Berkshire Extras: more fun facts about the Berkshires from A to Z. My research unearthed way more information than I could fit in the book, so here are some of the most exciting and quirky bits of information I discovered.
Working on an alphabet book allowed me to write the text in random order—based on where the research led me, and if the topics for the letters were connected in some way. Two of the first letters I wrote were X and Z. The last letter was A. For Berkshire Extras I’ll start with A, and post a new letter weekly as I work my way in an orderly fashion toward Z.
A: Explore options for your adventures on the Berkshire Visitors Bureau Website, or on the Berkshires Website, with links to almost anything you can imagine doing in the area. You can even hike on the famous Appalachian Trail, which meanders for 87.7 miles through the Berkshires on its way up to Maine. Seventy-five per cent of Berkshire County is wooded, and many trails date back to the 1800s. If you enjoy treasure hunts, here’s a link for dozens of letterboxes in the area. If you prefer searching for treasures with your GPS device, the Clark Art Institute has a link for their own geocache.
B: The Ashuwillticook Rail Trail isn’t just for bikes—universal access allows everyone a chance to enjoy nature. The trail follows a rail corridor between the Greylock and Hoosac Ranges where trains traveled between 1845 and 1990. The trail was given the Native American name for the south branch of the Hoosic River. Ashuwillticook means “the pleasant river in between the hills.” One of my favorite resources was a brochure produced by the 6th grade class of 2011 at the Lanesborough Elementary School—Discover the Rail Trail: Plants and Animals found along the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail. Thanks, guys! The animals I mention in the book were found in this amazing brochure.
C: Most of the largest Berkshire caves are on private property, and not accessible for public exploration. However, you can hike to Caves Lot at Field Farm in Williamstown, where small streams disappear into underground channels and caves carved from the limestone bedrock. A half-mile hike on Monument Mountain in Great Barrington will bring you to Hawthorne’s Cave, where authors Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville took shelter from a storm while on a picnic hike in 1850. Their lively discussion in the cave inspired ideas for Melville’s new book, Moby Dick, which he dedicated to Hawthorne.
Cavers continue to discover new caves in the Berkshires. They know what terrain to look for, and will hand dig to clear openings. Finding a new cave is something even a kid can do—no special equipment needed. In 1875, 14-year old Eldon French read an article on the formation of caves. He studied the local terrain, discovered a cave, and first explored it by candlelight. At 810 feet, Eldon’s Cave is the second longest cave in the state. A long, narrow, twisty passage leads to a chamber with beautiful marble formations and waterfalls.
D: Nothing goes to waste on a dairy farm. Whey, a byproduct of cheese making, is fed to the pigs at Cricket Creek Farm. They love the stuff! I found out the names of all 46 cows in the 2014 herd at Cricket Creek. Some cows have food names: Cashew, Coconut, Oreo, and Rhubarb. The lead cow? Dragon.
High Lawn Farm is the only complete dairy farm in the Berkshires—it produces, bottles, and delivers its own milk. You can watch happy cows and those milking robots in action on High Lawn’s website. The Berkshire Grown website is a great place to learn more about local dairy farms and products.
E: Prior to the 1980s, the last known bald eagle nest in Massachusetts was located at Snake Pond on Cape Cod in 1905. I was fascinated by the story of forty-one young eagles being relocated from Michigan and Canada to manmade nesting, or hacking, towers at Quabbin Reservoir in western Massachusetts. The first 5-week-old chicks, named Betsy and Ross, arrived in 1982. Scientist hid behind one-way glass, using an eagle puppet to feed strips of fish to the eaglets. Not all relocation efforts were successful. Ross stayed around and helped father the next generation of bald eagles in the state. Betsy flew back to Canada.
You can be a citizen scientist. Submit eagle sightings online to Mass Wildlife, or report sightings via email to the Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program. Watch eagle families grow on numerous eagle nest cams throughout the United States and Canada: Eagle Nest Cams, Eagles4kids.
