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West Stockbridge pioneers give a town new life

By Maria LenhartStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 8, 1980

West Stockbridge, Mass.

The same road that takes east-bound travelers to the bucolic and cultural ambience of the Berkshires goes right through the hamlet of West Stockbridge. Until recently, there was little reason for them to stop here.

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Once little more than a barber shop, grocery, and hardware store, this tiny village just over the Massachusetts border from New York now boasts a gracious inn, quality shops, and gourmet restaurants that are more cosmopolitan than many actually found in cosmopolitan places. Just as important, the village's natural assets -- the gentle hills that encircle it, the placid Shaker Mill Pond that borders it, and the Williams River that meanders behind Main Street -- have notm been included in the renovation.

Much of this man-made improvement has been prompted by just one man: Gordon Rose, a musician-turned-developer who "discovered" the town about 10 years ago. He bought the village's Westbridge Inn, then a local bar, and turned it into a 15-room hostelry with a restaurant serving hearty New England fare.

"I bought it and it bought me," says Mr. Rose, who soon found himself acquiring storefronts and land parcels all over town. The general decay of the village -- plus the lack of a sewer system -- made a lot of it easy to buy.

"Gradually the idea of a revitalized community began to take shape," he says. "West Stockbridge had once served the surrounding community with food, leather, and glass, with seeds and hotels. That's what it has become again -- a rural shopping village."

He formed a developing firm called Westbridge Associates, which set to work restoring existing buildings and luring merchants and restaurateurs to occupy them. The town's 1838 train station, a relic from when West Stockbridge was a connecting point between Boston and the Erie Canal during the last century, now shelters clothing, leather, and jewelry stores instead of passengers.

Most of the commerce is centered along Main Street, within newly painted and refurbished storefronts that, despite their New England setting, give off the spacious, pioneer feel of the Old West. The reason may be that they are occuped by pioneers of a sort -- like Rhonda Avion who came from California to open her first business, a gift shop called Rhonda's Impulse.

What may be luring more Berkshires- bound travelers out of their cars than any other attraction in the West Stockbridge is the food. First-time visitors are no doubt surprised to find that this Yankee village has such diversities as gourmet Vietnamese food and some of the best Tex-Mex cookery west of El Paso. In fact, at Miss Ruby's Cafe on Main Street they can feast on Tex-Mex, Creole-Cajun, Italian, Middle Eastern, Hungarian, or Provencal dishes, depending on what Ruth Bronz (Miss Ruby in real life) is featuring on menu that week.

Ruth Bronz, like many of the other entreprenuers in West Stockbridge, came there in a roundabout way. After graduating from college 15 years ago, she was advised by her mother in Texas to "get a house in the country and put all your things in it." She did just that -- not in her native Texas, but in Housatonic, not far from West Stockbridge.

On the weekends she made the 150-mile commute into New York City where she was a cook in a restaurant called The Balcony. "It had no balcony -- in fact it was in a basement," she says. "I think the title grew out of some fascination with Existentialism on the part of the owner. I spent 2 1/2 years there making ground-meat chili -- which as a Texan offended me greatly."