Lenox, Massachusetts From "Howling Wilderness" to High Society Haven

Unlike many notable New England towns, Lenox, Massachusetts does not have a coastline. Nevertheless, it was once a prized destination of the rich and famous. Nestled in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, known to some as “The American Lake District,” the town even now maintains its sense of distinction, privilege and cultural eminence.

Rough Beginnings

Now known for being the location of Tanglewood—the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra— Lenox, which rests along the HousatonicRiver, was once not known at all. Its beginnings were rocky, and for many years after the first European settlements, the Berkshire area remained untouched by anyone but the native Mahican Indians. One Albany-to-Boston through-traveler in 1694 described the region as “a hideous, howling wilderness.”

Times do change, however. In 1750, Jonathan and Sarah Hinsdale must have seen a glimmer of this diamond in the rough, because they opened an inn and general store there. The Hinsdales were the first Europeans to settle in Lenox, but others soon followed suit. Typical industries of the time eventually found their place there: farming, textiles, and sawmills. Upon the discovery of a significant veinof iron ore underground, mining and ironworks, as well as potash quarries and glassworks, also thrived. For a time, Lenox was the county seat in the area, though it lost that status to Pittsfield in 1868.

In spite of the heavy industry and the earlier unfavorable traveler reviews, tastes change, too, and nineteenth century artists and entrepreneurs became aware of the beauty of Lenox and its surrounding areas. Nathaniel Hawthorne spent some time in the area, and Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick in nearby Pittsfield. It was Samuel Gray Ward, the banker who eventually funded the purchase of Alaska, who truly initiated the influx of the cultural elite to the town. He built Highwood, a vast estate there, and soon many others followed in his wake, including British actress Fannie Kemble and, later, novelist Edith Wharton. The wealthy Tappan family acquired Highwood some time later. Such newcomers understatedly called these lavish homes “cottages,” and the so-called “Cottage Era” got well under way.

A Glittering Jewel

With such an influx of high society, it is not surprising that Lenox still boasts some impressive and beautiful architecture. Though the cottages no longer belong to single families, the properties have not gone to waste. The Tappan family’s estate was converted into a concert venue and summer study center, Tanglewood, for the BSO. Shakespeare and Company has taken advantage of Wharton’s estate for its own artistic uses.

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