F: Enjoy explosions of fall color on scenic byways, and discover countless fairs and festivals throughout the Berkshires in September and October. Some of the more famous celebrations include food, music, craft and art exhibits, rides and games: the Harvest Festival at the Berkshire Botanical Gardens in Stockbridge, the Hancock Shaker Village Country Fair, and the Bizarre Bazaar in Pittsfield.
The North Adams Fall Festival has three parades, including a theme-based costumed Dog Parade. Enjoy a variety of pumpkin games at the Ashfield Fall Festival. Pumpkin bowling involves tossing a pumpkin at zucchini bowling pins—their ends are cut off so the squash will stand up. And here’s a video about the skillet toss at the Festival of the Hills in Conway.
G: Most people consider Mount Greylock a “Berkshire” mountain, but it’s actually an isolated Taconic peak. The Berkshires are a jumble of overlapping geological features: The Taconic Mountain Range along the CT, NY, and VT borders with MA, the smaller Hoosac Range to the east, and farther east and south are found the rolling hills of actual Berkshire rocks. These ancient rocks are much older than the Taconics and Hoosacs. They are deformed parts of North America’s original core of billion-year-old rocks.
Wonder if you’ll spot the rare Brocken Spectre during your Greylock hike? If you miss it, check out photos of this phenomenon from around the world. Do you plan to join the Columbus Day celebrations in Adams? Here’s more information on the Greylock Ramble and RambleFest.
H: One thing I discovered while researching the book is the importance of using primary resources and experts. This was especially true while exploring the history of the construction of the Hoosac Tunnel. Most sources I found online, in books, and throughout the Berkshires stated that almost 200 people lost their lives during construction. Not true! Chuck Cahoon, the President of the North Adams Historical Society, shared information with me that he has gathered during 35 years of research.
The Hoosac Valley News, a local paper contemporary to tunnel construction, noted a total death count of 136 on November 26, 1873—one day before a final blast connected both ends of the tunnel through the mountain. A New York Times article on March 16, 1880, cites an Albert Marcoux as the 199th casualty of the tunnel. Both Cahoon and Carl Byron, the top authority on tunnel history, agree this is probably where the historical discrepancy started, as “casualty” technically refers to both deceased and those seriously injured. Adding the names of injured that Cahoon has discovered during his research to the original deceased count of 136, equals a total of 194. Reports from the 1870s and 1880s note there were several unnamed casualties. Cahoon’s research has positively identified 107 of the 136 people killed during construction.
I: If you spot feathery needles of ice on a cold winter morning, check recent weather conditions to figure out how the ice formed. Was it cloudy or overcast? Then rime ice formed when water droplets in the freezing fog changed from a liquid to a solid when they touched solid objects.
Was it a calm, cold, clear night? Then you’re looking at surface hoar frost. The lack of a drying wind allowed pockets of humid air to form close to the ground. Clear skies meant temperatures dropped rapidly overnight. These cold, humid conditions allowed water vapor in the air to go directly from a gas to solid ice. Hoar frost crystals are usually only seen in the morning, and disappear after the sun has warmed things up.
J: So why was that famous, pillow-shaped rock named Jacob’s Pillow? Local folklore reports that early travelers often struggled up nearby Morey Hill. When wagons became stuck in mud, a local farmer named Jacob pulled them out with his team of oxen. These bible-minded travelers called the hill “Jacob’s Ladder”, in reference to the steep ladder the prophet Jacob climbed to heaven in his dream. This biblical-naming tradition continued with many local features. Route 20 became Jacob’s Ladder Trail. Early motorist stopped to cool overheated engines at Jacob’s Well and Jacob’s Spring near the Morey Hill Summit. They could even stay in Jacob’s Dream, a lodge in Becket. And of course, the boulder near the Carter house on a hilltop farm was named Jacob’s Pillow.
