Living the life within this bubble of a college town and cultural mecca.
Does the town make the college or the college make the town? Historically speaking, for Williamstown at least, it’s got to be the town. Upon his death in 1755, Colonel Ephraim Williams bequeathed a significant sum to start a free school on his land in western Massachusetts on the condition that the town be named after him. Williamstown was incorporated in 1765—the free school wouldn’t open until 1791, and became Williams College two years later.
More than two centuries later, it is hard to imagine what the town would be like today without its namesake school. With a population of just under 8,000, Williamstown contains sprawling farmlands all the way from the Five Corners in the south to the Cozy Corner Motel just shy of the Vermont border. But ask any Berkshirite to conjure up an image of Williamstown, and they’re likely to picture the part of Main Street that encompasses the campus and its many buildings, athletic fields, and peripatetic scholars.
“Williamstown and Williams are so connected, unlike almost any other school,” says Rita Watson, a member of the Williamstown Historical Society. Her current exhibit at the Milne Public Library, “Spring Street: Then and Now,” illustrates how the street that many consider the hub of downtown activity has evolved over the past 200 years. One artifact in particular demonstrates the impact of the college on the town’s evolution and layout. A letter dated 1866 and written by college president Mark Hopkins explains that the college will give the town $5,000 toward the building of the Congregational church that still stands on the corner of Main and Spring streets. “The college had no large space to have the graduation or anything that could hold a lot of people,” explains Watson, “and that’s one of the reasons why they gave all the money.”
Over the years, the college has had a heavy hand in not only shaping the landscape, but also transforming the rural community into a cultural mecca. A schedule of regular speakers, Berkshire Symphony concerts, theatrical performances, and more keeps students and locals alike engaged year-round.
“If you think about the lectures and the concerts,” says Steven Klass, vice president of Campus Life at Williams, “plus the ongoing academic and intellectual events, the use of the faculty club that community members can belong to—all of those things are typically open to the public. People take significant advantage of those kinds of offerings.”
Pam Besnard, who graduated from Williams in 1984, left a sales-management position at Newsweek to move to Williamstown with her family in 2002. After spending a couple of years at home with her two children and then a successful six-year stint as a fundraiser at her alma mater, Besnard accepted the position of vice president for Development and Alumni Relations at the New School in 2010. She now commutes between New York City and the Berkshires each week.
“Since I am no longer working at the college and now commute, I don’t think of myself as an alumna first—I think of myself as raising my kids and making a living,” she says. “But to suggest that I’d be doing that here if I weren’t an alum would be wrong. So, it’s a little bit of both.”
While excited to return to the city she missed so much, Besnard says the family’s decision to keep their home in Williamstown was an easy one—and it had a lot to do with raising her children, one now a high-school senior and the other in college. “They have great friends, they know everybody in this town, they know the college very well, they know the high school well, they’re friendly with their teachers and their coaches,” she says. “That’s something we could not have offered them in New York City.”
Once you’re in the bubble—whether as a student, alum, local by birth, live in town or off the beaten path—there seems to be no escape. And residents seem just fine with that. Watson, who first came to Williamstown in 1962 to work as a costume designer in the college theater and settled permanently after marrying two years later, can’t imagine being anywhere else, even after her husband died. “It’s nice to be able to go to the post office and say hi to people. Wherever you go, you run into somebody you know, and I would not be able to do that someplace else.
“So here I am.”