US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross latest in long line of powerful politicians who have owned homes in the Berkshires

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GREAT BARRINGTON — U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross made national headlines in March after purchasing a $3.2 million home in Great Barrington, but he's not the first powerful politician to plant roots in the Berkshires.

The local relationship to U.S. powerhouse officials dates back to at least the era of 21st President Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885). Arthur's U.S. Secretary of State Frederik Frelinghuysen had a cottage in Lenox, said Will Garrison, executive director of the Berkshire Historical Society who knew of a few big-time politicians with local connections. The property is now the Kemble Inn.

Ross purchased the 3,260-square-foot home with five bedrooms and 4 1/2 baths on 18 acres at Seekonk Cross Road in Great Barrington, through a recently established Massachusetts LLC, WL Ross Family. The LLC's purpose, according to state documents, is to hold real estate.

Ross is a former bankruptcy guru who worked on Wall Street. He made millions restructuring assets for struggling companies and working in investment banking. It's not clear how well work is going for Ross in the restless Trump White House. Newspapers have reported on Trump's displeasure with Ross' attempts to negotiate with China, though in a statement to the press the Trump Administration was supportive of the secretary of Commerce.

Ross has made several controversial decisions since being appointed by Donald Trump in February 2017. Ross is a strong supporter of the Trump Administration's increased tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum, despite widespread concern that the change will put America at a disadvantage in international economic negotiations and possibly start a tariff war, in which countries retaliate by imposing higher fees of their own on American products. Sparks of the tariff fight were witnessed Monday when China increased tariffs by as much as 25 percent on more than 120 imported American products.

Ross was also the one who acquiesced to the Department of Justice's request to add a citizenship question to the census questionnaire. In a memo, Ross argued that the question will give the U.S. a more accurate count of its citizens. Opponents say the question will scare immigrants from participating in the data drive.

And finally, Ross was booted from the list of Forbes 400 richest people in the U.S. in 2017 when the magazine couldn't verify $2 billion of Ross' alleged $3-billion-plus net worth.

Still, Ross is likely not the most disputed politician to buy a house in Western Massachusetts. Secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan from 1982 to 1989 and president of Bechtel Corp. engineering, George Shultz, had a summer home in Berkshires-adjacent Cummington. Now in his late-90s, Shultz's legacy is that of a revered elder Republican statesman and, if not current, certainly former GOP kingmaker, but back in his more active political days Shultz was pushing for international nuclear proliferation.

The home Ross purchased in Great Barrington was built in 1780 and features a greenhouse and a grove of old-growth trees; there are spa-like bathrooms — one with a fireplace and an in-ground pool — a three-car garage and a two-bedroom caretaker's apartment.

Robert M. Beusman, of Great Barrington, was the former owner of 14-15 Seekonk Cross Road. He bought the property on Dec. 22, 2015 for $1.57 million from a group of about 6 people.

Other high-level politicians who purchased homes in Western Massachusetts include the first ambassador to the Soviet Union (1933-1936) William Christian Bullitt Jr., who had a house in Ashfield. "He was the ambassador to France, too," (1936-1940), Garrison said. "He was the one who turned out the lights at the embassy when the Nazis came in."

Another ambassador in the Berkshires was Joseph Hodges Choate, the U.S. representative to the United Kingdom (1899-1905). His home is now a museum, Naumkeag in Stockbridge — a 44-room cottage showcasing the style of the Gilded-Age Berkshire County homes and gardens. It is owned by the Trustees of Reservations. Choate "had his appointment by [25th President] William McKinley," Garrison said, "and [McKinley] came to lunch at Choate's shortly before he was appointed."

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@berkshireeagle.com, @kristinpalpini on Twitter, and 413-629-4621.


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