Thursday, October 19, 2017

How a piece of American history happened right on my road!

It isn't everybody who can say that a vital piece of American history took place in her front yard.

I'm not the sort of person who brags, but I will boast about this: General Henry Knox marched right past my driveway in North Egremont as he led troops and heavy artillery to Boston to help drive the British out of the city during the Revolutionary War.

This information comes via a wonderful history book about North Egremont by Great Barrington writer Gary Leveille. Eye of Shawenon presents a rich and well-researched history about how this area of the Berkshires came to be.

My fascination with Henry Knox started even before my husband and I moved into our new home last December. On one of my first strolls down to the village store, I noticed a large stone marker standing near a couple of picnic tables. (The store is on Route 71.) The marker read:                                   

“General Knox Highway - Through this place passed General Henry Knox in the winter of 1775 and 1776 to deliver to General George Washington at Cambridge the train of artillery from Fort Ticonderoga used to force the British Army to evacuate Boston.”

I’ll be honest; my knowledge of Revolutionary War history is pretty thin. But the marker sparked my curiosity. After all, I was living on General Knox Lane, a dirt road that is barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other.

Leveille’s book expanded on this piece of history.

Henry Knox was a Boston bookseller who had developed some expertise in artillery and military planning. Ambitious and charming, pleasant and portly, at age 25, he befriended George Washington, and sold him on a very risky plan: he could move tons and tons of heavy artillery and munitions through the winter snow some 300 miles, from Fort Ticonderoga in New York State to Boston, where the Brits were ensconced in the harbor.

“After some discussion,” Leveille writes, “Knox [who wasn’t a general then] convinced Washington that he had the skills necessary to move approximately 59 cannons, cohorns, mortars and howitzers…He convinced himself as well as Washington that he could accomplish this nearly impossible task.”

He had never moved anything more than boxes of books, but still, Knox informed Washington that he would travel to Fort Ticonderoga and transport the artillery on heavy-duty sleds led by oxen and horses. He expected to make the trip in a matter of weeks.

Writing in his book about the Revolutionary War, 1776, author David McCullough quotes from Knox’s diary:

“It is not easy to conceive the difficulties we have had.” And that was after only part of the trip, moving the artillery down Lake George on three giant rowboats, weighed down by a gargantuan cargo. One boat struck a rock and sank, but somehow the soldiers managed to resurrect it and row on. 

At the southern tip of Lake George, there were 42 sleds waiting to transport the artillery overland to Boston, but alas, Knox was delayed because there was no snow. Then a blizzard struck, leaving three feet of snow on the ground.

Crossing the Hudson River, a large cannon fell through the ice and sank, leaving a hole 14 feet in diameter. Once again, Knox and his crew pulled off the impossible, pulling the cannon out of the river. 

It was January 10, 1776, when Knox and his entourage passed through North Hillsdale, Alford, North Egremont and then past Great Barrington.

Further east in the Berkshires, Knox faced steep mountainsides and deep narrow valleys. Moving the sleds through this terrain was arduous work. McCullough writes: “To slow the descent of the laden sleds down slopes as steep as a roof, check lines were anchored to trees…when some of his teamsters, fearful of the risks, refused to go any further, Knox spent three hours arguing and pleading until they finally agreed to head on.”

On January 24th – nearly two months after leaving and some 242 years before I had the good fortune to move to North Egremont -- Knox finally arrived in Boston, where General Washington was in a stalemate with the British.

McCullough -- who calls Knox's voyage “mythic” -- writes:

“Knox’s ‘noble train’ had arrived intact. Not a gun had been lost. Hundreds of men had taken part and their labors and resilience had been exceptional. But it was the daring and determination of Knox himself that had counted above all. The twenty-five-year-old Boston bookseller had proven himself a leader of remarkable ability, a man not only of enterprising ideas, but with the staying power to carry them out. Immediately, Washington put him in charge of the artillery.”

In another gargantuan effort, the Patriots installed the artillery in the Dorchester Heights of Boston, where it threatened British ships in the harbor. Soon the Brits pulled out of the city.

Henry Knox went on to become a general, and a true hero of the Revolutionary War. He remained with George Washington through the remainder of the war.

A few weeks ago, I decided to pay a visit to Egremont’s town history museum, where I read a piece suggesting that Knox had left two cannons here in North Egremont, which at the time was called Little York. 

