Carole Owens: The good millionaire

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STOCKBRIDGE — It was the late 19th century. Attorney John E. Parsons rose to address the jury.

"Be careful of my opponent, Mr. Choate," he told them, "and his Chesterton urbanity."

When Joseph Hodges Choate rose, he countered, "Be careful of Mr. Parsons and his Westchester suburbanity."

Opponents in the courtrooms of New York City, the attorneys were friends and neighbors in Berkshire. Choate was at home in Stockbridge at his Berkshire Cottage, Naumkeag, and Parsons was at home at Stonover Farm in Lenox.

They were so quick, those Berkshire cottagers.

According to his biographer, Paul DeForest Hicks, it was Parsons who elicited the famous Choate quip when he asked Choate, "Why did you choose to build your place in Stockbridge rather than Lenox?"

Choate answered, "In Lenox you are estimated; in Stockbridge you are esteemed."

We tend to think of our Berkshire cottagers as, well, ours, as if they sprang full grown from Berkshire soil to live among us. Of course that is not true. Hicks dispels the myth in his biography "John E. Parsons: An Eminent New Yorker in the Gilded Age." It tells the story of Parsons, boy and man, in New York City, Westchester, and Lenox.

Regardless of the years Parsons spent in New York, we certainly can claim him. After all, he claimed us. At the end of his life after retiring from his law practice, Parsons identified himself as a "Berkshire farmer."

His property was evaluated as the fifth highest in Lenox. Only Ventfort Hall, Wyndhurst, Erskine Park, and Belvoir Terrace had higher evaluations than Stonover.

Parsons was a member of the Lenox Club, the Lenox Garden Club (a local agricultural association) and the Lenox Association.

Following the example of the Laurel Hill Association, the Lenox Association was formed to beautify the streets and byways of Lenox. Parsons was a major contributor by opening a portion of his property to the public for walks and picnics. He also gave land for a public park in the center of Lenox.

Generous nature

With his friend and neighbor Morris K. Jesup, Parsons became interested in the Fresh Air Fund. The concept was simple: bring poor inner city children to the country in the hot summer months to improve their health. In 1893, Parsons purchased a former stage coach inn in Stockbridge for the purpose of housing the children. Again, it made him a major contributor.

He was a generous man and not the least of his gifts was the parish house at Trinity Church. It was completed in 1898 and stood as a memorial to his wife. Parsons was a relatively early cottager, arriving prior to 1872. He died in Lenox in 1915.

Reflecting on that period, author Constance Cary Harrison wrote, "I lived there long enough to see a mighty change." Harrison owned a cottage on Walker Street and wrote that she saw Lenox change from a simple country village with cultured people to a gilded resort replete with great houses and barns "filled with livestock that had pedigrees longer than their owners."

Cleveland Amory described the cottagers as coming in four distinct waves. First were the artists and writers, then the clergy, professors and professionals, then the good millionaires and finally the naughty millionaires. Hicks places Parsons as a man who arrived when he was a "solid citizen," a professional, and remained as he became a good millionaire.

As fortune favored Parsons, Stonover was enhanced. In 1885, The Valley Gleaner reported, "Mr. John E. Parsons' additions to his already sizeable mansion are approaching completion with its adjuncts of stable, lodge house, forest, field, and beautiful outlooks over lake and mountain."

The house was razed; what remains of Stonover Farm are the outbuildings on Under Mountain Road. Today, Stonover is a country inn owned and operated by Tom and Suky Werman. Hicks will be at Stonover to give a talk on his new book at 5 p.m. on Oct. 19. The public is welcome and may call Stonover Farm for details.

A writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor. The story in Tuesday's edition contained spelling errors that have been corrected here.


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