Lake Pontoosuc in Lanesborough. Photo courtesy lanesborough-ma.gov

CONNECTIONS: The farmer and the humorist

The 76 petitioners were granted their township and proudly proclaimed it the “loveliest valley” on the “western frontier.” They named it New Framingham and did not change the name until it was incorporated in 1765.

It was a polite, 18th-century way of saying, “My turn.”

In the winter of 1741, 76 settlers petitioned the General Court in Boston for the grant of a township in what today we call Lanesborough. “We remind the Court that many have received this favour, and recall the fact that we petitioned in 1714 for a tract between Marlborough and Framingham that at our expense a committee viewed and surveyed … and yet the grant was made to our neighbors which hath been much to their profit although to our loss.”

Map of Lanesborough. Image courtesy Google

The petitioners described the land as “lying upon Osatunock alias Houseatanuck near to an Indian town northwardly from said town.” That is, Lanesborough was situated on Lake Pontoosuc, bordering Pittsfield and then 6 miles north as far as New Ashford, west as far as Hancock and east as far as Cheshire. Lanesborough is a square, 6 miles by 6 miles in parts, and a rectangle 6 miles by 3 miles in other parts. It was once a 6-by-6 square at all points, but then Cheshire was cut out of Lanesborough, just as Lenox was cut out of Stockbridge and Great Barrington was cut out of Sheffield.

‘Entering Lanesborough’ sign. Photo courtesy iBerkshires

Whatever trouble they had in 1714, the grant was trouble-free in 1741. Even then, New York was challenging the western border, and Massachusetts wanted it settled and defended by “Massachusetts freemen.” The 76 petitioners were granted their township and proudly proclaimed it the “loveliest valley” on the “western frontier.” They named it New Framingham and did not change the name until it was incorporated in 1765.

The town had two famous sons. Both were known as plainspoken and good-humored. One was known from Maine to California; the other was cherished in Lanesborough. One is famous today and the other forgotten, but both are still worth quoting.

In 1818 Henry Wheeler Shaw was born on Constitution Hill in Lanesborough. His grandfather, a doctor, was sent to jail for libeling John Adams, and then elected to Congress for — that’s right — libeling John Adams. Seeing a clear path, his father joined the family business. He entered politics.

After graduating Lenox Academy at age 14, Shaw was sent to Hamilton College. His penchant for learning was overtaken by his penchant for playing pranks. He shinnied up and removed the clapper from bell used to ring the beginning and end of classes. Caught, he was returned to Lanesborough in disgrace.

He was offered a job as private secretary to John Quincy Adams notwithstanding the slights exchanged in the previous generation. He turned it down in favor of travel. With letters of introduction from Van Buren and Henry Clay, Shaw left Lanesborough bent on making his fortune.

Writer and humorist Josh Billings, born Henry Shaw in 1818 in Lanesborough. Photo courtesy Harvard Theatre Collection

In the Midwest he thought mesmerism (hypnotism) was the path to a fortune. He also noted the similarity between mesmerism and the family business: politics. Unfortunately, his total income that year was $13.60. He returned to Lanesborough in defeat.

He tried real estate in Pittsfield and — yup — returned to Lanesborough in defeat. Thankfully, thereafter, he remained in Lanesborough.

For the amusement of his friends, he wrote humorous bits. He was encouraged to submit them to the local newspaper as letters to the editor. He adopted the nom de plume Josh Billings, possibly as in joshing, and the persona of a country wit was born complete with dialect and misspellings. Shaw was finally on the road to fame and fortune. His road was plain speaking and good humor.

“It is better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so,” he observed, and, “A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.”

When Shaw died in 1885, mobs gathered at every train station to say farewell. In the end his métier was humor, not erudition — the bell tower and the clapper, not the classroom.

On the plaque to commemorate him, Jonathan Smith is described as a “plain farmer from Lanesborough.” Just as Shaw, Smith was known for his “speech full of good sense and good feeling.” He was thanked by a grateful Commonwealth for carrying the Massachusetts convention of 1787. Carrying the convention meant ratifying the Constitution.

The Constitution of the United Sates was written, argued and approved in Philadelphia. Franklin, in his 80s, deserves much of the credit for quelling disagreement and succeeding. However, that was half the battle or less. Now, the Constitution had to travel to each of the 13 states and be ratified. The arguments pro and con were repeated 13 times. It passed, but not always by much.

The man given credit for swaying the Massachusetts assembly was Jonathan Smith. He rose and said that he “knew the worth of good government by the want of it … the value of checks and balances by lack of them.”

He urged the feuding sides to “Take things in their time. Gather fruit when ripe. We sowed our seeds when we sent men to the federal convention [Philadelphia] now it is the harvest. Now is the time to reap the fruits of our labors.”

The farmer from Lanesborough sat down, the vote was called and, in Massachusetts, the Constitution of the United States was ratified by a vote of 187-168.