The summit of Constitution Hill was the site of a historic bonfire which signaled and celebrated Massachusetts’ ratification of the Constitution.
The property also includes the site of Josh Billings’ ancestral home.
Property Name: Constitution Hill
Activities: Hiking, snowshoeing, hunting, bird-watching
Special features: Wetlands, hayfield, mature forest, shrubland
Hiking difficulty: Easy to moderate — good trails with gradual to steep inclines
GPS: 42.5238, -73.2423 (trailhead parking)
In January 1788 farmer Jonathan Smith traveled to Boston as Lanesborough’s delegate to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention The body was charged with deciding whether the Bay State would ratify the federal Constitution written in Philadelphia the previous year. Smith had served as a selectman, moderator, assessor, and representative to the General Court, but when he stood to address the constitutional convention, he introduced himself modestly:
“I am a plain man,” he said, “and get my living from the plow.”
He then delivered the speech that arguably helped decide the fate of our nation.
At the time, the common man regarded the proposed Constitution with some suspicion. It had been drafted by lawyers, and was approved by men of wealth and property – the same class of men who seemed bent on taking debt-ridden farmers to court and throwing them into debtors’ prison. Shays’ Rebellion (1786-87) in South Berkshire was the fruit of this class warfare and now before the doubting convention in Boston lay a federal Constitution that some thought would memorialize the imbalance. Four states had ratified the Constitution, but the critical states of New York and Virginia were waiting to see what Massachusetts would do.
“I have lived in a part of the country where I have known the worth of good government by the want of it,” Smith told the convention. “There was a black cloud that rose in the east last winter, and spread over the west … It brought on a state of anarchy, and that leads to tyranny … Now when I saw this Constitution, I found that it was a cure for these disorders.”
Swayed by Smith’s words, the Massachusetts convention ratified the Constitution by a vote of 187-168. Other states quickly followed suit, and the Constitution took effect in March 1789.
Before departing for Boston, Smith had arranged for a bonfire to be lit atop Bald Headed Hill on the day Massachusetts ratified the Constitution. In a time when there was hardly a woodlot to obstruct one’s view, Bald Headed Hill, with its “crown shaven like a monk’s with the exception of a solitary stately tree resting on its extreme summit,” was a landmark for miles around. The bonfire spread the word, and the town renamed the hill that year to honor the Constitution and Smith’s role in its passage.
In 1903, the historic “solitary, stately” oak tree at the summit suffered a lightning strike. It survived until 1920, when vandals built a fire at its base. The town replaced it with a red oak sapling, which stands today in the forest at the top of the hill.
The forests of Constitution Hill have grown up around the old oaks and the landscape today is far different from the one which Smith and Billings knew. The return of the forests has ushered in the recovery of many of the characteristic wildlife we identify with the Berkshires including black bear and moose. However, as more farms give way to houses declining early successional habitat threatens many wildlife species dependent on open fields, shrublands or the dense thickets of young forests for nesting, breeding, and feeding sites have declined in number. Without the protective cover of dense grass and thickets, birds such as the Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), olive sided flycatcher (Contopus cooperi) and American woodcock (Scolopax minor), are unable to nest safely hidden from predators. Other animals, like the New England cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus transitionalis) as well as various insects and other invertebrates depend on tender nutrient rich plant material found growing these spaces. Further up the food chain a suite of predatory species including snakes, foxes, owls, and others rely on these open areas for their abundant prey.
In 2006 BNRC, with the help of the Massachusetts Department of Fisheries and Wildlife’s Landowner Incentive Program, began work to reclaim parts of the abandoned orchards and fields that were part of Constitution Hill in order to maintain the pieces of the puzzle that various wildlife need to survive. In conjunction with this effort we will be managing the fields that can produce agricultural products while providing the same valuable early-succesional habitat. The forested areas will be managed for sustainable timber management that goes beyond sustained yield to simulate natural disturbances, retaining large legacy trees and standing snags for wildlife that depend on characteristics of “old-growth” forested habitat. With the declining available land base and increased population pressures our communities must find creative and sustainable ways of supporting our needs with the land base and providing for the critters we share this place with. As visitors explore this property they can consider the past landscape, the present and what our landscape will look like in the future.
Constitution Hill was gifted to the Berkshire Natural Resources Council in 1998 by N. Robert Thieriot to manage for multiple uses.
“As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of demand.”
~ Josh Billings (1818-1885)
Josh Billings, the local humorist whose fame is kept alive by the annual Josh Billings RunAground Triathlon, lived on this property. Walkers today will enjoy the 20-30 minute climb from the trailhead to the spine of the hill and the summit. The original Constitution Oak probably stood beside the large white quartz rock at the top. After descending from the ridgeline, return on the blue-blazed trail, noting the slag glass used to firm the road. Round trip should take 60-90 minutes depending on your pace.
From the intersection of Bridge Street and Main Street/Route 7 in Lanesborough (right near the police station): follow Bridge Street west to its end at the BNRC trailhead and kiosk. The trailhead is about 0.8 miles from Main Street.