By Kelly Bevan McIlquham
Did you know that one of the first notable protests against the English government prior to the Boston Tea Party began right here in Berkshire County when 1500 townspeople sat in the Great Barrington courthouse (now replaced by a simple stone marker) to stop the English from presiding over courts in the American colonies? Or that the first slave (Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman) ever to sue for her freedom (and win), did so there, too? I learned these two Berkshire historical tidbits during a tour of Great Barrington in November — via my iPhone. Yup, there’s an app for that! I was with my friend and her teenage daughter who, while reluctant at first, became enmeshed in the local history of this small Berkshire town and talked about it during the entire 40-minute ride home.
These are just two of many significant historical tales and sites throughout Great Barrington — and the Berkshires — for that matter, geared towards informing visitors and residents alike about the rich history of our region, most of which offer programs and events geared towards engaging families and children in our local history.
“Young children are naturally curious and prefer hands-on activities that stimulate their minds to imagine what life was like for children during a different period of time than the one in which they reside,” said Colleen Henry, the cultural site administrator for the Trustees of Reservations. “Allowing children to see another era through their imaginations makes history come alive, and imbues children with wonder about other times, other ways of life. We hope that this enriches and deepens their understanding of the diversity of the world, and of the role that history plays in our everyday life.”
In South County alone the Berkshires lays claim to the Ashley House in Sheffield where Elizabeth Freeman was enslaved; the Bidwell House in Monterey which depicts Colonial life in a 1750s reverend’s home; Mission House (that follows the history of a area Mohican Tribe in the 1700s), Chesterwood (former summer home of sculptor and creator of the Lincoln Monument’s Lincoln, Daniel Chester French); Naumkeag (a Gilded Age mansion) and the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. All of these sites have ongoing programs for children throughout the spring and summer seasons, as well as special events guaranteed to delight family members of all ages.
“At Ashley House we offer a participatory activity which asks children to reflect on the legacy of Mum Bett and how each child would like to be remembered throughout history; at Naumkeag we offer Croquet on the Oak Lawn, evoking a different, slower pace of play; at Mission House our Munsee-Mohican exhibit has Native American artifacts that children are encouraged to touch and use,” Henry said.
Heading north, a visit to the former home of author Edith Wharton, “The Mount,” in Lenox offers family-friendly theater, house tours, a pet cemetery (a kid favorite, of course) and a scavenger hunt for families. Arrowhead in Pittsfield teaches kids about “Moby Dick” author Herman Melville and local history provided by the Pittsfield Historical Society. Or perhaps exploring the living history museum at Hancock Shaker Village (which offers family-friendly “Choose Your Own Shaker Adventure” tours (Can you say a day in the life a Shaker Child, cooking in a Shaker kitchen or learning traditional Shaker dances and songs?) and programs for families is more your family’s cup o’ tea.
“Choose Your Own Shaker Adventures are an immersive experience for families to share, and our menu of adventures lets everyone in the family choose a topic that speaks to them.” Said Todd Burdick, director of Interpretation and Public Programs at HSV.
And let’s be sure not leave out the kid-friendly historical fun in North Berkshire County. Families can head to the top of Mount Greylock to its Bascom Lodge most days to find any number of programs that explore the Berkshires now and then, or a trip to the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum in Adams will allow children to learn about the pivotal figures in helping women gain the right to vote during the Women’s Rights Movement. A couple of our family’s favorite historical stops in northern Berkshire? The North Adams Museum of History and Science (tons of hands-on fun) and Natural Bridge State Park (outdoor beauty and history abound).
So grab your kids and get exploring. You don’t have to travel to faraway lands to get a kid-appropriate history lesson and a day … or afternoon … or evening of family fun — it’s all right here in the Berkshire’s Backyard.
Kelly Bevan McIlquham was born and raised in Berkshire County, and is now raising her three children, with her husband in Hinsdale. She is the founder of Berkshire Family Focus, an online resource for all things family in the Berkshires.