DALTON — It was already dark Saturday when the potbellied figure known for his generosity turned off Depot Street here and made his way west.

Snowflakes christened his slow-moving entourage. Sounds of carols and hand bells waited for members of the procession at the First Congregational Church on Main Street. Drama built as the parade moved past Dalton's library, Town Hall and police station and then to yet another public building, the Dalton Community Recreation Association, where two school bands lay in wait.

Quite an entry for the man in red. And that's just how organizers of the town's Light up the Holidays celebration like it.

But when it comes to the spirit of giving in Dalton, even Santa is playing catch-up.

All those buildings named above?

They help anchor public life in Dalton and owe part or all of their existence to members of the Crane family and to the business they've shepherded since the year Thomas Jefferson took the presidency.

Early next year, the last Cranes involved with Crane & Co. will sell their remaining shares, closing out an extraordinary chapter in the history of American business.

Along with providing work and livelihoods to generations of Berkshire County residents, the company embraced a culture of giving back, particularly in Dalton, where company founder Zenas Crane bought 14 acres of land for a paper mill in 1801, paying $194, according to a company history.

In time, the interests of the company and town became inextricable. This past week, as residents pondered life without Cranes involved with Crane & Co., many spoke fondly of a company that, despite operating in a competitive, commodity-driven business, treated employees and town residents almost like family, from cradle to grave.

Literally.

At least up until the 1950s, any Dalton resident having trouble paying a hospital bill, perhaps after childbirth, could get help from the company.

And after Crane & Co. gave land for the town's Main Street cemetery, burial plots remained free for Dalton residents.

"The requirement is that you had to be a Daltonian at the time that you pass away, said George White, who chairs the town's Historical Commission and served as superintendent of cemeteries for 43 years.

"They did an awful lot for the town of Dalton, personally and by the company," White said of the Crane family. "They donated money for a lot of things."

The Crane map

A walk through Dalton last week found example after example. By square footage alone, the sprawling mill buildings represent the company's biggest footprint in Dalton.

But because the company's main business is now providing paper for U.S. and foreign currencies, and subject to extreme security, those sites are far from public.

That still leaves dozens of structures that would not be here if not for Crane & Co. The list includes little-known properties like former worker housing on Crane and Porter avenues, just off South Street below the Housatonic River's east branch.

On the other side of Dalton, people still refer to Cottontown, at the end of East Housatonic Street, which got its name from a former mill that Crane & Co. acquired as a warehouse. A few blocks away is a short lane known as Crane Place.

Perhaps the most durable civic association to the family's legacy is the Craneville School, located off Park Street on the town's east side and a hive of activity on school days.

Several people said last week they believe the elementary school took its name from an area that had been worker housing, long since torn down.

On Routes 8 and 9 near the foot of Park Street, the family name lingers at Craneville Place, a nursing home.

Another Crane family name, Kittredge, lives on as well. A neighborhood near the Wahconah Country Club is nicknamed Kittredgeville, residents say.

Up on Main Street, the prominent home of John Kittredge, located between the library and community house, is moving toward a sale, according to a sign out front. John Kittredge has kept alive the family's spirit of philanthropy.

Though he's hale and active, visiting the fitness room at the CRA several times a week, Kittredge's photo portrait hangs in the town library, to recognize his long service as a board member.

Robert Defazio, the library's director, said a foundation associated with the Crane family continues to provide annual support in the range of $2,000 to $5,000.

"They give us money every year," he said.

`So down to earth'

One popular site is the Crane Museum of Papermaking, open since 1929. In the mid-1800s, the structure, tucked well off West Housatonic Street, served as the "rag room" for the Old Stone Mill. The mill itself came down, but the part that housed the raw material of fiber survived to tell the tale of paper-making.

It is open from 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday this time of year. Visitors can view exhibits, scan their currency under special lights and try their hand at making paper.

All of that while being entertained with company tales by Peter Hopkins, the museum's resident historian.

"We've got ways to engage them," Hopkins said of visitors, after demonstrating paper-marbling to a group of four from Eastern Massachusetts.

At the museum, there's no shortage of history to reflect upon.

This is a company, after all, that got its start decades before the Industrial Revolution. It weathered massive technological change, business cycle busts, family squabbles and intense competition. Today, Crane & Co.'s expertise in embedding security devices in ordinary currency helped make it appealing to its suitor, Crane Co., and be worth $800 million.

In the downturns, Crane & Co. developed a reputation for sticking with its people.

Charlie Wellspeak, who logged 42 years and seven months as a Crane & Co. machine tender and quality-control employee, remembers that when he was a child, one of the Crane executives, Winthrop Crane III, came one night to his family's house to speak with his father.

Wellspeak's father and grandfather worked for the company. Crane was there, dressed in work clothes and wearing rubbers over his shoes, for advice on how to solve a problem in one of the mills.

"They were super good people to work with," Wellspeak said of the Cranes.

On a visit back to Dalton after joining the military more than 60 years ago, Wellspeak said Win Crane crossed the street to shake hands with him.

"So down to earth. They were very, very down-to-earth people," he said.

Still giving

The Dalton Community House, now home to the Dalton CRA, opened in 1923 as a gift from W. Murray Crane, the former Massachusetts governor and U.S. senator, who died in 1920.

A portrait of Crane hangs in the lobby of the busy center, home to scores of programs available to people throughout the region.

In the basement pool Friday, toddlers kicked through their swimming lessons while, one floor above, teams of seniors swatted balls during intense Pickleball matches.

W. Murray Crane's gift keeps giving, notes Alison Peters the CRA's executive director. Crane left money in his will to maintain the building.

"He was very involved in the community," Peters said of Crane.

To this day, a trust covers the cost of repairs and improvements, enabling the CRA to focus on fundraising for its operations.

"It's really nice for us. We're really trying to make it available to everyone," she said of the center. "We're here for the community. I guess you could say we couldn't do that without the support of the trustees, who take care of the building."

"The Crane family was incredibly generous in this community, and they still support us," Peters said. "It gives us a sense of community. It's a hub. This is where people meet."

A new gazebo stands on the yard east of the building, home to a memorial fountain.

Inside a mill

In the years ahead, the Crane family's footprint in Dalton might continue to change.

Consider the hum of activity inside the Stationery Factory, a mill building on Flansburg Avenue just a long stone's throw from the memorial fountain.

Stephen A. Sears, a former vice president with Crane & Co., is writing a new chapter for the building at 63 Flansburg Ave. Since acquiring the site, he has been retrofitting it for offices, event spaces, an art gallery and, in the basement, a brewery run by a member of the Crane clan. A distillery is setting up operations as well.

On Friday, staffers from General Dynamics were sprucing up decorations ahead of a company party.

And crews were installing new stage equipment ahead of a Saturday concert by the band Xavier. Abe Guthrie, a member of the band, planned to use the occasion to release a CD anthology of songs from 1984 to 1990. He was excited to see a new venue take shape in Dalton.

"It's a real community thing he's got going here, which is awesome," Guthrie (yes, of that musical family) said of Sears.

As he has tweaked the space for future uses, Sears remains aware of what's come before. The parcel was once home to the Dalton Shoe Co. (founded in 1889) and to a company that made spark coils for Model T Fords.

Under the Cranes, the space was used to shape paper into stationery products. That business was peeled off from Crane & Co. but still operates in North Adams.

Like a lot of people in town, Sears has his own stories to share. He worked while a teenager, in the late 1970s, as a janitor in the same building.

He lost his job with Crane in 2006, forcing him to look for something else — even as he foresaw change coming for Dalton's most famous enterprise.

"I understood that this was the path," he said of the pending sale. "I think they had a 10-year plan. I'm not surprised at all, not one iota. The hope is that the corporation that is going to run it is going to at least be considerate of the public."

"One of the things that hurts New England towns the most is when they no longer need these buildings," he said. "What happens to them? That's the big challenge. That's the elephant in the room."

On Flansburg Avenue, he's trying to shape an answer. "It's going well," he said of the Stationery Factory's transformation. "We've been working on it for a little over four years to bring this place into something that the community isn't looking at as an eyesore."

`Humble beginnings'

Soon after news of the sale broke, Charles Kittle was at one of his regular stops — the bakery in the Union Block, across from the CRA — getting his day started. He was surprised to hear excited voices around him.

"A lot of people in town were panicked by this," he said Friday, back at the bakery with a friend.

Kittle, who is 83 and retired as an engineer from Crane & Co. two decades ago, thinks the sale was inevitable.

Like others, he admired the company's long run, its success and its values.

"It really is remarkable — 200-plus years. From such humble beginnings," Kittle said.

