This was a picture of himself that Richard particularly liked
By Alex Brooks
We have just passed our first Memorial Day without Richard Babcock, who died May 16 at the age of 79. I found myself missing his presence and remembering the many things he contributed to this town and to this nation. Richard built the Veterans Memorial in Field Park which is the centerpiece of our Memorial Day festivities. Although his special expertise was the restoration of barns, he loved to work in stone as well, and with his keen interest in history, he understood the enduring value of stone structures.
When Richard graduated from Williamstown High School, he went straight off to fight in the Korean War, and when he returned from the military, he went to work farming and building barns. Although Richard never had the benefit of higher education, he contributed more to our understanding of early New England history than many professional historians have done.
His entry point to history was through the barns he worked on. He loved to learn the history of those barns, and this passion led to the creation of a Barn Museum in Hancock, and to his leadership of a whole generation of barn restoration craftsmen. Perhaps the greatest creation of his barn building career was the performing arts venue known as the Barns at Wolf Trap outside of Washington D.C. For this project he found two large barns in upstate New York, one from 1730 and one from 1791, and reassembled them as a performing arts complex at Wolf Trap, with a 382 seat theatre in the larger barn. He loved to reassemble the barns using only colonial technology – a “Gin Pole,” block and tackle, and human muscle power – and that’s the way he did the barns at Wolf Trap.
I met Richard when I called to ask about his theory of a French settlement in Hoosick, New York in 1542. I was a bit skeptical about that, and I ultimately came to the conclusion that there are more reasons to disbelieve it than to believe it, but it was a great story, and it illuminated the era a great deal for me. His enthusiasm for history was infectious. We had a great time talking about it, and it was the first of many sessions in which he would tell fascinating stories which sounded a bit like tall tales, but which he insisted were factual. We once spent an entire afternoon driving around West Stephentown stopping to talk to people he knew about large wild boars he said were living in that area, and by the end of the afternoon I was convinced they were out there. Another time he told me his grandfather, “a noted blueberry picker,” had gone up on the Taconic Crest to pick blueberries, then climbed down into the Snow Hole and never came back out. After dark the family came back down the mountain and found Richard’s grandfather at the house, saying he had climbed down through a series of caves, come out a cave entrance on the east side of the mountain, and walked home from there. Other times he would just tell me about the old farms in Williamstown that he used to work on.
But lest we think of Richard as nothing but a raconteur with a love of tall tales, let’s talk about the historical things that he got right. I believe he found the true site of the Native American town called Norumbega. This name had begun to appear on maps of the New World in the mid-16th century in the general vicinity of New England. It seems to have originated from Verrazano’s visit to New York Harbor and to a harbor somewhere near Newport R.I. in 1524. Samuel de Champlain made a determined effort to find it in 1602 and decided it must be up the Penobscot River in Maine. Of course he found nothing up in that wilderness, and Norumbega came to be seen as a mythical city with utopian overtones – as expressed in Whittier’s poem of that name. But Richard made a strong case that the real town of Norumbega was on the Hudson and explained how Champlain had misinterpreted the confusing language of a “Cosmographie” written by the French sea captain Jean Alphonse.
The documents that he consulted to do this are now available in facsimile on the web, but at that time he had to travel to the Houghton Library, the rare book library at Harvard, and read original documents written in the sixteenth century, some of which were in French. I admired the drive which enabled him to overcome all these obstacles to get to the bottom of a four hundred year old historical problem.
There were other historical matters he shed light on. He found things in the design of the early Dutch barns of the Hudson Valley which suggested slave quarters, and researched in wills, deeds, inventories, and other primary documents the use of slaves in Hudson Valley agriculture, which was more extensive than previously thought. And he located a number of slave burial grounds in the area.
So this Memorial Day I offer a memorial to one who not only served his country in time of war, but left us so many other things – restored barns, historical insight, a Veterans Memorial, all those stories he told me, and the example of a productive life lived with energy and gusto. Thanks for everything, Richard.