hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires

 

Arts & Culture September 2019

 

At Arrowhead, a trove of local history

Melville, Pittsfield are focal points in wide-ranging collection

 

 

A photo taken in 1870 shows Arrowhead, the farm in Pittsfield where Herman Melville wrote”Moby Dick.” The farmhouse now serves as headquarters of the Berkshire Historical Society, which has an extensive collection of items related to Melville and local history. Courtesy Berkshire Historical Society

 

By KATE ABBOTT
Contributing writer

PITTSFIELD, Mass.


The desk set is made of green glass with a pattern of dark leaves. The label names it Tiffany.
Erin Hunt read the label in fascination and mulled over these fine opalescent boxes. They would hold ink and paper, stamps, pens and blotter ends. And what would someone write with them, sitting at a desk with the sun on the glass?


They are sitting on a shelf at the Berkshire Historical Society.


Hunt took over as the society’s curator a few months ago, and on a late summer afternoon, she and the organization’s new executive director, Lesley Herzberg, were exploring the attic of the society’s headquarters at Arrowhead, the museum on Holmes Road that was once the home of Herman Melville.


The historical society’s collection holds more than 6,000 objects, Hunt said.
Some of the best known involve Melville, who wrote “Moby Dick” here. He lived in the historic yellow house, on the farm he called Arrowhead, from 1851 to 1864.


But the society’s mission and collection cover a larger field.
Hunt became curator late last fall, balancing this work with her job as administrative manager at the Bidwell House Museum in Monterey.


Herzberg came to Arrowhead in the spring after nearly 10 years as curator at Hancock Shaker Village. She took over from Will Garrison, who served as curator and stepped in as director when Betsy Sherman retired from that role in 2015. (Sherman remains a board member.) Peter Bergman, Arrowhead’s communications director, will also retire after the summer winds down.
Herzberg has spent her first few months overseeing Arrowhead’s busy summer and celebrating Melville’s 200th birthday. Now, as the August rush settles, she said she has time to look ahead.
She and Hunt are brewing ideas for programs with local schools and partnerships with the Berkshires’ many town historical societies.


But first, they said, they are getting to know the collection.

 

From farmhouse to museum
Melville described his old house as “a goodly old elephant-and-castle” in an essay on the massive architectural feat at its center: “Twelve feet square; one hundred and forty-four square feet! Sir, this house would appear to have been built simply for the accommodation of your chimney.”


The top portion of the massive chimney rises through his central attic, and the timber frame is roofed in broad old boards -- each plank is two feet wide and deep brown as a coffee bean.
Hardy objects are carefully stowed here: ceramic jugs, a butter churn, a lump of raw glass from a slag heap.


Herzberg remembered walking up the old road to the Richmond furnace once years ago and seeing old slag glass like this scattered along the road in chunks as wide as two fists, sparkling in the sun.


There are three attic rooms here, and they are only a small part of the space housing the collection. More fragile objects are set in cupboards and archival boxes, and in rooms behind the scenes on the second floor. On a shelf of ceramic cups, Herzberg opens a set of Mahjong game tiles in a miniature wooden chest of drawers.


Manuscripts, photographs and books have taken over the ground floor. Running a historic house as a museum can make storing a large and varied collection a new kind of challenge, she said.
Hunt has been looking through textiles recently. The historical society has gathered dresses from 1800 to the 1970s -- wedding gowns, Worth gowns from Paris, fine lace.


“Every time I open a door or a closet, I find something new,” she said.

 

Curating a city
The historical society’s collection reaches back to the early 18th century, Hunt said.
And Herzberg explained that the organization has wider goals, encompassing all of the people who live and have lived on this land. She imagines an exhibit in conversation with the Mohican nation, the Stockbridge Munsee, and the Kanien ke’haka (Mohawk).


The collection began with the founder of the historical society, she said, and it has grown organically and gradually in the last 50 years.


Mira Hall, the founder of Miss Hall’s School, brought the historical society together in 1960, said Norma Purdy, a volunteer archivist who remembers the society’s early years.


In those first years, Hall housed the society in her house on East Housatonic Street, and her collection of books and antiques seeded the collection.


The society originally focused on preserving old houses, said Barbara Bell, Purdy’s colleague and a longtime archivist and local historian.


The historical society owned and restored three houses, including Myra Hall’s house and the Goodrich House on upper North Street. It sold them all to buy Arrowhead in 1975.


Preserving Melville’s house and his legacy has become a focus for the society, but its collection covers veins of local history that extend through Pittsfield and up into the mountains beyond.

