The Lenox of today is a product of its colorful history
Change has always come slowly to the Berkshire hills.
Although occupied by the Mahican Indians, the Berkshires remained a primeval forest largely unsettled by whites well-into the 19th century –- long after Colonial society was established in eastern Massachusetts and the Hudson River Valley. One 1694 traveler from Albany to Boston described this region as “a hideous, howling wilderness.”
The mountains on the east and west were a formidable barrier to the advance of white Colonial settlement.
There were political obstacles too. Massachusetts and New York each claimed sections of the Berkshires, and a few early settlers and surveying parties were chased away in territorial skirmishes.
During the French and Indian Wars, the central and northern Berkshires were also vulnerable to attacks by French troops and the fierce Native American tribes who were allied with them. Attack parties temporarily drove away the earliest settlers on the future sites of Lenox, Pittsfield and other towns until 1760.
White settlement began in the southern end of the Berkshires. As early as 1692, a small group of Dutch farmers settled on the southwest border in Mount Washington.
In 1724, a group from Westfield, Mass., in the Connecticut River valley, bought from the Mahicans a large tract around Great Barrington and Sheffield, and Sheffield was incorporated in 1733. In 1736 the General Court established new townships on the sites of Tyringham, New Marlboro, Sandisfield and Becket.
The Mahicans co-existed peacefully with the white intruders. Nevertheless, in 1736 the Massachusetts Legislature ordered that they be moved to a central reservation and Christian mission at Stockbridge and West Stockbridge, including parts of today’s Lenox.
However, these small communities were merely scattered frontier outposts in the Berkshire wilderness. Even though land in Lenox had been granted early to the missionary ministers and others, these parcels and the rest of the county north of Stockbridge remained largely unoccupied by whites for many more years.
First Lenox settlers
The first white family in Lenox, Jonathan and Sarah Hinsdale, arrived from Hartford, Conn., in 1750. Hinsdale built a home at the base of the hill on today’s Stockbridge Road. The first child born in Lenox was their daughter Rhoda in 1751. In the town’s first taste of tourism, Hinsdale eventually established a small inn and general store (where he sold large quantities of rum).
Little is known about Jonathan Hinsdale, but he is said to have been a free-thinking individualist who came to Lenox to get away from the constraints of the city. In Lenox he was banned from the Church in 1775 for challenging standard religious practices and beliefs. Jonathan Hinsdale lived in Lenox until his death in 1811 at the age of 87.
The Hinsdales were soon joined by other families. But before they could establish a community, attacks by hostile Indians forced them temporarily to flee to safety.
Settlement of Lenox and the Berkshires finally began in earnest in the 1760s, with the end of the French and Indian Wars.
The western end of Massachusetts was separated from Hampshire County and incorporated as Berkshire County in 1761, and the Commonwealth auctioned off large parcels of land in the Berkshires for settlement. Existing towns grew, new ones were established rapidly and people began to move into the central and northern county. By the 1791 census, Berkshire County had 30,291 registered residents.
Sadly, with this influx of people, the lands the Mahican tribe had been given earlier became more coveted. Members of the tribe were pressured to sell off their properties to whites, and in 1783 the remaining Mahicans at the Stockbridge mission reluctantly agreed to move to another reservation in New York.
Lenox and Richmond
Portions of Indian land and other parcels were consolidated for sale as Lot Number 8 in 1762. This large tract included the sites of both today’s Richmond and Lenox.
After conflicting earlier land claims were resolved, Lot 8 was sold to Samuel Brown on the condition that he subdivide it to no less than 50 settlers with farms of at least seven acres apiece, and a town would be formed there.
Originally, Richmond had been called Mount Ephraim and Lenox was known as Yokuntown, after an Indian chief. This new consolidated district was renamed Richmond (or Richmont), after Charles Lennox, the Duke of Richmond, a British nobleman who defended the cause of the Colonies in England.
It quickly became obvious that the barrier of mountains running through the middle of this large district made it impossible to form a unified community. So in 1767, Richmond was divided into two separate towns.
The western section kept the name Richmond. The 22 square miles east of the hills was split off into another town and renamed Lenox, after the Duke of Richmond’s family name of Lennox. (The change to Lenox has been blamed on a clerk’s misspelling.)
