Great American authors, such as Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edith Wharton, found refuge in the Berkshires. Painters and poets also worked in these picturesque mountains not far from New York City. Here are 7 historic sites in the Berkshires to see during your next visit.
Something about the forested hills and the ethereal glades of Western Massachusetts inspire creativity. Melville said as much in his 1855 novel, Israel Potter: “The bloom of these mountains is beyond expression delightful… Each tuft of upland grass is musked like bouquet with perfume. The balmy breeze swings to and fro like a censer.”
The beloved painter of small town life, Norman Rockwell, loved the Berkshires, which is why he set up his art studio in Stockbridge. You’ll also find Susan B. Anthony’s birthplace to the storied Crane Paper factory where Melville’s Moby Dick manuscript was first printed.
Looking for a fall getaway? Try Western Massachusetts. While you’re enjoying the Berkshires’ famous fall foliage, be sure to stop in at these 7 historic and literary sites. Book your stay at Devonfield Inn!
1. The Mount, Edith Wharton’s Home
Edith Wharton was America’s answer to Jane Austen.
With scathing wit and a sociologist’s insight, she skewered the one-percent of the East Coast at the turn of the 19th century, documenting its mores and its obsessions in her novels and short stories. The first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Wharton was both a commercial and critical success.
Raised in a well-to-do family, Wharton spent long bouts of time in France, Germany, and Italy, where she fell in love with the aesthetics of European design and landscaping. She brought that passion to the creation of her first real home: The Mount.
Wharton wrote her most famous books at The Mount: The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome. It’s like stepping into a real American castle—think Downton Abbey but in Lenox, Massachusetts. The Mount’s main house is now open to visitors, but book online first.
2. Norman Rockwell Museum
With his paintbrush and the power of the printing press, Norman Rockwell created the vision of the American Dream. His ubiquitous illustrations on the covers of the Saturday Evening Post captured the daily moments of small town life, imbuing it with values like tolerance, abundance, and security.
Although he was born in New York’s Upper West Side, Rockwell fell in love with the Berkshires. He built his art studio in Stockbridge, which then became a fascinating museum. The museum is now open for visitors. Tickets should be purchased in advance. Prepare to learn about Rockwell’s power of storytelling through visual art.
3. Hancock Shaker Village
They believed in organic farming, gender equality, sustainable living, and minimalist aesthetics. No, I’m not talking about millennial hipsters, but the Shakers, who immigrated to the American colonies in the 18th century seeking religious freedom and a place to manifest their Utopian vision. Their name is derived from the physical trembling exhibited during their fervent worship services.
Today, you can see how the Shakers lived and worked in the Hancock Shaker Village, a living history museum, featuring baby farm animals, a well-stocked gift shop, and technically accurate exhibitions of Shaker life. The site has 20 historical buildings and has been recognized as a National Historic Landmark.
4. Chesterwood Museum
If you’ve ever seen the Lincoln Memorial, then you’re already familiar with the work of the American sculptor Daniel Chester French. His powerful men of conquest grace the front of government buildings and city squares. His towering goddess loomed over the world fair of 1893.
Like Rockwell, French was a kind of American myth maker, who immortalized heroes in stone, creating over 200 public works in cities around the world. The Chesterwood Museum was originally French’s summer home. Now visitors can wander the formal gardens and visit the marble cement fountain in the Studio courtyard.
5. Herman Melville’s Arrowhead
The adventure of the obsessed sea captain and his nemesis, the great white whale, Moby Dick, was born in a small yellow farmhouse right in the Berkshires, where Herman Melville envisioned his masterpiece and put it to ink.
In a letter he wrote to a friend, “I look out my window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a port-hole of a ship in the Atlantic. My room seems a ship’s cabin; & at nights when I wake up & hear the wind shrieking, I almost fancy there is too much sail on the house, & I had better go on the roof & rig in the chimney.”
Artists, writers, and scholars come from all over the world hoping that a little Melvillean inspiration will rub off on them during a visit to Arrowhead, which also serves as the headquarters for the Berkshires County Historical Society.
6. Birthplace of Susan B. Anthony
The birthplace of the most famous American suffragette is a humble building in Adams, Mass. Susan B. Anthony was born to a notable Quaker family who fought for the abolition of slavery. Accordingly, Quakers lived a simple and principled life.
Anthony brought this same unshakeable belief in justice to her fight for the women’s right to vote. She was arrested for casting her ballot in Rochester, N.Y. Although she didn’t get a chance to see women vote in her lifetime, she laid down the groundwork. The fight for gender equality is still going strong. So it’s a timely opportunity.
To learn more about Anthony and her birthplace, the “Cradle of Equal Rights,” consider taking a tour. The museum is now open, offering both guided and self-guided tours.
7. Sanford Blackinton Mansion, North Adams Public Library
Sanford Blackinton earned his fortune by processing wool for the Union Army during the Civil War. He made so much money that he was able to build this glorious Second Empire mansion for himself and his family to live in, as well as the Blackinton Union Church for the town of North Adams.
His mansion now has a second life as a public library. Although it is currently closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, you can still take a virtual tour of its majestic architecture.
Although all of New England is rich in social, cultural, and political history, the Berkshires are a particularly magical place for the arts. Book your stay at Devonfield Inn and learn more about the original American myth makers and freedom fighters.