West Stockbridge: Our County, Your Town

Tuesday, July 31
WEST STOCKBRIDGE — Nestled in a valley between Alford and Richmond, just down the mountain from Lenox and Stockbridge, this town has seen an explosion in real-estate prices as out-of-towners discover its ideal location and its spacious vistas, once home to scores of farms. The average property-owner is shouldering the second-highest annual tax burden in the county on average (only Williamstown is higher), and about 40 percent of the town's homes are now seasonal or part-time residences.

However, the downtown area is vibrant with restaurants, shops, galleries and well-established businesses, including Baldwin's authentic old hardware store and the vintage general store across the street.

The tax burden is "very stressful for locals," acknowledges Select Board Chairman Curt Wilton, now in his second three-year term. He has been the highway superintendent since 1997 and is a third-generation native; his grandfather, 97, still lives in town.

"For the folks who have been here forever, their house hasn't increased in size and value," Wilton notes. "When someone comes in and builds a big house, and developers plug in McMansions, it boosts the value of the land and starts squeezing them. I don't see a lot of young people buying houses."

Wilton points out that there's no industry in town to help the tax base, so there's no miracle cure: "It's basically the residents who are the taxpayers; the schools need their money, the town needs its money. The revaluation over the past two years really shocked the world here."

According to Wilton, town department budgets have been level-funded, which actually amounts to a decrease in view of inflation. The police department under Chief Karl Cooper (whose contract is under renegotiation) includes a full-time officer and up to six part-timers; Wilton says the police are on patrol from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. six days a week, and noon to 9 on Sundays.

The volunteer fire department under the chief, Peter Skorput, expects a new mini-pumper rescue unit by the end of this year, funded by an anticipated grant.

Wilton supervises three full-timers in the Highway Department, including a buildings and grounds worker, and there are five staffers at Town Hall, including Mark Webber, the half-time administrative assistant.

Others include the town clerk, the tax collector, the town accountant and the treasurer.

The town is pursuing state and federal funding for a $1 million-plus Main Street rehab without jeopardizing angled parking, apparently supported by a majority of residents. "People love coming to the town," Wilton asserts, "but the way it looks now, it's a tad primitive. It looks the way it looked in the '70s, and we love it; we want to keep the look of the street the way it is, but to upgrade it."

An open forum for residents is planned shortly to detail the downtown revitalization plan.

"We don't like traffic lights, and we'll get rid of the one we have," says Wilton, referring to the temporary light directing traffic across the one-lane Shaker Mill Bridge while it's reconstructed, due for completion by November. "No McDonald's, no gas stations, no Home Depots here!"

Wilton is proud of what he terms the "booming downtown; I've seen it come and go over 42 years, but lately it's been bumper-to-bumper and the parking lots have been full. We have Baldwin's, the biggest little hardware store, we have water and sewer, we even have public restrooms."

The big excitement in town, Wilton and other town officials agree, is the impending relocation of town offices and the library from the old Town Hall on Main Street to the refurbished Village School building, expected in September or October amid pomp and ceremony. "It's a brand-new facility," Wilton explains, "with plenty of space for offices; some people think it's a lot of money, but you have to have pride in the community."

The facility is expected to have a campus-like atmosphere, serving as the heartbeat of the community; it includes athletic fields and a recreational area.

Wilton is hoping for a grant to fund construction of a senior center as part of the complex. The project has cost $2.6 million, funded by tax dollars, and Wilton is firm in declaring that there will be no cost overrun.

The future of the current Town Hall is still undecided; a local volunteer group has talked of a mixed-use public building with business tenants on the ground floor, and a meeting room with a historical museum on the second floor. The town also could sell the building, although it's on a side of Main Street that's zoned residential except for the grandfathered Card Lake Inn. "If you keep it as a public building, you'd have to dump some money into it," Wilton asserts.

West Stockbridge has a rich history, encompassing the waxing and waning fortunes of its five villages.

Originally known as Queensborough (or Quapaukuk, as the native Americans called it), the town was formed from the western portion of Indiantown (later Stockbridge), a sizable territory sold to European settlers by Mahican tribal chief Konkapot in 1724, as well as a long corridor along the New York state line known as the "Gore." The territory running from the State Line area of West Stockbridge south through West Center and Alford was in dispute and town historian Robert Salerno cites historical accounts reporting that shooting broke out after the American Revolution before New York and Massachusetts finally apportioned the area.