K: Designed on computers, modern kayaks use science and engineering to create the perfect fit for specific needs. Made for speed, racing kayaks might be twenty-one feet long and only eighteen inches wide. For quick turns, whitewater kayaks can be as short as four feet.
Berry Pond, at the top of Berry Mountain in Pittsfield State Forest is a hidden treasure. It’s the highest natural pond in the state that’s perfect for kayaks and canoes (no motorized boats allowed). In June, the top of Berry Mountain blooms with 40 acres of azaleas.
L: We all seem to love baby animals, so here are a few things I learned about little llamas. A baby llama is called a cria, which is the Spanish word for baby. Mama llamas can only hum to or nuzzle their newborns. They can’t lick their babies because their attached tongues can only stick outside their mouths about half an inch—not enough to give a good scrubbing! Crias weigh between 20 to 30 pounds when they are born, and can stand up and walk around when they are only an hour old. They suckle frequently because their mamas only produce about a quarter cup of milk at a time.
M: Here’s a link for you to explore the staggering variety of unique-to-the-Berkshires museums. You’ll find all of the museums featured in the book, plus many other exciting places to visit. One behind-the-scenes story that fascinates me is at the Rockwell Museum. Norman Rockwell, a famous illustrator in the mid-1900s, called Stockbridge home. He donated his last art studio and its contents to the Rockwell Museum. In 1986, the entire building was moved across town from his backyard to the museum site. The building had to be cut in two, and reassembled on the museum grounds!
N: The historic Mahican-Mohawk Trail along Route 2 will eventually be restored as a 100-mile-long recreational trail connecting the Connecticut and Hudson Rivers. It will pass through notches, travel along ridges, cut through deep forests, and follow sections of the Deerfield River.
Notches are more than easy passes through mountains. They sometimes create perfect hiking trails. Bellows Pipe Trail in Mount Greylock State Reservation follows the notch between Ragged Mountain and Mount Greylock. The trail is named for the sound of wind when it rushes between the two peaks. Henry David Thoreau hiked up Greylock along this trail in 1844, so it’s also known as Thoreau’s Ascent.
O: I learned about the care of apple orchards and the American chestnut seedling orchard at the Hebert Arboretum through in-person interviews. After that, I spent hours playing around on two wonderful websites. I discovered more about pick-your-own farms in western MA, all located on Berkshire Grown’s Map-o-licious. Although not Berkshire specific, everything you could possibly want to know about local apples can be found on the New England Apple Association’s website. Their site includes videos about grafting and pruning trees, has 90 apple recipes, and a detailed list of 164 varieties grown in New England—many of which I’ve never heard of!
P: Through emails and a long phone call, Bruce Howden shared many tales with me about his father’s pursuit of the perfect pumpkin, including his adventures in Washington D.C. after filing paperwork for a Plant Variety Protection (PVP). The Howden pumpkin is considered the standard in the industry, “John Howden did for the pumpkin industry what Henry Ford did for the car industry.” My early drafts for this topic started with “A famous pumpkin was born in the Berkshires.” As much as I loved that line, it didn’t quite work. A gardener myself, I’ve grown some funky varieties of pumpkins. That was my hook!
Johnny’s and Reimer Seeds are two of the best catalogs I found online for pumpkin varieties. You’ll find seeds for the palm-sized Munchkin, the thousand-pound Dill’s Atlantic Giant, numerous white pumpkins from Baby Boo to Snowball, and the newest varieties called Sunlight (yellow), and Porcelain Doll (pink). The names alone – Knuckle Head and Goose Bumps – make me want to grow pumpkins with warty bumps. I might even try Cinderella, a pumpkin shaped like the fairy tale coach.
Q: During my research, I was fascinated by old soapstone quarries in the Berkshires. Also known as steatite, this relatively soft metamorphic rock is rich in talc. Soapstone can retain heat for a long time. It has been quarried to make furnace doors, and to create bricks to keep hands and feet warm. In powder form, it has been used to make fireproof paint, fancy soaps, to remove oil and grease stains, and to lubricate axles when mixed with oil.
