Trustees of the Reservations will hold open houses on May 31
SHEFFIELD -- Dyan Wiley did not know Berkshire County's oldest house set the stage to end slavery in Massachusetts.
A Western Massachusetts resident for years, Wiley was familiar with the Ashley House, Col. John Ashley's home, where he drafted the Sheffield Resolves in 1773, helping to plant the seeds of the American Revolution.
Wiley learned, as the new public outreach director for the Massachusetts Trustees of the Reservations, West Region, that Elizabeth Freeman lived in the Ashley House as a slave. Under the new Massachusetts Constitution in 1781, Freeman won a legal battle that set her free -- a decision that eventually freed all slaves in the state.
"I was blown away by that," Wiley said.
Freeman's courage shaped history in the Berkshires, the state and the country, said Colleen Henry, cultural site manager for The Ashley House.
Henry says the popularity of the Trustees' Elizabeth Freeman Day in August has prompted an expansion of activities in 2014, that include a Civil War encampment and the performance of a locally written play about Freeman.
"There's more interest in Elizabeth Freeman than The Ashley House," Henry said.
On Saturday, residents and tourists can learn -- free -- more about the Ashley House and four other Berkshire historic sites owned and preserved by the Trustees. The nonprofit statewide organization will host "Home Sweet Home," an open house from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in select properties across the state. Locally, Naumkeag and The Mission House in Stockbridge, the William Cullen Bryant Homestead, Cummington and The Folly at Field Farm in Williamstown will also welcome visitors.
For more than a century, the Trustees have acquired historic buildings and open space -- 100 buildings and 25,000 acres across the Commonwealth.
Trustees President Barbara Erickson hopes the open house, first held last fall with little fanfare, will spur interest in the nonprofit and its mission. Now 40,000 households -- roughly 100,000 people -- are Trustees members, according to organization officials.
"We're worried that only 10 percent of the Massachusetts public support historical sites and gardens," Erickson said. "We have to be compelling and relevant. We have to be better storytellers, and we need to make it fun and adventurous for our visitors."
Storytelling at Naumkeag enters the 21st century this year with audio self-guided tours on weekends, modeled after tours conducted for the elaborate gardens and grounds at the sprawling estate. The late 19th century home built by the Choate family near downtown Stockbridge is a 44-room mansion on 48 acres with a view of the summit at Monument Mountain Reservation, another Trustees property to the south in Great Barrington.
Trustees West Region Curator Mark Wilson said Naumkeag visitors find a house and all its furnishing as Mabel Choate left it to the Trustees in 1958. Choate inherited the home from her parents, Joseph and Carolyn Choate. Joseph Choate, a leading 19th century attorney, hired landscape architect Fletcher Steele, who created the gardens which, along with the house, are now undergoing a $3.3 million rehabilitation.
Wilson lauds Mabel Choate for keeping the estate as it stood the day it was completed and preserving the blueprints that have guided the restoration.
"We had great photographs and documentation to reproduce with great accuracy," he said. "Mabel also had a real interest in Chinese export porcelain, with more than 300 pieces in the collection."
Mabel Choate proved to be one of Stockbridge's leading preservationists, also heading the restoration of The Mission House. John Sergeant built The Mission House in his role as the first missionary to the local Stockbridge Mohicans. Choate had the circa-1740 structure disassembled, moved and rebuilt on Main Street between 1926 and 1930.
Her restoration included 18th century-style gardens designed by Steele and furnishings Choate found in keeping with the early American house.
"The collection part of the Colonial Revival was completely on [Mabel's] part," Wilson said. "She had a sense of place in Stockbridge and was very connected to this community."
American poet William Cullen Bryant also understood the importance of preserving history. He left the Trustees five generations of Bryant family furnishings on the original 190-acre farm in Cummington. The Bryant Homestead includes the Rivulet old growth forest he wrote about in his poem "The Rivulet."
While best known for poetry, Bryant was an abolitionist who worked to end slavery across the country and a leading proponent for the creation of Central park in New York City, according to the homestead's curator, Jim Caffrey.
"William Cullen Bryant was enormously influential to mid-19th century American society in literature, visual arts, law and politics," Caffrey said. "Places like the Bryant Homestead or Joseph Choate's Naumkeag help us understand the influence these individuals had on modern America."
Getting there ...
Free open houses
10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday
5 Prospect Hill Rd. Stockbridge
The Mission House
19 Main St., Stockbridge
The Ashley House
Cooper Hill Road, Sheffield
Route 112 South, Cummington
Folly at Field Farm
Sloan Road, Williamstown