MONTEREY — Like any good treasure, the Bidwell House Museum can be found in the middle of nowhere, down a winding dirt and gravel road, in the middle of the woods.
There is a calming effect as you walk around these historic grounds, an expanse of fields and forests over 192 acres. That feeling sticks with you as you walk up to and tour through the house itself, a two-floor wooden Georgian saltbox built as a parsonage and meeting house in the mid-18th century. Original heirloom vegetables and apple trees still grow there, and stone walls and farmland echo the backdrop of early American life in New England.
The area is quiet and peaceful, and "... off the beaten path," said Heather Kowalski, the museum's executive director. But it's also steeped in history and is in active upkeep by its live-in caretaker, with the help of local gardeners, naturalists and historians.
Visitors adventurous enough to make the drive can learn the history of the Bidwell family and of their patriarch, the Rev. Adonijah Bidwell, the site's namesake. Adonijah Bidwell was "important to the early history and settlement in the Stockbridge area. People were moving up from Boston and looking for land and he was one of the most influential people in the area. He was probably one of the most important ministers in Massachusetts during that time because of his wealth," Kowalski said. "I think it's important that people get a sense of what it was like to live here in the 1700s and how a rich family would have lived during that time."
In addition to a traditional overview tour through the house and immediate grounds, the Bidwell House Museum is trying out two new variations to appeal to different interests of patrons — a family-friendly tour with kids' activities and a landscape tour along a new trail retracing the steps of the region's Native Americans.
For the family-friendly tour, "I wanted to create some kind of program that was educational for young kids," Kowalski said.
Children are invited to ask questions of the guides along the way about anything that piques their interests. There is sort of a scavenger hunt, where children are given a card with a picture of a historical object for them to look out for while taking the tour. In the heirloom vegetable and flower garden, located at the back of the house, the guide will describe various ailments and diseases that a member of the township might catch in the 1700s, then, working from a list of descriptions try to locate in the garden the medicinal herbs that might be used to treat them. The grounds also offer plenty of open space to play in, and the house tour gives families a look at what children might have worn and played with at that point in time. The next family-friendly tours will be offered on Aug. 24.
The other new tour is a nature walk that traces the paths of the local Mohican tribe that lived in Stockbridge, hunting and dwelling long before the settlers arrived. Rob Hoogs, president of the museum's board of trustees, who has a dedicated interest in the history of the local landscape, started the woodland walk last fall. "People seem very interested in learning about the story, and dispelling some of the persistent myths that surround the Native Americans in this area," he said.
Hoogs said that he wanted to start this tour because, "It's a great story that hasn't really been told before, and there are so many different ways of approaching it."
Thanks to a new interpretive trail, this can be done as a guided or self-guided tour. "Most of the area is flat or gently sloping. There is one small hill behind the house," said Hoogs. At the top of the hill, visitors can even examine a replica wigwam and learn about the local materials used to construct them.
Hoogs will lead his next guided walk, "Retracing Native Histories on the Landscape," on Aug. 25.
The nature walk extends into more wooded areas and trails as well.
Kowalski said the self-guided trail tour currently lists four stops with interpretive signs, while the guided tour offers visitors eight to 10 stops with more details provided by the museum's docents. Tours of the house last for about 45 minutes, starting on the grounds that surround the house. There is a path that leads around the side to the musty but well-preserved Carriage Barn, part of a larger addition to the house that was created in the 1840s by the grandson of Adonijah Bidwell.
The house itself was famous in its day because it had three closets and two beehive ovens (named as such because they are shaped like a dome). The number of closets in particular were a symbol of extreme wealth in the 1700s.
Kowalski said the museum depends on word-of-mouth recommendations to attract visitors.
As the head docent and seasonal caretaker of the house and grounds, Devon Hutchins, a Maine native, lives in the house during the summer months, which she describes as a "unique and great experience." She also trains interns to lead tours and projects there.
Hutchins said her experience has been, "lovely. When we have tours I get to meet all sorts of new people. Being able to share things about the house with them is a real pleasure."