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Volunteers, some older than others, are working to keep Pittsfield’s past alive and on display

  • Pittsfield Historical Society board member Larry Berkson stands in front of what will be the new two-story building that will house the society’s museum. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • The site of the new Pittsfield Historical Society in downtown off of Main Street. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Part of the Pittsfield Historical Society display at their downtown building on June 4, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • A cross and sign from the Christian Science Society at the Pittsfield Historical Society.

  • Bill Provencal works in filing in Pittsfield Historical Society on June 4, 2019 in downtown Pittsfield. The society will be moving into a new, two-story facility soon. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Ruth Stickhart, 99, uses a magnifying glass to read what she has inputted into her computer at the Pittsfield Historical Society on June 4, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The Historcial Society of Pittsfield will be moving into its new two-story building soon. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • An old Pittsfield Fire Department helmet at the Pittsfield Historical Society. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Ruth Strickhart, 99, uses a magnifying glass to read the computer screen at the Pittsfield Historical Society earlier this month. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

For the Monitor
Published: 6/22/2019 10:09:49 PM

Ruth Strickhart looked at her computer screen, staring hard through a magnifying glass like Sherlock Holmes searching for clues.

That’s not too far from the role this 99-year-old volunteer played at the Pittsfield Historical Museum, before retiring two weeks ago. In the cramped office at the cramped building on Elm Street, Strickhart indexed data from history books focused on Pittsfield’s past, its architecture, its war heroes, its time as a mill town, when Main Street was thriving and crowded.

She can’t see too well. In fact, she’s legally blind. But Strickhart’s vision is fine when asked about the town’s new historical museum, set to open sometime next year. The foundation is in, just a short walk distance from the current museum on Elm Street. There will be room to breathe, move, work.

“I know it has two floors, Strickhart said. “I know it will have more room.”

We spoke briefly at the museum, and then we spoke again at her home in Pittsfield, where she lives with her son, Paul.

Strickhart knows that two floors is a big deal, because the building that currently houses the town’s history is one floor, far from enough room to fit that extra truckload and basement full of artifacts and documents that simply wouldn’t fit and remain in storage. It’s tight enough there as it is, bursting at the seams.

Until the move, Pittsfield’s past remains shoehorned into that one-floor building, run by a passionate group of volunteers.

Strickhart is part of that group, or at least she was until her recent retirement after working there for 13 years. She joined people like Larry Berkson – the face of history in town – and Bill Provencal and Gail Allard and Liz Dimmick and Ellen Harper and Tom Freese.

These are some of the town’s core group of volunteers, men and women who have taken their pride in their hometown to the next level. As Strickhart told me during our meeting this week, “I loved it. It could be boring work, let’s face it, but  there was always interesting conversations going on.”

Those conversations were ongoing when I visited these people in their tiny back office. Strickhart was sitting at a desk in front of a computer with giant letters, jumping off the screen like the alphabet on steroids, combining with her magnifying glass to grow the words to the size she needed.

Here, you couldn’t move from desk to desk, section to section, without saying “Excuse me,” to someone blocking the path.

It’s been that way for decades. Berkson says he was gone for 20 years, but he grew up in town and, looking back, loved the fact that he needed to look both ways and perhaps wait a little while before crossing Main Street. This was a mill town, and a busy one at that.

So after leaving to get an education and work as a college professor and employee for the Department of Justice, Berkson returned to nearby Chichester, but Pittsfield stayed in his heart, and he emerged as a prime candidate to become the foundation of this project, solid like the one on Oak Street, where the new museum awaits to open.

Berkson revived the long-dormant museum, serving as the board president for five years. He remains the poster boy for all things historic in town. He knows a lot, and he shared things with me.

Like the Frank Lyman Park and the General Thyng Memorial. Like the old bell at the old cotton mill, lost in 1948 but back downtown, in front of an apartment building.

Someone told Berkson the bell was tucked away, in a shed. Now, he was standing in front of the new museum site, pointing across the street to this piece of yesterday. It’s been sandblasted, painted, mounted in concrete, hopefully this time for 1,000 years.

“I immediately jumped in my car and he donated it to me and I brought it back,” Berkson said. “We put it on the lawn where the cotton mill used to be.”

Berkson has all this stuff documented in one of his 12 books. All are about Pittsfield, what it is, what it was, what it could be.

“Everything we do is volunteer,” Berkson told me. “Some projects need money and some do not.”

The new museum needed it. The place now is simply too claustrophobic, not ideal for a staff of volunteers and all the old stuff  Pittsfield wants to exhibit.

You feel it right away. Head to the back office on a Tuesday, the lone day the museum is open, and you’ll meet the volunteers trying to categorize topics, minimize clutter, digitize information and energize a spirit from the past.

You’ll see Provencal in one corner, scanning photos, then handing them off to be slipped into an acid-free sleeve, then filed. Provencal has added nearly 2,00o items to the database, telling me, “It’s important that I maintain it.”

Freese, known as Fuzz because of his thick beard, made sure I knew what’s really shocking here: the mountain of stuff still in storage, collecting dust, in a rented tractor trailer and a basement.

Meanwhile, there are shelves and shelves of old newspapers already inside, stuffed in cupboards above film cabinets, with books, statistics, town reports, churches, school reports.

Boring? Well, you can see a loose-leaf book with any and every graduate of Pittsfield Middle High School. Berkson rang a bell, the one that used to signal recess 100 years ago at the local grade school.

There are photos of local football teams in leather helmets and people in the bleachers watching a Sunset League baseball game. There’s a punch-and-crank adding machine, railroad lanterns and information on Leon Wilber, a pitcher for the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates during the 1930s,.

And there’s Strickhart, who turns 100 in March and, when asked the secret to a long, healthy life, said she eats tomatoes, lots of them, every day. She had white hair, a pink blouse and a slow shuffle, and she turned her head slightly to make sure she could hear me.

I just happened to visit the museum on her final day, in front of that computer screen, leaning forward, reading some of the words on her own, others with the magnifying glass.

“I quit because it was too much of a strain,” Strickhart told me. “I couldn’t get the letters big enough.”

She joined the Pittsfield Historical Society staff after moving in with one of her two sons, Paul, 13 year ago, coming from New Jersey. A retired school teacher, she proudly told me that she logged more than 11,000 hours volunteering for a hospital in Jersey, working at the gift shop and cafeteria.

She compared the historical society in her old hometown to this one, saying she called the one in Jersey, “the hysterical society. They did nothing. Here, there’s a showroom for kids and books.”

And a lot more, waiting to join what’s already displayed, sometime next spring or summer. Strickhart eyes widened at the thought.

“Now, for the workers, there’s no room,” Strickhart said. “There’s Bill, Larry, Gail, a new woman for me. I bet there will be more office space.

“I’m looking forward to seeing it finished.”

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