Thom Smith: A walk on Josh Billing’s hilltop in Lanesborough

Thursday December 6, 2012

LANESBOROUGH -- Constitution Hill lies near the geographical center of the town for a moderate walk full of history. The summit of this now wooded hill, was, in the early history of the town, open pasture and the site of a bonfire which signaled and celebrated Massachusetts’ ratification of the Constitution in 1789.

In January 1788, farmer Jonathan Smith traveled to Boston as Lanesborough’s delegate to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention. The idea of the bonfire marking ratification of the Constitution came from Smith, who commented at the convention, "I am a plain man, and get my living from the plow."

A bronze plaque on south lawn of the Town Hall at the corner of Bridge and Main streets, memorializes Smith, "A plain farmer of Lanesborough who by a speech full of good sense and good feeling, carried the Massachusetts Convention September 1787 -- February 1788 by a vote of 187 to 168 in favor of ratifying the federal constitution." Before departing for Boston he arranged for the bonfire to be lit.

The trail itself begins off of Route 7 at the end of Bridge Street, on the former homestead of Henry Wheeler Shaw. It’s not hard on our imagination to see young Henry racing past us as we trudge up the steep trail to the top, past large white quartz boulders and an aged red oak tree that in his day was alive and growing in open pasture -- and had grown there since well before the Constitution took hold.

We imagine him ambling along a cart path, today little more than an old wooded road that still shows signs of the town’s iron industry. Shaw, with his brother, once climbed the steeple of a local church to remove the bell’s clapper. He even managed to get a cow up into the cupola at the Pontoosuc Woolen Mill in Pittsfield.

This prankster turned humorist’s name is less familiar to most than his adopted pen name -- Josh Billings. The man who gave his name to the annual triathlon was one of the most famous humor writers in the country in his lifetime, second only to Mark Twain. His father and grandfather served in congress in the early 19th century, not long after the bonfire burned.

The Shaw homestead is now a Berkshire Natural Resources Council Property and is open free all year.

Beginning at the kiosk at the far end of the second parking area, take path to the right. It is a circuit trail marked with red blazes or markers, almost immediately beginning an uphill trek, across the top and descending more gently, returning you to your present location. The hill is steep and continues along historic roads that are now little more than wide pathways though hard wood forests.

Most of the leaves have fallen so, with the exception of a few evergreen ferns, the Christmas fern and wood fern, the woodland floor is carpeted with browns and yellows, awaiting snow and the snowshoe races scheduled for Sunday, Jan. 12, through the woods and across winter pastures.

At the top of the hill, a large boulder with a bronze marker at the base of a red oak planted in 1921 commemorates the original site of the Constitution Hill oak and also the Lanesborough Veterans of World War I.

The original solitary and stately Constitution Oak, atop what early town residents called Bald Headed Hill, was struck by lightning in 1903, but it survived until 1920 when vandals set fire to it.

Nearing the end of our walk through this 252-acre property, we began noticing small chunks of muddy green and blue glass, commonly called iron slag, which came from local iron works and was imported as road fill.

While we could not find the Shaw homestead remains, we did enjoy our stroll through the nearby Center Cemetery founded in 1765 along Main Street (Route 7). Here a large boulder within a low iron rail fence in the middle of the burial grounds marks the final resting place of Josh Billings.

Billings died in Monterey, Calif., in 1885. (His death and burial appear a chapter in John Steinbeck’s "Cannery Row"). Under his pseudonym, Billings wrote informal columns for nearly 30 years and became known for slang and wit.

He wrote, "The grate art in writing well, is tew kno when tew stop."


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