Even Native Americans quarried soapstone. I discovered archaeological reports of Indian soapstone quarries just east of the Berkshires—in Westfield and North Wilbraham, Massachusetts. The remains of pots, bowls, utensils, and platters were found at these two sites. A soapstone platter would have been perfect for broiling fish and meat over a fire!
R: Many Berkshire racing organizations include family friendly activities to inspire the next generation to remain physically active and enjoy the outdoors. For the youngest racers (6 and under), I discovered 1/4-mile runs at Tanglewood and 50-yard, multi-wheel bike races in Pittsfield. There’s even a rubber ducky race at the Deerfield River Fest. Races aren’t always about speed. One special event during the Berkshire Mountain Bike Races tests balance and patience with the slowest time trials: complete the course without putting your feet down, going backwards, or stopping!
Links to find out more about races in the Berkshires: Western Massachusetts Athletic Club, The Berkshire Cycling Association, the Deerfield River Fest. To learn more about the race photographed in the book: Josh Billings RunAground Triathlon.
S: Eighty percent of Massachusetts maple syrup producers are west of the Connecticut River, most in the rolling hills and steep valleys of the Berkshire Hilltowns. Some sugarhouses have been run by the same family for eight generations—since the late 1700s! Massachusetts sugar farmers collect and boil down two million gallons of sap to make 50,000 gallons of maple syrup each year.
I spent hours wandering through the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association website. They have an extensive list of sugarhouses throughout the state, many open for public tours. You’ll find anything you want to know about maple syrup production and its history, dozens of maple recipes, and even how to make your own syrup from sugar maple trees. “All About Maple Sugaring” is a classroom guide and curriculum the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association and Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom developed for teachers and homeschoolers.
T: I was lucky enough to have connections through a friend to be able to interview a Boston University Tanglewood Institute (BUTI) student. He shared what made BUTI an amazing experience, and noted, “I could talk about BUTI all day!” I had asked him to share unexpected surprises—what fun to learn about their surprise guest in the BUTI kitchen.
Tanglewood may be famous for its Music Festival and as the summer home for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but it’s also a community cultural experience. Tanglewood has an extensive education and community engagement program with lectures, races, fundraisers, fine dining, and a wide range of family-centered activities.
My favorite bit of information about Tanglewood, before the Tappan family donated their estate to the BSO? Nineteenth century author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, wrote Tanglewood Tales (1853), a book of Greek myths for children, while staying on the estate in the “little red house.”
U: The movement in the earth’s crust that pushed older rocks at Tyringham Cobble up and over younger layers is called a thrust fault. This “upside down” hill is one of the few places in New England where you can walk on a major thrust fault. As a bonus, you can hike a stretch of the famous Appalachian Trail over the Cobble. (A cobble is an outcrop of rocks.)
While still in the planning stages for the book, one option I explored for the letter U was “unique.” I discovered several unique treasures in the Berkshires. The marble arch at the Natural Bridge State Park in North Adams is the only bridge of its kind in North America. And Bartholomew’s Cobble in Sheffield was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1971 due to its amazing plant diversity. This unique reservation is home to over 800 species of plants, including nearly 500 species of wildflowers, and 53 types of ferns. My favorite—a walking fern!
V: Although there are countless streams and smaller rivers throughout the Berkshires, they are all part of several major river valley systems. The Housatonic River flows from the slopes of Mount Greylock, through Pittsfield, MA, and down through Connecticut on its way to Long Island Sound. The Hoosic River flows through valleys in northern Berkshire County, and through southwestern Vermont on its way to the Hudson River in New York. The Westfield and Deerfield Rivers rush through valleys and deep gorges as they head east to the Connecticut River.
