Ventfort Hall, at 104 Walker St. was built by George and Sarah Morgan as their summer home. It is an imposing Jacobean Revival mansion that typifies the Gilded Age in Lenox. Sarah, the sister of J. Pierpont Morgan, purchased the property in 1891, and hired Rotch & Tilden, prominent Boston architects, to design the house.
It replaced an earlier house named Ventfort on the same location.
The original Ventfort was owned by the Ogden Haggerty family of Boston. Their daughter, Annie Haggerty Shaw, married Robert Gould Shaw, who led the Mass 54th (the first African American regiment as portrayed in the film “Glory,”) during the Civil War.
Now on 11.7 acres, Ventfort Hall was originally the centerpiece of a large landscaped garden of 26 acres. The mansion, constructed of brick with brownstone trim, has an impressive porte cochère covering the entrance while the rear of the house, which once had a long view to the south of the Stockbridge Bowl and Monument Mountain, has a wood veranda along its entire length. Described at the time of its completion as “one of the most beautiful places in Lenox,” the house had “28 rooms, including 15 bedrooms, 13 bathrooms and 17 fireplaces.” Typical of the period, the interior features a soaring three-story great hall and staircase with wood paneling detailing. Other rooms include an elegant salon, paneled library, a dining room, a billiard room and bowling alley. It was designed with all the latest modern amenities, numerous ingeniously ventilated bathrooms, combined gas and electric light fixtures, an elevator, burglar alarms and central heating. The property contained several outbuildings, including two gatehouses, a carriage house/stable and six greenhouses. After the deaths of both Sarah and George Morgan, the house was rented for several years to a young widow, Margaret Vanderbilt, whose husband, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, had died on the Lusitania. In 1925, W. Roscoe and Mary Minturn Bonsal purchased the house after seven years as tenants. Bonsal, a prominent figure in the expansion of railroads throughout the southeast, built the first cross-state railroad in Florida and served as president and treasurer of the North & South Carolina Railway and the South Carolina Western Railway. After the Bonsals sold Ventfort hall in 1945, the house had a series of owners and was used as a dormitory for Tanglewood students, a summer hotel, the Fokine Ballet Summer Camp and housing for a religious community. In the mid-1980s the property was sold to a nursing home developer who wanted to demolish the building.
In response to this threat, a local preservation group, The Ventfort Hall Association (VHA), was formed in 1994. On June 13, 1997, with the help of many private donations and loans, and with a five-year loan from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, VHA purchased the property and has extensively restored the façade, first and second floors.
More than 225 men from Lenox participated in the Revolutionary War and those they left at home sacrificed as well. So there was no shortage of heroes from Lenox. However several stand out — particularly Major General John Paterson.
John Paterson was born in 1744 in New Britain, CT (then called Farmington) of another John Paterson who died of yellow fever while fighting for England in the Carribean. His ancestors are said to have fled from Scotland to escape the tyranny of James II.
Son John graduated at age 18 from Yale in 1762 – the same year his father died in Havana. He came home to settle his father’s estate, look after his mother and sisters and study law. He became a justice of the peace shortly after he started practicing law and supplemented his income by teaching school. He married Elizabeth Lee, also of Farmington, in 1766.
It is not clear why John Paterson moved his family (including his father in law) to Lenox in 1774 but here’s what his biographer and grandson has to say (page 7 The Life of John Paterson):
“It may have been that among the people living there was a General Joseph Paterson, whose name appears on the town records of Lenox as early as January, 1765, or it may have been his desire to be on the frontier. He became at once identified with the interests of that town, and his abilities as a leader of men were soon recognized. Almost as soon as he arrived he was chosen Clerk of the Propriety.”
This would be the first of a lifetime of civic responsibilities assumed by John Paterson in Lenox and in his future home in New York. In July 1774 he represented Lenox at the Berkshire convention to discuss the non-importation agreement and to the state government meeting in Salem under the auspices of the Committees of Correspondence — and in protest of the royal government.
