1753 House Carol Sing: 'A lovely town gathering'

WILLIAMSTOWN — What was Christmas like for settlers in what would become northern Berkshire County in 1753? Probably a bit cramped as early settlers in the area only had to build a house at least 15- by 18-feet and 7-feet high — and to clear five acres of land — to gain a title to their land, and the whole family slept in a loft near the top of the fireplace. It was likely cold as the only heat came from a large fireplace, and wind blew through chinks in the walls. It was also probably fairly dark, the only illumination coming from candles.

A carol sing at a replica of a settler's home on Thursday will allow people to the experience their own kind of Christmas spirit inside the home, while celebrating holiday and the winter solstice. The 44th annual 1753 House Carol Sing will be held beginning at 7 p.m. at the 1753 House on Field Park, between the Williams Inn and the Milne Public Library at the northern intersection of Routes 2 and 7.

"We try to do it as close to Christmas as possible and it's usually close to the winter solstice [the day with the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year]. This year it's on the the solstice," said Gail Burns of Williamstown, who coordinates the event. "It's a nice thing to welcome the light back into the world."

According to Burns, the carol sing was founded by her husband, Robert Y. Burns and the now-late Henry "Hank" Flynt Jr. "In 1980, I moved here and Bob was courting me. He asked me to lead the singing. He regretted it for years later," Burns said jokingly.

Prior to each carol sing, Burns said a "candle-olier, a cross between a candle holder and a chandelier that holds six candles" is hung from a beam of the house. "It's fun-and-games hanging it because it's dark and high, and we can never find the nail. We put in a new nail every year," she said, adding there are also pillar candles in a holder on the table that holds the carol books. Lauren Stevens, a member of the town's 1753 House Committee, places freshly cut, fragrant pine boughs in the loft above the fireplace (the original sleeping quarters in a regulation house), which makes the small house smell nice, Burns said.

Stevens also lights a fire in the large fireplace for the carol sing. "It's the only day it happens," Burns said of the fireplace being used. Despite the candles hanging from the beam and the fireplace, she advises people to dress for the weather and bring a light.

"The Williams Inn sends over a pot of hot mulled cider, which we appreciate, and it helps us warm up," Burns said. "Then we get together and sing."

She said attendance at the carol sing varies from year to year, but usually draws two to three dozen people.

"People fill the house and some years, some people are also outside," she said. "There's no glass in the windows, so it's possible to hear inside and outside."

Musical director Deborah Burns (no relation to Gail and Robert Burns), who has been leading the carol sing for the last five years, said the evening features a carol repertoire that people are familiar with. Using carol books that Gail Burns put together in 1981, Deborah Burns said the songs will include old, traditional carols — all the famous and familiar ones with less common ones mixed in. "We go through the songbook from beginning to end, although if someone is leaving early and wants to sing a certain song, we'll honor the request," she said, adding about 40 carols are sung.

"Everyone knows the basic tunes and they sing the harmonies; some sing in parts [soprano, alto, baritone and bass]. It's for everybody to join in. It's one of the times of the year people feel emboldened to sing." She added that knowing the words and music make it easier for people to join in the singing.

"Children come to the carol sing, too, and it's lovely to be in the middle [of the group of singers]," she said. "I love to see the kids sitting on the bench, their faces ruddy from the fire."

The 1753 House was built in 1953 to commemorate the town of Williamstown's bicentennial, Lauren Stevens said in a phone interview. It was supposed to remain up only through the bicentennial celebration, but still stands today, almost 65 years later.

The house is a historical replica of a regulation settler's home in The Berkshires in 1753. Early settlers in the area in the mid-18th century were required by regulations set by the Massachusetts Bay Colony to build a house at least 15 by 18 feet and 7 feet high and to clear five acres of land to gain a title to their land, Stevens said.

Robert R.R. Brooks is credited with compiling and editing a book on the town's history for the bicentennial and spear-heading the effort to create a replica of the original "regulation" houses.

"The volunteers built the replica by hand, according to methods and tools used in 1753," Stevens said. "They cut some of the [oak] wood for the house with axes in the White Oaks section of town and also split shingles and clapboards by hand." He added there are still a half-dozen or so homes in the Hemlock Brook (West Main Street) area of town that have part of an original regulation house in their construction.

The replica house was moved about 25 feet to its present location and placed on a concrete foundation in the mid-1990s, due to being "in a large puddle," Stevens said. The chimney has been rebuilt a couple of times. "There was no mortar the first time; the settlers used mud, which was also used in building the replica. But with the heavy trucks rolling past the house now, the mud crumbles and falls out."

"The year the chimney was being replaced, I realized there was no other freezing cold, smoke-filled shack in town in which to lead the carol sing," Gail Burns said, laughing.

Both in 1753 and 1953, a mixture of mud and straw was used to chink the walls, and it, too, has fallen out due to the vibrations from the trucks. Stevens reported the doors and windows, and inside benches, are currently being repaired, but a new roof is needed.

The 1753 House is open weekends from Memorial Day through October, Stevens said. "There is a visitors' book they can sign in the house. This year, 402 people signed in, including some from 25 foreign countries. Most of the visitors come from Massachusetts and New York, and a lot come from Connecticut and California.

"The 1753 House Carol Sing is one of the few things that doesn't require money,'" Gail Burns said, urging people to participate. "It lasts about an hour — or until everyone freezes over!"

Deborah Burns reminded people to bundle up and bring a light. "Be prepared to sing out and come near the fireplace if you're cold," she said. "It's a lovely town gathering, a peaceful time out from all the frenzy of the holidays."

If planning to join the carol sing, there is no parking in Field Park. Parking is available at the Williams Inn and at the Milne Public Library.


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