The windswept, somewhat barren landscape is relatively wild, dominated by scrub spruces and pines resulting from a history of forest harvesting, and also typical of a higher-elevation environment. The town sits astride the southern spur of Vermont's Green Mountain range. The growing season is several weeks shorter than lower-lying surroundings, and there's a fierce black-fly season from late May until the beginning of July.
The principal landmarks are the steeple of the First Congregational Church and a communications tower looming over the community. Natives like to point out that the roof of the church is the dividing line between two watersheds: raindrops hitting the church roof flow into the Connecticut River watershed on the east, and into the Housatonic on the west.
For people seeking respite from the fast-paced pressure of contemporary life, the area is ideal for "getting away from it all." Many residents gladly exchange long commutes to work for the pleasures of life in a remote country setting.
In 1762, Massachusetts Gov. Francis Bernard and two investment partners, Elisha Jones and Olver Partridge, speculated in unincorporated land being auctioned off by the Commonwealth within Northern Berkshire Township No. 2. Sixty-three farm lots were set aside for homesteaders, who began moving in two years later; the town was incorporated as Partridgefield on July 4, 1771, and at the time included much of what became Hinsdale and a small portion of Middlefield.
Early pioneers migrated to the mountaintops, motivated by fear of fever lurking in the river valleys, and dread of Indians who gathered mostly in the lowlands.
In 1806, the community was renamed Peru because townsfolk thought Partridgefield was too long. The new name was suggested by the Rev. John Leland, pastor of the First Congregational Church, who said: "It is like the Peru of South America, a mountain town, and though there is no gold and silver under the rocks, our town favors hard money and begins with a P.'"
A Federal-style church was designed and built in 1808 by Shadrack Pierce as the "Peru Meeting House." Remodeled in 1848, it was destroyed by fire in 1895. It was rebuilt within a year; current membership is down to about 20, down from 60 in 1971. Many residents of other denominations attend churches in Hinsdale, Dalton and Pittsfield.
Main Road (Route 143) was once a stretch of a stage line connecting Boston to Albany and was known as the Third Massachusetts Turnpike starting in 1797 (tolls were eliminated in 1829). The stagecoaches stopped at Peru to give the horses and passengers refreshments.
The town was prosperous in its early years; the 1800 U.S. census counted 1,361 residents, more than Lee, Lenox and Dalton at the time. But its location at a great distance from stage lines and railroads helped cause a decline in its fortunes, along with the particularly harsh winters caused by its high elevation. Early residents migrated westward to the towns where jobs were plentiful. One-hundred years ago, the population had fallen below 200, and it bottomed out at 108 in 1930. In 1971, only 289 people lived in Peru.
More than half the town's land area is woodland, much of it now owned by the state.
"There's not much of a center to the town," observes Dorothea Kuehnl, chairwoman of the library trustees.
Although it's primarily a bedroom community now, early settlers thrived despite thin soil, thanks to potato farming, sheep farming and the harvesting of Christmas trees, some of which were sold on State Street in Chicago, Kuehnl says. Several sawmills, a cheese factory and a small limestone quarry operated at one time.
Unlike most other Berkshire communities, little can be seen now of the town's early history. The original Old Center School burned down in 1950.
The Creamer, the only store in the town, and the closed Post Office were purchased and removed to a museum village at Moodus, Conn., in 1973. The general store had been opened in the late 1800s by Frank G. Creamer, an entrepreneur and politician who became known as Peru's "Mayor."
In recent decades, low housing prices, the wide-open spaces and sense of privacy have attracted newcomers living elsewhere in Berkshire or Hampshire counties who commute to Dalton, Pittsfield, Lee, Springfield and Northampton. A few GE workers, formerly employed in Pittsfield, were transferred to Schenectady, N.Y., in recent years and their round-trip commute is about three hours a day.
Nearly 900 people now live in the town, dispersed widely over its 26 square miles. Peru is zoned agricultural-residential and some residents who don't work elsewhere have small owner-operated businesses, such as the Windy Hill Kennel and a number of contractors and construction operations. Camp Danbee, a sleep-away camp for girls, operates in the summer on the shore of Ashmere Lake.
"We used to have square dances and spaghetti suppers," Kuehnl recalls. The Community Center adjacent to Town Hall is now used to host holiday parties for the town's children.
Town Clerk S. Christine Richards moved "into the woods" of Peru from nearby Hinsdale 18 years ago, with her husband Edward, who now serves on the Select Board.
"We love the peace and quiet up here; the people are great, the lifestyle is very relaxed," Chris Richards says.
She offers high praise for the three-man Highway Department, which clears the snow and maintains the roads, so no one is confined at home following winter storms. "I can get out of my house at 5 in the morning," Richards notes.
Peruvians are served by a volunteer fire department, with trained EMTs; however, there is no ambulance service in the town. A part-time police force is augmented by State Police from the Cheshire barracks, when needed.
Residents can get rural mail delivery from Hinsdale, or they can rent post-office boxes in that town just a few miles to the west.
Select Board Chairman Douglas Haskins reports that, subject to voter approval, the annual town budget for the next fiscal year will be $1.5 million, an increase of only 1.5 percent from this year.
The town's assessment for the Central Berkshire Regional School District is $808,895, and another $170,000 is budgeted for tuition and transportation for 10 schoolchildren attending vocational programs at Taconic High in Pittsfield, McCann Tech in Pittsfield and Smith Tech in Northampton.
"We'll run the town on $500,000," he observed, with the highly praised Highway Department and its three-man staff as a major line item.
"Health insurance is up, we'll be giving raises to the Highway Department men, and we'll be asking for a new truck for the department," said Haskins.
The annual town meeting is on Saturday, June 2, at 7 p.m. Haskins expects a turnout of 50 to 60 residents out of about 425 registered voters "it's usually the same people."
Haskins reports that 70 building permits were issued last year, reflecting increased construction activity in the town as new residents move in a mini-population boom during the past few years.
"It's peaceful here, you don't have to worry about anything except the critters," said Haskins, noting the presence of bear and moose in his backyard.
Visits to the supermarket require a drive of at least 12 miles to Pittsfield's shopping centers. According to Haskins, residents don't mind the trip "off the mountain" for food and supplies.
Cell phone service is available through some carriers in certain parts of town; some residents gain high-speed Internet service through satellite providers, while a few others have access to Verizon DSL.
Haskins, who moved to Peru from Pittsfield in 1981 and commutes to his job as a mechanic for the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority in Lee, noted approvingly: "You gotta want to live in the middle of nowhere to live up here."
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