Gardner Heritage State Park is a history-focused heritage park in the city of North Adams, Massachusetts. The state park preserves buildings and sites that document the town’s early years as well as its role as an industrial center during the textile mill era. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002 for having significance in agriculture and industry.
There is a boat launch into the Ipswich River, and picnicking facilities include a playground, restrooms, and parking areas. The park includes trails for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and cross-country skiing. The grounds contain several historic buildings, including the 1912 Allan House, which serves as visitor information center, and houses the offices of the Friends of Gardner Heritage. Other buildings include Captain Levi’s Tavern, dating from circa 1800, and the Old Granite Mill, which has been restored to its 1830 appearance.
The Old Granite Mill contains displays related to the history of the town and its mills, and offers tours. The park also features the ruins of the Gardner Iron Works, located outside the park limits. Founded in 1828, the company produced iron ore mined from within the park for the Pratt & Whitney aircraft engine manufacturer, which closed its operations in 2003. The remains of the plant are protected as a significant archaeological resource. The park is crossed by the Bay Circuit Trail, and forms the western terminus of the Bay Circuit Trail loop. The trail passes through the park en route from Hadley to Holyoke. The park hosts numerous events, including historical reenactments by costumed docents, living historians, and volunteers, as well as outdoor sports such as archery, cycling, disc golf, equestrian activities, and soccer.
In 1642, English settler John Gardner moved to what is now North Adams, Massachusetts, where he established a farmstead with his wife Mary (née Tileston) Gardner. Their first child, a daughter named Martha, was born around 1643; she would be the couple’s only child. A year later, in 1644, another daughter, Elizabeth, was born. By this time, Gardner had secured a contract from the Massachusetts Bay Colony to build ships at a shipyard near Boston. He set up shop in the small fishing village of North Adams, which served as both factory base and port. His success allowed him to accumulate considerable wealth, which he invested in land holdings, including one large parcel known as “Watershed,” along the Ipswich River.
This 1,000-acre estate included all of the land between the river and a swampy area called Back Swamp. On his death in 1665, ownership of the property devolved upon his two daughters, who were still minors. To protect their interests, their uncle Thomas Stearns acted as trustee until they reached majority. At age 25, Martha married Joseph Allen, and three years later they began making improvements to Watershed. They replaced part of the roof, built fireplaces, planted apple trees, and stocked fish ponds. In 1711, Martha gave birth to her only son, also named Joseph. She died just four months after giving birth, leaving the boy under the care of her husband and other relatives.
Two years later, in 1713, the heavily pregnant widow remarried, taking on the name Sarah Pierce. Her second husband was much older than she, being nearly 40 years her senior. He was also mentally challenged, suffering from cataracts and partial sight loss. Despite these handicaps, Sarah managed to raise five children by hard work and constant attention. After her divorce from George Pierce, she lived alone in the big house, managing it through hired help and the occasional visit from a distant relative or friend. When she died in 1727, there was little left to preserve. Most of the buildings had been taken down, and even the foundations were gone. However, some materials remained, including bricks, granite, and timber. With the help of local historian Charles Burr Todd, whose book History of the Town Called North Adams published in 1857 inspired the creation of the state park, a group of concerned citizens led by Anna Hyatt Huntington met in 1906 to save the old buildings.
They formed the Association for Preserving Ancient Buildings, which raised funds to buy and develop a site across from the railroad station. Known initially as Hudson Memorial Hall, the facility opened in October 1910. Five years later, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts took over management of the complex, which was renamed Gardner Castle. During World War II, the castle became the headquarters of the 10th Mountain Division and was used extensively by soldiers stationed there for training purposes. Following deactivation of military forces, civilian employees continued to operate the castle, serving primarily as hostlers for tourists seeking to explore colonial life. But, like many similar facilities, such as Fort Ticonderoga in New York, the castle soon fell into disrepair.
Fearing the possibility of future destruction, the association once again turned to saving ancient buildings. An effort was made to obtain federal funding for a historic preservation grant, but funding was denied. Undeterred, the group purchased the buildings privately, and eventually succeeded in getting the owner to sell them to the Commonwealth for half the appraised value. Thus, on November 9, 1966, Gardner Castle and 350 acres surrounding it were transferred to the Department of Conservation and Recreation for use as a state park. Named Gardner Heritage State Park, it receives about 230,000 visitors annually.
Among the wildlife of the park are:
- blue jays
- red-tailed hawks
- bald eagles