 

Pittsfield in Melville’s era
In 1851, when the Melvilles moved from New York to Arrowhead, Pittsfield was nearly 100 years old. The agricultural center was fast becoming industrial. The oldest known photograph of North Street shows the broad dirt road fronted with clapboard houses and white picket fences.


Photos in the historical society’s archives give the sense of a stately and sometimes muddy city. Here are elm trees along Bartlett Avenue, and hotels and restaurants near the railroad station. Morningside and Eveningside neighborhoods would grow up around them, named for the shifts of the mill workers who lived there.


Photos show a huge elm tree that stood at Park Square near a church Bell said was designed by Charles Bulfinch. Bulfinch also created Boston Common and became architect of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., in 1818.


On summer days, Melville was making hay or hiking Mount Greylock to camp under the open sky. He and his wife visited Hancock Shaker Village with Nathaniel Hawthorne and his very pregnant wife, Herzberg said, and Melville and Hawthorne held a race around the Round Stone Barn.


Bell walked through the archives, showing collections of images, including those by 19th-century photographer and Civil War veteran Edward Hale Lincoln.


The archive is rich in maps and post cards, town records and vintage valentines.
She turned to scrapbooks from Arthur Palme, a General Electric engineer who devised a way to take photos of motion. He would shoot a tea cup, Bell said, and capture the image of the flying pieces.


A file holds letters from Rachel Field, including one to her cousin Margaret, from Sutton Island, Maine, on a summer morning. Field was born in Stockbridge, and she won the National Book award in 1935 for a novel set on the Maine coast, “Time Out of Mind.” (She is known more often now for her Newbery award-winning children’s book, “Hitty, Her First Hundred Years.”)
“There’s so much room for learning here from things in the area you wouldn’t think about,” Hunt said.


Herzberg, looking through a file of clips from local newspapers, said, “Here’s a Berkshire skunk farm.”


It seems a local entrepreneur in Hinsdale once decided to raise 40 skunks for their fur. The writer did not seem to have asked the neighbors how they felt about it.

 

Melville, from books to artwork
Among the archives’ most striking artifacts, an original and valuable complete set of Melville’s works sits bound in green leather. This Raymond Weaver collection is the first of his works ever assembled, and they were brought together in 1920, decades after he died almost unknown.
Bell said the society has just received a new book for its Melville library: a collection of Melville essays written in Japanese by Hiroshi Igorashi, a professor in Tokyo. An accompanying letter translates the title as “Melville: A Whale Man Who Became a Speaker of True Things.”
The historical society has a growing collection of objects and papers relating to Melville and his family, though Hunt and Herzberg both stressed that the Berkshire Athenaeum has a large Melville collection of its own and often shares it generously.


This summer and fall, while Arrowhead is displaying a collection of Turner prints, Hunt also has curated an exhibit in the barn gallery of varied objects from the Melville family.


A sperm whale’s tooth may cause no surprise as an artifact linked to the author of “Moby Dick,” but a delicately inlaid wooden box carries a sobering history. It is an opium chest, Hunt said.
In 1850, the opium wars were devastating China, as the British East India Company illegally smuggled drugs into the country. One of Melville’s relatives, trading in the east, brought back the carved box as a curiosity.


On the far wall, a framed signature introduces a gentler international exchange. It is a work in micrography: The lines of the signature are made up of miniature letters, in a Jewish art form a thousand years old.


The artist, Lemuel Shaw, who signs himself David Davidson, had immigrated from Polish Russia to New York, and a friend commissioned this gift for Melville’s father-in-law. Here, his signature is made out of minute excerpts from a biography of George Washington. The work was created in 1859, at the end of Shaw’s career.

 

Stories behind old objects
The historical society’s collection varies widely, and Hunt said learning about it is bringing her into new areas to explore. She had not expected, in curating this show, to wind up researching the history of opium pipes. But she has a background in material culture, in reading the stories an object can tell about the people who have used it.


Some stories are painful, and some are loving. And some are both. The most recent item in the collection had just come to her from an unexpected phone call. Hunt took a box from her desk and opened it to show dark stones in a smooth band – a mourning ring with onyx and pearl.
Patricia James donated it to the society, and it belonged to her great-great-grandparents, Hunt said.


James, who lives in California, told the historical society in a letter that her great-great-grandparents, the Hatch family, lived on Linden Street in Pittsfield and owned a local dry goods store.


“The ring was ultimately in the possession of Alberta Hatch, my grandmother, who was born in Pittsfield in 1987,” James wrote. “She is buried along with other members of the Hatch family at your beautiful Pittsfield cemetery.”


A woman would have worn the ring to remember and honor the memory of someone she had lost. She would hold their name in her hand and warm it on her skin.