The first town meeting of Lenox was called by Israel Dewey, a large landowner and town leader, and held at his home (the present site of the Birchwood Inn) on March 1, 1767 at 9 a.m.
A hard life
Lenox certainly did not start out with the glamorous image it later acquired. Life in the town was a struggle, and its only connection to the outside was a dirt path.
Like other Colonial communities, Lenox relied on farming and small industry. The Berkshires were rich in iron ore, quartz sand for glass and other minerals that could be processed into useful materials found in other Berkshire towns: sawmills, textile mills, ironworks, glassworks and a quarry, among others.
Timber and potash (ash for tanning) were also in demand. The settlers worked hard to clear the forest for settlement, and early descriptions depict Lenox as a desolate-looking village stripped of trees.
The Congregational Church was the officially sanctioned religion in Massachusetts until 1834. Among the first tasks of new towns like Lenox was levying a tax to pay for the construction and operation of a church meetinghouse.
After some delay a small meetinghouse was constructed on the hill in the north end of the central village. Rev. Samuel Munson was hired as pastor in 1770. His tenure was contentious and participation in the church declined. Munson was succeeded in 1793 by Rev. Samuel Shepard, an enthusiastic young man.
When Shepard arrived in Lenox he found “the spiritual and moral aspects of the place gloomy.”
Schools were another town responsibility. A schoolmaster was hired in 1770 and Lenox was later divided into nine school districts.
Soon after the town was incorporated, the residents of Lenox had another concern to deal with.
Always feisty, Berkshirites eagerly joined the growing rebellion against Britain. Local politics was increasingly dominated by this revolt and by the conflicts between patriots and their Tory neighbors who “infested” the community. One Lenox Tory, Gideon Smith, was put into a noose three times to convince him to change his allegiance from the Crown to the patriotic cause.
Many early acts of defiance toward the Crown took place in Berkshire County. In 1774 an estimated 1,500 Colonists blocked the royal judges from sitting in court at Great Barrington. At the Berkshire Congress that year, delegates from Lenox and other towns signed a document declaring the principles of separation from Britain in language that was later echoed in the Declaration of Independence. Meanwhile, Lenox residents also drew up a “Covenant” that boycotted British trade.
When war with England broke out, Lenox quickly contributed many troops to the Revolutionary army – 231 names appeared on the town’s military roster.
Among the most famous was Col. John Paterson, a lawyer who early on had formed a militia of local men. He distinguished himself as an officer in many battles during the war. Paterson returned to Lenox after the war, then moved to New York state where he had a career as a justice and member of Congress. His remains were later returned to Lenox by his descendents, the Egleston family, in 1892 and the stone monument in the center of town was erected in his honor.
After the war, Berkshire communities were soon split by another conflict. Farmers burdened by debts revolted in western Massachusetts in Shays’ Rebellion. Paterson and Col. William Walker of Lenox were among the leaders of the troops who fought the ragtag rebels in 1787 in Lee and other locales.
Village on the rise
According to the census, the town population fluctuated at first. In 1791 it had 1,169 residents, but dropped to 1,041 in 1800. By 1810 that figure had increased to 1,310; however, the census registered an increase of only five residents by 1820.
Nevertheless, the community’s fortunes were on the rise. As early as 1798, Yale President Timothy Dwight wrote while passing through Lenox that “the soil and buildings are good and the town exhibits many proofs of prosperity.”
The enthusiastic Rev. Shepard revived the Congregational Church and remained as its pastor until 1846. In 1806, the congregation replaced the original small meetinghouse with a new church building. This Main Street structure has become one of the Berkshires’ most famous landmarks, the Church on the Hill. By the 1830s Shepard could write that “Lenox is pleasant and healthful, and probably presents fewer temptations to vice and immorality than almost any other place containing an equal population.”
While Congregationalism had been the official religion in the colony, it was not the only one. In 1805 an Episcopal mission was established in Lenox, and in 1818 the first Episcopal church was built at 27 Church Street. The Methodists also established a Lenox congregation in 1811 and erected a church on the same street at 25 Church Street.
Besides the growing central village, the east side of town was becoming a busy center of farming and industry. Now called Lenox Dale, it was originally known as Lenox Furnace, because of the ironworks there. Northeastern Lenox was known as New Lenox. The east side was also known for a time as Dewey’s, after the family that owned much of the farmland there.
