Harvest Festival draws crowds to 'our cultural place'

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STOCKBRIDGE — Kaylin Fredsall took great joy jumping into a pile of hay on a warm, crisp October Saturday.

Her mother watching, the 4-year-old Great Barrington girl stood atop bales of the dried, tall grass, leaping into the soft, dry cushion a couple of feet below.

The youngster was one of hundreds partaking in the children's activities at Berkshire Botanical Garden's 83rd Harvest Festival.

"We like to support our cultural place, and I like to take [Kaylin] to as many outdoor events as possible," said Kirsten Fredsall.

The family-friendly festival is expected to attract — with Mother Nature's cooperation - 12,000 to 15,000 visitors by the time the two-day event wraps up this afternoon.

The traditional Columbus Day weekend attraction draws crowds from throughout the Northeast patronizing the more than 100 artisan food and crafts vendors, 11 drop-in workshops, farm-to-table activities and live entertainment, all spread out over the well-kept 15-acre landscape known for its varied gardens.

This year, Berkshire Botanical Garden's new centerpiece takes center stage at the festival, as the staff and board of trustees unveil the Center House Leonhardt Galleries.

Located in a renovated mid- to late-1700s building, the gallery interior maintains the rustic look of more than two centuries ago while showcasing works of local artists and photographers reflecting botanical, natural and landscape themes.

The inaugural exhibit, "Wonder World: Three Artists Define Nature's Magic," features insect paintings of Susan Merrill. The showing through Nov. 24 also includes the landscape/plant life photos shot by John MacGruer and Jane McWhorter from Great Barrington.

Many of the globe-trotting pair's works are being publicly viewed for the first time.

"I have photos from Wales, Hawaii and Cape Cod," MacGruer said. "We went back through what we had, to see what hadn't been shown."

McWhorter was thrilled to help open the gallery.

"It's nice for us to show together for a specific theme," she said. "I think the building is extraordinary."

The historic structure could be an exhibit in itself.

"The building tells a story of about 250 years," said trustees Chairman Matt Larkin.

He and Executive Director Mike Beck explained in an Eagle interview before the gallery's opening reception Friday how the gallery has exposed beams, columns and other 18th-century woodwork. The main showroom has a kitchen fireplace, restored to its original look.

The $2.5 million project, all but $200,000 raised through private donations and grants, expanded beyond the gallery footprint. The nonprofit had an additional 4,000 square feet of new, historic-looking construction that will include a library, teaching kitchen and community/special functions. The barnlike wing will have second-floor office space for the majority of the staff.

While Berkshire Botanical Garden hosts workshops during the offseason (the gardens are open daily from May 1 to Columbus Day), the gallery complex enhances the nonprofit's mission.

"The goal is to make what we do more year-round," Beck said.

Beck expects completion of the addition by the end of November, in time for the Holiday Marketplace Dec. 2-3.

For now, the Harvest Festival remains the organization's signature attraction, bringing in first-timers and regulars to the season-ending event.

The "Wishing Tree" in the Children's Discovery Garden is quite popular, as visitors of all ages write on beige tags they tie to the tree messages of hope, harmony and healing for themselves and others.

CJ Landry of Waterford, N.Y., wished for a pain-free paternal grandfather who is battling cancer. The 10-year-old looks forward to a return of the fun times they've had together.

"We go golfing a lot, and he helps me build stuff for Boy Scouts," he said.

Plenty of the vendors are regular festival attendees, with the occasional new one selling its wares.

Over the summer, Bruce Forster and Priscilla Tate started up Berkshire PuppetTree, creating homemade puppets for children of all ages. The retired couple from Alford are relishing their new career.

"It gets us out to events like this, and the puppets are all about interaction with people," said Forster, who began making puppets in college.

Eitan Toledano of Glen Rock, N.J., a puppet aficionado, was enamored by dozens of fuzzy colorful characters to choose from.

"I took one of the monster puppets, because I think it connected with me. I look at them in real life," he said.

Reach staff writer Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233

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