Archive for category History in our surroundings

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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This Place Really Matters – The Movie

filmstillYou’ve read the thesis on preserving the old Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and the articles below. Perhaps you even saw the review in the Berkshire Eagle.  Now the full-length movie.

OK, maybe you haven’t read them.  But the film project took up a big chunk of the past few months when otherwise I would have been writing blog posts, about Iran or the Pope, gun control or incarcerations, trails or demolitions in the Berkshires.

The movie is complete so the plan is to pick up on these short pieces.

How did this involvement in a full-length movie (84 minutes) come about?  Not that I knew anything about filming, certainly nothing more than home movies of children.

The e-mail requesting someone to document the preservation project of the 1876 Victorian Gothic public library building in central Pittsfield was copied to me.  Had I known the full extent of what was involved I might have shied away, but a casual “yes, I’d be interested” turned into a Master’s Degree thesis and a movie.

The architects leading the project were interested in a film documenting the project, but I was interested in getting graduate credit.  The breakthrough came from Pittsfield Community Television (PCTV) that offered equipment loans and training and a lot of storage space on their server.

The architects (Bill Gillen and John Krifka from Ford-Gillen in Amherst MA) and the contractor (Mike Mucci from Allegrone of Pittsfield MA) encouraged me to attend and even film their meetings, allowed me access to the worksite and repeatedly gave of their time and documents to understand as much as a layperson could the complexity of the work involved.

The movie, This Place Really Matters, has been broadcast on Access Pittsfield PCTV the past few weeks and is available through their on demand feature.  And now you can watch it on YouTube right here: https://youtu.be/y6er6nz605k

If you can only watch a little, proceed to about minute 50 for dramatic footage showing the reason why the state went to such time and expense to fix the structural problems of the building.

When we think of preserving historic buildings, the first ones that come to mind are usually the buildings that we failed to save, that were demolished and lost to only the archives.  Here, though, is a success story that deserves to be celebrated and remembered.

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This Place Matters – the old Berkshire Athenaeum

Right before construction started.  Photo the author

Right before construction started. Photo the author

Since September 2013, the yard in front of the Superior Court and the old Berkshire Athenaeum on Park Square in Pittsfield had a chain link fence, construction trailers, portable toilets and gravel. Much of that time, a green curtained scaffold blocked the public view of the majestic stone work and prominent stained glass windows behind it.  And yet, in practically no time at all, the scaffolding and fencing have been taken down, and fresh green sod lies in their place.  What we see now seems much the same as it looked before work started.  According to the contractor, Mike Mucci from Allegrone, that’s as it should be.  “People stop by,“ he told me, “and look up at the building and ask us, ‘What did you do?  I don’t see any difference.’  We take that as a compliment.”

In fact, much has changed, and that should also be a compliment.  A closer look will reveal the steel braces gone from the front façade, but still in place on the sides and the rear of the building.  Some onlookers might detect gray mortar between the stone work on the front, as opposed to the red on the other three sides.  Few passers-by would be able to remember the broken stained glass sections or the cracks in the wall.  And only a trained eye with perfect memory from the summer of 2013 would be able to notice the front façade is straight.  Gone is a bulge that protruded away from the building as much as five to six inches in places, that had been building for years and created an emergency safety concern for the staff inside the building and the many people coming into the building to go to the courts or the registry of deeds.  So, almost five years ago, the state, which operates the courthouses and registry of deeds in the building now, took the first steps of what started as a “small repair,” according to architect John Krifka.

Because of the conditions of the building, though, what took place behind the green curtain over the last two years has turned into a monumental effort to secure the front façade and preserve a building almost 140 years old.  This Victorian Gothic structure, unique in the downtown core, housed for 100 years one of the busiest libraries in the state.  Bearing witness to the rapid economic growth of the city, it still stands, despite the flight of industry, and contributes to the city’s plans to attract new business and arts and tourism.  But, it also carries for many residents the fond association of books and knowledge and community, lending a sense of dignity, pride and identity.

The project involved taking down almost every stone on the façade, and relaying each one, secured to the building to ensure they do not move again.  That’s relatively easy and straightforward to say.  But think about that for just ten seconds, and what that might entail.

Pause.

Each of the thousands of stones went back in exactly the same place.

