A 'neat mix of folks' populates one of the area's first towns

Tuesday, March 27
Lanesborough, one of the first towns in Berkshire County to be settled, is a community of sharp contrasts today — home of the Berkshire Mall, the town's largest employer, but still a largely rural area of sweeping mountain and lake vistas. To the west lies Potter Mountain, part of the Taconic Range, and to the east, the Hoosac Range, with Mount Greylock towering over the northern landscape and Pontoosuc Lake to the south. There are two population clusters — Lanesborough Village, along Route 7, and Berkshire Village, just off Route 8, with its own zip code.

The wilderness township just north of what was then called Shoonkeekmoonkeek Lake was formed by a petition from 76 residents of Framingham and other eastern towns in 1742. At first, settlement of Richfield, soon known as New Framingham, was sparse because of the ongoing French and Indian War. In 1756, a fort was established at the southern end of what is now Main Street to protect early settlers from Indian raids.

The town was incorporated in 1765, six years after a peace treaty ended the war, and was named for James Lane, Viscount Lanesborough in Ireland. An informal sister-city relationship has been developed with Lanesborough, Ireland.

In 1793, the northeastern portion of the town was annexed to Cheshire. By the early 19th century, Lanesborough counted two stores, five hotels, three tanneries, two hatters, five shoe shops, three tailors, a harnessmaker, five blacksmith shops, two cloth dressing and carding mills, two wagon makers, a grinding mill, five saw mills and a shop for making spinning wheels. After iron was discovered in 1847, the Lanesborough Iron Works employed as many as 200 men. At the same time, quarries were supplying much of the marble for the State Capitol in Albany, N.Y. The Lanesborough Cheese Factory, built in 1867, turned out 25,000 pounds of cheese per year.

Home to the largest triathlon

The humorist and author Josh Billings (1818-1885; nom de plume of Henry Wheeler Shaw) was the town's most famous resident during the 19th century. He was considered the second-ranking author and lecturer behind Mark Twain, though his reputation declined subsequently. His brand of down-to-earth folksiness infuses his verse: "I hate to be a kicker, I always long for peace, But the wheel that does the squeaking, Is the one that gets the grease."

In 1962, the owner of his lifelong home set fire to the property and its historic contents to protest a property tax increase.

The building was a total loss.

The 30th annual Great Josh Billings RunAground Triathlon will be on Sunday, Sept. 16. The event — whose course began in Lanesborough in the early years — is billed as the oldest and largest bike, canoe-kayak, run triathlon in the country. One of Billings's sayings, "To finish is to win," is the official motto.

A leading recreational resource is the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail, a paved, 10-foot-wide corridor that follows an abandoned railbed from just below the Berkshire Mall northward about 11 miles through Cheshire and Adams. Ashuwillticook is the Native American name for the south branch of the Hoosic River and means "the pleasant river in between the hills." The rail line carried freight from 1845 to 1990 under the ownership of the Pittsfield & North Adams Railroad, the Western Railroad, the Boston & Albany Railroad, the New York Central (as of 1900) and finally, in 1981, the Boston & Maine Railroad.

A big revenue source

Budgets and taxes are the prime concerns right now, according to Town Administrator Paul Boudreau.

"We have health-insurance costs going through the roof, school budgets are also increasing significantly, and revenue sources remain relatively stagnant," he says. "Our new governor recognizes this situation and is trying to do something about it, but I'm not sure the Legislature totally understands what's going on at the municipal level."

Boudreau cites a local-option meals tax as one additional source of revenue, and expresses regret that the Legislature is not keen on it.

"It's a really tough time, with no end in sight and no light at the end of the tunnel," Boudreau asserts. "Something drastic needs to change. ... The Legislature needs to give us more tools or a lot more money. This is not a fun time to be in this line of work."

As the biggest source of revenue for the town budget, the Berkshire Mall's success is crucial, and despite the closing of some smaller stores there, Boudreau sees the arrival of Target and Best Buy as positive signs. He's also encouraged that Federated Department Stores Inc., which took over Filene's, chose to keep the Berkshire Mall store open and re-brand it as Macy's.

Another major issue in the town is the dangerous condition of the Berkshire Mall Road, which connects Route 7 to the shopping center and to Route 8. Last August, town officials approved the transfer of $125,000 from the stabilization account to the Baker Hill Road District, which owns and maintains the road. The funds were designated for a redesign of the road, constructed hastily in 1989 when the mall opened.

Gae Elfenbein, who chairs the Select Board, says the redesign is nearly complete, and the project is "moving along" with state support. "Construction will hinge on when the state finances it," she said.

"The project has taken many twists and turns," Boudreau observed, "but it will be great when it's done. The road is an important regional connector between Routes 7 and 8."

A top priority cited by Boudreau and Elfenbein is a costly extension of sewer lines.

"There's a lot of pressure to get them, but whether we can pull it off, who knows?" Elfenbein observed.

Planning a senior center

Boudreau reports a sewer study is being conducted by Earth-Tech to identify priority areas in the town.

"It's very expensive and couldn't come at a worse time," said Boudreau of the potential project. "It's important for the future growth of Lanesborough, so it's an important economic and environmental issue for us. We're looking at various sources of funding."

An update to the town's 1965 zoning ordinance, based on a Regional Planning Commission study funded by a state grant, is under consideration.

"We have a lot of tourists coming through, and there's really no place for them to stop," Boudreau said. "A lot of commercial potential is being missed, and part of the problem is the way it's zoned. We're looking at a modification that would help boost the commercial sector."

Also on the front burner is the proposed construction of a senior and community center on a 20-acre parcel of land purchased by the town for $225,000.

As for communications, the town has a greatly expanded and improved Web site. Boudreau says DSL high-speed Internet access is widely available, but the cable company serving the town, Charter Communications based in Chatham, N.Y., gets low grades.

"We all hate Charter," says Elfenbein.

Boudreau, calling the cable service "terrible," recommends a satellite dish as a better alternative.

A 'neat mix of folks'

As a 35-year resident, Elfenbein is fond of the "neat mix of folks" in town, including multi-generational families and artistic types such as writers, musicians and potters.

She describes her main challenge as a town official as "the struggle between trying to educate people about how the town works versus deep-seated opinions based on nothing. ... It's really hard to get people to understand what we're doing."

Boudreau, the town administrator for the past nine years and a resident since 1980, has but one regret — the decline of dairy farming from three or four 25 years ago to none today. However, he points out, "there's still a lot of agriculture," including three farms operated by members of the Wirtes family. One of them, Bradley Farm, has an active retail operation on Route 7.

The town administrator voices enthusiasm about "a lot of great people who live here, and the scenic beauty.

"It's a very pretty town once you get off Route 7."


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