An OLLI Walk Through Berkshire History: Overview

Overview of the Course

  • First, a little bit about myself, and what I hope to accomplish in this course
    • my introduction, as given in the first class
    • my email: mfw {at} mfw(.)us
    • my blog:
  • Then, a tribute to my Grandmother Wilcox, who instilled in me a love of history and its lore
  • Next, a tribute to the People who were on this Berkshire land before my ancestors invaded their world and changed it forever. Throughout these six weeks, I will try to convey to you some of my understanding of how the Natives had carefully cultivated this Berkshire landscape for countless generations. As the course progresses, I hope that we can all contemplate the opportunity to maintain a connection with the Original People, who retain an active interest in their Homeland. We will also discuss aspects of their language and culture. We call them the Mohicans, but that is not what they originally called themselves. And they did not have a written language, so you may see various spellings, all echoing what was heard by European ears.
    • MoHeConNuck
    • Mo-hea-con-nuck
    • Muh-he-con-neok [I’m told this — with long “e”s — is probably closest to the actual pronunciation]
    • All of these mean “People of the Waters that are Never Still” and are related to the name of the River, Mohicannituck
  • Session One will be about the Mahican-Mohawk Trail, in northern Berkshire County. It will also be an opportunity to discuss the culture that was here before the Europeans arrived, and what we can take away from that knowledge that might benefit us. During this session (and later in the course) I will share some observations about Mohican ways, as I understand them. I will also refer to customs and practices of the English and Dutch colonists. Mostly, I will try to confine my remarks on these topics to what is relevant to our understanding of the places I’m describing.
  • Sessions Two through Six will include discussion of the following places, which I will give here in more or less the order I’d like to cover them; the amount of time to be spent on each may depend on my mood at the time, as well as interest and feedback from the students. That would be you.
    • Stockbridge: Ice Glen & Laura’s Tower
    • Monterey: The Bidwell House
    • Becket/Chester/Middlefield: The Keystone Arch Bridges and the Railway to the Moon
    • Alford Springs
    • Lenox: Parsons Marsh
  • An expanded explanation of what will be discussed about these properties is available here.

What I hope to accomplish in this course

Through the use of these six specific examples, I hope to convey my sense of wonder and excitement about the area in which we live. I know that there are people here in this room who will have more information than I do about any particular subject. One thing you need to know about me, if you don’t already, is that I am autistic. You will hear me mention this several dozen times before all is said and done. The reason I bring it up so early is to emphasize a stereotypical characteristic of autistic people. Facts Matter. Recently, I was awarded a certificate in story-telling. There was another person (not present today) who was awarded a similar certificate that read “Facts Don’t Matter”…

There is a common story, told with some amusement by many autistic people (funny only because it is recalled many years after the fact) that as youngsters in school they often got into trouble for interrupting and correcting their teachers. I want you to know that this works both ways. I don’t mind being corrected. So, at any time, please interrupt me if you wish to express your opinion about some statement or pronunciation I may have made that doesn’t square with your take on things. Or, for that matter, stop me to ask a question about something that I’ve not been clear about. What I won’t tolerate is having people do their own monologuing. I reserve the exclusive right to do that. One autistic at a time is enough.

Speaking of facts; let me emphasize my view of History as an area of study. It is what I would call a soft science, and that means there are no facts; only opinions. I don’t mean this with disrespect. I’m an amateur historian; professionally, I come from another of the soft sciences — Economics. Although we have a lot of fancy equations in Economics and Finance, they are all based on sometimes questionable (and often controversial) assumptions about how people will behave.

I never fully trust anything I read or hear about things that happened in the past. I advise you to take the same attitude, and that includes information spewed forth by me in this course, under the guise of knowledge. Reality is a tricky thing. I never appreciated that until recent years. For most of my life, my autistic insistence that I had a monopoly on reality interfered with my ability to sustain friendships and other relationships. Now, I understand that there are multiple realities. Two people can be present for the same event and come away from it with completely different understandings and memories. I’ll have other examples later in the course, but here is one that is pertinent to our early discussion of first contact between the Natives and the English colonists. That is the concept of usufruct rights. For details, consult my blog post on the subject.

These three concepts of property rights come down to us from Roman Law.

  1. usus = simple use
  2. usufruct = rights to the product of the property
  3. abusus = right to destroy or convey ownership

The word usufruct comes from the Latin and means, essentially “use of the fruit” — think of a fruit tree or an orchard. If you have the right to take the fruit produced by an orchard and do with it as you will — eat it, sell it, ferment it, and so on; then you have usufruct rights. It is only one aspect of ownership. It does not mean that you have the right to destroy the trees or sell them to someone else — that would be the right of abusus (meaning abuse). A milder form of property rights, btw, would be usus, or simple use. You might have the right to use to orchard for your enjoyment — walking through it, for example, or picnicking there, but not to pick the fruit.

When the English came to the Berkshires (and, of course, to other places in the New World), they brought these concepts with them. But the indigenous culture did not have the same understanding. They did not have a concept of private land ownership. For them, the land used for agriculture or hunting and fishing was under the care of the entire community. All of this led to serious misunderstandings and some very negative consequences for the Natives. I’ll get into specific examples and more detail when we discuss land usage and differing concepts of wilderness.

