Carole Owens: Tale of the Bidwell dollar



This week the Stockbridge Library Association will celebrate the commencement of its 21st century renovation as well as its 19th century beginnings. There will be an historic recreation of Main Street in the 1860s. Off Main Street, there will be the grand opening of the Stockbridge Train Station as temporary home for the library during construction.

Jan. 21, 1864, The Valley Gleaner: "The new building erected in Stockbridge for the use of the Jackson Library, at a cost of $5,000, is now completed." Two years earlier, the estimated cost of $3,000 was optimistic and inaccurate. However, the story of how the money was raised, that is, how the initial donor made his money is purported to be true. Strictly accurate or apocryphal, it is a good story, and most retailers call it: "The Bidwell dollar."

It was the summer of 1792. Graduated from Yale, Barnabus Bidwell was in Stockbridge studying law under Theodore Sedgwick. Barnabus was the son of Adonijah Bidwell, the first minister in what is Monterey and Tyringham today.

Nathan Jackson was also from Tyringham, and like Barnabus, was studying in Stockbridge. Not the law: Nathan was a boy of 12 attending the Stockbridge Academy. Nathan was the 14th child in a family of 26. It was not uncommon in so large a family for younger siblings to be sent to live with older siblings. Nathan was sent to live with his sister in Stockbridge.

Now on this summer day, Barnabus’ horse got loose. Rather than chase it, he engaged young Nathan.

"If you can catch my horse and turn it out, you might use it to ride home to keep Thanksgiving."

The boy caught the horse. The day before Thanksgiving, Nathan mounted the horse to ride home to Tyringham.

According to "A History of Williams College" by Calvin Durfee (1860), Barnabus asked Nathan if he had any pocket money.

"Yes, sir, I have three nine penny pieces."

Barnabus handed him a silver dollar. It was the first Nathan ever had.

Yet, according to Durfee, "he did not spend it to see shows, nor for rum nor brandy nor cigars, but bought a sheep with it. He put the sheep to double once in four years and kept on for 40 years." At the end of 40 years Nathan had 1,064 sheep. He sold them for $1,596. With the money he purchased 10 lots in New York for $250. "Two years later, these lots he sold for $12,000."

Nathan’s fortune continued to grow.

Barnabus also prospered. He was a lawyer and politician serving the county, the state and serving in the U.S. Congress. He was a favorite of President Thomas Jefferson and called by some in Washington "the Executive’s interpreter."

In 1862 Nathan -- now a man of means -- was back in Stockbridge. Stockbridge apparently has a proclivity for accomplishing great projects in the worst of times. Stockbridge residents created Tanglewood during the Great Depression and the library during the Civil War.

According to Olga Wilcox, "A History of the Stockbridge Library" 1929, Nathan offered the town $2,000 for a library provided the citizens of the town would give another $1,000 and build an appropriate building.

Nathan died the following year, 1863, but his library was just coming to life. The site chosen for the library building was the corner of Plain and Old Academy streets (Main and Elm streets today). The property belonged to Mrs. Dwight. Mrs. Frances Dwight lived on the opposite corner. She had a gracious home with a bow window in the north face. Known as the Corner House, former site of the Norman Rockwell Museum, that house with that window had a panoramic view of Main Street. As Mrs. Dwight sat in her bow window, the life of the village passed in review.

Mrs. Dwight was "tall and of splendid appearance, pleasing and vivacious." Also Mrs. Dwight was deeply interested in activities on Main Streets and determined to have her way. She offered to sell the lot for a dollar provided the library was built on the lot so it did not block her view.

It was done. The library, set back from the street, has served the village for 150 years. The story of its beginnings is the story of Stockbridge characters and the character of Stockbridge.

The Bidwell dollar began in Stockbridge as a generous act, traveled wide and multiplied. Seventy-two years later, it came home to Stockbridge as a generous gift. No celebration of the library would be complete without a doff of the hat to Barnabus Bidwell and his dollar -- so on Friday, enjoy the festivities on Main Street Stockbridge, and on Saturday, attend the garden party at the Bidwell House Museum in Monterey.

Carole Owens is a Berkshire writer and historian.


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions