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MAIN STREET: An Evolution

In 1980, Willard Lehr reminisced about his 50 years on Main Street in a newspaper interview:

Pittsfield recollections

Long-time resident reminisces on 50 years of Main Street life

By Brenda Seekins, District Correspondent

PITTSFIELD - "Everything happens for the best," according to Willard Lehr, who says he has been "intimately involved" with downtown Pittsfield for 50 years.

Lehr's insurance agency is one of the businesses on the east side of Pittsfield's business district that will have to relocate as a result of a planned $4 million revitalization project. The Lehr Agency will move into a new business and commercial complex planned to replace buildings in the area to be improved.

Lehr's Main Street experience began when his father owned the famed Lancey House, where the family lived from 1929 to 1945. Lehr recalls the Lancey House as a focal point for the community for a number of years, with a reputation of fame throughout the Northeast. Much activity was generated by the comings and goings of numerous traveling salesmen at the hotel, and the many town organizations and individuals that made the hotel a headquarters of sorts.

Lehr recalls that nearly 80 businesses occupied the downtown area in those early years, compared to half that number now.

There were three car dealerships downtown, he remembers, two hardware stores and a number of restaurants and drugstores. Some of those have changed hands and locations over the years, he adds.

At one time, in the early '30's, a car dealership was located at the top of Main Street where a gas station is now, with the post office located next door. A church thrift shop occupies the site today.

A parking lot is planned for the vacant lot at the corner of Middle and Central streets, where another dealer once sold cars. Still another dealership ran from where Lehr's agency is on Hunnewell Avenue now. Lehr has relocated a number of times, having had offices on both sides of Main Street over the years finally moving to his Hunnewell Ayenue address in 1962.

Lehr says a portion of the Maine National Bank was once a clothing store, with the local telephone operators located upstairs. In those days, he says, one could call Etta Mae or Doris and leave word to "Ring us at the Smith's tonight, Etta. We're going to play cards."

Entertainment for many years could be found at the local theater once known as the Bijou, the now town-owned Pittsfield Community Theater. Following the show, Lehr says, it was common to stop at a local restaurant for an ice cream soda.

Over the years there were numerous restaurants in town, including one with an entrance through the basement of a bank building. Another eatery featured Greek cuisine, and was located next to the theater which later became the Goode Shop, a women's store.

A fire in the early 70s leveled one block on the west side of Main Street that once housed a succession of barbers. The block had also contained, at various times, a boot shop, a photography studio and a catalog store.

Lehr remembers Main Street was always busy, especially during the Depression. A youngster at the time, he recalls the organization of Booster Days, a program to encourage people to shop in Pittsfield. During these times a portion of Main Street would be roped off for events, including an occasional boxing match.

Major changes in the town came after World War II and the rise of J. R. Cianchette as a major contractor around the state. As Lehr recalls, Cianchette renovated a number of town properties and was instrumental in bringing major industries to town.

Lehr says a number of buildings have disappeared since his childhood, some the victim of fires, others razed for progress or abandoned. Lehr himself has been involved with two efforts to revitalize downtown Pittsfield. The first attempt was an urban renewal effort in the early 70's that was defeated by a referendum vote. More recently Lehr participated in the successful effort to secure an Urban Development Action Grant, (UDAG), to revamp Pittsfield's business district.

Lehr has a number of fond memories of his childhood on Main Street and his early business years.

"I can remember snow so deep we could climb up to the piazza roof on the Lancey House," he said. "Once, in the early '30's, we were snowed in for nearly a week. The hotel was swamped. We had people sleeping in the halls or wherever we could put a bed."

Lehr's playground as a boy was Main Street and the surrounding area. "Why, I've broken more windows than a dozen kids in four lifetimes," he recalls. "One Thanksgiving I put a football through the dining room window of the hotel just an hour before dinner."

"I've often thought it's a shame that these (Main Street) buildings couldn't talk," Lehr said. "What stories they could tell."