The Rural We: Janet Elsbach
Janet with her husband, Bart Elsbach
The Great Barrington Fairgrounds have always held a special place in Janet Elsbach’s heart, so watching it slide into ruin was a sad experience. The Sheffield-based writer and her husband, Bart, always thought the space had so much potential, so they watched and waited until they had the opportunity to purchase it and place it back in community hands. After formally buying the fairgrounds they launched a community redevelopment project, a volunteer-based non-profit that aims to turn the fairgrounds into a space for growing food, preserving the native plant and animal species who inhabit it, and developing it into a community resource with access to recreational opportunities. On September 21, the pair will hold a barn-raising brunch at Gedney Farm.
My husband Bart and I were both born in New York, but our families had homes in the Berkshires, so growing up we always had a foot here. We would go to the fair as kids and always loved the place. Bart has been following the property for close to 15 years and we both thought it was such wasted space. Over the years, many different things were supposed to happen; projects came and went, plans fell through. But nothing that was discussed really seemed to capture the community spirit of the place. We kept an eye on it, but the price was so astronomically high. About two years ago, we had to the opportunity to acquire it and put it back into community hands. So we officially bought it in December 2013 and hoped to get the community actively involved.
We don’t have a real estate background, we’re not developers. My husband is an artist and farmer and I’m a writer and teacher, so we didn’t come at this from a professional standpoint. We want to gather together people who have an active interest in the site and what it has the potential to be. We want to create a space that will teach people about the land, create agriculture, preserve the open space and make use of the existing trails and access to the river.
This is a really big project and a unique opportunity because it would benefit everyone in the community, not just a niche bracket. It’s good for businesses and families of all income levels. It encompasses so much of what’s important to people in the Berkshires, as it involves nature and community. The fairgrounds are a gateway to the county and one of the few places in Berkshire County available by bus line. Instead of being this eyesore, it would be wonderful for the first thing people see when they enter the Berkshires to be this incredible space used by the community.
The barn raising on the 21st is our first major fundraiser and I’m so excited about our speakers. Sam Sifton was just announced as the new food editor for The New York Times, and Jenny Rosenstrach and Andy Ward write for Bon Appétit. So they really care about good food and know how to get people excited about it and are sure to provide great conversation.
We’ll be raising money to build the barn at the fairgrounds through timber framing community workshops next summer. Timber framing has such a rich history in New England and really encapsulates the project and everything we do here because it all comes together through community. You come for the workshop and walk away with new skills that in turn you can teach someone. And, at the end, we’ll have this beautiful barn that we’ve made together for future generations.