Carole Owens: There was magic in stage driver's calling


STOCKBRIDGE >> Feb. 3, 1851, the Daily Evening Traveller reported: Winkle drove the stage coach. It was not an easy job yet Winkle was a cheerful driver.

Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum Curator Jack Trowill explains, "I am always intrigued by the hardy souls who drove the coach from the Deerfield River to the eastern summit at Route. 2 and back down again — it is hardly safe to take by car today!"

Trowill is referring to a route driven before the train came to Berkshire (Whitcomb Hill Road today) that joins Route 2 at Whitcomb Summit and drops severely eastward about a quarter mile to the north of the eastern portal of the Hoosac Tunnel.

Bows and smiles

Winkle drove his 40-mile route and along it, Winkle knew everybody and everybody knew Winkle.

Moreover, "for 40 miles, he knew where everybody lived."

Winkle greeted everyone and everyone greeted Winkle.

"There was always somebody standing by all the houses to whom he bowed How many smiling favors he got from the girls how many from the children warming around the schoolhouse smiles from black and hard favored men, muggy and obstinate men, coarse and awkward men, in fact everybody smiled and bowed when he passed. Every day he had a sort of president's tour."

The article could not help but describe aspects of 19th century Berkshire as it described Winkle's route.

"If you rode alongside Winkle," the article went on "he pointed out the tree where a man hung himself, and the woods where a bear was shot, and the barn struck by lightning, and the stream where a man was drowned he knew the tall white house on the hill and the large house with the pillars on the front and the little black house in the field."

According to Trowill, folks caught the stage for short hops as well as longer journeys. Winkle delivered them all safely just as he delivered the things they needed: gimp and iron castings and paper hangings. He delivered the mail which he called "a small universe in a bag." He executed any order. Winkle did all that but what he liked best was to deliver billet-doux.

Winkle delivered the painstakingly written love notes and watched the young girl hanging the wash as she read and her face softened and her smile widened. Yes he delivered the formal declarations of love but he also delivered word of the longing look, the wink, the nod, and the yearning of a silent heart. Winkle saw it all as he drove through the villages and passed it all on.

Winkle was the first to see the widow's son whom he carried away five years ago disembark and start his walk home. He saw first when anyone was sick along the road and carried the news to friends and relatives. He carried a young girl home to her mother and saw the joy in each of the faces as they were reunited. In this way Winkle dropped smiles and tears, joy and sorrow, fulfillment and disappointment along the road as he traveled his route.

Therefore, "though they loved him so, some hardly dared see him or dared have him open his mouth not knowing what news he brought."

Prince of his realm

Winkle was a generous man. He turned a blind eye when the young boys hitched a ride by hanging on the back and he offered a hand up — at no charge — to the old lady carrying her bundles home.

"There is a magic in the calling of a stage driver."

Everyone sought to know the stage driver; all were proud to be known by him. He was a prince of his realm. His realm was his yellow coach and the high seat he occupied, his four horses and 40 miles of road. He had a steady hand on the whip and the rein even when the coach was "loaded down with 15 passengers and a ton of luggage."

Trowill adds, "Horses were severely taxed hauling stage coaches up steep road, and, on the way down,were occasionally run over by coaches with faulty brakes."

Yet Winkle was calm in face of a dangerous road and smiling after long exertion.

"His punctuality was something preternatural, in the coldest weather, in the severest storm, in fogs, in sleet, in hail, in lightning, in mud when nobody else was abroad, the stage driver appears, rounding the corner just as regular and just as quiet as the old clock in the kitchen."

Were we better then than now?

Carole Owens is a Berkshire writer and historian.


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