'Rock Stars & Paper Tigers' opens in Lee gallery

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LEE — In the mid-19th century, Lee's marble and paper industries were economic engines that put the blue-collar town on the map and helped build a nation.

Marble, quarried in Lee, was used in architectural landmarks around the country: the Washington Monument, the Capitol Building's wings, the Empire State Building, the Los Angeles Armory, Boston Public Library, Philadelphia City Hall, St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City and Grant's Tomb.

And for a short time, the Smith Paper Co., the first American commercial producer of paper made from wood pulp, vaulted Lee to No. 1 producer of paper in the country.

The rise and fall of these two major industries in the town, as well as their importance on a local and national level, is documented in the Lee Historical Society's exhibit, "Rock Stars & Paper Tigers," on view at the Peter J. Scolforo Gallery at the Lee Library through the end of the month.

The display features documents and artifacts key to the rise of the two industries, along with many photographs from the library's digitized archive.

"We put so much effort into doing this, from the cataloguing to entering data, that it's very gratifying the resource is being used," Lee Library Association President Mary Philpott said of the exhibit's use of the digitized photographs. "We continue to prepare additional photo collections to be added to our digitized images that will be available in the future."

Exhibit curator Phil Smith (with plenty of help from his wife, Kathy) spent weeks preparing the exhibit, he says, is the society's "most ambitious show" in its nearly 20-year history.

"I've had my house torn up for weeks with items stored throughout. Thank God I have a large house," he said. "We hope to pump up local history with this exhibit."

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The trip down memory lane also includes a display from Onyx Specialty Papers, the town's lone remaining operational paper mill, and an exhibit, "Baseball in Lee," curated by Larry Moore of Baseball in the Berkshires.

"We wanted to bring them in," Smith said of the Onyx Specialty Papers display. "They are the survivor, and they are doing very well under local ownership."

Onyx, operating out of the historic Willow Mill, once home to the Hurlbut Paper Co., has been the last bastion of paper manufacturing in the town since four other Lee mills ceased operations from 2007 to 2008.

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"[Owner/President Patricia Begrowicz] and I feel we're the current stewards of the industry in Lee. We always have new products in development," said Christopher Mathews, owner and executive vice president of Onyx.

The difference between this and past Lee Historical Society shows, Smith said, is that on each Friday of the month, from 1 to 5 p.m. and on Nov. 14 from 5 to 8 p.m., volunteers will act as guides and be available to answer questions.

"In the past, we've just hung stuff on the wall and that's it," he said. "We want to explain the importance of Lee marble and paper to the town ... and to the nation."

The backdrop for the guides includes:

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- Three panels on Lee's marble, paper and lime production;

- A 1932 account of the value of all Smith Paper properties and equipment in Depression dollars;

- Listings of paper companies that have done business in Lee.

But Smith is most proud of a quote from Gen. M.C. Meigs, quartermaster general for the U.S. Army, that he found in the Nov. 18, 1874, edition of the town's newspaper, The Valley Gleaner.

"The marble from the quarries at Lee, of which the U.S. Capitol are constructed, has proved to be a most excellent building stone," Meigs is quoted as saying. "It is 16 years since the lower courses were laid upon the wings of the Capitol and the exposed surface of the block ... are as bright in color as free from stain and corrosion, as they day they were set."

Such high praise, Smith said, "should be a point of pride for the town" in understanding Lee's place in helping to shape the Berkshires, the state and the country.

Dick Lindsay can be reached at rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6233.


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