Carole Owens: In praise of Great Barrington

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STOCKBRIDGE — "August 22, 1914, Dear Bro. Jones: I enclose a description of the little city we live in."

The attached description read: "Southern Berkshire is the most favored spot of the most famous county in the United States. Its attractions for summer residents have long been known, and its summer beauties have been pictured in song and story."

The article enclosed with the letter offered a nice description of Great Barrington as it was 103 years ago, "Great Barrington is the cleanest, healthiest, prettiest town of its size in New England. It has a population of 6,000, fine churches, good schools, and better stores than most towns twice its size, enterprising businessmen, and public-spirited citizens. It has an excellent electric light system and sewage system paved business streets and is a trolley center for the southern part of the county."

Even 100 years ago, no description of Berkshire County was complete without mention of the tourists, "A palatial summer hotel and an excellent commercial hotel cater to the needs of thousands of summer patrons."

The letter writer, T. Howard Jones, was the minister of the Methodist Church in Great Barrington. Proud of his town and church, the Reverend Jones allowed the news article to do the bragging about his location, but he was pleased to brag about his church.

"While our church is old fashioned in outline, yet it has rooms for all purposes. It will seat near 400. We have a membership of over 350."

The church to which he referred was built in 1888. Today, it is called "the flying church" because of the massive renovation in progress. The building was raised up and expanded to turn the old Main Street Great Barrington church into new commercial and residential space.

Jones continued with details of his compensation. "The salary is $1,600 & 500 = $2,100. Four years ago, when I came up here, I came, as you know, to $800 & $200 = $1,000. Recently I had the opportunity to go out of this Conference to a church paying $2,500. I declined to go for the reason that this Conference has many, many, things which make membership here desirable."

His $2,100 annual salary is about $52,000 today. That is equal to an average minister's salary today according to Wikipedia. Why he divides it into two amounts is anyone's guess. He also refers to "the conference." The Methodist Conference was and is a division of the denominational government that, among other things, assigns ministers to churches.

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PROUD, CONTENTED

The salutation reads "Dear Bro. Jones." The Reverend appears to either address a brother in the church or his own brother. In either case, he begins with the lament that the addressee has not answered his last letter. Nonetheless, he is writing again because, "I prefer that we at least keep in touch with each other."

In the closing lines, it becomes clear he is writing to a brother in the church even given the coincidence of name.

"Remember me to your esteemed parents and give my regards to your family I am and hope to be your friend."

He invites Bro. Jones to visit him in Great Barrington, "the home of Bryant the poet, Edwards the preacher and Field the inventor."

The Reverend is a proud and contented man. Content with his position and proud of Berkshire County, the home of William Cullen Bryant, Jonathan Edwards, Congregation minister and author, and both Cyrus Field, the man who laid the transatlantic cable, and his nephew Stephen Dudley Field the inventor of the electric trolley car.

The story of the letter itself is interesting and improbable.

What are the odds that 99 years to the day after it was written, the letter landed on the desk of T. Howard Jones' relative, great grandson, Robert H. Jones? How did that happen?

Luckily, Berkshire resident, Bob Jones, formerly of Great Barrington and Stockbridge, now of Lee, is one of Berkshires' Renaissance men. A Berkshire brand of Renaissance man, that is, a man who can drive a nail, plant a garden, quote the classics, run a business, play drums, restore old houses, and volunteer in town government. From zoning boards in Great Barrington and Stockbridge to the boards of the Berkshire Theatre Festival and the Great Barrington Historical Society, his interests are wide ranging. So, one day in 2013, he found himself combing EBay for Berkshire memorabilia. What he found was a letter from his great grandfather, T. Howard Jones, and the rest is — as all of this has been — history.

A writer and Berkshire historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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