Bidwell Lore – Laurel Cottage and the Bidwell Connections

Welcome to week 77 of Bidwell Lore! This week we share one more article about Laurel Cottage, written by Rick Wilcox in April, 2014.

Laurel Cottage and the Bidwell Connections
by Rick Wilcox, April 1, 2014

On Wednesday, September 16, 1953, the Berkshire Evening Eagle published an Op-Ed article penned by Grace Bidwell Wilcox, titled The Ghosts of Laurel Cottage. As curator of the Stockbridge Library Historical Room and a Bidwell family member, it appeared to be a last-ditch effort on my grandmother’s part to herald the historical value of the house and diplomatically bemoan the lack of enthusiasm for its preservation. David Wood, a teacher, author of local history, and later Director of the Norman Rockwell Museum at the Old Corner House, joined in the effort, writing a piece for the St. Paul’s church newsletter.

It is not without some irony that the Town of Stockbridge, which harbors an incredible history, peopled with the famous and near famous, and matched by few towns of its size in New England, has failed on so many occasions to preserve the symbols of that history. The first home of Rev. John Sergeant, which later became the home of Rev. Jonathan Edwards at 23 Main Street, and Laurel Cottage, arguably two of the most historically important houses in Stockbridge, were victims of the wrecking ball. The house we know as Laurel Cottage and the ghosts with whom we want to hold a séance walked its halls from the 1760s to the 1950s. The house we have a picture of, minus those Victorian gothic projections off front and back, provides an excellent example of Queen Anne, Late Stuart, or Baroque architecture, a style that is best viewed by conjuring up an image of the Mission House.

The Mission House, a brown 18th Century Georgian Colonial, located in Stockbridge Massachusetts. From the front with gardens visible.
The Mission House in Stockbridge, today

Architecturally, Laurel Cottage was a house of many faces, but also a home to many people, and over the years a destination for many well-known visitors, and a witness to some of Stockbridge’s most important historical events. With my grandmother’s help, I hope to give you a brief introduction to some of those ghosts.
Laurel Cottage sat on what is now Bidwell Park on the east side of the Stockbridge town offices, not far back from Main Street. The land was taken by eminent domain for use as a school playground and Town Park and the site of Laurel Cottage was, some years later, the resting place for two tennis courts. There is no need to court your opinion on that fact, as you already know the net effect and you will be better served by what follows.
In the Op-Ed piece, my grandmother writes that the house was built sometime before the Revolutionary Period. David Wood wrote in the St. Paul’s newsletter that Joseph Woodbridge’s son, Jahleel Woodbridge, first owned the house. David Wood suggested the house was built sometime between 1761 and 1786, an opinion he appears to have formed based on similar architectural features found at the Mission House. What my grandmother did not share in the op-ed piece, but what she had handwritten into the margin of the version she had typed up, was that during the demolition of the house a brick marked 1740 was recovered.
With all due respect to my grandmother, I share the words of Arlo Guthrie: “Officer Obie I can not tell a lie, I put that envelope at the bottom of that pile of garbage.” Seems to me if a brick dated 1740 was found underneath the house there is a good chance that the house was built in 1740, or at least it was a brick in the foundation of an earlier house.  

Laurel Cottage, late 19th or early 20th century.

Joseph Woodbridge, brother of schoolmaster Timothy Woodbridge, was the head of one of the four families invited to settle in Stockbridge, to assist the missionary Rev. John Sergeant, and Timothy Woodbridge by providing an example of Christian living for the Stockbridge Indians. Joseph, with his family, came to Stockbridge in 1739.
Joseph Woodbridge’s son, Jahleel Woodbridge, graduated from Princeton in 1761, and married Lucy Edwards, daughter of the Rev. Jonathan Edwards. He became a judge of the probate court, a state senator, and in 1774 was a member of the county convention that met in Stockbridge. Woodbridge was captured by Shaysites in 1787 and hauled off to Great Barrington, an event retold by Edward Bellamy in his 1879 novel, The Duke of Stockbridge.
The house was next owned by Jahleel’s son, Joseph Woodbridge, Jr., born July 22, 1771. He was named after his grandfather Joseph Woodbridge and later found his life intertwined with that of Theodore Sedgwick and Barnabas Bidwell, weaving a tale of intrigue that involved President James Madison and the U.S. Supreme Court, but that’s a story for another day. Woodbridge, Jr., graduated from Dartmouth College in 1792, studied law with Judge Sedgwick, and was admitted to the bar in April 1796. He was married on May 25, 1800, to Louisa Hopkins, daughter of Mark Hopkins and Electa Sergeant Hopkins. Electa the daughter of the Rev. John Sergeant was the stepsister of Pamela Sedgwick. In 1803, Joseph Woodbridge succeeded Henry W. Dwight, Pamela Sedgwick’s brother, as Clerk of Courts, an office he held until 1821. Woodbridge died in 1829.
As mentioned by Bernie Drew last week, the next two owners of the house were the Rev. Caleb Hyde from 1833 until his death in 1838 and then Harriet Davidson, who married David Dudley Field, Jr., in 1841.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Stockbridge.

