Scenic Day Trip #4 - South Central Berkshires
Great Barrington, starting point of this scenic tour, is the largest town and the economic center of southern Berkshire County. Great Barrington was the site of the last attempt of the British to hold court in America and the freeing of the first slaves under due process of law. William Stanley pioneered the use of alternating current for streetlights. In fact, Main Street, Great Barrington was the first street in the world to be lighted electrically by alternating current. A stone marker can be found near the Housatonic River on the Searles Castle grounds at the foot of Bridge Street, opposite the Courthouse. It records the location of an old Native American fort and the site of the last battle with Native Americans in this area, which took place in 1676 when Major Talcott overwhelmed a band of Narragansetts.
To start the tour, drive north along Main Street, across the Housatonic River and right onto Route 23 at Belcher Square, believed to be the only square in the country named after a counterfeiter, one Gill Belcher. Belcher counterfeited coins in a cave behind his house on the south side of the square during the 1770's. He was eventually caught and hanged.
Also know as Knox Trail, Route 23 follows, to a large extent, the path General Henry Knox took through the mountains and wilderness in the winter of 1775 - 76 when he hauled the cannon captured from the British at Fort Ticonderoga to the support of American troops in Boston.
Route 23 leads to Monterey, crosses the Appalachian Trail and passes the well-marked road to the left indicating and optional side tour to Beartown State Forest. Proceed along Route 23 to the village center, turn left onto the Tyringham Road, continue past Lake Garfield public beach to Art School Road on the left. The Bidwell House is at the end of Art School Road (about 1.5 miles). This is an elegantly restored 1750 mansion on the National Register of Historic Places with period furnishings and gardens. (Open Memorial Day to Columbus Day. Admission fee). Return to the Tyringham Road, continue north into the Tyringham Valley. Turn left at the intersection and continue through the town of Tyringham. Tyringham is enclosed on three sides by mountains. The rolling valley not only inspired the praise of many poets and writers, it offered homes and temporary asylum to many great artists. Mark Twain used to summer here.
Continue to the intersection of Route 102 and take a sharp left onto Route 102 and continue through South Lee to Stockbridge. At the foot of Yale Hill stands the Berkshire Playhouse, home to the Berkshire Theatre Festival, the second oldest summer theater in the country. The festival is comprised of the Jane and Jack Fitzpatrick Mainstage in the Stanford White designed Berkshire Playhouse, the smaller Unicorn Theatre and Children's Theatre under the Tent. Continue via Route 102 into the charming town of Stockbridge, the inspirations for Norman Rockwell's famous painting "Stockbridge Mainstreet at Christmas".
On Main Street, take Pine Street to Prospect Hill Road to Naumkeag Museum and Gardens. The house was designed by Stanford White in 1885 for Joseph Choate, noted attorney and Ambassador to the Court of St. James. View the original furnishings, collection of rugs, and Chinese export porcelain. Formal, landscaped gardens designed by Fletcher Steele and Mabel Choate surround the house (Admission fee, property of the Trustee of Reservations). Across the street is Eden Hill, the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy, home of the Congregation of Marians of the Immaculate Conception in the Berkshires. 350 scenic acres. Open year round for prayer, reflection. Return to Main Street and turn right, continuing west along Route 102 to the Mission House, built in 1739 as the home of the Reverend John Sargeant, first missionary to the Stockbridge Native Americans. The Mission House features period furnishings, Colonial gardens, and a small Native American museum (Guided tours, open Memorial Day weekend to Columbus Day. Admission fee). Merwin House is just across the street. It is an 1825 Federal Style house containing a collection of European and American furnishings, beautiful gardens and lawn. (Open June to mid October. Admission fee). Further along Main Street, grouped around the Common on the left are the impressive Field Chime Tower, given in 1879 by David Dudley Field, Jr., brother of Cyrus Field (Atlantic Cable fame), the First Congregational Church, a modified Georgian structure of red brick built in 1824, and the Town Hall. Concerts are still given on summer evenings at the chime tower.
Visit the Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge, located on Route 183, 6/10 mile south of the junction of Routes 183 and 102, and see the world's largest collection of original art by America's favorite illustrator. The museum building is set on a 36-acre landscape, with scenic views. Norman Rockwell's last studio, which was moved to the site, can also be toured May through October. The museum is open daily year-round with changing exhibits, special events, and children's programming (Admission fee).
Head further south on Route 183 to Chesterwood, the summer estate of Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), sculptor of the seated Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. and the Minute Man, Concord, MA. He fashioned the statue of Lincoln at Chesterwood and the plaster casts still dominate the studio. Visitors will enjoy French's work, his Colonial Revival mansion, special exhibits in the Barn Gallery, and the annual Contemporary Outdoor Sculpture Show. Great mansions were constructed by famous architects of the day and handsome gardens were landscaped to provide extraordinary showcases for wealthy cottagers. French built Chesterwood and became part of this set. The tour may be concluded by following Route 183 and the Housatonic River through the villages of Housatonic and Risingdale to Great Barrington.
Editor's Note: For more information on this and eight other day trips, pick up a copy of "Touring the Berkshires and the Mohawk Trail," available at the Berkshires Visitors Bureau, Berkshire Common, Plaza Level, Pittsfield, (413) 443-9186. Or write to The Mohawk Trail Association, P.O. Box 2031, Charlemont, MA 01339 or call (413) 664-6256.