VeteransToday visits the Beautiful Berkshires
The ‘On the Road with Jim Dean’ series kicks off with an Intimate Tour of Berkshire County … “Where it all began.”
[ Editor’s note: In the modern cultural landscape, it is a pleasure to find prolific writers, such as those at VT, who see the world with a mix of gravitas and humor – and who nurture the creative process.
It has become my pleasure to read many of VT’s articles these past years. The website is unique.
When Jim Dean’s “Berkshires” travel article came out in June of 2012, I was living in a house on Tussey mountain in the Appalachians, and discovered I resonated with this story from the Berkshire mountains. Those Massachusetts mountain kids are “okay”.
I particularly admired the forge work of WWII vet, Chuck Wales, who served as Jim’s tour guide at the Hancock Shaker Village, and reflected about how Chuck took up blacksmithing during retirement. Thank you, Chuck, for the inspiration on how to be young at heart.
In honor of Jim’s Mom, who turns eighty-something next week, we bring you a cherished flashback to this corner of the Berkshires… Erica P. Wissinger ]
– First published June 10, 2012 –
I am about to wrap up an almost five week home visit to Berkshire County, Massachusetts to kick off a long planned ‘On the Road’ series.
Just before I left on this trip my home town of Gt. Barrington was selected by Smithsonian.com as the best small town in America among twenty contestants. It was a good omen.
At the old train station in the image above I filmed a wonderful Saturday morning organic farmer’s market. They had ‘to die for’ breads, grass fed beef, and maple syrup among their goodies. And I got some great salt of the earth stand up interviews with the vendors.
Local businesses, especially the restaurants, make a special effort to use all the local products that they can to support the last of the family farm community.
As a child I remember beginning my first trip to my mother’s family Mississippi farm from this station station, the beginning of my own magical mystery tour, a love of new experiences and faraway places which lasted for many years.
I have vivid memories of uniformed servicemen constantly surrounding us, lifting every bag, providing every assistance. But I would not learn till many years later that mother had been a Gold Star wife at age 16. When she had mentioned this to the soldiers on the train they formed a protective circle around her. We got the Hollywood star treatment.
A confluence of events brought me here, like not being home for sixteen years, my 45th Berkshire School reunion, mother turning 85 this past week, and having always wanted to add some gorgeous Berkshire video footage to my Heritage TV archives.
A short trip would have only put a dent into what I needed to get but fate provided me a larger get-a-way opportunity. I am coming back to Atlanta with lots of new footage and a host of new friends.
This new material and my Heritage TV archives will be used on VeteransToday as we continue developing our Living and Arts section. We all need some escape from the blood and guts of much of our daily fare here.
My original plan was to create a variety of series which would be easy to find in our huge 20,000+ article archive and broaden the public’s view of veterans beyond their military service. For many veterans their post active duty life was the major part of what they contributed, not only to the country but to humanity.
Even as a kid I thought he had one of the best jobs in America, traveling the back roads to share the gems he found with the rest of us.
He had the gift of sprinkling in his special brand of poetic and artist flare through every program. Sunday Morning routinely featured the fine arts, something not considered to be mass audience material back then. Kuralt was ahead of his time, and we are all the richer for it.
So my On the Road with Jim Dean series is hereby birthed with this piece being just a preview of what is in the pipeline, including lots of great footage.
My first major venue stop was the Hancock Shaker Village a few miles west of Pittsfield, Mass., the largest city in the Berkshires. As the Shakers did not reproduce, as in children, their numbers dwindled over the years with just a small community in Sabbath Day Lake, Maine today. But their legacy lives on as my visit confirmed.
But with no fooling around allowed, there was a lot more time for work and work they did. The Shakers left a legacy of industriousness and innovation which one would not expect for a group living to a great deal in isolation as they did.
For example, the next time you used a flat broom you are using a Shaker invention. I have footage to show you how they were made. And Shaker baskets are collected the world over.
Some of you vets might ask what is the veteran tie in for all of this?
