Carole Owens: Stockbridge Library continues its mission

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STOCKBRIDGE >> The Stockbridge Library reopens today at 10 a.m. The much anticipated event promises to be a "joyous occasion" according to Library Association President Stewart Edelstein.

Polka dot pinwheels and cake for all sounds like the basis for a good time, but don't miss the real star of the show. It is a quiet, gray, 152-year-old artifact.

It is a wall. Just that and no more and yet it is infused with the romance of history and discovery. It is nothing less than a piece of the original library building opened in 1864.

An exciting discovery and yet, it might not have been made.

A stone something

It was a day like any other. Construction was underway. A worker broke through an outer wall and uncovered something unexpected — stone. It didn't look like much. Actually it looked like nothing much. It was a stone something but it was hard to say what.

It was covered in what curator Barbara Allen described as "gunk". The gunk — perhaps waterproofing material — made recognition difficult. In fact the importance of the discovery might have been missed. Work might have proceeded and the whatever-it-was might have been destroyed and swept aside with the rest of the construction debris or covered up and never seen again.

"No one was expecting to find a remnant of the original building," Allen said.

Fortunately, the weekly meeting of the construction committee was in session. The architect, Gary Corey, was present along with staff and board members. Corey took one look and knew what it was. It was an arch over a window — an exterior wall — of the first Stockbridge library.

January 21, 1864, The Valley Gleaner: "The new building erected in Stockbridge for the use of the Jackson Library, at a cost of $5,000, is now completed."

Anyone who walked over to Main Street in January 1864 to see for themselves would have seen that very stone arch.

In saving the piece of history, the committee made a decision to enhance it by merging two artifacts. On the lower level of the building there were plagues honoring people who had contributed generously to the Stockbridge library over the 150 years. The three plaques honored Nathan Jackson, J.Z. Goodrich and Frances Dwight.

They selected the plague dedicated to Jackson and affixed it to the wall. So important was Jackson that for years it was called the Jackson library.

Nathan Jackson of Tyringham studied at the Stockbridge Academy. From a family of 26 (yes, 26) he lived with a sibling in Stockbridge while attending school. As an adult he moved to New York and made his fortune.

In 1862 according to "A History of the Stockbridge Library" by Olga Wilcox, Nathan offered the town $2,000 for a library provided the citizens of the town would give another $1,000 and build an appropriate building. Nathan died the following year just as his library was coming to life.

The site chosen for the library building was the corner of Plain and Old Academy streets (Main and Elm streets today). The property belonged to Mrs. Frances Dwight.

Mrs. Dwight lived on the opposite corner. She had a gracious home (later the first Norman Rockwell Museum) known as the Corner House. A window afforded a panoramic view of Main Street. As Mrs. Dwight sat in her bow window, the life of the village passed in review.

Mrs. Dwight also was deeply interested in activities on Main Street. She offered to sell the lot for a dollar provided the library building was set back far enough so it did not block her view.

Mirroring memories

The library, set-back, served the village for 40 years. In 1902 the library was altered at a cost of $4,200. In 1937, Mary Bement gave funds for an addition to the library in honor of her parents. Opened in 1938 the new wing was designed to match the old, and a new lobby connected the wings.(Facing the building, the Bement wing was on the right.) The story of the Stockbridge Library continues with the current renovation with a $4 million.

"The library honors town history," Allen said,"mirroring the long memory of its residents."

The Stockbridge Library Association, in its new home, will once again serve the people of Stockbridge and preserve its history.

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


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