Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

October 12, 2020

Oh, the Places We Planned to Go: Arrowhead and Hancock Shaker Village

By Shera Cohen

The title paraphrases a line from Dr. Seuss. He did not realize, nor did he care, that his jolly little sentence described the unexpected disruption of what would have been my 25th straight summer in the Berkshires. I am sure that I have written most of those 24 articles for myself rather than for the readers. I guess that makes me a selfish writer. However, my senior year high school English teacher stressed to her classes, “Write what you know.”

I imagine that many of us, humans using many different languages all in the same dilemma on this planet, have been writing their own versions of what we know. Their own stories about life in the pandemic and its affects is unique to each. Some are or will be best-sellers and others will be pithy tales of daily life.

Discontented Covid 19 quarantiners (I imagine that would all of us) mumble, “I’ll learn to play chess or knitting; that’s really popular now. I should read that book someday.” The more ambitious might blurt out, “Now’s the time to write my book.”

As for my own plans, the focus of my 25th article, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation in the Berkshires,” would have focused on historic homes of the rich and/or famous (note that the famous were not necessarily rich, and vice versa). Prompted by Carole Owens’ book “The Berkshire Cottages” [College Press, 1984] I planned my vacation using Ms. Owens work as a roadmap. I would never get through one-half of the venues cited in her book, but I set out on my journey with destinations marked within the author’s geographical area. This felt good: step #1 is complete.

Next step: to ask venue directors or board presidents if I might visit their sites to include information about their programming and history in my full article and as well as several sidebars. Nearly everyone eagerly said “Yes” to my request.

Stop! Hold the press! Covid 19 makes front page news. Well, now it’s called “Breaking News” on every television network, and thousands of Facebook posts. Those of us over age 40 will have heard the phrase, “Hold the press.”

I recently read an article on-line about the woes of museum personnel. With no one in attendance, there is nothing to program, and no sites to see. The performing arts are in a worse place. At least museums and museum-historic homes still had their venues, even though none of their thousands of visitors were able to enter.

I was determined to write some sort of article about summer in the Berkshires. I would be glad for something cultural than nothing. The doors started to open in late-June, very slowly at first, but enough for me to return to my abbreviated Summer in the Berkshires Plan. Because museums have the advantage of admitting a limited about of patrons at one time, could space them out, and cut out programs involving close-contact, Year #25 was to become my “ Journeys to Berkshires Museums.”

It’s not like there aren’t enough art and cultural sites to attend. Also, at least 10 former homes-turned-art venues pack the pages of Ms. Owens’ book. A bonus was that some museums offer both indoor and outdoor event participation; the latter usually being safer during this Covid era.

I am by no means advocating or giving permission to readers to attend any all of Ms. Owens’ selected Berkshire cottages. These are decisions only you can make. I decided, with some other In the Spotlight writers, to take the risk. A few writers trekked out on their own. Our past articles have included stories on:  Naumkeag Museum & Gardens, Norman Rockwell Museum, Chesterwood, Mission House, Edith Wharton’s The Mount, Bidwell House, Frelinghuysen Morris House. We hadn’t yet broached our requests to visit: Berkshire Botanical Museum, Colonel John Ashley Home, the Friends of du Bois Homestead, and Nathaniel Hawthorn’s summer house.

Last week’s journey took us to Pittsfield: Hancock Shaker Village and Arrowhead. I have learned only recently that I do myself and ITS readers an injustice by writing notes from the tour guides talk, taking excerpts from brochures, and photos. I abandoned my notebook and pen, and simply enjoyed the experience. What a novel idea is, of course!  My Pittsfield mini-vacation would be atypical from my notes and lessons. We would just go for the fun of it.

Herman Melville’s Arrowhead was off the main street in Pittsfield in the middle nowhere. You could easily drive by it. Docents can make or break the tour. Ours was a woman who knew Melville’s life, family, writing, careers, architecture of the house, and some unsubstantiated personal stories. All these years, I had thought that the name Arrowhead referred to the spear-end of a harpoon. Not at all. When Melville and his large, extended family purchased the property, he tilled the soil as any good farmer would. There, in the dirt and muck, he found a  plethora of arrowheads, left from American Indian tribes a century of two prior.

I highly recommend visiting Arrowhead, both the indoor home and surroundings. Having read “Moby Dick” is optional. I cheated in high school, reading only the first several chapters. I opted for the Gregory Peck movie. Interesting about the impetus for his novel was Melville’s view from his porch of the large expense of Mt. Greylock; a perfect image of a giant whale. Unfortunately, Melville’s epic never brought him favor; it was a posthumous success.

Hancock Shaker Village deserves more time than we were able to give. The property is acres and acres of what was once farmland. Spotted throughout were dormitories, church, tool houses, and large dining room/kitchen. While many would disagree with me, think of the Shaker life as that of Quakers. Shaker communities are sparce, religious, help their brethren, and share the success of an individual. The Village had no tour guides, but a character dressed in appropriate garb of the times told us about each building as we entered. Life was segregated; men and women never ate together and praying together was unheard of. It is hard to imagine, yet understandable under the circumstances that in 2020, only three Shakers live in the U.S. One middle-age man is the sole resident of the Shaker Village in Maine.

Neither Arrowhead,, nor Hancock Shaker Village,, permanently close, even in the winter. Special events take place, especially focusing on music. Check the Shaker website to register for a genuine Shaker dinner. It won’t be fine cuisine, but it will be authentic.