Supposedly, one of those cannons was for many years displayed at the village store – over 200 years old, the store has always been the hub of life in town. The other cannon was – again, supposedly -- left on Prospect Lake Road, a stone’s throw from my house. Some believe that the cannon at the village store eventually was hauled away (because kids were playing with it and firing it occasionally!) and then buried in a stone wall. The other cannon just disappeared.

But Leveille laughs at all of this, dismissing these stories as “rumor or legend.” Like North Egremont, he says, “Most every town on Knox’s route claims to have had a cannon left behind. It’s hilarious. If every town along the way had a cannon left behind, Knox would have had no cannons when he arrived in Boston.”  

For years, there has been lively debate about exactly which trail Knox and his crew followed when crossing from New York to Massachusetts. Leveille presents a detailed account of seven different scenarios!

But “there’s no doubt in my mind which one is right,” Leveille says. It is the scenario favored by former Postmaster and North Egremont village store owner (and informal “mayor”) Joe Elliott, a colorful man and self-taught historian who, before he died in 1972, knew all of the trails that Native Americans and early settlers used as thoroughfares in this area.

“No one on planet Earth conducted more research on the Knox Trail in the New York/Massachusetts border than Joe Elliott,” writes Leveille.

That route – which is the one that passes by my driveway -- was the “easiest, most level route to haul cannons.” And it partially followed an old Indian trail that, during the 1750s, was enlarged by General Jeffrey Amherst as he led thousands of troops through the south Berkshire region during the French and Indian War.

“Amherst wanted to avoid marching thousands of soldiers over the steep mountains into New York so he likely blazed a much more logical trail along the Green River,” which flows through North Egremont.

It turns out that trail also passes near the border of Austerlitz, New York, the town where I lived for 30 years before moving to Massachusetts.

One of the most interesting things about Gary Leveille’s book is how he came to write it. A native of southern Connecticut, Leveille first came to North Egremont when he was 12 years old. He and his family camped out at lovely Prospect Lake and the young boy was smitten.

“It was just heaven to me,” he recalls. “There was boating, swimming, water skiing and sailing. There was a waterslide and a juke box in the recreation center. There were cute girls and a beach.” And there was also that very friendly store owner Joe Elliott, who called Leveille by the knickname “Zeke.” Elliott sold two Indian arrow heads to “Zeke,” and Leveille has them to this day.

Leveille always wanted to write a book about the lake and the surrounding region, which was known to locals as Shawenon. Until Leveille came along, few knew why the North Egremont and Alford area had that name. After much digging, he discovered that Shawenon was named for a Mohican Indian who lived in what is now the Stockbridge area. Shawenon was a leader in the Mohican tribe, and his job was to set tribal boundaries and to decide which lands would be “sold” to the white settlers.

Originally, the Mohicans occupied much of the land that extended from the Hudson River in New York state to the Westfield River in Massachusetts.

Like so many white settlers, those moving into this region “treated the Indians poorly,” Leveille says. “The settlers would say, ‘here, you need all of this stuff, like tools, clothes and cooking utensils, and then say, ‘OK now it’s time to pay up, you have no money so you can give us land.”

In this way, the Native Americans were pushed out of Massachusetts and New York, eventually landing in Wisconsin.

Another contribution of Leveille’s to local history was finding the so-called proprietor’s records for North Egremont, the documents recording the minutes for all of the meetings the settlers had when forming the town. The records also show “who got what land,” Leveille says.

He was dead set on getting those records.

“I spent weeks going through the archives” in the second floor room of the library, where Egremont stores its historical collection. And then one day Leveille eyed a locked cabinet in the corner of the room. There was no key. He got permission to take the hinges off the door, and “lo and behold, there were the records! They were very very fragile.”

Hmmmm. Now Leveille has me wanting to go back to the Egremont archives to see those records too. Who knows where else my fascination with General Knox will take me!

This article appears in the October issue of  Berkshire HomeStyle Magazine.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

So excited, I have found the perfect publisher for my new book, "Sister Mysteries!"

I am making last-minute changes to Sister Mysteries, (otherwise known as the nun novel) because that is the nature of this book. It's fluid, it's all energy, it's alive and it has been in process for almost 135 years! (It's only taken me 23 years to write it!)

Meanwhile, I am about to sign on with a publisher that specializes in spiritual writing. And while Sister Mysteries is a "novel," it's like no novel I've ever read.  It is also a very compelling tale of a woman on a long and very rich spiritual and healing journey.

