CONNECTIONS: Bamboozled Berkshires

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By Tuesday, Jan 2 Life In the Berkshires  15 Comments
An aerial view of the Shakespeare & Company campus in Lenox that had once been the location of Bible Speaks and subsequently The National Music Foundation.

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.

Editor’s Note: To better illustrate the observations in this article we found a photo of the Shakespeare & Company campus that had been, prior to the theatre company’s rescue of the property, the location of two of organizations mentioned in this piece. The photo of the former DeSisto School parcel that had originally led this article is located below. 

“Bamboozled Berkshires” is a reprint of an earlier column. This version is expanded, but not as far as it could be. There still are more scams, some mentioned to me by readers, not included and awaiting a third column. This one is reprinted by request. Why request it now?

For decades Berkshire folk discussed, strategized and hoped to make this a year-round destination. All of a sudden, we are. We have been discovered; we have never been so popular and there are scores of plans for development. Museums are planned in North County; in South County, Tanglewood is expanding, Elm Court is building and DeSisto is knocking at the door. New motels are appearing everywhere in between. None of these are necessarily scams; all may succeed, some may fail, any may enrich the Berkshire experience, and many will change the very things that drew them here. How do we know which is which?

Gravestone of Col.Simon Larned in the Pittsfield Cemetery. Photo courtesy

We are not infallible. And while we like to think the Berkshires is populated with good people and only good people, we are not always right. The combination of bad actors and naiveté has resulted in more than one Berkshire swindle.

Col. Simon Larned (or Learned) was born in 1753, fought in the Revolutionary War and settled in Pittsfield in 1784. In 1788 Larned purchased land from Charles Goodrich and he built a house. It was described as “a commodious…attractive mansion.”

Larned farmed his land and, according to advertisements in the Pittsfield Sun, ran a barter business. Larned traded wheat for nails, house ashes for West Indian goods and pot ashes for cotton. He served in elected positions including sheriff. In 1806 Larned was named the first president of the new Berkshire Bank.

Anxious to increase his fortune, in 1809 with James Colt, Elkanah Watson and Joshua Danforth, Larned founded the Pittsfield Wool and Cotton Factory. Berkshire Bank funded the new enterprise and so the fates of the two were intertwined. The same year the factory opened, there were no fewer than 50 lawsuits filed against Berkshire Bank. All were actions brought by Berkshire County residents attempting to get their money back, but there was no money in the bank. The bank failure wiped away the financial support for the factory and it failed.

All the Berkshire Bank directors were local men, but the moving force behind the bank was a Bostonian named Andrew Dexter. The total deposits in the bank – $80,000 – disappeared and Dexter disappeared at the same time. Neither the man nor a single dollar was ever seen again.

The Rev. Carl H. Stevens Jr. Photo courtesy Greater Grace World Outreach

Nevertheless, the court held the local bank directors, Hurlbut, Pepoon, Colt, Danforth and Larned responsible. They could not repay the depositors’ money and so their property was seized for partial payment. In addition the directors were jailed. During the whole of his incarceration, Larned retained the position of Pittsfield sheriff. He also retained the respect of people of Pittsfield. Regardless of the court finding, Pittsfield never blamed Larned or the other directors. Pittsfield as a community blamed Bostonian Andrew Dexter.

Almost 200 years later, the Rev. Carl H. Stevens Jr. came to Lenox and founded The Bible Speaks ministry. Between 1984 and 1985, heiress Elizabeth (Betsy) Dovydenas donated an amount alternately reported as $5.5 million and $6.5 million to The Bible Speaks. Dovydenas also changed her will, leaving her estate to the ministry and disinheriting her children and husband, Jonas.

In 1986 Dovydenas brought a lawsuit against Stevens and The Bible Speaks, seeking to recover her money, on the basis that Stevens had unduly influenced her. The judge ruled in Dovydenas’ favor and wrote in part: “Testimony revealed an astonishing saga of clerical deceit, avarice, and subjugation” by Stevens, who “abused the trust of the claimant as well as the trust of many good and devout members of the church.” The Bible Speaks declared bankruptcy and lost the property in Lenox.

In 1983 a man was dragged out of a house and carted off to jail. The house was on Prospect Hill Road in Stockbridge – maybe not the last place on earth, but certainly one of the last places one could imagine it happening. His name was – or perhaps not – Thilo Rethmann.

He was the houseguest of the wonderful Marge Champion. He was adored in the Berkshires as the son of a wealthy German family. He was waiting a multi-million-dollar inheritance. While he waited he took Hollywood by storm, writing a screen play and rubbing shoulders with movieland elite. At the very moment he arrived in the Berkshires, he was waiting for the release of his first film. As he waited he was soliciting backers for his next movie.

