One of the earliest Berkshire County settlements, it was carved out as the six-square-mile Township No. 2 in 1735 by the Massachusetts General Court (original name of the state Legislature). Situated along the wilderness trail that connected the lower Housatonic Valley to the Connecticut Valley and Boston, the town was surveyed and the "proprietors" purchased the land from the Indians for 300 English pounds, said to be the highest sum paid for land in the area. The original 63 lots were laid out to accommodate 60 residents who were granted homesteading rights, plus one for a school and two for ministers.
Benjamin Wheeler was the first settler to build a house in 1739. By 1759, the town was officially incorporated, and during the town meeting of 1774, the residents declared their support for the principles of the U.S. Constitution being prepared in anticipation of a victory in the Revolutionary War against England.
Besides New Marlborough Village, initially an agriculturally based settlement south of Dry Hill, four distinct communities developed Clayton (formerly known as East Sheffield, annexed from the town of Sheffield in 1871), Mill River, Hartsville and Southfield with the rapidly flowing Konkapot River providing enough water power for up to 15 mills at different times.
Stagecoach lines were the main form of transportation as manufacturing expanded to include grist and cider mills, a box factory, and the Sheffield Clay Works in what's now Clayton, which supplied the major paper mills of New Marlborough. The stage lines eventually gave way to railroads.
Tourism developed gradually during the 19th century, gaining momentum in 1878 when a boarding house was developed in buildings abandoned by the South Berkshire Institute, a private boarding school.
Nearly half of the town's properties are second homes now, but many vestiges of the early days remain. The Meeting House, displaying Greek Revival architecture as designed by Henry A. Sykes, was built in 1830. A major restoration of the roof and steeple began in the summer of 1996, requiring the copper dome to be lifted to the ground by a crane.
A monument stands on the Village Green to Elihu Burritt, known as "the Learned Blacksmith," who came to the town in 1830 and eventually was a leader of the world peace movement.
A landmark destination for visitors is the Old Inn on the Green in a bucolic setting of rolling fields and meadows. Originally a stagecoach stop along what is now Route 57, the dining rooms offer an intimate setting with candlelight and an upscale New England menu; dining al fresco is offered seasonally in a canopied garden terrace adjoining the taproom.
Upstairs, there are guest rooms with antique furnishings. Executive Chef Peter Platt, formerly of the Parker House in Boston and Wheatleigh in Stockbridge, has been widely recognized for his innovative American cuisine; in 2005, he and his partner Meredith Kennard, along with investors, purchased the inn for $2.2 million from former owners Bradford Wagstaff and his wife, Leslie Miller. The restaurant has received top rankings from Zagat's and Travel & Leisure.
Wagstaff and Miller retain ownership of the adjacent Gedney Farm, which offers accomodations as well as facilities for wedding parties and other special events in its restored Normandy-style barn and in the nearby Mepal Manor, a 100-year-old manor house with a dozen rooms for guests and a modern spa, opened two years ago on the site of the former Kolburne School.
The Buggy Whip Factory in Southfield is an antiques center. The Southfield General Store is about to reopen under Peter Platt's ownership. There's also a general store in Mill River, but no gas stations in the town.
"There's a great character to the town," says Tara White, who grew up on Blue Hill Farm and has lived in the Southfield section ever since. She is about to begin a term as chair of the Select Board, on which she has served for two years.
Spotty Internet, cell phone use
The only drawbacks she cites, in common with a dozen other rural towns in the county, are the lack of broadband Internet access and non-existent to spotty cell phone service, depending on where you are.
The eventual solution may involve new technology, she predicts, noting that the town is "outlying, off the beaten path" and especially challenging because of its geographic size and hill-and-valley terrain.
"When you decide to live in a rural area, you have to understand you won't have all the conveniences," White observes. "You choose to live in a rural area because you love it, but you have to realize there are some things that are not going to be perfect, so you kind of take the bad with the good."
Another major challenge is maintenance of the town's 90 miles of roads, nearly half of them dirt. "People who move out here have to understand that it's bound to be muddy in the spring," she says.
Echoing officials in other towns, White expresses a strong hope for more state aid, and anticipates $40,000 to $50,000 more than last year's basic $223,000 in Chapter 90 funding (augmented slightly later in the year).
"It's very, very difficult when you have this many roads and some have fallen into disrepair because they needed some work a while ago, but we weren't able to get to them, so we have roads continually getting worse," according to White.
"We're all struggling here," she acknowledges, referring to the state budget squeeze. But she expresses typical small-town, can-do optimism: "We're making plans, doing what we can do, looking ahead to the future and working on all the things we know we need here. Hopefully, by next year we'll have accomplished them. We have to look to what we can do, we have to be positive and optimistic. Somewhere along the way, we'll catch a break. We may be a little disappointed we can't get it all done immediately, but what we can do, we'll do it well."
With town services limited to roads, schools and police, the tax rate is low (currently $5.68 per thousand dollars of assessed value) and, although property values are high, the average tax bill is a moderate $1,443 this year.
"Our general government is pretty good, we've been fortunate that our boards have tried to be as conservative as they can," White declares. A severe backlog in local tax collections was cleared up several years ago, White reports, and she credits the current tax collector, Bill Garrett, with "working very diligently on keeping up. We have basically collected all those in arrears, and things are going quite smoothly now."
White acknowledges that residents understand the challenges of dealing with the roads "to a certain extent, but they do get frustrated over things." She points out that her own road was washed out recently, and she had to detour through Connecticut to get to Southfield, "but it wasn't anybody's fault; it happened, we deal with it. Generally, people are very good, and we do the best we can to address their complaints. Volunteerism is very important, we have a lot of very knowledgeable people in this town, and they have a lot to offer us.
"That's the great thing here," White sums up. "It's what New Marlborough has always been about people working together, even though it's not always easy."