For now, let me return to my more general introduction. So far, we have established that facts do matter, but so-called historical facts are very subjective in nature, and it might be beneficial to think of them as opinions. Of course, some opinions are based on more knowledge than are others, though it’s not always possible to judge which stories are more accurate.

Let me switch gears here. Please indulge me as I give you some personal perspective on what led me to be standing here before you today. This is, after all, my story. I want you to appreciate why the places we will explore are special to me. I may throw in a few facts along the way, but don’t pay too much attention to those — they will not be on the final exam.

I was born and raised in Stockbridge. I grew up, living in poverty, as a member of a loving and highly literate family, an incubator that instilled in me a love of arts and letters, as well as an appreciation for diversity and inclusion. These values, as well as others I acquired in my youth, were to be my guiding lights through good times and bad, and continue to be the core of who I am today. I’m grateful that I had such a well-rounded upbringing.

Along the way here, I will share some of my childhood stories, for I have many fond memories of those early days. In many ways, Stockbridge was the town that Norman Rockwell portrayed. Norman and I were friends, btw (and, yes, some of my stories involve him).

Still, I had a troubled childhood, for reasons that are not important here. I left the Berkshires when I was 17. I wish I could say that it was to seek my fame and fortune, but I did not want to leave. I felt I was being run out of town on a rail. I had little choice, though, but to obey the wishes of the adults in my life. I had recently been released from jail, and placed on probation. My prospects must have seemed very dim at that point, but I never lost faith in myself.

31 students in my graduating class
Notice that I am the only nerd with a girlfriend.

By the time I moved back to the Berkshires, 30 years later, I had acquired an impressive résumé, if I do say so myself. I graduated Williams High School in 1963, and, although it was 13 difficult years later, I managed to earn a graduate degree in Economics from an Ivy League college. I went on to become an officer of an Insurance company in Hartford by the time I was 30, and I earned many professional designations, including Chartered Financial Analyst. I relocated to New York City in 1980, as a Vice President of a major Money Center Bank, and later I became a Principal at a major Investment Bank.

April 17, 1972

In my heyday, I was a world-renowned quantitative financial analyst, traveling the globe to share my insights, visiting all the financial centers of the world. I was, for one thing, the only American asked to join the Board of an organization of European money managers and pension funds known as INQUIRE Europe. My clients in those days included the governments of Hong Kong, Lichtenstein, Singapore, and South Dakota. Toward the end of my career, I managed billions of dollars of assets for foundations, pension funds, and others in Japan, Canada, Australia, and the United States.

Along the way, I started a drinking society named QWAFAFEW, that had its origins as a fun networking group with a serious purpose. Its first meeting was in my Manhattan apartment, and today QWAFAFEW has thousands of members in chapters all across the globe, presenting and discussing the work of leading academics and practitioners.

Hidden behind this glorious résumé lay a wasteland of personal problems. I had also gone through three divorces and many periods of acute depression and liberal use of alcohol. It wasn’t until about 15 years ago that I figured out that I’m autistic, and I began to piece together an understanding that helped me get my emotional life under control.

Despite having been banished, I never lost my love for the Berkshires. I remember coming back one time, from the Hartford area, to visit my mother, who at that time was still living in the house on South Lee Road where I had spent my teenage years. As I drove along route 102, I looked south in the direction of Beartown Mountain, viewing from a distance another one of the properties we’ll be exploring in this course, and I was struck with how beautiful the scene was.

When I saw my mother, I almost scolded her, by saying, “Mom, you probably don’t appreciate how beautiful it is around here!” She smiled at me and said, “No, you’re wrong. Every day, I think about how grateful I am to be here.”

My Dedication

I dedicate my efforts in this OLLI endeavor to my paternal grandmother, Grace Josephine Bidwell Wilcox. When I was a child, I spend countless hours with her, hearing her stories about Stockbridge, and watching her quiet excitement at sharing her knowledge with me and her many visitors to the Historical Room in the Stockbridge Library and her long list of correspondents from around the world.

Additional Thanks

I also want to acknowledge the assistance I received from many sources. Chief among them are the folks at BNRC, who are the caretakers of three of the six properties we will be discussing. Also, many thanks to Rob Hoogs, who is here with us for this course, and is the President of the Board of the Bidwell House. Another member of that Board who has provided me with lots of material on Stockbridge is Richard Bidwell Wilcox, aka my brother Rick.

Paying Tribute

Let us all acknowledge the indigenous people, the MoHeConNeuck, on whose land we now live and enjoy. Let us hold them in our hearts, with gratitude for their long stewardship of this land that we also hold dear. Let us offer our respect for these people, now known as the Stockbridge-Munsee Community, and let us welcome them in our midst whenever they have the opportunity to visit their beloved Homeland.

So, to the Muh-he-conneok, who for countless generations cared for this land; on behalf of my generation, and from my heart, I say “anushiik”!

There! I’ve taught you a Mohican word. [Correction: I later learned that anushiik is a Munsee word. The equivalent Mahican word is “oneewe” — pronounced own-ay-wah]

Can we all say that together, in appreciation of our shared love of their Homeland that is now also our home:



Come With Me to the Pre-Contact Berkshires

Let us now begin our exploration together of a sampling of what makes The Berkshires the most special place on this planet.

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