By April 20th, 1775, news of the Battles of Lexington and Concord had come to Lenox via express couriers who had ridden all night. Paterson and the recruits he had assembled from Lenox and the rest of the county were ready — by the next morning they were armed, equipped and on their way to Boston. They may have been responding to an earlier alarm – but they had certainly been prepared to carry out their role as Minute Men led by John Patterson.
The development of New England towns explains much about their current form. Massachusetts towns, including Lenox, have unique compactness not seen in other areas. Although the design included religious elements, it also foreshadowed developments in both populist democracy and modern capitalism.
The original Puritan settlers of Massachusetts had come, in many cases, from town living in England. More importantly, community worship was a critical component of their religion. And, as a practical matter, an exchange of services was essential for harvesting, childbirth, etc. Also, although unstated, small populations provided the opportunity to keep an eye on your fellow residents.
A key component of what was allowed/encouraged was that each town was to have access to community worship. Generally this meant town boundaries would rarely exceed six miles square, and that towns were not granted the rights of a town until they had settled 50-60 families.
Early Towns Stressed Equality
Also, Puritanism was theoretically somewhat communal and otherworldly. Allegedly they were members of the elect who were to be focused on the next world such that display of wealth in this world would have been inappropriate.
The earliest towns were almost socialistic in distributing land based on family size. By the time Lenox was founded much of the Puritan influence would have faded but the bias toward equality in town design lingered. Initial lots were to be of sufficient size to maintain a family, and often there was a ceiling on how much one family would occupy. This was also practical since (other than some parts of the Connecticut River Valley) the hilly, wooded lands were hard to clear and did not lend themselves to mass, single crop planting. This equalitarian town design was in contrast to the direct grants of large estates found in New York and most other colonies.
Settlement Encourage for Defense and Income
The Massachusetts Bay Company (and later the Royal Governor) would grant entitlement to settle a new area to person or group of people with enough wealth or motivation to increase the odds of success. The Puritan (and later royal) English governing bodies would have been motivated to settle new areas to turn raw land into a base for taxation and trade and for defense against Indians and European rivals,
Set up expenses might include surveying, buying land from the Indians – in some cases paying settlers or giving land away, in some cases (as in Lenox) paying the Puritan Proprietorship (later royal government), etc. Often (and this was true in Lenox) some of the acerage of the prospective town would have been purchased by or awarded to absentee investors.
The original proprietors (who often became influential in the affairs of the new town) would make profit later when undistributed lands were sold — presumably at a much higher value when surrounding an established village. Initial investors would have had allocations of undeveloped/unsold equal to their initial investment. Population was exploding and in an agricultural/commodity based economy, land was wealth. As a result, new proprietorships were something like a modern IPO, even people of modest means wanted to get in on the ground floor to get a piece of the initial allocation – hopefully enough to not only support their current family but to have enough to set up their sons from unallocated lands. Some proprietors (as was the case in Lenox) were buying land purely for investment, others were buying to settle. In some proprietary structures, hard-working settlers could get in on this highly desirable ground floor simply by showing up and meeting the requirements to clear land, build a shelter and contribute to hiring a minister and other communal goals–think employee #2 options in modern entrepreneurship. In the early days, proprietors would vote on who could become a new resident both for financial and religious reasons. By the time Lenox was founded the requirements to be accepted for residency were less stringent and generally were just to prove you wouldn’t become a burden to the town.
Towns Investment Opportunities
In some cases these proprietors/investors were on the general court or other government bodies granting charters and were on the lookout for investment opportunities (apparently conflict of interest had yet to be invented). They might be wealthy individuals (see Moving West -William Pynchon) or, much like today’s serial entrepreneurs, holders of unsold land in multiple towns or potential town sites, This was true of several of the proprietors of Lenox – several of whom also appear as proprietors in Stockbridge, Great Barrington, or Pittsfield.
Some early town proprietorships were more communal or religious (i.e. Stockbridge or some towns in Connecticut established by religious groups who disagreed with the Puritan hierarchy in the Massachusetts Bay Colony). Some new towns were formed, much like a modern co-op, when available land had run out in an existing town and a group split off to en mass move to and form a new town.
However, they came together, these initial proprietors (both resident and non resident) had, like a modern corporation decisions to make about roads, unsold lands, approval of new settlers, building the required meeting house, etc. So, the original town meetings would have been more like a shareholders meeting – and voting would have been limited to investors.
