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Sandisfield

Tucked in the county's corner, town is sparsely settled

Updated:   06/19/2007 05:33:53 AM EDT



Tuesday, June 19
SANDISFIELD — It's the largest town in Berkshire County by area (52 square miles), and also the most sparsely settled. Sandisfield. Its 763 year-round residents are scattered in five separate hamlets, and there's no well-defined town center, though commercial activity is centered in the New Boston community, where Routes 8 and 57 converge.

At the southeastern fringe of the county, it bears little resemblance to its neighboring towns to the north and west — except for remarkable scenery and a heavily forested appearance since very few farms survive.

Around 1800, the town had the fourth-largest population in the county — nearly 2,000 — and was highly prosperous as a major stage stop on the Hartford to Albany Turnpike.

The first settlers arrived in 1737, when the area called Housatonic Township No. 3 was purchased by investors from Westboro and nine meadow lots were laid out, according to the town's Historic Preservation Report filed with the state. Those lots were soon divided into 63 homesteads.

Members of the Sandys family was among the first arrivals in the remote South Sandisfield area along Sandy Brook; they were related to Lord Samuel Sandys, the first Lord of "Trade and The Plantations." Some sources list Daniel Brown as the first settler in the township.


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With water supplied by streams feeding into the Farmington River, the soil yielded rye, flax, potatoes and corn; hillside orchards produced cider.

By the mid-1800s, there was limited industry, including six sawmills, four smaller mills, four blacksmith shops, two chair shops, a shop that manufactured bedsteads, a tannery, a silk mill, a shingle mill and a wheelwright's shop. But the railroads bypassed the area (a proposed line along the Farmington River was abandoned in 1873), the town went into decline, many settlers departed and farms were abandoned. The population plummeted to several hundred.

But a few descendants of the early farming families stayed on. and the attractive rural qualities of the woodlands, the river and several lakes have attracted summer residents, who now occupy an estimated 60 percent of the town's homes.

A major back-to-the-land movement seeking to aid impoverished refugees from the pogroms of Russia and the Ukraine brought 35 families from New York City to Sandisfield in 1902, most of them Russian Jews. They opened poultry farms, located mostly in the southern end of town still known as Roosterville — which was also the scene of cockfights at the time. A New York City tailor, Solomon Pollack, is credited with leading the movement. Nearly 40 residents still identified themselves as Russian or Ukrainian, according to the 2000 federal census, and some of the family members are heavily involved in town government.

In August 1955, sections of the town were hard-hit by flooding from Hurricane Diane when the dam at Otis Reservoir was breached following 12 inches of rain.

Native Maurice Campetti, whose farm in the New Boston area was swamped, recalls that the floodwaters from the reservoir and from the Farmington River "took everything, including my cider mill, corn crib and creamery." He and his family were among those evacuated for at least a day until the floodwaters receded.

Damage was even worse to the east and in Connecticut; more than 180 people died, and damage regionwide totaled more than $800 million (equivalent to about $5 billion in today's dollars).

Today, the limited number of businesses operating in the town include the New Boston Nursing Home, the New Boston Inn, Carr Metal Products, several lumber mills, a few family-owned restaurants such as Villa Maria and Tucker's, along with many individual tradesmen and contractors.

The New Boston Store, owned by Peter Murray, is at the intersection of Routes 8 and 57; it has the only gas pump in town and is open from 8 to 6 Monday through Saturday and 9 to 5 on Sunday. It offers hunting and fishing licenses and is known for its homemade beef jerky. Although the store serves basic needs, it's a 20- to 30-minute drive for most residents to supermarkets and other services. Route 57 residents in Montville and West New Boston tend to head for Great Barrington, while others along Route 8 go to Southwick or Winsted, Conn.

The Sandisfield Newsletter, founded by Roberta Myers and published monthly, is staffed by volunteers led by designer Chapin Fish; about 2,000 copies are distributed free. The newsletter reports on community events and is chronicling the history of the town as recalled by natives now in their 80s.

The small Sandisfield school was merged into the Farmington River Regional School District; the new school complex on Route 8 in Otis serves both towns.

Despite education costs, including payments shared with Otis to repair the defective roof in the new school, the annual tax bill remains among the half-dozen lowest in the county. Property values also are lower than in most Berkshire towns.

Town Clerk Dolores Harasyko, a longtime resident, praises residents: "Everybody's so respectful of each other, they're so nice and very peaceful."

