Archive for category Preservation
The Allure of Mills
Posted by John Dickson in Berkshires, History in our surroundings, Personal memory, Preservation, Public History on July 7, 2017
What is it about passing an old mill building that pushes me off to some other world? I pause, take a second look and a third, fourth, and more, drawn in by the features of the bell tower and stairways, the small design additions to the windows, doors and roofs. Then my gaze wanders, looking for nearby streams and crossings, homes and paths.
Surely, the easy answer to the appeal would be the size and sturdiness of the buildings, made of brick and stone to withstand the pounding of the machinery and the risk of fire. They don’t tower over the landscape as much as they dominate it. Aerial views and maps show just how much space they occupy in a neighborhood, easy to pick out and get your bearings, in search of an old house or store.
The simple engineering behind raising such a structure had to be, in fact, anything but simple, especially without the mechanization and materials that go into modern construction. Add to that the number of mills in Berkshire County which reaches well into the hundreds, and the speed which they went up, or were later added on to and altered to make full use of new equipment.
Curiosity cannot be satisfied. How did they bring the heavy iron equipment into the mills? How did people learn to operate the machinery? How were people hired and what were employers looking for in selecting the operators? How would they move one processed item completed on the second floor, up to the next stage on the third floor? How did they find their markets, and get their products to them?
But the wonder of the mill really comes from imagining the stories, of the people who heard the bells, hustled along the paths, made their way to their spots at the machines, stood by them and repeated the same motions for up to twelve hours a day. I realize that I probably wouldn’t, couldn’t last a week.
Ten years ago, I bought a house in Pittsfield, before I realized that my neighbor was an old mill, that a canal and reservoir that fed water to power the mill ran so close to my windows that I could hear the rushing water at night. I could likely have heard the mill bell from my window, as did those who inhabited my house 100 years ago, sending them down some path long since grown over to get to work on time.
All this propelled me to put together a book, of historic photos, architectural drawings and maps which give a glimpse into that world. Enjoy the dream.
You can find a copy through Arcadia Publishing.
The Doughnut Tour
Posted by John Dickson in History ahead, History in our surroundings, Preservation on June 20, 2016
Two summers ago, as part of a volunteer project for the Berkshire Historical Society, I created a virtual driving tour of some of Pittsfield’s old mills (milltour.org). The site and tour highlights these majestic 19th century buildings that shaped Pittsfield as an industrial city, a city of immigrants and a national leader in the production of wool, silk, paper and even clocks. These buildings still dominate our landscape. We drive by them, mostly unaware of the stories they tell of our ancestors – men, women and children who heeded their bells and put in their 60-hour work-weeks and make a living. Some of these structures have a new lives as residential housing or office space for businesses like the Berkshire Eagle.
Cafua Realty, which owns over 200 Dunkin Donuts franchises, recently presented its plans to the zoning board for a new one where St. Mary’s stands on Tyler Street. I fast forwarded to the year 2066 or 2116 and imagined the historian’s task in creating a virtual tour to depict life back in 2016. That tour might be called doughnuttour.org.
The doughnut tour could start with the Dunkin Donuts on First Street, a good model that would explain the concept of a drive-through, and show how, here, the space was so small that rush-hour traffic was often blocked.
Then, we would proceed less than a block away, and stop at the site of the old Plunkett School that Cafua opted to tear down for another Dunkin Donuts franchise. Our passengers could learn that the lot lay vacant for years, since Cafua razed the 100 year-old building before they could get their drive-through plan approved. What motivated Cafua to tear down the school would remain unmentioned since there was no record of an explanation. Perhaps there would be an interpretive panel explaining that the school was named after a leading 19th century businessman who ran a mill and a bank but also found time to give back to the city through his leadership of the Berkshire Athenaeum. The inquiring future reader might be able to find out why a second Dunkin Donuts was needed less than a block away.
The map would direct the tour-taker north on First Street before turning on Tyler Street. Perhaps there would be a photo of the stately brick and stone church that was the center of community life, torn down for the smart brown, pink and orange of the new “religion.” The map would once again show two Dunkin Donut restaurants within walking distance. Our grandchildren might wonder how many people actually stopped at each doughnut shop in the same outing.
We could then head further north to the edge of the city and take in The Donut Man shop on the shore of Pontoosuc Lake. Plaques might tell how this actually was a Dunkin Donuts at one time, before the franchise owner broke with the company and started his own business. Our tourists who might wonder about the logic of spoiling the view of the lake with a doughnut shop would learn that patrons could take their coffee and pastry to a gazebo behind the shop to eat and gaze at the water and the hills above.
Many historic tourists at this point might want to jump off of the doughnut tour, but they will be happy to know there’s more. They can head down to East Street, and read about this Dunkin Donuts catering to high school students on their lunch breaks and for after-school munchies, creating a life-long habit of unhealthy-eating. If future historians would want to get out and walk, they could find that the high school is actually equidistant between this Dunkin Donuts and its sister shop that was our initial stop on First Street. Students starving after a morning of classes had doughnut choices!
The tour would then proceed down Elm Street where our inquisitive participants would check out the three different establishments selling coffee and pastries within two blocks. But, they would marvel that not one of them is a Dunkin Donuts, but are all locally owned and operated. The map would then direct the drivers to gas stations on South Street and West Housatonic Street where Dunkin Donuts has set up shop inside the convenience stores, a heads-up model where patrons could fill up on gas and doughnuts.
At different stops, there might be recorded oral interviews with employees who could talk about their wages that start (on average) at $8.39 an hour but could go all the way up to $11.06 as an assistant manager. Next to that, there could be the text of the Boston Globe article on the Cafuas, who owned 215 stores, some of which were pulling in $40,000 a week. 
Perhaps the tour might end with photos of other towns that seem to have convinced Dunkin Donuts to adopt designs that are more attractive, and conform to the surroundings better, like New London, New Hampshire (courtesy Googlemaps).
I have to confess, somewhat shamefacedly, that I personally know each of these doughnut establishments, including the one in New London. I even enjoy the 77-year tradition of National Doughnut Day (June 3). My own waistline shows it, as does my frequent doughnut card. I’m not against doughnuts and coffee, nor am I against people making money or people working hard to earn cash when there are not enough alternatives. That’s what the 19th century mill owners and workers did – make money and eke out a living. The one exception is that those mill owners displayed a sense of civic responsibility and left the city a museum, a library, a town hall, a hospital, churches and schools.
While not anti-doughnut, I am convinced that one very obvious attraction that this city holds for its residents and visitors lies in the beauty of the 19th century brick and stone buildings on Park Square, and on the streets and lanes spreading out in all four directions. We owe it to the next generations to leave them this heritage and history – not one of doughnut shops.
This story originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle.
Present at the Creation – The Stone Marker at Pontoosuc Lake
Posted by John Dickson in Berkshires, History in our surroundings, Personal memory, Preservation on January 11, 2016
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.
Preserving a school in Africa
Posted by John Dickson in International, Personal memory, Preservation on November 5, 2015
The woman we came to know as Adele grabbed the photo. Her loud exclamation in Fang, the local language, provoked a burst of laughter among the gathered villagers. I leaned over to our host, Gaston, for an explanation. He had passed around the photos we brought, and he told us that she wanted to take the picture home. It was a black and white photo of a young Peace Corps volunteer playing an African drum, seated next to a village chief, circa 1964.
Those in the open air shelter recognized the young man as Gerard, who had led a team of seven similarly fit, young men in 1964 to the village of Doumandzou to build a primary school. The group of villagers gathered 50 years later to meet us, a small group of volunteers who had come back to Gabon to fix up the school that had fallen into disrepair. We brought with us a handful of photos that Jerry (Gerard in French) Anderson had sent us to see if there were memories and traces of the group of seven who had spent less than a year in the village. To our surprise and delight, there were.
Adele had been about ten years old when the group of seven descended on her house, which her father turned over to them for their lodging while they built the school. If there was any doubt to her memory, Adele later rattled off the names of four of the volunteers, matching the list Jerry had sent us – Thomas, Etienne (Steve), Robert and, of course, Gerard. The others in the group were John, James, and Bill.
We were in Doumandzou as part of a small project we had dreamed up after a reunion of volunteers who had been in Gabon in the 1970s. We launched a non-profit and called it Encore de la Paix, a play on the French for Peace Corps (Corps de la Paix.) With a fiscal sponsor taking care of tax deductions for us, we started fund-raising for the materials to fix up the school. All told, we raised about $20,000 from friends and family members and Citibank Gabon. Paying our own way over, we descended on Doumandzou in January 2015.