In addition to the network of public schools that were being established around town, a group of prominent Berkshire residents formed a private school, originally called the Berkshire Academy, in a wood-frame building on Main Street in 1803.
This school, which was renamed Lenox Academy, became a prominent institution known for its quality of education. Lenox Academy operated until 1866, when it was converted into the town’s first public high school and later became the Trinity School.
A town of tunnels
Iron was one of early Lenox’s major industries. A rich vein of iron ore ran through the town. During the Revolutionary War, this ore was processed into bullets for the Revolutionary troops.
By the 1780s the Lenox Iron Works had been established by Job Gilbert to process this ore on a large scale in Lenox Furnace. The Iron Works’ early years were tenuous, and a group of local citizens led by Judge William Walker had to
invest in the firm to keep it going in 1787. Walker and his partners eventually took controlling interest in the business, and the iron industry was an important part of the town’s economy for many decades.
The iron industry had other effects, however. Much of this ore was located under the central village of Lenox, so a network of mine tunnels were dug beneath the town from an entrance near Franklin Street. The tunnels ran under Main, Franklin and Housatonic streets, among others.
Occasionally, portions of the tunnels would collapse, bringing down whatever was above them. In 1862, ghostly voices were heard in the home of George Tucker (located across Main Street from the Lenox Academy). Later that night the house dropped straight down into a mine shaft, up to its second-story windows. The voices had been miners working below the house. The house was moved to another site.
Similar incidents of sinking occurred over the years, even after the mines were closed.
(In a 1946 article, The Berkshire Evening Eagle noted that the federal government had ordered a survey of the long-forgotten mines during World
War II for possible reactivation for the war effort. The Eagle added that in the new atomic age, the military was also seeking sites for underground air-raid shelters. The article concluded: “Perhaps Lenox will see its old mines pumped out to form ideal atom-raid shelters in case of another world war.”)
Days in court
In the early days, Pittsfield and Lenox were rivals to become the major town of the Berkshires. Lenox scored an early coup.
The original county seat of Berkshire County had been located in Great Barrington. As the population grew in the northern Berkshires, a more central location was needed.
Lenox –- which is in the exact center of the county –- lobbied to become the county seat. The town won that distinction over Pittsfield and Great Barrington in 1784, and the first session of the county court in Lenox was held in 1787.
The presence of the County Court on Main Street enlivened the “shire town” in more ways than one. When the court was in session, Lenox became a hive of activity, as an array of colorful people descended on the small village for court business.
“To us who live in the country the occasion is quite imposing,” wrote one local newspaper describing a court session. “It presents us with a vast variety of characters: Young attorneys in the bustle of new-found business, and the older ones assuming more and more the dignified gravity of the bench; waiting jurymen chatting in little clusters by the wayside; worrying clients complaining of sleepless nights; witnesses of all orders, sizes, sexes and ages; spectators trading horses in the street and politicians smoking over government affairs in the bar-room.”
The County Court and jail also provided some dark and macabre moments. The first county jail was located on Stockbridge Road and was later relocated next to the courthouse, to the southeast corner of Main and Housatonic streets.
Numerous hangings took place on “Gallows Hill” on West Street. The executions became public spectacles, complete with a band. At least one condemned criminal was hauled in his coffin by sled to the town church, to listen to a frightening sermon about the agony of damnation he was about to face if he did not repent.
The first County Courthouse was a wooden building erected on the corner of Walker and Main streets, by the present Town Hall. In 1816, a stately new structure was built for the Courthouse on Main Street (home today of the Lenox Library). The original courthouse became the Town Hall and was the focal point of local life. A new Town Hall was built in 1901 and recently was renovated, preserving its original grand features.
Early Lenox mystique
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the rough-hewn frontier settlement began to acquire the mystique that would have such a profound effect on its future as a resort community.
In one sense, the transformation of Lenox was part of the larger emergence of Berkshire County during the 19th century as a resort region, known as the American Lake District. This trend influenced many Berkshire communities, including Pittsfield, which attracted its share of resort hotels, vacation estates and prestigious visitors.
Nevertheless, the trend became especially notable in Lenox and Stockbridge, and the two communities became rivals for prestige in later years.
