A tightly knit community of artists and artisans gives the pretty hill town of Ashfield, Massachusetts, a creative energy like few others.
By Annie Graves
Mar 30 2015
Beautiful Ashfield Lake keeps residents cool.Photo Credit : Julie Bidwell
Some small New England towns, like Ashfield (population approximately 1,750), in western Massachusetts, remind me of old-fashioned porches—long-ago places where you sat and greeted neighbors, building community as surely as moss grows.
Ashfield rests in the foothills of the eastern Berkshires, the tip of its big toe, and you reach this hill town by a winding road that spirals ever upward. Downtown proper spreads out with broad fields at its back. Fields and pastures embrace the village, and all kinds of interesting stuff is tucked into the farm-rich hills. Artsy stuff. Farm-fresh stuff. Sometimes mixed together. Half the fun is stumbling over the unexpected.
The local compass for what’s happening is Elmer’s Store on Main Street. Owner Nan Parati was visiting a friend in Ashfield when Hurricane Katrina demolished her home in New Orleans in 2005. She bought the historic little building (trimmed with porches), built in 1835 as a general store. Then she surveyed the townsfolk to find out what they really wanted.
The answer—a decade later—can’t be neatly summarized. Famously crunchy-soft pancakes that deflect and absorb Gray’s Sugarhouse maple syrup (it’s Gray’s secret pancake recipe, too). Local burgers, Friday-night dinners, a humorous menu, live music. It’s also part gift-and-grocery emporium, with a cross-section of the artisanal (hardwood mason-jar lids). All this makes it a flat-out good place in which to hibernate on a rainy afternoon with a laptop, or to take a yoga class with Blake Macko, the guy who probably flipped your pancakes this morning (tables are moved back). From time to time, Nan hosts panel discussions here, like “Happily Ever After,” where four local couples discussed the secrets of successful relationships.
“We (including I) thought it might be poignant, warm, heartwarming, sweet, and dear,” Nan writes in the Ashfield News, an all-volunteer newspaper published monthly. “Instead, it was freaking hilarious. And all of those other things as well.”
Everyone seems intertwined, like vines on a trellis. At one point, several young people cluster together in Elmer’s—members of Double Edge Theatre (more on them later). This “Arabian Nights” company moved into a 105-acre former dairy farm in 1994. “It does a lot for the area,” says Michael Hulburt, 30, a sharply funny man with a wayward beard who manages the kitchen at Elmer’s. Also an accomplished banjo/guitar/trombone/glockenspiel player, he’s collaborating with another musician at Double Edge on a future project.
Meanwhile, there’s a weird golden baby doll near Elmer’s checkout, crying for an explanation. It turns out that “Baby Cecil” is named for legendary director Cecil B. DeMille, born in Ashfield. So naturally, Ashfield has a film festival every September. As befits the village size, films are five minutes long, but the eight-year-old event feels professional; one of the organizers is Harry Karamides, who worked on Back to the Future.
Michael plunks a book onto my table. It’s The 52 Weeks Project, a graphic novel by best-selling New York Times artist Greg Ruth, who lives nearby. “Ashfield’s the coolest town,” he says. “I was in talking to Martha [the librarian], and I was saying the same thing … Why would you ever want to leave?”
The South River corkscrews alongside Route 116 North, and fields spread out where the land levels off. A tilting sign announces: Ashfield Plain Historic District 1765. From certain angles it’s possible to capture all three town spires in a single photo: Episcopal Church, First Congregational, and Town Hall, with its exotic bulb on top. The residents-only beach at Ashfield Lake is near the village center, and in early spring old-fashioned sap buckets line the roads branching off from town like veins in a leaf. Busy Northampton is just 20 miles south. Here, though, there’s just lots of wide space wrapping around a small town.
Elmer’s, Elmer’s, Elmer’s. Take a yoga class or sign up for crafts night with Megan, who just served your meal. Sit in on one of Nan’s panel discussions, or come for a night of live music. Or pick up the Ashfield News to see what else is happening—possibly a “Scrabble Tourney” at First Congregational Church. Double Edge Theatre holds public workshops, too, like the recent one-day “Open Training.” Twenty participants came together from near and far—Nova Scotia, South Africa, Los Angeles, Bulgaria, and, yes, Ashfield—to taste the Double Edge experience. “I always wanted to know what went on here,” says Fern, a local resident who moved to town the same year Double Edge did. “I came because I love strange and creative people.”
An artful and colorful hodgepodge of bright metal garden tools, bamboo rakes, wooden baskets, and plants spill off the porch at Ashfield Hardware & Supply (they get porches here). Farm-to-table shoppers have the Ashfield Farmers’ Market, Saturdays from May to October on the town common, and a cornucopia of local farms for fresh yogurt, cheese, and meat.
Elmer’s is open for breakfast and lunch most days of the week, with dinner on Fridays. Next to the hardware store, Country Pie makes fresh pizza and homemade soups, and the Ashfield Lake House serves casual food by the water. If you simply must have your Italo-Thai-Mexican fix, Northampton bristles with options.
Welcome to the land of small farms. Wanda Mooney at Coldwell Banker Upton–Massamont Realtors, says that what sets Ashfield apart from other hill towns are its lake, tennis court, two golf courses, farmers’ market, and a “spectacular” fall festival. Homes start at $100,000; at the time of this writing, a two-bedroom 1940 cottage overlooking Ashfield Lake sold for $125,000, while an in-town farmhouse on Main Street with four bedrooms sold for $192,000. Fancy a small farm? Just over a mile from Main Street, an 1857 three-acre “farmette” sold for $220,000. “Ashfield is considered one of the most desirable towns in Franklin County,” Wanda notes, and the market is steady, with prices unchanged for the past three years.
As dusk creeps over the barns and outbuildings at Double Edge Theatre, mystical figures swirl out of the gloom. It’s the “Summer Spectacle” in July and August, and the old farm landscape is strewn with remnants of earlier shows, like The Odyssey, alive with flying creatures and spinning genies. The Boston Globe wrote of Double Edge performances, “Five senses hardly seem enough.”
Founder and artistic director Stacy Klein began her wild laboratory-theatre experiment in 1982 at Tufts University. Twelve years later, Double Edge left the city and bought a declining farm here and continued developing intense, groundbreaking projects that played around the U.S. and abroad. These physically demanding, nonspeaking performances are surreal and powerful—Bread and Puppet meets Cirque du Soleil.
Back then, the theatre wasn’t so tightly woven into the Ashfield community. “We were here to rehearse and make work,” Stacy recalls. “There were no public performances. Then we started lending land out to farmers, doing our spectacles. They could see our work ethic, and we began having an economic impact.” She pauses. “It takes time to become part of a community.”
Now, as Double Edge celebrates 20 years in Ashfield, the ties between town and theatre seem deep and inextricable. A sheep farm has donated wool for props; stonemasons and landscapers pitch in; a local baker donates unsold bread. These Ashfield hills are alive and glowing with ghosts of farms past and brilliant theatre to come.
The Inn at Norton Hill is owned by Elmer’s (innatnortonhill.com). Nearby, Wellspring House offers a peaceful writer’s retreat (wellspringhouse.net).
More on dining and lodging, activities and attractions, events, and community services at: franklincc.org and ashfield.org.