Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville nourished their literary careers, and their friendship, when they lived briefly as neighbors in the famed Berkshires of western Massachusetts. That was in the mid-19th century. A few decades later, America's wealthy elite, Andrew Carnegie among them, discovered these rocky green hills and built lavish summer mansions -- calling them simply "cottages" -- on the thickly wooded slopes.
These noteworthy early visitors, aware of it or not, firmly established the Berkshires as the delightfully sophisticated summer camp for urban adults that it remains today. You go there, a big-city refugee, to relax in a country landscape of relatively unspoiled meadows and quiet, hidden ponds. But you certainly don't leave behind the finer pleasures of city life.
For the Berkshires are dotted with excellent New England inns and interesting, innovative restaurants and some of the best musical, dance and theatrical performances offered on any summer stage. The sheer abundance of the performing arts collected each season within the relatively compact borders of Berkshire County is amazing.
Here is only a sampling:
* Since 1937, Tanglewood (one of the large 19th-century Berkshire estates, in the town of Lenox) has been the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This season, conductor Seiji Ozawa opens with an all-Beethoven program under the open-air Music Shed on Friday, June 28, with pianist Andre' Watts as guest artist. He closes Sunday, Sept. 1, in another Beethoven program featuring violinist Itzhak Perlman.
The cheapest seats ($6.50) are on your own blanket spread out on the wide lawn under the stars. Before dark settles in, you should be able to see -- just visible over the high hedges -- the rooftop of the Little Red House. It's a replica of Hawthorne's Berkshire home (destroyed by fire in 1890), where he wrote "The House of Seven Gables" and "Tanglewood Tales."
* Less than a half-hour's drive east, in the town of Becket and almost hidden in a dense woods at the end of a mountain road, is Jacob's Pillow -- the rustic site of a major 10-week dance festival now in its 53rd season. The festival began in 1933 when dancers Ted Shawn and his wife, Ruth St. Denis, led a crusade to make dance a respectable vocation for males. Shawn rounded up a group of physical education students to demonstrate that dancing is difficult and strenuous.
They quickly became a popular attraction. For one reason, as festival spokeswoman Allison Tracy relates, the genteel ladies of the Berkshires flocked to the theater to view the "scantily clad bodies" of the athletic young crew, who afterward served them tea.
Female dancers eventually joined the annual program, which since has been expanded beyond dance. This season, opening with a gala next Sunday, includes both Sunday jazz gatherings and Sunday concerts of the Aston Magna Music Festival, historically authentic performances of the works of Baroque composers.
No longer is tea served by the dancers or musicians, but you can order up a gourmet picnic lunch under the yellow tent in front of the festival's barnlike theater. The festival name, by the way, comes from a pillow-shaped boulder on the property, a farm dating back to the 1790s. The biblical Jacob is said to have laid his head upon a rock and dreamed of a ladder to heaven. This year's season concludes Aug. 31.
* The terraced lawn of author Edith Wharton's elegant white mansion in Lenox, the Mount, has been the setting since 1978 for Shakespeare & Company's repertory season. You enter past the gatehouse, park behind an imposing horse barn and walk several hundred yards down a lovely sugar maple-lined roadway beside a stream to the Italian-influenced house itself and its elaborate gardens, both under restoration.
Wharton, known best perhaps for the novel "Ethan Frome," was also an accomplished student of design. She incorporated into the Mount, which she had built in 1902, much of what she had gleaned from extensive travels in Europe. Thomas S. Hayes, executive director of the Edith Wharton Restoration, calls it an "American classic." The walkway to the house was designed by Wharton's niece, Beatrix Farrand, a noted landscape architect whose prized achievement is the acclaimed garden at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown.
So, a ticket to Shakespeare (the season runs from July 4 to Sept. 1) brings both literary and visual rewards. During the day, the Mount is open for tours, and in the evening its face often becomes a backdrop for the actors. At matinees, the action moves inside to the Salon, with works centering on the life and times of Wharton, who died in 1937. Guided van tours of the Berkshire "cottages" begin at the Mount.
There is much more on the summer's cultural calendar, including theater and musical comedy. And just as at Tanglewood and Jacob's Pillow and the Mount, it all comes similarly entwined in the rich history and the inviting landscape of the Berkshires. It's a wonderful way to go to camp.
