Living leaves signs on the land
Before the earliest Berk shire towns were incorporated, small and scarce homesteads and settlements emerged in the Berkshires. Where Mohican families set up fall hunting camps for centuries, tracking deer until the deep snows sent them down to their winter homes, hikers now encounter stone walls and even cellar holes dating back 300 years.
Little is known about these first intrusions on the lands where the Mohicans lived.
It is said that on April 25, 1724, the English finally paid the Indians 460 pounds, three barrels of cider and 30 quarts of rum for what is today Berkshire County. A year later, the first English settler to cross the "hideous howling wilderness," Matthew Noble of Westfield, settled in what was to become Sheffield in 1733.
Moving south to north across the county, walkers today can see the signs people have left on the land. Here are settlements Westfield may have known, and Berkshire ruins -- even columns -- and the yens of the people who lived and worked in them.
All of these properties are open daily, sunrise to sunset, and admission is free.
New Marlborough, a southern Berkshire town incorporated in 1775, was first settled 1738.
The county's first colonial children were reputedly born there. The Brookins twins are likely to have been born in or near a fort build on what would later be known as Leffingwell Hill. Cleared for farming and pasture, the hill today has mostly returned to forest, and the exact location of the fort is no longer known, but the early settlement of the Leffingwell family remains within neatly built stone walls and an assortment of cellar holes, abandoned in the Great Depression.
The stone walls are the largest historic walls I have found in the Berkshires, and they lie on the 435-acre Ques ting Reservation, a property owned and managed by The Trustees of Reservations.
Moving into the industrial revolution, The Becket Land Trust Historic Quarry and Forest is said to be "a place frozen in time." Here you will find the remains of a quarry operated for 100 years until it suddenly closed in 1950.
The wood road approaching the open pit-water filled granite quarry resounds with skeletons of sheds and motors, two rusting trucks, cables and more, left waiting for the workmen to return.
At 16,500 acres, October Mountain State Forest is the largest state forest in the Commonwealth, and it was once home to the estate of William C. Whitney, President Grover Cleveland's secretary of the Navy. Little remains of his game preserve, home to buffalo, elk, black tailed and Virginia deer, moose (notably the local legend "Old Bill"), Belgian hare, and angora sheep -- and an aviary of pheasants, grouse and quail.
What does remain is a small but important quarry that operated between 1854 and 1878, and the stone foundations of houses, sheds, and a barn large enough to shelter oxen. Straddling Roaring Brook is the rock crusher and washhouse foundations where 99.9-percent-pure quartzite was crushed to sand, washed and dried for market.
The area is open sunrise to sunset with free admission. Considering the condition of roads, one good way to reach it is to walk up Roaring Brook off Roaring Brook Road, an extension of East New Lenox Road.
Walkers may also reach two ruins just over the Massa chusetts-Vermont border from another Trustees of Reser vations property, the Moun tain Meadow Preserve in Williams town. Follow signs to Grace Greylock Niles and Mausert's Camp, where two fireplaces and cabin footings remain.
A bit north is the Victorian-era botanist Grace Greylock Niles' homestead, a stone and cement foundation, Niles wrote "Bog Trotting for Or chids" in 1904.
The walk covers roughly four miles of trails and an elevation gain of over 450 feet; for a gentler stroll, drive along White Oaks Road until it becomes Bene dict Road at the Ver mont Border, continue to the last green gate on your left and enter there.
In the northwest corner of Savoy State Forest, on the way to Spruce Hill, try a moderate climb along the Busby Trail.
Look for ruins on either side of the trail past the spruce plantation.
On the right, the house's stone foundation Kel ly Sher man and his wife built in 1831 still shows clean, straight lines.
To the left, the foundation of a small barn suggests oxen or horses may have lived this far up the mountain.
Apparently their daughter died at 16, some say at the hands of her father. Super stition has it that Maria's ghost walks the ruins on moonlit nights.
Who is ‘Old Bill'?
Before his death in 1904, William C. Whitney gave many of the deer, elk, buffalo and moose from his Washington estate to various zoos. Some of the original herds of animals still remained on the property well into the 1920s.
Whitney's son, Harry Payne Whitney is said to have captured all of the animals except for a bull mouse nicknamed Old Bill. Old Bill was a wanderer and was seen on various occasions in Lee.
He was poached in 1920 and his head was mounted and now resides in the Berkshire Museum (although it is not on view at the present).
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