Visitors craving recreation infuse this small town
The town is in the heart of the eastern slopes of the Berkshires, an area often referred to as the "Hidden Hills," where there's no access to interstates and even the state highways (Routes 8 and 23) are often twisty and narrow; there are numerous back roads ideal for exploring.
Farmhouses, vintage general stores and down-to-basics eateries abound, giving the area a low-key ambiance in sharp contrast to the upscale tourist-oriented towns along Route 7.
Hundreds of cottages and summer retreats and some recently built, larger second homes combine with campgrounds, inns and bed-and-breakfasts to help swell the town's population from fewer than 1,400 permanent residents to as many as 10,000 during prime vacation time in July and August.
Residential properties are divided equally between permanent residents and second-home owners.
The town is spread out over 35 square miles, mostly along and on side roads off Route 8, which hugs the Farmington River and is the major state highway ferrying visitors from Connecticut into the Berkshires, and Route 23, which is the east-west connector across South Berkshire. Two state forests, the Otis Reservoir, the nearby Big Pond, Shaw's Pond, a number of smaller lakes and ponds are among the magnets that attract vacationers.
The East Otis area, adjoining Tolland in Hampden County, includes the reservoir now a vast recreational waterway and Berkshire County access to Tolland State Forest. It maintains a distinct identity, with its own zip code and post office.
The area known as North Otis, along Route 8 toward the Becket line, is home to the Otis Poultry Farm, no longer a community of chickens but an increasingly active retail operation popular with visitors and local residents. (A few roosters are brought in to add atmosphere during the summer.) West Otis, along Route 23 (Monterey Road), is located around the intersection of Town Hill Road and Tyringham Road.
Otis had several identities before its incorporation as a town in 1810. At the time, Townships 1 through 4 were laid out in 1737 (Tyringham, Becket, New Marlborough and Sandisfield), the area that became Otis was first known as Province Land, with Glasgow (later Blandford) to the east. The community included the early settlements of Bethlehem, incorporated in 1789, and Loudon, incorporated in 1773 and named for Lord Loudon, commander-in-chief of American forces in the French and Indian War of 1756.
Bethlehem was annexed to Loudon in 1809, and the following year the town was renamed for Harrison Gray Otis, a leading state politician who was speaker of the House of Representatives and later served as state Senate president. Farming was the town's bedrock occupation, but by the mid-1800s, there were two ironworks, a carriage shop, several saw mills, a rake factory and a furniture shop.
Outdoor recreation gradually became the town's major drawing card, with anglers especially drawn to the freshwater fishing along the narrow, winding Farmington River, which originates at Shaw's Pond. The town is now home to young families, a large number of retirees (including some "snow birds" who flock to Florida or the Southwest in the winter) and the seasonal homeowners and visitors.
Vintage Americana prevails in the summer, with old-fashioned church suppers, craft fairs and block dances open to all.
"It's a small community, where everyone knows each other and helps each other," says Lyn Minery, the town clerk and a third-generation Otisian. The only downside she cites is the availability of broadband Internet access, currently limited to a three-mile stretch along Route 8 in the center of the town.
Minery notes that there is plenty of construction under way; newcomers are about equally split between permanent residents and second-home owners.
The annual town meeting last Tuesday night was a brisk, one-hour gathering of 80 voters (out of a total of 1,017). They funded a new town administrator position at a yearly salary of $60,000 (several candidates have been interviewed). The town budget of just under $1.6 million (up 5 percent from the current year) was approved quickly, as was town's assessment for the Farmington River School District, nearly $1.62 million (a 6 percent increase from the current spending plan). Additional spending, including specific requests endorsed by the Selectmen and the Finance Committee, brought the total to just more than $4 million.
Farmington River Elementary School on Route 8 serves nearly 200 pre-K through Grade 6 students from Otis and Sandisfield. The new school, completed in 1998, developed roof problems, which an arbitrator ruled last year were no longer the contractor's responsibility since the warranty had expired in 1999.
