A Small Business Microcosm: Willimansett, Massachusetts in the 1960's

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Willimansett Today

What brought about such dramatic changes in Willimansett’s business community … changes that obviously didn’t occur overnight? Whereas most contributing factors slowly took effect over a period of years, there were several key influences that were somewhat more sudden in nature.

One of these, as has previously been mentioned, was the construction of I-391, cutting right through the heart of the “Y” and rendering Willimansetts as little more than a curiosity to passing motorists. Although this Interstate highway spur carries less traffic than projected, its impact upon local traffic was far more significant. Never a subject of bottlenecks or gridlock, the last thing that Willimansett needed was a reduction in vehicular traffic. Unfortunately, an even worse development was announced in late July of 2010. The Willimansett Bridge, built in 1891, was scheduled for a major $23 million repair and was totally closed to vehicular traffic in either direction for nearly 4 years, from August 2011 until June 11, 2015. Traffic was detoured over the I-391 bridge which, of course, bypasses businesses on both sides of the bridge, one of which is Willimansett. Ironically, many public comments posted online by local residents back at the start of this project called for demolition rather than repair. Ironically, it is frequently a challenge to protect the public from its own self-destructive tendencies.

Other factors also diverted traffic to alternate routes. One of these more heaving travelled routes was Memorial Drive, in Fairview. Also known as State Route 33 (or the North-South Highway to old-timers), Memorial Drive connects Chicopee Falls with the town of South Hadley, along the way providing the primary access for Westover Air Force Base. Until the time of the base’s decommissioning, Memorial Drive grew from 1940’s farmland into a non-stop strip of fast-food restaurants, auto dealerships, motels, a drive-in movie theater, a big Zayre department store, one of the early Big Y Supermarkets, and assorted small businesses, all capitalizing upon the disposable incomes and spending tendencies of young military personnel. Memorial Drive also had its own interchange on the Massachusetts Turnpike and was the location of Chicopee’s first, only, and now defunct shopping mall.

Shopping malls are all struggling to survive these days, but Fairfield Mall was doomed to be unsuccessful far ahead of its time, and the closing of Westover soon after the mall’s opening certainly didn’t enhance its prospects for long-term survival. Fairfield Mall was never fully occupied, and its two anchor department stores seemed to take turns going out of business. Not a single Fairfield Mall anchor tenant remains in business today. The list includes Two Guys, Forbes & Wallace, Steiger’s, Caldor, and Bradlees. As dismal as business may have been at the mall, it was booming compared to business in Willimansett, whose more mobile residents now happily drove up the hill to shop on Memorial Drive. Needless to say, nobody came from Fairview or Westover to shop in Willimansett. In that sense, traffic flowed in one direction only.

Another factor working against Willimansett was its proximity to Holyoke. The most manufacturing-oriented of the Springfield-Chicopee-Holyoke “tri-city” area, Holyoke was the first to decline, as one manufacturer after another shut down, moved out, or scaled back production. Vacant factory buildings, some of the country’s finest examples of late-nineteenth century mill architecture, seemed to become magnets for arson. At the time, it seemed that Holyoke had exchanged its “Paper City, USA” motto for “Arson Capital of America”. With only the Willimansett Bridge over the Connecticut River separating Willimansett from its neighboring city, Willimansett seemed destined to follow in Holyoke’s footsteps. In the early 1970’s, even the historic Stevens Manufacturing complex, along the Chicopee River in the center of Chicopee Falls, fell victim to arson. Of course, the aforementioned closing and repair of the Willimansett Bridge is certain to have a negative impact upon the local business community.

Along with the loss of manufacturing jobs came a shift in demographics. For three generations, the so-called captains of industry in New England recruited new waves of immigrants as a source of cheap labor, most notably the Irish who were followed by the French Canadians. Lured by stories of “streets paved with gold”, and without basic labor laws, let alone labor unions, to protect the rights of workers, long hours and low wages failed to live up to the recruitment stories but still seemed a better alternative to the potato famine back home in Ireland or the nearly untillable farmland left behind in Quebec.

As a skilled workforce became less important than low wages, manufacturers moved out in the 1960’s, generally to Southern states, as somewhat of a dress rehearsal for the moves to even cheaper labor costs in China and elsewhere that would come years later. As the factories closed, workers followed in their departure, chasing after those phantom jobs that were all too frequently leaving the area forever. Of course, without the base of manufacturing jobs as a lure, residential property vacancies rose, and both homeowners and landlords saw the value of their properties decline.

The last major wave of immigrants to arrive in the area in the twentieth century moved in from Puerto Rico and the Caribbean at the same time as industry was well on its way in the process of shutting down and moving out. Without jobs, per capita incomes plummeted. Without an industrial tax base, city services suffered. And without a customer base with disposable incomes, retail followed manufacturing in shutting its doors. The businesses that closed down in Willimansett were symbolic of what was happening on a larger scale in Holyoke.

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