The presence of the County Court gave Lenox an early push toward tourism. It focused attention on the town among the judges, attorneys and businesspeople who came to conduct court business and who often returned to their hometowns praising the town’s beauty.
The court also established the basis of an early tourist industry, providing a booming market of guests for the boardinghouses and inns that housed the visitors attending court sessions.
As the 19th century progressed, word continued to spread in the outside world about this beautiful village tucked away in the Berkshire hills. In a travel book of the early 1820s Professor Benjaman Silliman described Lenox as “a town of uncommon beauty… Indeed it is one of the prettiest of our inland towns and even in the view of a European traveler it would appear like a gem among the mountains.”
The first summer visitors in Lenox were probably the widow and children of the Rev. Monson, who returned for a vacation around 1820, according to the 1886 Book of Berkshire.
At about the same time, the “Misses Merritt” from New York spent at least one summer vacation here – they were amateur artists and enthusiastically showed their paintings of the Lenox countryside to their friends back in the city.
The County Court also boosted Lenox’s image in another way, attracting three people into the town who would have a major role in establishing its reputation -– Charles, Elizabeth and Catharine Sedgwick. They were members of a prominent Stockbridge family with many influential friends.
Charles Sedgwick moved to Lenox with this wife Elizabeth in 1821 to become clerk of the court. They were soon joined by his sister Catharine. Charles Sedgwick became an enthusiastic booster of Lenox, telling his friends elsewhere about the town and inviting them for visits.
His wife Elizabeth helped cultivate the town’s image by establishing a respected school for young ladies. Her school, and the Lenox Academy, brought to Lenox the children of prominent families. Many students from Lenox, such as the educator Mark Hopkins, would also make their own names in later life.
The presence of Catharine Sedgwick was an especially important influence. She was one of America’s first important woman writers, a popular author of widely read stories. Catharine traveled extensively, spent much of her time in the cities and was well-acquainted with the leading cultural figures of the day.
Catharine’s first impressions of Lenox were unfavorable, to say the least. Shortly after moving here in 1821 she described Lenox as “a bare and ugly little village, dismally bleak and uncouth, reached only after six miles of steep and rough driving.”
But her opinion soon changed to great affection, and she too became an ardent booster of the town. Many of her friends and admirers came to visit her in Lenox, and these lively gatherings gave the town an early name as a cultural and intellectual center.
Age of culture
Among the Sedgwicks’ visitors was Catharine’s close friend Fannie Kemble, a popular actress and writer. The English-born Kemble was a famed celebrity of the era, well-known for her keen intelligence and vibrant personality. One writer noted that where Kemble went, the leaders of society were sure to follow -– that prediction held true for Lenox.
Kemble first visited Catharine Sedgwick in 1836. Her visits became longer and oftener, and she developed a strong bond with Lenox, returning regularly for over 30 years. Initially, she stayed at the Curtis Hotel, then in 1849 she bought property on the road to Stockbridge for an odd home with a tower called “The Perch.” Kemble also entertained friends from elsewhere here.
By the 1840s and ‘50s the immigration of leading artists, writers and other intellectuals into the Berkshires was in full swing.
Herman Melville lived as a farmer and wrote Moby Dick in Pittsfield. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow spent time in Pittsfield on vacations and family business, and the writer Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes owned a vacation home in Pittsfield where he spent “seven blessed summers.” George P.R. James wrote seven novels in 18 months in Stockbridge.
The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher of New York spent several summers at a farm later called Beecher Hill (by the present Cranwell). Beecher helped spread the word about Lenox and the joys of country vacations in his book Star Papers, writing that city dwellers would become “transcendentally happy” in the country. “I wander forth wondering how there should be sorrow in the world,” he wrote. “Each hour is a perfect hour, clear, full and unstated. It is the joy of being alive… Such days are let down from heaven.”
The most important literary figure in Lenox during this period was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who moved here from Salem in 1850 with his wife and children. They lived here for only a year and a half, but during that time Hawthorne wrote his novel The House of the Seven Gables and a collection of children’s stories, A Wonder Book. He also completed a collection of short stores, Twice-Told Tales, and began work on the Blythwood Romance and Tanglewood Tales, which were inspired by the Berkshires.
Lenox and Stockbridge both had claims on him. Hawthorne’s house was just over the border in Stockbridge, but he identified more with Lenox village, which was much closer to his house, and he addressed his mail and writings from Lenox.
