'America's First Hippie': O.B. Joyful Left Indelible Local Legacy

By Joe DurwinSpecial to iBerkshires
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Fabulist, hermit, hippie, loveable scoundrel and raconteur O.B. Joyful in 1920.

LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — "Hermit," "renowned poet-philosopher," "local eccentric," "criminal," "pioneer hippie" — these were all labels applied to him at one time, depending on whose opinion you asked.

Clad in rumpled clothes, typically shirtless and shoeless in the summer, with a wild beard and long hair held back with a rusty nail, he could often be seen traveling the roads of central Berkshire County in a stripped down Model T,  holding court over a checkerboard at the YMCA on Pittsfield's North Street, or at various local landmarks thronged by crowds of curious children to whom he would give out home grown peanuts or small trinkets.

O.B. Joyful was born Albert Franklin Tyler in Haverhill, N.H., in 1872, though he later relocated to the Berkshires in his early 30s, where he spent the better part of 60 years on a small piece of land in Lanesborough.

He claimed to have attended Harvard, though this claim was sometimes taken with a grain of salt, and his name does not appear anywhere in the alumni records of that institution.

The notable character first garnered wide attention in 1897, when for his honeymoon he crossed the country from New Hampshire to California in a horse and buggy with his second wife, Susan Aldinger. He arrived in 1903 in Lanesborough, where he raised three children with her: Archibald, Lucy Drinkwater and Harry Vincent — this latter son originally bearing the nickname "Oh Be Joyful," which his father then adopted for himself.

In 1911, reports of their unorthodox diet made headlines locally, and then nationally as papers around the country picked up The Associated Press account of the Berkshire vegetarians subsisting on raw vegetables and grains. In addition to meat, O.B. abstained from coffee, tea, sugar, salt, tobacco, alcohol, and milk, which he said "savors too much of the bovine."

The media attention brought with it some unintended consequences, when a photo of him was recognized by his first wife, who claimed he'd taken off with $5,000 and deserted her 16 years before.  

If Tyler had ever possessed such a sum, it hardly showed in his meager belongings and humble abode, a spare two-story, tar-paper shack that was entered via a ladder.

For work, he sold fish, vegetables he'd grown, homemade ice cream, and apple cider of varying degrees of hardness, even through the Prohibition era.  

"He never owned an apple tree, let alone an orchard, in his entire life," said Mount Greylock park interpreter and master storyteller Mike Whalen, at a campfire session last summer. "What he would do is raid the local farmers' orchards, by the bushel basket."

According to Whalen, O.B. was once questioned by a local constable about the source of one of his apple batches, and proceeded to spin the yarn that he had come across a family of bears in a nearby orchard who were standing on their hind legs knocking the apples out of the trees with their paws. To be helpful, he claimed, he had caught the apples in baskets as they rolled down the hill. He then spirited them off to turn them to cider, which he intended to return to the farmer upon completion.  

"O.B. always had a tale like that, to get him off the hook," said Whalen.

In 1942, Tyler became the first Lanesborough resident to register for the draft, at age 70. Voicing the hope that he "might be helpful somewhere in the war effort," he promptly began a plentiful Victory Garden, and its bountiful excess he donated to the town.  

At some point, he had printed 10,000 business cards that he carried about, bearing only his chosen name, and a one dollar fee for advice. Sometimes he would simply offer said advice for free, observations which became widely quoted and sporadically recorded in local newspapers.

"Make the first move," he counseled a young Fred Dabrowski, later a town official in Adams for more than 30 years, over a game of checkers. "Nobody gets anywhere unless he makes a move."

"All you have to do is walk a little faster," advised O.B. during a particularly frigid spell during the winter of 1943.  The Lanesborough man was often said to be virtually impervious to cold, and was once spotted walking bare-headed along Pontoosuc Lake in 30-below-zero winds.

"A really good salesman is one who can make his wife sympathize for the girl who lost her compact in his car," was another of his sayings preserved for posterity.

Not all encounters with Tyler were positive in nature, however. In 1950, he was arrested on a charge of larceny after allegedly stealing a wallet from Pittsfield resident Sylvia Chalifoux. During his trial before a packed courthouse, Joyful maintained that he had picked up the wallet off the floor of the bus terminal by accident and had only later realized what it was, though he admitted to pocketing the cash inside and disposing of the wallet in a trash can.

Despite some unanswered questions about the incident, Judge Charles Alberti declared him innocent, excusing the odd circumstances on the grounds that the community looked upon him with "exotic expectation."

"I think we owe a lot to Mr. Tyler, he's added something to our community," said the judge. "I don't believe he intended to steal this money. And I won't believe it."

Joyful, aka Albert Tyler, in his later years.

Judge Alberti furthermore compared the community impact of handing down a guilty verdict to what it would have been like if the New York Sun had told Virginia there was, in fact, no Santa Claus. Instead he ordered restitution of the missing money to Mrs. Chalifoux and adjourned.

