The woodsman’s ax sank into the tree. He loosened it from the trunk of the American Elm, raised his ax once more, and prepared to swing.
But this time, his blow would not connect with the tree. He would not even swing the ax, its path now blocked by Lucretia Williams. Williams, hearing the ax sing, rushed from her nearby home into the center of town and thrust herself between the axeman and the tree, declaring, “You will have to cut through me first.”
Startled, he stopped, much to the chagrin of the men who had hired him. The tree must fall, the town elders decreed, for this was to be the spot of the new Meeting House.
Hearing the commotion outside, her husband, John Chandler Williams, a well-respected attorney and one of the most influential citizens of Pittsfield in 1790, rushed to the side of his wife. In the moments that followed, he would strike a deal with the fledgling community — he would trade a portion of his estate to preserve the tree.
The bargain accepted, Pittsfield built Bulfinch Church, named for its architect Col. Charles Bulfinch (who also designed the State House in Boston, Faneuil Hall and the U.S. Capitol building). In return, the land immediately surrounding the beloved “Old Elm” would become the Meeting House Common, or, as we know it, Park Square.
Lucretia Williams was not the first to protect the Old Elm from a woodcutter’s ax. In 1752, just 38 years earlier, the tree had been spared by Captain Charles Goodrich.
Goodrich arrived, in what would become Pittsfield, in 1752, with the city’s first permanent settlers. It would be another year before their small village of 200 was incorporated as PontoosucK Plantation and nine years before it was incorporated a the township of Pittsfield.
In 1764, Goodrich was hired to survey the land and plot out the village center. He chose the most obvious landmark as his starting point — an American Elm that towered over all else. From there, he plotted out the roads that would run north, south, east and west. But he would not let the men hired to clear the land remove the giant Elm. As the story goes, Goodrich stopped a woodsman’s ax two blows in. Instead, he said, the road would go around the tree.
It’s life spared, the tree and the plot of land surrounding it became the heart of Pittsfield. It was there that soldiers mustered before heading out to fight in the French and Indian War. In 1777, men rallied beneath its branches before heading out to join their Revolutionary brothers, the Green Mountain Boys at the Battle of Bennington; the town pastor, the Rev. Thomas Allen, the “Fighting Parson,” at the regiments head.
The Old Elm also would host the nation’s first agricultural fair in 1807. Elkanah Watson, a farmer and entrepreneur, who is credited with the invention of the fair, had moved to Pittsfield to farm Merino sheep. In 1807, he tied two sheep to the elm, as a way to promote his sheep and the fine wool they produced. The success of this small promotion (hardly a fair), in the shade of the Old Elm, would lead to a much more ambitious fair in 1810, with a cattle show and entertainment.
In 1824, the Revolutionary War hero, General Lafayette (Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette) gave a speech to 3,500 people near the Old Elm.
The elm also would inspire artists, such as James Clews, who in 1826, included the Old Elm and Park Square in his designs for the now-famous Staffordshire Pottery Blue Tansferware china dinnerware collection “A Winter View of Pittsfield, Massachusetts.” Authors Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville would also take inspiration, each writing about it.
But, the beloved tree could not last forever. It was prone to lightning strikes, which were readily reported on by The Pittsfield Sun and The Berkshire County Evening Eagle. In 1864, the decision was made to spare it from any more agony. The city hired a contractor to remove the tree, at the cost of $5. The contractor in turn hired a “skilled young Black man named Sylvanus Grant” to cut down the tree. There is no record of what Grant was paid.
The tree, when cut down, was measured. In all, it was 128 feet tall and its trunk was over 29 feet in circumference. By a count of its rings, it was estimated to be 314 years old. Its wood was sold for the price of $10 and two chairs hewn from it — one for the First Church, the other for City Hall. Souvenirs made from its wood were readily available for purchase.
On June 23, 1903, the Daughters of the American Revolution marked the location of the Old Elm with a sundial, which can still be found there today. The local affiliate, known as the Peace Party Chapter, was named for the Peace Party House which once hosted a lavish party in celebration of the signing of the Treaty of Paris. The party, which lasted three days, featured plenty of food, including platters of goose and turkey and half a roasted ox. The hostess? Lucretia Williams, owner of the Peace Party House and savior of the Old Elm.
Sources: “The Berkshire Hills,” Pittsfield Sun, Berkshire County Evening Eagle, berkshireparktrolleystop.blogspot.com,