Carole Owens: Houses tell stories of Berkshire electricity pioneers

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STOCKBRIDGE — In 1885, the newspapers were full of what they called "The Great Experiment." Frustrated by his employer, George Westinghouse's "blindness" to the efficacy of alternating current, young electrician William Stanley planned to spend the summer in the more congenial Berkshires.

Westinghouse's position was supported or perhaps first articulated by Franklin Pope. Pope was known for his success as an electrical engineer. He was, however, a Renaissance man who followed with a degree in the law. As both electrician and patent attorney, Pope was invaluable to Westinghouse. He opposed Stanley's ideas and held sway over Westinghouse. This is a Berkshire story. Regardless of where they started, all three ended up in the Berkshires.

Factory on Housatonic

July, 1885: Stanley was undaunted. He packed his family and his transformer — actually a coil for the transformer — and set off for Great Barrington. All three men had homes in the Berkshires: George Westinghouse built Erskine Park in Lenox; Stanley would have homes in Great Barrington and Pittsfield, and Pope was a native of Great Barrington.

November, 1885: "Stanley leased the old rubber factory on the east bank of the Housatonic near Cottage Street" it was reported, and set to work.

January, 1886: Stanley was encouraged by early results and decided to stay in The Berkshires. Stanley "purchased a place on West Avenue and will refit it for his own occupancy."

The Stanley place is gone; destroyed by fire, rebuilt and then torn down. On the site is a 1915 English Revival worthy of being called a Berkshire Cottage.

Today the former home of Franklin Pope is the Wainwright Inn. It was his father's home before him, and Pope was probably born there. Built in 1766, when Pope lived there as head of household in the 1880s, he renovated it and added the front porch. He lived well and the house was used as an example of architectural excellence.

Pope was a great man in his day. For one year he worked with Thomas Alva Edison developing the fast ticker tape. He had an early interest in telegraphy and his inventions contributed to the safety and efficiency of train travel. Ironically Pope was electrocuted. He was in the basement of his Great Barrington house trying to determine what was wrong with the lighting (or alternateively) working on an experiment when he was killed. It was 1895 and Pope was 55.

Stanley had an uphill battle. As he explained, "The Edison direct current system was very strongly entrenched." Nonetheless he worked from the old rubber mill and his place on the hill and by 1897 there was an electric lighting system with 45 miles of wires and 280 lights. With hindsight, we know the great contribution of Stanley's alternating current and possibly frown upon the shortsightedness of Pope and Westinghouse, but we can also remember their contributions.

When the Pope house was built in 1766, there was a house around the corner. It was called the Brick Cottage because it was built of hand-hewn bricks at a time when most houses were clapboard and also because it was the house of a brick maker. Gilbert Ford was also a deacon of the Congregational Church and a school superintendent. The original is considered one of the oldest in town, had just four rooms and featured wide floor boards, handcrafted doors, old window glass and timber split studs with horsehair plaster.

Join house tour

The Pope house, the site of Stanley's place, and the Brick Cottage are on a special house tour Oct. 7 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. In addition, see a charming English cottage surrounded by gardens and mountain views, and the most incredible log home ever built with theater, gaming room, gym, art work and candy room.

As a special addition, tour the Jane Iredale Corporate Headquarters at the renovated Bryant/Searles School. At each stop there will be a surprise — music, food or crafts.

Sponsored by the Thursday Morning Club to benefit the College Scholarship Fund, tickets are $25. Join us. Order tickets by mail: TMC Box 422 Great Barrington 01230 or pick up tickets at BarnBrook Realty, Main Street, Great Barrington.

Houses are the repositories of our memories.

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


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