Tuesday, June 26
SAVOY — Driving the byways of this northern Berkshire hilltown — no highways, except for Route 116, which connects to Adams and Plainfield — a visitor is impressed by the extensive woodlands that dominate the area, as well as the unspoiled look of this early Colonial settlement.

With elevations ranging from 1,700 to 2,500 feet on the crest of the Green Mountains' Hoosac Range, the landscape is rugged and rough-hewn. Along with some of the small communities in the county, this is a town that is in close touch with its past, while resisting commercial and development pressure that has altered the look of larger Berkshire communities.

When the Bay State Colony (Massachusetts and Rhode Island) auctioned off property in the still wild far western frontier to raise money, Northern Berkshire Township No. 6, which also included portions of Cheshire and Florida, was purchased by Able Lawrence in 1762. But he failed to divide and deed the six-square-mile territory as required, claiming a real estate fraud because the land turned out not to be as advertised during the auction.

Five years later, it was back on the market and by 1771 was transferred by state lawmakers as a grant to Col. William Bullock of Reheboth. Bullock was the lucky recipient of the state's largesse, since he represented the heirs of the victorious veterans of the French and Indian Wars of the 1640s.

Settlement began in 1777 and by 1787, Capt. Lemuel Hathaway and 34 other families arrived from Plymouth and Bristol counties, most of them Narragansett Baptists. Some descendants of the original settlers still live in the town.

As a wartime souvenir, the head of an Indian warrior chief (with the improbable name of King Philip) slain in battle went on display in the Rhode Island home of the Leonard family before they relocated to Savoy.

Family members elected not to bring the head to their new homestead in the Berkshires.

Incorporated in 1797, the speculation is that the town was given its name because it resembled the mountainous Western European region of Savoy (derived from a Celtic word meaning forest) bordering Switzerland and Italy, eventually annexed by France in 1860.

While water is plentiful, the rocky, mountainous land of Savoy in the Berkshires is not kind to crops and has been best suited for grazing.

Fluctuating population

The town prospered during the first half of the 1800s, with the population peaking at 955 in 1850. There were print shops, tanneries, box manufacturers, a modern steam sawmill, a large lumber mill, five restaurants and three hotels. By 1876, the F.W. Beers Atlas of Berkshire County reported seven schools, nine sawmills, a blacksmith shop, two stores and 145 dwellings.

Known for its tolerance of a wide range of religious denominations, the town had churches to serve Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, Adventists and Shakers.

According to Town Clerk and local historian Jane Phinney, the Shakers were especially active in the town between 1815 and 1821, before they decamped for New Lebanon, N.Y., because of a plague of locusts and adverse weather. But some returned later, and at least 10 are buried in the so-called Shaker Cemetery near Tannery Falls in Savoy Mountain State Forest.

Seventy soldiers from Savoy fought for the Union during the Civil War, and 11 of them were fatally injured or succumbed to disease. The first Union soldier to be buried in North Berkshire was Edward Sherman, 17, who died of typhoid poisoning, Phinney said.

Remote from railroad lines and industrialization in the county's larger communities, and beset by harsh winter weather and difficult terrain, Savoy saw its population plunge in half during the late 19th century.

But the town has retained its allure for those seeking peace, quiet and outdoors recreation. The population now is relatively young by Berkshire and statewide standards, with only 10 percent over 65.

Dominated by state forest

Savoy Mountain State Forest dominates the area, and includes mineral springs and the splendor of Tannery Falls. Sports enthusiasts flock to the Westford River, well-known for outstanding fly fishing.

At the annual town meeting on May 9, voters approved a $1.65 million budget, a $90,000 increase reflecting higher tuition for students attending the Adams-Cheshire Regional School District and McCann Tech in North Adams. Also approved was $220,000 in borrowing over a 10-year period for a new Highway Department truck and $13,000 for fencing at the transfer station to keep bears out. The new property tax rate is $10.77 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

Joseph Bettis Jr., a member of the Select Board and a 10-year resident of the town who relocated from Adams, cites "the rural character; it's quiet, spread-out, peaceful and a nice place to live."

He described residents as "warm and welcoming to newcomers."

"A lot of people think it's too far away," he added, "but it's only 10 or 15 minutes from Adams."

As is the case in 15 Berkshire communities, broadband Internet access is limited, although some parts of town have it. Because of the mountainous terrain, cell phone service is "pretty poor," Bettis says.

A major priority in town is the need to maintain local roads. Bettis said that since state aid is "not as much as we want," highway maintenance has been "tough on the budget." Roads that are in the worst shape will be the first targeted for upgrades.

Upcoming wind project vote

In the months ahead, a Planning Board bylaw regulating wind-turbine projects will be put before town voters, though no date has been set. Bettis said he "hopes" for a vote in July. The bylaw, three years in the making, is intended to protect the town, he explained, and includes a 350-foot height limit. He declined to predict the outcome of the vote.

According to Bettis, the Minuteman Co. is expected to propose a wind-turbine installation atop West Hill on property owned by Harold Malloy. No formal plan has been presented to the town yet; Bettis said the company is awaiting the outcome of the vote on the bylaw proposal. If the company pursues the project, ZBA approval of a special permit would be required.

Bettis believes there's favorable sentiment among residents for a wind-turbine project "as long as it's done correctly."

As more people discover the charms of Savoy, there's a mini-boomlet in housing and, unlike many other Berkshire communities, the population is stable and even shows a modest increase since the year 2000.

Despite the inconveniences of distance, limited high-speed Internet access and poor to non-existent cell phone service, newcomers are likely to continue trickling in, attracted by the tranquility as well as affordable housing and relatively low property tax bills.

Phinney, the town clerk, is a 25-year resident and lives in the last Shaker house still standing in the town. The house was built in 1811 by Oren Haskins, a noted craftsman of Shaker furnishings.

"I love the honesty of the place," Phinney enthused. "It's not just the people, it's just something about the way you have to live here. There's an honesty about having work a little harder and not have things right at your fingertips. It's clean, beautiful, and there's something about a town like Savoy that's right in your face."