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Mountain towns of Route 20: Russell

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  • Senior captain Kevin Greene has been powering the Westfield offense so far this season. photo by Mickey Curtis for the Westfield Voice

This will be the start of a series entitled “Mountain Towns of Route 20,” covering the small towns along route 20 West. Rarely are the places covered that have real stories to tell: beyond the typical business, crime, and social conflict stories of urban establishment and the surrounding suburbs, there lies rattlesnakes, raging rivers, and the dimly-lit street corners that shine in places that otherwise would be left in the dark.

So for those of you who have ever driven through Westfield center and caught a glimpse of the 20 West sign, or have come to the end of Lloyds Hill road and wondered: “what’s down that way?” The answer is: more than you’d think.

Across from Main Street in Russell, a quarter-mile down Carrington Road, flows a continuous source of drinking water for countless residents of the Route 20 area. Some have only drank it for a few years; others can’t remember a time when their glasses weren’t filled by a rusty spigot near the quiet hill town.

They bring with them plastic bottles and other vessels packed tight in the trunks of their cars to last the week, only to return to the outer edge of Russell again soon.

Helen Allyn of Montgomery, Mass., has been returning for about five years. She lives atop a nearby mountain, and ever since a housing development was put in, Allyn said the quality of her water has decreased significantly.

“Our water has a reddish appearance now that it didn’t have before,” she said. “The development of buildings has worsened the water source; whereas the [Carrington Road] spring has no immediate buildings around it.”

Allyn is one of many that utilize Russell for one purpose or another. It is of no doubt that just as many people would consider it important to keep track of Russell’s natural resources, considering they have kept the town alive since its technical founding in 1792.

The original settlers of what is now called Russell were the two Barber brothers, who in 1741 were scouting for inexpensive land. They found Glasgow Mountain, then part of Westfield, and after developing a church and schoolhouse sought after gaining township.

Nothing remains of the original settling save a few gravestones, for it was not long after its founding that the town moved from the top of a mountain to the more economical location of the valley. There, alongside the Westfield River, the community responded to the societal changes about to take place

Though the days of living strictly off the land virtually ended with the oncoming of the Industrial Revolution, most of Russell’s prime business output was always water-powered industry. By 1831, the town had dotted into villages centered around the use of the river for profit making. The prosperity of the 1858 Chapin and Gould mill, the first paper mill in the area, established a competition that saw the construction of three paper mills in three different villages by the advent of the 20th century.

1914 saw the founding of Strathmore Paper Company by renowned philanthropist Horace A. Moses. Though the factory changed hands many times in the course of next eighty years, the word “Strathmore” can still be seen from Route 20 on the side of the factory’s steam stack.

Some attribute Russell’s closely-knit community to the work of Moses, who sponsored many programs and was appointed head of the Junior Achievement program. According to Pat Brooks, who is on the Russell Historic Commission, is responsible for the town’s census, and works at Westfield State’s dining commons, Russell’s community continues to be a pleasant community to live in.

“I’m so glad my kids grew up here. It’s a quiet community where everybody knows everybody,” Brooks said. “I remember when you didn’t have to worry where your car keys were because you could always leave them in the ignition.”

Though the positive social aspect of the community seems to have solidified, questionable business practices and a declining number of mills began to fiscally damage Russell after Moses died in 1947. Then, Strathmore changed hands to Hammermill Company, which some former workers now criticize.

“All they cared about was if you showed up – at one point, they had me covering shifts that had me working twelve-hour days,” said Malcolm “Bud” Richardson, former electric and chemical worker at that location. “It was never like that before – after the re-sellings, I think the people who purchased Strathmore only wanted it for the reputation of its renowned name.”

Ask a Russell native what he or she thinks their hometown has to offer, and they’re liable to laugh and say “well, its pretty up here.”

They’ll take a moment before saying that too, because apart from a few shops and tradespeople, Russell’s industrial life is currently stagnant at best.

The Texon Int. factory, Russell’s last remaining sign of industry after the other two mills closed, moved away last December, moving production to Asia. According to Michael Donovan, Associate Editor of the Country Journal, this will mean an increased tax rate in order to make up the difference.

“The town will have to make up the difference in the cost for its now closed elementary school,” Brooks said. The school, which was originally to be restored, was ultimately shut down two years ago. The money that was originally raised for its restoration, Brooks said, will have to be covered by town taxpayers. In the meantime, children attend Littleville Elementary School in nearby Huntington.

But not all residents of Russell are discouraged by the recent downward-facing economy. If anything, it gives them ideas. Take for example the “Festival of Lights” ceremony. For the past three years, the Russell fire department in conjunction with those of surrounding towns including Huntington, Blandford, and even Holyoke, adorn their trucks with lights and parade down Main Street. At the head sits Santa and Mrs. Clause, who throw candy out to the many children who gather at street corners and near the town hall, where a huge dinner is prepared for the firefighters post-cruise.

As for the years ahead, Richardson said he also had a few ideas.

“A fish hatchery and greenhouse would make more sense with all the colleges in the area,” he said. “We have such clean water, springs; it could be a fine recreation area. Instead of another power plant, we could invest the state’s money in natural resources.”

The countless number of people who collect drinking water every week from the spout on Carrington Road would agree. Larry Taudal, Westfield resident, has been collecting there for over five years.

“In some parts of Westfield, the water is terrible. I come here once a week with a five-gallon jug, and sometimes even that’s not enough. I don’t know what I’d do without it.”

 

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