, and Qawwali music will sound over the fields there tonight.

A sign on Route 5 marks the site of America’s first free public library.
A sign on Route 5 marks the site of America’s first free public library. (Kate Abbott / Berkshire Eagle)

Between them, the Darrow School takes up most of the rest of the historic Shaker buildings still standing, and Tannery Pond Concerts bring classical soloists and ensembles to the old Shaker tannery.

I started my latest New Lebanon ramble at Blueberry Hill Market Cafe on the main street. Along with milk pails full of apples, and homemade pies and shelves of carefully chosen groceries, Blueberry Hill serves fresh-squeezed lemon ade in glass ball jars -- and their breakfast sandwich with cider bacon is worth the trip by itself.

I lingered over coffee and a Historic New Lebanon map and guide, absorbing background from the old barometer factory to Mohican families gathering medicinal herbs in Shaker swamp. Charles Dickens, John Quincey Adams and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow all came here to take the waters at Lebanon Springs.

Then I went looking for history. Up Route 5, a winding back road without a shoulder, past a cow crossing sign and a barn marked "Dairy Farm of Distinction," you can stand on the site of the first free public library in the United States.

On March 12, 1804, Dr. Jesse Torrey opened the public library out of his home, with books he had gathered from his neighbors over the winter.

He was 16.

According to the current New Lebanon Library, the historical marker and the New York State Historical Markers website, he thought young people often learned to read in school and then let the skill lapse because they had nothing to read.

He went on to write newspaper articles and best-selling books for children, to practice medicine in Pittsfield and to talk with President Madison as an advocate against slavery. Torrey compiled interviews and his own observations about slave kidnappings. In his day, free black men and women were captured and sold into slavery with forged documents.

Wishing I could meet him, I turned back toward town to find place that drew presidents to New Lebanon. The warm spring at Lebanon Springs, just north of the downtown on Route 22, drew high society guests between the Revolution and the Civil War.

Here beside the town hall a bronze Mohican man still holds his hands cupped as though to scoop up the spring. Henry Hudson Kitson (the sculptor known for the Minute Man in Lexington and Santarella, his "gingerbread house" studio in Tyringham) sculpted "Blessing the Waters" as a tribute to the Mohican people who first found the warm springs and relaxed in them on cool summer nights.

Looking across fields to the wooded hills, I can imagine what they saw when they stepped into warm water on nights like these, with the cicadas and the air moving in the maple leaves.