By then, the grizzled "hermit" had become a staple part of the local landscape, performing dances and songs at community events, and marching in many of Pittsfield's largest parades.  

His most acclaimed performance by far took place at the Majestic Theatre in 1922, when he gave an oration of his essay, "On the Relative Beauty of Man and Women," in which he challenged the accepted notion that women were "the fairer sex," before a combined audience of about 2,500 people. Some 1,500 were packed tightly into the North Street theater, and the rest crammed the Capitol and Union Square, where it was relayed to them via speakers.

"Are women handsomer than men?" inquired Joyful rhetorically, "Ask the question of one another and look around you upon the natural beauty of the speaker and the gentlemen here assembled."

A menagerie of examples from the animal kingdom he trotted out to make his case, from the lion to the peacock.  

"There is no doubt that woman is very beautiful, artificially, or accidentally. And woman are called the fair sex because they are always fair in dealing with men, if the men are out of their reach," maintained the orator. "Their fancy colored silks, satins, false hair, manufactured cheeks and peroxide of hydrogen blonde tresses, of course give them additional charm but WE do not need these deceptions to increase our beauty. We do not sail under false colors. You see us just as we are."

A roaring 5-minute ovation followed the conclusion of his speech.  

While one suspects its author may have been speaking with tongue planted firmly in cheek, there can be no doubt that he nonetheless took significant pride in his own appearance, particularly the flowing long hair to which he attributed the fact that he'd allegedly never been sick a day in his life. O.B. frequently posed for portraits by photographers, artists and art classes, including the Boston Museum School's summer session at the Berkshire Museum and Berkshire Art Association sketching classes. In 1944, he upstaged three much younger female models at a shoot with 25 photographers from Berkshire Museum Camera Club.

Toward the very end of his life, estranged from his wife and living alone in his withering house, Tyler apparently ended his longtime vegetarianism and took up the practice of eating raw meat.

He died in Northampton in 1961, at age 89, though the memory of him thrived. Nearly 55 years later, plenty of local residents still recall him fondly, and continue to share tales of him, some perhaps as apocryphal as the legends he told of himself.

A restaurant named in homage to him opened on Pittsfield's North Street in 1974, and quickly became a popular music venue. A somewhat awkward reception to new or innovative entertainment venues has long been a tradition in that city, however, and O.B. Joyful's was greeted with mixed sentiments locally. For its part, the county's dominant newspaper was quick to label any disturbance or criminal activity taking place on that end of the downtown strip as taking place "near O.B. Joyful's," a distinction that contributed to a somewhat troubled reputation for the establishment. It closed a few years later.

Today, his portrait adorns the painted horse that will one day be the lead horse for the anticipated Berkshire Carousel.

Beneath a surface that exhibited all the trappings of a simple life, Albert Tyler comes across to history a complicated man, a sometimes enigmatic trickster figure who became a beloved folk hero to his community. His life is paradoxical at every turn; a non-drinking bootlegger, a generous man who sometimes stole, a vegetarian turned raw carnivore, a gentleman who enjoyed great vanity in appearance yet seldom bathed, a technical bigamist who died alone, and a philosopher of deep truths who spun a personal mythology of whoppers his entire life.

Although his actions and practices may seem curious and at times even questionable, it is no doubt his words for which he will be most remembered, and with these that this short biography will close.

"I have traveled all over this country from Alaska to the far South, from San Francisco to New York. In my travels I always learn something new. I always remembered whatever pertained to nature and have come to the conclusion that human beings do not think enough," said Oh Be Joyful  in 1943. "If you and I stood before a large orange tree and I said to you, 'Pick an orange to eat,' you, of course, would look for the largest and best orange on the tree. That little story shows, in a way, I think I am picking the best in life when I say: Live close to nature."

This column is born out of an attempt to break new ground, or at least break out of a certain habitual mold of local history storytelling. While the Berkshires have enjoyed many great historians and much outstanding historical writing, it is my belief that there is a great deal that may have fallen by the wayside in its attempt to hammer out a unified narrative in its vision (and marketing) of itself. 

Tags: celebrity,   historical,   

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Lanesborough Finance Committee Supports Public Safety Building Article

By Brittany PolitoiBerkshires Staff
LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — A majority of the town's finance committee supports the nearly $6 million public safety building proposal. 
On Tuesday the panel OKed applicable articles for the Special Town Meeting on March 9, one of which is to raise and appropriate, transfer, and/or borrow $5,989,100 for a new public safety complex at 405 South Main Street.
Chair Jodi-Lee Szczepaniak-Locke has concerns with the project and voted in opposition.
"I am leery of supporting the project as it is right now," she said.  "I would be 100 percent for it if we could do it in stages."
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