At the Shaker Village my tour host was Chuck Wales, a 90 year old WWII Naval Academy grad whose destroyer the USS Lansdale was sunk in the same convoy that my mother’s first husband was killed when the SS Paul Hamilton was torpedoed with 580 men and 7000 tons of explosives aboard.
Chuck had live five miles from my mother for 55 years and they had never met. Chuck, by the way, is one of the Shaker Village blacksmith demonstrators, something he took up at age 77!!
Last Wednesday he cranked up their water turbine machine shop, all belts, pulleys and clutches, and demonstrated some of the work stations. This was a first experience for me.
The footage came out well because the Shakers put a lot of windows in their work buildings for natural light, and we had enough to shoot in as long as the sun was out. Cloudy days were a different story.
Chuck also gave me a detailed interview of what it was like to by sunk on the Lansdale where many of his shipmates died and he spent three hours in the oil covered dark water before luckily being found by a rescue boat. We call that rescue roulette.
He went on to have a long engineering career with General Electric in Pittsfield. For fun he biked 2500 miles a year, ran 500, and paddled his racing canoe to keep himself in shape so he could do his cross country skiing in the winter.
I was most disappointed to learn the his reaching 90 in great health was not a secret herbal remedy 🙂
The Berkshires are famous for their Gilded Age country cottages, often huge estates of forty to fifty rooms. I grew up with a seven story castle at the end of the street and did not know that every town did not have one of these for many years.
I shot several of these which included Naumkeag, the Choate estate, a national trust gem thanks to daughter Mabel Choate who left not only the property but everything inside house down to the linens.
Filming Naumkeag this was as close to entering a time machine as I have ever been. The 1958 newspaper was still on her night table and the dogy bowls on the butler pantry floor.
Mabel’s father had been a major New York City attorney and Ambassador to Britain for six years. He ended his career as an international peace activist so he would have been welcome here at VT
These estates were always sited for their magnificent views of the Berkshire hills and most all were working farms during their earlier years. Most were used primarily as summer homes with the owners retreating to their city abodes for the rest of the year. The rail lines up New York City to the Berkshires made the commute a scenic tour in itself.
Edith Wharton, who wrote forty books in her illustrious career which including being the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. A master house builder and gardener she had The Mount built in 1902.
As with many other Berkshire ‘cottages’ the property had changed hands many times after she sold it when moving to Paris, but it is now in a trust which has spent years refurbishing it to it’s former glory including the gardens.
The Mount acquired Edith’s library a few years ago. The English book dealer who had purchased it from one of the sons had held onto it all of these years and the trustees were able to work out an acquisition and bring her books back home to the Berkshires.
These properties are run by a mixed group of trustees, boards, conservators, local arts and historical groups and always needed volunteers…your classic ‘it takes a village’ mix of talent and love.
Most all of the venues welcomed Veterans Today in to shoot. We seemed to have been the first international veterans online platform to show an interest in featuring their work to our readers. But as you will see below, veterans have played key roles not only in American historical preservation and education, but also the arts.
The Clark Museum in Williamstown, Mass., was the largest that I visited, requiring two trips. Sterling Clark, a Singer Sewing Machine company heir, was a young Army officer who served in the Boxer Rebellion campaign in China.
He and his French actress wife later became major art collectors, the quiet kind that never put their treasures on display. But in their later years they funded the building of the Clark and donated their entire collection. On opening day the public saw for the first time their huge collection.
The current trustees have expanded the scope and holdings for the museum on their 140 beautiful acres of north Berkshires County hills where art and nature are seamlessly woven together. This combining of natural and man made beauty is a Berkshire staple and the foundation of its tourism business.
The Clark has one of the best art history libraries in North America and a graduate program co-sponsored with Williams College and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. The master expansion plan continues to update older facilities, construct new ones, and coordinate the usage with it’s traditional Williamstown neighboring entities.
Neighboring Williams College was also founded by a veteran. Colonel Ephraim Williams Jr., was killed in action in the Battle of Lake George during the French and Indian War. He wanted a free college established, which was done via his will, but unfortunately was not feasible to continue as such.
