Community Profile

Quaint Petersham a town that time forgot
Many modern conveniences are unavailable, and that's just the way residents like it
By Teri Borseti, Globe Correspondent, 12/23/2000

Petersham at a glance
Incorporated: 1754
Population: 1,220
Area: 54 square miles
Distance from Boston: 69 miles
Tax rate: $14.08
Median house price: $87,000
Form of government: Board of selectmen
Schools: One elementary (K-6); Ralph C. Mahar Regional Junior/Senior High, Athol.
Nearest hospital: Athol
Services: One full-time police chief, one full-time officer, one part-time officer, volunteer fire
PETERSHAM - The center of Petersham is a picture-perfect New England village, including a town common with a classic white gazebo in the center.

On one side of the common is a big white church with columns and a clock in the steeple, and a 100-year-old Gothic-style stone-built library. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

There's also a huge, turn-of-the-century building that was once the Nichewaug Inn. On the other side are stately Colonial homes and The Country Store, a combination superette/restaurant/gift shop where local residents run into each other.

The quaint historic district of Petersham is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

"The lifestyle here is very different. People sometimes move here thinking it's what they want and then they try to change it. We don't have things like cable TV or trash pick-up and you have to get used to driving to get anyplace," said the town secretary, Dale Bull.

Bull, a newcomer, has been a resident of the town for 28 years but said no one is considered a "townie" until they have someone in the cemetery.

The charming New England town is located a few miles from Route 2. While heading down Route 101 toward the center of town, a motorist may encounter traffic in the form of colorful pheasant or a deer or two. Petersham is the third-largest town in the state, 54 square miles in area, but the real estate market isn't booming and probably never will be.

Linda Kenney, of Burbank Real Estate in Athol, is a lifelong resident of Petersham and said this year she has sold only five houses here.

"I've sold a couple of antique Colonials, one for $219,000 and the other for $257,000. People realize you can get a lot for your money here and they think they'll be able to commute. But after a couple of years they usually sell their house and move closer to the city," she said.

Burbank has no current listings in town.

New construction is relatively nonexistent in Petersham. Bull said the primary reason is because much of the town land is governed by the Quabbin watershed.

"There are underground tributaries that run all over town. The watershed people are very strict about building because this is where Boston gets its water supply from," she said.

The town doesn't have any industry and as much as 60 percent of the land is owned by tax-exempt organizations that include the MDC, the Harvard School of Forestry and several religious organizations.

Last June, residents voted to build an elementary school that will cost $4.5 million, Bull said.

"It won't be easy to pay for, but the old school was built in 1915 and is no longer up to standards set by the board of education," she said.

Petersham achieved some popularity around the turn of the century as a summer retreat for Bostonians. In fact, the town's Catholic church was built primarily for Irish domestic help who accompanied families on vacation. The Nichewaug Inn was a popular retreat until the 1940s. Most recently it was used as part of an all-girls Catholic school. The building is currently for sale and there are rumors that it will be bought and turned into a hotel again.

Only 1,220 people live in Petersham, and the housing stock consists of between 425 and 450 homes.

Wendy Anderson has lived here all her life, as have five generations of her family before her.

Anderson, owner of the Quabbin Woods Restaurant, said the lifestyle the area provides might not be for everyone, but she loves it.

"It's very easy to get used to the quiet here. I'm very happy to just stay in Petersham and I know almost everyone who comes into my restaurant. The only time I make a trip to Boston is to see someone in the hospital. And then I can't wait to come back," she said.

Occasionally, visitors enjoying a scenic drive on Route 2 will pass through town, but Petersham, known as "the hilltop town," isn't a popular destination.

"There are no trailer parks, no elderly housing, no condos, no rentals, and we're 35 miles from any mall," Bull said. "And the people here like small-town life and knowing just about everyone in town."

This story ran on page E1 of the Boston Globe on 12/23/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company
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