'The Village & Mills of Housatonic' exhibit getting TV spot feature this week

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Robert Krol points to a three-by-five red wooden chest, and marvels at how a Polish immigrant managed to pack all his belongings into it and move to this country.

Krol, Executive Director of the Great Barrington Historical Society & Museum, said after World War II Mysliwy-Czelaw moved to Housatonic to work at Monument Mills, a complex of textile factories. He was just one of many Polish immigrants who came to this little village to work in the mills the village is so famous for.

Inside the Wheeler Farmstead, home of the society's museum on South Main Street, are remnants of the town's past going as far back as 1764, when Captain Wheeler served as Berkshire County's muster master, an organizer for troops passing through on their way to George Washington's army, Krol said.

Right now the exhibit, "The Village & Mills of Housatonic," stirs up a vanished time in what used to be a heavily populated factory village and a tight knit community that brought Polish culture here. There are bedspreads made in the mills, ledgers with beautiful handwriting, photos and books to flip through.

"We're getting a tremendous response," Krol said of the exhibit, noting it will be featured Wednesday, April 19 7:30 p.m. on WGBY Public Television after a film crew came and interviewed society archivist Gary Leveille, and long-time Housatonic residents Michelle Loubert, Fred Mercer and Donald Moulthrop.

Krol pointed to a bedspread with a tag that said it had been made at Monument Mills, which closed in the 1950s. He said people tell him they come across these bedspreads every now and then.

"They're still out there and they're still being used," he added.

Now the mills sit mostly empty after the factories closed and workers streamed out of town, he said.

"Poor Housie," Krol added. "At one point it had more people in it than Great Barrington."

"The mills didn't really register for me as a child," said Michelle Loubert.

The mills had mostly emptied out by then, she added. Her grandmother had worked at Monument Mills and so did her mother for a short time. Loubert said her mother, now in her 90s, is fluent in Polish, having learned the language from immigrants.

The society is the recipient of two years worth of Community Preservation Act money to restore the old wagon house at the back of the museum, and to replace the old electrical system. At May Annual Town Meeting the Society will ask voters for $34,000 to make the property handicap accessible.

The society has 55,000 artifacts, most of which are stored at the Ramsdell Library, Krol said.

Krol, a retired teacher and high school principal, can't wait to show off the oldest room in the house — and one of the oldest in Great Barrington — dated 1733.

"My love is history and here I am," he said, the sound of band saws in the background, as work to the wagon house is underway.

He points to a Revolutionary War musket, and wondered aloud how hard it must have been for young boys to hold and fire the heavy weapons.

"There was no adolescence in the revolutionary period," he said. "They fought early."

There is a case of Civil War artifacts, including a piece of hardtack from 1865, sealed in a little glass box.

In another room, Krol sighs as he points to a small exhibit of the trolley system that once ran from Canaan, Conn., to Pittsfield.

"Imagine having that trolley still running?" he said. "In this country we give up on things too fast."

Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871


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