But the town has now been transformed into a tourist-oriented center for skiing and summer outdoor fun all centered around Jiminy Peak, the state's largest ski area, developed by President and CEO Brian Fairbank into a full-fledged four-season resort and vacation home community rivaling competitors in southern Vermont.
Nonetheless, the many multi-generation, deep-rooted families that still make up the majority of the population are fighting valiantly, and successfully so far, to retain the rural characteristics of the town.
Hancock is remarkable for its geography its 20-mile length and three-mile width is the longest and narrowest in Berkshire County and all of Massachusetts. Some formidable hills and 6,600 acres of the Pittsfield State Forest split the 36 square-mile town into two distinct and widely separated communities: the major portion of the town in the Jericho Valley, and the smaller section of homes and businesses from the Pittsfield border westward to the state line on Route 20. People from this area who need to do business at Town Hall must travel nearly 20 miles, westward into New York state and then north along Route 22 into Route 43, which becomes Main Street back across the Massachusetts line. Heading northeast, Hancock borders South Williamstown and even shares the same phone exchange with the Village Beautiful.
Named after iconic American Revolution leader John Hancock, the town was incorporated on the same day the Second Continental Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence July 2, 1776. Ever since, the community's residents have been known for their independent streak, and even today, four out of five voters are registered as independents.
It all began as the Plantation of Jericho, a King's grant distributed in 1762 to the Douglas, Hand, Gardner, Goodrich and Brown families in the two-state border region. Asa Douglas from Canaan Center, N.Y., received the largest grant 1,000 acres. His son, Captain William Douglas, moved to Jericho with his wife in 1765. The family homestead, Shumway Farm, can still be seen today on Osgood Road, just over the state line in Stephentown. Asa Douglas led a company of soldiers at the Battle of Bennington during the Revolution, according to the Hancock Historic Preservation Report on file with the state.
One of the nation's largest Shaker communities was established around 1790 in the southern portion of Hancock, adjacent to what was then West Pittsfield, along Route 20. The communal religious sect was devoted to pacifism, celibacy, basic architecture and furniture a stoic, barebones lifestyle.
The living-history museum and village that thrives at the site today was developed and financed by the Miller family and other Pittsfield community leaders after the last residents moved away in 1960. The museum attracts an average of about 60,000 visitors a year. The town has approved a full but conditional liquor license for the facility, primarily for special events serving donors and benefactors. A final ruling is pending from the state ABCC in Boston.
The town's recent population surge is caused by "a lot of single homes being built, as well as hundreds of large condos at Jiminy Park, some of them with year-round residents," explains Select Board Chairman Sherman L.
"We're a much more palatable resort area now," Derby observes, citing additional cultural activities and improving amenities in Pittsfield as incentives for prospective residents of his town. "Some people move here because they like the golf courses over there. We have to work in unison with other communities to keep things going." Acknowledging that Jiminy Peak is "our industry" (the resort achieved a record single-day attendance of 5,538 skiers on a recent Sunday), Derby expresses regret that the soaring price of land and homes is pricing out many of the town's younger residents.
But even though some 10-acre lots have been on the market for $200,000, he sees development pressure as under control, since it mostly centers around the Jiminy Peak area, and there's a current dearth of sellers though that could change at any time.
"Our older generations own the bulk of the land," he says, "and at some point they may want to liquidate."
Taxes not a burden
A major attraction for newcomers, as well as long-time residents, is the easy-to-bear tax burden, thanks in large part to the town's revenue from Jiminy. The preliminary residential tax rate of $4.17 per thousand of assessed valuation for the upcoming fiscal year is the state's lowest. Last year's tax bill of $845 for the average property valued at $202,616 was also the lowest. (With revaluation still under way, this year's figures are not yet available, according to Tax Collector Julie Williams.)
Derby acknowedges that the town's zoning pendulum has swung dramatically.
"We had one of the strictest zoning laws in the state 25 years ago," he recalls, observing that a relatively unrestricted era has been followed by the current middle-of-the-road approach.
"We have a strong Board of Health," he notes, adding that developers can win approval only if they meet all of the necessary criteria, such as being sufficiently removed from the narrow valley's flood plain. "Our topography doesn't lend itself to flat developments," according to Derby, who praises the "hard-working volunteers" who staff the town's boards and departments.
The town's relative isolation and large, spread-out land area leads to logistical problems. "It's very difficult to manage three phone systems and two fire departments," Derby notes. "It's not an easy community."
Residents share phone exchanges with Pittsfield, Stephentown, N.Y., and Williamstown, depending on where they live.
Derby says litigation is contemplated against Verizon because on longstanding, unresolved complaints about poor phone service in the northern part of Hancock, adjacent to South Williamstown. "A recent survey of 40 homeowners there found 11 reporting poor service. Some of these people are in their 80s or 90s, and they're in trouble if they can't call out to 911."
Derby, 66, recalls the time when there were 25 working farms in Hancock. Don Quimby's spread is the only milking dairy operation surviving today. But Ioka Valley Farm, operated by several generations of the Leab family, offers seasonal educational entertainment, including late-winter demonstrations of its maple-sugaring operation; its Calf-A serves breakfast on weekends through early April. The place, filled with cows, llamas, ducks, sheep and many others, is a paradise for kids and animal-lovers of all ages. So far, the family has resisted the siren call of developers who are eyeing the property that's within sight of Jiminy Peak.
"The Leabs are making a choice to keep Hancock rural," says Derby approvingly, adding that some former farmland elsewhere in town is now under state agricultural preservation restrictions.
Derby and other residents go out of their way to express pride in the Hancock Elementary School on Main Street at Whitman Road. It currently serves 45 students from pre-K through 6th grade. According to Principal Mary Ellen Donna, a personalized, dedicated approach is emphasized by the school's three full-time and two half-time teachers, augmented by visiting specialists for art, music, computer science and physical education.
She also cites the cooperation and full involvement of the parents. The school has just celebrated its annual Unplugged Week; students avoid TV, computers and electronic games in favor of nightly events such as a pot-luck supper and bingo, a free book supplied by the parents, a family science fair, as well as an art show and musical (last week, it was "The Sound of Music"). The school, which had only a very informal grading system in the past, now has a more traditional approach in order to smooth the transition to middle school and high school. Most students attend Mount Greylock Regional in Williamstown, although some go to New Lebanon (N.Y.) High. The Hancock school is part of the independent Mount Greylock School Union, along with Lanesboro and Richmond; the superintendent of the mini-district is William Ballen.
The community spirit focusing on the school is just one reason Derby is "always happy to come home" after his frequent worldwide travels. "It's the rural character, the people who live here, the 84-year-old and 91-year-old volunteers. I would never leave here.
"I used to know all the neighbors," Derby continues, citing the influx of newcomers as the most dramatic change he has observed in his lifetime.
But simple hometown values continue to prevail. "The community might argue, but we stick together," Derby declares.