CONNECTIONS: Berkshire pomp and ceremony
It was 199 years ago, almost to the day.
“Monday, June 15, 1825, a great day! General Lafayette visits Pittsfield.”
That was the headline in all Berkshire newspapers. Lafayette left Albany on horseback at 6 a.m. He arrived in Lebanon Springs at 2:30 p.m. and changed to a coach. At 6 p.m. he arrived at “the great elm, the pride of Pittsfield.”
The Pittsfield Elm stood on Park Square in front of the meeting house and one of the many Pittsfield coffee houses. Lafayette’s trip was a little over 40 miles and took 12 hours—12 hours from Albany to Pittsfield!
Actually, it was beneficial that the trip took so long. Gen. Lafayette was a national hero. His visit to Pittsfield was a major event, and yet no one knew he was coming until Sunday evening. Word came on the night before his arrival, leaving scant time to prepare for the major event. Pittsfield had only a few more than the 12 hours it took him to make the journey to plan an appropriate welcome for the great man as he passed through Pittsfield on his way to Boston the following day. However, Pittsfield knew how to hustle.
In the brief time, “the citizens assembled with alacrity.” It is amazing what they produced in the time. The general was met at the New York-Massachusetts border by a contingent of Berkshire citizens there to escort him into Pittsfield. They provided a coach for his comfort, festooned with flowers appropriate for the great general. In the center of Pittsfield, thousands cheered as the general’s coach passed under an arch erected for the occasion. A 40-foot American flag flew near the Great Elm.
The first stop was the Congregational Meeting House where teachers had organized their pupils into two straight reception lines. Inside, Lafayette was introduced to the Ladies of Berkshire who had, among other duties, sewn the flag. The general was then escorted, to the accompaniment of music, through two open columns of citizens to the door of Joseph Merrick’s Coffee House. Inside, Lafayette could relax and enjoy a good supper. The president of Williams College gave the blessing and the feast began. It was arranged that 13 toasts follow the dinner. In the subject matter of the toasts, nothing was left out: the general himself, his homeland, the USA, the president, the heroes of war, even the “women, lovely women.” The general was then escorted to the Hampshire County line.
The Berkshire Evening Eagle reported, “The decorations and preparations were in the handsome style and a tribute to the generosity of the citizens of Berkshire.” Pittsfield, and much of Berkshire, had worked “in concert with a deliberation to do all that time and circumstance would permit.” The result was very impressive, even more so given the time. For all the pomp and ceremony, the travel time was tedious and the respite in the Berkshires for the weary traveling general very welcome.
That would change. In the 1830s, the railroad arrived in West Stockbridge. The mode of travel quickened and improved. Two things did not change: the Berkshires remained the natural place to break the journey, and the rich and famous still came here.
President McKinley was a constant visitor to the Berkshires, from visits to North Adams and as the dinner guest at Wyndhurst in 1897. That did not go as planned. Mrs. John Sloane planned a spectacular centerpiece that exploded in roman candles at her signal. Far from pleasing the president and Mrs. McKinley, she frightened the president’s wife almost to death.
It was after the assassination of President McKinley in September 1901 that the function of the United States Secret Service expanded to include guarding our presidents. McKinley’s was the third assassination in 36 years, and Congress felt it was time to guard our chief executive officer.
The first and only death of a secret service agent occurring during an assassination attempt did not occur for half a century. In 1950, President Truman was staying at Blair House while the White House was being repaired. Security was breached by two assassins and an agent died. The first death of an agent in the line of duty, but not during an assassination attempt, happened in Pittsfield in 1902.
Pittsfield Electric Railway Car 29, an eight-bench open car, on the “Country Club Line” struck the rear wheel of an open landau. All three passengers were pitched out of the vehicle into South Street. It might have been an unremarkable accident soon forgotten if the passengers were not the president of the United States, the governor of Massachusetts, the president’s Secret Service agent, and the United States Secretary of Commerce.
The only person to die was the secret service agent, William Craig; it was Sept. 3, 1902. Craig was one of the first Treasury agents ever assigned to protect a United States president, and the first to die doing it.
Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt stayed at the Curtis Hotel one summer to attend Tanglewood. There is a charming story about her asking a housemaid if there was a back staircase so she could slip out and avoid the press.
Not all presidents could come even when they wished to. Grover Cleveland was engaged in a hard-fought re-election campaign when he was advised to cancel his trip to Lenox. Why?
The Springfield Republican said Lenox possessed a “delightful character of life, elegant homes, and congenial society.”
The New York Times described Lenox as “all gaiety, life and fashion.”
His opponent Benjamin Harrison was seen as the industrialists’ candidate, and Cleveland the man of the people. Lenox was seen as expensive and exclusive, the opposite of where the man of the people should go.
Given the people who come here, the culture that flourishes here, for a tiny, out-of-the-way place —aren’t we something?