Hawthorne’s short stay in the Berkshires became a milestone in local lore. He created several familiar place-names, including Tanglewood and Shadowbrook. The town gave the name of Hawthorne Street to the street he walked along, and his house was preserved as it was when he lived in it until it burned down. A replica was later built.
Lenox was rapidly developing a split personality. On one hand, it was acquiring the image of a vibrant oasis of culture and natural beauty.
But despite the glamour that was being imposed on it, Lenox remained an essentially conservative Yankee town. Most people moved to Lenox to scratch out a living, not to rhapsodize about the scenery.
The contrast between the Lenox Yankees and visitors like the flamboyant Fannie Kemble were the seeds of the complex and wary relationship that often still exists between locals and the outsiders who swarm into the Berkshires.
While most Lenox residents were farming, mining and pursuing the other mundane rigors of everyday life, Kemble and her friends spent their days gaily hiking, horseback riding and otherwise amusing themselves, often conspicuously, in public.
And Kemble’s personal style and her position as a divorced actress were a marked contrast to the plain values of Lenox residents and the conventional view of women. “Miss Kemble lost all delicacy of sex, strolling about the country,” complained one local newspaper soon after her arrival.
Once, Kemble inadvertently grated on local sensitivities when she brought in some beer to refresh workers at her property. This touched off complaints that she was corrupting the town.
Kemble loved the town and its people anyway, citing the town’s “absence of all form, ceremony or inconvenient conventionality.” She staged readings here and contributed to its charities and other activities. She even raised the money for the bell tower of the Church on the Hill. At another local church, she supposedly complained to the Episcopal minister that his church organ’s sound was “execrable” and then offered to pay for repairs.
Kemble gradually gained acceptance in the community as the townspeople came to appreciate her forthright personality, good intentions and humor.
According to one tale, Kemble chastised a local man for keeping his hat on. “Gentlemen remove their hats in my presence,” she said grandly. The man replied that he wasn’t a gentleman, he was just the butcher. Kemble laughed and the two reportedly became friends.
The town eventually renamed her home street Kemble Street in her honor.
The “golden era” of culture gradually subsided in the middle of the 19th century. Some of the artists and writers had only intended to visit. Others stopped coming reluctantly for practical reasons, such as Rev. Beecher, whose New York congregation asked him to stay closer to home. And others, like Hawthorne, became restless with country life and chose to move on.
Even Fanny Kemble gave up her Lenox home in 1867 and moved away for personal reasons, returning periodically for visits. She later returned to England and died in 1893. But even in her old age Kemble still wanted to return to Lenox and told friends she would be quite happy to be buried at the Church on the Hill.
This gradual exodus did not signal the end for the unique status of Lenox and the Berkshires, however. Instead, it was a transition to a new era, in which the influence of visitors of intellectual and artistic achievement was replaced by the domination of wealth, power and social standing.
The cottage era in Lenox and Stockbridge began modestly and gained momentum, finally spiraling to a climax in the ostentatious excesses of the “Berkshire Cottage” era of 1880-1920.
The United States was on the rise, and immense fortunes and empires were being built and inherited. A new elite class with unlimited wealth emerged, and its members were continually seeking new and grander ways to display it in the Berkshires, especially in Lenox and Stockbridge.
Because the first wave of Berkshire visitors and the early Berkshire Cottages overlap, it is impossible to say where one era ends and the other begins. The Book of Berkshire called Mrs. Sarah G. Lee of New Orleans the “pioneer” cottager with her purchase of a Berkshire summer home in 1837.
Samuel G. Ward is generally credited as the first man to assemble tracts of land to form a large Berkshire estate in the early 1840s. Appropriately, Ward bridged both eras, as a Boston businessman who also had literary inclinations.
In a move of prime importance for the future, William Tappan of Boston bought Ward’s estate a few years later. Other estates were also cropping up. Among them, E.J. Woolsey of Boston and his brother-in-law John Aspinwall bought most of the mountain land west of Main Street (today’s Kennedy Park) and established the hilltop Cliffwood estate.