Her only complaints, echoed by other townspeople, are the "tremendous" increase in traffic along Route 8 — where narrow, twisting sections have contributed to a number of tractor-trailer accidents — and the lack of broadband Internet access — "very frustrating for everybody." As for the town's bargain-basement tax rate of $7.92 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, "nobody complains about it," she laughs.

Sandisfield has yet to be discovered by developers, much to the delight of full-time local residents. The main issue in the community is the challenge of funding and taking action on a 257-acre parcel of woodland donated to the town by the late Merwin J. Yanner a decade ago in order to build a park and recreation facility. The Friends of Yanner Park nonprofit organization is working with town government, but so far, plans seem to be bogged down by inertia.

The goals of the park supporters include a five-acre complex including a ball field and pavilion, playground and small ice-skating rink, along with picnic areas, walking trails, a horseshoe pit, and a horse trail. The Friends group is seeking volunteers and donations to raise the estimated $175,000 needed to create the facility. Fundraising to date is about $12,000, according to Liana Toscanini, chair of the Yanner Park Fundraising Committee.

The hope is to complete the park in 2012, the 250th anniversary of the town's incorporation. Some voters at the May 12 annual town meeting voiced frustration over the slow pace of the project's development, pointing out that the town has appropriated $5,000 a year for the past several years.

At the annual town meeting, 9 percent of the town's 525 registered voters approved the fiscal 2008 budget of nearly $2.1 million, an increase of only 0.5 percent from last year. But state aid has been reduced, so taxpayers will be footing all but $54,000 of the total — $168,000 more than last year. The town's share of the Farmington River School District budget was $907,000, an increase of $18,000 from last year. There was some debate over expenses related to special-needs students and continuing roof repairs for the nine-year-old school.

The Sandisfield Arts Center, at the intersection of Route 57 and Hammertown Road in the Montville section, is a focal point for performing arts events. The building, now on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1839 and served as a Baptist Meeting House for 83 years and then for another 75 as the only known rural Orthodox synagogue in the state.

It is the only Greek Revival building still standing in the town. In 1995, the Sandisfield Arts & Restoration Committee raised over $300,000 to save, repair and renovate the building. It won a state community preservation award for its efforts. A wide variety of performances attract visitors from a broad geographic area.

Well-known folk, jazz and classical musician Bill Crofut, a local resident who died in 1999, was a key figure during the center's first years; his wife Susan remains active as vice president of the arts center's board. (Information: www.sandisfieldartscenter.org.)

Liana Toscanini, great-granddaughter of legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini, arrived in town with her husband Richard Migot a decade ago after spotting an ad in The New York Times for a "charming 1750s house, originally a tavern and stagecoach stop. . . that needed cosmetic work."

After nearly a year as weekenders, the couple became full-time residents and Toscanini, a marketing professional who has operated a retail store in Great Barrington until recently, involved herself in community volunteer efforts, especially the Arts Center.

According to Toscanini, Sandisfield is "like a lot of Berkshire towns, a mix of locals and transplants. Of course, you're not local here unless your grandfather was born here but the two groups get along pretty well here, everything works well economically, since all the second-homers need caretaking and lawn-mowing, and we have plenty of people to do that kind of work.

Like any town, some second-homers "wish they had a say" in town government.

But, she says, "It's pretty peaceful and we don't have the contentious kind of stuff other town governments have. We try to make changes from the way things have been done, but nobody has time. There's not a lot of active politicking going on."

She points out that Sandisfield is one of the few towns in the county lacking an open-space plan.

Although she'd like to see "more professional people in town government," Toscanini explains that "we are largely pretty mellow here in Sandisfield, and any change will be slow and steady. It's a beautiful rural place, and everyone agrees they want to see it stay the same." She reports there's disagreement on how best to achieve that goal.

She extols the "scenic beauty, it's still really quite rural, quiet, with huge old maple trees, a lot of sense of history, lots of beautiful old houses and a great mix of people, Newcomers live here very comfortably, everybody seems to get along. There's a lot of activity here for a town in the middle of nowhere, but you make your own fun here. As retirees age and pass on, there's a shortage of new volunteers.

"We need some families to move here," Toscanini asserts, but the lack of broadband Internet access is a major impediment, making it difficult to create home-based businesses. She also cites the 20- to 25-minute driving time for shopping and services, and for some people, the lack of cable and town water and sewer service can be a problem. On the other hand, it's a safe area where many doors are left unlocked.

"Sandisfield: A Biography of a Town" by Anne Hoffman — whose father founded the synagogue — is the definitive history of the community, available through the Book Loft in Great Barrington.

 
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