The Red Lion Inn is in Stockbridge, Mass., amid the Berkshire Mountains. (Susan Spano )
Reporting from Stockbridge, Mass. — — It's been a mild winter in the Northeast so far and I, for one, don't like it. I miss those exciting blizzards that hit the region almost nonstop from Christmas to Presidents Day. I moved from Rome to New England in 2011, and everything was fine until early November when a man in a pickup stopped by my house to ask whether I wanted him to plow the drive. I must have looked blank, because his eyes narrowed and he said that it was going to be a long, hard winter.
I told him no and closed the door, then got to thinking about winter. I mean real below-zero, white-out winter that severs power lines and traps people indoors.
The prospect unnerved me until I remembered something a dog-sled driver in Sweden had told me years ago: Winter is not the enemy. Don't fight it. Sometimes I even found myself at the window, dreaming about riding in a sleigh with my hands in a fur muff.
By the time the Berkshire Mountains got a confectioners' sugar frosting of snow in mid-December, I was ready to walk into a print by Currier & Ives, which isn't a far-fetched notion in western Massachusetts. Back roads cross rivers on covered bridges, mosey past red barns and lead, inevitably, to country inns where I was always tempted to check in on the spur of the moment. I drove around in an old Subaru station wagon, listening to James Taylor, with an overnight bag packed and ready on the back seat just in case I find a picture-perfect inn and decide to bed down for the night.
I did spot one every time I drove north from Great Barrington to Stockbridge, where the rambling, white clapboard Red Lion Inn holds a place of pride at Routes 7 and 102. There has been an inn on the site since 1773, which means it has the same deep Yankee roots as the 1716 Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Mass., and the 1789 Hancock Inn in southern New Hampshire. The good people of Stockbridge might take umbrage, but to visitors who flock here when the weather is fine to sample the Berkshires' abundant cultural attractions — Tanglewood, the Norman Rockwell Museum, the Berkshire Theatre Festival, etc. — the town is the Red Lion.
I kept passing the inn on my way to a night-school class at the nearby Berkshire Botanical Garden. As the holidays approached, the village, which was home to Rockwell from 1953 to 1978, had transformed itself into the famous illustrator's 1967 McCall's magazine cover "Home for Christmas," and the Red Lion's wide porch was framed with evergreen garlands and lights. To celebrate the end of the semester, I cut class and checked in.
I couldn't help it. The lobby resembled a scene from "Little Women," with a big Christmas tree surrounded by Victorian settees where guests sat listening to a harpist and eating gumdrops from cut-glass bowls. There was a fire in the fireplace, toasting the feet of people in rockers. A furry cushion on a nearby couch turned out to be Simon, the Red Lion's beloved black-and-white cat, and 137 teapots lined a high shelf all around the room, collected by Mrs. Plumb, who ran the inn in the late 19th century. Any minute I expected Jo March to run in, telling Marmee she'd sold her first short story.
Hand-stenciled signs pointed the way to the gift shop full of locally made crafts, the Lion's Den pub in the basement and Country Curtains, started in 1956 on the kitchen table of Jane Fitzpatrick, who ran the inn from 1968 to 1993, when her daughter Nancy took over. The curtain and décor shop — largely a mail-order and Internet business — is far more lucrative than the inn, Nancy later told me. When the inn's business slows after the first freeze, there are special packages and events to attract customers. But even in the dead of winter the Red Lion perseveres, catering chiefly to local tipplers, Chamber of Commerce dinners, skiers on their way to Vermont and the occasional loose screw who wants nothing more than to hole up in a classic country inn while the snow flies.
There is a working 1897 bird cage elevator, but I took the staircase to a $125 double on the third floor. The wide halls are full of antiques and flea market treasures, bookshelves and china cabinets, Norman Rockwell prints and old-timey photos, assembled chiefly by Jane Fitzpatrick and her husband, Jack, a former Massachusetts state senator who died last summer. High school sweethearts from Vermont, they moved to Stockbridge in the 1950s where they developed the curtain business and supported local cultural institutions. When it looked as if downtown Stockbridge would be replaced by a strip mall in 1968, the Fitzpatricks bought the inn, spending spare revenue from Country Curtains on upgrades and décor.
"You can't operate a place like the Red Lion without putting capital into it from someplace else. It's not a get-rich-quick scheme," Nancy Fitzpatrick said.