Archive for category History in our surroundings

Turning Points in My Home Town

The intersection at the center of the town, an oval that is still called Park Square. Courtesy of Berkshire County Historical Society

If it’s true that all politics is local, could the same be said about history?  Maybe all history is not exactly local, but it does seem to be the portal through which many of us enter the past, whether it is tracing our genealogy, researching our house, visiting nearby museums, sites or roadside markers.

For me, moving to a new town and exploring its history helped me learn my way around, finding out who streets were named after and poring over old maps to see the evolution of the town as if it were the old computer game SimCity.  Local history became one of my social circles, where I met and interacted with professionals and lay people with similar interests.

There is much that is unique about Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the largest city of Berkshire County, nestled in its rolling hills in the far west of the state.  Beyond the social and the curious, did the history of this place speak to a broader view of national or international events, did it speak to current concerns?

There is much that is unique about any town or city, but delving into Pittsfield’s history reveals evidence of broader national trends and developments, how decisions taken and events played out far away affected people right here at home.  More than that, the history of this place may also speak to broader concerns of the present.

These lessons gradually dawned on me in preparing the exhibit, “Turning Points,” on display at the Berkshire Athenaeum as part of the winter 10×10 Upstreet Arts Festival held every year coinciding with school vacation in February.

Flip through any U.S. history textbook, and broad themes play out in this locale:  early arrival and encounter with Native Americans, taming the frontier, rebellion against colonial authorities, industrial revolution, division over slavery, immigration and labor unrest, economic panics and technological progress, international trade and empire, the arsenal of democracy, postwar global dominance, industrial decline and loss of jobs and population.

Through these developments, these turning points, Pittsfield has adjusted and adapted, evolved and reinvented itself.  The city finds itself in such a phase now, seeking to shape a future that provides opportunity and enhanced quality of life for its residents.

Answering the call of duty as the city turns out to see recruits march off to fight in 1917. Courtesy of Berkshire County Historical Society.

What strikes me about the current moment is that Pittsfield is really not all that different from many post-industrial towns and cities extending across the northeast into the Midwest.  What is different, though, has been in this region’s rejection of a politician like Donald Trump in favor of his opponent.  Trump’s messages of xenophobia, dark pessimism of carnage, and wild promises of jobs returning from overseas fell on fertile ground further west, but not here.

What in Pittsfield’s history accounts for this difference?  History tells us of multiple waves of immigrants coming to this region, instilling an ethnic pride and diversity here that makes us more likely to welcome the newcomers from Latin America and Africa in our midst.  History tells of past economic transformations, from agriculture to manufacturing, from textiles to electrical, plastics and defense industries that may point the way towards openness and experimentation to find the next stage of economic growth.  History tells us that proximity to New York and Boston was important, continuing to today, less as markets for goods produced here, but as a source for visitors who come here seeking cultural and outdoor escapes.

Last summer, I met a young woman visiting Pittsfield from Youngstown, Ohio, and I asked her to compare the differences between these two rust belt cities.  She was quick in her answer: “You have so much here.  We have nothing.”  A harsh statement, but a welcome one of how our home town looks to an outsider.

Read an article on the exhibit in the Berkshire Eagle.

Or you can read the panels right here:  Turning Points, 10×10 Upstreet Arts Festival

 

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The Allure of Mills

What is it about passing an old mill building that pushes me off to some other world?  I pause, take a second look and a third, fourth, and more, drawn in by the features of the bell tower and stairways, the small design additions to the windows, doors and roofs.  Then my gaze wanders, looking for nearby streams and crossings, homes and paths.

Surely, the easy answer to the appeal would be the size and sturdiness of the buildings, made of brick and stone to withstand the pounding of the machinery and the risk of fire.  They don’t tower over the landscape as much as they dominate it.  Aerial views and maps show just how much space they occupy in a neighborhood, easy to pick out and get your bearings, in search of an old house or store.

The simple engineering behind raising such a structure had to be, in fact, anything but simple, especially without the mechanization and materials that go into modern construction.  Add to that the number of mills in Berkshire County which reaches well into the hundreds, and the speed which they went up, or were later added on to and altered to make full use of new equipment.

Curiosity cannot be satisfied.  How did they bring the heavy iron equipment into the mills?  How did people learn to operate the machinery?  How were people hired and what were employers looking for in selecting the operators?  How would they move one processed item completed on the second floor, up to the next stage on the third floor?   How did they find their markets, and get their products to them?

But the wonder of the mill really comes from imagining the stories, of the people who heard the bells, hustled along the paths, made their way to their spots at the machines, stood by them and repeated the same motions for up to twelve hours a day.  I realize that I probably wouldn’t, couldn’t last a week.