The first known settler in Queensborough was John George Easland, a soldier stationed at the fort on the Abbey Farm on North Plain Road in Great Barrington; historical accounts report his arrival in the West Center portion of the "Gore" in 1758.

Other early homesteaders were Col. Elijah Williams of Stockbridge and Joseph Bryant of Canaan, Conn., who arrived in 1766, followed by 40 other families by the time the town was incorporated in 1774.

Early settlers from West Stockbridge fought in Canada during the French and Indian Wars. One of them, Nathaniel Wilson, escaped capture by the Indians only by hiding in a hollow log, so the story goes. The Indian scouts trailing him decided the log was empty when they saw a spider web covering the mouth of the log, and he escaped, returning home to West Stockbridge, where he raised 21 children. David Bradley, who served in the Revolutionary Army for 17 years, returned home to a family that eventually included 10 children.

George W. Kniffen, a native of Rye, N.Y., moved to Richmond in the 1830s, where he was elected twice to the state Legislature; after relocating to West Stockbridge, he represented the town in Boston beginning in 1857. He also was a major developer of the downtown commercial area, where a block of Main Street was named after him.

West Center first developed as a farming community; the original Congregational Church was established there in 1786 and survived until destroyed by fire after lightning hit the steeple in 1956. Its outdoor chapel survives as a popular seasonal site for weddings as well as for summer and fall foliage services on the last Sunday of the month, and Easter sunrise services. There was also a tavern where members of Shay's Rebellion gathered and organized the tax revolt that followed the Revolutionary War. There are at least 14 historic houses still standing in the area several miles south of Route 102, as well as the West Center Brick Schoolhouse, and the settlement seems well-qualified for certification on the National Registry of Historic Places.

After incorporation at the behest of West Center residents who petitioned the Legislature, Queensborough was renamed West Stockbridge. The town's commercial center gained momentum after the rail line connecting Boston and Albany (followed by a southern spur to Housatonic and Great Barrington) was completed in 1838.

Col. Williams had arrived in 1766 and established an iron works mill on land just west of the Shaker Mill, after he dammed Shaker Mill Pond fed by the Williams River. This was the beginning of the town's long history as an industrial center for the production of quality marble and iron ore, which was exported via the new rail line. Much of the marble was used to build the Statehouse in Boston and the old City Hall in lower Manhattan.

Other thriving industries in the 19th century included a paper mill, a machine-shop grist mill, lime kilmns and an iron furnace. According to historian Salerno, the town's industrial activity peaked with over 30 quarries at one time in the various communities.

The old Town Hall is in the process of gaining National Registry status, following the Grange Hall and the First Congregational Church on Main Street, which was erected later than its predecessor in West Center.

The village of Freedleyville was home to a marble quarry and to the Crocker Marble Saw Mill, industries built around 1802 in the area near the present-day West Stockbridge Sportsmen's Club off Route 41, along Alford Road in the vicinity of the Williams River, whose hydraulic power sparked development. By 1830, nine quarries in that area were exporting marble.

Several private houses from the era survive, along with the Freedleyville School, which later became the Rutherford House.

Rockdale, a once-sizable settlement along Route 41 south of Freedleyville where the road crosses a bridge over the Williams River at Glendale Road, now has just three historic sites built around 1800, including the Platt & Barnes Rockdale Grist Mill. The last remnant of the village's industrial activity was a buckwheat mill that closed in the 1920s.

Williamsville, also along Route 41 just north of the Great Barrington town line, remains a self-contained historic area that originally developed around a small iron works, Independence Forge, also created by Elijah Williams in 1783. Still visible at the foot of Water Street is a furnace stack. Along with the Williamsville School, the Williamsville Inn (still operating as a hostelry and restaurant) and the site of Comstock Mill, at least 16 private residences are believed to qualify for official historic-district status.

State Line was a hamlet along Route 102 adjoining Canaan, N.Y., and had its own school and a post office (converted into a private home in the 1970s). West Stockbridgians fondly remember the State Line Cafe, whose bar actually crossed the two-state border.

Patrons 18 to 21 (the Massachusetts minimum age) congregated for alcoholic beverages at the bar, most of which was safely in New York state. The business closed about 35 years ago.