The town of Otis allocated has $300,000 this year from free cash toward the necessary repairs. Sandisfield is sharing the expense. The two towns previously split a $140,000 bill for a quick fix in 2004. The major repairs are expected to begin next month.
At today's annual town election, voters are being asked to approve a $150,000 Proposition 2 1/2 override to help fund the fiscal 2008 budget, including the cost of the school roof repair. In the only contest, Selectman Donald Hawley, who has served as chairman for the past three years, is being challenged by Frank Caruso.
Among the town's best-known landmarks is the Otis Poultry Farm in North Otis (1570 North Main Road, Route 8), until last year a working chicken farm established by David and Rebecca Pyenson around 1904.
The Pyensons, who had emigrated from Minsk, Russia, were part of a settlement group of farmers and others sponsored by Wolin's summer resort, a popular group of boarding houses at the time. Poultry farms were already proliferating down the road in Sandisfield.
Motorists are amused by grinning chicken cartoon cutouts on sheets of plywood. There's no chance of overlooking the spot, what with signs like "Otis Chickens Retirement Plan: Roasters, Fricassee, a la King, BBQ," and "Limited Edition Eggs. Only Laid Once."
Chickens and eggs were sold from the start; the second-generation, Max, now 90, and Audrey, now 86, added staples such as bread, cheese and milk. The third-generation brothers, Steve and Andy Pyenson, have revamped and expanded the business into a large, well-stocked country store, a 10,000 square-foot roadside destination with home-baked breads and fruit pies, as well as the establishment's famous chicken and turkey pies. Farm-fresh eggs are still sold, though the thousands of resident hens have been relocated to another farm. Also available are a wide selection of wines, gourmet foods, local cheeses, home-made fudge, candy, cookies, a toy store-within-a-store, and an extensive variety of sugar-free products.
Hot Chicks, a cafe that opened last summer, serves moderately priced all-day breakfast, lunch and slices of 25 different pies. Menu choices include Chicken Feed (eggs with hash browns), Big Bird's Omelet, Rooster's Choice, Little Peepers (selections for kids 10 and under) and "Hen-Sized Portions" for less hearty adult diners.
Gift selections include sheepskin slippers and moccasins, classic wooden toys, maple products and candles (1-800-286-2690 or www.otispoultryfarm.com).
The Boston Globe once described the place as a "general-store-gone-wild that can bring out the kid in almost anyone. Shoppers of all stripes prowl the crowded aisles, including black-clad New Yorkers killing time before a summer performance at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in neighboring Becket."
"We had 6,000 laying hens, and we had to feed 'em, process the eggs and worry about the power going off," Andy Pyenson, 56, said from behind the counter on a quiet day last week.
He and his brother Steve, 63, worried about avian flu and doubted the operation could be cost-effective and profitable.
"You work with chickens for 50 years, and finally one day you say to yourself, what are you doing?" Andy observed, adding that he doesn't miss the chickens and "I'm working half-days, 6 to 6!"
He has two concerns about the future of Otis "we're growing too fast," he complained, pointing out a new house up the road, on the market for $899,000. "People are coming up from the cities, they can't stand it down there. There's a big influx, and I'd like to see it slow down. The trouble is, the kids growing up here can't afford to stay, because of the housing costs, even if they can find jobs."
He's not sure yet whether the fourth generation of Pyensons will want to stay, though "it would be nice to keep this going."
In another example of major change, J&D Marina on Otis Reservoir has been sold, and the new owner is planning a condo development, with prices expected to range from $750,000 to well above $1 million. Existing services for boat-owners will be maintained through this summer.
To a visitor who first explored Otis during the 1960s, the center of the town appears virtually unchanged, spared from much of the residential and commercial over-development that has altered the appearance of many other Berkshire communities. While it's no longer a time-standing-still town, it still retains the earthiness and un-gentrified quality that has endeared it to residents and visitors for nearly two centuries.