Photo Gallery | The Naumkeag gardens
The Berkshires abounds in bucolic beauty and cultural heritage — and the Trustees of Reservations want to keep it that way.
This summer, the pioneering conservation organization celebrates 125 years of protecting Massachusetts' most precious resources.
On Saturday, the anniversary of its 1891 founding by Boston landscape architect Charles Eliot, nine Trustees properties — including five in the Berkshires — will host "Home Sweet Home" open houses, with free admission, tours, activities and cake.
Sites include Naumkeag and Mission House in Stockbridge, the Folly at Field Farm in Williamstown, Sheffield's Ashley House, and William Cullen Bryant Homestead in Cummington.
"It's a wonderful opportunity to welcome people who are returning and those coming for the first time," said Trustees President Barbara Erickson by phone from Boston.
In the 1890s, she explained, industrial growth in New England created wealth on a scale not seen before. People left the countryside to work in crowded cities, while newly rich bought grand homes and estates along the coast and inland.
Eliot, son of Harvard University's president and Frederick Law Olmsted protégé, observed people had few opportunities to experience nature and the outdoors, unlike gathering places and open spaces he saw in Europe where people could picnic, interact and enjoy the outdoor aesthetic.
Inspired by museum and library movements a few decades earlier, he thought, what if you could save open spaces like books or art, so the public could access them?
In his short life — he died aged 38 — he not only formed the world's first land trust but helped establish the Boston Parks Commission and what became Maine's Acadia National Park.
A land trust owns or imposes restrictions on property and conserves it as a habitat, working landscape or historic legacy, preventing future development, Erickson said.
"Little did Eliot realize it would become a worldwide movement and create thousands of land trusts across the United States and internationally," she said.
With 125,000 members and 1.6 million annual visitors, the Trustees are stewards of 116 Massachusetts properties, many of them National Historic Landmarks, including the nation's oldest working farm, a lighthouse, Gilded Age "cottages" and Colonial homesteads. They protect 27,000 acres of mountains, gorges, swamps and beaches — even ancient dinosaur footprints — and program year-round activities from canoeing to concerts.
"We add one or two properties a year," Erickson said. "At any given time we might be in discussion with 30 or 40 different projects."
The Trustees have embraced the Berkshires since the organization's inception.
"Mission House is a little treasure right in the center of Stockbridge," Erickson said. "It was given to us by Mabel Choate, and the Fletcher Steele garden is quite lovely on a summer day."
"Monument Mountain is one of our most visited reservations," she added. "It was first protected in 1899, and as recent as 2015 we added land to it. The work is never done." The addition, Flag Rock, helped secure Naumkeag's viewshed.
"Naumkeag is just this place of whimsy," explained Southern Berkshires general manager Brian Cruey. "Your inner kid comes out and you want to run down the Linden Allée and splash in the fountain. We always encourage people to bring picnics and relax."
Most undeveloped sites enjoy free admission year round. "Nature programs itself," Cruey said, "sometimes you just want to be alone in nature, and we're happy to give people that space."
The organization is almost entirely privately funded, with state aid less than 1 percent of its $33 million operating budget.
"When we take on something, our intention is to care for it in perpetuity, and forever is a long time," Erickson said. "When you work in hundreds of years, financial decision-making becomes even more critical."
"The Trustees is a band of volunteers, a tribe if you will, that mobilizes to protect these places," she said. "It is created by the work and dedication of individuals and their philanthropy."
"Part of our broad vision is thinking about the future and how we're going to care for these special places and engage the public in the magic and beauty," said regional director Joanna Ballantine.
"The properties all have different stories to tell, she said. "Visitors can experience the Gilded Age at Naumkeag, Stockbridge Mohicans at Mission House, and Mum Bett at Ashley House."
"We hope as many people as possible can join us [Saturday] and throughout the season," Ballantine said. "We have many opportunities for people to explore, experience, celebrate and just be part of this incredible year for the Trustees."
"We want this to be for everyone, to throw open the doors and say, come on in."
Trustees open houses
The following Berkshires properties that usually charge admission or have limited access are open at no cost from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday with free tours and celebratory birthday cake.
