Unhip and loving it, a farm town with frogs' legs on the menu

WHATELY -- Sonia Golonka has been living on the farm in Whately that bears her family name for most of her 57 years.

''It's a very quiet community," she said one rainy afternoon recently when I stopped at her farm stand to peruse her cabbages, peppers, onions, and eggplants before buying a medium-sized pumpkin for $4.

''So what do you do here for excitement?" I asked.

''I knit," said the lifelong produce farmer without hesitation. She also reads mysteries. An unsolved murder here a few years ago of an elderly apple farmer still bothers her, but it was such an anomaly that it doesn't make her fearful.

Golonka's brother, who studied agriculture at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, runs the farm. Her father died a few years ago. She lives in the house where she was raised, next to the small wooden stand. Forty acres of fields are out back.

Lynn Sibley, the town clerk, also grew up on a farm. Her family lived on the northern, mountainous side of town and tended dairy cows, a herd of between 40 and 60 head that her brother manages today.

''I'm not a very good dairy farmer's daughter," she confided. ''I don't like milk."

However, Sibley and Golonka both like Whately (WAIT-lee).

The town was incorporated in 1771, and while agriculture on land abutting the Connecticut River has been a mainstay of the economy, the town also has seen its share of manufacturing. The railroad came through in 1846. Commodities produced here have included corn brooms, earthenware, cloth, bricks, wallets, and liquor.

''Small distilleries have been carried on at different times and places," according to an extensive history of the town posted to the Web and confirmed by Sibley. In 1994, Yankee Candle Co. opened a factory here that employs 511 people

Sibley has lived in Whately for most of her 47 years, all except two when her husband was in the service and stationed in Texas. The Town Hall where she has a desk in the selectmen's meeting room was once the school where Sibley attended first and second grade. The chalkboards, some hidden by filing cabinets, are still up.

''Some people would say there's nothing in Whately, but that's part of the attraction," Sibley said, quickly adding there is plenty of entertainment in nearby Northampton, Greenfield, and Amherst. ''You can get whatever you need," in the way of cultural stimulation. ''It's close enough but far away enough so you don't have to deal with city issues."

It's inaccurate to say there is no nightlife in Whately. The Fillin' Station, a 1960s-era Art Deco-style diner, serves breakfast 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Sitting along Interstate 91, it is owned by F.L. Roberts, a gas station and convenience store company, and a big part of the clientele is truckers, who fill their stomachs at one of the three tables, seven booths, or 16 counter seats. There's nothing like homemade corn chowder to boost business at the pump.

Jackie LeDoyt has been serving bacon, eggs, and coffee at the diner since 1982. We got to talking about the history of the place after she was kind enough to let my 9-year-old daughter make a few selections on the jukebox. It wasn't long before manager Frederic Brown, who started as a cook 24 years ago, got into the conversation. He printed out a one-page fact sheet that he gives to the Deco diner aficionados who stop by with some regularity. An English couple who had made diners a focus of their tourism happened to be there and joined the conversation.

I learned that the Fillin' Station is a ''classic Princess style" structure built in 1960 and moved from its original location in Chicopee in the early 1970s. The Food Channel featured it in a ''Best of Diners" special a few years ago and in 1998, USA Today named it one of the top 10 diners in the country. A scene from the 1999 horror movie ''In Dreams" was filmed there.

Being on the highway, the town also gets its share of celebrities. LeDoyt recalled the time Dr. Ruth Westheimer and her husband came in. The sex therapist sat on a stool and ''her little feet wouldn't touch the ground," said LeDoyt.

Brown gets a rise out of LeDoyt by insisting on the accuracy of several stories LeDoyt says are more apocryphal than true. Like the time she blurted out that Superman was in the house when the actor Christopher Reeve came in. She says he wasn't very friendly.

They all got a laugh recalling the time Chris Farley's chauffeur inadvertently (at least they think it was inadvertent) left without him. The actor paced around for hours until another limo came to retrieve him. Jason Robards, a BLT guy, was a regular when his son attended a nearby prep school.

Nightlife in Whately also would have to include the Castaway Lounge, which some locals would rather not talk about. The roadside bar at the corner of State Street and Christian Lane, features exotic dancers. The establishment has triggered reactions ranging from outrage to mild amusement from locals since it started using the dancers to entice customers in 1977, four years after it opened as a bar.

Sibley's take is that, like it or not, it has put Whately on the map. She even got comments on it in Texas when she mentioned where she was from.

''The worst part is that it's at the crossroads of everything," she said, ''so when you give people directions you have to say, turn left at the Castaway."

More wholesome entertainment is available every night of the week and Sunday afternoons in the form of fine dining at the venerable Whately Inn, which anchors a historic district on Chestnut Plain Road, the wide street that once was a main north-south thoroughfare until the state road was rerouted. The inn has four guest rooms, down from the 13 it had before a fire.

Chef Nick Parsons, sitting alone at the darkened bar one day, planning his menu, said business is brisk and reserved seating for holiday meals often sells out months in advance. Booking for the Thanksgiving feast for 650 starts in June. He said that in the bawdy old days, they had topless dancing at the bar, but no more.

Parsons started at the inn as a busboy.

''I learned to cook here," he said, and is now as comfortable serving up frogs' legs as he is roast beef. With 24-hour notice, he'll rustle up specialties like Cajun prime rib or Louisiana shrimp.

Highlights of spring and summer in Whately include Memorial Day, when the 30-foot-high milk bottle next to Town Hall opens for business as the ice cream stand. Weekly in summer, a small chapel in the hills nearby becomes a folk music venue on what are called ''Watermelon Wednesdays." Last summer, a host of regional favorites, some with national reputations, took the stage.

The music is acoustic because the chapel has just enough electricity for a couple of light bulbs; intermission always promises a bat show when the winged mammals emerge from the belfry.

The hottest political issues here these days involve getting state money to help repair damage from some recent flooding, according to Sibley. As for the murder, the police have ''a pretty good idea of who did it, but they don't have the evidence," she said, adding that ''the farmer had a habit of taking in people who are down on their luck."

All in all, Whately is ''a really nice place to grow up," said Sibley, describing it as a farming community where work ethic, care for the environment, and respect for one's neighbors are strong. ''If you're ever in trouble, you can always count on someone to help you out," she said.

Contact Eric Goldscheider, a freelance writer in Western Massachusetts, at eric.gold@verizon.net.

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