Visit to Herman Melville’s Arrowhead provides a 19th century farm experience

The Berkshires was home to a number of 19th-century novelists, notably Herman Melville, author of many novels, notably Moby Dick, Typee and The Confidence Man, as well as short stories including Bartleby the Scrivener and Benito Cereno. Melville’s home and farm, Arrowhead, is a popular stop for visitors to the area, and is easy to reach from the main highway linking Lenox and Pittsfield. The restored house is a fascinating museum that showcases the backdrop for Melville’s most important years as a writer and provides a glimpse of New England farmhouse life in the mid 19th century.

Born in 1819 in New York, Melville’s family moved to Albany in 1830 after his merchant father went bankrupt. As a young man, he worked on merchant ships and whaling vessels, as well as a stint in the U.S. Navy. In 1844, he settled back in Albany with his young family and began to write. His brother owned a farm near Pittsfield, which Melville visited in 1850. He fell in love with the area and that year purchased an adjacent farm, which he soon named Arrowhead after discovering aboriginal artefacts while ploughing the land. He lived, farmed and wrote at Arrowhead for 13 year

In 1863, Melville sold Arrowhead to his brother and neighbour and moved to New York to focus on generating more revenue for his work, although he continued to visit Arrowhead for the rest of his life. He died in 1891. The Melville family owned Arrowhead until 1927. In 1975, the Berkshire County Historical Society purchased the house and began its restoration.

Guided tours of Arrowhead are available from late May until late October. Admission is $13 for adults and $8 for students and children. The 45-minute tour begins at various intervals between 10 am and 4 pm daily, and takes you through the various rooms of the house, as well as several outbuildings. Private tours can be arranged earlier in the spring.

The house is furnished with pieces that had belonged to Melville or were similar to what was in place at the time. A highlight is Melville’s study, where he wrote Moby Dick (originally published under the title The Whale) and his later novels and short stories, as well as articles for periodicals. The view out the study window of Mount Greylock to the north was an inspiration to him, as its rolling humps seemed to him to resemble a huge whale swimming on the surface of the sea. The study provided a refuge from his large family (wife Lizzie and four children, as well as his mother and his three sisters). He dedicated his next novel, Pierre, to Mount Greylock. His short story, The Piazza, begins at Arrowhead and takes a journey to the mountain.

The tour includes the adjacent barn that houses an exhibit hall, including agricultural equipment used in Melville’s time. The barn also is used for plays depicting life in the Berkshires in the 19th century. There is also an exhibit on the region’s rich textiles-industry heritage. Arrowhead is the base of the Berkshire Historical Society, with extensive archives and a library on site. The Society has a small exhibit at the post office in nearby Pittsfield.

Agriculture is an important component of a visit to Arrowhead. A self-guided tour of the grounds is available, which include a small working farm is part of the 160-acre property, featuring organic produce and heritage-bred chickens and goats. Heritage breeding was a pre-industrial-era method that allowed farm animals to thrive under specific local conditions. Animal types were selected for traits that made them self-sufficient, such as good foraging ability, predator awareness, parenting skills, longevity and disease resistance. The farm modest output of eggs, meat and dairy products complement the varieties of vegetables grown there, and produce compost used to improve the fertility of the farm’s soil. Natural methods are used to maintain the animals’ health, including a balanced, pesticide and GMO-free diet, lots of fresh air and exercise and daily attention from the farmer.

Directions and contact information: Berkshire Historical Society 780 Holmes Rd., Pittsfield, MA (off U.S. 7, 9 miles north of Lee, Ma, and I-90 exit 2) / 413-442-1793

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