Lenox was slow to be settled. It was 1750 before Jonathan Hinsdale and others arrived. His daughter Rhoda was the first child born in Lenox, still called Yokuntown at that time.
Lenox held its first town meeting in 1767. It was a town of farmers, traders, merchants and innkeepers. Lenox participated actively in the Revolutionary War. In 1774 Colonel Paterson already represented Lenox before the Royal Governor of Massachusetts. As Brigadier General he helped lead the way to victory in 1776.
It was 1761 when Berkshire County was incorporated and received its own court system based in Great Barrington. During the war the courts were adjourned and resumed after the war under the new state Constitution. Centrally located Lenox was chosen as the new site in 1784. A courthouse and a jail were built and functioned from 1787. For 81 years Lenox was the county seat. When court was in session this small town grew in importance and sophistication. The Court and the Old Red Inn (now the Curtis) made the center of Lenox a bustling place full of activity. As the Shiretown Lenox’s population and business grew. There was need for a new larger meeting house. Church on the Hill was completed by 1806. At that time church and state were not yet divided, a man had to be a member of the “established” church to vote.
It was 1770 before a schoolmaster was hired. But by 1803 the Lenox Academy was established by local citizens and provided excellent high school education under the legendary Mr. Hotchkin (taught 1823-47) which attracted students from long distances and made Lenox known far beyond the immediate community. Mrs. Charles Sedgwick in her “school for young ladies” educated girls from New York and Boston, for almost half a century. Her husband, Charles Sedgwick, the Clerk of courts was a member of the large Sedgwick family from Stockbridge and New York. His charming family attracted their many friends to Lenox. At the same time train travel made Lenox much more accessible and suddenly Lenox was “discovered” by famous and wealthy residents of Boston and New York in the mid 1800s who were reminded of the beauty of Switzerland by the views, fields and forests of the Berkshire Hills.
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote “The House of Seven Gables” while living in a little red cottage just outside of town. The cottage is actually in Stockbridge, but Hawthorne walked two miles daily to the Lenox post office to get his mail. Hawthorne’s series of children’s stories, “Tanglewood Tales,” were inspired by the name of the neighboring estate. Herman Melville, Fanny Kemble and so many others found their way to Lenox.
George Inness was encouraged by Vent Fort owner Ogden Haggerty to paint the Berkshire countryside.
Hawthorne’s cottage was rebuilt and is used for practice rooms by Tanglewood in the summer. In 1845, Samuel Gray Ward, the Boston banker who later was to finance the U.S. purchase of Alaska, built a summer home near Hawthorne’s cottage. Ward told his friends back in Boston about the beautiful Berkshire countryside and the mild summer weather. Soon, many of them were joining him as summer, or even year-round residents. By the late 1800s, Lenox and Stockbridge were booming as the summer homes of many of the country’s elite. The peak building years in Lenox were from the1880’s to 1920’s. Houses came and went as styles superseded each other and increasing wealth generated larger and larger mansions on the most prominent peaks. They were called cottages, in some way they invoked the more informal country life that they loved in Lenox in contrast to the increasing formality of New York, Boston and Newport. The most magnificent of them all was Shadowbrook, built for railroad baron Anson Phelps Stokes on 900 acres at the edge of Lenox and Stockbridge. For a short time, until George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore, it was one of the largest homes in North America. Andrew Carnegie later bought the house, and died there in 1919. It became a Jesuit Novitiate and unfortunately burned in 1956. Kripalu Yoga center now occupies the site.
The Gilded Age ended in the early twentieth century after WWI, the income tax, the stock market crash, working opportunities in industry that made servants very scarce and so many other reasons, made it impossible for the “cottagers” to maintain their huge summer homes in the Berkshires. Several of the cottages were converted to hotels, health centers and schools.
Two gilded age cottages in Lenox are open for public tours: Ventfort Hall, the 1893 Morgan summer home and The Mount, the 1902 cottage, built by novelist Edith Wharton. Both have undergone considerable restoration to bring them back to their former grandeur and continue to do so. Also in Lenox Shakespeare and Company and The Scenic Railway add to the multilayered cultural atmosphere that began so long ago.
A new era for Lenox and the Berkshires began in the 1930s, when music lovers began sponsoring symphonic concerts in the summer months. In 1937, the Boston Symphony Orchestra began offering concerts at its new summer home, the “Tanglewood” estate between Lenox and Stockbridge. A year later, the orchestra inaugurated its huge new concert hall, the “Shed.” In the succeeding decades, Tanglewood has become famous as one of the world’s leading music festivals, attracting more than 300,000 listeners each summer. Many other summer arts festivals, featuring theater, music and dance, have joined in making the Berkshires the summer cultural capital of the Northeast United States.