Carole Owens: A 19th century Berkshire summer


STOCKBRIDGE >> It is summer in the Berkshires. The age-old question is being asked: what should we do today? Here is the answer — 19th century style.

At the annual Lenox Flower show,Edith Wharton is the judge and arbiter of good taste. There are a plethora of cultural events, such as musicales, lectures, tableau vivant, and masques.

A tableau vivant is a scene recreated by men and women dressed in appropriate costumes. Once in position, all the participants sit frozen and silent; the historic moment recreated.

When originally imported from England, a masque was a combination of pantomime and dance. By the 19th century it has plot and dialogue but is still an amateur production. On a summer day in 1894 the "Masque of Comus" is being presented on a lawn in Stockbridge.

The lectures, often at Sedgwick Hall (Lenox Library today), are meant to improve the audience. A sample of titles include: "Do college women marry?"; "The inner life of plants" or "The soul of Nature"; "Insects: How to know, observe, and control them," or "Hard and his Kettle."

The potential for improvement, or at least the serious intent, may be obvious in some of the titles, but what is"Hard and his kettle"? It is a story about a smithy (Hard) in Kentucky and his moonshine-making neighbors. There are lessons to be learned from Hard. When his kettle is stolen, his method to discover the culprit is quite clever, and he is resourceful in recovering his property.

There are formal dinners at the Berkshire Cottages. The young people steal away after dinner to the Lenox Club golf course and play a round. The game is played like this: after a shot that goes into the cup, you do not have to take a drink, but after each stroke that does not result in the ball going into the cup, the golfer has to take a drink. The winner is the one who can, under his own power, walk off the course.

The rules of another version are explained by a caddy at the Lenox Club. It is called tomb stake. Each player takes his handicap and to it adds 36 strokes. He writes that number on his stake. During normal play, he counts his strokes. When the golfer has taken the number of strokes inscribed on his stake, he plants it where the ball falls. The man whose stake is planted the furthest down the course wins.

Dancing all night

Most of the cottagers have private ballrooms or pitch tents or cover verandas to create a summer ballroom. The band music floats over the Berkshire Hills. The dance goes all night. The ladies are shown to rooms upstairs where they rest or freshen up; the men have only a little washroom behind the stairs. The ball ends with a breakfast, and exhausted guests make their way home as the sun rises.

Many activities center on outdoor sports: tennis, golf, boating and fishing. There is the famous tub parade at the end of summer but there is also the Lake Mahkeenac boat parade, a water-born tub parade.

Hunting, riding, and drives are very popular. At Elm Court a "stable order" is posted. Across the top it reads: carriage or wagon, horses, hour and for whom. There are 28 vehicles to choose from and more than that number of horses. Guests sign up for the vehicle they want or check "saddle horse" and fill in name and time.

The fourth of July is awash with color. Townsfolk remember going to Erskine Park for the holiday celebration.

"It was beautiful. There were colored lanterns everywhere and tents set up on the lawn — food and music for dancing. The fireworks were extraordinary — well, it was Mr. Westinghouse doing it,wasn't it?"

A grandchild of the Sloane's recalls, "The fourth of July meant a visit to our grandparents at Elm Court. The fireworks were a spectacular event. Set up at the end of the lawn on a scaffold, they were varied and brilliant. We were wakened to watch them from our mother's room... the crowd enjoyed them on the lawn."

An Elm Court gardener adds, "The fireworks were every year on the 25-acre lawn and I bet they cost $30,000. It was a two hour show."

Some cottages have squash courts or bowling alleys, libraries, writing rooms, music rooms and card rooms. Each dedicated to a happy pastime. At Elm Court a card table with a jigsaw puzzle is always set up. Our grandfather was usually seated there before luncheon where we would join him until the gong sounded."

A summer afternoon in The Berkshires. As Henry James is heard saying, "Summer afternoon to me those have always been two of the most beautiful words in the English language."

A Berkshire writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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