Sheffield Historical Society's summer exhibit traces small town's big influence

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Photo Gallery | Where the Berkshires Began

SHEFFIELD — The birthplace of Berkshire County and — perhaps — the inspiration for the Declaration of Independence, Sheffield in its first 100 years was an integral part in influencing local, state and national history.

Through original documents, artifacts and recounting of key town events and influential early settlers, the Sheffield Historical Society's newest and most ambitious exhibit to date touts the community's role in shaping the Berkshires and beyond.

"Where the Berkshires Began" at the Old Stone Store exhibit hall and gift shop on Main Street opened Memorial Day weekend and ends August 28 — the longest run ever of any historical society show, according to organizers.

"We really want the community to understand the importance of Sheffield," said Catherine Miller, who along with Jim Miller and Kathy and Tom Tetro researched and staged the public display.

First settled in 1724, Sheffield is Berkshire County's oldest incorporated town, 1733, some 28 years before the county's boundaries were formed. Originally, Sheffield included all of what is now Great Barrington and a large section of several other South Berkshire towns.

Prior to the formation of Berkshire County in 1761, legal matters involving Sheffield had to be dealt with in Hampshire County as indicated in one document on display, a 1756 court order from King George II incarcerating an overdue offender to Debtors Prison in Springfield, Hampshire's county seat.

"That really jumps out at you, being tied to Hampshire County, that's why some Register of Deeds records are still in Springfield," said long-time Sheffield resident, William H. Wood.

Two of Sheffield's best known early townspeople were the Colonel John Ashley and one of America's most famous African-Americans, Elizabeth Freeman, known as Mum Bett.

Colonel John Ashley (1709-1802) was a wealthy local businessman who owned a sawmill gristmill, cider mill, iron forge, general store and iron ore beds. He and Theodore Sedgwick led a committee of 11 men in 1773 that authored the Sheffield Declaration.

The document's first resolution is eerily similar to what Thomas Jefferson penned in the Declaration of Independence three years later — both referring to right to enjoy life, liberty and happiness in the colonies.

Ashley also owned Freeman, the first colonial slave to win her freedom through judicial action in 1781. Exhibit organizers note she obtained the knowledge to do so based on her overhearing conversations regarding human rights in the Ashley household.

Sheffield may have also indirectly played a part in shaping the country's constitutional form of government. The town hosted the last and bloodiest encounter of Shays' Rebellion, with one solider and one rebel killed and dozens injured in the winter of 1787. The rebellion began a year before, lead by Daniel Shays and his 4,000 followers upset over aggressive taxation and debt collection and political corruption. Scholars are divided on whether this uprising influenced the U.S. Constitution replacing the Articles of Confederation as America's governing document.

Despite the fascinating history of Sheffield's role in America's early years, it's a Native American dug out wooden canoe that has piqued the interest of many exhibit patrons, including Laura Bush. The former first lady paid a visit to the Old Stone Store on June 18 for the opening reception as she was visiting family friends in the area that weekend.

Kathy Tetro said she is not surprised Bush and others are drawn to the 18th-century mode of transportation in it's first-ever public showing.

"You have this massive artifact intact that the historical society has had for 40 years," she said.

Whether new to Sheffield or a life-long resident, expect to learn something new about Sheffield from "Where the Berkshires Began."

"The historical society always puts together such a good show," said Fred Pomerantz. "I always walk out knowing a little more than when I went in."


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