Stockbridge stoutly savors being small

Email|Print| Text size + By Eric Goldscheider
Globe Correspondent / November 6, 2005

STOCKBRIDGE -- Andrea Maxwell grew up in Pittsfield, the Berkshire County seat just a few miles away, yet worlds apart from this archetypal New England town that, according to Police Chief Richard Wilcox, attracts visitors from all over, including, on average, one current or former head of state each year.

Yet Maxwell, 22, had never been in Stockbridge until she interned for the Berkshire Theatre Festival five years ago.

''We just thought of it as another world," she said, sitting in her office in an old farmhouse on the theater grounds, where she is now assistant director of marketing. ''It's got a small town kind of a feel, but it's part of the rest of the world, too."

The rest of the world, in this case, is the cosmopolitan orbit of the cultural hot spots of New York and Boston. Hers is a sentiment one hears often when talking to residents of this town where high culture rubs elbows with the folksiness of everyday people.

To say that Stockbridge represents small-town America is more than a rhetorical flourish. After all, Norman Rockwell lived and worked here. You don't have to look far to find people who modeled for his illustrations of an idealized vision of the egalitarian values he attributed to a robust democracy.

Mention Rockwell in the bar at the venerable Red Lion Inn and cocktail waitress Jenna Nejaime, 21, might tell you about her father, whose hand is the younger of two hands in an intergenerational clasp in one of Rockwell's paintings. At one end of the Red Lion's formal dining room is the table Rockwell used in one of his most famous paintings, ''Freedom From Want." In it, a matronly figure in a white apron sets a Thanksgiving turkey in front of a gathering of clean-cut people notable for their uniformly broad smiles. A photo-print of the painting hangs on the wall next to the window depicted in the painting, and a small patch of the original wallpaper is preserved next to the light switch.

Wilcox himself was a model in a painting of two Boy Scouts receiving an award. He remembers the experience primarily for the crisp $10 bill he received for his troubles, which involved half an hour posing for the photo from which Rockwell then worked.

The Norman Rockwell Museum, which decamped from the center of town in 1993 to a 36-acre site in the Glendale section with a view of the Housatonic River Valley, invites former subjects of Rockwell's paintings on the third Friday of the month for a public forum called ''Model Citizens."

Wilcox, 56, who grew up in Stockbridge and returned after two tours in Vietnam, is also intimately acquainted with another piece of Stockbridge lore: The arrest and aborted trial of hippie icon Arlo Guthrie. In 1965, Guthrie was known mainly as the son of folk singer Woody Guthrie. He was a student at the Stockbridge School, an educational experiment catering mainly to teenagers having difficulty surviving in more mainstream schools. The librarian at the school, Alice Brock, opened a restaurant in town with her sister and called it Alice's Restaurant. She and her husband lived in the neighboring town of Great Barrington, and their home had become a hangout for her students, including Guthrie. With some friends, Guthrie decided to show their appreciation for a Thanksgiving feast by taking a load of garbage to the dump, which was closed on the holiday.

So they tossed the trash over an embankment and were soon found out by the police chief, William J. Obanhein Sr.

By 1969, there was a motion picture based on the song Arlo Guthrie wrote about that experience and all that emanated from it. ''Alice's Restaurant" made Guthrie's arrest for littering, and the subsequent role it played in marking him as a delinquent in the eyes of the draft board, famous. It also made ''Officer Obie" a household name standing for all that was square and outmoded.

''Bill really disliked being called 'Obie,' " recalls Wilcox, who succeeded Obanhein as chief in 1985. Still, he was a good sport about it and even agreed to play himself in the film.

Today, Wilcox is a good buddy of Guthrie's. And the police station is a stop on the annual spring ''Garbage Trail Walk" to commemorate sites associated with that piece of history; it also raises money to fight Huntington's disease, the hereditary malady to which Woody Guthrie succumbed.

To think that all of this took place right under Rockwell's nose. (He died at home in 1978, at 84.)

