Ashley Falls, Sheffield, MA – August 2011 – The Trustees of Reservations, the nation’s oldest statewide land conservation organization, announce the upcoming inauguration of a brand new Interpretive Center at the Ashley House. The exhibit focuses on the life of Elizabeth Freeman and the themes of Slavery, Freedom, and Legacy. The public is welcome to visit this anchor site on The Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail (AAHT) for the Interpretive Center dedication. The event is planned for August 21 to mark the 230th anniversary of the famous court case that won Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman her freedom.
“In our nation’s long history of pursuing the ideals of equality and freedom, Elizabeth Freeman’s story is certainly one of the most important,” says AAHT co-chair Rachel Fletcher. Freeman was enslaved within the Colonel Ashley household when she sued for her freedom, adopting the rhetoric of the Revolution to defend her case, and the ideals of the new 1780 Massachusetts Constitution. Her 1781 suit set a precedent that would lead to the end of slavery in Massachusetts.
“The new interpretive center will provide daily public access to this powerful story,” says Trustees of Reservations Regional Director Jocelyn Forbush. The Trustees received funds from the African American Trail to develop the exhibit and worked in partnership with the Public History program at The University of Massachusetts. Graduate students John Morton, Elizabeth Bradley, and Jessie McLeod created content for interpretive panels in consultation with local experts, historians, a professional exhibit designers and members of the local property committee. A team of high school students from Explorations Charter School helped renovate the garage space to prepare for the exhibit installation.
The dedication of the Elizabeth Freeman Interpretive Center marks the fifth anniversary of the Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail. The trail includes more than fifty sites in Massachusetts and Connecticut and celebrates African Americans who plaid pivotal roles in key national and international events, as well as ordinary people of achievement. Co-chair Frances Sneed observed that the Elizabeth Freeman Interpretive Center at the Ashley House is part of a “great ongoing effort by many organizations in the Berkshires to tell the stories of African Americans.” To learn more, visit www.AfricanAmericanTrail.org.
The month of August also marks the launch of a new tour experience at the oldest house in the Berkshires. The Ashley House tour has been dusted off, reexamined, and rewritten by graduate student interns Tramia Jackson from the Cooperstown Graduate Program and Elizabeth Bradley from the UMass Amherst program in Public History. Bradley says, “Our aim was to create a provocative tour, one that illustrates how two groups of people living together could experience life in one house – and in one era of American History -- so differently.” The interns scoured books and archives, stitching together wills, ledgers, and probate records to learn who John and Hannah Ashley, Elizabeth and Betsy Freeman, and others were and how they lived. The new tour invites visitors to consider how race and gender influenced daily life, and that encourages reflection on the decisions faced by people like Col. Ashley and Elizabeth Freeman. The guides invite questions and conversation and provide participatory experiences for children. As always, the Ashley House is uniquely free of barriers and remains a place where individuals and families can come in close contact with history.
August 21 – Interpretive Center Dedication Schedule
The Interpretive Center will be dedicated at the Ashley House, 117 Cooper Hill Road in the Ashley Falls section of Sheffield on Sunday August 21 with a 12noon free open house with house tours and authors’ tables, a 1pm free storytelling performance by Tammy Denease, and a 2pm free ceremony with words and music. On the day before, additional special events include Saturday afternoon tours, a benefit Walk to Freedom, and a benefit dinner. For details and directions, visit www.thetrustees.org, click here, or call 413.298.3239 (weekdays), 413.229.8600 (weekends).
The Trustees of Reservations and The Ashley House
Since 1891, The Trustees of Reservations have been committed to preserving properties of exceptional scenic, historic and ecological value across Massachusetts. Reliant on dedicated staff, volunteers, members and donors, The Trustees works to raise community awareness around the importance of preserving exceptional scenic, cultural, and ecological landscapes; to interpret the stories that emerge from our local history and define our community character; to sustain local farms and natural resources; and to offer our visitors top notch outdoor experiences.
The Ashley House is a property of The Trustees of Reservations, and is located at 117 Cooper Hill Road in the Ashley Falls section of Sheffield. In addition to telling the inspiring story of Elizabeth Freeman, the house also tells the closely related story of the Ashley family who were leaders of economic, political and social life in the southern Berkshires during the American Revolution. It is the oldest house still standing in the Berkshires and is part of a broader historical landscape preserved by The Trustees of Reservations which includes Bartholomew’s Cobble. Guided tours are offered summer weekends at 1pm and 2pm, and fall Saturdays at 1pm. Details at www.thetrustees.org.