John Dickson: The long road from mill tour to doughnut tour

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PITTSFIELD — Two summers ago, as part of a volunteer project for the Berkshire Historical Society, I created a virtual driving tour of some of Pittsfield's old mills (milltour.org). The site and tour highlights these majestic 19th-century buildings that shaped Pittsfield as an industrial city, a city of immigrants and a national leader in the production of wool, silk, paper and even clocks.

These buildings still dominate our landscape. We drive by them, mostly unaware of the stories they tell of our ancestors — men, women and children who heeded their bells and put in their 60-hour work-weeks and make a living. Some of these structures have a new lives as residential housing or office space for businesses like The Berkshire Eagle.

Cafua Realty, which owns over 200 Dunkin' Donuts franchises, recently presented its plans to the zoning board of appeals for a new one where the former St. Mary the Morning Star church building stands on Tyler Street. I fast forwarded to the year 2066 or 2116 and imagined the historian's task in creating a virtual tour to depict life back in 2016. That tour might be called doughnuttour.org.

Remember Plunkett

The doughnut tour could start with the Dunkin' Donuts on First Street, a good model that would explain the concept of a drive-thru, and show how, here, the space was so small that rush-hour traffic was often blocked.

Then, we would proceed less than a block away, and stop at the site of the old Plunkett School that Cafua opted to tear down for another Dunkin' Donuts franchise. Our passengers could learn that the lot lay vacant for years, as Cafua razed the 100-year-old building before it could get its drive-thru plan approved. Perhaps there would be an interpretive panel explaining that the school was named after a 19th century businessman who ran a mill and a bank but also found time to give back to the city through his leadership of the Berkshire Athenaeum.

The map would direct the tour-taker north on First Street before turning on Tyler Street. Perhaps there would be a photo of the stately brick and stone church that was the center of community life, torn down for the smart brown, pink and orange of the new "religion." The map would once again show two Dunkin' Donut restaurants within walking distance.

We could then head further north to the edge of the city and take in The Donut Man shop on the shore of Pontoosuc Lake. Our tourists who might wonder about the logic of spoiling the view of the lake with a doughnut shop would learn that patrons could take their coffee and pastry to a gazebo behind the shop to eat and gaze at the water and the hills above.

Many historic tourists at this point might want to jump off of the tour, but they will be happy to know there's more. They can head down to East Street, and read about this Dunkin' Donuts catering to high school students on their lunch breaks and for after-school munchies, creating a life-long habit of unhealthy eating. If future historians would want to walk, they could find that the high school is equidistant between this Dunkin' Donuts and its sister shop that was our initial stop on First Street. Students starving after a morning of classes had doughnut choices!

The tour would then proceed down Elm Street where our inquisitive participants would check out the three different establishments selling coffee and pastries within two blocks. They would marvel that not one of them is a Dunkin' Donuts, but are all locally owned and operated. The map would then direct the drivers to gas stations on South Street and West Housatonic Street where Dunkin' Donuts has set up shop inside the convenience stores, a heads-up model where patrons could fill up on gas and doughnuts.

Perhaps the tour might end with photos of other towns that seem to have convinced Dunkin' Donuts to adopt designs that are more attractive, and conform to the surroundings better, like New London, New Hampshire.

Not anti-doughnut

I have to confess, somewhat shamefacedly, that I personally know each of these doughnut establishments, including the one in New London. I even enjoy the 77-year tradition of National Doughnut Day (June 3). My own waistline shows it, as does my frequent doughnut card.

I'm not against doughnuts and coffee, nor am I against people making money or people working hard to earn cash when there are not enough alternatives. That's what the 19th century mill owners and workers did — make money and eke out a living. The one exception is that those mill owners displayed a sense of civic responsibility and left the city a museum, a library, a town hall, a hospital, churches and schools.

While not anti-doughnut, I am convinced that one very obvious attraction that this city holds for its residents and visitors lies in the beauty of the 19th century brick and stone buildings on Park Square, and on the streets and lanes spreading out in all four directions. We owe it to the next generations to leave them this heritage and history — not one of doughnut shops.

John Dickson is a local historian and frequent Eagle contributor.


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