Ten years ago, I bought a house in Pittsfield, before I realized that my neighbor was an old mill, that a canal and reservoir that fed water to power the mill ran so close to my windows that I could hear the rushing water at night.  I could likely have heard the mill bell from my window, as did those who inhabited my house 100 years ago, sending them down some path long since grown over to get to work on time.

All this propelled me to put together a book, of historic photos, architectural drawings and maps which give a glimpse into that world.   Enjoy the dream.

 

You can find a copy through Arcadia Publishing.

 

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100 Days…. of Opposition

 

Tax Day Demonstration, Pittsfield MA

Tired of the 100-day review of Donald Trump’s Presidency?  You should be, with one exception.  The drama, ambition and accomplishment in the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency lie not in his record, but in the resistance to this President.

Ever since Franklin Roosevelt pushed through major legislation in his first 100 days in office, newly elected Presidents have had their early record measured against the same 100-day standard.  Donald Trump has called this threshold “ridiculous” and “artificial,” which would probably be an accurate statement except for the fact that he used the same 100-day timetable during his campaign to lay out an action plan portraying his ability to achieve a plan as bold and far-reaching as FDR accomplished.

The country was in a very different place in 1933, well into its third year of economic crisis, following the stock market crash in October 1929.  Unemployment levels moved from 4 million people in 1930 to 15 million by the time Roosevelt took office.  Thousands of banks had failed and industrial production had fallen by half.  The crisis demanded action, and demanded it on a fast timetable.

Roosevelt delivered in a way that re-shaped the nature of how Americans view government, addressing through emergency legislation and executive action all aspects of relief, recovery and reform needed to reverse the direction of the economy.  It was the nature of the crisis that dictated the unprecedented nature of FDR’s first 100 days.

That’s why this 100-day standard makes little sense.  Trump, despite his rhetoric indicating he inherited a mess, actually took over the reins of an economy in recovery, certainly better than the one his predecessor inherited in 2009.

What has been more akin to FDR’s dramatic first 100 days in 2017 has been the unprecedented nature of the opposition to Trump.

First, there are the protests.  They started before Trump took the oath of office and then swelled in the first 24 hours of his Presidency.  There were other demonstrations greeting newly inaugurated Presidents, from the 5000 women who marched before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration demanding the right to vote, to the anti-war protesters at both Nixon inaugurals and the thousands who marched to express their opposition to the election of George W. Bush in 2001.

What was different this time was the size of the demonstrations, not only in Washington DC, but around the nation and in cities in other countries.  Everyone but Trump and his inner circle acknowledge that the women’s march on the day after the inauguration surpassed the crowd attending his inauguration.  Another difference is that the protests continue, against Trump’s efforts to ban Muslims from entry into the U.S., to build a wall on the southern border, to repeal health care, to refuse to release his taxes, to disregard the science of climate change.

Second, despite the control of both the executive and legislative branch by Trump’s party, the opposition has been surprisingly successful in derailing the pledges that the Republicans ran on, most notably the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.  Funding for the border wall is a non-starter, tax reform has been reduced to a public relations one-page set of principles, and there’s no sign of a massive infrastructure program.  Republican party unity did help ensure that all of Trump’s nominees for Cabinet, except for the two who withdrew, were able to pass through the Senate, which also confirmed his nominee for the Supreme Court position, left vacant for over a year when the Republicans refused to grant a hearing for President Obama’s selection.

A third unprecedented focus of the opposition has been the speed with which courts have responded to requests to halt President Trump’s executive orders.  Both of Trump’s executive orders to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. have been thrown out, as has his administration’s threat to withhold federal funding from cities refusing to deputize their local police forces as deportation officers.   One organization – Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, CREW – has filed a lawsuit alleging Trump’s conflicts of interests violate the Constitution and another, American Civil Liberties Union is preparing a second such suit.

Fourth, the reaction to Trump from beyond the borders has been an unprecedented rejection of what he is trying to impose here and abroad.  Not only do people outside the U.S. in the numbers of millions continue to join the protests, but voters in the Netherlands rejected the candidate who looked like Trump, and French voters will likely follow suit, worried about what they are seeing on this side of the Atlantic.  Far from acting as a global superpower, the U.S. is on the receiving end of lectures from world leaders like Theresa May and Angela Merkel on Russia, Justin Trudeau on trade and Xi Jinping on North Korea, all viewing perhaps Trump’s self-proclaimed penchant for unpredictability and flexibility as euphemisms for incompetence and lack of strategy.

