At the start of the Mohawk Trail sits Greenfield, Massachusetts, a scrappy combination of old-time New England and forward thinking, the first designated “green community” in the state.
By Annie Graves
Feb 05 2018
From Poet’s Seat Tower on the ridge of Rocky Mountain, Greenfield’s homes, fields, and woods spread out below.Photo Credit : David Fried/The Recoder (Poet’s Seat)
From the top of solitary Poet’s Seat Tower, the small city of Greenfield, Massachusetts, spreads out below like a feudal land holding. Open stone-arched windows frame a perfect early-fall day, and the surrounding hills of the Pioneer Valley are spiked with jabs of red and orange. Mount Sugarloaf rises off to the left, with the Berkshires beyond, and behind us, the church spires of Turners Falls poke up like pikestaffs.
It’s easy to get carried away with medieval metaphors when you’re standing on a tower on top of Rocky Mountain, with a 360-degree hawk’s-eye view that on a clear day sees Mount Monadnock, in New Hampshire. This native sandstone tower was raised in 1912 to honor Greenfield resident Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, a poet who loved his solitude and frequently came here to write. “It’s the best view around,” says the local college professor standing beside us.
From this romantic perspective, it’s also easy to weave your own story of what’s going on down below, but chances are you’d be off the mark. The city of some 17,500 residents that rests at the foot of this mountain is a scrappy combination of old-time New England and forward thinking. After William Martin was elected mayor in 2009, Greenfield received the first “green community” designation in the state. Its Energy Park holds summer concerts at a restored train depot, engulfed by solar panels. The John W. Olver Transit Center, which opened in 2012, is the first Zero Net Energy bus and rail depot in the U.S., producing more energy than it uses. “The name Greenfield is made up of the words green and field,” Martin said, “and I have aggressively pursued opportunities in that arena.” There are worse ways to be aggressive.
On the other hand, you can still shop where your great-grandmother might have bought dry goods 130 years ago. Family-owned Wilson’s Department Store, on the corner of Main and Davis streets, fills four floors with rainy-day diversions, from Le Creuset cookware to LEGOs to Spanx. So maybe it isn’t your granny’s store after all.
But it’s certainly the centerpiece of a classic New England downtown—the kind that’s been disappearing since the 1950s. It’s possible to dawdle away an entire Saturday without venturing more than a step or two from Main Street—getting a cuppa joe at Greenfield Coffee, flipping though used records at John Doe Jr. or books at World Eye, filling a bag with local corn at the outdoor farmers’ market, and hiding out for the afternoon at the Garden Cinemas (seven screens!). There’s even a barbershop, grocery store (a.k.a. co-op), and tailor shop, all on Main Street.
And why is this, you ask? Why is this Main Street intact, when so many others have been dismantled? Most probably because Walmart’s #1 enemy lives in Greenfield. In 1993, Walmart came knocking, hoping to buy 65 acres on the edge of town, and, in an act of what he calls “accidental activism,” resident Al Norman became involved in the movement to stop it from happening. Community spirit prevailed, and an activist was born. “Al will fight to the end to make sure Walmart doesn’t come to Greenfield,” says staff reporter Anita Fritz, at Greenfield’s daily, The Recorder. He formed “Sprawl-Busters,” and he’s been a pain in the big-box industry ever since.
Bakeries, bridal shops, small-town department stores—invested with enough community spirit that the town rallied to protect them. A healthy arts community, liberally sprinkled with a show-stopping number of music festivals. In a few more weeks, after autumn sweeps through these hills, the Greenfield Farmers’ Market will shutter for the winter, marking its 40th season. The mix of old and new here is hard to beat—when you take the best of the old world, mix it with the best of the new, and watch what transpires. It takes a village to protect Main Street.
A half-hour from the Five College bustle of Amherst and Northampton (and home to a community college of its own), Greenfield sits near the elbow of Route 2 and I-91, with a wide Main Street plucked from a Frank Capra film. Settled in 1686 (separated from Deerfield in 1753), there’s a mix of Federal, Victorian, and Greek Revival architecture, with expanses of green anchoring either end of the street. Acquaint yourself with Asher Benjamin, who designed the graceful public library, among other local buildings. If anyone is responsible for the “look” of New England, it’s Benjamin, who in 1797 wrote the first DIY book for homebuilders: The Country Builder’s Assistant. The heart of the Mohawk Trail starts here, too—a 42-mile stretch of Route 2 that sparkles with foliage (for photos, see p. 84 in this issue), and the area is laced by the Connecticut, Green, and Deerfield rivers.
Greenfield’s citizens have a strong sense of community—enough to support a daily newspaper, The Recorder, since 1792. As the seat of Franklin County, the town offers a cause for every conscience, including Stone Soup Café, a community kitchen with gourmet overtones; and the Connecticut River Watershed Council, which organizes concerts and cleanups. The grassroots farm movement at Just Roots is committed to making healthy food available to all, and from April to November, the Farmers’ Market sells local produce and crafts. The Arts Block on Main Street hosts exhibits, concerts, and a recording studio; plus year-round fairs and festivals can keep you meeting neighbors all year long.
The deeper you go, the more diversity you’ll find: Thai restaurants on Main Street; gyros and moussaka at El Greco; and unlikely neighbors Magpie Woodfired Pizzeria and Manna House Korean Restaurant, snugged side by side. Side streets bristle with options, too, whether it’s The People’s Pint brewery or the wood-burnished Hope & Olive, with a farm-to-table ethos and salads that reveal a garden of surprises.
The livery stable at Wilson’s Department Store has been replaced with a candy counter, cosmetics, clothing, greeting cards, vacuum cleaners, tuxedos, and birdhouses. No mall, no frenzy, no muzak. Kids can buy and trade DiMaggios at Baseball Treasures, and Mr. Hamdi’s Tailoring and Aliber’s Bridal (since 1920) tell a deeper story about old-time services that never grow old.
Housing options range from under $89,000 for a 695-square-foot bungalow, built in 1900, to $849,000 for a Queen Anne Victorian, circa 1895, on Highland Avenue. “The median price is around $200,000,” says Corinne A. Fitzgerald at Fitzgerald Real Estate, and that includes homes in the center of town as well as those on the outskirts. Of the three higher-end locations in town—the Highland area, the Meadows, and Bernardston Road—only Highland is within walking distance to town. There, “prices go from $250,000 to $849,000, but mostly in the $300,000 to $350,000 range.”
All’s Fair in Greenfield
The centerpiece of Greenfield’s events calendar is the Franklin County Fair in September. Surviving “world wars, dust bowl droughts, even stock market collapses,” it’s billed as the oldest continuously operating county fair in the country. Animals still play a big part, plus rides and fried dough, but you have to wonder what an 1848 farmer would think of Frisbee-catching dogs.
But there’s more: Winter Carnival (late January/early February); April’s “little e” (home show and green fair); COOP Concert Summer Series (June–August); Sundays in the Park Summer Concerts; July’s Green River Festival (folk and country music); the annual August triathlon; Wormtown Music Festival (rock, blues, ballads); and the annual Riverside Blues & BBQ Festival. Sweet music indeed.
Getting Your Bearings
The turn-of-the-century Brandt House Inn has nine guestrooms with featherbeds; Poetry Ridge B&B is a 1910 B&B with six rooms near Poet’s Seat Tower.
This feature was first published in the September/October 2014 issue of Yankee Magazine.