However, when glaciers retreated from the area 14,000 years ago, ice dams blocked the usual flow of rivers, creating huge glacial lakes. Lake Ashley covered much of the southern Housatonic Valley, including what is now Great Barrington, MA. Lake Bascom filled the Hoosic Valley for 800 years, flooding everything below a 1,100-foot elevation. When the ice melted further, Lake Bascom was finally able to drain northwest toward the Hudson River in a series of major floods. Here’s a map of Lake Bascom I found in an e-book (scroll to page 44). Would your town have been under water 14,000 years ago?
W: The history and legends surrounding many Berkshire waterfalls fascinated me. In 1977, Senator Edward Kennedy and his family picnicked near Umpachene Falls in New Marlborough. President Grover Cleveland’s wife visited the waterfall in Stevens Glen near West Stockbridge when it was a tourist attraction in 1901. And in 1838, author Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote extensively about the Natural Bridge and Chasm in North Adams where Hudson Brook drops through water-carved marble. Going further back in time, I discovered tales of counterfeiters at Money Brook Falls on Mount Greylock in the 1700s, and tales of ghosts guarding the glen.
Legends of unfaithful Indian maidens falling to their deaths surround many of the largest waterfalls. However, Wahconah Falls in Dalton has a happier tale associated with it. Chief Miahcoma’s daughter, Wahconah, loved a hostile chief’s son, Nessacus, but her father wanted her to marry an older Mohawk chief, Yonnongah. Her future husband was decided by sending a canoe over the waterfall. The two men waited on opposite sides of the stream below. When the canoe came to rest next to Nessacus, he was declared the winner, and married Wahconah.
X: The Xeriscape concept was developed by the Denver water department during a drought in the 1970s and 1980s. Gardeners choose different plants when Xeriscaping, but they still use good landscape design elements. The Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, MA, has inspiring layouts for every home gardener, including several Xeriscape designs. Their New Wave Garden looks great in May and June, and includes several plants that like hot, dry sun: Achillea 'Coronation Gold', Nepeta 'Walker's Low', Panicum virgatum 'Heavy Metal', and Phlomis russeliana. The Garden also has a bed planted with succulents, cactus, and a few drought-tolerant flowering plants that looks its best in mid-August.
More Than Just a Yard is a 60-page guide developed by the state of MA that shows how homeowners can utilize ecological landscaping tools. This guide includes a wealth of information about Xeriscaping techniques, an extensive list of plants suitable for the Northeast, and a list of over twenty helpful websites.
Y: I knew from the beginning that I wanted to focus on Berkshire animals used for creating yarn. Sure, I’d seen plenty of sheep, alpacas, and llamas—but what other fluffy critters did fiber artisans use? A huge thank you to members of the Green Mountain Weavers and Spinners Guild as well as the Berkshire Hills and Dales Spinners. They reached out to me in multiple emails and phone calls to share their knowledge and passion for their craft. They also shared fun stuff, including a video link of a woman spinning angora yarn while her bunny snuggled on her lap.
Through organizers of the Cummington Fair, I also discovered the informative Still River Mill website. They have a great page describing the characteristics of different animal fibers, including qiviut from the musk ox. Photos of each animal accompany the descriptions, including the cutest photo I’ve ever seen of an angora goat (mohair fiber).
Z: Before I started research for the book, I thought all zip lines were guided tours. I thought you only reached them by climbing to platforms in the trees. Well, I thought wrong. The tomboy in me was thrilled to discover zip lines connecting obstacle courses throughout the Berkshires. Like ski trails, many courses are color-coded for difficulty, from easy to expert. Start on a short course close to the ground. Then move on to sky-high challenges. Here are links to explore some of the area's zip line courses: Berkshire East Zip Line Canopy Tours, Bousquet Adventure Park, Catamount Aerial Adventure Park, Jiminy Peak Aerial Adventure Park, Ramblewild, Zoar Outdoor.
Thanks for joining me for Berkshire Extras from A to Z!