Archive for category History in our surroundings

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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Present at the Creation – The Stone Marker at Pontoosuc Lake

Inscription on Keeler Dam Stone Marker.  Photo, the author,

Inscription on Keeler Dam Stone Marker. Photo, the author.

The stone marker lies face up just inside the chain link fence near the dam at the outlet of Pontoosuc Lake, the headwaters of the west branch of the Housatonic River.  There on the ground, it’s easily missed for the exercise conscious and soul refreshers who pass by on their way to the lake, the ancient stand of pines and their commanding view up the valley to Mt. Greylock.  Now with a layer of snow and frozen ice, it’s impossible to read the inscription underneath: “The top of the iron pin is 50 inches above the old dam.”

Of course, no iron pin is in sight, since this marker is dated November 1, 1866, a year after the Civil War ended.  Another date is on the green bridge railing, speaking to an upgrade that took place in 1994, shoring up the dam, adding new barriers and stone lining to the canal and redirecting its water  back to the river in order to prevent further erosion on the hillside.

The 1866 marker points us back to an “old dam,” fifty inches lower.   Perhaps there are other stones somewhere still to be found that indicate the 1866 dam was itself raised in 1824, 6 feet higher than the original dam, built in 1763.

More than 250 years have passed since the original construction of this dam that harnessed the falling waters of the Housatonic to power the industry that drew jobs and people to the city and the region.

Imagine what Pittsfield in 1762 looked like to Joseph Keeler who, approaching the age of 50, uprooted his family of ten from Ridgefield, Connecticut to settle here.  Perhaps what drew him here was the news of Pittsfield’s incorporation just one year earlier in 1761 and the promise of jobs and wealth for his coming of age sons.  He settled first in present day Lanesboro, and, after a year of checking out the region, he saw his opportunity on the south shore of the large lake just across the town border.  He might have called it Lanesboro Pond, or the unwieldy Shoonkeekmoonkeek, but not Pontoosuc yet, since that was what the whole settlement had been called prior to incorporation.

Keeler purchased over 200 acres from one of the town’s original settlers, Col. William Williams.  His new plot ranged from the southernmost tip of the lake extending over 100 yards further south.  There, in 1763, Keeler and his sons built the first dam, in order to power two mills he also constructed, a grist mill for grinding flour and a saw mill.

In one respect, it was an ideal spot since his neighbor, Hosea Merrill ran a lumber operation taking advantage of the abundance of tall white pines, still in evidence in the area.  On the other hand, it was far from ideal, since there was no road between the center of the new town and this outpost.  It took four more years for another entrepreneur, Charles Goodrich, to build that road, only to receive the news that the town refused to reimburse him for the cost.  Goodrich had started an iron forge downstream, perhaps taking advantage of the swiftly moving water from Keeler’s dam to fuel the bellows for heating the coal fires at the forge.  He would also have needed the water as a supply to cool down the newly shaped iron pieces of saws and scythes, axes and axles for wagon wheels and other assorted metal work.

From these origins, from this dam, Keeler’s mills and Goodrich’s iron forge spawned the early industry of the town.  As ownership passed from these two men on to others, the advantages of the upper reaches of the Housatonic attracted still more enterprising and innovative men.

Goodrich’s forge eventually became a gun shop that was sold in 1808 to another recent arrival from a Southampton Massachusetts blacksmith family, Lemuel Pomeroy.  Securing a government contract, Pomeroy expanded his business to produce 2000 muskets a year until 1846.  His business acumen was not limited to guns, however, as Pomeroy built one of the town’s first textile mills, on the site of yet another grist mill southwest of the town center.   When Pomeroy stopped selling guns, his factory was converted into one of the largest woolen mills in Pittsfield, the Taconic Mills, whose complex stood at the corner of Wahconah and North Streets.

The Keelers had unloaded their properties by 1813, selling off parcels, including one to James Strandring who set up a tool-making factory about 300 yards south of the dam.  His manufacture of comb-plates and spindles for carding and spinning wool drew the inventor Arthur Schofield to set up shop in his attic.  Schofield had brought to Pittsfield the makings of a carding machine that would transform the production of wool from a hand-spun, cottage industry to the heavy industrial output from the massive brick factories that dominated Pittsfield’s landscape over the next 150 years – all powered for many years by, you guessed it, water.

The first upgrade to Keeler’s dam accommodated a group of investors who bought the site and Strandring’s small factory and, half-way between the two, they started the Pontoosuc Woolen Mill in 1826.  This mill outlasted the ten other woolen mills in the town, which before the Civil War helped make Berkshire County the largest producer of woolen cloth in the nation, and helped attract to the region the thousands of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Quebec, Poland and elsewhere who make up so much of our population.

The second upgrade came as our stone marker suggests in 1866, at the end of the Civil War, when factories sought to ramp up their production with the new peace dividend.  And the last upgrade was actually a downgrade that came in 1994, 21 years after the last woolen mill, Pontoosuc, then named Wyandotte, closed down.

It’s a simple inscription on this stone marker, that hardly anyone sees.  But it tells a story, our story.

This also appeared in the Berkshire Eagle.

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