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‘Sweetheart’ deal for seniors?

Shelburne Falls landmark eyed for possible senior center

SHELBURNE FALLS — For years, the old Sweetheart Tea House has sat empty near the first Route 2 entrance into Shelburne Falls. Could this historic landmark become the future Senior Center for the growing elderly population of Buckland, Shelburne and Ashfield?

The Senior Center’s board of directors has asked selectmen from its member towns to seek a Direct Local Technical Assistance grant from the Franklin Regional Council of Governments for a feasibility study to determine whether moving into the more spacious building is a doable project.

At this writing, Shelburne and Ashfield town officials have thrown their support behind it, and Buckland selectmen were to discuss the plan at this week’s meeting.

“For years, the Senior Center has been interested in their own, and a larger, space,” said Senior Center Director Cathy Buntin. “Both attendance and the senior population is growing and there are really limited options for moving into an existing space. The Sweetheart has been talked about and considered for years, but we don’t know if it would be possible. This is a very preliminary first step, to see if it’s at all possible,” she said.

Penny Spearance of Shelburne, chairwoman of the center’s board of directors, sent a letter to town officials stating the Senior Center has been operating “under serious space constraints for quite a while. Threatening to compound this problem is the very real expectation that the senior population in all of our West County towns is going to increase dramatically. For this reason, our board has already begun discussions of how to adequately address the needed of this demographic ... We believe the Sweetheart Tea House offers a great opportunity not only for serving our seniors but also for serving as a community center for the larger West County population. However, without a thorough feasibility study, we cannot possibly know all the factors that need to be considered.”

If the grant is awarded, FRCOG would help the senior center to find and hire a consultant to do the evaluation. The Senior Center’s directors hope that FRCOG will make this a priority project as they determine how they will use this year’s funding.

According to “History and Tradition of Shelburne, Massachusetts,” the Sweetheart Tea House became a popular eatery after the Mohawk Trail scenic highway, from Greenfield to North Adams, became a major tourist attraction for those with automobiles. The road went past Alice Brown’s house and she decided that motorists would be interested in buying local maple sugar if it were sold in attractive, small shapes. She chose a heart-shaped mold for the maple, called it the “Maple Sweetheart ” and sold it. As sales increased and as other foods were served, the Sweet Heart Place became known as the Sweetheart Tea House. At first, it was a one-story building with products sold over the counter to the public. Then the barn was remodeled to become place to eat. The building grew, along with business, until, by the 1930s, the dining room could seat 200 and smaller rooms were available for parties. The dining room had views down to the Deerfield River. There were also separate shops in the building for maple products, dresses and gifts.

In 2005, three people bought the building and announced plans to renovate it and turn it into an inn. But their plans fell through and the building was acquired by Dena Wilmore and Martha Thurber in 2006.

“The Sweetheart has many fond memories of so many happy occasions for people,” said Buntin. “It’s a historic building and dear to many hearts.”

At Monday’s Shelburne Selectmen’s meeting, the board unanimously voted to make the feasibility study a top priority for the COG grant program.

“It’s the cornerstone of the village. And it’s terrible to have the entrance to the town be an empty building,” said Selectman John Payne.

I think this a great idea for a senior center, I would love to volunteer if it ever opens as one,

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