Monterey: Second-home owners occupy two-thirds of this farming town

Saturday, April 14
Just a few miles east of Great Barrington but seemingly in a world of its own, Monterey is among the county's most independent-minded communities, oriented toward farming, conservation and environmental causes.

The town is holding on to its one-room schoolhouse, even though only about five students are enrolled. The town has attracted artists, writers and craftspeople, many of whom have established home businesses.

According to Town Clerk Barbara Swann, a native of the town, second-home owners now occupy two-thirds of the town's residences, many of them clustered around Lake Garfield, Lake Buel and the private Stevens Pond.

"Some of the most honest people I know live here," says Swann, "but I wish we had a higher percentage of year-round residents. I like the summer residents as far as I know them, but I don't know them as well, and I regret that."

She says more of them might settle in the town as full-timers when they retire if public transportation were available, and if Internet and cell phone communications could be improved.

Although the average property is valued at $451,372, fourth-highest in the county (behind Alford, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge), limited services and a determined effort by town government to keep expenses down result in a relatively affordable average tax bill of $2,437, based on a current tax rate of only $5.40 per $1,000 of assessed value.

The town lies along the Mill River, and includes a portion of Beartown State Forest. Its many scenic views include an especially notable and often photographed vista from Lake Garfield.

Although among the earliest settled, Monterey was one of the last communities in the county to become incorporated as a town.

According to the official town history, the Massachusetts Legislature carved out building lots in four townships in 1735 to protect and develop land along the major route connecting Boston with the Connecticut Valley and the lower Housatonic Valley — then a wilderness trail. Tyringham, including Monterey, was among the four, and one of only two on the trail's northern end.

Since the earliest settlers arrived in 1739, Monterey had been part of Tyringham and was known as South Tyringham. Captain John Brewer built the first saw mill in 1739 on Konkapot Brook, a tributary of what was then known as Twelve Mile Pond (now Lake Garfield). The Captain John Brewer House (also known as Ledge Gardens) on Main Road, built around 1750, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

According to Select Board Chairman Michael Storch, the story goes that the development of industry along the Konkapot Brook caused Tyringham residents at the time to seek a formal separation from Monterey.

It was named in 1847, the year of incorporation, in honor of the U.S. victory in the hard-fought Battle of Monterrey, near the end of the Mexican-American War.

In the mid-19th century, Monterey already was providing a bucolic retreat for city residents, as summer homes and boarding houses began to dot the landscape. Major attractions, then and now, include Lake Garfield and its town beach, Lake Buel (shared with New Marlborough), Benedict Pond within Beartown State Forest, and Mill River, known for its trout fishing.

Farming, always a major element of the town's economic fabric, has retained a strong foothold. Among the working farms is Rawsonbrook, home of the famous Monterey Chevre goat's cheese, Lowland Farm, noted for maple syrup production, and Gould Farm, a therapeutic community which sells its own produce and offers breakfast and lunch at the Roadside Store and Cafe on Route 23.

The Monterey General Store, which was founded in 1780, has recently started offering musical entertainment at night. It also has a canopied deck overlooking Konkapot Brook.

Other major landmarks include the United Church of Christ, across Route 23 from the general store, the Bidwell House Museum and the Monterey Meeting House.

The church now serves as an informal community meeting place and hosts the Monterey Coffee Club, which meets 7 days a week from 8 to 10 a.m. As many as 20 people gather, Storch notes, a diverse group that includes natives, old-timers, former corporate CEOs and presidents, lawyers and other professionals.

"This is really what America is all about," he says. Coffee costs a dollar a cup, half of which is donated to the community, and the rest to the church.

A monthly pot-luck dinner also is held in the church basement, attended by about 40 people. "It's a great place to get together, and everybody contributes something to eat," Storch says.

The survival of the town's one-room schoolhouse seems assured for now. It is part of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District, and only town meeting voters can shut it down. There have been no moves to do so, according to Storch, who says a recent informal meeting produced a consensus to retain the school — a stand supported by the Select Board.

The Monterey School serves about five students in kindergarten and grade 1. With one teacher, Storch describes the expense as "minimal."

"Closing it would mean an end of an era for the town," Storch maintains.

Older grade-school students attend the New Marlborough Elementary School.

The Select Board chairman, who is about to retire from town government, cites the lack of broadband or DSL Internet service as a major problem. Only some parts of the eastern section of town are now covered.

Monterey is officially classified by the state as "under-served" by high-speed Web providers. Cell phone service is non-existent; Storch says it would take three towers to serve the hilly terrain of the spread-out community.

"People come here to get away from the city," notes Storch, who's a refugee from the urban canyons of Manhattan. "People could stay here and work from home if these services were available."

"It's a terrific place to live," he remarks, "but we could use more people."

Swann, the town clerk, says a master plan is in the works. She believes development such as cluster housing and development in the front of the town's deep lots is needed because "local kids are not always able to live here unless their parents planned ahead, because they can't afford the land. Families buy a place while their kids are young, and sell it when they are unable to keep it up.

"Since we have an upscale community, many of the kids are able to go where they want to go, and some will return to become summer residents," she continues. "If there were reasonable rules for subdivisions, set-asides, we might able to keep some of our pretty sharp kids. Otherwise, we'll have fairly rapid turnover every 15 to 18 years or so, and more strangers coming in."

Swann enthuses that the town is "almost paradise, a haven for peace and quiet.

"But the stresses come from the attempt to try to preserve that peace and quiet while enabling part-time residents to live here for a much greater part of the year and to and to telecommute," she adds. "It's an ideal location, with intelligent, likable neighbors, if we could have all those communications services and manage the growth."


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