Luxury hotel and restaurant Wheatleigh in Stockbridge

Busy, busy Mr. Rethmann saw Wheatleigh and, while Mr. and Mrs. Linfield Simon had just purchased the property for $500,000, he offered $2 million. It was an irresistible flip and the Simons accepted. Therefore, they – you guessed it – waited for their money. All waited in vain.

Rethmann was wanted in Los Angeles for grand larceny – good that he actually had done something grand. He was wanted by U.S. Immigration for bearing false witness on a federal document and for overstaying his visa. Interpol was interested in him but did not specify the reason.

He was held for competing law enforcement agencies in the United States and abroad to take him away. No one is waiting for him to return.

In 1993, the National Music Foundation moved from the state of Florida to the same 63 acres in Lenox once occupied by Bible Speaks (and now the campus of Shakespeare & Company) with the expressed purpose of building a $30 million music center. Eighteen years later it was proclaimed a boondoggle that wasted $3.6 million in public money. In the interim, elected officials on every level of Massachusetts government and the Berkshire business community sang the praises of the Foundation and stood for celebratory photographs.

The Foundation letterhead included the names of famous musicians as well as music promoter Dick Clark. It declared its intention to build a performance center, music museum and retirement home for American musicians. The mission was to celebrate American music from classical to pop. There was backslapping and dreams of a second Tanglewood next door to the first. There was pontificating about job creation, influx of tourist money, saving historic buildings on the property, and creating a magnet for the rich and famous to visit Berkshire.

One of the names on the letterhead of the National Music Foundation Dick Clark.

The wheels came off the wagon in 2010 when the Foundation was unable to raise the matching funds required by a $2.5 million grant. Knowledge dawned that letterhead and a mission statement do not a corporation make. The boasting was replaced by an equally loud demand for recovery of the money. Nothing much happened: A lien was placed on the property, but the property sold for less than the money owed; the director (and presumably the dreams for a music foundation) slid back into Florida, and Lenox was once more a quiet village.

In 2011, in a 26-page report, Massachusetts State Auditor Joe DeNucci said the National Music Foundation in Lenox “misled public officials and misused government funds.” DeNucci accused the nonprofit of spending government grant money for “extravagant expenses that had no apparent business purpose.”

In 2008, all the dreams for “1,000 new jobs in Pittsfield” and the return of a business “as big as GE” ended in a U.S. District Courtroom when Michael Armitage of Pittsfield was indicted on charges of bank fraud, money laundering and making false statements (to almost everyone he ever spoke to).

Michael Armitage in federal court, under indictment.

Before his fall, Armitage’s rise was meteoric. EV (Electric Vehicles) Worldwide was going to revolutionize movement. If a car, train, bus, maybe even a bicycle moved, it could be powered by hydrogen fuel cells. EV Worldwide, dba ElectraStor LLC, would manufacture the battery that stored hydrogen. It would manufacture it in Pittsfield.

Even Rep. John Olver, then-chair of the House Transportation Subcommittee, hustled through a $1.35 million federal grant. That was followed by another federal grant in the amount of $800,000. With special irony, Mayor Jerry Doyle granted EV Worldwide  $250,000 from the GE Economic Development Fund.

Everyone jockeyed for position, endeavoring to be close to Armitage and partner Christopher Willson when the announcement was made. Newspapers, politicians and pontificators said the company was a “potential major employer”: it would renovate Pittsfield factories because its hydrogen-fuel cell batteries were “the wave of the future.” The comparison with GE in the last century was irresistible. Then the bubble burst, the key players went to prison and the boosters were eerily silent.

In October 2010, Armitage pleaded guilty to the charges of tax evasion and vowed “a comeback.” One can only hope not.

Why do we fall for it? All good con men offer what you most want. The promises to the Berkshires are always the same: They will create jobs, they will rejuvenate the economy, they will save historic buildings and their taxes will lower taxes for the rest of us. And yet, are Berkshire folk especially vulnerable to hustlers and con men? Maybe.

The former DeSisto School on Route 183 where developers have proposed a complex of houses and condominiums.

Our history may make us believers without sufficient evidence. In the 19th century, they came here – the richest and most famous. They came in wave after wave: the intelligentsia, the literati, the artists and the millionaires. It makes it more believable that they will come again. Name-dropping has a familiar ring here and does not as readily elicit a sniff and a “yeah, sure” as it might elsewhere. The cache of all those famous names is part of our past. Our past informs us that we were a magnet for the best and the brightest and, if then, why not now? It may be the wrong lesson from the past.

We are nice people, and nice people often have trouble imagining a worst-case scenario. We have a propensity for pipe dreams and a paucity of due diligence. What history teaches is that we need to reverse those two.