The Crane imprint remains on the town, and not just in old buildings.

"They owned a vast amount of this town at one time," Kittle said, then got thinking about wooded land the company owned at the far end of Pleasant Street, north of the center.

"They owned that whole tract," he said. "Acres and acres."

Those land holdings extended well to the north, including the area known as the Boulders up near the Lanesborough line.

Much of that land has been transferred to the Berkshire Natural Resources Council.

The Appalachian Trail picks up from one piece of preserved land off Gulf Road, where barriers block traffic on a route once traveled to Lanesborough.

Some of the most prominent Crane family structures are the mansions just west of the town center.

One, the former Model Farm, sold recently to Berkshire Money Management.

The Eagle stopped by Friday. A renovation has preserved the look of the landmark, including detailed woodwork.

Next door, at Sugar Hill, the former Revival-style estate of W. Murray Crane, once visited by presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge, continues to operate as an assisted-living facility run by BaneCare of Wakefield.

Inside around noon Friday, residents could be seen preparing for lunch as visitors came and went from a home in which Ella Fitzgerald and Cole Porter performed.

The last Crane family member to live here was Winnie Crane, who died in 1991, according to a history provided by the center's administrator.

Judy Wagner, Dalton's administrative assistant, said her father once urged her to go admire the care taken in building the W. Murray Crane home.

"He'd say, `Go look at the stairs. They don't make them like that anymore.'"

"It's too bad the Cranes are leaving us," Wagner said. "The Cranes used to give a lot of money to us here."

White, the retired cemetery superintendent, said he's pleased with the care shown the Crane family estates.

"They've done a beautiful job of taking care of the landscape and doing a lot of work inside the buildings and bringing them back up to what they were in the old days," White said.

Given the family's long history in Dalton, it's perhaps no surprise its members treasured what had come before.

"They helped the historical society. They donated money for a lot of things," White said of Crane family members.

Company cradle

When recessions or depressions hit, the company rarely curtailed jobs. A sense of paternalism ran through the company ethic, people said last week.

White said he knew an employee who lived in a Crane house and was charged $25 a month rent in the late 1960s.

"They never raised it," White said of his friend's rent. "It was what they started out at. I was quite amazed at that."

"You never got laid off," said Wellspeak, the former Crane machine operator.

Never is a long time, as they say, and people did lose their jobs in tough times.

But amid all the signs of the family's public philanthropy, former workers interviewed last week insisted that the company took unusual steps on their behalf.

"This is the intersection of fact and lore," Hopkins said Thursday, as he introduced another story.

One plant manager, the tale goes, went to a Crane to ask what he should have employees do, since orders had fallen and there was no reason to run the paper machines.

Paint the worker housing, the boss said. So they did, Hopkins said, more than 100 houses in all. The manager reported that the job was done.

Get more paint, a Crane is reputed to have told the manager.

"He painted the houses twice to keep his people and get them through the Depression," Hopkins said.

Another story Hopkins was telling Thursday had to do with Crane Co., the firm poised to buy out the Crane ownership, as well as that of private equity firm Lindsay Goldberg, which became a part owner roughly a decade ago.

Hopkins said an executive at Crane Co. called looking to speak with the woman who had hosted a visit by the prospective buyer's team early this fall. The man just wanted to thank her, Hopkins said, a gesture he found heartening.

"It's what we've come to expect around here — respect and courtesy and small-town life," Hopkins said

Another call related to the sale came Friday, but this one rang in Town Hall.

After several days of wondering what lies in store, with the end of Crane family ownership, Town Administrator Kenneth E. Walto said he was pleased to hear from two executives with the new company, who rang him up just to make contact.

"I appreciated the call," Walto said.

As a former economic development official, Walto has a feel for the kinds of changes that can follow business sales.

Even before he heard from the Crane Co. executives, Walto had been thinking through the transaction. He was hopeful operations would remain in Dalton.

"They've been acquired by a company that actually makes things," he said of the deal.

It's not unusual for the town business coming across Walto's desk to relate to the Crane family.

He has been working on a land transfer in which the town will pick up ownership from the Cranes of roughly 40 acres, known as the Pines, near Pine Grove Park.

Walto said he appreciates the care with which the Crane family has stepped down its involvement with the company.

"It's not what I saw when GE moved out lock, stock and barrel," he said.

He sees that difference every day.

"The building I'm sitting in was a gift from the Cranes," Walto said.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.