By the time Lenox was founded the functions of town management (of concern to all residents) and land division (of concern to the investor/owners (who might or might not be residents) had been separated and more clearly defined. The requirements to participate in these discussions and decisions about town management changed over time. Early towns limited town meetings to investors, later to investors and members of the Church, later to large property owners who may or may not have been initial investors. Eventually town meetings became less focused on investors (who might have shareholder meetings separately) and became more focused on residents with the varying but limited restrictions on who should participate and voila – town meeting the most democratic form of government in America. The town form of government we know today was universal by the days of the early republic.
Although the Puritan influence had faded by the time Lenox was established Puritan influence had faded but the heritage is still visible in the size and layout of the town. All the other elements of the settlement mix – government sale, previous claims, ambitious settlers with limited funds, town/family groups, and pure capitalist profit motives were at work by the time the Richmond/Lenox land deal came together.
Profits in the Wilderness, Entrpreneurship and the Founding of New England Towns in the Seventeenth Century, by John Frederic Martin, The Omohundro Instituute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia by the University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill & London, 1991
American History 1690-1740 Provincial America, by Evarts Boutelle Greene
New England’s Generation, The Great Migration and the Formation of Culture and Society in the Seventeenth Century, Virginia DeJohn Anderson, Cambridge University Press, 1991
So much of Lenox history is driven by the characteristics – good and bad – of our landscape that the origins of our hills seems the place to start a timeline. This writer knows next to nothing about plate tectonics, Pre Cambrian eras and the lost continent of Pangaea, but fortunately these are others who devote their lives to these topics and write about them in a moderately understandable way. It turns out that the foundations of the Berkshires – the foundations that gave us marble, iron ore, granite, and some of our mountains and bodies of water – are the result of colliding, floating continents and all kinds of other geological excitement .
Millions and Billions of Years
Geological time: it’s long. To try to grasp geological time a standard comparison is to imagine the age of Earth as a single day; then dinosaurs appear after 10:30 at night and humans at one and a half minutes before midnight.
The punch line of this story is that mineral deposits have been found in Boston that are similar to those of the west coast of Africa. These would have been laid down about 600 million years ago (Pre-Cambrian/ Cambrian Era). Similar anomalies had been found since the 19th century, but the explanation, although logical in a sci-fi kind of way, did not become generally accepted until the 1960’s. The continents had moved…and they used to be attached to each other!
This continental drift has to do with the composition of various layers of the earth’s crust and of polar magnetism pulling on the iron ore in land masses. Over millions of years, what we know as continents today have drifted through different climates, crashed into each other and pulled apart. The theory is that all our current continents were once part of a mega-continent called Pangaea clumped down at the current South Pole.
For part of the life of that mega continent Africa was tucked up into what is now the American east coast. Among many other tears and collisions of land masses, the Africa/ America portion drifted northward , crossing the equator and pulling apart about 66 million years ago with us curving northwest and Africa curving southeast.
The Impact of Continental Changes on the Current Massachusetts/New York Area What did our little corner of the world look like as the continents were morphing into their current place and shape? According to a summary put together by Lincoln Dexter in 1979 , the Berkshires were once close to being ocean front property. In the Cambrian era – 500-600 million years ago – most of Massachusetts was under a deep sea (limestone anyone?). The current locations of the Berkshires included active volcanoes belching fire, smoke and lava. Fossils associated with Africa and Europe have been found in the eastern part of the state but not in the western part indicating they were separated by a deep body of water. Later – 400 million years ago or so – the continents started to tear creating a rift approximately where the Connecticut River Valley is today. Later collisions raised highlands on either side of the rift. The earliest mineral deposits are not necessarily at the bottom of the Berkshires because of the continental tears and collisions mentioned above. Sound like preparing a croissant – folding layers over layers. There have been, over the millennia, several ranges of high volcanic peaks that got crumbled against each other and shoved west forming parallel ranges –including the Taconics and Berkshires. Wind, erosion and lots of ice wore the peaks down to the modest hills we see today.