The Cottager | Southmayd Farm: A Berkshire Cottage with a peculiar back story

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STOCKBRIDGE — The eccentricities of the Southmayd siblings were subject to public scrutiny in 1922, when a nephew and three nieces of Miss Emily Southmayd contested her will, which left the bulk of her estate to charity.

Emily Southmayd, 92, the spinster sister of Charles F. Southmayd, left behind $3 million, but only bequeathed some $900,000 to family members. The rest was left to charities, something her nephew and nieces claimed was out of character for their eccentric aunt who had many peculiarities. They testified that she had aversions to telephones, automobiles, modern clothing and steam heat. She also refused to open her windows or let them be washed, they said.

Her elder brother, Charles, was peculiar too, their counsel stated during the trial. Charles reportedly avoided being photographed and "disliked colleges" and "contended that persons who attended them wasted their time."

In the end, it was determined that while peculiar in some respects, Miss Southmayd, had been of sound mind and body when writing the will and its amendments. Many testified that she had made generous gifts to charities during her lifetime, but did so as an anonymous donor. It was also determined, through the testimony of a friend, that she preferred the heat of a fireplace to that of steam heat.

In fact, Emily Southmayd had at one point told Bishop Coadjutor Charles Lewis Slattery that she had given so generously to charity, that she now lived on less money than she did when "she was a young girl and lived on an allowance from her father." Perhaps that was because she had barely touched the $3 million left to her by her brother, who had died 11 years earlier.

Charles Southmayd left his sister the bulk of his estate upon his death in 1911. The rest was parceled out to the children of his law partners and a long list of nieces, nephews, cousins, second cousins and so on. To the daughters of his law partner, Charles Butler, he left his Stockbridge estate — known locally as Southmayd Farm, but referred to in his will as Oxbow Farm.

In 1870, Southmayd built his Second Empire-style home on farm land purchased from the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1867 for $12,500. Southmayd had originally offered Longfellow $10,000 for the farm, which he rejected. Butler, who owned the abutting property, was convinced that Longfellow would not get more than $8,000 for the land and told just him that.

Longfellow had never lived on the property, which was rumored to be a gift from his father-in-law. After months of offers from Southmayd, he relented and sold the farm.

Southmayd, was the second of three lawyers from the firm Evarts, Southmayd & Choate to build a summer cottage in the Berkshires. The other, Joseph Choate, would decide to purchase the land on which he built the nearby Naumkeag while staying at Southmayd's estate.

The cottage would get little use by the esteemed attorney, who with Choate would successfully argue against and hold off the implementation of the income tax for 18 years. He tended only to visit it for a few weeks each summer or fall. The rest of the year he lived, with his unmarried sisters, in New York City. He would give up on the cottage altogether after being visited at 3 a.m. by the Gentleman Burglar, who for a time terrorized the cottagers — politely waking them from their slumbers and robbing them of their jewelry and cash.

Described as a character straight out of a Charles Dicken's novel, Southmayd was frugal with his money, once advising the more liberal Choate to save all of his earnings.

Choate spoke of his colleague's intellect and honesty, as well as his eccentricities, in a memorial he wrote for him.

In it he notes how Southmayd would not ride on the "elevated roads" and took surface cabs (horse and carriage) to travel the four miles from his home his office. He preferred the Sixth Avenue cars until one day there was a stove under the seat. From then on, he took the "better" Fourth Avenue surface cars until he saw a horseless carriage pull up to the curb.

The thing that made all of this peculiar was that Southmayd was the owner of his own fine horses and a carriage, which he never used.

"And when I asked him why not, he replied because of the common law rule of `respondeat superior': `If I hire a cab and an accident happens, I incur no liability. That falls upon the owner,'" Choate wrote.

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In January, I toured the 8,500-square-foot mansion with 20 rooms, eight bedrooms, eight fireplaces, four full and two half-baths, two libraries, a gourmet kitchen, a music room, an octagonal sunroom and private hedge maze.

At the time, the estate — which also includes 33 acres, a carriage house with a 1,300-square-foot studio and greenhouse; a 1,200-square-foot guest house with three bedrooms and two full baths, a pool with a cabana and a five-stall horse barn and paddock — was listed at $7.9 million. It is currently listed at a price of $6.9 million.

"The owners of this property restored the house to what it was and have decorated it to period," Cindy Welch, an agent with LandVest representing the property, said during the tour.

Care was taken to remove and restore the original door hardware and fixtures, while original crown molding from a hallway was reproduced and copied throughout the house.

Even the new plumbing is time period. Several marble sinks were brought in from a hotel of the same time period to keep up appearances. Touches like this are ever present, from the hand-stamped wall paper in the formal dining room to the silver safe in the kitchen.

A new addition, which includes a gourmet kitchen, breakfast room and family room, was built to match the rest of the home, she said. The floors were made with wood from Civil War-era tobacco barns and converted gas lamps from the 1900s were used for the lighting fixtures. A wine cellar and two fireproof safes are on the lowest level of the main house.

It's a gorgeous property that most likely never looked this good when Southmayd owned it and filled it with monochromatic rooms and Victorian furniture.


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