Bernard A. Drew | Our Berkshires: The chestnut leantos in Beartown State Forest
GREAT BARRINGTON — Thanks to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Forest Army" — the Civilian Conservation Corps —upland forests in the Berkshires were developed for recreation during the Great Depression.
Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management (now Conservation and Recreation) in 1998 undertook a statewide survey of CCC resources. Professional planner Shary Page Berg attempted a comprehensive evaluation. In the case of Beartown State Forest in Great Barrington, Tyringham and Monterey, a few remnants proved elusive.
When Adam Morris, now Beartown Park Supervisor, a few years ago became aware of the genesis of two trailside hiker shelters, he alerted Alec Gillman, now interpretive coordinator for the DCR West Region based at South Mountain. Both were enthusiastic for preservation of the wooden structures.
The shelters are 8x12-foot leantos, Mount Wilcox South on the Appalachian Trail, the other on Wildcat Trail on the west side of the forest.
Donna and I hiked to the Wildcat refuge in late August — her first visit, my third.
The shelter was assembled in log cabin style with gable-end construction featuring a front overhang. District Forester John "Jack" Lambert (1906-1998) described it in one of his weekly1938 reports on the activities of CCC Camp S-71. Gillman found this and another mention of the shelters in the DCR Archives (now held in Danvers).
Lambert was also superintendent of Beartown State Forest and was responsible for finding jobs for the CCC men not only at Beartown (the 108th and 112th companies) but also at Sandisfield (the 196th) and Otis (109th). By 1938, the men had already dammed and enlarged Benedict Pond at Beartown, built a new road from Blue Hill Road to the public beach and improved the old road from the pond north to Lee. The recruits had installed culverts, dug fire ponds, created campsites, heeled in pine plantations and much more.
Lambert wrote Jan. 23, 1939: "The Adirondack shelter project is the last of three shelters being built at strategic places along the Wildcat and Appalachian trail systems. This present one is at the middle of the Wildcat trail on Beartown and is just being started. The other two were completed last month."
The other two, according to Gillman and Morris, are the Wilcox shelter and a now-gone structure on the old AT route atop Mount Warner, above Ski Butternut. The Tom Leonard shelter has replaced that last one.
"These are great remnant examples of the recreational heritage that the CCC built in the Massachusetts State Park system," Gillman said.
Other CCC-era trail shelters identified by Berg are at Mount Grace State Forest in Warwick and in Brimfield State Forest. Neither Beartown shelter is listed, Gillman affirmed.
Lambert in his March 1939 report said, "The Adirondack shelter on the Wildcat trail was completed this month and the toilet for it is being completed now. There is still a toilet to be built at the other two shelters on the Appalachian trail one near Mt. Wilcox and the other at East Mt. I think these will be completed within the month if the weather doesn't get too bad."
How have the Beartown shelters endured?
"The logs are chestnut, hence rot resistant," according to Gillman.
Still, time, use and worn roof shingles took a toll.
Eighty-year-old Wildcat shelter is now in spiff condition, thanks to a grant and a cooperative effort of DCR and the Student Conservation Association. SCA specializes in historic preservation. It is based at Wompatuck State Park in Hingham. Numerous logs were salvageable. Chestnut is no longer available, of course, thanks to the century-ago blight. But hemlock for the roof decking was obtained from Will Conklin's Sky View Farm in Sheffield.
Another SCA team this summer has replaced the roof on the Wilcox South structure, Morris told me.
A combination toilet and woodshed also survives on Wildcat Trail. The jutting front has fallen in, the victim of invasive weather and a fallen tree limb. An old door had a message scratched on its surface: "Al Flagg 108th Co CCC South Lee, Mass. July 1938-40. Boston, Mass." The privy is next on the restoration list in a year or two, according to Morris.
"There is a building located along the Wildcat Trail that is rumored to have been used/built by the CCC as a dynamite storage shack," Morris said. "I'd eventually like to rehabilitate this as well."
Several years ago I hiked with friends from Blue Hill Road north on the Appalachian Trail over the Ledges to the Wilcox South shelter. Donna and I in 2012 hiked south on the AT from Beartown Mountain Road to the North Wilcox Shelter, built circa 1977 through a CETA program. I ticked the Tom Leonard leanto off my short list a few years later, scrambling over ledges on the AT from Lake Buel Road. I've seen all but the newer (early 2000s) Wilcox South shelter on the AT — so another hike is in order.
For outdoors recreationists, these are hospitality resources well placed in our state forests.
Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.
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