Extensive wetlands, lake and trail protect this peaceful community ... Cheshire

Tuesday, January 30
With an idyllic setting in a peaceful valley between Mount Greylock's southern foothills and North Mountain, part of the Hoosac Range, Cheshire lies midway between Pittsfield and North Adams and serves as a bedroom community for both cities. With the 500-acre Hoosac Lake (also known as Cheshire Reservoir) and the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail along the shoreline, outdoor recreation is among the town's prime assets.

A tour through the town offers a vista of Middle Americana — New England-style — with well-kept homes dominating the landscape. McMansions are rare, and there is little evidence of poverty. Community pride is evident throughout.

Were it not for limited available land for development because of extensive wetlands, the town would be a likely target for dramatic growth. Instead, the population has shown virtually no change in the past five years — despite the attraction of one of the county's lowest tax rates and the resulting moderate property-tax bill.

Originally part of North Berkshire Township No. 6 (which also included parts of Savoy, Adams and Lanesborough), the land was purchased in 1766 by Rhode Island Baptists descended from followers of Roger Williams, the famed advocate of religious freedom. At the time, Berkshire County was dominated by Puritans.

Colonel Joab Stafford beckoned nearly a dozen other families to settle on what became known as Stafford Hill. The Pioneer Monument, built in 1927 by the Sons of the American Revolution, honors Stafford, who was famed as the leader of Cheshire's troops who performed admirably in the 1777 Battle of Bennington. Elder John LeLand arrived in 1792 as a preacher and, later, a national political figure.

A cheesy tribute

Led by Leland, Cheshirites were the county's only supporters of Thomas Jefferson in the presidential election of 1800. As a tribute, the town sent President Jefferson a 1,235-pound slab of Cheshire cheese, with curds from every farmer in the area, already a center for dairy production. The cheese — four feet round and 18 inches thick — was hauled on a sled drawn by six oxen to the Hudson River, where it was shipped to Washington as an 1802 New Year's Day gift. Jefferson was touched, and sent back a thank-you note.

A monument in the town commemorates the event, including a replica of the original cheese press in Leland Park. During the 19th century, the town center shifted toward the Hoosic River so that water power could be harnessed for industries, which included the Berkshire Iron Furnace, Dean Saw Mill and the Cheshire Shoe Factory. The state's earliest plate glass was manufactured at the Crown Glass Co., which opened in 1812 and became the town's largest employer. The town also had tanneries, saw mills and forges. It had the first factory in Western Massachusetts to manufacture cotton-making machinery. Shoemaking also helped the town prosper.

The town's 'devil'

Ironically, the Hoosic River — once the town's economic mainstay — is now described by Town Administrator Mark Webber as "a devil" and by Select Board Chairwoman Carol Francesconi as the town's major problem. The buildup of silt combined with blockages of beaver dams and debris, including brush and downed trees, has triggered damaging floods in recent years — especially in October 2005. Residences and businesses have been affected on Route 8, Main Street and Notch Road.

"We've been trying to identify the sources of blocking, and we've been clearing a pathway by removing dead trees and debris," said Francesconi, adding that the town is seeking expert help on whether to draw down Hoosac Lake as a partial solution. That step would require approval by the state's Department of Environmental Protection.

The headwaters of the Hoosic River's South Branch, which coincidentally flows north, form the three basins of Hoosac Lake, behind the dam built in 1877 on the lake's northern edge. Badly needed repairs to the dam are nearly complete.

According to Webber, "incremental progress" is the best description of the effort to clean up the river.

"You can't always hit a home run," he noted.

Francesconi doesn't expect to see a complete cleanup in her lifetime.

Development 'done right'

The Regional Planning Commission is helping create a map identifying flood-prone areas — a requirement if the town is to receive federal and state aid to deal with flood hazards.

Hoosac Lake has been bedeviled by a weed problem caused by Eurasian milfoil, much to the consternation of lakeside homeowners. But chemical treatments during the past few years have helped ease the problem and proved to boost boating and other lake recreation. But bass fishermen complain that the chemicals are disturbing the fish population.

A concession stand, Lulu's by the Lake, serves rail-trail users at Farnam's Crossing. Setbacks have included the closing of the Lakeside Restaurant (expected to reopen soon) and of the Country Charm restaurant (which may become an auto dealership), as well as of Christina's Restaurant.

The town has been wrestling with several subdivision proposals, including one on Wells Road (likely to forge ahead), Sandmill Road (doubtful) and, soon, a portion of Gulf Farm.

"We have a lot of protected land and farmland under agricultural preservation restrictions," Francesconi noted. "Our major concern is that development be done right."

Trying to keep tax rate low

Town budgets have to be held on a tight leash, according to Francesconi, because the town's ability to raise taxes is near the limits imposed by Proposition 2 1/2.

"The fire department needs a new truck," she noted, "but the highway department takes the biggest hit, and road and sidewalk repairs have to be put off."

Final property-tax rates for the upcoming fiscal year have not yet been determined following the first complete property revaluation in 10 years.

"A lot of values will go up," said Francesconi, but there's also likely to be a tax-rate decrease to try to ease the impact of rising home values. The current rate, $10.19, is one of the lowest in the county.

"We're a working-class community," she observed. "We try to provide everything citizens need in terms of town services, and we try to keep the tax rate low."

So far, Cheshire has been notably successful in walking that precarious tightrope.


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