My Town

From Bali to the Berkshires: John Stanmeyer Comes Home

The National Geographic photographer welcomes you to West Otis and West Stockbridge, which embraced him as family.  

This is a panorama of our farm in West Otis. When we bought it, in 2008, it was a horse farm. Before that, a thriving cattle farm. The couple who sold it to us got married in the loft of the barn, visible behind the silo. They were one of the first same-sex couples in Massachusetts to legally marry. A few flowers from their wedding still hang in the loft, tied by a ribbon to the rafters. They're dried out now but still show a touch of red.

In our series My Town, writers and photographers from around the world reflect on places that hold special meaning for them.

Seven years ago, home was literally in the middle of a former rice field in Bali, Indonesia, and all around us were terraced rice paddies. After 12 wonderful years living in Asia, it was time to return stateside to help bring my wife, Anastasia, closer to her elderly father and to avoid numerous body-bending marathon flights back to the U.S. to work on stories at National Geographic headquarters, in Washington, D.C.

But where to live in a land I no longer knew?

On one editing trip to Nat Geo, I made a detour to upstate New York, meandering with a real estate agent around the town of Beacon, which a friend had recommended.

The homes all seemed to be placed one right next to another. I asked the agent: "Isn't there anything where one can have space? land? I'm from Bali, where the backyard is a thousand acres of rice fields. Surely there's countryside here?"

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"Yes," she said eagerly. "The Catskills!"

"I've heard of that," I said. "Isn't there a song about the Catskills? Doesn't the Catskills seem 'dreamlike on account of that frosting'?'"

"No," she said, chuckling. "That's the Berkshires!"

"Oh—my confusion. Where are the Berkshires?"

"About 45 minutes farther north, in Massachusetts."

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I'm looking out the window of Baldwin's Extract store at Williams River, which runs through the heart of West Stockbridge. The Baldwin family has produced its famous vanilla extract in town for 125 years—and since 1907 in the basement of this building on Center Street. They were the first in all of New England to make vanilla and sarsaparilla, when Henry and Charles Baldwin would go by horse and buggy across the Hudson River to sell their products. Today Jackie Moffatt and her husband, Earl Baldwin Moffatt—the great-great-grandson of the founder—keep the tradition going. Vanilla extract is still the backbone of the business, along with plastic pickle fingers, whoopee cushions, and an instant-photo booth.

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On a recent snowy evening I ran into my fab friend Katherine America walking up Main Street to her home. Katherine "America"—that's what she calls herself. I have no idea what her real last name is. Although West Stockbridge is located right off Exit 1 of the Mass Pike, in the evening the road is quiet. On the corner of Main and Center Street is Peter Anderson's Shaker furniture store, open Saturdays only. Pete often wanders down to the gallery, where we chat about politics and religion over copious cups of coffee. West Stockbridge was first settled in 1766—and one of the many things I love about it is that it retains its New England village charm.

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Independent bookstore owner Eric Wilska recently purchased the Shaker Mill, located just across the Williams River behind my gallery. First known as the Grist Mill, it was built in 1804 by a fellow named E. W. Thayer. In 1821 it was sold to the Tyringham Shakers. The mill operated for 60 or more years, powered by water pouring over the dam. Eric sells used and rare books from a smaller building right next to the Shaker Mill.

That Easter weekend in 2007, I made an overnight detour to Great Barrington, in the Berkshires. My GPS directed me past the house where Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick, along narrow, winding roads lined with trees as green as Bali. My path glided over history, and over majestic hills. It was snowing, and I was gobsmacked—the Berkshires were indeed dreamlike on account of that frosting.

I felt at home in a place I'd never been before. An energy seemed to emanate from the ground beneath me.

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Not far from our place, the Farmington River cascades over a waterfall on its 50-mile journey south into Connecticut. This gem of a dam is tucked on a side road off Route 8. It's a gorgeous area that I try to visit as a reminder of the epic, liquid landscape of the Berkshires.

After three additional visits from Asia to the Berkshires, we settled one year later on a former horse and dairy farm in West Otis. A federal-style home hammered and pegged together in 1850, it fit our family of five well.

But the selling point was the land—and the barn, with a 4,000-square-foot loft. "Here's where you can store all the hay!" exclaimed our agent, twirling around like a dancer.

"I can barely take care of dogs!" I said. "This will be a photography gallery."

