Vol. IV No. 16 8/15/2023
Guest Editorial: Growing Up in Rockwell's Stockbridge
By Julie Blanchard Patton
Editor's note: This is a departure. It is a guest editorial double the usual length. It draws a picture, like a Rockwell, of a strong middle-class community in a safe and lovely place where children could strike out on their own, where one parent worked, and there wasn't any extra but there was enough. It was a place where people were happy to live. It is a picture of the character of Stockbridge.
Growing up in Norman Rockwell's idyllic village of Stockbridge didn't feel like I was in the heart of anything special nor in any way different from everyone else's hometown experience. That is, until I grew up and moved away.
Looking back to about fifty years ago, a typical non-school day would include hopping on our banana-seat bicycles and riding up Goodrich Street onto Route 7 over the railroad bridge and into town.
Mother's parting words were always, "Sidewalk only!"
One late summer, I recall pedaling past the longest line of cars I'd ever seen as they waited to fill their tanks at the gas station at the corner of Park and South Streets. I was too young to know anything about gas shortages or OPEC and U.S., but I recall it was one of the first times I thought about there being "more" happening in the world outside of Stockbridge. I'm sure the thought was fleeting. We pedaled on to the penny candy store on Main Street to make our important purchases.
From a kid's perspective, the people of Stockbridge all seemed self-sufficient. They were working their jobs in the mills, shops, schools, and trades to support their families, and then volunteered to create special traditions like the Halloween night torchlight walk through Ice Glen, the Firemen's Picnic at the Stockbridge Bowl boat ramp every summer, the Memorial Day parade down Main Street, the Garden Center autumn festival. It didn't seem like they needed, or cared much about, the outside world. They cared for and about their fellow Stockbridge neighbors. Stockbridge townspeople were part of the fond memories of those of us who were the beneficiaries of their "everyday efforts." For instance, that bicycle trip to town might have included picking up my parents' mail. It was a treat to be able to enter the secret mailbox code (back before they switched to keys), but also to be greeted by the friendly men with crewcuts behind the Post Office counter. I knew them because, in addition to their jobs, some were also volunteer firemen. I knew they would drop whatever they were doing to help one of their neighbors when that long, low fire siren sounded from the old firehouse on Elm Street, made famous by the Rockwell painting.
Once, I got a tour of the firehouse on a trip uptown to get the newspaper with my father. First, he let me select a soda from the Stockbridge Wine Cellar (which is now the adorable Sidetracks Gift Shop). My soda choice was "Purple Passion." It wasn't actually purple, just clear sugary soda in a can with a wavy purple, orange, and yellow volcano-like design. However, it seemed exotic, and I was growing more interested in things that weren't plain and simple.
Other townspeople who impacted our youth and helped glue the community together included the shopkeepers on Main Street, our teachers, coaches, and our town police officers, all of whom knew which kids belonged to which parents (and WE knew that THEY knew), so it was like a village of parents keeping us on "the sidewalk only!" and safe from harm.
There are things I miss about the town from those days — the little barber shop on Main Street. Mrs. Fitz's iron rule over the Red Lion Inn (RLI) and Country Curtains (where I worked summers). Stopping at the Stockbridge Pharmacy next to what is now the patisserie on Main Street. Sunday School at the First Congregational Church, and Gum Drop Square.
For a few years they made candy sculptures in the old firehouse in the late 70's. That was where I had my first job sorting candies into jars based on their colors. (Yes, candy was my vice...okay, it still is.)
Going out into the world after college and a career as an FBI agent, I can truly say that it takes about two sentences for people around the world to recognize Stockbridge. The conversation goes something like this:
"You know the James Taylor song 'Sweet Baby James' where he sings "on the snow-covered turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston?"
"You know the white-haired doctor in the Norman Rockwell painting that hangs in every doctor's office in America?"
"Yep, it's two hours from Boston and he was my doctor growing up and that's the town I'm from."
On a trip back to Stockbridge to visit my parents, I jogged into town and there in the crosswalk was our hometown police chief, still demonstrating professionalism and humility as he directed the hectic summer-tourism traffic in front of the Red Lion Inn. As I ran by him on the crosswalk with my music still blaring in my earbuds, we simply "high-fived" each other with no words exchanged, but with full recognition on my part that there was no other place on earth where that would've happened.
I realized then that decades had passed since I'd left, yet here was a little spot on earth where "coming home" meant I would forever be able to immerse myself in the comfort of seeing people whom I'd grown up with, and being allowed to step right back in. It is a place where people just go about their daily lives, but in doing so, have created a truly exotic, special experience which, to the contrary of my 10-year-old self's belief, is NOT like the experience of everyone else's hometown.
Julie enjoying breakfast at the Main Street Cafe. Photo: Patrick White