One could liken it to a giant jigsaw puzzle except that the pieces weighed from 50 pounds to ten times that weight, and  they had to run in straight lines, and they may have been chipped or cracked over the years, and they had to be affixed to a new concrete and steel structure behind that stones, and they  needed new mechanical strategies to prevent water from working in behind the stones to cause the damage, and the stained glass windows and the surrounding forms also needed repair and the entire package needed to maintain the historic integrity and appearance of a building that is listed as a contributing feature to the original Park Square historic district.  And, the building remained open to the public.  And the work was completed in two of the harshest winters in recent memory.

Working in the depths of winter.  Photo, the author

Working in the depths of winter. Photo, the author

An even greater appreciation for this effort emerges upon examining the historical record of the building, where this problem of shifting and bulging has plagued it for well over 100 years.  A letter in 1897 from William Plunkett, the President of the Berkshire Athenaeum Board of Trustees, indicates the need to repair the leaks in the roof, just 20 years after the building opened.  “No one can tell,” he wrote, when it may give out and cause serious trouble.”  Water getting behind the stones, then expanding in the frozen winters and contracting and allowing more water to enter, pushed the stones away from the walls.   Steel girders and reinforced foundations were put in place in 1945 to hold up the roof and stabilize the building.  Then steel bands were installed around the building to hold the stones in place in the late 1970s when the building was re-purposed for the courthouse and registry of deeds.

Those steel bands are no longer needed.  When the stones were re-layed, a new concrete wall, with steel reinforcement, was poured behind the stones each time a layer of 2-3 feet stones was put in place.  Repairing stones and reshaping them to fit and align required a slow, precise care more akin to surgery, if the doctors were manipulating 50-300 pound organs or bones.  Finally, flashing at both the roof line and at the base will prevent water from entering behind the stones.  Hard to see, but along the base are small round “weeps” that serve as drains for any water that might be able to enter through the mortar during the storms that the northern façade bears the brunt of through the year.

Ready for another 100 years.  The old Athenaeum in May 2015.  Photo, the author

Ready for another 100 years. The old Athenaeum in May 2015. Photo, the author

Similar precision and care went into repairing the stained glass windows, the first comprehensive repair since the original construction.  All the shifting over 139 years resulted in cracked and broken glass in the 46 panels  on the two large windows on the front façade, with only small, colored pieces of plastic mounted as temporary replacements to keep out the weather and maintain a poor facsimile of the graceful windows.  New concrete molds (or tracery) were produced to hold the repaired windows in place, and each section of this tracery was fastened securely to the surrounding stone work with metal anchors. The project’s architect. Bill Gillen, said that, despite the new sod and the removal of the scaffolding, the project will continue with small follow-up activities over the course of the year, ending, “with a whimper.”   That would be too bad, as those many people who worked on this project over the past two years of active construction have saved a unique treasure for the city, its residents and its many visitors.   The old Athenaeum, renamed the Bowes Building, for the County Commissioner who helped to save it after the library moved out, has been saved again.  Most of us who will pass by it for years to come, will continue to pay the compliment to those many people involved in this effort:  we won’t notice any difference.  The wall is straight and will remain so.

See also:  Behind the Green Curtain.   This post originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle.

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Thousands of Stories

If private property is the foundation of our nation and its economy, there may be no better place to see it at ground level than in a registry of deeds, where records of real estate transactions are kept.  The offices and rooms that house the documents offer a step back in history with their collections of oversized, dusty, heavy books and their card files of grantors and grantees (legalese for sellers and buyers) to ease tracing of ownership.  Here one can find thousands of transactions which, taken together represent the legal underpinnings of our society.  Separately, each deed tells a story and represents one of life’s milestones.  The entries speak of hope and promise, of failure and tragedy of our forebears.

Admittedly, my sample size for registries is small – just two.  But, if either of the Berkshire registries I’ve visited is any indication, there is no need for a time capsule.  Crossing the threshold into these offices will suffice: they are housed in old buildings themselves with high ceilings, wooden floors and “scary” downstairs bathrooms, as one staff person told me.  Hundreds of volumes are stacked either in floor-to-ceiling shelves or under stand-up counters upon which the books can be heaved and opened and studied.  Each of the shelves has a roller at the edge to allow for easy access and maintenance of these volumes.  The older tall shelving includes a bicycle-chain like contraption so they can be raised and lowered.  Out of place are the occasional computer terminal and photo-copy machine that remind visitors that this is, after all, the 21st century.

