A portrait of Mary Gray Bidwell (1764-1808) is part of the collection of the Bidwell House Museum in Monterey. Bidwell is among the women that author
A portrait of Mary Gray Bidwell (1764-1808) is part of the collection of the Bidwell House Museum in Monterey. Bidwell is among the women that author Carole Owens wrote about in her latest book. (Photo courtesy of Bidwell House Museum)

When Stockbridge historian, author and columnist Carole Owens writes about remarkable women in her latest book on 18th century New England life, she knows her subject well — for she too is a remarkable woman.

On May 4 at an Awards Dinner in Boston, Preservation Massachusetts will honor Owens with the Paul & Niki Tsongas Award, named for the distinguished U.S. senator and congresswoman. As the organization's website states, the annual award "recognizes and celebrates the efforts and accomplishments of individuals and organizations that have made significant contributions to preserving the Commonwealth's historic resources."

This year's award "celebrates the success, leadership and accomplishments of Women in Preservation ... those who have played an extraordinary role in promoting the preservation of our Commonwealth's past for the benefit of the future."

With no formal training, Carole Owens arrived at her calling as a Berkshire historian accidentally. She grew up in Minnesota, where her mother would take her to view open houses on Saturday afternoons. "I've been looking at houses my whole life," Owens said.

A social work therapist, she escaped New York City living through summer visits to the Berkshires, before relocating here permanently in 1990.


As Ventfort Hall's first director, she developed the Museum of the Gilded Age and worked to get the Lenox landmark on the National Register. She recalls giving Hillary Clinton a miniature model of the mansion for the "American Treasures" Christmas Tree at the White House.

"When I first came up here, the Berkshire Cottages were all boarded up and deteriorating," she said. "Can you imagine how romantic these exciting enormous big structures were?"

She wanted to know who built them, but could find no books on the subject. So in 1984 she wrote "Berkshire Cottages," the first of her seven titles.

"I always wanted to be a writer," she said. "The whole history of the Berkshires and the buildings and structures became a passion of mine."

"The stories about these people just caught me and held me for a second career for 30 years."

Owens will give a free talk, cosponsored by Bidwell House and Stockbridge Library, at 4 p.m. Saturday in the Stockbridge Town Offices, about her latest book, "Remarkable Women of New England: Daughters, Wives, Sisters and Mothers: The War Years 1754 to 1787," published by Globe Pequot.

While people think of books about New England as regional, she noted, it is in fact where everybody was in the early days — "the heart and genesis of our country."

Using letters and journals, she paints a picture of everyday life for women in the 18th century from the French and Indian War to Shay's Rebellion.

" 'Remarkable Women' covers wives and widows and spies, women who dressed up as soldiers and fought with the men," she said. "Those were tough times, these wars took place on their doorstep, they were in the thick of it."

The portrait gracing the book cover is of Mary Gray Bidwell, wife of Barnabas Bidwell, who was born in Monterey.

"They lived in Stockbridge," said Barbara Palmer, executive director of the Bidwell House Museum. "He was a U.S. representative, and she was head of the household here. Her husband was in Washington or Boston, days travel away, which is why we have this wonderful correspondence between the two of them."

"We have so many stories and biographies of early America focused on what men did," Palmer said. "I love that Carole focused on the stories of women — traditional historians give them so much less credit."

"These women were by no means passive, sitting at home drinking tea and letting the servants serve them," she said. "They were active managers of their households, and sometimes of stores."

Widow Bingham, one of the earliest owners of the Red Lion Inn, was the first woman in Massachusetts to get a taverner license.

"A widow could do all kinds of things a wife could not," Owens said. "Buy and sell property, own it in her own right, sign a contract."

Owens lives on the site of "Clovercroft," a Berkshire Cottage that burned down in the 1950s. She understands the importance of preserving historic properties.

"Buildings are the repository of our memories," she said, "the point of departure for telling our stories."