Clarksburg: Everybody knows everybody in this classic middle-Americana town


Tuesday, February 06
Clarksburg no longer has the 78 farms that dotted the peaceful valley between North Adams and Stamford, Vt., in the 1890s, but the close-knit town of mainly lifelong residents still offers a panorama of classic middle-Americana. The 1960s pop hit "Pleasant Valley Sunday" comes to mind when a visitor drives through the community of neat homes and historic buildings, which runs seven miles east to west and two and a half miles north to south.

The town's appearance seems close to the reality, as Debora LaFave, a native who chairs the Select Board, describes the town as "a place where everyone knows everyone else."

"We could be Norman Rockwell's Christmas card!" she exclaims. "We're a bedroom town with a lot of open space, nice country-style houses, a good school system, where everything is going well."

A few, scattered early arrivals appeared in 1764, but the township dated its official settlement as 1769, when Captain Matthew Ketchum, Col. William Bullock and Nicholas Clark came with their families. The small community, incorporated in 1798, was named for Clark, and the first generations of settlers farmed the fertile valley west of what's now Route 8, along the shoreline of the Hoosic River's North Branch headwaters.

Evolving industries

In that area, the self-contained village of Briggsville developed around the first wool mills constructed in the early 1800s. By 1829, there were four mills. During the 1860s, three powder mills produced black gunpowder valued at $36,000 — a considerable sum at the time. One of them, the E.R. Tinker mill, exploded in May 1869, putting an end to that industry in Briggsville.

The economic setback proved temporary. In 1866, a brick mill housing the Linwood Woolen Company was constructed for the weaving of cashmere. Twenty years later, the work force numbered 140, and the booming village sported a saw mill, a grist mill, two stores and a new brick school.

LaFave notes that many residents still refer to Briggsville when they visit the area, which remains home to several businesses in a retrofitted, refurbished old mill building. They include Cascade Paper, Period Lighting, and R.I. Baker, a machine shop, industrial supplier and installer of sprinkler alarm systems.

Rising property values

Despite her pride in the town, LaFave acknowledges some pitfalls just ahead.

The state's property reassessment, completed last year, yielded an average increase of 30 percent in the value of Clarksburg homes. While the property tax rate is dropping from $11.57 to $9.23, that reduction of about 20 percent won't be enough to offset the higher values. Many residents will be facing higher property taxes, which averaged $1,442 last year — fourth-lowest in the county.

"Some people are worried," LaFave says, adding that the delay in sending out third-quarter bills because of a new computerized billing system doesn't help. As a result, those bills and fourth-quarter bills are both due on Saturday, May 5, and she's encouraging people to pay the third-quarter bill ahead of time if they can.

Awaiting state funding

Another concern is the cost of removing the Briggsville Dam, which is estimated at $700,000. It's one of the many dams in the state that has outlived its economic usefulness and also has safety issues. A state grant is being sought.

The town's kindergarten through eighth-grade elementary school, which now serves 190 students, is also on the waiting list for state funding to repair and redesign the aging facility.

But it can, and usually does, take years for reimbursements to appear. Besides, as LaFave notes, the state seems strapped for cash, and the level of lottery aid to towns and cities is in doubt.

Two new residential developments have been completed, one of them with expansive, luxurious homes uncommon to the town. Zoning bylaws have been revised, creating three areas for potential industrial development to augment the town's primarily residential tax base.

Budgeting always at issue

Town Administrator Michael Canales shares the concern over forthcoming state aid, pointing out that last year's total reflected a return to year 2000 levels, after four years of decline. He has been wrestling with a trimmed-down town budget and has been pursuing efficiencies and savings wherever possible, such as consolidated departmental services and shared Internet lines. A necessary upgrade for the police department's communication systems has been completed.

Employee cutbacks have been avoided; Canales points out the town operates on lean rations anyway. There's a three-man highway department, and one full-time police officer, who doubles as chief, and five or six part-timers, allowing 24-7 staffing.

The Town Hall heating system has been upgraded, and Chapter 90 state aid has allowed necessary road work to be completed.

"It's tough running a budget at tight levels, what with mixed messages from Boston, some positive and some negative," Canales says. Other than the annual town budget, the annual town meeting in May is expected to be routine.

Despite bumps in the road, LaFave remains upbeat, explaining that the discussion has reminded her why she finds Clarksburg such a pleasant place to live.

In a town where change comes slowly and traditional virtues and values dominate, it's likely that many share her sentiments.


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