It takes more than a generation to become a local. As a newcomer to West Otis (elevation 1,220 feet), you're a "flatlander." As a flatlander, you're embraced and welcomed as if a relative, not fully a local.

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Emma, a dogue de Bordeaux (French mastiff), plays with her pal Asia, a beagle, on the farm. Emma is my son Richard's dog, named after his great-grandmother. Asia is named after the region my other son, Konstantin, grew up in. That's a horse ring behind the two rompers. Not being equestrian people, we call it the baseball field.

Our farm is still known in Otis (locals drop the "West") as the Minery farm (the Minerys haven't owned it for nearly two decades). It will likely stay the Minery farm until my children's children (and maybe their children) come of age.

What draws many flatlanders to Otis is water. This area has more bodies of water than anywhere else in the Berkshires—rivers and lakes, puddles left millennia ago as ice retreated and melted.

During the past six years, the photo gallery in the former hayloft brought so many visitors to the farm that we lost our privacy. My photography needed a new home.

We found it in the village of West Stockbridge, just shy of 20 miles from West Otis. To say we adore Stockbridge would be an understatement.

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Alan Minery, 61, likes to hunt during the season. His trophies (left) are well displayed in the living room of the family home in Otis. Over in West Stockbridge, Chick Astore has carried a buck knife on his belt since he was a kid. Though not much of a hunter, Chick loves to fish in Shaker Mill pond, next to his home, and especially along the Williams River, which meanders past his historic rock quarry.

It's here, in the little yellow house on Main Street called the Shaker Dam House, where I spend most of my days when I'm not on the farm or worlds away on assignment for National Geographic.

The house was once home to the manager of the historic Shaker Mill, still standing proudly today, and later to the overseer of the hydroelectric dam—the oldest in Massachusetts.

Downstairs is our coffeehouse and gallery. My photography studio is on the second floor, overlooking Main Street to the east and the Williams River, seen through a window of spectacular sunsets.

When something goes amiss behind the coffee bar, or we need to replace a lightbulb in the gallery, I walk one minute along the curb to Henry Baldwin's hardware store, said to be the oldest family-owned hardware store in the U.S. The Baldwins, whose forebears arrived in the mid-1800s, are fifth-generation Stockbridgeans. (Last year, Henry, a volunteer soccer coach at the high school, taught my son Richard how to play the game.)

In the Berkshires, people are genuine. At peace. Not thriving on desire for wealth. It's about balance. Family and community. The land.

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Drawing the natural sweetness from more than 2,000 maples is a winter retirement hobby for Alan and Anita Minery. Alan has fond memories of growing up in Otis and tapping maple syrup with his father. The Minerys sell their syrups out of their sugar shack, but their delights can also be found in local shops and fairs throughout the Berkshires and beyond.

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Koko, a peekapoo, basks in a beam of sunlight in the home of Alan and Anita Minery. Koko is blind, but she's never short of love and affection. As it happens, Koko and I are connected: She was born in our living room 16 years ago.

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This is what remains of the nearly 200-year-old blacksmith shop at the Astore quarry. Marble began coming out of the ground here in 1780, and you can see it in the steps leading up to the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington, D.C., on part of the floor of the Capitol Building, and in any number of town halls on the East Coast. The tombstones of soldiers who fell in the War of 1812 were carved from Astore marble. The quarry closed in the 1920s, and in 1969 Chick's great-uncle bought it. Chick plans to turn the site into an educational and conservation center to preserve the history of the quarry.

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Horse farms line the road to the storybook village of Tyringham, nestled between two hills carved 20,000 or so years ago by a retreating ice sheet two miles thick. I drive this stretch whenever heading from the farm to our gallery and coffeehouse in West Stockbridge. I'd never have imagined when I saw cellist Yo-Yo Ma perform during the Hong Kong handover ceremonies on the eve of June 30, 1997, that going back and forth to Stockbridge nearly 20 years later, I'd be passing by his place near here. He obviously knows a thing or two about staggeringly gorgeous views.

John Stanmeyer was born in Chicago, grew up in the Bahamas, and went to art school in Florida. During much of the 1980s, he worked as an art and fashion photographer based in Milan, Italy. John then turned his camera toward social documentary photography and was drawn to the East. He lived in China for seven years, and Indonesia for five. Now John, his wife, Anastasia, and their three children, Richard, Konstantin, and Francesca, are firmly rooted in the Berkshires.