Stockbridge offers history buffs much more than quirky reminders of 20th-century iconography. There is the cemetery across the street from Town Hall and the police station. A family plot irreverently referred to as ''The Sedgwick Pie" features graves arrayed in concentric circles around those of the patriarch, Theodore Sedgwick, the fifth speaker of the US House of Representatives, and his wife, Pamela, who died in 1813 and 1807, respectively. Sedgwick, a lawyer and later a judge, represented Elizabeth Freeman, the first slave to win her freedom by appealing to the courts. Her arguments, presented to a jury in a Great Barrington courthouse in 1781, were grounded in the newly enshrined constitution of the state of Massachusetts that had been ratified the previous year.

Mum Bett, as Freeman was known, went on to live with and work for the Sedgwick family, dying in 1829 at 85. Hers is among the almost 150 graves that make up the Sedgwick Pie. As the story goes, Judge Sedgwick decreed that his ancestors be buried around him with their feet facing the center so when they arose on Judgment Day, they would be facing him for his advice.

Buried next to Freeman is Catherine Maria Sedgwick, a leading writer of the 19th century whose circle of friends and literary compatriots included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The latter came to visit Stockbridge at Sedgwick's behest, and wrote ''Tanglewood Tales" in 1853. Locals are quick to point out that the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which takes its name from the Tanglewood section of town, is primarily in Stockbridge, even though the main entrance and its mailing address are in the neighboring town of Lenox.

The northern end of town, which includes Lake Mahkeenac, also known as the Stockbridge Bowl, is naturally oriented toward Lenox, and most houses are second homes, belonging to ''absentee homeowners," as locals refer to them. The lake has a residents-only swimming beach and a public boat launch. Jamie Foster, who teaches middle school in the nearby town of Sheffield and mows lawns in summer, was there one evening recently preparing to angle for bass well into the night with two friends.

In the western part of town, known as Glendale, the houses tend to be simpler and residents more likely to be year-round. Most people in town don't receive mail delivery at home, so the main Post Office as well as the Glendale Post Office are where folks naturally congregate.

Deborah McMenamy, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen, and her predecessor, J. Cristopher Irsfeld, insist that the people of Stockbridge prefer retrieving their mail this way and wouldn't have it any other way. Other so-called ''improvements" that town officials have learned to steer clear of are proposals to pave the back roads, which are mostly dirt, and to institute a historic preservation district.

''It's amazing that the town has survived intact," said Irsfeld, 58, attributing the reluctance to codify aesthetic standards to a Yankee obduracy summed up in the phrase, ''You're not going to tell me what color to paint my home."

McMenamy and Irsfeld are transplants -- she from the Boston area, he from California -- attracted to Stockbridge for its small-town values and sensibilities.

''The police chief knew all of my children by name," said McMenamy, 54. As the children were growing up, she participated in the PTA, Little League, and any number of booster clubs. Though she liked the tightly woven weft and warp of the community, her progeny sometimes found it a burden. ''My children didn't appreciate it when someone would see them doing something that they shouldn't do and report it to me."

I stopped by the Glendale Post Office on my way to see Chesterwood and the Rockwell museum. Within a few minutes, Peter A.A. Berle stopped in to collect his mail. His muscular physique, tanned face, and work boots bespoke his current vocation raising cattle and sheep more than they did his previous career as a lawyer, three-term member of the New York State Assembly, and that state's commissioner of environmental conservation.

''It's a great little town," Berle said. ''We have a democracy that works and a police force that's honest."

Berle is also an outspoken environmentalist and chairman of the local land trust that is raising money and support to preserve open space. He takes pride in the advances his group has made in Stockbridge, warning that ''the Berkshires are fast evolving into Paramus, N.J.," shorthand for the kind of sprawl he hopes this corner of Berkshire County will be able to stave off for at least a few more generations.

Contact freelance writer Eric Goldscheider at

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