One of oldest continuously occupied houses in county holds a secret room

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SHEFFIELD — The 18th-century Mary Ballantyne Ashley House is a historic home that contains an unusual feature.

On the other side of the wood-paneled dining room there is a secret hiding space where residents of Colonial Massachusetts used to gather when Native Americans attacked.

"It's called an Indian hole," said Peter Crockett, the home's current owner. "Back in the 1740s, this was frontier, and there was a lot of conflict with the local tribes, who would often try to burn down the house. This is where the family could hide. You could hold 10 people in the room."

Crockett isn't sure, but he believes that, in the 19th century, the secret room also might have served as a way station on the underground railroad that smuggled freed slaves from the South through Berkshire County.

Such rooms were not uncommon in Colonial-era structures, and this one is a highlight of the historic Mary Ballantyne Ashley House in the village of Ashley Falls.

The house, built in the mid-1700s by Col. John Ashley, a prominent early Massachusetts colonist, recently went back on the market and is being offered for $595,000 by Alden Country Real Estate Services of Great Barrington.

"I grew up in Ashley Falls and knew about the house my entire life," said listing agent Dan Alden, who had asked Crockett to put the historic home back up for sale. "I contacted him and he gave it another shot."

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Crockett, who lives in Virginia, is the son of the late Howard and Dorothy Crockett, antiques lovers and rare-book sellers who had purchased the home in 1972. The house is one of the oldest continuously occupied houses in Berkshire County.

According to Peter Crockett, 11 families have occupied the house since it was constructed, with many staying for 30 or 40 years. The home was owned by the Ashley family for about 100 years.

Howard Crockett, a hospital administrator in Connecticut who helped establish the Ashley Falls Historical Society, died in 2003. His wife died eight years later. The house has been unoccupied since Dorothy Crockett's death, Peter Crockett said.

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Crockett said that, given the distance that he lives from the Berkshires, it has become harder to hold on to the property as he grows older.

"Driving eight hours with my canine friend is getting to be a little bit weary," Crockett said. "It's been almost 50 years, and I'm ready to pass it on. ... It's bittersweet, but one of those things that you have to do."

The 1-acre property, first occupied by John Ashley's grandson and wife, Mary Ballantyne, includes a three-bedroom New England saltbox-style main house and a barn that has been converted into a guest house. The master bedroom is located in a former wheelwright's shop that was added to the house in the 1800s.

Saltbox-style homes are so named because their shape resembles the containers in which the early colonists kept their salt.

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The house originally served as the miller's house for the village of Ashley Falls, Alden said, while the barn initially was constructed as a repair shop for horse-drawn carriages.

The Mary Ballantyne Ashley House, located across from the village green, is listed on the State Register of Historic Places, according to Alden.

The house is being offered as a residence. Historical homes, including those on the state register, often include development restrictions, but Alden described the limits on the house as "nothing really onerous."

"It fits within the Ashley Falls Historic District and falls within the criteria established on the state register," he said.

The Mary Ballantyne Ashley House is separate from the Ashley House, John Ashley's residence, which he built when he was 25 years old in 1735. It also is located in Ashley Falls, but near Bartholomew's Cobble.

John Ashley's house is part of the Berkshire 18th Century Trail, is administered by the Trustees of Reservations and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com or 413-281-2755.


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