Judge Dewey’s old house makes Smithsonian

I was delighted to see that Great Barrington was featured in Smithsonian Magazine, which is always placed with National Geographic, New York Magazine, and The New Yorker in the Chartocks’ reading room.

I love this magazine because it has such interesting subjects. A month or so back, I was sitting at my desk at WAMC when the phone rang and a perfectly lovely voice asked if I would care to comment on the qualities of my hometown. Having been around for quite a while and knowing that my words would have about the same likelihood of being included as the proverbial snowflake in July, I told her that Roselle and I loved Great Barrington because it is a small, manageable, economically and ethnically mixed town. I also mentioned that we lived in a house built by Judge Justin Dewey, whose claim to fame was that he was the presiding judge in the Lizzie (“took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks”) Borden trial.

After our few minutes on the phone, I didn’t give the conversation another thought until the author called back, saying that her editor wanted a fact checked on the Justin Dewey part of my quote. I went a little further than the first time, assuring her that while it was true that the judge had built the house for his three daughters, we don’t believe he actually ever lived there. Since we weren’t around in the early 1900s (though some of my students suspect I was), that’s all we knew.

A while back, Roselle, always the historian, decided that our entrance hall should boast a picture of the judge. We couldn’t find one, so Roselle called Bernard “Bernie” Drew, a phenomenal repository of town history, and asked if he could help. As usual, Bernie came through with a tiny picture of the judge that had appeared in a town report.

The enterprising Roselle had it blown up about 500 (maybe 100) times and framed. And there he sits, a bearded, prosperous looking man who magisterially surveys the house that he built.

Nonetheless, there must have been something in my words that made the Smithsonian people nervous, so they changed my quote to say that we proudly lived in a house once owned by “one of the judges in the Lizzie Borden trial.” In other words, Judge Dewey didn’t make the cut. That’s a shame considering the fact that he might, in fact, be looking down on us.

His daughters, one of whom had cutting gardens across Hollenbeck Avenue and across Sumner Street, will also be displeased. Another daughter taught folks of refinement how to play the piano. If you listen real hard at night in our house, you can hear the sounds of her playing. She, too, will not be happy at the manner in which Papa was dissed. The third daughter went to Washington to practice law.

The Smithsonian writer really did capture the spirit and quality of the town. In fact, Great Barrington was named the No. 1 small town in America.

Well, no sooner did the article appear than it made the rounds, particularly on the enterprising local listserv that we subscribe to (“I need a ride to Albany,” “Who’s the best roofer?”). I’m not on the list often, but when one funny guy made the point that “the Hill didn’t get enough attention,” I wrote back saying that one distinguished house on the Hill was mentioned. I know I shouldn’t have done it. I couldn’t help myself. That kind of competitiveness comes from having an identical twin. When I ran into another listserv member, an outstanding therapist, I confessed that I was a bad person. She kindly responded that I wasn’t necessarily bad, just “complicated.”

So that’s how I came to be quoted in the Smithsonian Magazine and the story of Judge Justin Dewey and how he came to build our house which, after all, is why our house made the cut.

Originally publishedin the Berkshire Eagle, 4/21/12

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