Here is the most recent tidbit I've added. You can read more bits and pieces at the Sister Mysteries blogsite. I am hoping for an April/May book release.


No warning. Here I am in the hotel bar, cradling Antonie’s bloody head.

          I look up.  I see the brass chandelier with its circle of white candles, the golden flames flickering.
         But wait.  How can this be? It is now 8:33 in the morning in North Egremont, Massachusetts, and I am sitting in meditation on my living room floor.

          No matter. The chandelier overhead begins spinning, so slowly I can hardly see it move.

          I close my eyes. I am trying to concentrate on my breathing, on observing my thoughts, on emptying my mind.

          Instead, I am in the hotel bar and Antonie's forehead is bleeding into the white cotton skirt of my nun's habit. 

          “Please, Tango, get the doctor!” I scream. He goes, but so slowly.

          After an eternity, Dr. Astorga is kneeling beside me, swabbing my cousin’s head with warm soapy water. He wraps the wound with a fresh white bandage that he passes beneath my cousin’s chin.  I smell iodine and alcohol and sweat.  I look up to see Señora with a basin and a rag; she is bathing Antonie’s feet.
          Señora and Tango and I carry him back upstairs.  Astorga has given Antonie something that has put my cousin to sleep.
          Tango leaves, and I tell Señora I will keep Antonie company until I am absolutely certain he is out.
           Señora leaves, and I settle in the chair beside his bed. I decide to pray the rosary.  I reach to my waist for my beads.  But then I realize my feet are sore, so I need to take off my shoes.
           I bend down to unlace the ties.  That’s when I eye the pale blue pages beneath my cousin's bed.
          I reach for the pages and begin to read. 
        “Bar Dancer.”
          How could my cousin, in his desperately ill state, still manage to write this filth about me?
          I read and read, page after page, and my head spins faster and faster.  I don’t want to be in that room anymore.  I want so much to be sitting in meditation. I don’t want to read my despicable cousin’s words.  I want to wash myself clean of his endless lies.        

         “Please, God,” I say, “let me go home.”

           I concentrate on the air passing in and out of the tip of my nose. I focus on the bed where my cousin is lying, inert. I observe the blue pages folded in my hands.

           And then it happens. I am sitting on the floor in meditation.

           Time passes. I decide to chant the vowels that correspond to each of the seven chakras in my body.
         The sound starts in my tailbone and it snakes up my spine to my mouth. My teeth vibrate. My tongue wallows. 

          The chanting seems like it goes on forever. It is loud enough to carry over into eternity, and certainly, into another century.

Talk about gun violence? Not today. Not tomorrow. How about never?

When Trump visited Las Vegas yesterday, he was asked if the massacre would prompt the nation to deal with gun violence.

Trump replied, "We're not going to talk about that today."

Terrific. So what day can we schedule? Will there ever be a day when we can talk about the guns that have caused so many atrocities in this country?

Appropos of that topic, The New York Times' editorial writer Thomas Friedman composed a stunning piece that asks the question,

What happens when the terrorists aren't Muslims, or ISIS operatives, but rather, very sick Americans who stockpile military assault weapons in hotels and houses and then turn them on innocent people?

Don't miss his piece.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Here is a farmer you will want to meet!

This piece appeared first in "Edible Berkshires," a magazine "celebrating food, farming and community" in Western Massachusetts.

There are jobs and then there are callings, and farming is definitely the latter.

Take Lisa MacDougall, owner of Mighty Food Farm in Shaftsbury, Vermont. She works 12 strenuous hours a day, seven days a week. She worries endlessly about drought, pests, weeds, frost and disease. She has to get her product to market while it’s still fresh. She has every headache imaginable in running a small business, and she has to shoulder those headaches alone.

But don’t for a minute think she regrets her decision back in 2007 to become a vegetable farmer.

“It’s a dream come true.  I have worked countless hours to get to where I am.  It’s still a lot of hard work and long days, but I try to keep the big picture in mind.”

The big picture just got a lot bigger. After farming 20 acres on two leased parcels in Pownal, Vermont for ten years, MacDougall, with the help of the Vermont Land Trust, bought a gorgeous 155-acre farm last year. 

Previously a horse farm, there is still a lot of handsome white fencing on the property. The fields have been well maintained and the barn is in good shape.

