The Becket Athenaeum, located in the former First Congregational Church of North Becket, has a collection of more than 23,000 books. It is open three
The Becket Athenaeum, located in the former First Congregational Church of North Becket, has a collection of more than 23,000 books. It is open three half-days a week. Photos by Caroline Bonnivier / Berkshire Eagle Staff


Tuesday, January 23
As one of the most sprawling, scenic hilltowns in the county, Becket is rural, remote and dominated by second-homers, who own 55 percent of the residential property.

Home to the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, several venerable summer camps, the Becket Arts Center and the offbeat Dream Away Lodge, the town has vast woodlands, as well as lakes, ponds and brooks. It shares with the adjacent town of Washington the 16,500-acre October Mountain State Forest, the largest of the state-owned forests.

The town was originally known as Plantation Number 4 when it was first settled in 1740, one of four towns along a wilderness trail stretching from the lower Housatonic Valley to the Connecticut Valley.

In 1780, the Revolutionary War patriot and silversmith Paul Revere made the bell that hangs in the tower of the First Congregational Church on YMCA Road.
In 1780, the Revolutionary War patriot and silversmith Paul Revere made the bell that hangs in the tower of the First Congregational Church on YMCA Road.

As a frontier town, Becketeers formed the nation's first self-supporting Congregational Church in 1798, a pioneering concept at a time of squabbling among competing religious groups seeking taxpayer-funded support.

Early industries

Utilizing the vast expanse of woodland, a saw mill was established by the earliest settlers in the mid-18th century. The town's lumber industry thrived through the 19th century, along with dairy farms, raw silk processing and other industries such as basketry.

When tracks for the Western Railroad were laid in 1840, much of the population along what is now Route 8 shifted five miles northward from Becket Center to Becket Village.


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A disastrous flood in 1927 wiped out much of the town's industry, although granite quarrying continued in South Becket until the 1960s, along with one paper mill. (The Becket Land Trust has carved out a scenic trail in that area, where remnants of the quarries can still be seen.)

Attracting more fishermen

The Westfield River, along the town's northern border, remains a mecca for fishermen. A landmark, the town-owned Ballou Dam, was removed last month as part of a federal, state and local partnership; state engineers had deemed it a high-hazard structure that had long outlived its economic usefulness. Constructed 150 years ago to harness power for the area's mills, the original wooden dam was washed away in the 1927 flood; it was replaced by a concrete structure that powered a nearby basket factory until that business burned down in the 1960s.

The nearby upper Silk Mill Dam was removed in 2003. The eight-mile Yokum Brook, no longer harnessed by the dams, now flows freely to the Westfield River. And the river, with its continuity restored, once again can serve as a spawning ground for Atlantic salmon and Eastern brook trout.

A handmade sign in Becket hints at the rural nature of its back roads. With only a handful of businesses in the town, most residents commute significant
A handmade sign in Becket hints at the rural nature of its back roads. With only a handful of businesses in the town, most residents commute significant distances to Pittsfield, Lee, Springfield and even northern Connecticut; average commuting time for all employed residents is 31 minutes, one of the longest in the state.

Town officials were relieved.

"The state says we're responsible for inspecting the dam, and the inspection alone would cost about $5,000," said Town Administrator Richard Furlong. "And with whatever repairs we'd have to do, you have no idea how expensive it could get over the years."

Disassembly of the dam, a $300,000 project, was big news in the town. Students from the Becket Washington School cheered when an excavator knocked the concrete block down and dragged it away, the Associated Press reported. The students — whose school overlooks the dam — have spent the past few years participating in a program with Trout Unlimited to restock salmon in the watershed.

A horse enjoys an afternoon at Sunny Banks Ranch, which hosts riding lessons and an occasional rodeo.
A horse enjoys an afternoon at Sunny Banks Ranch, which hosts riding lessons and an occasional rodeo.

"This dam was a big part of the area's industrial past," said Tim Purinton, a river restoration planner for the Riverways Program. "Now, its removal can help the local economy by attracting more fishermen."

A second-home town

Furlong, the town administrator, says the biggest issue now facing the town is a revamping of zoning bylaws, which a committee is preparing in time for the annual town meeting this spring. Furlong cites a "phenomenal" number of housing starts and development pressure.

The town is also examining the potential relocation of the Highway Department garage, which is in a flood-prone area.

A  poster of the newspaper page is available.
A poster of the newspaper page is available.

Furlong sees the proliferation of second homes as an overall plus for the town, since part-time residents don't send students to the Central Berkshire School District and make few other demands for services from the town.

He expects resolution of a tax-rate dispute with the state Department of Revenue shortly; he forecasts an $8.40 property-tax rate, down from $9.26, though some homes recently have been reassessed at significantly higher values.

The town has several major private communities, including Sherwood Forest, Sherwood Greens and Becket Woods. Once primarily catering to summer residents, these self-contained developments, with their own road districts and homeowners associations, are filled by a growing number of year-round residents, mostly retirees.

A legendary lodge

The Dream Away Lodge, hidden away on an obscure county road on private land in October Mountain State Forest a stone's throw from the Appalachian Trail, remains a legendary roadhouse. In the past, it has been a hunting lodge, a speakeasy and (some say) a brothel. It became an Italian restaurant in the 1940s under the ownership of Maria "Mama" Frasca and her three daughters. In 1975, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Thunder Revue (including Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Allen Ginsberg, Ramblin' Jack Elliott) spent the day there.

The Dream Away, owned by Daniel Osman for the past decade, continues to serve dinner, offers a Wednesday evening hootenanny and Sunday brunch, and hosts folk and blues singers in a funky, '60s atmosphere.