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Tim Blagg

Blagg: Keeping Greenfield ‘special’

What kind of a town is Greenfield?

Is it, as legend would have us believe, “the town that turned down Henry Ford?”

In his fascinating 1982 social history of Greenfield — “The Conservative Rebele_SDRq — Paul Jenkins wrote that the story that Henry Ford once wanted to build a factory here, but was blocked by the town’s bankers, is an urban myth.

Ford did once visit the town regularly, but that was to see his grandson Albert, who was attending Deerfield Academy. But there’s no evidence that he ever considered Greenfield as a manufacturing site.

But Jenkins writes that the myth contains a serious truth about the town — that its role in developing precision manufacturing was an important part of the history of the United States while at the same time, there is a drive here to try to keep the small town “feel” that makes the place so special.

“Greenfield is a beautiful town, a marvelous town,” said a resident back when the book was being written. “Nobody wants to see it grow. It’s already too big.”

During my 25-plus years living here, there certainly have been many examples of that “keep us small, keep us special” attitude on the part of at least a segment of the population.

I’ve fumed about that, to be sure. I think that in their effort to keep the town as it is, some residents have gone overboard. After all, every town has to generate enough revenue to support its vital services, and there are only two ways to do that — property taxes and state or federal grants.

Turning a town into a bedroom community that forces its residents to commute to earn a living, while keeping out businesses that could add tax dollars to the town’s coffers is, in my opinion, shortsighted.

Everything suffers when you do that — schools limp along on insufficient budgets, police and fire services are cut and infrastructure is poorly maintained.

Leaning on the state to make up the difference can be, as we’ve seen over the years, disastrous.

Despite all of that, Greenfield has continued to be a very pleasant place to live.

And I’m not the only one to notice that.

The other day, a famous former resident, Penn Jillette, paid us a visit. He used to come regularly to visit his mother, but since she died, he’s been busy doing his comedy magic act in Las Vegas with his partner, Teller.

But he’s more than an entertainer. Through his books, their TV show and appearances, Jillette has also proved to be an untiring champion of the Bill of Rights and a skeptic in the tradition of Harry Houdini — hunting down and exposing frauds such as psychics, pseudoscientists, conspiracy theorists and those who promote the paranormal.

Jillette told The Recorder that he was blown away by the way the town has changed. “When I came back to town, I didn’t realize Greenfield had turned into Brooklyn,” he said. “When I last left Greenfield, it was a depressing, dead factory town.”

“Jillette sat in a cushy chair in front of the southern-facing, all-glass wall of the upstairs library (at GCC), watching the sun go down on what he said must have been ‘the most beautiful day of 2013,’” our story read.

“Sitting here, I can’t imagine why I ever wanted to leave Greenfield.”

It was nice to hear, and true. Our Main Street is still worth visiting and good things are happening all over town, from the new “Brookie” sculpture on Deerfield Street to the renovated playground at Beacon Field to the planned greenscape in the big downtown parking lot.

But all change is not bad and tax dollars are absolutely necessary for us to survive.

As I’ve written before, the planned biomass plant in the industrial park — defeated by fear and outside forces — or the office park on Colrain Road could have contributed to the town’s revenue without damaging our way of living.

Even some future discount store on French King Highway could keep shoppers in town without killing local retailers. One only needs to look at Brattleboro’s experience to know that.

What kind of a town is Greenfield? A nice place to live and raise your children — as long as we can continue to pay the bills.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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