The early cottages were relatively low key. Their homes, though large, were not ostentatious and reflected local architectural styles. The owners came because they loved the Berkshires and most attempted to fit in with local society as best they could. Ward, for example, tried to become a gentleman farmer, and the real farmers apparently developed a great fondness for him (even if they were amused by his unsuccessful efforts). The Woolseys allowed local people to enjoy the “Woolsey Woods” of their property.
Town in flux
Meanwhile, the other side of life in Lenox was also changing. Industrial activity in town seemed to be on the rise in mid-century.
Industry was especially prevalent around Lenox Furnace, which was beginning to have more in common with its hard-working neighbor, the Town of Lee, than the increasingly genteel Lenox.
In 1838, a railroad line was completed through eastern Lenox via the Stockbridge-Pittsfield Railroad as an extension of the Housatonic Railroad. This line, which eventually had three stops in the town, established a rail link with New York and other major cities.
The completion of the railroad initially promised a boost to Lenox industries by providing a faster way to get products to the markets.
The owners of the local iron industry had often faced financial struggles, but the new railroad and the building of the nation, and the need for armaments for the Civil War, offered the possibility of an increased demand for metals.
The glass industry around Lenox Furnace was expanding, especially when the Lenox Iron Works established a glassworks factory that manufactured plate glass in 1853.
However, the apparent rise of industrial Lenox lasted only a short time. The local iron industry could not compete with Pennsylvania and the Midwest, where ironmakers used less-expensive coke rather than charcoal for fuel. Lenox Iron Works finally closed.
The glass industry also experienced financial difficulties, and after numerous restructurings the iron company’s glassworks also closed in 1872.
Some historians also believe the high freight charges by the railroads hastened the demise of these companies.
As these existing manufacturers shut down, industry began to play a smaller role in the Lenox economy. Most new mills and other manufacturers’ industries went to neighboring Pittsfield and Lee instead, while Lenox became based more on trades and merchants.
Farming, the other original mainstay of the Lenox economy, was also waning. With the demand for estates on the rise, land values were increasing. Many farmers were finding it more profitable to sell out to the millionaires than to scrape by on their farms.
Lenox experienced another loss during this period. Pittsfield had originally competed with Lenox to become the county seat, and Pittsfield’s effort had not stopped after Lenox won. In 1868 the faster-growing Pittsfield finally succeeded in snatching the county seat from Lenox.
Cottage era escalates
Gradually, the pace and tone of the invasion of cottages grew. It was estimated that by 1880, 35 mansions wee scattered around Lenox and Stockbridge and by 1900 about 75.
The names of the owners of cottages became a Who’s Who of American industry, finance and high society, including such titans as Andrew Carnegie (who briefly owned Shadowbrook) and George Westinghouse (builder of the Erskine Park estate which was torn down and rebuilt as Holmwood by Margaret Vanderbilt.)
Lenox became known as the “inland Newport,” part of a circuit of prestigious communities that members of high society rotated among on a yearly schedule. The height of the “Berkshire season” was late summer and early autumn. During that time, the cottages took over the town, staging lavish parties and other organized social events.
The estates grew ever larger and more sprawling, and the extravagances of the cottagers became the stuff of local legend. The newer estate owners had fewer attachments to the Berkshires than the earlier ones. Many seemed more interested in a frenzied competition to outdo each other than in actually appreciating the Berkshire towns and countryside.
They transformed flinty Berkshire fields and wooded hillsides into huge rolling lawns and lush gardens with ornate fountains and statues of mythological nymphs. And in contrast to the region’s simple Yankee architecture, the later cottage houses were a crazy quilt of incongruous styles, from ersatz Gothic castles and Victorian manor houses to an ornate reproduction of the palace at Versailles.
Shadowbrook, built by Anson Phelps Stokes in 1893, was once thought to be the largest home in the United States.
One of the later estate owners who combined several aspects of Lenox was novelist Edith Wharton. She belonged in temperament more to the earlier cultural era and depicted the commoner side of Berkshire life, although she was distinctly of the wealthy classes. Wharton was tired of the Newport scene and estranged from her banker husband and came to Lenox for a quiet place of retreat. In 1902 she built an estate, The Mount, near Laurel Lake. A pioneer in the interior-decoration movement, Wharton incorporated many of her ideas into The Mount.
