As Country Curtains closes, recalling its Stockbridge legacy with Jane Fitzpatrick

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By Thursday, Sep 14 Life In the Berkshires  8 Comments
Jane and Jack Fitzpatrick in the Country Curtain offices in the company's early years in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Stockbridge — We sat together one afternoon over a decade ago. As she talked, it became clear that Jane Fitzpatrick was a woman of exceptional energy and drive.

“We came to Stockbridge in the fifties [1957] so Jack could take a job at a local department store,” she said.

With husband Jack, Jane had two small children, but she did not sit idle. A year earlier, “To supplement the family income and keep busy,” Jane explained, “I started sewing curtains on my dining room table.”

She had impeccable taste and a keen eye for detail. People liked Jane’s curtains, and orders were placed.

“I encouraged local women to come over, sit at my dining room table, and help me sew.”

Jane continued sewing at the dining room table in Stockbridge and orders increased.

“Jack suggested I make a catalogue for mail orders.” Jane smiled, “ ‘Like Sears,’ Jack said.”

The Fitzpatrick family at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Country Curtain headquarters in Lee, Massachusetts.

Jane was a housewife working with a few local girl friends, not Sears, but she agreed, and in a house on Main Street, Stockbridge, a $300,000,000 business was born.

“The Fitz’s timing was impeccable, and they were positioned for success,” lifelong Berkshire resident Robert Jones opines.

Jane’s taste matched the evolving taste of the nation, and quality goods at an affordable price were always in style. Country Curtains was a success. Always curious about the motivation that drives the very successful, sitting in the broad gracious living room of the house on Prospect Hill, I listened carefully to her reminiscences. It sounded as if one motivation for Jane was to be accepted by “Old Stockbridge.”

“I go out of my way to welcome every new neighbor,” she said. “No one welcomed us.”

Nevertheless, Jane used her wealth to save and preserve Stockbridge. Jane helped establish the Norman Rockwell Museum, restore the Berkshire Theater festival, and build Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood. She began, however, with the purchase and restoration of the Red Lion Inn.

Look closely at Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting of Stockbridge Main Street: the Red Lion Inn is dark. As Country Curtains closes its doors after sixty years, it is important to understand the relationship between Country Curtains and the character of Stockbridge. Simply put, Country Curtain money preserved Main Street.

A detail from Norman Rockwell’s painting of Main Street in Stockbridge, Mass., with the Red Lion Inn still dark.

Dark and empty, vulnerable to deterioration or razing by a chain fast food joint, the Red Lion sat. Nothing preserves like poverty. The economic hard times in the Berkshires made the huge eighteenth century building unappealing. It was not purchased or razed and then one evening a light was seen on inside.

David Scribner tells this story. “When I was just starting out in newspapering, Pete Miller, editor of the Eagle, would give me advice. I was actually working at the Bennington Banner at the time, one of the papers The Eagle owned. ‘You have to poke around, get out and talk to people, not just sit in the office,’ I remember him counseling. As an example, he recalled how he was driving in his Volkswagen Bug by the dormant Red Lion Inn one day, when he saw a light on inside. He pulled over, went up on the porch and knocked on the door. Two people greeted him and led him inside. Pete said, ‘I thought the place was closed.’ The couple replied, ‘We just bought it.’ And that is how the news broke about the purchase and revival of the inn.”

Thus, the owner and editor of The Berkshire Eagle, Lawrence K. “Pete” Miller, introduced himself to the new owners of the Red Lion Inn, Jack and Jane Fitzpatrick.

Jack and Jane Fitzpatrick, upon Country Curtains being named retailer of the year.

The Fitzpatricks went from strength to strength. The same taste, drive and attention to every detail that made Country Curtains a success, made the Red Lion a destination point for tourists.

A few years before we sat together talking about Jane’s life, I received an invitation to a luncheon at Blantyre. It was women only and “exceptional women of Stockbridge” were invited. The invitation was so enticing and flattering, everyone accepted. We gathered and waited for Jane to explain. She did. It was a celebration. For the first year since they bought it, the Red Lion Inn made a profit.

When we contemplate the closing of Country Curtains, it is important to understand the relationship between Country Curtains, the Red Lion, and Main Street Stockbridge. Like the anchor store in a mall, the Red Lion Inn is the anchor in Stockbridge. Jane’s wish to preserve was funded by Country Curtains. Together, Jane and the Country Curtains income stream kept Main Street looking like the Norman Rockwell painting for the next sixty years.

The Fitzpatricks owned more than the inn; they owned much of Main, Elm and South Streets. The center of Stockbridge might look quite different today had the Fitzpatricks not continued to buy and preserve most of the buildings “down street.” Jane didn’t shape Stockbridge, but she held it in the palm of her hand and did not allow it to change.

As Country Curtains closes, Nancy Fitzpatrick says “it is heartbreaking” and local folks say it is the end of an era. True, and sadly, it could also have a very real impact on the village of Stockbridge. If the properties purchased with profits from Country Curtains are subsequently sold — what will Stockbridge look like in another sixty years? Will it resemble the Rockwell painting or will image and reality diverge? Will the reality separate from the image as Rockwell values separate from our new evolving values?


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8 Comments   Add Comment

  1. John says:

    Very sad Country Curtains is closing. Usually the result of poor management. Hard to believe an established business with quality nich products could fail. Then again, most manufacturing has left the Berkshires anyway. The extreme taxes and government red tape have run everyone out.

    Unfortunately, this suggests the Red Lion Inn may be the next to fold without the financial backing of Country Curtains. Then Blantyre….

    1. Steve says:

      From the Real Estate sales listed on the Edge:

      38 Patterson Rd: Fitzpatrick Holdings LLC of Lenox to Blantyre Hotel Ventures, $4,600,000 on 06/28/2017

      Plus an additional $3 Million for the furnishings and other inclusions.

      Blantyre has already been sold and is no longer a part of Fitzpatrick holdings.

  2. Jack Trowill/Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum says:

    As usual, really nice poignant article by Carole. It’s really important to continually fill-in the natives and “new-borns” on the history of the Berkshires.

  3. Andrew Blechman says:

    Great article. And a great story. Thank you.

  4. David says:

    I enjoyed reading this story for its historical perspective. The questions it raises about the town’s fate and character largely depends upon who/what steps in to fill the void left by CC. Hope the residents have some say and don’t get steamrollered by some corporation(s ).

  5. Pete says:

    Great article. On line competition and cheaper alternatives killed their business. Overseas manufacturers can easily copy their products and sell them cheaper. Look at Wayfair, Home Depot, etc., if you don’t believe this. We all feel for the loyal employees who dedicated their lives to creating a one time great business.

  6. Kathleen Williams says:

    I will so miss visiting this beautiful store with its wonderful homespun displays. How fortunate that Carole had this story on tap to tell its history.

  7. Ann St. Clair says:

    As usual, Carole Owens writes with combined depth and simplicity to tell a resonant story of the Berkshires. Thanks, Carole. If only it did not have such a sad ending.

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