By Jared Bowen
Nov. 17, 2011
UPTON — Just off Route 495 and bordering Hopkinton where the Boston Marathon starts, Upton has historically been a bedroom community. But it’s waking up as it finds itself in the midst of a record population boom.
Upton is a sleepy town crossed by leafy avenues and dotted with quiet waters. It’s a quintessential New England community where the town common is flanked by the Protestant and Catholic churches, although the latter is now for sale. It’s a place of historic 18th-century homes and grand new ones.
I know it well. It’s the place where I was raised and where people like 66-year-old Nancy LeClaire never found reason to leave.
WGBH News: Where We Live
When LeClaire was growing up in Upton, the place was “out in the sticks. Kind of a just little town,” she said. “We had a farm on each end of town. They delivered your milk in your milk box on the front porch.”
One of those farms remains, a vestige of a simpler time.
It is rather Mayberryish. I spent my childhood riding through Upton’s abundant forest land, climbing the ranks of the Cub Scouts and marching in town parades.
An old-timer reflects on her business success
LeClaire has put that small-town sensibility to work. She is the proprietor of two of Upton’s signature small businesses. One, Fin and Feather Sports, has been open since 1969.
“We ordered some worms from a catalog and started selling worms and nightcrawlers, and then we started selling shiners out of a bathtub. And that’s how the store started,” she said.
The other is a liquor store that she opened with her late husband 20 years ago.
She said, “We named it Liquor Plus and Bud always said the Plus was us!”
The store’s been able to survive even in the down economy. LeClaire chalked it up to the community feeling and service.
”I think it’s the personal contact you have with a person when you come into a store like that, a family-run store. I asked someone the other night how their daughter was, she was in a bad automobile accident. She said, 'Well, thank you for asking.' It meant something to her just for me to ask that question.”
The town's appeal to newcomers
That sensibility endeared the town to Rebecca and Mike Cotter, who moved here with their two daughters two years ago.
“Coming to Upton as a young mom, I was actually really surprised by just the different community activities. And it was very welcoming to us,” said Rebecca Cotter, who is now expecting another child.
Her husband agreed: “We love being here. I feel like we’re living the American Dream.”
Of all the cities and towns in Massachusetts, Upton had the largest percentage of population growth over the last decade. It grew because its soil has always been and still is fertile enough for the American Dream.
“I think for most people it’s having a comfortable home. Having it the way that you want it. Having access to all the conveniences,” Rebecca Cotter described. “We appreciate just the simple things and we love history. So this to us is definitely the American Dream.”
According to the last Census figures, since 2000 Upton has ballooned by roughly 1900 people. Most of them — 91 percent — own their own home. The median family income is well into the six figures.
A difference in priorities between generations
The region thrives enough that a long-dormant railway has been revived. Most farms and open space have given way to large developments, and new construction continues. The Cotters, however, favored a historic home next to the sprawling Sweet William Farm — a place the couple desperately wanted the town to buy and save.
“It’s a piece of history. It’s a rare piece of agricultural New England history nowadays. There’s not many pastures like that left,” Michael Cotter said.
Only half of Upton shared that opinion. Put to a vote this year, the potential purchase of the farm became divisive. The younger, newer population wanted it. Longtime residents didn’t.
LeClaire said, “Most of the older people, of course, didn’t want to spend town money on something like that because they’d been through it before. We bought three other parcels. And I think they felt enough is enough.”
“There was definitely friction,” Michael Cotter said. “It was a very, very close vote, I think it was decided by three votes. So it was somewhat controversial in town.”
In the end the farm was purchased and saved. The contention has quieted. But the line has been drawn. For half the town the American Dream has already been realized. The other half is still making the dream real.
WHERE WE LIVE: COMPLETE SERIES