(to download full text in pdf, see below)
“Berkshire”, is the westernmost region of Massachusetts. It is delineated on three sides by state borders: Vermont to the north, New York to the west and Connecticut to the south; the eastern border is topographical, but no less distinct. Heading west from the north-south meanderings of the Connecticut River, the fertile lowlands of tobacco fields in the Pioneer Valley are quickly left behind and the land rises abruptly into the rocky foothills of the Appalachians. This so-called “Berkshire Barrier” slowed western colonial expansion into the region for a hundred years; Berkshire retains a remoteness today, if not in travel time to nearby cities, then in the insular tendency among the venerable “Berkshirite”.
Berkshire, so christened for its similar appearance to the English district of the same name, was once also called the “American Lake District”. Indeed, the verdant forests and lakes of the two regions are strikingly similar as are their parallel traditions as home to writers and playground to visitors. There are differences however, not the least of which is in pronunciation. Where the British say, “BARK/sure”, outsiders reveal themselves right away when they say, “burk/S-H-I-R-E”, and the true Berkshirite distinguishes themselves when they say, “burk/sure”.
Independent minds, personal expression and individualism are well entrenched ingredients in the culture of Berkshire. Accordingly, it comes as no surprise that the Berkshire Convention of 1774 voted to boycott British made goods, among the first such decrees in the Colonies. Likewise, most Berkshire towns still use the time-honored “town meeting” form of government where local citizens convene to debate and vote on the business of the town. Any voting citizen may address the meeting, and people certainly do so, often at length, despite obviously being of the minority opinion. And, while the total population of Berkshire has never exceeded 150,000 people, and some of its towns reached their peak populations long before the year 1900, the impact of a succession of singular “personalities” plus distinct and evolving “places” have been particularly formative to the culture of Berkshire. Several examples follow to illustrate the point.
Nineteenth century Berkshire saw the proliferation of industry in the towns and dotting the hills and waterways: tanning, glass, iron, paper and textiles. In 1801, Zenas Crane started a paper mill and contracted with the United States government to supply the special paper required for currency stock. Such was the success, that both the family ownership and the contract continue uninterrupted to this day.
In the mid 19th century, drawn by the pastoral landscapes, Berkshire became the home of Nathaniel Hawthorne where he wrote “The Scarlet Letter” and Herman Melville who wrote “Moby Dick”. The later was purportedly inspired as he gazed from his window by a silhouette of a whale formed by the slopes of nearby Mount Greylock, Berkshire’s highest peak. Their friends’ and other literary greats soon followed and Berkshire’s literary legacy was cemented.
Among the friends was Samuel G. Ward, a wealthy man who became a summer resident of Berkshire starting in 1846. With a commanding view of the landscape, Ward’s home was just across the road from Hawthorne. With its favorable summer climate and ease of access by rail from Boston, New York and Hartford, another key addition to Berkshire culture was formed, that of the so-called “cottage era”. Bridging the gap between social prominence and literary importance was Edith Wharton, author of the “Age of Innocence” and the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. Wharton became a Berkshire “cottager” in 1901. The Carnegie’s, the Vanderbilt’s and others (75 in all) also arrived to build and play, but, while the days of the “Inland Newport” are now long since past, the resort status of Berkshire continues unabated.
By the 1930’s, what Twain had called, “The Gilded Age” had faded, but the next great period of Berkshire was just beginning to flower; this new period would bring leisure pursuits and entertainment of the highest order to the emerging middle class. The snowy winters and gentle hills of Berkshire were ideal for the “new” sport of skiing. Facilities were pioneered on Berkshire slopes, and soon the area was busy with skiers, locals and visitors alike, reinventing the exhilaration of the Berkshire landscape once more. And, under the direction and vision of Maestro Serge Koussevitzky, the Boston Symphony Orchestra established a great musical institution on the land once occupied by Samuel Ward’s summer estate. Called Tanglewood, after Hawthorne’s book, “Tanglewood Tales”, the festival is a world-class attraction where audiences enjoy the music in the outdoor sylvan setting. Tanglewood has become synonymous with musical greats Aaron Copeland, Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa and John Williams.
Accordingly, Berkshire culture is adept at adaptation and preservation. While some of the cottages were razed, some remained private residences, others became schools and another a yoga and health center. Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount, was saved from the wrecking ball by director and actress, Tina Packer. She founded a professional theater group in the 1970’s, “Shakespeare & Company”, who performed theater outdoors on the grounds of The Mount for more than 20 years before moving down the street to another former cottage allowing the property to be transformed yet again into a museum to Wharton. In another example in the 1990’s, the Guggenheim Museum, searching for a site for its oversized collection of contemporary art, transformed some long disused and massively scaled 19th century textile mills of Berkshire into stunning display space. The result is a postmodern mix of old and new: high tech film and computer companies flourish alongside galleries of art, all housed within the rambling manufacturing space of a now vanished era.
Modern mentalities encourage short memories and emphasize rapid change, Berkshire culture runs counter to both. Berkshire, a small place, just 49 miles north to south and ranging from only 12 to 24 miles in breadth, however, remains distinct. Owing to its unique landscape, small population and the history of visionary individuals, Berkshire, remains a resilient, vibrant and unique cultural realm.
George F. Roberson, PhD
Denver, Colorado, August 2004
Geography Human Dimensions Research Group
University of Massachusetts – Amherst, USA
This article appears in slightly different form in:
Roberson, G. 2005. “Berkshires” in The Encyclopedia of New England Culture, Burt Feintuch and David H. Watters, eds. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005, p. 545-6. To download in pdf, click here
Berkshire: Seasons of Celebration (1982) Sam Bittman and Steven A Satullo, editors: Either or Press, Pittsfield, MA.
The Berkshires (1948) Roderick Peattie, editor, Vanguard Press, New York.
The Berkshire Cottages: A Vanishing Era (1984) by Carole Owens: Cottage Press, Inc, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
Historical Atlas of Massachusetts (1991) by Richard Wilkie: University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA.
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