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.
There is an explosion of commercial building in Berkshire today. As a result, this summer, Berkshire County will have hundreds more hotel rooms. It seems like news, but it is actually history.
In the early 1700s, there were two stagecoach lines in Berkshire: the Hartford-Albany line and the Pittsfield-Hudson line. In the later 18th and early 19th centuries, there were at least two additional lines in North County. Stagecoaches were ubiquitous but not fast. Ads promised “through by daylight” which meant that a passenger left Hartford at 4 a.m. and arrived in Albany at 7:30 p.m. Drivers, horses and passengers needed a place to rest and a place to sup. Berkshire County was the perfect way station. From North County to South, stagecoach inns were built. The first in Pittsfield was Daniel Hubbard’s on West Street in 1762. Hubbard was followed by David Noble, Captain John Strong on East Street, and Captain James Easton on South Street. However, in South County, there were coach inns as early as the 1730s.
The coach inns were built for and catered to the traveler. They offered beds and supper as well as a place to water and change horses. “Quality” coach inns had signs that read: “No Drivers.” The drivers were asked to eat, drink and rest elsewhere. It was early segregation.
If the heart of the home was the kitchen, then the heart of the stagecoach inn was the tavern. The names “tavern,” “inn” and “public house” were used interchangeably. By whichever name, they offered, “ample bowls overflowed [and a] table groaned beneath its load.” In 1775, a tavern dinner consisted of rosted [roasted] beef, a showlder [shoulder] of pork, chickins [chickens], pyes [peas], pudding and syllabub [cold sweetened cream thickened with gelatin, beaten with wine or fruit juice].
The most popular drink was ale, brewed strong enough to last one week without refrigeration. Others preferred flip–a shot of whiskey poured into a mug of beer. Sometimes a tavern was called a coffee house but the coffee was only purchased, never brewed, in the tavern. Eighteenth-century folks considered brewing coffee produced an “evil smell.” Along with ale and flip, popular drinks were punch, cider, grog, beer and Madeira–never water. Water was poisonous; alcoholic beverages were tonics. A recipe for one such nostrum was: “Warm beer, and sweeten with ginger, nutmeg, and lemon peel. Beat 4 ounces of sugar into four eggs and mix into whiskey, brandy or rum. When beer is warm but not boiling, put beer in one pitcher and rum mixture in another pitcher [and now] pour them together and serve.”
Then as now, the stagecoach inns on main roads that attracted the most travelers survived the longest, but locals benefitted from their presence. Coach inns advertised their food and drink for “the entertainment of friends and strangers.” Eighteenth-century Berkshire residents ate at home, but locals were not immune to a drink and some socializing at the inn. The inns generally had the largest room in town, often as big as 40 feet by 25 feet that locals used as a dance hall or meeting room. Moreover, locals were dependent upon the stagecoach to bring word from the outside. Taverns were often the place to receive the earliest word from beyond the Berkshire Hills. As the War of 1812 was drawing to a close, Pittsfield residents gathered at Hubbard’s Tavern and waited anxiously for word of the outcome. Knowing people depended on the stagecoach line for news from other parts in the country, the stagecoach company printed large pieces of paper with black lettering and affixed the papers to each side of the coach. As the stagecoach rolled into Berkshire County, all could read the word: “Peace.”
Taverns were also part of the political life of Berkshire villages. The minutes of the town meeting were posted there. Eighteenth-century legal notices were, too: “Mr. X declares that he will no longer pay the bills of his wife, Mrs. X, as she is profligate.” In the late 1700s in taverns, a revolution was plotted. Reputedly, John Adams, John Quincy Adams and Daniel Webster drank at Pittsfield taverns. Taverners David Noble and John Strong were among the first Pittsfield residents to stand for liberty and the Revolution. During the Revolution, when the civil courts were closed, it was at James Easton’s Tavern that civil matters were arbitrated.
In 18th-century Berkshire, coach inns were cultural centers. In taverns, the population came together, local news was exchanged, clubs were formed and club meetings were held. Before the first Berkshire post office in 1792, mail was received at the inn, newspapers and periodicals was delivered with the mail, books were collected and exchanged, and all were read and discussed. For all those reasons, taverns were important to the locals and perhaps more integrated into the community than the recently completed Marriott or recently expanded Holiday Inn. Be that as it may, we in Berkshire are now and always were innkeepers to the outlanders.