Great Barrington links past and present in 'Best Small Town' show


GREAT BARRINGTON -- Three young woman stand with a bicycle in the shade. The Dewey sisters, the photograph says, look out of a summer day in Great Barrington more than 100 years ago.

Bicycling had become the hot new sport, and Edith Wharton was cycling through the Lenox hills for a dozen miles or more at a time. Justice Justin Dewey, a possible relation, was serving at the Lizzie Borden trial and trying to send W.E.B. Du Bois to the state reform school for stealing grapes. (The high school principal intervened.)

Great Barrington was a more agricultural town 100 years ago, said Gary Leveille, a local historian and board member of the Great Barrington Historical Commission. Railroad Street was a rough-and-tumble strip with gambling, pool halls and bars. Trains still ran regularly to the railroad station at the top of the street.

Cotton mills and woolen mills dominated Housatonic, and though Great Barrington had a share of merchants and tourists and summer homes, he said, it was still a blue-collar town. William Cullen Bryant called it provincial and squabbling when he worked as a clerk of the courts. But William Stanley was about to test a system for lighting the downtown electrically, and early in the next century Du Bois' friend James Weldon Johsnon would sit in the library writing the poems that would become "God's Trombones" and a national sensation.

People ask Leveille why he loves old photographs, he said. Looking at them is like a vacation in the Berkshires in a different time.

This summer he will invite people to take a vacation with him. Leveille has curated an exhibit of historic photographs, and Maureen Hickey and Sharon Gregory, co-chairs of the historical society, have curated a show of contemporary artwork at the Mason Library celebrating Great Barrington and Housatonic.

Barbara Syer, acting president of the Great Barrington Historical Society, suggested the collaboration, Hickey said, and she and Gregory have patterned the show after the "20 Best Small Towns of America" article in the Smithsonian that named Great Barrington No. 1 in April 2012.

They have gathered photographs and paintings by some 29 artists -- Morgan Bulkeley, Warner Freedman, Anne Getsinger, Peggy Reeves and many more. Artists submitted work by invitation, Hickey said. She and Gregory both know many local artists. Hickey once ran the Berkshire Art Gallery in Great Barrington.

Reeves has photogaphed the vine-covered tower at the old Great Barrington Fairgrounds and made from it a collage of grey-green images.

She has taken thousands of photographs at the fairgrounds in the last six or seven years, she said, and she has lived in town since the early 1970s, so she has seen the debate over the fairground mature.

She has also watched the fairground change from season to season, and she has always liked this tower with the vines growing over it.

"Now it's an aviary up there," she said, "with the birds coming and going."

When horses still ran on the fairground racetrack, the stewards used to sit in this tower to watch the races, Leveille explained.

Hickey agreed. Her husband's family has lived in town for four generations, and his father was a race course steward, she said.

The contemporary artists in the show have all focused on people and places, from the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center to squirrels on trash can lids, a local character who lives outdoors year-round with an old coat and a shopping cart -- Hickey said he has a house but chooses not to live in it -- the water tower in Housatonic, the Bridge Street bridge, the Newsboy statue, the River Walk, Rubiner's market, SoCo Creamery, historic houses and more.

Beside them, workers will approach the factory gates in a painting of the Rising Paper Mill in Housatonic by WPA painter Yvonne Twining Humber in the 1930s. She became famous on the West Coast later in her career, Leveille said. He will display a photograph in this show because the original needs retoration.

Leveille has curated an exhibit of vintage photographs to accompany the present artwork. From thousands of images he has selected a group from about 100 years ago, when the mills drew Irish and Polish communities, and the fairground held buggy races and exhibits of new agricultural technologies.

Not long ago, he said, he has gone to yard sales and heard families speaking in Polish.

Hickey's husband, Paul, remembers all the shops in town staying open late on Thursdays and Fridays, because people came to shop then after their shifts ended, when they had their week's pay.

If you go ...

What: Friends of the Great Barrington Historical Society exhibit of contemporary artwork and histrical photographs celebrating Main Street in Great Barrington and Housatonic

Where: Mason Library, 231 Main St., Great Barrington

When: Through July 12, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday

Admission: Free. All work for sale, and 60 percent of the proceeds to benefit the
historical society


About a year ago, Leveille and the Great Barrington Historical Commission created a self-guided walking tour of historic downtown Great Barrington, a free smartphone app with audio. That tour will become part of the exhibit, he said.

The Historical Commission, he explained, is a town body separate from the Historical Society, which is a nonprofit and takes care of the town's historic collection as well as its own.

The show will also become a focus for a series of talks.

Leveille, who has a book coming out in August on ‘Legendary Locals ofthe Southern Berkshires,' will speak on people and buildings in Great Barrington's and Housatonic's history.

Steve Donaldson, photographer and author of the art books ‘Berkshires,' ‘Barns of the Berkshires' and ‘Along Route 7: A Journey through Western New England,' will also talk about his work.

Watch the weekly calendar for dates, times and more events.


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