The Berkshires is Berkshire County, a rectangle standing on end that forms the far western end of Massachusetts. Often people speak of the Berkshire Mountains, but they really are only the foothills of two ancient ranges, the Taconics to the west and the Hoosac Range to the east and north, divided by the Housatonic River. Within this rumpled land are almost 90 lakes and ponds, and one or another seems to pop into view around every twist of the road.
The longest distance between any two points in the county, the Connecticut border to the south and the Vermont border to the north, is only a 90-minute drive. That's a plus, since part of the pleasure of the Berkshires is the wealth of sightseeing that's available.
Early settlers invaded these lands of the Indians in the 18th century, but they found farming difficult in the rocky soil. As in much of New England, water power fostered the development of textile and paper mills in the mid-19th century, and today abandoned mill buildings, remnants of the no-longer-flourishing industrial economy, still can be seen in towns along the river.
Meanwhile, a number of writers -- Hawthorne, Melville and Oliver Wendell Holmes, among them -- were drawn to the region by its scenic beauty. So many showed up in the mid-1800s that the Berkshires, particularly the towns of Lenox and Stockbridge, became known briefly as "America's Lake District," an equivalent of England's literary lake region of the same period.
Melville's small yellow farmhouse, Arrowhead, located on the outskirts of the county seat at Pittsfield, is still standing and is open for tours. The second-floor study, where he wrote "Moby Dick" in the 1850s, remains much as it was during his lifetime. The view from his desk at the window is toward Mount Greylock to the north. Some visitors say the mountain resembles a whale, and Arrowhead director Susan Edwards says that's especially true in winter, when the whale floats on the horizon above a sea of snow.
From the late 1800s to World War I, the Berkshires -- and especially Lenox -- attracted America's economic elite. They created the Berkshires' "Gilded Age," and their parties and pastimes made headlines in the world's society pages. Each wealthy new arrival seemed to build an ever-more lavish palace. Dozens of these huge summer homes went up on sprawling estates, many with a view of Lake Mahkeenac, the large, beautiful lake in the valley called Stockbridge Bowl.
Fashionable society of that day migrated with the seasons, and its fortunate members arrived in the Berkshires in the late summer between stays at their equally lavish homes by the sea in Newport, R.I., and in Manhattan. So many "cottages" were built that Lenox acquired a nickname as the "inland Newport." The largest, Shadow Brook, was completed in 1893 by banker Anson Phelps Stokes; no longer standing, it looked much like a Tudor castle and was said to have had 100 rooms. In 1917, Shadow Brook was sold to industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who died there two years later.
Carole Owens, author of "The Berkshire Cottages: A Vanishing Era," traces the history of about three dozen of these structures, most of them still to be seen -- in varying states of repair or decay -- as you drive the winding roads around Stockbridge and Lenox. Too expensive to maintain as homes in this century, they have become inns, private schools, Bible colleges, museums such as the Mount, condominium apartments, or they simply have been boarded up.
Shadow Brook, across the road from Tanglewood on the outskirts of Lenox, burned in 1956; a less elaborate but similarly large structure on the same site is occupied now by Kripala, a holistic health center. One large, white-frame rectangular structure in the heart of Lenox has sometimes been described as resembling a bar of Ivory soap. Today it is Gateways Inn, one of the Berkshires' finest restaurants. In 1912, however, it was built as a summer home by Harley Proctor of Procter and Gamble -- and Ivory soap -- fame. You dine quite nicely in the family's elegant front rooms, enjoying a view across the deep lawn.
With such a rich and visible heritage, it's no wonder that tourism has thrived in the past quarter of a century. The county, with a permanent population of 155,000, draws 4 million to 5 million visitors a year, mostly in summer (for the culture) and fall (the foliage). As a result, the summer hills fill not only with the sound of music, but heavy traffic, too. Expect delays in the Lenox area before and after concerts at Tanglewood.
Lenox and Stockbridge, looking exactly like New England villages are supposed to, are the prettiest towns to stay in, and being centrally located, they are also the most convenient for sightseeing and arts performances. From Lenox Center, it's not much more than a mile's walk down a tree-lined road to Tanglewood. The Apple Tree Inn, a large, restored farmhouse with comfortable lodging and a dining room and bar, sits high on a hill just across the road from Tanglewood.