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15 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Steve Farina says:

    Immediately brings the Eagle Mill redevelopment in Lee to mind. Sounds too much like a pipe dream. $60M is a huge investment for a town like Lee. The plan doesn’t seem to have any funds lined up, except the hope for grant money and tax incentives. While I applaud the promise of over 80 affordable housing units, the overall plan really doesn’t feel right. Hopefully, a thorough vetting and due diligence are performed – I do genuinely hope the plan can come to fruition, it just sounds too good to be true.

    1. Rita Toombs says:

      You may already be aware, but in case you aren’t, Jeffrey Cohen, the developer, is married to Elizabeth Sackler. Their money is a direct result of the opioid epidemic. An excellent article on this family was published in the New Yorker recently, if you are interested in more background. My opinion, having a bit of personal history with these folks, is that we should keep them and their money out of our town (and Berkshire County) at all cost. The price tag on their involvement is just too high.

  2. Carol Diehl says:

    Also brings to mind the $60M + grand plans for the Berkshire Museum’s “New Vision,” for which the public has not seen projections of how exactly it would contribute to the economy of the area.

  3. John H. Hart says:

    Bamboozled Berkshires indeed. What are the signs that deception is, or may be, in the works? For one thing it has become apparent they came to a town and are assuming they are dealing with an uncooperative Board of Selectman. For the Desisto – 37 Interlaken project to come to town and circumvent our Board of Selectmen is, to my way of thinking sleezy. It’s the way a highly paid development attorney might think. If the project developer is sleezy and we are in the midst of being “Bamboozeled” Might it be prudent to proceed with extreme caution? Normally our Selectmen are the first filter to identify what is an upstanding (or not) issue that will have un-thought- of permanent impacts on our town. Has anyone from Stockbridge driven by Oak ‘n Spruce in Lee recently? Does Stockbridge want that?

    I am the Stockbridge citizen who used the term “hostile takeover”. Just to be clear, my comment did not refer to the 37 Interlaken “project” per se. I was referring to the manner in which the developer and their attorney have chosen to deal with our selectmen and our town’s historic way of conducting business. The selectmen represent the citizens of Stockbridge- as in they were elected to office by the citizens. It has always been the selectmen in town who direct how and when they address an issue. For any individual or entity to circumvent our established process is, in fact, an implied slap to the face of the town and yes, the voters!.

    All that said, I realize very well that ‘something’ has to and will happen at the Desisto site. The great majority of the site is zoned 4 acre residential. There are reasons for our town zoning and the town zoning map. It is to maintain the character of Stockbridge. We are purposely rural. We maintain, at times at the expense to the town, our open spaces and our absence of population density.

    If there is the slightest hint that we are being “Bambooled” we should drop anchor and look closely at what would fit our town on the Desisto site.

    1. Jim Balfanz says:

      Sadly John, and as usual, you ignore the simple facts. They were forced to “circumvent the selectmen, because the Selectmen refused to meet with them, while at least one of them met secretly with some abutters and “walked their property,’ and with one openly stated early on during a televised meeting that he “was opposed to this project.” This before he knew anything about it.

      As you stated, the Selectmen represent the citizens of Stockbridge – All of them. Not just a few. It is they who “violated” the historic way we do business in our town – not the owner/developer.

      Further, the property is strangely divided into R2 and R4 areas . Without affecting the town “governance” procedures, if approved by the citizens of Stockbridge at the annual town meeting, the developer will still have to proceed in working with and getting the appropriate approvals from the planning board, Conservation Commission, conduct traffic studies and every other procedure mandated in the overall process.

      All this by-law amendment does – and had to be done this way – is to seek the approval of the town voters.

      Additionally, the Great Estates – Or Cottage Era – By-law proposal will only affect two properties in town – the DeSisto and Marion Father’s properties. In actuality, it will only affect DeSisto, due to the simple fact that the Marion Farthers will have the ability to use the Dover Amendment process and do whatever they want to do.

      The leaves our town with one place where a well planned high end boutique hotel with amenities can be built, which will add million to our town income, provide jobs and will be done in a timetable that will be businesslike as all citizens want with a construction project. While it will be “expensive,” it will not be “massive” due to fact that it will leave over 2/3rds of the entire property as open space upon completion. It will be a “win-win” for all concerned.

      The only “hostile” actions I, and many others, have observed are those of the opponents of this well-planned project. And, it truly is sad that this happens so many times in our town. You all can do better. Seriously.

  4. adrian says:

    Cache (in the penultimate paragraph) is incorrect. The word that you wanted was “cachet”.

  5. Charles Kenny says:

    Thank you for your insights.
    The late Mary Flynn told me of the constant surveillance she maintained over the natural and historic riches of the town of Stockbridge. She said that I was privileged to behold them because generations before me had preserved them by fighting off even the smallest bamboozlers. She said if you let in even little ones, they would pave the way for bigger ones.

