February 6, 2011

Walking Great Barrington with Bernard Drew & Henry Knox

It seemed serendipitous to my purpose here that one of the first events sponsored by Great Barrington’s 250th Anniversary committee, co-chaired by Edward McCormick and Betsy Andrus, would be a historical walking tour with author and local historian Bernard Drew. I must say that I was a little surprised to see just how many people had gathered at the law offices of McCormick, Murtagh & Marcus on Main St. It had been previously joked to me that perhaps Mr. Drew and myself alone would be going for a walk. However, when I arrived there must have been 30-40 people gathered inside and out, by the time we begun I counted at least 60 participants. The home, which houses the offices, has somewhat of a legal pedigree. It was standing, though it has been moved twice since, when Henry Knox passed trough Great Barrington from Alford and Egremont as the home of Elijah Dwight. Dwight was the first court clerk and register of probate for Great Barrington. The structure was later home to lawyer-poet William Cullen Bryant.

Bernard Drew
introduces Henry Knox
The group, ankle deep in snow, posed for a photo on the front lawn. Mr. Drew, during his introduction of Henry Knox, reminded our group that not only was this year the 250th anniversary of Great Barrington’s incorporation as a town in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the 235th anniversary of Knox’s expedition, but also the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech in which he references “that first Revolution” saying, “We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of [it].”

We proceeded south along Main Street kicking and stomping the snow from our collective footwear. Having always held an unexplained aversion to proper winter attire I was glad the walk would soon warm me up. Our first stop was in front of Finnerty & Stevens Funeral Home. The original 1815 structure was home to Charles J. Taylor, author of the 1882 “History of Great Barrington.” The list of names in Taylor’s history reads like the class roll for most of my childhood. The more things change the more they stay the same, hmmm.

Approaching 23W on Route 7S
Taylor recounts how a committee was formed in 1774 charged with drafting an agreement to boycott British goods in reaction to the “arbitrary and oppressive acts” of the British government. The agreement stipulated that “all persons who should refuse to sign this covenant, or having signed should not adhere to the real meaning or intent thereof, should be treated with all the neglect they justly deserved.” On August 16, 1774 the first open resistance to British in the colonies rule occurred in Great Barrington. A “large body of men . . . including from three to five hundred from Litchfield County . . .took possession of the court-house” and kept court officers “from occupying the building or transacting any business.” One of two regiments of minute-men later “raised by enlistment” in Berkshire County would be commanded by Colonel John Patterson, namesake of Berkshire Community College’s Patterson Field House.

From Finnerty & Stevens our curious parade crossed the intersection of Route 7 South and 23 West at Main St. and Maple Ave. Mr. Drew discussed the travels through Great Barrington and the Berkshires, along the same roads Knox would later utilize, of Commander Jeffery Amherst, hero of the French and Indian War. Sir Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst is the namesake of Amherst, MA. The mascot of Amherst College athletics is the Fighting Jeffs. Amherst captured Fort Ticonderoga, then known as Ft. Carillon from French forces in 1759 following the failed attempt of General James Abercromby in 1758. Brigadier General Augustus Howe was among the first to fall in that failed attempt. The loss of Howe would promote General Thomas Gage. Having served under Abercromby and Amherst, Gage went on to become Governor of Massachusetts and would be succeeded in 1775 by Augustus Howe’s brother William Howe. It is Howe who orders the evacuation of British troops from Boston March 17th, 1776 under threat of the cannon Knox secured from Fort Ticonderoga. The chorus of “It’s a small world after all” rings in my head.

As we disassembled to cross to the eastern side of Main Street, a woman asked me what newspaper I was writing for. I suppose my note scribbling and photo taking had suggested me as a reporter. My cap, the kind worn by newsboys in period movies, may have added to her suspicion. Feeling a little flattered I explained my interest was part of this project and directed her to the History Dept. webpage at Berkshire Community College.

Walking in Knox's footsteps
We made our way across Main and headed north towards Searles Castle. Along the sidewalk south of the castle a stone and iron fence separates the Searles property from the street. About halfway from Maple Street to the Searles entrance there is an opening in the trees that line the route. Facing east you see the Searles property, which lies in the low, flat floodplain of the Housatonic River, stretching away from the road. A slight turn to the right revels a narrow path lined by a uniform row of trees. As promised by Mr. Drew this is likely an original section of the road travel by Henry Knox on his way through Great Barrington. I paused to marvel that I was standing in the 235-year-old footsteps of simple men who ultimately affect the history of the entire world.

Searles Castle
Our tour continued to Bridge Street and a discussion of colonial era taverns and the methods by which Knox would have likely reimbursed local merchants. Following we crossed again to the west side of Main Street to the front of the town hall. It is here that the previously mention rebellion is memorialized with a large inscribed stone. Again I was asked if I might be a reporter and I began to second-guess my career aspirations.

The tour concluded when the group turned south once more and returned to McCormick, Murtagh & Marcus. Most participants promptly left, a number stayed to partake again of the snacks and refreshments that had been available preceding our walk. A few of those still left when I returned were eagerly bending Mr. Drew’s ear and over the next twenty minutes or so he was not without company. I myself remarked at the positive turnout, made a pleasant introduction and made my way out.

Before leaving Great Barrington my route took me along more of the modern roads of the Henry Knox trail. I tried to imagine how it might have been to travel the same path on horseback in the snow or leading an ox team carrying a cannon that weighed almost as much as my car. Knox’s expedition accomplished an extraordinary feat at a time when it was most needed. Preceding the Declaration of Independence by nearly six months his deeds came at a time when the fledgling Continental Army and the Congress in Philadelphia were merely rebels to the crown, subject to hanging for treason. We may not remember the contributions of Henry Knox everyday, but he was well remember this day in Great Barrington.

In reference to Tories or British loyalists Charles Taylor wrote, “In Great Barrington were a considerable number . . . who were slow to adopt revolutionary measures . . . Many by word and deed rendered themselves obnoxious to their more patriotic townsmen.”

Next Post: Alford & Egremont


  1. Too bad Henry Knox wasn't as rigorous as you are in recording things — we'd know a lot more of the specifics of his hasty crossing of the Berkshires! Bernie Drew

  2. any information on the Knox Trail through Otis/Sandisfield?