The Berkshires in 1886

The Dragon Lady of Stockbridge is set in the Berkshires in 1886. But just where are the Berkshires, and what were they like in 1886?

There’s an old English county called Berkshire. “Berk-” comes from a Celtic word meaning hilly, and a “shire” is a county, so the original “Berkshire” was a hilly county. Not surprisingly, when the English colonized New England, they organized the hilly region of western Massachusetts as the redundantly named Berkshire County, and named the hills on its eastern side the Berkshire Hills.

Geographically, Berkshire County is a valley that runs along a north-south axis, with the Taconic Hills to the west and the Berkshires to the east. The northern part of the valley is drained by the Hoosac River, the southern part by the Housatonic. The hills and streams provided ample sources of water power, so many mills sprung up in the region in the nineteenth century.

The European colonists settled in the region in the eighteenth century to farm the land. It was not a great region for farming. Not only was the land hilly, but it was covered in trees, had thin, rocky soil, and the higher elevation shortened the growing season. Once the Midwest opened up, the farms at the highest elevations were abandoned. Those a bit lower down turned their land to hay fields and pasture. After the Civil War, most of the remaining farms went over to sheep farming. It required few people and was reasonably profitable, though the price of wool declined steadily through the last part of the century. In another few decades, the price would drop so low that farmers would convert to dairy farming.

Every small watercourse had a mill built on it at one time or another, but only a few sites could support major factories. Pittsfield and North Adams had most of the sites and had become industrial communities with about 15,000 inhabitants in each city. Adams was about half their size, and Dalton, which had the Crane mills, about half the size of Adams.

Most of the towns were small communities of under 1,000 people, and they had been slowly losing population for decades as people abandoned farms and moved to the mill towns, or to the West looking for better land and more opportunities. Hal Barron wrote a good book about what these small towns were like called Those Who Stayed Behind.

There were a few exceptional communities. Williamstown had the famous Williams College, so was a sizable community without having an industrial base. And Lenox and Stockbridge were homes to the cottages of the wealthy. I’ll talk about why in a subsequent post.

The railroads had penetrated Berkshire in the antebellum years, connecting the valley with markets in Boston, Albany, and New York City, and bringing Irish and French Canadian factory workers to add to the English and Scotch-Irish farmers, with Italians and Poles just beginning to show up.

The spring was muddy, the summers relatively cool, the fall foliage gorgeous, and the winter snows heavy. Most of the land had been cleared for farming when it was settled, but the hills were reverting to forests, and the wealthier towns were aggressively planting shade trees along their streets, as you can see below in Williamstown. Berkshire was probably a nicer place to visit than to live in in 1886. In that respect, Rebecca Farnsworth Maxwell, fictional character though she is, fits right in.

Main Street in Williamstown, 1886


About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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