Naumkeag, 5 Prospect Hill Road, Stockbridge (413) 298-3239, ext. 3008.
The Gilded Age Berkshire "Cottage" of the distinguished Choate family is famed for its themed gardens and iconic landscapes designed over 30 years by Mabel Choate and Fletcher Steele. Among them are the Blue Steps watercourse framed by white birch trees; the Afternoon Garden's colorful gondola mooring posts; and the newly restored Chinese Garden's Moon Gate. The elegant, imaginative 44-room house offers spectacular views of Trustees property Monument Mountain.
Home Sweet Home activities: Horticulturist-led tours of the gardens at 11:30 a.m. and Tree Peony Walk at 1:30 p.m. Story walk, lawn games, building fairy houses on woodland trails. Pet adoption event with Berkshire Humane Society.
Season highlights: Naum-kegger beer and dance party; "Naumkeag at Night" band concerts; Choate family talks; plein air art classes; "Free Fun Friday"; Mad Hatter's Tea Party; tea tastings.
Mission House, 19 Main St., Stockbridge (413) 298-3239, ext. 3013
Built in 1742 by Rev. John Sargeant, first missionary to the Mohican Indians, for his wife Abigail Williams, the distinguished gray Mission House is filled with antique furnishings and artifacts representative of its Colonial heritage, and includes a small Native American museum. Relocated to its present location by Naumkeag's Mabel Choate, the Colonial Revival garden and kitchen garden designed by landscape architect Fletcher Steele grows nutritional and medicinal herbs and plants. Season highlights: Mohican story hour.
Ashley House, 117 Cooper Hill Road, Ashley Falls, Sheffield (413) 298-3239, ext. 3016
The 1735 house, the oldest in Berkshire County, was built by revolutionary stalwart Col. John Ashley, whose vast estate included neighboring Trustees site, Bartholomew's Cobble. African-American slave Elizabeth Freeman (known as Mum Bett) successfully sued him for her freedom which helped end slavery in Massachusetts. Season highlights: Elizabeth Freeman Day.
The Folly at Field Farm, 554 Sloan Road, Williamstown (413) 298-3239
Step into an authentic "Mad Men" world of sleek wooden furniture and a sunken conversation pit in this quirky, pinwheel-shaped post-modernist 1965 guest house at Field Farm, surrounded by pristine parkland and modern sculptures. Innovative light wells illuminate artworks, original furnishings and a vintage kitchen. Season highlights: Art and architecture tours.
William Cullen Bryant Homestead, 205 Bryant Road, Cummington (413) 532-1631
Renowned 19th century poet and newspaper editor William Cullen Bryant traveled the world, but called the Berkshires home. In 1865 he transformed the farmhouse of his youthful summers into a cottage now filled with his family's colonial and Victorian artifacts and exotic travel memorabilia. His nature poetry inspired Trustees founder Eliot and his mentor Olmsted.
Home Sweet Home activities: old-fashioned yard games.
Season highlights: Enchanted Circle Theatre interactive tours; Bryant Day celebration and contra dance; traditional farming documentary "Root Hog or Die" screening; Hilltown Chautauqua.
Additional Berkshires Trustees properties
Bartholomew's Cobble, 105 Weatogue Road, Sheffield (413) 298-3239 ext. 3013
Abundant nature and wildlife from butterflies to bald eagles, splendid views from Hurlburt Hill. Season highlights: Guided canoe trips; reptile and bat programs; hot toddy hike; hilltop bagpipes.
Monument Mountain, Route 7, Great Barrington (413) 298-3239 x3013
River valley views and famed 1850 meeting place of authors Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Season highlights: "Little Sprouts" weekly children's garden playgroup.
Notchview, Old Route 9, Windsor (413) 532-1651, ext. 3110
3,000 acres with hiking trails and winter Nordic skiing and snowshoeing. Season highlights: Star gazing; bird song and owl walks; "Tour de Trustees" bike ride: women's chainsaw skills workshop.
For complete season schedules and fee information, visit www.thetrustees.org.