Nestled quietly in the Berkshire Hills ... Alford


Tuesday, January 16

Nestled in a picturesque, tranquil valley, Alford is one of the county's most scenic, unspoiled and bucolic communities. In fact, residents boast that the relatively isolated town has "no stores, no motels or hotels, and not a single gas station."

Driving into town on East or West roads (the main drags), one can easily imagine being in Shangri-La. The picture-postcard town center includes a church, town hall and the former one-room schoolhouse — all historic, carefully maintained buildings. Long and narrow, the town lies between West Stockbridge and Great Barrington, along the New York state line.

The town was settled in 1750 and was home to the Shaunanum Stockbridge Indians, who ceded the land to a group of farmers in 1756. At the time, Alford was a part of Great Barrington, but settlers broke away and incorporated the town in 1773. Five years later, Great Barrington contributed more land west of Long Pond to Alford; another land donation followed in 1819. West Stockbridge contributed a chunk of land in 1847.

Growth spurt

After more than two centuries of remarkable stability (379 people in 1763, 399 in the year 2000), there has been a population "explosion" in the past six years.

The town counted 479 residents last year, and Selectmen Chairman Charles Ketchen attributes the increase to second-home owners deciding to make Alford their permanent, year-round residence. This influx offsets the departure of younger residents just out of school. Only four or five new homes were built last year.

Although the number of houses has tripled in the past 40 years, Ketchen says the town has succeeded in controlling development and sprawl through strict zoning bylaws (two-acre minimum, 250 feet of required frontage). It also adopted the restrictive Scenic Mountain Act last year and has increased its open space protected under Agricultural Preservation Restrictions.

No DSL service

Ketchen and Selectman Thomas Doyle agree that lack of broadband Internet access is one of the town's only major drawbacks; many residents maintain home offices and require high-speed connections. Verizon has no immediate plans to make its DSL service available.

The town is not served by cable; although Time Warner has been approached, there's no indication that it will extend its lines into the sparsely populated community, whose residents are spread over a large area. A citizens' group is spearheading private efforts to resolve the problem; Ketchen and Doyle say their success would require "pulling a magic rabbit out of a hat."

"The economics are stacked against us," Doyle observes. "There are tradeoffs for living in paradise."

For now, the only option for Alford residents is Internet service via satellite providers DirectTV and Dish Network; given the lack of cable service, the pizza-sized dishes are proliferating. Doyle notes that satellite service is difficult to afford for "retirees and stay-at-home moms." He also points out that the town's students often have to use library or high-school Internet facilities in Great Barrington to complete homework assignments.

State Rep. William S. Pignatelli, state Sen. Benjamin Downing, and state Rep. Daniel Bosley, are pursuing broadband and wireless access solutions on behalf of 14 small Berkshire communities.

Pricey, but simple

Alford has, by far, the county's highest average single-family home value at $526,386, according to the state Department of Revenue. But a low tax rate keeps the average property-tax bill at a surprisingly low $2,632 (up 3.8 percent from last year). Ketchen points out that this makes the community especially attractive to newcomers who can handle a high home-purchase price but need to keep recurring expenses moderate.

Town services are minimal and "limited to maintaining a place that's comfortable and simple," as the Selectmen put it — a transfer station and recycling center, a two-person Highway Department to plow and maintain 18 miles of town roads, and a small town-government staff. Ketchen describes the crime rate as "low to none"; state police from the Lee barracks are responsible for public safety. Alford is served by a volunteer fire department. Civic participation is high; there are 356 registered voters out of the town's 479 residents.

Respected residents

The town's best-known native resident was Susan Smith Andersen, who died in 2001 at the age of 101. She attended the one-room schoolhouse (which closed about 20 years ago) and graduated from the old Searles High School in Great Barrington. In 1920, she was the first female graduate of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She remained an Alford resident, heavily involved in civic affairs, for the rest of her life.

Another prominent local resident was Alma Husted Milligan, who was born in 1791 and died a month before her 109th birthday. She was held in such high esteem that, in her last years, schoolchildren got a vacation on her birthday, according to Alford's 2004 town report.

Two zip codes

Town offices are now in the old schoolhouse; the Town Hall, gutted by fire many years ago, was restored and is used for town meetings. But many vital records were lost in the blaze.

The town's three cemeteries are near-capacity, and the Selectmen are hoping for a land donation for additional cemetery space.

Selectman Doyle notes with amusement that, for a time, FedEx refused to deliver packages to Alfordians because its computers could not handle the fact that the town is covered by two zip codes.

After a couple of years, Doyle got through to a high executive at the company's Memphis headquarters. He pointed out that New York City has multiple zip codes — the only thing Alford and Gotham have in common. End of problem.


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