The Berkshire cottages and Dragon Lady

In a previous post, I described what the Berkshires were like in 1886. But there’s a few groups of people I left out: the visitors and the rich.

In the antebellum period, the Berkshires acquired a reputation for scenery, and for the literary figures who visited or stayed there. The best-known today are Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. In fact, Melville wrote Moby Dick while staying in the Berkshires, and dedicated it to Hawthorne, who was also living there at the time.

After the Civil War, an era of unprecedented industrial growth created a new class of rich people. And like rich people everywhere, they wanted to enjoy their wealth, preferably in a nice place with other rich people. So they went to Newport and Saratoga . . . and the Berkshires. First they stayed at the better hotels, such as the Stockbridge House (now the Red Lion Inn). These hotels had detached cottages which became the favored residences of the rich when they came to visit. After a while, they naturally thought of building their own. And so between roughly 1880 and the First World War, they built increasingly larger homes, “cottages” they were called, where they could enjoy their wealth in between the summer season in Newport and the late fall season at the spa and racetrack in Saratoga.

Lenox and Stockbridge were where most of them built their homes. Stockbridge was an older town, and had the Sedgwicks and the fabulous Field brothers (David Dudley, a legal reformer, Stephen, a Supreme Court Justice, Cyrus, who laid the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable, and Henry, a noted author and traveler). But Lenox attracted more of the moneyed, and acquired more prestige.

It was an era when the rich spent money without shame, and their cottages were lavish. People admired (or at least envied) their wealth, and wanted to see it and rub elbows with the rich, if possible. I’ve a guidebook to the Berkshires from 1886-7. It lists the towns in order of their social importance. Lenox and Stockbridge come first, of course (and in that order), and their lengthy entries include long descriptions of which rich and notable people visit or live in each town. Less prestigious towns get later and shorter entries, until the factory towns such as Dalton and the poverty-stricken hill towns such as Savoy get the briefest mention.

Cleveland Amory described a cycle for resort communities: first they attract artists, then the “good” rich people (the ones who enjoy scenic and artistic pleasures), then the “bad” rich people (who are there to flaunt their wealth and behave badly), and then the resort goes out of fashion. The Berkshires follow the pattern, though New England dignity seems to have restrained the “bad” phase more so than at other resorts of the era. That may be one reason why the Berkshires declined even more rapidly than the other resorts of the rich after the First World War. Many of the cottages were abandoned, razed, or sold to institutions. A few, such as Naumkeag (see picture) have been preserved and are open to the public to let us today get a taste of what it was like to be a wealthy resort dweller at the end of the nineteenth century.

Naumkeag, maintained by the Trustees of Reservations

How does all this fit into The Dragon Lady of Stockbridge? Rebecca, as a good Berkshire native, identifies with the other old families more than the new wealthy, even though her husband is a member of the latter group. So she persuaded him to build their cottage in Stockbridge in 1883-4. And she tends to socialize with the old Berkshire families, who are around in the early summer. When the story opens, most of the wealthy are still in New York or have gone to Newport. They will come to Lenox and Stockbridge later, in September.

If you want to read more about this era, you can start with The Berkshire Cottages: A Vanishing Era by Carole Owens, which combines a general history of the era and the cottages with a detailed description of each one. Carole has written some other books on this era, which you can find here, a page from the web site of the Berkshire bed and breakfast which she runs. What could be more appropriate?

Cleveland Amory’s The Last Resorts offers an overview of the major haunts of the vacationing American rich of that era. Be aware that while Amory is trying to write about the entire era, his sources were heavily weighed toward the end of the era, the post-World War I years when the resorts were in decline. Berkshire’s swift decline means it gets prominent mention at the very beginning of the book, and scarcely any thereafter.

The 1886-7 guidebook I mentioned is called The Book of Berkshire: Describing and Illustrating Its Hills and Homes . . .  and was originally written and published by Clark W. Bryan. It has since been reprinted at least once as a curiosity.

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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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