Carole Owens: Step back into 18th century Berkshires
STOCKBRIDGE — The vestiges of that colorful era known as the Gilded Age are all around us. The Berkshire Cottages reinvented as house museums, inns, and restaurants dot the landscape. In the gardens at The Mount and Naumkeag, the dining rooms of Wheatleigh and Blantyre, with little effort, you can walk through the 19th century.
While it may be less obvious, in The Berkshires you can step into the 18th century as well.
Sheffield was incorporated in 1733. Houses along Main Street (Route 7) have the dates they were built displayed on the exterior. The public can visit the seven historic structures of the Sheffield Historical Society. Six of the seven — the smokehouse, old stone store, carriage barn, education center, Mark Dewey's hatter shop, and Parker Hall law office — are 19th century buildings. The Dan Raymond house, however, was built in 1774.
According to the Society, Dan Raymond was a "notorious and cunning character." In 1774 he was a Tory; in 1776 he enrolled in the military as a patriot, and in 1779 fellow Sheffield resident, Theodore Sedgwick, described him as "the soul of the opposition party."
Regardless of his ability to reinvent himself, or because of it, Raymond survived the Revolutionary War unscathed and emerged as a town leader. His house built of handmade brick is considered extravagant for the time period.
Like Raymond, Colonel John Ashley was a prosperous and prominent citizen of Sheffield. His house, built in 1735, reflects his position. Ashley's "The Sheffield Resolves," a document against British tyranny and for individual liberty, was written in an upstairs room. Some call the Resolves our first Declaration of Independence, and yet, ironically, Ashley was a slave holder. Among the slaves in his household was Mum Bett, who successfully sued for her freedom and took the name Elizabeth Freeman.
In Monterey, Bidwell House, built circa 1750, was the parsonage of the Reverend Adonjiah Bidwell. Bidwell was the first minister to "Township Number one" settled in 1735. Today his house is beautifully restored, maintained and filled with 18th century artifacts. Located on 192 acres, the elegant Georgian truly offers the visitor a step back in time.
The Great Barrington Historical Society is located in the Captain Truman Wheeler House built in 1771. Like Bidwell House, it is a Colonial saltbox. The center brick chimney and wide plank pine floors are typical of 18th century architecture. The house was rescued from demolition and contains the Society's collections. During restoration, indications emerged that the original house was built as early as 1733.
Wheeler arrived in Great Barrington in the spring of 1764 and set up shop as both storekeeper and farmer. In 1776 he was appointed to the local committee of public safety and named muster master.
The Mission House in Stockbridge was built by the Reverend John Sergeant. In 1739, Stockbridge was incorporated as a mission to the Indians with Sergeant as missionary. He married the same year and contemplated building a more substantial house on the hill (Prospect Hill Road today). The result was a center hall colonial with a distinctive front door. The design is called split-scroll and is more common to Connecticut River Valley architecture.
In the late 1920s, Mabel Choate who lived across the street at Naumkeag purchased the house and moved it to its current location on Main Street. Choate restored and furnished it while landscape architect Fletcher Steele replicated 18th century gardens. Like Ashley House, Mission House is owned and operated by the Trustees of Reservation.
Arrowhead in Pittsfield is operated by the Berkshire Historical Society. It is known as the 19th century abode of Herman Melville; the place where he wrote "Moby-Dick." However, the farmhouse was built in 1783 by David Bush, moderator of the first town meeting in Pittsfield in 1761, and elected both selectman and treasurer. Bush fought at Ticonderoga, and during the Revolutionary War, earned his captaincy.
Bush built the house for his son, David Bush Jr., on the occasion of his marriage. The chimney and kitchen hearth are prime examples of 18th century domestic comfort — the heart of the home.
All these buildings offer tours from Memorial Day through Columbus Day, and some by appointment throughout the year. Call for details. Touring these houses open windows into Berkshire and American life in the 18th century.
A Berkshire writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.
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