The Pignatellis’ past is closely tied to the town
In 1902, Giovanni Pignatelli came to Bellefontaine, then a mansion with pools, fountains, and statues. He was head gardener for 55 years.
Photo above courtesy of The Lenox Library Association. The photo below by Jake Borden.
Twelve years ago, in his first term as state representative for the fourth Berkshire district, William “Smitty” Pignatelli got a call from a single mother in Lee. Her son was an athlete at Lee High School—Smitty remembered seeing a photograph of him, a tall boy in a sports jersey who looked as though he had just woken up.
The boy was trying to kick a heroin addiction. His doctor had prescribed a pill to suppress the addiction, but Mass Health insurance would not cover it. So, his mother called her representative to ask for help. And she got it.
Four years on, working late one night, Smitty got another call. This time it was the boy himself. He said, “Thank you for saving my life.”
“Thank your mother,’” Smitty told him.
Pignatelli looks around a sunny room in the Lenox Town Hall—at his brother, Scott, and his sisters, Lisa Slosek and Laurie Schiff. They had not heard this story before, but they know the kind of service and recognition that leads to that kind of phone call. The Pignatellis have lived in Lenox for more than three generations, and through all that time they have worked within the community.
Lenox has been celebrating its 250th anniversary all year long. A parade on Saturday, October 7, is coming up, with families like the Pignatellis taking part, and an exhibit at the Lenox Academy, 75 Main St., follows the town from the 1920s to the present.
The four Pignatelli siblings recall that sweep of time.
Inside the Gilded Age
Their grandfather, Giovanni Pignatelli, came to Lenox in 1902, Scott says. He left Lacedonia in Southern Italy and was processed through Ellis Island. Looking for work in New York City, he ended up in Lenox, where there was plenty of work at the grand estates.
He would end up at Bellefontaine, now Canyon Ranch. In Giovanni’s day, it was a mansion with pools, fountains, and dozens of statues among the chrysanthemums. He became the estate’s head gardener, and remained in that position for 55 years.
He and his wife, Nicolina, would raise eight children and own three small houses on Hynes Street. They lived in an Italian-speaking neighborhood and rarely spoke English. The family would gather at their house every Sunday, and the kids would pick green beans and raspberries in the backyard. Giovanni had the knowledge to grow three kinds of apples on one tree. The couple had their own gardens and root cellar and raised pigs and chickens.
“They used every part,” Lisa says of her grandparents, “from pig knuckles to blood soup.”
“It was a town of neighborhoods,” Smitty says. “Dozens of kids lived on our street.”
Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, they remember downtown before the by-pass, when it had two gas stations and a car dealership, and parents worked at the mills and had large families.
Kids played pickup baseball games and hide-and-seek and walked to school in a pack. Scott remembers hanging out at the Lenox Community Center in the evenings, with its game room and jukebox and basketball hoops outside.
Lisa remembers block dances in summer and sledding in winter.
Their mother, Mary Jane, taught English and Latin at the high school, and later French. And when Bellefontaine became a catholic seminary, she taught Spanish there. She met their father as she walked to work past Pignatelli Electrical Contractors.
John Pignatelli Jr. served in World War II and came home to work in the family business. Scott runs it today.
His father loved hanging around Town Hall, Scott says. He would come to play basketball as a boy and look in on meetings. Years later, he ran for the Planning Board because the drainage by the school had gotten so badly blocked that every rain storm would wash out his parents’ driveway.
“He wanted to speak up for the little guy, for the guy being taken advantage of,” Scott says.
John became a selectman, and in 1972 he was elected county commissioner. He would serve the town for more than 50 years. The commissioners then oversaw powerful elements of county government, from the courts to the parole board. But John liked working for working people—like the time he got a call at 1 a.m. from a guy who came home after getting off second-shift at the mill to find his cable TV wasn’t working.
“He became known for it,” Laurie says. “He would get calls for the most obscure things because he was the one people viewed as able to solve them—because he’ll listen.”
Then the mills began to close, and the tourists began to arrive.
Smitty remembers as a boy sitting on the stone wall at the Windsor Mountain School to watch the cars lining up before Tanglewood concerts. But he could not have imagined then, he says, the theater, music, and art that draw visitors to Lenox now. As the mills shuttered, the old estates became inns, museums, and cultural centers.
Lenox today can bring Emmanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma to Tanglewood, a National Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom to The Mount, and Grammy-winning bluegrass musicians to the Apple Squeeze. The economy is changing, and not without difficulties. The population is smaller than it was in the ’50s, and older, Smitty says, and the town is facing challenges as it tries to provide for its young people. Many of the youngest generation of Pignatellis have left for college and for jobs elsewhere.
But they come back every Christmas for a family reunion that has gotten so large that it has outgrown the family houses and overflowed into the Lenox Community Center.
“We may live in different towns now,” Smitty says, “but we’re still from Lenox.”
PIGNATELLIS––Smitty is the grand marshal of the Oct. 7 Lenox 250th Parade. Here, at Town Hall with dad John, sister Lisa Slosak. .