By Kathleen Barker, Education Department
What do Herman Melville, papermaking, and Shays’ Rebellion have in common? Perhaps you already knew that all three have a connection to Berkshire County in Massachusetts. On 15-16 November 2013, educators and history enthusiasts had the opportunity to immerse themselves in these topics as part of the Society’s recent series of workshops, “Old Towns/New Country: The First Years of the New Nation.” This program, offered in conjunction with the Berkshire Historical Society at Herman Melville’s Arrowhead, the Crane Museum of Papermaking, and the Pittsfield Athenaeum, offered participants a behind-the-scenes look at the fascinating history of the region.
Friday’s highlights included a discussion of the events known as Shays’ Rebellion, tiptoeing through gravestones, and vacuuming water from paper pulp. First, Gary Shattuck shared his research into the life of his ancestor, Job Shattuck, a participant in the uprising that closed several Massachusetts courts in 1786 and 1787. We discussed the complicated political, social, and economic conditions that led to the “rebellion,” as well as Shays’ and Shattuck’s legacies. Is it really accurate to call these court closings a rebellion? As Gary pointed out, men like Shattuck were not trying to overthrow the system of government, just regulate it. (Perhaps that’s why the title of Gary’s new book is Artful and Designing Men: The Trials of Job Shattuck and the Regulation of 1786-1787.)
Friday afternoon began with a conversation with Dean Eastman, a retired history teacher from Beverly High School and the co-creator (with Kevin McGrath) of the fantastic website, Primary Research: Local History, Closer to Home. Many of the primary-source-based projects featured on the site were collaborations between Dean’s students, historians, and local history organizations. Dean explained how one investigation into the designs carved into eighteenth- and nineteenth-century gravestones encouraged student research on topics including local artists, the religious culture of Massachusetts, and even the growth patterns of lichen. Dean is currently looking for history buffs to participate in a project that traces the men and women who served as apprentices in Essex County, Massachusetts. Visit primaryresearch.org to learn more. The day concluded with a visit to the Crane Museum of Papermaking in Dalton. Curator Peter Hopkins treated us to a hands-on introduction to the art of making fine paper. Did you know that Crane & Co. supplies the majority of the paper that will become United States currency? Although we didn’t get to make money, everyone did take a turn at making a sheet of paper.
Saturday was devoted to exploring the physical structures and features of the landscape that make Berkshire country such a special place. Curator Will Garrison gave participants a look at some of the artifacts donated to the Berkshire Historical Society over the years. Although the Society is headquartered at Melville’s Pittsfield residence, Arrowhead, the organization’s collections include many intriguing artifacts that speak to the history of the region. Participants caught a glimpse of a nineteenth-century sampler, a cozy looking quilted skirt, a piece of the hull from the U.S.S. Constitution, and part of the press used by the residents of Cheshire, Massachusetts, to make a 1,200-pound wheel of cheese for President Thomas Jefferson in 1802. Our tour of Arrowhead concluded with a walk through his home with Betsy Sherman, Director of the Berkshire Historical Society. She talked about Melville’s longstanding connection to—and affinity for—the Berkshires, as well as the references to the people and places of the region that fill the pages of his writings. She saved the best part of the tour for last: a glimpse into Melville’s study and the stunning view of Mt. Greylock beyond his window. We ended the day in the local history room at the Pittsfield Athenaeum, where Kathleen Reilly treated us to a comprehensive overview of the library’s many resources. Like Dean, she also has a potential research project for anyone with time and interest to spare. Just ask her about the mystery of the twin paintings….
For information about upcoming public programs or workshops, please visit our web calendar or contact the Education Department.