College landmark offers rich history, pastoral sights

As the momentum of each semester has students bouncing from libraries to dining halls to dorms, it is easy to forget that these rolling Berkshire hills surrounding us hide a wealth of interesting sights and opportunities for adventurous exploration. There is perhaps no better example of the fascinating and often overlooked locations offered by the College than Mount Hope Farm.

On Sunday, a few friends and I took the five-minute drive to the site. Upon reaching the gate, we ascended a winding drive up the hill and reached a staggeringly picturesque summit. Largely empty expanses of grassy meadows extend in all directions with homes and old farm buildings nestled among small valleys and around private bends. The College owns six acres of the land, while the rest of the nearly 1000 acres is owned by the Purple Mountain Partners, a group of Williams alumni who maintain residences of primarily summer homes on the site. The views are breathtaking and the roads and trails are perfect for running and hiking.

The farm, steeped in Gilded Age and early College history, is topped by the magnificent 72-room Georgian style Elm Tree House, built by James Gamble Rogers for Alta Rockefeller Prentice, daughter of John D. Rockefeller Sr. in 1928. The three-story mansion has massive marble columns, extensive brickwork and iron decoration. The mansion is used throughout the year for College events, including the senior dinner dance and the annual Alumni Golf Tournament.

Bea Miles, the associate director for custodial service, oversees the property and lives in the caretaker’s cottage next door. While most of the grounds work is contracted out, the custodial staff works on event setup and occasional jobs on the site. Since the mansion sits empty for most of the year between events, it has developed an eerie reputation. “Many [members of the] custodial staff believe the mansion is haunted, but in my 20-plus years associating with the house, I have never experienced anything to support that!” Miles said. Ghost stories notwithstanding, the mansion has a luxuriously furnished interior with chandeliers, white-paneled molding, marble and fireplaces.

At the time of the mansion’s construction, the Prentices owned 1400 acres devoted to cattle ranching, poultry breeding, apples, syrup, honey, vegetables, flowers and nurseries. A focus on cattle breeding led the farm to employ two full-time geneticists and develop the now ubiquitous American Dairy cattle breed.

The College purchased the estate to prevent land development in the ’60s from New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital, which received the farm as a bequest after Mrs. Prentice’s death in 1962. Financial difficulties prompted the College to sell off the property throughout the ’70s, releasing it all finally in 1978.

At that point, the farm was taken over by August Mansker, who transformed the farm once again into a thriving business. Jimmy Sylvester, the longtime caretaker of the farm, who still manages the land for the Purple Mountain Partners, explained that when he worked under Mansker in the ’80s they had a herd of 40 buffalo, a half dozen eland antelope, a couple of yaks, 30 pygmy goats, sika deer, a few ostriches and around 300 head of Black Angus, Hereford, Scottish Highlander and Texas Longhorn cattle. Mansker had also turned the extensive stone cow barn into a hatchery and renovated the mansion to hold occasional galas and events.

After the Purple Mountain Partners purchased the estate, they donated the mansion to the College and put most of the property into a land trust, leaving parcels for their own homes. In the ’90s, the partners and the College began working on bringing the Elm Tree House up to code to be used for College events. Primarily alumni hold events at the mansion, but some student-oriented events do exist, such as those held by the program in leadership studies.

As they stand now, the property and the Elm Tree House are great places to visit. The pastoral setting, coupled with its storied history and opulent mansion make for an enlivening fresh air trip. The wide-open fields, trails, roads and tennis courts offer great athletic opportunities for the adventurous. Further, the events held there make for stylish Gatsby-esque outdoor gatherings, and I hope to attend one as soon as I can.