The author also wrote two stories, Ethan Frome and Summer, that conveyed her view of the difficult lives of ordinary Berkshire residents. It was not a flattering view. She later wrote that the “snowbound villages of western Massachusetts were still grim places, morally and physically: Insanity, incest and slow mental and moral starvation are hidden away behind the paintless wooden housefronts…” Needless to say, those works were not enthusiastically accepted in the community. Wharton sold The Mount in 1911.
A mixed blessing
For the local Lenox residents, this gentrification of the town was a mixed blessing.
The wealthy cottagers were a bountiful market for merchants and other businesses. The construction and operation of the estates, which often had huge staffs, also provided employment for townspeople. And the rising land values allowed many local property owners to make a tidy profit by selling their lands.
The cottagers added excitement to the town, and events like the annual Tub Parade of ornately decorated carriages down Main Street gave the town a festive air. Many local people doubtlessly felt pride in the fashionable image their town had acquired and enjoyed seeing the beauty being created there.
The cottages also contributed lavishly to many civic organizations and projects, including the construction of the new Trinity Church. When the town was trying to figure out what to do with the vacated County Courthouse building, a summer resident, Adeline Schermerhorn came to the rescue. Just before her death she acquired the building for use as a library and community social center called Sedgwick Hall. It is now the Lenox Library.
And, on occasion, their generosity was given to individual residents.
But other, less desirable effects occurred. The era created an immense social and economic chasm between the wealthy cottagers and the more humble circumstances of most townspeople. These groups had little genuine social interaction and some animosity developed.
The social fabric of Lenox was disrupted in other ways. Many of the local farmers and landowning families moved on when they sold their properties. Others left to find towns or regions with more employment opportunities. Many of the jobs on the estates were low-paying, menial and occasionally demeaning.
The cottages also established a very seasonal economy, and the reliance on the estates helped to stifle the development of a more stable and locally oriented economy in the town.
The high price of land for estates suppressed the development of agriculture, for example, and made it hard or impossible for people of average means to buy property. In his 1903 book Lenox and the Berkshire Highlands, R.D. Mallary noted that Lenox land was selling as high as $20,000 an acre, while similar acreage in nearby towns only cost a few dollars an acre.
The drive of the townspeople for progress occasionally came into direct conflict with the cottagers’ desire to preserve Lenox as a rustic retreat. In 1900, a streetcar company proposed a direct trolley line from Pittsfield to the center of Lenox village. Many local people supported the idea, but the cottagers fought it because they did not want carloads of commoners disrupting their quiet neighborhoods. (A longer streetcar line was established east of the village.)
Around that same time, a young woman wrote a letter in the Sunday Call newspaper to complain that local people could no longer enjoy the countryside that surrounded them – the woods and fields where they used to walk and picnic in were being fenced off for the private enjoyment of the wealthy estate owners. She added that it was even becoming hard for humble bicyclists to find spots by the roadside where they were allowed to stop and rest.
The era wanes
For better or worse, the Berkshire Cottage wound down in the early 20th century.
The nation’s social and economic climate was changing and the ostentatious cottage lifestyle was falling out of favor. With new taxes, especially the beginning of the federal income tax in 1913, and the exorbitant cost of maintaining the country estates, the owners and their heirs became increasingly unable or unwilling to hold onto these properties.
The end of the Berkshire Cottage era came gradually and was hastened by World War I and the Depression. Historians cite the death of Giraud Foster, the owner of Bellefontaine, in 1945 as the symbolic last gasp of the Berkshire Cottage era, which had begun a century earlier with Samuel Ward.
But once again, the end of one era set the stage for a new rebirth. This time, it would combine aspects of the previous incarnations of Lenox in modern form.
The automobile and improvements in roads began to blur the distinction between individual communities, making it easier to live in one and work in another. Lenox became more of a suburb for people with jobs in Pittsfield, Lee and other locales. With the fading of the demand for estates, property values returned to more realistic levels, which encouraged the middle class to move in.
Meanwhile, the old estates were put on the market, often at prices far below their previous value. These properties met differing fates. Some of the homes decayed beyond repair and were eventually destroyed. Some of the properties were sold off for housing and other development.
However, many of the estates were put to new uses that would again reshape Lenox.
