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Home Arts & Culture Local historian’s column offers a window to the past

Local historian’s column offers a window to the past

Gary Leveille. (Photo contributed)

Gary Leveille swears he doesn’t live in the past, but for many residents of Southern Berkshire County, it’s elements of the past that’s attributed to him the most.
Leveille, a resident of Great Barrington, has been sharing bite-sized pieces of photographic history with the community with his “Now and Then” column in the Berkshire Record since March 11, 2005. Prior to his time with this publication, Leveille wrote for the Berkshire Courier, which he says marks 30 years and more than 400 columns detailing people, places and events throughout time.
“I was always interested in history,” he said. “It’s always fascinated me.”
As a youth, Leveille grew up in Cheshire, Connecticut. Growing up, he held a paper route for the New Haven Register with 60 customers, he recalled. During the summer, he would visit the Berkshires on camping trips with his family to Prospect Lake Park in North Egremont.
Early in his career, Leveille, who holds a degree in education from Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, Connecticut, taught English and science, before venturing into the corporate world. For a short time, he wrote for a water skiing magazine in Florida and also spent six years as a senior copywriter at Pitney Bowes Inc. in New Hartford, Connecticut. He’s a former senior editor and editorial project supervisor at Hasbro Games in Springfield. There, he wrote packaging instructions and “cardware” for games, such as Trivial Pursuit. The job entailed quite a bit of searching and confirming, he said. Leveille has also worked on several editorial projects for Disney, National Geographic and Antiques Roadshow.
“We didn’t have the internet then, so we’d just research at the library,” he said. “We needed three sources to confirm any of the trivia questions.”
In the 1980s, Leveille joined the Great Barrington Historical Society.
One of his first forays into column-writing had to do with the restoration of the Newsboy Statue, located in the traffic triangle by Maple and Silver streets and Newsboy Monument Lane in Great Barrington. Its location is right around the corner where Leveille’s wife grew up, he said.
“As a writer and editor, the topic piqued my interest. I approached the editor of the Berkshire Courier at the time and he allowed me to delve into the topic in a three-part column,” he said. “From there, I had the luxury of only writing topics I was interested in.”
In the early days of the internet, researching a particular topic was more accessible as everything was free, said Leveille. Nowadays, though there are several newspaper publications that have placed their archives online, there’s a cost associated with accessing it, he added.
Drawn to old photographs, Leveille says he’s amassed quite a collection over the years. In fact, much of the historical society’s archives are currently in storage, and as a result, when a photograph is requested, he often supplies it from his own collection.
“One of the biggest challenges for me is that sometimes I’ll come across a fantastical image and there’s nothing to represent it,” he said. “I’ve learned to be a pretty darn good researcher, but I can’t always match up the ‘Then” photo with a ‘Now” image. … And that can happen sometimes if there’s a big open field where there was once a building. Not all landscapes lend themselves to a ‘Now’ photograph.”
Still, Leveille prides himself on never having duplicated an image of Southern Berkshire County history over the course of his more than three decades in maintaining his column. Having maintained his photograph history column for so long, Leveille realized that he could actually begin using some of his “Now” photographs as “Then” ones.
At times, the bi-weekly topic will have something to do with current events, others, the topic will err on the edge of randomness, he said.
“When we were talking about the Brown Bridge, I’d go, ‘oh, I have a photo of when that bridge was built.’ But sometimes, it’s me going, ‘I need to do an update on Ashley Falls’,” he said.
Among the more popular topics that readers seem to engage with is transportation, the Fairgrounds and the evolution to Railroad Street in Great Barrington.
As a teenager, Leveille says he remembers horse racing being a part of life in Great Barrington.
“Our attitude has dramatically changed toward horse racing. And Railroad Street, which was once a rough area with gambling, drinking and other ‘stuff’, is not a trendy boutique street,” he said. “And being able to point out those differences and changes is really fun. I find the past really cool and really interesting to see how much has changed.”
He also recalled one column where he placed a photo of Joseph Kellogg, Great Barrington’s first town manager, next to his yearbook photo. One of the more challenging communities to cover has always been Alford, he said.
Leveille, who has written and published several books on Southern Berkshire County, is also a member of the Great Barrington Historical Commission and gives presentations to students at the high schools as well as area groups like the Thursday Morning Club.
Now and Then, Leveille says, not only allows him, but others to look into places or people of the past, he said. And he said he hopes that will continue as long as people continue to find it interesting.
“I certainly don’t live in the past, but like to vacation there and look in the window,” Leveille said.

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