Top News Stories of 2019: Part 1

  • Folks in favor of a new library gather outside the polling station at Greenfield High School on election day, Nov. 5. STAFF File PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Sophomore roommates Sophie Steigerwald, left, of Wisconsin and Simone Kelly, right, of California stand inside their new dorm at Thomas Aquinas College in Northfield on Aug. 23. Staff File Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Cast and crew members for the Hulu television series “Castle Rock” film scenes for its second season on South Main Street and throughout downtown Orange. STAFF File PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Wilson’s Department Store President Kevin J. O’Neil said closing the downtown Greenfield anchor retail store was a difficult decision. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Wilson’s Department Store on Christmas Eve in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 12/26/2019 1:00:29 AM

Editor’s note: Many media outlets write about the year’s top national and international news stories and newsmakers. As a community newspaper, the Greenfield Recorder chose to focus on local news. The editorial team started with 10 stories but that number grew to 13 — a baker’s dozen. Look for two more days of the Top News Stories of 2019, which are presented in no particular order.

Wilson’s to close after 137 years

GREENFIELD — Kevin J. O’Neil, president of the 137-year-old Wilson’s Department Store, announced in late November the downtown anchor was closing due to his retirement.

The store’s entire stock and fixtures are part of a retirement sale that began the Friday after Thanksgiving. O’Neil said the store will remain open until all merchandise and fixtures are sold.

Area residents have expressed sadness about the last independently owned department store in New England closing, and have shared their memories from shopping there.

But O’Neil said he decided when he was 30 that he would retire by 65 so as not to meet the same fate as his father, who died when he was 63.

“I knew that someday I’d want to spend some time with my wife after working so many years,” he said. “I knew I’d want to spend time with my children and, hopefully, grandchildren.”

That’s what O’Neil, who said his children did not want to take the reins, plans to do.

“We never know how much time we have,” he said.

O’Neil is concerned about what his 35 full- and part-time employees will do next. Some are set to retire, some have already retired and others are still figuring it out. He is also concerned about his loyal customers, who will have to find other places to shop.

The store started as The Boston Store in 1882 and was purchased by John Wilson in 1896, who changed the name to The John Wilson Co. In 1929, R. Stanley Reid bought it with George Willis, and when Willis died in 1941, the Reid family took sole ownership. Reid’s son took over in 1961, and when he retired in 1990, O’Neil, his son-in-law, took over.

Area residents have made numerous suggestions about what to do with the building. O’Neil has said there are no current plans, though he will be considering options when the store closes.

Greenfield to get new public library

GREENFIELD — The Greenfield Public Library has been a topic of City Council meetings, a ballot question and executive orders from Mayor William Martin’s office in 2019. Now it will proceed into planning and development stages starting in 2020.

The new library will cost $19.5 million to build; the state has promised to grant $9.4 million and it’s hoped as much as $2 million more will come from donations.

The City Council voted 9-3-1 to authorize borrowing for a new library at its March 20 meeting. In April, the library was put on the November ballot after resident Steven Ronhave, who served as a city councilor from 2012 to 2015, submitted a petition in protest of the City Council’s March vote to approve financing for a new public library.

In August’s City Council meeting, Martin explained that if 30 percent of the building’s assessed value of $723,600 were to be spent on improvements, a Level III renovation scope would require a “total rehab project,” according to the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board. Other state building code requirements may also require improvements.

An executive order issued Aug. 23, which was effective immediately, stated, “The library’s meeting rooms will not be used for posted public meetings of the city’s governmental bodies, including boards and commissions.”

Voters approved the new library on Nov. 5 with a vote of 3,294 to 2,108.

Ed Berlin, who was appointed to the library building committee by Martin, said the vote was historic.

“Greenfield will now build its first new library. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Berlin said. “I’m excited for Greenfield and to be able to participate in the process of designing and building a library that people are going to be proud of and will draw people downtown.”

The library will be built adjacent to the current 15,300-square-foot library, in the historic landmark Leavitt-Hovey House, built in 1797 and incorporated as the town’s library in 1908. The new library will be fully accessible, which is a constant criticism of the current building.

Northfield campus second home for Thomas Aquinas College

NORTHFIELD — After years of anticipation, the 217-acre campus in Northfield was revitalized with student activity this fall for Thomas Aquinas College’s first semester on the East Coast.

“The semester went beautifully,” said Director of College Relations Anne Forsyth.

The school’s main campus is located in Santa Paula, Calif. The Northfield campus is now home to 60 students, with 30 freshmen and 30 sophomores who transferred from the West Coast campus.

“Students have been out hiking and enjoying the snow,” Forsyth said.

Thomas Aquinas College will continue to accept 30 students per class to grow over the next few years, then increase accepted class sizes until there are a few hundred students enrolled.

“The people of Northfield have been very welcoming,” Forsyth said, noting the Northfield Creamie was a favorite off-campus stop for students during the warmer months.

The local campus had been mostly unoccupied since Northfield Mount Hermon School consolidated to its Gill campus in 2005. While the 100-year-old buildings are structurally sound, some renovations were required to prepare for the new college.

According to Forsyth, residence halls, a dining hall, classrooms, office buildings, the athletic facility and faculty residences were all renovated for the 2019 to 2020 school year. The college operates with eight seasonal faculty members and four residence assistants.

“The thing that sticks out to me is the excitement that the students have had here on campus. Everyone who is here is part of a new journey,” Associate Director of Admissions John Jost said. “They’ve been really happy to be here.”

The private, Catholic, coeducational college offers a single classical curriculum and one degree — a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, which is considered to be the equivalent of a double major in philosophy and theology, and a minor in mathematics.

Forsyth said the college educates its students for life, rather than a specific career. Students were finishing their finals Dec. 20, the last day ahead of winter break.

Castle Rock returns to Orange

ORANGE — As the producers will tell you, Orange “is” Castle Rock.

For the second year, crews for the original series “Castle Rock” from Hulu — a subscription on-demand video streaming service — filmed in Orange, closing down portions of downtown in the summer to shoot the series’ second season, starring Lizzy Caplan, Tim Robbins, Garrett Hedlund, Yusra Warsama, Barkhad Abdi and Elsie Fisher.

Orange serves as the show’s main setting of Castle Rock, a fictional Maine town featured in many of horror novelist Stephen King’s works, like “Cujo” and “The Dark Half.” Executively produced by J.J. Abrams, “Castle Rock” features characters and places from the King mythos, including a second season that features deranged nurse Annie Wilkes from King’s 1990 book “Misery.”

While it has King’s blessings, the show is technically an original work.

It’s hard to spend a day in Orange without seeing or hearing something about “Castle Rock.” Dean’s Beans started making “Castle Rock” coffee, and show props, like the sign reading “Castle Rock Police Department” have been left up.

At Trail Head Outfitters and General Store, items like T-shirts, sweatshirts and mugs have been sold featuring “Castle Rock”-inspired art. Most recently, the downtown sporting goods store has begun selling ice cream scoops that say “Castle Rock, Massachusetts.” Another stone’s throw away, The Pizza Factory’s sign now reads, “Castle Rock Pizza Factory.”

The series has also been a boon to the town financially, with Hulu having donated more than $10,000 to the town’s emergency services, parks and cemeteries.

The 10-episode second season of “Castle Rock,” which premiered in October, holds an approval rating of 93 percent on the website Rotten Tomatoes — Season 1 was similarly well-received. It is not yet confirmed whether “Castle Rock” will return for a third season.

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