About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.
In 1901 President William McKinley was shot in Buffalo, New York. In an effort to save his life, the president’s men called renowned pathologist Francis Delafield (1841–1915). Delafield suggested they use a new machine, the x-ray, to locate the bullet. The president’s other doctors declined to use it; they considered it too new, experimental and potentially dangerous. McKinley died. Could the x-ray have saved McKinley’s life? Modern physicians can only guess, but they wish it had been tried.
Delafield returned to New York to his practice, his books and the bosom of his family. He was married to Katherine Van Rensselaer, and together they had three daughters – Elizabeth, Julia and Cornelia – and one son – Edward.
In 1884 Elizabeth had purchased a farm on East Street and was welcomed into the Lenox community; after all, the Van Rensselaers were considered high society and the Delafields were descended from French nobility. John De La Feld went from France to England with William the Conqueror in 1066, earning himself a British title and land in Oxfordshire. Such old and noble antecedents earned Elizabeth pride of place in the Gilded Age colony.
In the first 100 years, owners the farm were from more humble stock. James Guthrie was the first purchaser in 1774. Guthrie was one of the first settlers of Lenox and one of the original 89 members of the Lenox Congregational Church. Those earliest members were described as “excellent men who contributed to the town’s formation, growth, and prosperity [noted for] becoming and virtuous behavior.”
Guthrie sold to Jeremiah Osborn. Osborn was the surveyor appointed to “make and mend highways,” and the hog reeve. A reeve was a minor official, elected or appointed to oversee fences, sheep or – in Osborn’s case – hogs. That meant he was the fellow who oversaw the release of the hogs onto the streets of Lenox in fall. Why release hogs into the streets? The explanation was simple: in the 1700s, Lenox streets were lined with chestnut trees. In autumn, when the chestnuts fell, the hogs were released to eat the chestnuts, thereby making it cheaper to feed the hogs and easier to clean the streets.
Osborn sold to Jonathan Taylor on Nov. 12, 1797. Taylor was the third owner of the land, and the first to build a house on it and establish it as a farm. That house stands to this day. In 1822 Henry Mack purchased the farm. It was 75 acres with house, barn and creamery. He paid $1,800 (approximately $36,000 today) and, from then on, it was known as Mack Farm. Sixty-two years later, it was sold to Elizabeth R. Delafield for $4,100 – two and a half times the amount Mack paid. Elizabeth called it October Mountain Farm.
In 1892, Elizabeth sold to Sarah Morgan for $20,000 (approximately $436,000 today). In 70 years (1822–1892) the price of the farm rose $18,200– the equivalent of $400,000 in today’s dollars. Sarah Morgan, the sister of J. P. Morgan and owner of Ventfort Hall, could afford it, but moreover it was evidence of what a fine investment land in Lenox was during the 19th century.
The Delafield association with Lenox was long and strong; there were Delafields in Lenox throughout the 20th century. Elizabeth’s brother Edward found true love in the Berkshires. The New York Times reported: “LENOX, Mass., Oct. 1. — Miss Winifred Folsom, fifth daughter of Mr. and Mrs. George Winthrop Folsom of Lenox, and Edward Delafield of New York were married in Trinity Episcopal Church at noon to-day.”
Winifred was one of nine children. One of her sisters was named Frances Folsom – not to be confused with Frances Claire Folsom who married Grover Cleveland and was first lady of the United States.
Though not related to President Cleveland, George Winthrop Folsom was descendent from both Peter Stuyvesant and John Winthrop. Folsom practiced law in New York City and selected Lenox as the perfect place for a summer residence. Folsom bought the land in 1882 and built his cottage, Sunny Ridge, in 1884, the same year Elizabeth Delafield went to Lenox. Sunny Ridge was designed by architect Charles Coolidge Haight who called it an American adaptation of early English architecture. In 1925 Sunny Ridge burned to the ground. Coolidge Haight, grandson of the original architect, was hired to rebuild.
The two Lenox dwellings, the Berkshire cottage and the farm, were linked by more than marriage. June 18, 1904: “Berkshire Farms Retreat the home for convalescents owned and operated by Miss Ethel F. Folsom [a trained nurse] is open and a number of patients are in residence…A large fair was held at Sunny Ridge the home of her parents from which a handsome sum was realized for the benefit of the Retreat.”
From hog reeve to society spinster, from the descendents of Van Rensselaer to descendents of Peter Stuyvesant, from a beautiful couple to a dedicated nurse: the stories of our houses are the stories of us.
Every house holds a slice of history. I have selected six incredible buildings for a special house tour on the first Saturday in October. My next columns will tell their stories. See the Berkshire Edge calendar to learn how to take part in the house tour.