'Turning Points': Chronicling a city that hasn't stood still

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Buoyed by the success of last year's 10x10 Upstreet Arts Festival exhibit, the Berkshire Historical Society returns to the Berkshire Athenaeum with "Turning Points," a display of panels and artifacts that takes a new look at Pittsfield's past through words, photographs and objects.

Each of the 10 display panels covers a roughly 25-year time period and is designed to look like a newspaper's front page, complete with a masthead that changes with the times. It runs from Feb. 15 through Feb. 25 in the main reading room.

The "stories" highlight significant turning points in the city's history, from its founding in 1761 to the present day, and cover major developments and events, both local and national, that affected Pittsfield and its residents, as well as key elements of local lore. The rise and fall of GE, author Herman Melville and his masterpiece "Moby-Dick," the restoration of the Colonial Theatre and even the grand old Park Square elm tree all take their place in this paean to Pittsfield.

Creating the exhibit was a collaborative effort by Will Garrison, Berkshire Historical Society executive director, and Kathy Reilly, the Berkshire Athenaeum's local history collections supervisor.

"We started planning this last fall," said Garrison.

Displayed alongside the panels are artifacts from the Berkshire Historical Society and Berkshire Athenaeum's local history collections, including William Stanley's drafting set, a box from England Brothers, a wooden mill shuttle, an early Bousquet tow rope invention and a souvenir tankard made from the old elm.

Garrison mined the Berkshire Historical Society's 7,000-item database — and his memory — to find objects of interest with particular Pittsfield provenance.

John Dickson, Berkshire Historical Society board member and volunteer, researched, wrote and designed the display panels. A retired State Department diplomat and former history teacher, Dickson had previously created a Civil War exhibit and authored "Berkshire County's Industrial Heritage," a vintage photo book on local mills. He has also written a thesis on the restoration of the original Berkshire Athenaeum building.

Dickson looked at old newspapers and their different mastheads from each era.

"Kathy Reilly showed me an early paper called The Western Star," he noted, "and another one in the early 1800s called The Pittsfield Sun."

Early Berkshire Eagle variants included The Berkshire County Eagle and The Berkshire Evening Eagle.

Commenting on a Western Star front page he viewed on microfiche, Dickson said he "was astounded how people in the 1750s were reading about ports in Lima, Peru and activities in Germany."

"The reading public was worldly in a part of the country that was really frontier," he said. "It was amazing to me."

As existing books about Pittsfield's history only go up to 1955, so Dickson had to gather and distill information for the remaining panels with help from Garrison and Reilly.

"Will is a walking encyclopedia of local history and so is Kathy," he acknowledged. "They are two great resources in the area."

Research has shown, Dickson said, that people approach the past selectively through their personal connections — family history, genealogy or something that happened to them.

"I don't think we know our history well enough," he said.

His panels sport titles such as "Building Pittsfield," a look at water and rail development and immigrants; "Fighting Pittsfield," covering the Civil War; and "Transforming Pittsfield" during the time of Stanley.

The panel from 1925 to 1950 documents Pittsfield's new high school and its first black teacher; the end of Prohibition; and the migration of workers from shuttered textile factories to then burgeoning GE. It also recognizes the loss of local servicemen in World War II and the contributions area industries made to the war effort.

The final panel, "Reinventing Pittsfield," from 2000 to the present day, looks at re-imagining the city for the modern era — something Dickson said has been done once or twice before.

Even in challenging times, he observed, "as a city, we haven't stood still."

"The past is a story, and sometimes it's more interesting than fiction."

If you go:

What: "Turning Points" an exhibit by the Berkshire Historical Society and Berkshire Athenaeum, part of the 10x10 Upstreet Arts Festival

Where: Berkshire Athenaeum, 1 Wendell Ave., Pittsfield, MA

When: Thursday to Sunday, Feb. 15-25, 2018 during library open hours.

Admission: Free

Information: www.berkshirehistory.org www.pittsfieldlibrary.org


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