MC: Who have been some of the key board members over the years?
PF: Of course Mary Flynn was a driving force with Laurel Hill. She was the first woman president of Laurel Hill. It took that many years. Her first tenure was in the 1970s. She kept the flame really burning and was an adamant supporter of the organization. Other people who made impressions on me were, number one Jeff Parsons, who was second chair at the SALT II talks in Sweden for the United States. He made a comment in one of the meetings that has stuck with me ever since, and that is that the Laurel Hill Association is for the whole town of Stockbridge, not just the village center, but for the whole town including Glendale and Interlaken, and not to forget that. And I’ve always held that as one of the mantras for the organization.
Another person was Edgar Taft. He was instrumental in supervising the inspection and repainting of the Goodrich Memorial Bridge in the early 1990’s. There was a humorous incident…when it had been painted, he declared that it was a “lovely shade of mud.”
President Rush Taggart was not necessarily good at holding meetings, but he spent literally hours and days and weeks at the registry researching the deeds on all of the Laurel Hill properties and did a wonderful writeup of the properties up to that date.
Helen Pigott, who was an institution in Stockbridge, was also on the board. And Doug Goudey, who is now head of real estate for Wheeler and Taylor, was on the board for many years as treasurer, and contributed to the property handling and finances for Laurel Hill. So those are some of the people that stand out in my memory.
MC: Some of these names I recognize as trail names.
PF: Yes, and some of the benches. There’s an Edgar Taft bench and a Mary Flynn bench.
MC: What are the major aspects of the Laurel Hill Association?
PF: A couple of years back we held a little survey and asked people for one word that would describe Laurel Hill. We got two basic responses, one was “flowers”, because of the flowers that we plant in town in the summer. The other one was “trails”. So those, in the eyes of the public, are the things that they see and relate to for Laurel Hill. And that’s in direct response to the fact that we own close to 500 acres in the town of Stockbridge and those properties are all open to the public, with the exception of one.
The property acquisitions that we’ve had pretty much align with the centuries. In the 1800s were startup properties. Our first acquisition was Laurel Hill Park itself, then Railroad Station Park, and Goodrich Park, which is the parking and trailhead at the Goodrich Memorial Bridge. Mary Hopkins Goodrich founded the organization and called everybody in town to help clean up the town.
There was no municipal government as we think of it today at that time in 1853. The sidewalks were pretty much non-existent, the roads were horrible, there weren’t many trees, cows were roaming everywhere in the cemetery defecating everywhere, and brambles abounded. So she posted notices for people to meet on Laurel Hill and determine what could be done to help better the town and improve it. That’s when the Laurel Hill Association was born.
Over the years, it was a community based organization, in fact the first community-based improvement association in the United States. Over the years volunteers contributed to the improvement of the town, and over time municipal governments came into existence and took over some of the things that Laurel Hill initiated like trash clean up, lighting in town, improving sidewalks and streets, etc.
The next set of properties that we acquired in the 1900s were what I like to call legacy properties, which included the golf course properties, everything you see going across Main Street is Laurel Hill owned, The Sedwick Reservation, which has Laura’s Tower and now the Mary Flynn Trail, and Upper and Lower Bowker’s Woods, which were a gift of R.R. Bowker, who was one of the co-founders of the American Library Association. And Roeder Park over at the junction of 183 and the Glendale Middle Road, and the Rockwell Museum Grant, and Shamrock Woods, given by Mary Flynn, who always wanted to see those two acres across from her house on Shamrock Street green. She didn’t want it to be developed in any way.
Then in the 2000s the concentration was on protecting the entrances to town. The late Peter A.A. Berle, who was a past president of the American Audubon Society, approached Laurel Hill. I believe he was the president of the Stockbridge Land Trust at that time. He wanted to preserve the entrances to town and that’s when the two organizations went together 50/50 to purchase what is now the Chestnut Preserve between Route 7 south and the wetlands. We also collaborated on a 50/50 purchase of the Four Corners property and on the West Dale Preserve, which is part of the old Loveless property, from West Dale Road to the ridge and over to route 102.
Those three centuries of acquisitions divide out fairly nicely into those three groups of property purchases. Some of those properties have over the years been dormant from the standpoint that we haven’t done a lot with them. One of my Wish List items is to make those properties more accessible. One is Upper Bowker’s Woods which has Cinderella’s Pond across from the Rockwell Museum and another is a hidden gem that is the Pagenstecher Mill in Interlaken across from Train Hill Road and is historically significant in that it is the first pulp paper mill in the US. We’re just finishing a major restoration project for Laurel Hill Park, which is wonderful. We’ve removed an amazing amount of overgrowth that was blocking the wonderful soaring rocks and so people can enjoy these places. One of the current projects is to put property signs on those properties open to the public and have trails that are easily accessible. We’ve put in five signs in the last year and an interpretative sign in Laurel Hill Park, and more will be put in as we go along.
MC: Does making properties more accessible mean making trails where there are none?
PF: Yes, for Upper Bowker’s Woods we have laid out a short trail that will take you to the bench near Cinderella’s Pond and reopening the old logging road into that property will be an ideal spot for a nice hiking trail through the woods. That property is all flat and so will be handicap accessible.
MC: Who does the work?
PF: Sometimes we have volunteers help us, like every year before Laurel Hill Day, which we hold every year in August, volunteers help clearing the trails, raking, cleaning up. At times we’ve had the Greenagers doing trail work. Putting in things like parking in Lower Bowker’s Woods; we’ll be putting parking in Upper Bowker’s Woods. That gets hired out to professionals to do that kind of work.
MC: How has the Laurel Hill Association evolved over the years and how is it moving forward?
PF: In the beginning of course it was a totally community volunteer organization. It has continued in that aspect but one of the current challenges is that many of the residents in town did not grow up here. Over the years more and more nonprofits have been established and are taking the resources, so we now have to share funding with other organizations. The residents who did not grow up here, did not go to school here at the Plain School and did not go up to play at Laurel Hill Park. The new residents are not aware of Laurel Hill. One of the current challenges is to get our name out there and compete with the other organizations in town. So after 167 years, we decided we needed to put in property signs on the more used properties and make people aware that we exist and who we are. So for the outreach in town in the last few years, we’ve held a couple of Friends’ events at the Taggart House to let people know that we exist. We hope they will help and support us. That’s been one of our challenges going forward. We hope to be a conduit for information so that we can develop some awareness and educational programs to get people to our properties to make them aware of some of the current issues that are coming along such as the protection of some of the trees that are undergoing stress from disease and promoting information about these projects and situations so that we can help the public be more aware of what’s going on and aware of Laurel Hill.
MC: So a lot of those are outreach and communications?
PF: Yes, outreach and communications and education. Not taking sides but fostering information gathering and dissemination.