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.
How would you present over 250 years of history to the public? That was the task the Berkshire Athenaeum’s local history department and the Berkshire Historical Society set for themselves. The result might have been anything: indigestible, unintelligible or uninteresting. Instead it was clear, concise, informative and fun.
Who were the clever folk who solved the problem? Kathleen Reilly, supervisor of the local history department; Will Garrison, executive director of Berkshire Historical Society; and Jon Dickson, chairman of the BHS board. Of course the next question is: How did they do it?
The answer is broadsheets. Broadsheets were old-time British newspapers sometimes printed on one side only and always printed on larger paper than the tabloids. Broadsheets were also considered more serious and less sensational than the tabloids.
The Berkshire history broadsheets are well laid out, richly illustrated and bursting with “news.” The first broadsheet covers 39 years, 1761–1800. The next covered 25 years, 1800–25. Two hundred fifty-seven years of local history are presented in 10 broadsheets. Just for fun, each of the 10 carries the name of an old Berkshire newspaper; for example. the Western Star and the Pittsfield Sun. See all 10 at the Berkshire Athenaeum or later this year at the historical society.
The broadsheets begin, as Berkshire County did, in1761. Until then, Berkshire was part of Hampshire County. When established, Berkshire was the westernmost county in Massachusetts and the furthest from the seat of government in Boston. It was a place apart — separated from other Massachusetts towns and cities by distance and by a ring of mountains.
Mark Hopkins wrote in 1844 that Berkshire was peculiar in its isolation, and singular in that most of its business was conducted with New York rather than within its own state of Massachusetts: “Between us and our fellow citizens in the eastern part of the state, there is a perceptible difference.”
Hopkins was right. Incorporated in 1640, Springfield was discovered by the new settlers just 20 years after landing at Plymouth in 1620. It took another 93 years for settlers to make their way to Sheffield in sufficient numbers to establish the first town in Berkshire County.
In 1761 there were four towns in Berkshire County. In order of incorporation, they were Sheffield, 1733; Stockbridge, 1739; Great Barrington, 1761; and Pittsfield, 1761. Their approximate populations were: Sheffield, 1,047; Stockbridge, 217; Great Barrington, 531, and Pittsfield, 418. That means, in 1761, just under 3,000 people lived in 950 square miles along a north-south strip approximately 25 miles long. The county was 50 miles long with the other 25 miles uninhabited.
Twenty-five miles was a much greater distance 250 years ago than it is today, and distance was not the only obstacle to travel. There were ridgelines bisecting Berkshire, rivers, marshes and wetlands complicating travel. There was also superstition.
The topography created myths and stoked fears that impeded travel. Berkshire County was dark at night — black as pitch. Mist rising over wet lands and swampy areas gave rise to tales of evil spirits. There was an area along Great Barrington’s Main Street and another on Route 7 that settlers were warned not to travel at night lest they be — literally — spirited away. There were rock outcroppings and mountain crags never to be approached in safety for fear they were haunted by angry ghosts.
Laying aside superstition, Berkshire settlers were isolated in a very beautiful but dangerous land. The county was largely uninhabited and wild. Wolves were plentiful and ravenous enough so that there was a bounty paid for killing wolves in Berkshire until 1775. In the 1750s, there were Indian raids — a by-product of the French and Indian War. Laying aside dangers, real and imagined, there were simple needs to be met.
What they needed, Berkshire residents had to produce. Every home was a farm, or at least a residence with extensive gardens and a cow, pig, goat or duck. The first public-works projects established roads and mills. For the grain they could not grind themselves, the clothes they could not make themselves, the products they could not create, wagons were dispatched to Hudson, New York, to purchase goods from boats on the Hudson River coming up from New York City and down from Albany.
It was a hard life, and yet, in the first 10 years, the population of Berkshire grew; it grew at a greater rate than the populations of Massachusetts towns to the east. Sheffield went from 1,047 to 1,318; Stockbridge from 217 to 752; Great Barrington from 531 to 961; Pittsfield from 418 to 1,132; and New Marlborough from 714 to 1,087, as well as four new settlements emerging. The Berkshire population almost doubled from less than 3,000 to almost 6,000. The next 10 years would bring greater growth.
People came to Berkshire in spite of the arduous travel, the isolation and the seemingly hardscrabble life. They came because there was a great reward in store for those who made the journey. Inherent in the statistics: 2,900 people in 950 square miles; inherent in an isolated, underpopulated and undeveloped region was the reward — land. In exchange for any and all difficulties, there was land. Berkshire was one of the last places in Massachusetts to find large tracts of land, and so the settlers came to get it.
Given the confluence of circumstances, Berkshire residents must have been a hardy and motivated lot. The population doubled in the first 10 years, and then doubled again. By 1800, the formerly agrarian community was branching out. If land was the key to riches in the 18th century, the machine was the key in the early 19th century. Berkshire had water power to run factories and, from 1800 to 1825, a new age began. Within another 25 years — by 1850 — the railroad had steamed into the county. Industrialization and rapid transportation began to shape Berkshire life while nature — the lakes, streams and mountains — continued to bolster the Berkshire tourist trade. It was an exciting sweep of Berkshire history that mirrored the history of a nation.
Follow all the “news” on the Berkshire broadsheets.