MacDougall, who is 32, was moved to buy a farm because it’s not ideal to rent as a farmer. “You invest so much in the soil that you want to be able to reap those investments and energies.  The old farm in Pownal had very poor infrastructure, an inadequate land base, and my landlord was increasing my rent at an unprecedented rate.”

It was 2011 when she first started to shop for a farm. She offered bids on five other Vermont farms, all of which were rejected.  “It’s hard to find something affordable,” she says. It’s also hard to find the appropriate piece of land.

Standing in the middle of her new spread – flat open farmland on a high plateau with the Green Mountains peeking up at the horizon -- MacDougall is tan and her face is a bit sunburned. She smiles easily. Clearly she has landed in a spot where she and her farm can thrive.

Helping her are eight full-time and two part-time salaried workers (she uses no migrant labor.) Her property includes 90 acres of forest and a beautiful, four-bedroom house as well.

Ironically, MacDougall is now tilling 15 acres,
five fewer than in Pownal. She says she was over-producing for many years.  “This past winter I really dug deep into my records, sales, and production to try and pinpoint the right quantities for my markets. I don’t plan on expanding.  My goal is to increase yields and to have a higher net profit out of less acreage.”
Like most 21st century farmers, MacDougall relies heavily on computer technology to aid her in running the farm. “In the winter, I spend a lot of time crunching numbers and producing a lot of spreadsheets.”

MacDougall’s move has created quite a buzz in the Berkshire farming community. “Lisa is remarkable and inspirational," says Barbara Zheutlin, director of Berkshire Grown. "We are always very excited when a farmer like Lisa decides to expand. She is not alone. Her vision and ambition are at the heart of what is going on today in the Berkshires. This is a new generation of farmers inventing farming anew."

A survey of 142 farmers in this region conducted by Berkshire Grown in January of this year indicates that a majority of farmers responding are interested in expanding their businesses in the next five years.  Berkshire Grown provides support to farmers in a variety of programs aimed at supporting that expansion. These include education and outreach, increased community access to locally grown foods, and networking between farmers and food buyers.

"We are big champions of farms and local food. Berkshire Grown aims to create a strong local food economy that will help expand farmers' businesses," Zheutlin says.

Another organization helping to bolster expansion in local farming is Berkshire Agricultural Ventures, a new non-profit organization dedicated to providing financing and technical assistance to farms and food businesses in the region. In its first year, BAV has provided about $140,000 in financing assistance, and $95,000 worth of technical assistance, to 13 farms and food businesses in the region. Among them are Marty’s Local, North Plain Farm, Skyview Farm and Hosta Hill.
“One of the most rapidly growing and promising segments of our food sector is in the demand for sustainably and organically grown products, and especially those that are grown locally,” says BAV Executive Director Cynthia Pansing.  She adds that “demand often quickly outstrips the supply, creating a shortage.”

BAV takes a very positive approach to address this challenge: “We say, 'For every barrier in the local food system there is an opportunity for addressing it’ – and we help expand those opportunities and bring more local food to consumers."

Moving a farm to a new location is no small affair. For MacDougall it meant taking apart eight monstrous greenhouses, transporting them to Shaftsbury (she had help from a neighbor), and reassembling them again.

But the biggest challenge, of course, was how she was able to buy the farm. Mighty Food Farm submitted a proposal in a competitive bid process conducted by the Vermont Land Trust, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to making more land available to farmers.

MacDougall was chosen, and VLT raised approximately half the $640,000 cost of the farm. And with the help of the Vermont Economic Development Authority, she mortgaged the remainder. The bottom line is that MacDougall’s monthly mortgage payment is roughly the same as was her monthly rent back in Pownal.

Donald Campbell, of VLT, who worked with MacDougall on the acquisition, has nothing but praise for her as a farmer and a person. He says that MacDougall “made fund-raising easy.”

There were a number of good proposals for the property, many of which VLT would have liked to support. But Lisa’s was by far the best. This was an amazing piece of land and an amazing farmer. It was just a matter of bringing them together.”

Campbell says there were many reasons why MacDougall’s proposal stood out: her education (she was a Plant and Soils major at UMass), her extensive internship experience and her track record. Most importantly ­­– she demonstrated great tenacity.

“This person has worked really, really hard,” Campbell says. “She wasn’t born into” a working farm on an inherited piece of land.

