Bernard A. Drew | Our Berkshires: Forested tribute to WWI soldiers

Our Berkshires

GREAT BARRINGTON — A difficult task for the local historian is deciding when his or her research is exhausted and it's time to go to print. Has a detail been overlooked? Is there more to be found or told?

I wrote a 656-page history of Great Barrington, published by the Great Barrington Historical Society in 1999. But it by no means exhausted the town's stories. I wanted to know more about mountains near my home, for example, particularly East Mountain. Mike Fitzpatrick and Don Hagberg showed me several features I didn't know about, and others helped with Warner Mountain, Three Mile Hill, Bung Hill and June Mountain, Brush Hill and Pool Hill going toward Sheffield.

I put the results into a book titled "East Rock is Falling," published in a small edition last year. It includes a section about Edward F. Searles who, in 1894, gave 70 acres to the town for a park. The property consisted of "East Mountain, east of the old road, with the exception of the Searles quarry and 200 feet of land around the same," The Berkshire Courier reported. Searles stipulated the steep, rocky land couldn't be sold or built on except for public purposes.

Searles, who had inherited Mary Frances Hopkins' mansion and diverse acreage, more than once made donations to the town. Never mind they were somewhat dubious holdings. Olympian Meadows was in a floodplain. The ladies picnic ground was along a ravine. Memorial Field was an old marble finishing grounds. The gifts, however, have proven their value for recreation and open space.

A portion of this East Mountain Park at the corner of East and Quarry streets was developed as a playground. The rest has been maintained as woodland.

Children reforested some of the slope as a Victory Park in June 1919, after World War I ended. They began near the intersection of Pine and Quarry streets and planted four-year-old pine seedlings.

Town forests, according to historian Robert L. McCullough, "have played an important role in the larger quest to reverse deforestation and reclaim idle farmland, goals that became rallying points for municipal forestry during the early decades of the twentieth century. Massachusetts' wooded townscapes, now abundant, are testimony to that endeavor."

Lois A. Larkin of Great Barrington read my account with interest and remembered a Great Barrington School Committee report that shed more light on the 1919 tree planting. She sent me a copy.

"A thousand white pine trees were planted on East mountain by twenty classes of the Searles high, Bryant and Dewey schools as a memorial to the Great Barrington boys who fought in the world war," we read. "To the school children of Great Barrington belongs the credit of erecting the first memorial to the boys from Great Barrington who took part in the World War. This memorial was christened by the school children `Victory Park.'

"With the cooperation of the Park Commissioners, who furnished the seedling trees, the youngsters planted a thousand white pine trees on about an acre of East mountain as their Arbor day effort of the year. This tract of about eighty acres, a gift to the town from Edwin [sic] Searles, is beautifully situated and can be made a fine recreation park, and if reforested will be a valuable piece of woodland.

"The plan of the schools is to reforest at least an acre of this park each year, as a constant memorial. "The acre selected this year was divided into twenty equal sections and as many classes from the above mentioned schools planted trees.

"The accompanying photograph showing one of the grades at work was taken by State Forester [Robert B.] Parmenter, under whose direction the planting was done."

Ironically, a regional shortage of coal in 1920 prompted the opening of the town forest for wood cutting for domestic use. But another 5,000 trees were planted by Boy and Girl Scouts in May 1923, under the direction of Marion Gilbert and Frank J. Pope. Earle F. Stafford, forester at Arthur Warton Swann State Forest in Monterey, directed that work.

Speaking of local history and Searles, fellow former Great Barrington Historical Society president A. David Rutstein has just published "A History of Searles High School, 1898-1967." This building next to the Housatonic River was another gift of Edward Searles. Actually, it was more of a trade. In exchange for town school buildings behind the present-day co-op market, which he wanted to remove, Searles hired an architect and builder for a new high school building.

I appreciate the structure — destined to become a plush hotel — is of attractive Georgian Revival style. But few will brag about its educational qualities. It had too few classrooms, which were built on split levels and met few educational needs. The Rutstein history details the school's achievements and evolution through growing student populations, the Depression and two World War generations and provides surprise anecdotal sidetracks. It is thoroughly researched, but of course, any student who went there can add a personal story or three.

That's what gives local historians pleasure — awakening the memories or creating new awareness, and sometimes learning more.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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