Williams has become one of the finest of the smaller liberal arts colleges in the country with around 2200 students. But it is not small in facilities or resources, which its recently completed $60 million theater and art complex attests.
Although expensive it has an incredible financial aid program where ability to pay is not a critical consideration for entry. Full rides are available for those who are the best of the best. As usual, a strong alumni and endowment programs supports this level of educational commitment, making Williams College the educational crown jewel of the Berkshires.
Everywhere you look in Williamstown is a postcard scene, and I have saved the predicted sunny day this coming Monday for my last shoot at the Clark and film some of the town sites and scenes.
The Norman Rockwell Museum was a first time visit for me. I had seen him a few times as a boy when out on family drives. He was well known for being spotted on his afternoon bike rides.
It was every kid’s dream to be selected as a Rockwell painting model. The work was easier than you might think as he extensively posed all of his models for photo shoots and actually painted from those.
The museum features this local involvement in the Rockwell art history with a monthly special event called ‘Meet the Models’…those who are still with us as time is harvesting them, also.
I cannot describe how breath taking it is to stand in front of the original paintings of Rockwell’s Americana as compared to the prints. My favorite has always been the huge Christmas in Stockbridge painting.
The museum’s state of the art website brings many of these images to you with just a few clicks. Don’t miss these. You have my Jim Dean guarantee!
One of the highlights of the trip was shooting the detail work of his artistic genius. I will share what I can with the VT audience with the proper procedures and permissions.
The curators also allowed me to shoot his original studio, which had been sawed in half and moved to the museum site years ago and reassembled. There is something magical about being inside the actual studio where great art was created.
All active duty veterans are welcome to visit the museum as guests of the staff and trustees.
If you pass anywhere near Berkshire county and don’t stop in here you have missed a part of being an American. Save your money for some lodging as you need a few days to put a dent into catching the area’s highlights. It’s a trip the kids will never forget.
Yesterday I was hosted by Arrowhead, the Herman Melville Berkshire farm where he did much of his writing and hung out with the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who he met on a Monument Mountain hike.
As I drove up I had to look twice at a new exhibit looking out toward Mt. Greylock, a huge white Moby Dick diving into a sea of summer grass with a harpooner about ready to seal his fate. This surprise, actually a hay sculpture of Ahab and his nemesis, was created by local artist Michael Melle.
The Berkshire County Historical Society has all of their archives here, the result of many individuals and groups to preserve for safekeeping and pass on to future generations.
The Margaret H. Hall Library and Archives contains over 200 cubic feet of manuscripts, 170 linear feet of books, 150 maps and atlases, 350 oral history tapes, and 14,000 photographic images. Letters, journals, government records, newspapers, and directories dating from the early 18th century to the present can be found here.
It is a superb collection. What I would give to delve into all of those oral histories and photos but alas I had to keep moving along to my next stop for the day. A return visit will definitely be needed to enjoy these treasures.
Jacob’s Pillow is a sterling example of mixing all types of dance artists in the Berkshire Hills. It is the only National Historic designated site for dance, and continues this tradition as one of the world’s top international dance festivals, and America’s oldest.
Founder Ted Shawn purchased the 1700’s era farm to build a summer retreat for his all male dance company at the time. His legacy lives on in the Pillow’s reputation of bringing alumni dance celebrities back every year to perform and teach new generations of emerging dancers.
“He was keen of wit, caustic of tongue, avid of interest, terrifically temperamental, of inexhaustible energy, tenacious, aggressive, indomitable…of the stuff to become the first male dancer in America to achieve a position of influence and importance.” – John Martin, America Dancing
The staff hosted me twice and one of the surprises I learned that during WWII they took a big personnel hit when many of the dancers, all men at that time, left to join the services after Peal Harbor.
But director Ted Shawn was steady at the helm, pushing to build the now famous Ted Shawn Theater in 1942 so that ‘the dancers would have something to come back to when the war was over’. And come back they did, and on the G.I. Bill to boot which helped the Pillow get it’s momentum back after the war.