Mighty Food Farm is supported by 200 local customers through the Community Supported Agriculture program -- this is a large number when compared to other CSA farms. MacDougall also supplies vegetables to three farmers’ markets and two Williamstown restaurants.

She has come a long way since she started farming in college. Her first job farming was the summer after her freshman year at UMass. “I fell in love immediately,” she says. She has been working on one or another farm ever since.

A native of Ipswich, Massachusetts, MacDougall’s mother is a psychotherapist and her father works in golf course maintenance. This may explain MacDougall’s love of outdoor work.

And work she does. The dirt is well embedded in her hands and fingernails, and her jeans are a study in mud. When asked if many people are wowed by what she has accomplished as a farmer, she offers a modest reply. “I think people see that I work hard and have respect for that.  I don't take compliments very well.  It makes me kind of uncomfortable.”

One thing that suffers when you are working non-stop is your social life. MacDougall says she took a day off recently to go to a concert. “That was my first day off in three months.”

But this is what happens when your job is your passion is your dream come true. MacDougall is philosophical about that: “It is what it is,” she says, smiling, and she wouldn’t give it up for the world.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Morning Mist on the Meadow

The woman in the video
would have us savor
every moment.

How about this
moment this

Cool white mist hovers over the field
a hint of sunshine glosses the grass.
No rooster,
but a crow keeps crawing and crawing
to some other distant crow.

Now the black bird
sails out from the trees
wings wide, tailing
the meadow
the meadow
is so

The crow takes a perch
on a distant fence.
And crows and crows.

The moment is so.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Do This for Four Minutes and See What Happens!

Thanks to a good friend, I came across a remarkably quick recipe to boost happiness.

We hear it all the time:

It sounds so easy.  It is a simple idea, but it's really hard to put into practice.

The woman in this video says it in a way that I can hear. In a way that I really get it.

Try listening and see what you think. Her segment is only about four minutes long.

Go to 11 minutes, 17 seconds in

The speaker is Mel Robbins, a motivational speaker who appears on CNN.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Heavenly New Mexico

There is so much stunning landscape in New Mexico it's hard to know where to start.

So here is one spot, unlike anything I have seen before:

Imagine if you can a bowl that is more than 13 miles across. Now fill that bowl with soft grass and fir trees, hot springs and streams.

Behold a caldera, the mammoth crater left over after a monstrous volcano blew its lid millions of years ago. It sits in the Jemez mountains of northern New Mexico. And it -- like so much of the state -- is enchanting.

A brand new addition to the National Park Service, Valdes Caldera National Preserve is home to thousands of elk that rely on the site for breeding, calving and foraging.

We hiked into the caldera, surrounded by prairie dogs, and smelling like sage. Afterward, we met Jorge-Silva Bañuelos,
a marvelous Park Service ranger and superintendent at Valdes Caldera. He spent half an hour answering our questions and pointing out different features of the caldera.

I can't fathom a volcano 13 miles across.

But then, there are so many things in this Universe I can't comprehend. How exquisitely humbling.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Music Soars Under the Stars

This piece appeared first in the magazine, Edible Berkshires.

It’s a beautiful summer day in the Berkshires. You’ve spent hours biking or hiking, gardening, cutting the lawn, or playing golf or tennis. Or maybe you chose to dive into a good book lying in a hammock or out on the porch.

Now the sun is lowering. The sky is robin’s egg blue. The air is clear and in good Berkshire tradition, it’s cooling off nicely as evening approaches.

It’s time for a picnic. But not just any picnic.

You and your friends are headed to Tanglewood, where an extraordinary musical extravaganza awaits you.

A fixture in Berkshire County for more than seven decades, Tanglewood  attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every summer. In addition to offering up the best of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood also presents a wide range of other musical performers, from Bob Dylan to Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett.

The music is only half the fun. Plan yourself a moveable feast that is a picnic on the lawn. Figuring out the menu is half the fun!

Someone fixes cold chicken. Another is assigned cole slaw or potato salad. What else: cheese and crackers, veggies and dip, hummus and olives and grapes? Somebody bakes brownies for dessert. 

And of course, there will be plenty of beer and wine flowing.

Then it’s the getting there. Plan ahead, because there’s always a load of traffic coming into Lenox (for James Taylor’s performance, cars jam up the road leading from the Mass Pike!)
Be prepared to tote all your gear, too, including those awkward coolers. The walk from the parking lot is part and parcel of the experience. But it’s OK, because you’re moving en masse with a crowd of very excited concert-goers.