Fifth, despite obstacles from the White House and certain Republicans, investigations within the Department of Justice and Congress were launched to look into the role played by the Russian government in helping Donald Trump get elected.  The implications for American democracy of any connection between Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russian government in that effort necessitates a patient and thorough investigation and compilation of the facts.

Finally, a new, invigorated civic and political activism has sprung up to unprecedented levels.  Across the country, citizens are mobilizing to make their voices heard through town hall meetings where members of Congress are seeing attendance rise tenfold since January 20.  The volume of phone calls to Congress are setting records, reaching 1.5 million calls to the Senate alone.  Ad hoc groups have formed to partner voting districts across the red-blue political divide, to address redistricting that favors Republican candidates, to refuse to shop at businesses owned by or supporting the President and his family, to join voter registration drives.

When FDR set the standard for 100 days of accomplishment by an incoming President, he did so in the face of an acute crisis.  The crisis facing the country now is not any external mess, but is all that the new President stands for.  Addressing that crisis through a sustained opposition has been the real story of the first 100 days.

 

This article originally appeared in History News Network and The Berkshire Eagle.

 

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The Doughnut Tour

Two summers ago, as part of a volunteer project for the Berkshire Historical Society, I created a virtual driving tour of some of Pittsfield’s old mills (milltour.org).   The site and tour highlights these majestic 19th century buildings that shaped Pittsfield as an industrial city, a city of immigrants and a national leader in the production of wool, silk, paper and even clocks.  These buildings still dominate our landscape.  We drive by them, mostly unaware of the stories they tell of our ancestors – men, women and children who heeded their bells and put in their 60-hour work-weeks and make a living.  Some of these structures have a new lives as residential housing or office space for businesses like the Berkshire Eagle.

Cafua Realty, which owns over 200 Dunkin Donuts franchises, recently presented its plans to the zoning board for a new one where St. Mary’s stands on Tyler Street. I fast forwarded to the year 2066 or 2116 and imagined the historian’s task in creating a virtual tour to depict life back in 2016.  That tour might be called doughnuttour.org.

The doughnut tour could start with the Dunkin Donuts on First Street, a good model that would explain the concept of a drive-through, and show how, here, the space was so small that rush-hour traffic was often blocked.

Then, we would proceed less than a block away, and stop at the site of the old Plunkett School that Cafua opted to tear down for another Dunkin Donuts franchise.  Our passengers could learn that the lot lay vacant for years, since Cafua razed the 100 year-old building before they could get their drive-through plan approved.   What motivated Cafua to tear down the school would remain unmentioned since there was no record of an explanation.  Perhaps there would be an interpretive panel explaining that the school was named after a leading 19th century businessman who ran a mill and a bank but also found time to give back to the city through his leadership of the Berkshire Athenaeum.  The inquiring future reader might be able to find out why a second Dunkin Donuts was needed less than a block away.

The map would direct the tour-taker north on First Street before turning on Tyler Street.  Perhaps there would be a photo of the stately brick and stone church that was the center of community life, torn down for the smart brown, pink and orange of the new “religion.” The map would once again show two Dunkin Donut restaurants within walking distance.  Our grandchildren might wonder how many people actually stopped at each doughnut shop in the same outing.

We could then head further north to the edge of the city and take in The Donut Man shop on the shore of Pontoosuc Lake.  Plaques might tell how this actually was a Dunkin Donuts at one time, before the franchise owner broke with the company and started his own business.  Our tourists who might wonder about the logic of spoiling the view of the lake with a doughnut shop would learn that patrons could take their coffee and pastry to a gazebo behind the shop to eat and gaze at the water and the hills above.

Many historic tourists at this point might want to jump off of the doughnut tour, but they will be happy to know there’s more.  They can head down to East Street, and read about this Dunkin Donuts catering to high school students on their lunch breaks and for after-school munchies, creating a life-long habit of unhealthy-eating.  If future historians would want to get out and walk, they could find that the high school is actually equidistant between this Dunkin Donuts and its sister shop that was our initial stop on First Street.  Students starving after a morning of classes had doughnut choices!

The tour would then proceed down Elm Street where our inquisitive participants would check out the three different establishments selling coffee and pastries within two blocks.  But, they would marvel that not one of them is a Dunkin Donuts, but are all locally owned and operated.   The map would then direct the drivers to gas stations on South Street and West Housatonic Street where Dunkin Donuts has set up shop inside the convenience stores, a heads-up model where patrons could fill up on gas and doughnuts.