The Pillow is celebrating it’s 80th season this summer where they have a mix of non stop performances, classes, lectures, picnics, trail walks through their 140 acres.
These include regular free events on one of the most incredible outside stages I have even seen, using the sunset over the Berkshire Hills as a natural stage setting…just breath taking.
To my regret I have never seen a live performance. But last year when I was doing trip research and ran across their website I was thrilled to find they had put a huge effort into digitizing and archiving every shred of their history they could find.
They have made an extensive array of their ‘best of’ material available to a world wide audience, all just a few clicks away. I shot an interview yesterday with the Pillow archivist Norton Owen, formerly a student in 1976 who came back to stay. And 37 years later he is still working away with current executive and artistic director Ella Baff, who accepted the prestigious National Medal of Arts from President Obama on behalf of Jacob’s Pillow this past March.
Along the way with these major venue stops there has been a lot of scenic shooting. My old prep school where I spent two years as a day student, Berkshire School provided a lot of shooting over alumni weekend, not the least of which was their million solar array farm, and their beautiful setting under Black Rock Mountain, above.
Nearing the completion of a major upgrade to their facilities, Berkshire will continue to provide a world class secondary education to it’s international student body.
I am grateful to the school for my senior year scholarship and September senior year early acceptance to N. C. State University which saw me off on another journey, although the chemical engineering part got lost along the way during those hectic Vietnam years where Skip Welles became my class’s first KIA.
Memorial Day found me catching two small town events, more intimate that the big Atlanta one I have been attending.
I did the Gt. Barrington one of course, under their Civil War Yankee memorial, but also followed the vets down to little S. Egremont for the 100 yard parade from the fire station to the war memorial and back again.
I was quite to surprised to see how many WWII vets this village produced, including what appeared to be the entire male population of the Curtis family…with the last surviving daughter living across the street in her 90’s.
These little towns and villages all have their very old cemeteries. And I am talking colonial era ones, with names that are hard to read. The fresh flags on the old graves caught my attention driving by S. Egremont one day.
With just one look I knew there had to be Rev War graves there and I was right, but also WWI, and all the others, including one fella from Georgia.
We have our colonial cemeteries in the South, but usually only in the major cities where their larger grave stones remain. These cemeteries are sprinkled with Confederate Iron Crosses, whereas up here I have found GAR markers, Grand Army of the Potomac, outnumber WWII ones, the sides different but the losses to the families the same.
Heading back from a Bash Bish Falls shoot one weekend I stopped off at the little Mt. Washington cemetery. Again the new flags caught my eye. And yes, Rev War soldiers buried there, too, a very tough place to live in those days do to the poor roads.
And in one little corner I found some contemporary stones for a Jewish couple, off by themselves which is their tradition, Ed and Betty Davis, dying in 2003 as post WWII immigrants.
It was the first time I have seen ‘holocaust survivor’ on grave stones before, especially way out in the boonies on the top of Mt. Washington. I suspect they may have wanted to be away from a lot people, and were successful.
I have always considered all wars a holocaust, especially for those who were in them, including the families. Mother has three folded veterans flags, two husbands and a son…too many.
The family losses are universal ones, and special recognition for one group over another always dishonors another’s by sending them to the back of the bus, something in which I will never participate. I have been to too many veterans funerals.
Getting out into the countryside to the film is always an enriching experience, which is why I do it. There are always surprises and learning moments about the fortunate lives we live, much of it due to contributions of those before. We only enjoy what was preserved for us and that which we can add, as I will be doing with this series.
But one lesson I learned, which I had been a bit foggy on, was the legacy of wealthy Americans who have donated their fortunes back to the American people in so many ways.
Veterans have always been front and center in this ongoing process and we will continue to do our part in our unique way, with our unique platform here.
My thanks to all the Berkshire venues who contributed to my shooting trip. We will feature each of them here as I get the video footage edited out for a full multimedia effort, which they all deserve…and something that will last.
Editing: Erica P. Wissinger
He is working to find time now to database his extensive video archive of Americana and interviews filmed during his public TV days so individual topic segments can be key word searched to quickly use in future multi-media projects.
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