In many ways the Berkshires were just a backdrop, albeit an amazing one, for our time at Williams. We took in Pine Cobble, the Hopper, Mount Greylock, and the views from the Mohawk Trail or the roads leading to the Taconic State Parkway. But for most of us cities like Pittsfield and North Adams were just a point along the trajectory to New York, Boston, and points west. How well did we know really know our surrounding environment? And what is it like now?
In early 2021, in his Zoom presentation given in honor of the 200th anniversary of the Williams Alumni Society, Joe Thompson ’81, founding director of MassMoCA in North Adams, suggested in reviewing the history of that museum and other cultural advances in the Berkshires, that we might well be witnessing a Berkshire Renaissance.
And if you’ve been back to Williams since graduation, as the majority of us have, you may have noticed some significant changes. No doubt the most notable example would be the transformation of the 26 factory buildings that once housed Arnold Print Works (1860-1942) and then Sprague Electric (1942-1985), into the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMoCA). The multiplier effect of that transformation, with new restaurants and shops, is visible to anyone passing through.
At the same time, in the spring of 2020, the Crane Stationery Company, which employed over 229 workers in its North Adams location, was shut down for good, with production moving to Cohoes, New York, ending over two centuries of association of the Crane brand name with Berkshires manufacturing.
The General Electric factories of Pittsfield started closing their doors gradually in the mid to late eighties, finally pulling out for good in the early 1990s, ending a presence of over 80 years. At its peak, GE employed over 12,000 workers in a town of of 50,000 people. The slow motion reduction in force had a drastic effect on the local economy.
By the way, how many of you knew that Jack Welch, GE’s most famous CEO (about whom we’ll hear more later) got his start as a chemical engineer at the Pittsfield facility?
The company was so dominant that area residents prepended a definite article to its name, referring to it as THE GE.
But life indeed goes on…
The former Crane facility in North Adams has since been transformed into the Clear Sky Cannabis Dispensary. That establishment rates 4.6 stars out of 5 on Google.
In the same “spirit,” The Boston Globe on November 11, 2022 carried an article with the headline Fear and Loathing in the Bakeshires, with news that Great Barrington, some 40 miles south of Williamstown, boasts no fewer than 7 cannabis dispensaries of its own. Revenue for the town is non-trivial; one of the stores takes in roughly $1 million per week, and with a a 3 percent sales tax the town is allowed to collect in addition to a 3 percent “community impact fee.” In a recent month, the latter netted 1.62 million per month. So far so good, but this boom cycle might end when Connecticut and New York change their cannabis legislation.
And you also might not know that all of this is taking place in a county that is no longer a county. As of 2012, Berkshire Country was dissolved and is now technically a regional district.
Are the cultural and artistic transformations (more on this to appear) and their multiplier effect enough to sustain a region that has felt its share of challenges? What does the fascinating history of shifting manufacturing activity in this region have to show us? With all the exciting cultural developments, ranging from artisinal innovation, to museums, to new performance centers, would it be justifiable to say, in view of the economic challenges the Berkshires have faced, that there really is in fact a Berkshire Renaissance?
That’s it, in a nutshell. The Berkshires are full of push and pull, the attraction of natural, playground for the rich and idle, but also a vital and growing culture centered on the arts and back to the land. For an update on all of that, go to https://btwberkshires.com, the lively creation of Kate Abbott ’04.
In the months to come, leading up to our 55th, we’ll be examining the history and present reality of the Berkshires (or Beserkshires, as one resident called them), touching on the fascinating and varied history of manufacturing, the Gilded Age and its aftermath, the Transcendalist presence in the Berkshires, the sociology of North, Mid, and South regions of the Berkshires, as well as the current uptick in artistic and cultural activity.
We’ll also feature interviews with two Williams alums who are in the thick of all this, Mike Coakley ’85, Pittsfield native who is now Business Development Manager for the city, and Tom Bernard ’95, North Adams native and former Mayor of North Adams.
In addition, we’ll take a closer look at Adams, little brother of North Adams, but never as bright a star. If it had been called South Adams would that have made a difference?