Living history adapts in 2020

Robert Crighton planted the gardens here on the ridge. He tended the magnolia and the sweet bay hedge. On a summer day the Madame Colbert white roses would be covered in bees. Crighton lived up here for more than 40 years below the big house on the hill, and he cared for the gardens at Naumkeag.

One bed he planted entirely for scent, says says Catherine Martini, horticulture manager for the Trustees Reservations. She tends the gardens now.

Naumkeag is celebrating its 60th year as a museum in Stockbridge this summer and fall, as Hancock Shaker Village is in Pittsfield, and while the coronavirus is leading them to think on their feet, that celebration of past and future is going on.

At the Shaker Village, sheep and calves are grazing, and pumpkins are showing in the CSA farm and gardens. Head gardener and CSA farm manager Lauren Piotrowski was picking a crop of yellow transparent apples even in late June. They are thin-skinned and delicately sweet, she says, ideal for making applesauce.

Both museums are living places.

In the last few years, Naumkeag has invited the community in for festivals or a quiet family picnic on the lawn on a warm night.

“When your visitation grows 600 percent within five years, you’ve got to be nimble,” says general manager Brian Cruey “You’ve got to be willing to adapt. That energy builds more energy.”

More than 60,000 people have come in 2019, he says. Many of them live in the Berkshires, and many are coming for the first time.

“We’re growing with local people,” Cruey said, “and it’s one of the things we’re most proud of.”

Like the Shaker village, Naumkeag has become a source of living history, and both museums are honoring the people who have made them.

Sunset on a summer night in the Gilded Age gardens of Naumkeag in Stockbridge.
Photo by Kate Abbott

Sunset on a late summer night in the Gilded Age gardens of Naumkeag in Stockbridge.

Crighton put in six-petaled clusters of tuberose here, Martini says, and broad trumpets of petunia and four o’clocks, and the deep red or white stars of nicotiana. In the evening, the moving air would bring their sweetness up the hill.

Mabel Choate and landscape architect Fletcher Steele designed the gardens together.

Mabel grew up spending summers at Naumkeag, says Mark Wilson, Curator of Collections and West Region Cultural Resources Manager for The Trustees of Reservations, and when she inherited the house, she began a 30-year collaboration with Steele to transform the lawns and terraces.

She traveled through China and India and brought back limestone from the Yangtze River. She and Steele imagined the sculpture, Wilson says, the arch of the blue stairs, a temple garden with lobelia. A mulch of cocoa beans smelled like chocolate after a rain.

Wilson is drawing out new aspects of the Choate family and the people who lived and worked here. He and Cruey havve begun a new series of online behind-the-scenes explorations called What’s in Your Gilded Age Closet? When the Trustees took on the house, Wilson says it came with full drawers and attics and boxes. He and Cruey will open doors and talk about what they find.

They also gave away seed starter kits in the spring, and now they are hearing from families who have never had a garden before.

Crighton and four or five gardeners started seeds here in the greenhouse, Martini says, and planted and weeded, pruned and watered. As many more dairy men worked on the 40-acre farm down the hill. In the barn below the rose bushes, the names of dairy cows from a hundred years ago still hang over the stalls.

At Hancock Shaker Village in 1960, two Shaker sisters were living in two rooms in the brick dwelling, says curator Sarah Margolis-Pineo.

A hundred brothers and sisters lived in this house in 1830 (men on one side and women on the other). More than 300 Shakers lived here then, on 3000 acres, with their cattle and poultry, grist mill and saw mill, schoolhouse and workshops.

Through the Civil War and the industrial revolution, Shaker communities gradually receded, she says. By the 1950s, four women in their 70s and 80s were living here on 750 acres and trying to keep up the farm with help from locals.

The village has transformed again in the last 60 years. Margolis-Pineo is curating an exhibit, Notes from Home, with a blog at hancockstories.org, inviting people to share stories and memories. Over the years, she says, many people have cooked over the hearth here, or learned the basics of the forge, or held a lamb and felt it suckle a finger.

That’s what museums are, she says, a place to preserve history in objects, but also to illuminate people.

The workshop and the gardens take on a rich fall light at Hancock Shaker Village. Press photo courtesy of the museum.
Hancock Shaker Village

The workshop and the gardens take on a rich fall light at Hancock Shaker Village. Press photo courtesy of the museum.

She is enjoying the stories she is learning as she follows the museum through its birth and evolution.

When the Shakers decided to sell the land, they had competing bids, she says — a youth correctional facility, a horse racetrack, the Pittsfield Airport. The Shakers sold the land to Amy Bess Miller and her husband, Pete Miller, because they offered to preserve the village.

They both felt a tie to local history and community. Miller’s family owned the Berkshire Eagle, Margolis-Pineo says — they put up the newspaper as collateral for the loan to buy the village. And when they closed on it, in the summer of 1960, it looked different from the serene scene today.

“The poultry house was coming down brick by brick,” Margolis-Pineo says.

Many of the buildings needed repair. The Millers and their team brought in a historic meetinghouse from Shirley, Mass. In 1968, they took down the Round Stone Barn stone by stone, rebuilt the timber frame and then relaid the walls.

Since then, she says, the village has become a center for Shaker artisans, Shaker scholarship, and more recently collaborations in art and music, sustainability and food.

And while the museum explores virtual programming, the staff are still putting hands to work. The CSA farm is growing more than 200 kinds of vegetables, fruits, and herbs, Piotrowski says, and more than half are heirloom, like the light golden apples, and deep red lobed tomatoes, and the Jacob’s Cattle Bean.

The beans are beautiful when they are dried, she says, speckled red and white. They are good for making New England baked beans sweetened with maple syrup.

This story first ran in June in Berkshire Magazine, and I have updated it here with their permission. My thanks to editor Anastasia Stanmeyer.

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