    1. C. D. Baumann says:

      Bravo Charles, yet another ‘student’ of the most remarkable educator, politician and Berkshire Institution Miss Mary Flynn, though the lady would protest. She was indeed a remarkable women and stood guard over her beloved village for decades. I believe one of the alarming changes since the passing of the old guard is motivation. Few if any would question Mary Flynn’s motivation. She loved Stockbridge and all that made Stockbridge what it is. Hers was the focus of the common good, the good of the village as a whole and it’s people. Today more than anything we find the motivation that of the almighty dollar. The satisfaction of unbridled greed at any cost. Promotion of the few, or the one, at the expense of the whole. At the expense of the village Mary Flynn protected throughout her life. How refreshing to read from another ‘student’ one of the many important lessons Mary Flynn imparted. Far to often of late we find her lessons twisted to suit the needs of others or themselves.

  6. Marc says:

    The old log home site in Great Barrington. The kings new clothes.

  7. Michele says:

    How about all the trees that were supposed to be planted along route 7 where the new taj mahal hotel has risen in all its offensive glory. The grotesque strip of generic hotels and super stop and shop carved out of ledge and the empty moldering “hotel at the dan fox drive, itself a testimony to money made by the fly by night grifters who prey on our diminishing Berkshires.

  8. Jack Trowill/Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum says:

    Let’s not ignore the self-styled “consultants” that are going to make Pittsfield’s North and Tyler Streets “great again”, or the budding museum wonderland developers in north county, all of which will be begging for public dollars and will be, likely, given them by our ignorant elected officials.

    1. Rembert J Wilso says:

      Amen, Brother Jack, Amen!!! You speak the truth!

  9. Anita Schwerner says:

    Thank you Carole for this timely and insightful article. Your statement that “the promises to the Berkshires are always the same” really hits home. We do need to learn from history or else we’re doomed to repeat it.

    Along with many in the town, I was bamboozled by what happened with Elm Court. I was present for many of the meetings and was emotionally motivated to help this longtime Stockbridge family save their property. Let’s learn from the history of the bylaw changes that were made to accommodate their needs. How many times has the property been flipped since then? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

    Our attention has now turned to out of town developers who claim to know what is best for Stockbridge. They complain because town residents and their attorneys check the schedules and agendas for public meetings and then show up and ask questions. It’s not collusion. We are an informed electorate and this is the way our town government works. We believe in freedom of speech and transparency in government.

    Our priority should be to preserve the characteristics and quality of life that motivate us to live here. Residents of Stockbridge need to defend Stockbridge’s zoning by-laws, the purpose of which includes “to minimize the adverse effects of development on the town’s unique environmental and historic features and for the protection and enhancement of the town’s existing small-town character, open spaces, low density of population and, in the interests of the town’s orderly growth at deliberate pace.”

  10. Jim Balfanz says:

    She begins her column, “ Bamboozled Berkshires” is a reprint of an earlier column. This version is expanded, but not as far as it could be…. This one is reprinted by request. (Why was it requested?” And who requested it?)

    She goes on to make her “connection” between the proposed 37 Interlaken Project, and some of the actual scams that have occurred in the history of Stockbridge. Openly insinuating that “DeSisto is knocking on the door,” is nothing but a giant scam and comparing this to REAL scams, perpetrated by real crooks, is simply wrong. She has crossed the line from historian to making a personal judgment on something forthcoming due to her personal objection to this project.

    The owner/developer has a proven record of restoring/renovating Great Estate properties right here in Berkshire County, as evidenced by his doing so with a former Crane Mansion in Dalton.

    The lie now being circulated by the opponents and even some of the very Selectmen who refused to meet with the Stockbridge owner/developer of the DeSisto property is that “this will forever change the governance of the town.” That is a total fabrication, meant to incite an emotional, irrational reaction on the part of town voters in May. The proposed by-law amendment if approved by the voters, will result in approval of the project being able to move forward.. That approval will still require that the project go through ALL of the additional requirements to begin construction – planning board review and approval, Conservation Committee review and approval, traffic studies, and every other requirement that all other developments have to follow.

    Simply put, this project will be extremely beneficial to the town, in every manner desired by town property owners who want lower taxes and more jobs here. It is no more of a “Bamboozle” than projects such as Blantyre, Elm Court, Cranwell and Canyon Ranch.

    Oh, and the “who knows what other entertainment conveniences” she references above, will not include a “gambling casino” or anything of that ilk. This is going to be a high end boutique hotel with the proper amenities that go along with such a facility. It will bring jobs and over $2,000,000 in income to our town.

    Please don’t be Bamboozled by this slick “hit piece.” The real scams are the insinuations made in this article, and by other opponents.

  11. Ted B. says:

    And of course the polluted Reed’s Cleaners next to the GB Post Office, and the Housatonic river…..all the PCB’s GE left us !

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