The statue of an elk was erected as a symbol of peace and brotherhood on Route 2 in the town of Florida. Photos by Caroline Bonnivier / Berkshire Eagle
The statue of an elk was erected as a symbol of peace and brotherhood on Route 2 in the town of Florida. Photos by Caroline Bonnivier / Berkshire Eagle Staff

Tuesday, February 27
This small, isolated but pristine hilltown atop the southern flank of Vermont's Green Mountains and the northern flank of the Hoosac Range has one of the coldest, snowiest micro-climates in Berkshire County.

So, the town's name has always intrigued and amused new arrivals and tourists as well as longtime residents.

In 1939, as part of the Great Depression era's Federal Writers' Project on the history of the county, the Berkshire Hills Conference (the tourist agency at the time) offered this theory: "In 1805, when the town was incorporated, there was talk of the United States purchasing the territory of Florida from Spain. The new village among the mountains chose the name of the flat, tropical region of palms and pelicans.

A humorous sign welcomes drivers headling east on Route 2.
A humorous sign welcomes drivers headling east on Route 2.

Perhaps an overdeveloped sense of humor on the part of the town fathers contributed to the extraordinary choice."

Town Administrator Susan Brown, whose family has been in Florida for more than two centuries, offers an alternative explanation: The first arrivals, reaching the area in late spring, were impressed by the prolific mountain laurel on the hillsides, so they thought of Florida and so named the settlement.

These days, Floridians boast the lowest property-tax burden in the state (just more than $1,000 per year for the average home), as well as abundant, four-season outdoor recreational attractions.

The eastern part of the town, in a valley along the Deerfield River, apparently was first settled in 1766 and may have been called Zoar at that time. During the Revolutionary War, a band of pioneers nearly perished from the cold while attempting to traverse the hilltops to the west in mid-winter.

The first settlers arrived "on the mountain," as residents still call their home, in 1783. Before its incorporation in 1805, the town was part of the Bernardston Grant and the Bullock Grant.

Farming was the main occupation, though the high elevation (averaging nearly 2,000 feet) limited crops to potatoes and other hardy root vegetables like carrots and turnips, as well as maple sugar and wool.

The Florida Baptist Church is located on Church Road in Florida.
The Florida Baptist Church is located on Church Road in Florida.

After 1825, residents migrated to new factories in the nearby towns, and agriculture began a long, gradual decline. In the late 1800s, Florida did have several saw mills and a wood pulp mill. Despite a drop in the population, the 1876 F.W. Beers Atlas of Berkshire County showed 83 homes, five schools, a post office and a church.

'You can't get takeout'

Natural landmarks include a portion of the Savoy Mountain State Forest, the Twin Cascades waterfalls and the Whitcomb Summit (2,172 feet), which is the highest point on the tourism-oriented Mohawk Trail (Route 2), and includes a seasonal motel and cabin complex. Several miles away, the eastern summit sports a gift shop.

Trout fishing on the Deerfield is rated as outstanding. As in many of the county's smaller towns, residents extol the quiet peacefulness and the scenic beauty.

"We have really spectacular views and people know each other quite a bit," said Brown, the town administrator. "We're independent folk, but we lend a hand to a neighbor."

Asked about any drawbacks to living in Florida, Brown laughs, pointing out that "you can't get takeout." Cell phone service, she says, is "better than it was: We have Cingular on one side of the mountain and Verizon on the other." Broadband Internet access remains unavailable, a problem common to about half of Berkshire County's smaller towns. Television reception generally requires a satellite dish.

The town's sole retail business is Martin's General Store, purchased from the previous owners nine months ago for $275,000 by Jeff Martin, an area native, and his wife Sharon, who's from Boston.

"You can find pretty much everything here," said Sharon Brown, "including dairy, soda, beer and wine, deli items, homemade muffins, soups and sandwiches, and we'd like to add pizza eventually." Lottery tickets are available; gas pumps are a possibility in the future.

Energizing the town

A major issue in the town is the proposed $40 million wind energy project, which would place 20 turbines on adjacent one-acre sites, with some spacing in between. The site involves hilltop land owned by the towns of Florida and its remote neighbor, Monroe, the PPM Energy Co.

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

 (the U.S. subsidiary of ScottishPower), and by several private property owners.

Gov. Deval Patrick recently signed special legislation enabling the towns to begin negotiations for a payment in lieu of taxes agreement with PPM. A prospective lease agreement is already on paper; voters in both towns need to give final approval to the deal.

A sampling of sentiment in Florida through a non-binding resolution three years ago yielded a 3-to-1 margin in favor of the project. According to Brown, Monroe residents are nearly unanimous in their support of the project.

Two citizens' groups and the Green Berkshires environmental group challenged the project in a still-pending appeal to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Brown notes that the project would make the area "a leader in renewable energy resources in the Northeast." Energy from the turbines would feed power to the grid that would serve some 9,000 homes.

Preliminary estimates indicate the town of Florida would gain $100,000 to $150,000 or more in tax revenue or payments in lieu of taxes. Brown says the additional funds would help renew the town's infrastructure.

Although property values doubled as a result of revaluation, the low tax rate ($7.14 per thousand of assessed value) remains a bargain.

As a result, Floridians may expect to see a continuing, modest influx of new residents — just the opposite of the trend in Berkshire County as a whole and many of its larger communities.