How They Lived
Taking families back to some authentic earlier days
At the end of Art School Road in Monterey, tucked within the trees and the wild foliage, far beyond the paved road and onward along a dirt lane, stands a gracious, white Georgian saltbox, circa 1750, with a distinctive Colonial-era green front door. Other than the door, the house is rather unremarkable from the outside. After all, the Berkshires boasts dozens of homes just like this.
Yet this home is unique. Step into Bidwell House’s welcoming parlor through the side door, and there is a sense of walking into a home still inhabited by its original owner, the Rev. Adonijah Bidwell—who might very well appear at any moment. The wide-plank floors and animal-hair plaster walls evoke an atmosphere that seems to breathe 18th-century Monterey. Here, visiting men were invited to sit in the most prominent (and stiffest) chairs in the room and treated to a choice of pipes while warming their feet on small tin boxes filled with hot coals. Meanwhile, the women tended to the fire and baked bread in the beehive oven built into the cobbled stones of the fireplace, using an iron arm to move pots in and out of the heat, a device invented so as not to set clothing ablaze.
Berkshire County boasts historical homes both well known and little known, child-friendly and perfect for families to explore and spend part of the day. A short list includes Herman Melville’s Arrowhead, Ashley House, Chesterwood, The Mount, Hancock Shaker Village, Mission House, Naumkeag, Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum, Ventfort Hall, and the W.E.B. Du Bois Homesite.
Probably the least-known of them all is Bidwell House, filled with everything a well-to-do family might have had in their home at the time—pewter and portraits, china and “fancy” linens, furniture and warmly dressed beds. In fact, it is furnished with the same items that adorned the house in 1784 upon Adonijah Bidwell’s death. “Some members of the historical society got a hold of the death inventory of Adonijah Bidwell and were able to furnish the house with items that would have been in his home at the time of his death,” says Eileen Mahoney, administrative manager and occasional tour guide of the home that was turned into a museum in 1990.
Walking in and out of rooms, even sitting down to relax and visit for a while (though not in the comfortable fashion of today), it is clear a great deal of time and effort was put into the 25-year-long restoration of this Berkshire treasure to ensure an authentic representation of early-settlement life in the region. Guides like Mahoney are storytellers, enabling visitors to imagine what life must have been like for adults and children in the 1700s. “It’s a story that’s just beginning to be told,” says Mahoney. “It’s a story of community and evolution.”
A recent tour reveals details about the Bidwell family and Adonijah’s many wives, his children, and the history of farming in Monterey, which, along with what is now Tyringham, was collectively known as Housatonic Township No. 1. Two young children on the tour, Jalen, 6, and Aisla, 4, are fascinated with the “secret ovens” built into the fireplaces and the “secret drawer” atop a dresser in the children’s bedroom used to store important documents.
The barn on the property is packed with a trove of 18th- and 19th-century antiques, but the expansive 192-acre property, which includes gardens and hiking trails, is the draw for families. On special days, visitors can even see Colonial re-enactors strolling the property. “Our past is the best prediction of our future,” says Mahoney, “and to have people encounter their past right in the present and learn from that—that’s how we learn from history.”
Bidwell House is open until Columbus Day, Thursday through Monday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., with tours on the hour. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, and $5 for students. The annual Summer Party fundraiser is August 2. Bidwellhousemuseum.org provides more information.