At different stops, there might be recorded oral interviews with employees who could talk about their wages that start (on average) at $8.39 an hour but could go all the way up to $11.06 as an assistant manager.[1]  Next to that, there could be the text of the Boston Globe article on the Cafuas, who owned 215 stores, some of which were pulling in $40,000 a week. [2]

Perhaps the tour might end with photos of other towns that seem to have convinced Dunkin Donuts to adopt designs that are more attractive, and conform to the surroundings better, like New London, New Hampshire (courtesy Googlemaps).

I have to confess, somewhat shamefacedly, that I personally know each of these doughnut establishments, including the one in New London.  I even enjoy the 77-year tradition of  National Doughnut Day (June 3).  My own waistline shows it, as does my frequent doughnut card.  I’m not against doughnuts and coffee, nor am I against people making money or people working hard to earn cash when there are not enough alternatives.  That’s what the 19th century mill owners and workers did – make money and eke out a living.  The one exception is that those mill owners displayed a sense of civic responsibility and left the city a museum, a library, a town hall, a hospital, churches and schools.

While not anti-doughnut, I am convinced that one very obvious attraction that this city holds for its residents and visitors lies in the beauty of the 19th century brick and stone buildings on Park Square, and on the streets and lanes spreading out in all four directions.  We owe it to the next generations to leave them this heritage and history – not one of doughnut shops.

[1] https://www.glassdoor.com/Salary/Dunkin-Donuts-Salaries-E19153.htm

[2] https://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2014/09/17/the-secret-world-dunkin-donuts-franchise-kings/pb2UmxauJrZv08wcBig6CO/story.html

 

This story originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle.

Tearing down the Plunkett School to make way for doughnuts. Photo, the author

Tearing down the Plunkett School to make way for doughnuts. Photo, the author

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25 hours

Reading from the pulpit at Seamen's Bethel.

Reading from the pulpit at Seamen’s Bethel.

My first Moby Dick Marathon.  It had been several years since I learned of this event where the book is read aloud from cover to cover each year at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.  After conflicts ruled out prior attendance, my wife and I finally resolved to participate this year, the 20th anniversary of the marathon.

And it was worth it, in so many ways.

No, I did not listen to every word, in fact only about four or five hours.  But, when the museum handed out certificates to those who did sit through all 25 hours, the line looked to be easily over 50 people.

While not reading, we attended two sessions to chat with Melville scholars who covered a wide ranging array of subjects from the many-layered and evolving interpretations of the novel to their own personal accounts of encountering Melvlle and how their study has shaped their lives.  Of interest to those of us at Arrowhead was the discussion on how Melville spent his first year in Pittsfield re-working his book.  In his letters, we were told, he anticipated finishing his book about the whale by the fall of 1850, but after meeting Nathaniel Hawthorne and moving to Pittsfield, he spent another year working on the book.  One scholar told us that were it not for that year at Arrowhead, we would not have been attending the marathon, for it would have likely been another of the books Melville turned out to help finance the expenses of his growing family.  We also spent a fair amount of discussion time on the difficulty of the book, and how students today react to it.

The reading shifted away from the exhibit hall twice.  First, we moved across the street to read (and sing) the chapters that took place in the Seamen’s Bethel.  Melville includes the words of a hymn in Chapter 7, so we all sang it, and then listened to Father Mapple read his sermon on Jonah.

The second time, we moved to the auditorium to watch a dramatic presentation of Chapter 40, Melville’s play within his novel of life on the deck of the Pequod.

My own ten minutes of reading took place at the civilized time of 7:50 on Sunday morning, almost 20 hours since they started reading.  To my surprise there were quite a number of people present.  The organizers had written saying this time would put my reading in or about Chapter 104, one on Melville’s description of whale size.  The references to Barbary travelers and Egyptian temples caused me to trip over the words, but one quote reminded me of why Melville may have included such details as the size of the whales: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.  No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.”

Many of the people present seemed to be teachers, but there were also people like Amalia, a Venezuelan who we sat with at lunch and who read her ten minutes in Spanish.  Amalia had fallen in love with Melville after coming to the U.S..  She visited Arrowhead this past fall on her quest to know more about the author and the book she had read many times.  In fact, others read in French, Japanese, Chinese, German, Dutch, Swedish and too many more to remember.  For the first time, five hours in a parallel session was set aside for Portuguese reading.  Other readers included Nathaniel Philbrick who kicked off the event and several descendants of Melville.  I met many people who go every year.

The hall was packed for the final chapters, and the applause when the Epilogue concluded seemed to never end.

What sticks most in my mind from the weekend was the sense that there’s always something new in Melville.  One university teacher said there’s a lot of repetition in academia, and scholars enjoy teaching Melville because each time they read him they discover a new layer, a new way to “enter the book,” whether through the environment, through race or gender, or politics.  He seems to reach across the generations and speak to current concerns.

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