Fifty years after they were built, the school and the two teachers houses were indeed in dire need of repairs. The laterite foundations and cement block walls still stood, but much of the wood for the doors and windows had fallen victim to the weather and insects. The tin roofs had come off most of the teachers’ houses, exposing the interior to rain and wind. Few of the vertical wooden planks remained in the school windows, replaced by temporary boards and tin to keep the village goats from hopping into the classroom at night for shelter. Nothing similar was done on the houses that had been vacant for years, so goats had taken over that space, as evidenced by the layers of their excrement on some of the floors. The forest was rapidly moving to take over the houses, with vines and trees running through them, along with carpet-like moss on the floors.
Fifty years is a long time, and while the school showed signs of age, the memories of the villagers for the seven volunteers remained fresh. Besides Adele, a jovial elderly man named Essame Obame Pascal, introduced himself as the mason for the original construction. Even people who had no first-hand recollection of the seven knew that the spring on the north side of village had been discovered by Robert, one of the original group. The spring still runs today, and its clear, clean water provides cooking and drinking water to those willing to make the short walk down a steep hill, and back up again balancing a heavy bucket on their heads. Gaston, who was a young boy when the school was built, is trying to pump the water up from the spring to a cistern where it can meet village needs more readily.
Working on the school, we felt at times like archaeologists, and, as we scraped, tore away, demolished and pushed back nature, the stories of the earlier volunteers came through in the construction itself. One day, while in one of the classrooms making the cement bricks for the new windows, I looked up at the wall, and noticed large figures behind where the blackboard had stood. We had taken down the blackboard a few days earlier and had been walking around the classroom, sweeping and cleaning it out, but had not focused on the painted message. I saw a number, and then a few more, and then put them together, realizing it was the year “1965.” Next to it were the initials “JA” which we knew right away were Jerry Anderson. There were two more initials, a “P” and either a “C” or a “D.” Since PD made no sense to us, we concluded it was PC, for Peace Corps. Not hieroglyphics or traditional symbols, but still a message to us from 50 years prior.
On another day, a bulldozer owned by the Chinese logging company in the next village, came through, and offered to clear away the encroaching brush of the forest around the school and the teachers’ houses. As the dozer pushed the forest back 50 yards or so, a tin fence appeared; then we noticed that the fence had a roof. We thought it was a shed, but Adele told us that it had been built by the earlier volunteers for the teachers’ houses. Upon investigation, we saw it was an outdoor latrine, still serviceable and relatively clean. With further clearing by villagers to push back some of the garbage strewn about near the school amidst the growth of plants, bushes and trees, yet another latrine was uncovered, this one built for the use of students at the school. Inside was an old, wooden brick mold, used by the 60s volunteers to make their cinder blocks.
To those of us who served as volunteers, Peace Corps was more than just a job, or a development project. It was about a connection to the people in the communities where we served. Halfway through the project, I received an e-mail from Jerry Anderson, who was as surprised as we were that the villagers remembered so much. Most Peace Corps volunteers readily acknowledge how important the experience was to us, how it reshaped our lives. It was always harder, though, to assess the impact of our presence on the communities where we lived and worked for two years. Those in the village remembered Jerry and his group; they attributed the school, the houses, the latrines and the fresh water spring to them, but also remembered them as real people, as friends.
These schools in Gabon stand out. More than for their slightly different design, they stand out for the memories attached to the buildings, for the short periods of intense contact, visible reminders that Americans lived and worked side-by-side by Gabonese in their remote villages. The schools are the visible reminders of a moment when the U.S. once reached out to the world with the optimism and energy of a President who realized a vision to engage and learn about the farthest corners of the world. In those places, far from the view of aid agencies and embassies and politicians, these buildings also testify to the open-armed hospitality of the hosts, who, by welcoming these strangers, tolerating our errors, and teaching us, made us all realize our common humanity. These are buildings — and ideals — worth preserving and renewing.
This Place Really Matters – The Movie
Posted by John Dickson in Berkshires, History in our surroundings, Personal memory, Preservation, Public History on October 27, 2015
You’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.