As we discussed here a few weeks ago, Field purchased the Jones farm on Sergeant Hill in 1864, renaming it Eden Hill and building a mansion there, allowing him to lease Laurel Cottage to St. Paul’s Church from 1865 to 1872 for use as a rectory, which was then occupied by the Rev. Henry Allen, son-in-law of the author Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose son Charles Stowe attended Edwards School on Main Street. Stowe and her husband, Dr. Calvin Stowe, were frequent visitors to Laurel Cottage.

The English poet Matthew Arnold, while summering at Laurel Cottage with his daughter, Mrs. Frederick W. Whitridge, wrote in August 1886, complaining about America in general and the weather in particular, but finding much else to like about Stockbridge: “Between 10 A.M. and 5 P.M. you can not go out comfortably, except along the village street, beautifully shaded with American Elms and maples. I like the Berkshires more and more. The Dome (Monument Mountain) is a really imposing and beautiful mass: I have seen it now from many points and in many lights, and with ever increasing admiration. A dear girl called Emily Tuckerman took Nelly and me to a river meadow yesterday where we could find the Cardinal flower.” My grandmother recalled having conversations with people who remembered seeing Matthew Arnold toting pails of water from the Housatonic River back to Laurel Cottage.

Emilia R. Field wrote that: “In 1893 Laura Belden Field, young Dudley Field’s wife, while occupying Laurel Cottage, had her father-in-law David Dudley Field, and Watson, his valet, staying with her, as the big house on the hill was still closed. This particular night she was awakened by something, and in the light of the moon saw a tall figure masked. The Gentleman Burglar of Stockbridge struck again. Laura Field was a particular favorite of David Dudley Field and armed with the knowledge that her favorite walk was climbing to the west end of Beartown Mountain he had a tower built and called it Laura’s Tower, on what became the Sedgwick Reservation and later a property of the Laurel Hill Association.

David Dudley Field died in 1894 and the property passed on to his daughter, Jeannie Lucinda Field, who married Sir Anthony Musgrave, acquiring the title Lady Musgrave. In 1906, she sold Laurel Cottage to her cousin, Charles Augustus Bidwell, for one dollar, asking only that he ship some of the Laurel Cottage furniture to England. A successful engineer, Bidwell’s family had, many years earlier, acquired Valley Gate, an estate near the South Lee line, from the Bennett family through Emeline Maria Bennett’s marriage to Lawson Bidwell. The Bennett family bought the land from Stockbridge Indians.

Bidwell was related by marriage to Lady Musgrave. His brother Lawson B. Bidwell was married to Henrietta Whitney Brewer, daughter of Rev. Josiah and Emelia Ann Field Brewer (sister of David Dudley Field, Jr.). His nephew James Lawson Karrick was married to Henrietta Louise Brewer, daughter of U.S. Supreme Court Justice David J. Brewer and his wife Louisa Landon, and granddaughter of Rev. Josiah and Emelia Ann Field Brewer. (As a child Rev. Josiah Brewer lived with Barnabas and Mary Bidwell at The Elms after the premature death of his father.) The Brewer wives’ ancestral grandmother was Theodosia Bidwell Brewer, wife of Eliab Brewer, Esq., and daughter of the Rev. Adonijah Bidwell.

At Charles Bidwell’s death in 1933, Laurel Cottage passed to his widow Mary Carter Bidwell and at her death in 1948 to Helen Bidwell Lukeman, wife of the sculptor Augustus Lukeman. The town acquired the property by eminent domain in 1954, tearing down the house and depriving the ghosts of Laurel Cottage a place to haunt, and removing another historic link with the past. There are other houses to visit, many stories yet to be told, and maybe somewhere a ghost willing to breathe life back into yet another missing home. 

Next week, we go back to the family of Adonijah Bidwell, Jr., and read some of their letters.