One of the nicest things about an evening at Tanglewood is the mood: mellow and magical. People feel like they’re going camping to celebrate a very special occasion.

As you and your crew pass through the gates, hundreds of others are already settled on the lawn. Then it’s finding the perfect spot. That means a bit of debate: should we sit here near one of the big trees, and how close to the shed? Tiptoe carefully between the blankets and chairs set up by others. 

And if you are meeting other friends, it may take lots texting to find each other.

Of course, you can picnic on the lawn and then, splurge for a ticket to and sit in the shed. It’s a lot more expensive, but one of my very best memories of Tanglewood is sitting in the front of the shed for a piano concert under the direction of conductor Claudio Abbado. I will never forget the thrill of the music: it was physical, the potent waves of energy from the piano pulsing and resonating in my chest.

As the evening wears on, the sky turns slate blue, and the stars are pinpoints of light. Some people choose to pack up the evening meal – but lots of others keep food out for grazing.

Soon the music is pouring through the shed, and the jumbo screens and gigantic speakers bring you right up to the stage.

Get ready. Sit back – or lie down. Music soars under the stars! 

Monday, July 17, 2017

God Works in Strange Ways, OR, John McCain, Maybe You Can Put the Screws to McConnell's Health Care Plan?

Ah, but for a little -- or not so little -- blood clot behind Senator McCain's eye, we might be seeing the godawful Republicans voting this week to pass their truly evil health care plan.

One would hope that Senator McCain will
emerge from this difficult surgery (and we send our sympathy), restored to health AND ready to do the right thing. Maybe, just maybe he will decide to stand up to that pouch-faced
Mitch McConnell and tell him to take the Republican bill and shove it up where it belongs.

When I heard about McCain's problem, and how it would delay the vote, I thought to myself (yes, with some glee) gee, what happens if the recovery isn't just a week or two, but perhaps three or four weeks or more? What then?

So imagine my surprise today when The New York Times reported that McCain's recovery from the eye surgery he had -- called a craniotomy -- may not be a speedy as first though. A doctor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City is of the opinion that "the recovery time from a craniotomy is usually a few weeks."

OK, as I was saying, what happens if McCain screws up McConnell's plans? What if McConnell and his henchmen are kept from ramming their plan down our throats -- a plan that will wreak havoc on Medicaid, take health insurance away from more than 20 million Americans and otherwise screw up our health care system more than it's already screwed up.

When I asked my husband Richard Kirsch -- a progressive activist who was key in helping to pass Obamacare in 2010 -- what would happen if McCain can't return to DC for several weeks, the first thing he did was laugh. Then he threw up his hands and offered these thoughts:

"The question is what happens to the rest of their agenda. Unless he can come back by mid-August, it will push the health care vote past Labor Day. Which is good news because the longer the delay, the more time there is for people to organize opposition and the less popular the plan will become."

Ah, but what a delight it would be to see McConnell and Ted Cruz and all the rest of them twist in the wind.

Does the future of health care rest -- improbably -- on a tiny clot in one man's left eye?

Could the eye problem, such a small incision, be some kind of divine intervention? As they say, eyes are the windows on the soul.

There are many ways to look at this situation, and I invite others to explain it in more rational lawmaker terms.

But as I wish Senator McCain a speedy recovery, I also take this opportunity to say another prayer that there is justice somewhere in the universe, or at least, occasionally in Washington, D.C!

Monday, July 10, 2017

A Beautiful Mansion is Home to a Very Special Group of Women

This article appeared first in the July issue of Berkshire HomeStyle magazine.

The elegant white house, overlooking the great wetland at 4 Ice Glen Road in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, has a rich history. But it has an even more compelling story to tell today.

Originally known as Konkaput Brook, for the stream that edges the property, the house is one of dozens of enormous Berkshire “cottages” erected during the Gilded Age, when industry, banking and businesses of all kinds were booming.  The newly-minted millionaires took their money on vacation, creating swank resorts in Newport, Bar Harbor, Saratoga – and Stockbridge and Lenox.  Dozens of opulent homes were constructed in Berkshire County as getaways for wealthy city dwellers who travelled to Stockbridge by train.

