The town serves a virtually year-round influx of visitors and about 30,000 residents of neighboring towns in the tri-state region.
But it all began quietly in 1726 as Upper Housatonnuck, a "tract of country, wild, forbidding and destitute of roads other than the Indian trail," according to an early history of the town. "It was better known to the neighboring New York border, whose traders were accustomed to visit it for the purpose of traffic with the Indians, than to the more remote inhabitants of Massachusetts.
The Mohican Indians, having left their ancestral territories to Dutch settlers in what became Columbia County, drifted over from the Hudson into the new wilderness of the valley they called Housatonnuck ("over the mountain"); the river Housatonic, now took its name from the valley.
At the time, the settlement was called "the Great Wigwam" by the whites; the Stockbridge Indians called it Mahaiwe, the "place downstream."
From 1742 to 1761, the community was the North Parish of Sheffield.
A town of firsts
During the American Revolution, the town was among the earliest sites of organized resistance to British rule. Shays' Rebellion was triggered by widespread poverty and the inability of people to pay taxes, resulting in some of the town's leading citizens being hauled off to prison. Great Barrington was the county seat until 1787 when Lenox, and later Pittsfield, took over that function.
Modern electricity, and General Electric, had its roots in Great Barrington, where a water mill served as an 1886 experiment to drive an alternating current generator.
Civil rights leader, author, scholar and African nationalist W.E.B. (William Edward Burghardt) Du Bois, one of the NAACP's founders, was a Great Barrington native, born in 1868. It took the town until this century to formally honor him after his self-exile to Ghana, his perceived anti-Americanism and his membership in the Communist Party. He died in Accra, Ghana, in 1963 on the eve of the March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King.
No stranger to controversy
In recent years, Great Barrington has had no shortage of long-running controversies especially the urgent need for a new fire station to replace the dilapidated, century-old facility on Castle Street. Seven locations have been considered over the past six years three times, voters have turned down proposed sites.
The down-at-the-heels Broverman Block on State Road (Route 7 and 23) has now emerged as the Selectmen's official choice, following an agreement in principle with the multiple-parcel property owners.
Town Manager Burke LaClair, nine years in the post, stresses the need for precise cost estimates prior to the special town meeting April 9 for voter approval, which requires a two-thirds majority. If approved, a ballot question would be required at the May 21 annual town election; a simple-majority vote would be needed to exempt the bond needed to finance the project from Proposition 2 1/2 levy limits.
LaClair puts the rough ballpark estimate of the project (including construction, ancillary costs and property acquisition) at around $10 million, depending on the cost of acquiring the property, as well as the final design and floor plan.
Selectman Anthony Blair, who has chaired study groups on the project, is upbeat about the Broverman Block site.
"We need a new fire station, we can't put our firefighters at risk," he declared. "I hope the voters will understand how important it is to our infrastructure and to public safety.
Selectman Douglas Stephenson noted that some residents "blame elected leadership" for the project's delay, but "it's much easier to get people to vote against something than for something. ... Only the town meeting will decide where it will go. Town meeting is incapable of making the wrong decision."
A dispatch decision
The Selectmen's decision to transfer the police department's dispatching responsibilities to the Berkshire County Sheriff's Communications Center in Pittsfield, along with overall police staffing levels, is another hot-button topic. The police union has been waging a high-visibility, public campaign through the media and at a recent Selectmen's meeting against the outsourcing of the dispatch function following an impasse in collective bargaining on the issue.
A citizens petition may result in a vote at a special town meeting, but LaClair points out that town counsel has confirmed that such a vote would be advisory only, and thus non-binding.
"The lobbying effort by the Police Association ... is an outlet for letting their frustrations be known," according to the town manager. He says he maintains an open mind on the police department's stated goal of additional officers (12 are now budgeted, but only 11 are on duty) if specific data confirms the need for more staffing. A new computer system that just went on line will help generate the needed information.
According to LaClair, emergency dispatching by a uniformed officer is no longer the norm in the nation or the county, and he asserts that outsourcing that function would provide additional manpower on the street. The senior officer on the night shift "would have the choice of being on patrol or in the office as needed," LaClair maintains.
Selectman Blair stresses the need for "efficient use of funds" in the police department. He points out that when people use the callbox outside the police headquarters when it's closed after hours, the message would be relayed promptly to local officers on patrol.
As for the ongoing tussle over the behavior of youth congregating downtown, LaClair views it as reflecting the community's "good fortune of being a place where people want to hang out, young people included. It continues to be challenging. and additional officers walking the street certainly helps."
"There's no magic solution," LaClair adds, pointing out that an additional police patrol running from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. year-round is being planned.
Blair notes that 50 years ago, young people "were known and recognized. ... Now young people are seeking to be recognized, perhaps dysfunctionally, since negative attention is better than none at all. ... Adults should make an effort to get to know these kids; this would get at some of the root issues in the community rather than symptoms."
And Stephenson cites "two or three young people who are problematic and are giving all teens a bad name. The young people in Great Barrington are no different from any other town. They have as much right to be there as anyone else. There are some boisterous, obnoxious young people hanging out downtown, Are there some boisterous, obnoxious older people hanging out downtown? You bet!"