|A mill building in downtown Adams, MA.|
My maternal grandmother passed away in November, after a long illness. “Babci” (the Polish word for grandmother) had been living in a local nursing home these past few years, but on the occasion of her death, my family and I traveled to the Berkshires, to the small town of Adams, to attend her wake, funeral and burial.
Babci grew up in Adams, as did my other grandparents, my parents, and the rest of my extended family. As a child, I spent a lot of time there – climbing Mt. Greylock, swimming in nearby lakes, and riding my bike on old country roads. But after my paternal grandparents passed away in the 1980s, I stopped visiting Adams to any significant extent. Certainly, my family drove out there a few times each year to see great aunts and uncles — and to bring Babci to Marshfield for visits — but we rarely stayed more than a single night.
Many people have heard of North Adams, the city directly to the north that’s home to the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (formerly North Adams State) and Mass Moca, the contemporary art museum. Founded in 1778, Adams was once a thriving town in its own right – first as a farming community, later as a mill town, thanks to the brisk flow of the Hoosic River.
Beginning in 1814 with the opening of the Adams South Village Cotton Manufacture Company, Adams’ population flourished, jumping from 2,000 to 4,000 between 1820 and 1835. It continued to grow well into the 1900s, as woolen, lumber and plastic mills and the promise of good wages drew people there. A state of the art cotton mill, Berkshire Cotton Manufacturing Company, later Berkshire Hathaway, was founded in Adams in 1889; over the years they added three more mills and became Adams’ lifeblood. It was a boomtown. The cotton mills even managed to prosper through the Depression, and thrived during World War II.
But after that things changed. The new post-war economy brought a decline in wages. The mills moved south, where they could find cheaper labor and weaker unions. In 1958, Berkshire Cotton closed down its Adams operations. The boom went bust. Textile-related industry remained for many years, but job opportunities diminished greatly. Now the only remaining mill is Specialty Minerals, which mines and processes limestone.
And so the town of Adams struggles to reinvent itself. Many nearby communities have turned to tourism. The more posh Berkshire towns of Lenox and Stockbridge have relied on this for decades. North Adams and Pittsfield are seeing some success as they follow suit. But even with such draws as Mt. Greylock, the highest peak in Massachusetts; the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail, a rich cultural history, and a shiny new visitor center, Adams has a long way to go. Jobs are hard to find. Population continues to drop.
My grandmother was buried in the Polish cemetery, up high in the hills of the Hoosac Range. Driving back into the heart of town after the services, we were treated to a panoramic view of Adams. Looking down from the mountain, we could see the valley below, the river flowing through town, the church steeples, dairy farms with green pastures, beautiful stands of trees in their red-gold autumn finery, Mt. Greylock towering above. This is the way Adams looked before the mills came to town. This is how it is today.
The land doesn’t change. Humans and their industries come and go. Mining and deforestation may alter the way a place looks, but the land itself remains the same. The casual visitor may only see closed down restaurants and storefronts, but like any town, Adams means “home” to generations of people – there is much more to it than what one sees on the surface.
Is there a way for Adams to get back on its feet? Will the prosperity of other towns filter into Adams? There is talk of a “recreation area” up on the mountain. Is the landscape enough to draw people in?
The South Shore is experiencing its own “boom” these days, with the revival of the commuter rails and an influx of population. The landscape continues to change as more and more homes, “big box” stores and “lifestyle” shopping centers are constructed. Lucky for us, we have set aside thousands of acres of land as open space. Thanks to Conservation Commissions, land preservation groups such as The Wildlands Trust and The Trustees of Reservations, Community Preservation Act funds, and foresight of voters, we have ensured that – no matter what the future holds — the land itself will remain.
By Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, correspondent
Kezia Bacon-Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit www.nsrwa.org.