Rick Wilcox: Stockbridge Town Hall is a special place

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STOCKBRIDGE — Chief of Police William J. Obanhein described an encounter to me that he had in the late 1950s with Robert Williams, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, who had asked Chief Obanhein to meet him in the center of town. At the appointed time Chief Obanhein drove up Main Street into the business district and waited for Williams in front of the town offices at 34 Main Street next to what is now Berkshire Bank. After Mr. Williams failed to show, Chief Obanhein drove west on Main Street and found Mr. Williams standing in front of the Town Hall. Mr. Williams told Chief Obanhein, in no uncertain terms, that the village green, with the Town Hall and the Congregational Church, was the center of town.

The history of the 1904 Town Hall is so interwoven with the 1739 Congregational Meeting House, the 1785 Meeting House, the 1825 Meeting House, the 1839 Town House and the 1884 Town Offices, that describing its life involves sharing the lives of other buildings in Stockbridge. That breath of life, of course, comes not from the timbers of buildings, but from the many people who became a part of the fabric of Stockbridge, and whose voices, in spirited discourse, echoed in the rooms and rafters of those buildings.

Many of those people were kind enough to leave a trail of legal documents, deeds, wills, town records, along with the memories of many individuals encased in letters, town histories, memoirs and a host of family and individual vignettes. If Stockbridge is a story of people that story is very much molded by the land and it's buildings, with the village green being an important part of that saga.

Spirits of Town Hall

Reaching back in time, one can seek information from the pages of Rev. Samuel Hopkins' (1693-1755) "Historical Memoirs: Relating to Housatonic Indians," published in 1753, view Norman Rockwell's 1971 painting for Look magazine, "Springtime in Stockbridge," or listen to strands of Arlo Guthrie's 1965 song "Alice's Restaurant," as he was relating his time spent in cell number two at the Stockbridge Police Station. But you have only scratched the surface of the history that gives life to the Stockbridge Town Hall.

During a conversation with Arlo, he suggested that maybe people who lived, visited or worked in a building left behind a little of their spirit and that collective spirit created the personality of the building. If so, what a strong and wonderfully diverse personality that town hall would have. It may also be the reason that people those whose lives were touched by the building continue to exhibit such a passion to save it.

The village green and its surroundings, including the Town Hall, Congregational Church, cemetery and Indian burying grounds, could certainly be considered, in a historical sense, the spiritual center of the town. The Congregational Society in Massachusetts was the established church and residents were taxed for the support of the church and its pastor. The first meetinghouse, completed in 1739, was not just a place of worship, but a building where all town business was conducted.

"In January, 1737, the subject being laid before them by the Governor, the Legislature ordered that a meeting-house, 30 feet broad and 40 long, together with a school house, should be built for the Indians at the charge of the Province: Col. Stoddard of Northampton, Mr. Sergeant and Mr. Woodbridge were appointed a committee to see that the order was executed. It was some time before the meetinghouse and school were erected, probably owing to the difficulty of obtaining materials. But by the 29th of November 1739, the day of public thanksgiving in the Commonwealth, the meetinghouse was so far completed, that it opened for the worship of God. This stood a few rods north east of the present south meeting house." Actually, it was fairly close to where the present Children's Chime Tower is located. In 1829 the Rev David D. Field, Sr. wrote that the first schoolhouse was constructed on the site of his house, currently 17 Main Street.

From the bluff where the Town Hall and Congregational Church sit, one can see what was once the Great Meadow, cut by the meandering Housatonic River, and where in 1739 one of the early divisions of intervale (meadow) land was laid out for the Stockbridge Indians. There is evidence to suggest that they used all of the edge of that bluff around the Town Hall, Congregational Church, Old Place, Indian Burying Grounds as burying grounds, giving that immediate area importance both spiritual and temporal for members of the tribe as well as making it worthy of the town's protection.

At a Town Meeting, 11th day of May 1831, voters were asked "to see if the town will buy of Oliver Partridge a piece of land lying east of the Town Square and adjoining thereto, it being about, one fourth of an acre & which he intends to increase the parade grounds & beautify the street." Dr. Partridge, was a Revolutionary War veteran of the Battle of Bennington, "who dressed the mortal wound of Colonel Baum, who commanded the enemy in that battle."

Tribe served in battle

If the town finds it is unable to create a workable solution for the building possibly the best use of the land would be to return it to a parade ground and honor the town's veterans. During the French and Indian Wars, from 1754 to 1759, 47 Stockbridge Indians served, while 59 members of the tribe were veterans of the Revolutionary War. Two Stockbridge Indians, William Notonksion, Sr. and Abraham Naunauphtaunk, became the first two Native American patriots to die in the Revolutionary War. Neither the Stockbridge Indians, nor for that manner, was any English settler, or newly minted American citizen, ever recognized by the town for their service during the Revolutionary War.

Some 279 years after the first meetinghouse was erected in Stockbridge residents and members of the Congregational Church are faced with trying to find a use for a building town government has outgrown. Maybe equally important, the town has to struggle with not just whether or not to save a building, but also how to protect the long history of this corner of Stockbridge. Whatever that outcome one would hope that it honors the history of what had been, and is, even today, a spiritual center for the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican people, and for so many Stockbridge residents whose lives have touched and been touched by the spirit of this special place.

Rick Wilcox is the former Stockbridge chief of police.


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