The books themselves tell a story of innovation and change, but also of permanence.  Now, of course, records are kept digitally as well as in books that are half the size of the pre-1970 variety – easily a foot and a half in length, a foot wide and three inches thick, representing 600-plus pages.  At one time, the deeds were photocopied for these books, and even earlier they were individually typed with carbon paper.  Prior to the 1920s, the deeds were each written out by hand, stirring images of Melville’s Bartleby facing a mountain of documents to carefully and neatly transcribe all day long.  Over the almost two hundred years these oversized volumes have gone through periods of  metal bindings and then transferred to hard leather and cardboard bindings rendering the documents they house safe from mishandling.  Most are covered in a heavy, course fabric which shows the wear of use  – the stains and spills and the rips.

The legal language remains surprisingly consistent over the past 100 plus years – warrants and grants, easements and quitclaims, and privileges and appurtenances.  Likewise, a description of a property transferred that was surveyed in the 1800s carries over into this century, explaining that the property begins at a certain pipe adjacent or “thence easterly on the South line of land of said Bracewell heirs, 66 feet to a stake and stones.”  Sometime the measurements are precise; other times they reflect bygone ways of measuring using rods and links, and still other times they are perilously vague and general.

Still, earlier social norms are hard to hide.  There is a whole slew of deeds from the 1800s all the way up to the 1950s that announce in bold calligraphy at the top of the page: “Know all Men by these Presents” which by the sensibilities of 2014 sounds jarring in itself, but even more so when both the buyer and the seller are women.  That is more common than one might imagine, given the prohibitions against voting and other social participation. For married couples back into the 1800s, it seems that wives insisted that the property be in both names.  When only one name was given it was not unusual that it was the wife’s.  If this was to protect against creditors going after debtors’ property, women stepped forward again to insist that any stupid financial decisions taken by the men in the family would not cause irredeemable harm.

It’s hard, though, not to see each transfer of ownership as a landmark event in each of these individuals’ lives.  There are real estate tycoons who owned large tracts of multiple properties and sold off individual parcels; there is a surprising amount of stability in some neighborhoods, where families owned the house for decades, and then passed it on to their children.  In others, there are sales every few years.  The fluctuations in the economy are reflected in the housing prices so that it was not uncommon to see home prices higher in the early 1900s than in the 1930s.  The saddest are the references to foreclosures or seizures by banks and courts and even sheriffs, more often than expected.  This seems to take place just a few years after the purchase, leaving the impression that their ability to make house payments was limited even as they were buying the home.

Most people in these books are local, but I have seen sellers from Washington DC and Washington state, from Illinois and Idaho and Ohio and even one from London. There are a few investors, including one J. Walter Thompson from New York City, the advertising pioneer who came from Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  The names also reflect the waves of immigrants that came to this part of Massachusetts, from Quebec and Ireland, Italy and Poland, and now Latin America.  The Minnies and Leocadies and Annabelles have been replaced by Laurens and Jessicas and Christophers.

Each entry has a story, enough for a novel perhaps.  Take but one entry, that of one deed from the Veterans Administration, to a man, presumably young, at the end of World War II.  The VA had acquired the home following a foreclosure and turned it over, most likely to a veteran, recently married since the deed includes her maiden name.  Both were from North Adams, so they could have met in high school on the eve of the war and kept up a correspondence through the war years.  He had to have been young when they bought the house, since he passed away in 1987, forty years in the same house with his sweetheart.  She hired a lawyer to place her house in a trust, to protect her largest asset, (again speculating) in the event her medical bills exceeded her ability to pay.  This is the lived experience of veterans being rewarded for their service in a previous generation or the state of medical care in this century whose rising costs threaten a lifetime’s savings.  Add to this story their children, the jobs, the neighbors and the vicissitudes of life in western Massachusetts with factory closings and 4th of July parades and winter storms.  Where is Norman Rockwell?

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Inside the Registry in Adams, MA. Photo: J. Dickson

And that’s just one couple, one of what must be hundreds of thousands of names tucked away in these books.  Step back in time and find a story.

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