Lila Berle steps into Wharton's shoes
Lila Wilde Berle has not only been there and done that -- she's doing it again. She was The Mount's first board chairman in 1978, and now, in 2012, she is returning to the post.
Edith Wharton has played an important role in Berle's life since, at the age of 8, Berle often enjoyed horseback rides around the Mount. She was a student at the Foxhollow School for Girls in Lenox, which owned the land.
It was familiar territory for Berle, who grew up at High Lawn Farm in Lenox, one of the largest dairy farms in the area. She eventually became a fulltime sheep herder on her Stonhedge Farm. She married Peter Berle, a nationally recognized environmentalist, in 1958, and they raised four children. He died in 2001.
She shared Peter's dedication to the environment in her interest in preserving the Mount, which Wharton began to build in 1902 and occupied off-and-on for 10 years. Miss Farrell, Fox hollow's headmistress bought the house and used it as a dormitory, complete with fire escapes
Through her years at the school, Berle, whose family ties goes back many generations in the Berkshires, rode over almost every inch of acreage owned by the school and her parents.
"I know the land really well," she said, in a recent interview. "I love the place."
Wharton and her novels were little known to the girls being educated by Miss Farrell who, as an English schoolmarm, favored the Brontës and other Victorian writers.
Berle said she was not introduced to Wharton, the writer, until she borrowed "Ethan Frome" from the Lenox Library. By the time she came home with a Smith College diploma, she had learned a lot about Wharton and her house on the hill.
On her return she also found the Mount vacated and in sorry condition.
"It looked terrible," she re called. "The gardens were pretty much gone, but the fire escapes were still there."
The school had been closed and sold to the National Trust, which had put it up for sale again. Miss Farrell had told her pupils that it was "a great building and must be treated with great respect," so Berle and a group of supporters went into action. They raised funds to buy The Mount from the Trust in 1978, and Berle was their chairwoman.
Several other chairmen came after Berle to work on the restoration that is still underway with Berle's return to leadership.
This time, instead of facing the task of trying to put the Mount back together, she finds it is remarkably well on the road to recovery as a cultural landmark in he Berkshires. It's also a landmark in Berle's life of service to the community as a leader in culture, conservation, and agriculture. She has been board chairwoman of 14 nonprofit organizations, including 10 years as president of the Rockwell Foundation.
"I don't know why I do it," she said, "but I love people, and I love to see if I can help people go in a common direction."
Berle became a fulltime sheep herder on her Stonehenge farm after buying her first four animals in 1984, when she was raising meat for her own table. Now she manages a herd of more than 400 sheep and a few cows on her property, with the aid of one man full-time and two of her grandsons who are old enough to help.
This time of year she is in jeans and t-shirts and rides on a tractor as she toils daily in the fields, harvesting hay to feed her animals. Sheep sheering will come next in the fall.
Work on the Mount is proceeding with executive director Susan Wissler an expanding board overseeing improvements in the property, mainly in the barn and stable. Restoring the art studio for use as a schoolroom is also a major job, Berle said, and she would love to have a vegetable garden.
"We want to keep the Mount for the next generation," she said. "It is a challenge, I am confident we will make it work. I'm still on my tractor a lot, and I will keep on with my activities as long as I can."
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