By the time the yellow school buses are making their rounds again, two colorful trolleys from Illinois will be parked somewhere in North Adams, awaiting the chance to carry tourists up, down, and around our steep roads in search of museums, art galleries, historic houses and neighborhoods, and the natural wonders of North Berkshire. What will we show them?
In July, my wife and I took our first Elderhostel vacation. For six days, we dined and lodged at Campobello, an island in New Brunswick, just off the coast of Lubec, Maine, about seven hours north of Boston. Campobello is the home of an international park co-owned by Canada and the USA, and it is also the location of the famous cottage where Franklin D. Roosevelt and his family spent many summers, mostly in the years prior to his presidency. Our room was in a lovely house near FDR’s sprawling 34-room bungalow, where he enjoyed a gorgeous view of the Bay of Fundy from his porch, but where he also first became afflicted with polio.
The area is remote, with no shopping centers and few cultural events. The closest city of any size is Bangor, and that’s a couple of hours away. Had we just booked a motel and driven up there, it is likely that we would have looked around for a day or so, gotten bored, and then headed south to Bar Harbor or Portland.
Our Elderhostel hosts had plenty for us to do. We enjoyed several interesting lectures about the Roosevelts, one in which the speaker played some recordings of FDR’s famous fireside chats. And, of course, we visited the Roosevelt cottage.
We took advantage of the natural beauty of the island by strolling with a botanist on a boardwalk through a bog chock full of unfamiliar (to us) plants, flowers and trees. After this delightful lesson about the ecosystem, we visited several beaches and a lighthouse, and learned about the spectacular tides in the Bay of Fundy (they rise and fall an amazing 30 feet every six hours). One morning in Lubec, we boarded a beautiful, red-sailed 80-foot schooner, and trekked about for three hours on the bay.
On another day, we took a bus to Cutler, Maine, a tiny village where lobster fishing has been the principle vocation for more than a 100 years. We stopped at the local church and had fun listening to two retired lobster fishermen tell engaging and funny stories about life in the town. These men, both in their late 80s, obviously enjoyed being in the spotlight. Later, they joined us for a lunchtime lobster feast in the church basement, hopping from table to table to lend a hand to amateur lobster eaters who struggled to pull the soft meat from the hard shells.
After lunch, we were greeted by a woman who introduced herself as Eleanor Roosevelt, and she convincingly portrayed the late first lady with a moving monologue about her life. The afternoon concluded on a pier in Cutler’s charming harbor, with a show-and-tell presentation by a young lobster fisherman, complete with live lobsters and buckets of smelly herring.
On the final day, we spent the morning in Lubec at a privately-owned museum dedicated to the history of the sardine canning industry, which once prospered in the area. In a modest roadside building, we saw hundreds of antique industrial machines and tools, dozens of sardine cans from various companies that had its products packed in Maine; and we were treated to a demonstration of how workers (mostly women and children) made cans in factories with dangerous working conditions.
The casual visitor or tourist will probably miss most of what we saw. Elderhostel had the good sense to seek out and show off the culture of these maritime towns by involving local people who are more than willing to talk about a way of life of which they are very proud. And by hiring these people, Elderhostel performed a great service to the community.
As we contemplate where we will take tourists on the trolleys, we can learn a valuable lesson from Elderhostel. North Adams and the surrounding area have many of the same kinds of potential attractions as Campobello and Downeast Maine. We have natural beauty: Windsor Lake, Natural Bridge, and panoramic views from a variety of locations.
We have our own cultural legacy: cotton mills, shoe mills, Hunter Machine, and Sprague Electric. And we have many local people with a rich immigrant heritage who would love the opportunity to tell tourists about their work in the mills, their lives during the Great Depression and World War II, and about the businesses and activities that filled Main Street in North Adams in its heyday.
Imagine if we treated tourists to a moderately priced lunch at one of our churches, while some of our former Sprague workers talked and answered questions about their experiences. Other locals could provide a similar service at the North Adams Museum of History and Science, a wonderful asset that the city should strongly promote and keep open every day during the summer. And our senior citizens will prove to be enthusiastic and endearing tour guides. So will many of our schoolchildren, who could be trained as tour guides as part of an ongoing Community Service Learning program. Everyone will benefit from that.
It is hard for most North Adams citizens to consider their city as a tourist attraction. After all, to them, it’s just “home.” But to visitors, it has the potential to be more than a curiosity. I know, because I have witnessed this first hand. For the past three years, I have been a frequent lecturer for MCLA’s Elderhostel program. In the space of about 90 minutes, I provide an overview of the city’s history, and I talk about the economic and cultural revival brought on by Mass MoCA.
More than half of the session is devoted to questions from the group. They never run out of questions before we run out of time. In fact, I usually stay for a while after the presentation to talk to people who want to know more. Last year, two Elderhostel couples from Boston offered to pay me to give them a walking tour of downtown. I took them up on it. We had a marvelous time. There are many more tourists out there who would jump at the chance.
Pretty soon, next summer will be around the corner. Before it’s too late, we should put on our thinking caps and take a trolley ride in our hometown and imagine ourselves as tourists. We might like it.