One use echoed the days of the old Lenox Academy and Mrs. Sedgwick’s School, as Lenox and Stockbridge became a center for education. A number of estates were converted to preparatory schools. The Episcopal Church established the Lenox School for Boys on Kemble Street in 1929. After a brief period as the Berkshire Hunt and Riding Club, several estates on U.S. Route 7/20 were converted by the Jesuit Order of the Catholic Church to form the Cranwell prep school for boys in 1939. The Foxhollow School for Girls moved into the Holmwood (formerly Erskine Park) estate. The Allen Winden estate became Berkshire Christian College.
And there were many others.
Meanwhile, Shadowbrook became a Jesuit novitiate in 1922, after Carnegie’s death in1919. Bellefontaine also became a Catholic seminary.
A new version of tourism also emerged. With the rise of the middle class and the increased mobility enabled by automobile, more and more people were able to take short trips and vacations –- and many of them headed for the Berkshire Hills. One beneficial legacy of the old estates was the preservation of large tracts of open land and attractive landscaping around Lenox and Stockbridge.
Tourism increased steadily during the middle decades of the 20th century and set the stage for the boom of more recent history.
Some estates became inns and resort hotels, allowing a new generation of visitors to vicariously experience the trappings of the old cottage life. These included many homes in town, and larger estates like Wheatleigh and Blantyre. Also, despite the demise of the cottage era, the desire of affluent city dwellers for a country home continued on a more modest scale.
The most important estate conversion took place in 1937. A group of music-lovers led by Gertrude Robinson Smith had founded the Berkshire Symphonic Festival several years earlier. At first the festival was held for a few days at the Hanna Farm (now the DeSisto School). Then in 1937 the Tappan family offered their old Tanglewood estate on the north side of Stockbridge Bowl to the festival, and the Tanglewood Music Festival was born as the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and its famed music institute. After a thunderstorm broke out during a concert, BSO music director Serge Koussevitzky led the push to build the famous Shed, completed in 1938. There is little need to say more about the impact of Tanglewood.
With Tanglewood and smaller festivals, the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge and other events, the Berkshires’ reputation as an area that combined culture and natural beauty again flourished, and with it the tourism industry.
A new round of changes took place in the 1970s and ‘80s. Many of the private schools closed, including Cranwell, Lenox School and Fox Hollow, among others.
However, the increasing demand for lodgings and vacation homes brought revival to several of these estates. Several, such as Cranwell, fox Hollow and Allen Winden, came almost full circle as they were redeveloped as a new version of the old Berkshire Cottages –- this time known as vacation condos. The former center of local counterculture, the Music Inn, was also converted into condominiums.
Other sites reflected new spiritual values and trends in lifestyle. The former Lenox School campus became the headquarters of The Bible speaks organization, which had an important and controversial effect on Lenox for several years. The 65 acre campus is now home to the internationally acclaimed Shakespeare & Company. The Shadowbrook Jesuit seminary was closed and re-emerged as a New Age yoga retreat, Kripalu Institute. After a period of dormancy following the closing of its seminaries, Bellefontaine also acquired a New Age twist as the Canyon Ranch Spa. The Kimball Farms property was developed as part of a new trend to “lifecare” residential communities for seniors.
During this period, Lenox went through other changes. As the retail economy flourished, the town’s central-village business district grew with the conversion to shops of former homes and other structures. The commercial strip along the Pittsfield Lenox Road mushroomed with new retail development.
With the increased influx of visitors, high prices for land and homes in the ‘90s and the demise of regional manufacturing, many of the old issues from the Berkshire Cottage era reappeared in new guises, as the town grappled with fears of overdevelopment, the need for new jobs and the need to improve aging infrastructure.
Lenox will no doubt see more changes in years ahead that will perpetuate its historic heritage and patterns of the past –- in new and unpredictable ways.
Above history by John Townes
Sources include: Lenox, Massachusetts: Shire Town by David Wood (1969); The Book of Berkshires (1886); Lenox and the Berkshire Highlands by R. Mallary (1902); Berkshire: 200 Years in Pictures by Robert Tague and Robert Kimball (1961); League of Women Voters history pamphlet for Lenox Bicentennial (1976) and other material from the Lenox Library and the Local History Department of the Berkshire Athenaeum.
Thanks to Nancy Marasco, Gretchen Hayes, Dorothy Schling, Shirley Vincent and her students, the Lenox Library, and the staff of the Local History Department at the Berkshire Athenaeum for their assistance.