In the center of West Stockbridge and the immediate outskirts, historic buildings abound. Among them is a bright yellow house off Main Street (Route 102) which originally housed the Spencer family, among the first leaders of the Mormon Church.

A larger, three-story yellow house in the same vicinity was built by the Rev. William Du Bois (no relation to W.E.B. Du Bois of Great Barrington), who not only served the parishioners of the downtown First Congregational Church but was also the district representative for several terms in the 1920s, as well as postmaster. His grandson is Laughran "Larry" Vaber, 78, a long-time GE public relations executive who continues to maintain the family homestead. His paternal ancestors first came to the town in the 1860s.

During the Prohibition Era in the 1920s, the large Italian population imported grapes and made wine, according to Salerno. He tells of a farmer who was an active bootlegger, claiming he was shipping cattle in and out of Canada, but actually ferrying homemade brew. Although industry faded in the late 1800s and early 1900s, agriculture survived as a mainstay as the town's economy (only several farms still remain).

As many as nine one-room schoolhouses dotted the town until the 1930s, when the Village School on State Line Road (Route 102) opened. The Village School was closed two years ago when the Berkshire Hills Regional School District consolidated at the new Muddy Brook Elementary and Middle School near Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington.

The downtown commercial center, which had been rather sleepy for several decades, surged during the 1970s and 1980s when developer A. Gordon Rose, owner with his partner, Jonathan Rick, of the Shaker Mill Tavern (previously the Square Rigger) invested heavily in the area, fueling the growth of small businesses, restaurants and art galleries.

Among the first and most prominent is the still-thriving Truc Orient Express, a Vietnamese restaurant opened in 1979 by Luy Nguyen and his wife, Trai Duong, who had fled the Communist takeover of Saigon in 1975. The well-regarded eatery has been vastly expanded and renovated since then, and also includes a gift shop of Vietnamese clothing and other authentic articles.

After Rose's death in 1992, a gradual slowdown set in downtown, but in recent years the area has surged back, with new restaurants, a bakery, a cookie and ice-cream shop and other businesses (including the reopened Card Lake Inn) attracting many visitors and residents. The annual Zucchini Festival (slated for Saturday, Aug. 11) is in its fourth year as a showcase for downtown merchants and has been drawing over 1,000 people.

The town has maintained its population base of around 1,600 (by town census) by attracting young families to some of the less-expensive properties in the town.

West Stockbridge has reliable cell phone service and widespread access to broadband Internet service via phone-company DSL. Cable TV service still comes in for criticism and Charter Communications, the provider, is still not offering high-speed Internet connections.

Long-time residents still recall with horror the vicious tornado that streaked through the Route 102 corridor west of downtown on Aug, 28, 1973, killing four people and injuring 34. Three homes were destroyed near the Berkshire Truck Plaza, which reopened thereafter but closed less than a decade ago; its surviving buildings have been leveled and the area is undergoing a complicated and extended environmental cleanup. The 14-acre property is owned by the estate of Col. H. George Wilde and his wife, Marjorie Field Wilde, who both died about 10 years ago. Lila Berle, one of six heirs, says the property will go on the market once the cleanup is completed (no asking price has been determined yet); she believes that the flat, open land is suitable for an industrial park or affordable housing, among other potential uses.

Many buildings were hit near the Kingsmont Camp property (earlier known as Silver Birch Camp). The camp, which long catered to overweight children, closed several years ago and is under development as a community of private homes. Crane Lake Camp, operated by the Union for Reform Judaism, continues in full swing, offering athletic and cultural activities for young people. It was formerly the Vaber Farm.

Despite the recent influx of new people, Town Clerk Tina Skorput Cooper, also a member of the Select Board, finds that the community retains "a small-town quality." "Everybody knows each other, it's unique and I loved it."

To improve communications, she started a monthly community newspaper, the Local Yokel, with a current free-distribution list of 650.

A continuing concern is that it's "very hard for natives to stay here," Cooper acknowledges, acknowledging a "definite need" for affordable housing. She and others in the town had a "hard time" with the closing of the Village School two years ago.

"We didn't want to lose our hometown school," she says, adding that in retrospect, it was "a positive move" given the quality of the new Muddy Brook elementary and middle school in Great Barrington.

As West Stockbridge shares a larger slice of the tourism and second-home pie with its neighbors, the community will face the continuing challenge of maintaining its small-town neighborliness amid the winds of change.


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