Lenox drew the early millionaires, but Stockbridge, a half dozen miles to the south, may be more famous as the home of illustrator Norman Rockwell, who frequently used town residents as models for his Saturday Evening Post covers. More than 400 of his works (he died in 1978) are in the collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum at the Old Corner House in Stockbridge, and a selection (changed annually) is on display to the public.
One large work that is always on view is "Main Street at Christmas Time," an illustration for McCall's magazine in 1967 for which Main Street Stockbridge served as a model. Actually, Rockwell painted it in 1953, adding only a couple of late-model autos to the picture to update it for the magazine. But the view of the town back then -- stately old homes, broad lawns (snow-covered in the picture) and village shops -- is little changed in 1985.
Another permanent exhibit is the quartet called "Four Freedoms," which Rockwell did during World War II. The most recognizable is "Freedom From Want," a family gathered at Thanksgiving around Grandmother's table and the traditional roasted turkey. These "Four Freedoms" toured the nation in 1944 and '45 on a savings bond drive and drew $132 million for the war effort. Their emotional impact, a blend of nostalgia and old-fashioned national pride, remains strong.
Just to the west of Stockbridge is Chesterwood, the former estate of another artist, sculptor Daniel Chester French. His name is not nearly so familiar as his most visible work, the huge statue -- unveiled in 1922 -- of the "Seated Lincoln" in the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall. Another large work is the lovely Dupont Memorial Fountain in Dupont Circle.
French acquired the large estate -- now open to visitors -- in 1898 as a summer home and built both an impressive house and a magnificent studio with ceilings high enough to accommodate his massive sculptures. He even had a short railroad track laid from the studio to the yard so he could roll his works outside to see them in the sunlight; the tracks are still in place. On view are the preliminary models he made of the Lincoln statue, showing how he changed his mind as the work progressed.
Really, there is more than enough to keep a newcomer busy sightseeing for a week in the Berkshires, and that is not lightly said. Each mile of a country road seems to yield a new discovery; and yet you also will be tempted simply to stop for a while and take in the views, or to spend an afternoon at an inn rereading passages from the authors who found pleasure in the Berkshires.
But before you settle in, there are two more places yet to visit:
Five miles southwest of Pittsfield on U.S. Rte. 20 is Hancock Shaker Village, a restoration of a religious community settled in 1780 as part of a movement that flourished briefly in the 1800s in the Northeast and Midwest. The name comes from the shaking motions adherents exhibited in their ceremonies. Members shared property communally, living in group houses; and they practiced celibacy, recruiting new members to maintain the community. They were an industrious lot, selling their produce and some manufactured goods outside the community.
Today, the village is a collection of 20 restored structures occupying 1,000 acres of farmland. You can tour the buildings -- including a typical group dwelling house and an unusual round stone barn -- and watch a carpenter and other craftsworkers keeping alive old skills. Shaker chairs and other pieces of furniture, handmade in the workshops, can be purchased in the gift shop. (An armed rocker sells for about $420.)
The Shakers also grew herbs, and the present garden has been designed as a Shaker physician's garden, with its almost 100 plants all having some medicinal use. Many herbs are packaged and sold in the gift shop. The village also raises sheep, and currently the flock numbers about 30. The ewes are bred late so that their lambs will still be scampering about on wobbly legs when visiting youngsters show up in the summer.
At the southern end of the county, just outside Ashley Falls, is a curiosity called Bartholomew's Cobble. The name alone is an incentive to visit. A cobble is a rock outcropping, and this one (said to be 500 million years old) was owned in the last century by George Bartholomew, who used it as a cow pasture. Now the 250-acre preserve is maintained by the state's Trustees of Reservations as a "museum of the Massachusetts landscape."
Official as all that sounds, the ancient cobble, which forms a natural rock garden, is an interesting place for a walk in the woods beside the Housatonic River. The geological makeup of the cobble, a mix of marble and quartzite, has produced a soil that welcomes an unusually large array of ferns, some 40 species. The marked nature trail, not much more than a mile, will introduce you, for example, to the dainty "maidenhair spleenwort" spilling from crevices along the way.
The cobble and its spleenwort are reminders, in the midst of the Berkshires' cultural and historic bounty, that Hawthorne and French and Wharton -- and maybe even the millionaire "cottagers" -- were first drawn to these hills by their beauty. At a summer camp, even a sophisticated one, nature's attractions shouldn't be overlooked.