Constructed in 1912 on a 1903 design by architect George De Gersdoff, Konkaput was built for Frederic Crowninshield, a gifted painter and teacher and a designer of magnificent murals and stained glass windows. 

His murals and windows appear in numerous churches and public buildings in New York, New England and the Midwest. Some of his stunning stained glass windows appear in Emmanuel Episcopal Church and in First Church, both in Boston, as well as in buildings on Harvard University’s campus.

One room in the Stockbridge house was designated as a workroom; over the door in that room appeared the words: “Italia – Patria – Secunda,” translated as “Italy, my second home.”

Frederic’s son Frank Crowninshield was himself quite a character. Witty and charismatic, he landed himself a job as the first editor of Vanity Fair magazine, and was instrumental in creating the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

Fast forward to 1957 – 60 years ago -- when Konkaput was purchased by social worker Annette McKenna, who operated a program in Stockbridge that served  women with disabilities. That program, Riverbrook, was, and continues to be, one of the oldest facilities of its kind in the U.S. 

In 1976, social worker Joan Burkhard – who had been Director of Special Education for the Berkshire Hills Regional School District –- joined with her husband, Dan, and two other couples to buy Riverbrook, which at the time was a private, for-profit operation. The Burkhards, who emptied their pockets to make the purchase, had a dream of what could happen at Riverbrook, and they were willing to put everything on the line to try to make a go of it.

The going was rough, especially in the beginning.  At one point, the septic system in the old house failed. After four attempts to fix it, Burkhard says she “went on bended knee” to the town of Stockbridge, begging them to hook Riverbrook into the newly created town sewage system.

She laughs when she recalls the desperate campaign she launched to pay for the sewage hookup. She takes from a scrapbook a rather unique post card that Riverbrook mailed out as part of fund-raising efforts.

“One of our client’s fathers was a plumber,” she recalls, laughing. “So we had his daughter sit on the closed toilet, fully clothed, and we put a plunger in each of her hands.” The card read, “Houston – we’ve got a problem! 

When the state’s Department of Developmental Disabilities saw the card, “they were furious with me,” she recalls. But the unorthodox campaign went on to raise a much-needed $125,000 and resolved the plumbing issue.

After running Riverbrook for 20 years as a private organization, the Burkhards in 1996 converted the operation to a not-for-profit, and formed a Board of Directors.

Today it is one of the most successful shared residential facilities in the U.S., serving 21 women with developmental disabilities.

One thing that makes Riverbrook so unique and exciting  the opportunities offered to the women. The women select from a variety of activities – among them dance, drumming, swimming, horseback riding, acting, yoga, painting, sports, handcrafts, music and writing  -- offered in the community.

Moreover, Riverbrook women also work in paid or volunteer positions serving more than 20 local businesses and not-for-profit organizations. These include the Red Lion Inn, the Lee and Stockbridge Libraries, Kripalu, Elder Services, Meals on Wheels, the Muddybrook Elementary School, Miss Hall’s and Kimball Farms. Staff at Riverbrook work closely with each of the women to match them with positions for which they are enthused and well suited.

“The community has been so receptive to the women, and to their participation in the work of the community,” says Burkhard. “The work the women do is absolutely amazing and it keeps getting better and better.”

The relationship between Riverbrook and the Stockbridge community is a very positive one, Burkhard says. “It’s happened organically. We’ve been a presence in the community for a long time, and we are always respectful of everyone. The relationship grew by exposure over many many positive experiences. Over time, people in the community have embraced the pleasures and benefits of knowing the women they employ.”

Walk into Riverbrook and the overwhelming feeling is love. I first visited one summer day when I gave a ride home to a woman with Down’s Syndrome with my daughter’s small dog in tow. I walked this young woman to the door where a staff member asked me if I wanted a tour.

Something magical happened as we walked through the elegant two-story building. Women were smiling everywhere I turned. One woman hugged me. Others begged to pet or hold the dog. All the while I felt how homey Riverbrook was, each bedroom painted in beautiful colors, with handsome furniture and lovely views out of each window.

At the end of the tour, when the staff member asked if I wanted to volunteer, I said “sure” without hesitation.

That was July of 2013 and I have enjoyed every moment I’ve spent at Riverbrook!

It’s a family. It’s a place for growth and development and discovery. It is a place where love abounds. It’s a place where exceptional women live and thrive, now and in the future. 

It’s home.