Bernard Drew | Our Berkshires: Lecture hall under a 225-year hemlock

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GREAT BARRINGTON — I talked about Monument Mountain history in October. My audience was students of Monument Valley Regional Middle School in Great Barrington. My roving lecture hall was beside a stonewall and beneath a towering hemlock tree. Listening was the entire 110-student seventh grade plus 11 teachers and occasional curious hikers who wandered past.

When asked to do this, I saw an opportunity to achieve a personal best in woods walk attendance. My previous record was 80 or so folks who turned out for a Housatonic Heritage walk along the old Knox Trail in Swann State Forest in Monterey in 2010.

The seventh graders were about to begin an interdisciplinary Berkshire history unit. The mountain could easily demonstrate Native American and early agricultural history and the rural industries of tanning and charcoaling. I came up with a five-stop curriculum, the fifth stop being at Inscription Rock for lunch.

Standing on a fire access road at the south end of the mountain, I explained that at one time it was Route 7. Before that, it was an Indian trail. To avoid a steep ravine, indigenous inhabitants rounded the side of the mountain to get from Westonhook to Skatekook. Mohican Captain Jacob Naunauphtaunk passed this way in October 1758 in the company of others to meet with British Gen. Jeffery Amherst, I said, anxious to re-enlist with the famed Rogers Rangers. This was the time of the French & Indian wars. Amherst and four regiments of soldiers were encamped near the Green River, on their way to take Fort Carillion.

Jumping to 1850, I told my audience, David Dudley Field Jr. of Stockbridge brought new friends Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. and others over this road on their way to a famed literary picnic atop Squaw Peak.

An instant expert

We walked a remnant of the old Indian path until it joined the sanctioned trail. Next, at a stonewall, I introduced a distinguished scholar who would explain some of the reasons walls were built. I slipped unwitting volunteer Owen a card and he read the information out loud. He was an instant expert.

We climbed the woods road to a hemlock tree. At least 225-years-old, it was a survivor, I explained, of the tanning era. Caspar Hollenbeck cured hides on the VanDeusenville side of the mountain in the 1820s. The hemlock bark was removed for the tanning process; tannin in the bark was important chemically to the process.

What do you know? We had another authority with us. Isabella (reading from another info card) explained it took four large trees to supply one cord of bark. A cord of bark weighed 2,200 pounds.

Middle school teacher Cathy Rueger, who instigated the hike, had expressed an interest in having a scavenger hunt for the students. So we worked out lists of objects students might look for, observe and report on.

One special assignment was to determine the dbh, or diameter at breast height, of our hemlock tree. Several boys encircled the tree and held hands, then estimated the distance around the tree, did quick math and suggested the tree was 10.9 feet around and had a 4-foot diameter.

Scholar Isabella and I came up with our own answer, using one of my historian's tools. I held one end of my Pro Tape and she trotted around the tree and read off the circumference: 10 feet 7 inches. The diameter? Flipping the tape over, she read from the other side: 39 inches.

We bushwhacked to an off-trail charcoal hearth site. It's one of 285 round earthen mounds I've located on the mountain, I told my audience, as I gave a quick overview of the iron industry and its need for fuel. Our entire group squeezed onto the hearth for a photo op. Now when I asked for volunteer scholars, lots of hands raised. Athena explained that it took 25 cords of wood to make the amount of charcoal needed for one firing of the iron furnace. And there were two firings a day.

A special assignment team scratched around the base of a birch tree growing inside the hearth and reported finding bits of black charcoal — proof of the site.

Always look around

As we made our last uphill climb, one student tasked with making a map showed me his team's progress. They had taken the assignment to heart, with a very credible depiction of course changes, distances and landmarks.

One boy asked if a large boulder was put there by a glacier. I said I thought it fell off the side when the mountain, an unusual geological upthrust, was formed ages ago by shifting tectonic plates. One girl told me of riding her bicycle on an old woods road behind her house and finding what appeared to be ruins of an old camp. After we were back at the school, several students made a point of thanking me.

It was these small moments that told me the kids got my message: When you go anywhere, look around you, wonder about why a road goes where it goes, why a mill foundation stands where it stands, why there are birch trees growing in the middle of a hemlock forest.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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