Faith Matters: The dissolution of community: Observing the ripple effect of big changes in small towns

Mick Comstock is a retired pastor now living in Shelburne Falls.

Mick Comstock is a retired pastor now living in Shelburne Falls. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By THE REV. MICK COMSTOCK

Retired UCC minister

Published: 06-28-2024 12:52 PM

I came to Heath in the summer of 1970, just out of seminary, as pastor of the Heath Union Evangelical Church and the Rowe Community Church. It didn’t take me long to learn that the pastorate was no longer a bully pulpit but was still a bully perspective on our life together.

What I saw and heard in Rowe was different from Heath, because, while Heath was still the remains of a rural community church, Rowe had become a suburban church peopled by newcomers who’d come to work at the Rowe Atomic Power plant. Rowe was the more difficult church because the suburbanite members came hoping for a rural community, not realizing that it was their overwhelming presence that had transformed the old community into a suburban town, and I was given credit for that change.

Heath Church was the dream of a dream for me because it was still populated by the remaining farmers and their families. In the 1950s there were about 50 working farms in Heath. When I came there were still 11, some of whom made up the majority of the members of Heath Church. When I left five years later there were six working farms left. It took me a while to figure out that what I was hearing and feeling in Heath, where I lived, was grief over the loss of their community. And I felt somehow to blame for this, too.

What helped me to finally figure out what I was feeling and what was going on was the fact that in 1972, the Main Street of my hometown in Ohio was bulldozed to make room for more boat yards and docks. Main Street businesses had failed and the town concluded that their only economic hope was to lure boaters in off Lake Erie. That failed, of course, because with Main Street gone there was no reason for people to come in off the lake.

In 1964, the year Linda and I were married, I walked her up Main Street, the length of Shelburne Falls Bridge Street business block, at noon as people were coming out of the stores for lunch. The walk took us two hours because I had to introduce her to everybody.

In 1950 my town had 2,000 people and the shopping possibilities were all on Main Street. By 1960 it had 8,000 people and had become a suburb of the surrounding industrial towns and cities. Shopping had moved to the edge of town and to those surrounding cities.

I went to visit my town after Main Street was destroyed, and I was shocked … not so much by the absence of the buildings but the loss of the spaces between them. These were the spaces where people met by accident on their way walking to and from the stores. This was one of the places where the community was regularly experienced. The alleys between the building were the places where us kids could smoke and kiss each other without getting caught.

The small communities and urban neighborhoods that most people lived in before suburbanization produced the people that were needed for leadership … the mayors, the police chiefs, the selectmen, etc. Pastors came from the outside, but from similar communities.

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They also produced the characters necessary for community survival. Among them were the fools, the saviors of the communities. The fools were still alive in Heath when I came in 1970.

The were known as “the Howards”: Howard Thompson and Howard Dickinson. Their special function was at town meeting when things began to get hot. When people began to get hot under the collar, the Howards would start yelling across the room at each other, laughing, until no one else could be heard. The moderator would try to shout them down, and when he couldn’t, he would threaten to call in the police. When the Howards finally shut up and sat down, the original argument was forgotten and the meeting could progress with dignity. (I saw this happen three years in a row.)

The Howards are now dead and there are no more fools, only foolish people. It begins to seem like our towns may no longer be governed by town meetings because people no longer know each other or have a stake in each other’s lives.

In this era, the churches, which once gathered people across party lines, began to sort themselves out into liberal and conservative, progressive and evangelical. Sadly, I did my part in that happening in Heath.

The dissolution of communities we experienced here happened all across the country and lies at the base of the cultural and pollical wars we’re experiencing now.

Mick Comstock is a retired pastor now living in Shelburne Falls. He served churches in Heath, Rowe, Stockbridge, Boston, Charlemont, and Jeffersonville, Vermont. He served as interim pastor in South Hadley, North Adams, and Montague Center, and as bridge pastor in Shelburne Center.