Search Weirdness:

Friday, July 01, 2011

TMH the Book- Sneak Preview

These Mysterious Hills: History, Mystery and Lore in the Berkshires
Excerpt from Chapter 1
The Barrier Reconsidered

The Berkshires, the Berkshire Hills, the Purple Hills… these terms are evocative, and there are many different connotations of what they mean, widely varying perspectives even within the various participating demographics of residents, students, tourists, summer dwellers, and so forth.

Walter Prichard Eaton, one of the area’s most under-celebrated geniuses, once observed, “Probably many in the outside world think of them chiefly as the hills which ring Stockbridge and Lenox- an idea not infrequently entertained by the inhabitants of those distinguished villages.”

Indeed, just the slice of land that encompasses those towns has produced many tomes worth of history, literary and cultural, economic, and even revolutionary. Several volumes have been devoted just to the architecture of its many Gilded Age cottages.

The entire land that has come to be regarded as the Berkshires, as Eaton pointed out, is actually a rolling plateau that extends from the southern reaches of the Green Mountains and Taconic Range down into Connecticut, filling western Massachusetts from the New York border to just shy of the Connecticut River to the east. This plateau encompasses the southern Green Mountains, Hoosac and Taconic ranges.

Once called the Berkshire Barrier, these hills did not appear so idyllic to early European travelers and settlers. The first written description of the land comes from Rev. Benjamin Wadsworth, later President of Harvard, who while crossing en route from Boston to Albany in 1694 calls it a “hideous, howling wilderness,” through which ran “a very curious river.”

Nearly twenty years before that, our first colonial encounter with the area was steeped in bloodshed. At the conclusion of King Philips War in the summer of 1676, Major John Talcott became the first known Englishman in the Berkshires, pursuing an escaping band of Wampanoags from Westfield to the Housatonic. At dawn he surprised them camping near the river ford in Great Barrington, in what became a massacre.

In the early years of settlement, there were even campfire stories of things that Massachusetts colonists found more noxious and foreboding, of human sacrifice by the local natives to the dark spirit Hobbomocco, up in the place they called Wizards Glen.

Even for some later settlers, and descendants of settlers, the Berkshire Barrier retains some of that sense of forbidding wilderness, of mystery, and even the potential darkness. Within this knobby plateau is a mad labyrinth of criss-crossing roads, boxed in all around in deep woods and nestling 40 some odd distinct towns, villages, and a small city or two. Even after years in the area, it can seem foreign and impenetrable. At the end of a lifetime there, one is often still discovering parts of it they never knew existed.

As one elderly woman whose name I never caught once said to me, a wild speculative gleam in her eyes, “These hills sure are mysterious!”

She was right, of course. From between and quite often within its most historic sites, acclaimed cultural venues, and postcard-perfect mountains, come stories that portray other, more complicated facets of the Berkshire legacy. It was genteel oddities that allegedly caught the attention of Leonard Bernstein and John Williams on the grounds of Tanglewood, not far removed from the playful gentleman in 301 that guests occasionally complain disturbs their sleep at the Red Lion Inn. More accounts of gruesome unease and terrified running are to be had from the Hoosac Tunnel and Becket Quarry, perennial reminders of another history of the Berkshires, where men died in droves punching railroads through the Barrier and cutting out the fine marble for all those marvelous cottages. Even at Hancock’s recreated Shaker Village, it’s just a short walk to the hill where those simple-living folk were said to have battled the Devil himself… and dispatched him.

The decision to include a smattering of Bennington county strangeness in this collection happened fairly organically, for two reasons. The Advocate Weekly, where at least half of this material was first published in the column These Mysterious Hills, covers an area that includes both Berkshire and Bennington County. The second reason is an evolution of that first; that it has always made sense to me to cover the region that way: communities as overlapping as the hills that intertwine them.

In many ways they share more, culturally and historically, with each other than they do with their respective states. For much of their history it was easier to travel between them than it was to travel east and west to and from the rest of settled Massachusetts, and their native sons intermingled. Ethan Allen has now become so strongly associated with Vermont it is almost forgotten that he was for years a farmer in Sheffield, near the southernmost corner of the Berkshires. His brother Thomas, who legend has firing the first shot against the English at Bennington, commanded the first pulpit in Pittsfield and his name still adorns sites across one corner of the city. Centuries before that, the indigenous Mahican who came to be called the Stockbridge Indians are believed to have occupied this southern tip of Vermont before being pushed south.

From the parallels of Edith Wharton and Shirley Jackson to the sometimes nefarious social interactions between Williams and Bennington Colleges, this shared cultural territory seems as palpable and natural to me as the winding stretch of Route 7 connecting them.

I think that you will find this common ground plays out particularly clearly in the character of the shared history of ghosts, monsters, and lingering mysteries presented here.

Of course, this collection cannot hope to offer every legend, every haunted house, UFO report, cult, or colorful eccentric dotting the centuries of local history and tradition. It aims just to present a thorough representative sampling of this richly weird legacy. There are plenty of ghost stories, however, if that’s your thing, even a dozen or so about places you can sleep in, provided you have the financial means to do so. There are “Indian” stories, earliest colonial yarns depicting the indigenous past as the new settlers saw it. There are “monster” sightings, and media hiccups over unidentified creatures, and improbable wildlife darting about the forests. There’s a befuddling pile of everyday people describing unusual objects in the sky in an array of shapes and sizes… sometimes in long, unsettlingly detailed encounters.

There are poltergeists, a spectral train, an exorcism, and even a vampire-slaying. The birth and early growing pains of several major American religious sects will be examined. Disappearances, murders, and scandals crop up throughout.

Most importantly, there are the stories of some of the unsung epic characters of this land: heroes, villains, charlatans and lunatics whose actual lives read like legend. The amazing, almost-forgotten stories of Lyndon Bates Jr. and the Monument to Sacrifice, wandering Old Leather Man, of the Weather Prophet Levi Beebe and General Lutz’s Palace of Dreams, along witches, dowsers, seers, ghost-hunters and other assorted fascinating folk, will be paraded out for consideration alongside the more well-studied aristocrats, the castle-crazed Edward Searles, and the “Bottle King” Edward Hamlin Everett.

It is there, I think, in the minds of some of our most unique citizens and visitors, that we will find the deepest, most engaging mysteries.