Carole Owens: Colorful characters dot Berkshire history


STOCKBRIDGE — I am indebted to the people of the Berkshires, past and present, who made their lives so well worth remembering. For decades their quirky sense of humor, coupled with a serious set of morals, made this place and its people fun to write about.

Outlanders may wonder why our annual sports event is called the Josh Billings Run Aground, which will run on Sept. 18.

Josh Billings, possibly as in joshing, was our great wit. He was born Henry Wheeler Shaw in 1818 on Constitution Hill in Lanesborough.

Shaw's grandfather, a doctor, was sent to jail for libeling John Adams, and then elected to Congress for the same reason. Such has always been the country way. Seeing a clear path. his father joined the family business and entered politics.

Youthful prankster

After graduating Lenox Academy at age 14, the young Shaw was sent to Hamilton College. The future Josh Billings' penchant for learning was overtaken by his penchant for playing pranks. He shinnied up and removed the clapper from the bell used to ring the beginning and end of classes. Caught, he was returned to Lanesborough in disgrace.

He was offered a job as private secretary to John Quincy Adams notwithstanding the slights exchanged in the previous generation — such is also the country way.

He turned it down in favor of travel. With letters of introduction from Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay, Shaw left Lanesborough bent on making his fortune.

In the Midwest he thought mesmerism (hypnotism) was the path to a fortune. He also noted the similarity between mesmerism and the family business — politics. Unfortunately his total income seems to have been $13.60. Once again he returned to Lanesborough in defeat.

In Berkshire County, he tried his hand at real estate to no avail. For the amusement of his friends, he wrote humorous bits. He was encouraged to submit them as letters to the editor of the Berkshire County Eagle. He adopted the nom de plume Josh Billings and the persona of a country wit complete with dialect and misspellings.

Billings was a smash hit. Shaw's fame spread from Maine to California. At one point he attempted to write a serious piece without dialect, and with all spelling correct. It failed utterly. He reverted to type.

When Shaw died in 1885, his body was carried by train back to Lanesborough. Mobs gathered at every station to say farewell. In the end his m├ętier was humor not erudition — the bell clapper not the books.

In 1919 men building a wall at the Catholic Church, Main Street, Lenox, unearthed a cannon. Having no immediate need for a cannon, the church gave it to the Selectmen. The Selectmen proudly placed it next to the monument at Walker and Main Streets. There it stood, benign, until one night curiosity got the best of one or more Lenox residents. They wanted to know if the cannon was in working order.

The answer was a resounding yes. So exuberant were the experimenters, so packed full of powder was the cannon, that the explosion blew off the front door of the Curtis Hotel. The cannon itself exploded and pieces of both cannon and ball were retrieved from porches along the Lenox street. No one was prosecuted, and n fact, no one was even named as a suspect.

Years later, in a deathbed confession, a prominent townsman admitted to the crime. Ed Darrin reports his father-in-law admitted to the deed aided by none other than the fire chief. The fire chief and a Selectman — mystery solved?

Maybe, but Lenox librarian and historian Mrs. Peters refused to believe it. "I knew them both, and they weren't that type."

And if they were not the type, did that prove they didn't do it, or explain why they were never suspected?

Good sales pitch

Up Lenox Mountain Road toward West Stockbridge stands Seranak, the former home of Serge Koussevitzky. One afternoon, Victor, the Koussevitzky all-around handyman, found his wife the cook in the kitchen frying steak.

He also found a man at the door selling fire extinguishers. As the cook turned the steak, it burst into flames!

Victor turned calmly to the salesman and said, "If that thing works, get in here and use it."

He did, his fire extinguisher worked, and Seranak was saved.

In 1901 in Adams, the women wanted to know where their men were and exactly what they were doing. At the Masonic Temple on Park Street, the meeting was rudely interrupted as the Worshipful Master of the Lodge, standing against the wall felt a sharp poke. The women were boring a hole through the wall — the better to see and hear.

The combination of wit and practicality, curiosity and propriety make Berkshire folk priceless.

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


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