Great Barrington: Open houses to showcase local history

Monday July 2, 2012

GREAT BARRINGTON -- Culturally and meteorologically, the Captain Truman Wheeler House was a pretty cool place to be on Sunday afternoon.

The well-insulated, 18th century farmhouse was a welcome respite from the hot summer sun on Sunday, and the partially restored interior was a showcase for a plethora of artifacts connected to the history of this town.

On Sunday, the Great Barrington Hist orical Society opened the house for public tours during the summer. Free tours, hosted by Historical Society members, will be offered every Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m.

Truman Wheeler, a farmer and merchant, served in the Revolutionary War. He also served the community as a justice of the peace and a state representative. The house, which he built in 1771, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011. Several generations of Wheelers lived in the house until the family sold it to the Great Barrington Historical Society in 2007.

The Historical Society began raising money to restore the main building and several barns and outbuildings on the property concurrently with the purchase of the house. To date, according to Great Barrington Hist orical Society President James Mercer, about $550,000 has been raised to complete the project.

Mercer estimated that more than $1.2 million will eventually be required.

So far, he said, four rooms in the main house have been restored. The so-called North Room was the original room Wheeler first built in 1764 when he began to live there.

"We've made a lot of progress," he said. "It's going slowly but surely."

According to Barbara Syer, a member of the Great Barrington Historical Soc iety, the North Room is one of the few examples of 18th-century Dutch architecture that still survives east of the Hudson River. Dutch architecture, she said, is characterized in part by eight-inch beams located six to eight feet apart, set in the center of the walls of a house, rather than at the sides, as was common in English construction

The room also has the original floorboards, she said. White pine trees, which were common in the forests of colonial America, were used to make furniture and homes. But more importantly, the wood was light and perfect for shipbuilding.

King George III of Eng land therefore decreed that all white pine in the colonies were the property of the crown, and could not be harvested. Wheeler was one of many New Englanders who ignored this decree when he built his house.

"King George III was not too happy," Syer said.

In addition to the North Room, the society has also restored the South Room; the entryway, which was originally the kitchen, and a back room behind the entryway. That room is now used as a meeting room, said Mercer. It is filled with enlarged pictures of Hous atonic and Great Barrington places of interest.

The South Room is an equally valid example of English construction, Syer said.

"As his fortunes im proved," society member Gary Levielle said, "Captain Whee ler expanded the house and the barns."

At its height, the Wheeler estate was about 130 acres, which extended from its present location at 817 South Main St. south to the Sheffield town line.

The society uses the house for meetings. The plan is also to use the space as an archive for town documents.

The next step for the Historical Society, said Mercer, is to undertake another round of fundraising, and continue to be aggressive in seeking out grants. Structurally, he said, the plan is to restore The Ell, an abutting structure that used to house cows and a milking operation.


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