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Townspeople Know Rae Kowacki’s Chili Better Than Dow Jones’ Average

November 9, 1987

ERVING, Mass. (AP) _ ″Are you kidding?″ exclaimed a paper mill worker when asked about fallout from last month’s stock market plunge. ″We work here. We don’t earn that kind of money.″

If this mill town in the Connecticut River Valley 75 miles west of Boston is any barometer, the market crash hasn’t been felt yet in Small Town, U.S.A.

Unlike the big cities, stocks are not the talk of this town of 1,330, which celebrates its 150th birthday next year.

For one thing, Erving Paper Mills, with 300 workers the town’s largest employer, is privately held.

Here, you’re apt to hear the name Rae Kowacki more than Dow Jones. She’s famous for the chili she sells at the annual church bazaar.

People are less threatened by the stock market’s ups and downs than they are by a state proposal to run a highway through their tiny downtown, demolishing some homes and businesses that cater to skiers en route to points north and the tourists who come ″leaf peeping″ each fall.

Everywhere you look are signs opposing the highway.

″Save Erving. Another West Mass Town Bites Dust,″ reads one big sign in front of the Box Car Drive-In Restaurant, whose $150,000-a-year business would be a casualty.

″If we lose Route 2, this whole town has lost everything,″ said Barbara Bumpus, a co-owner of the restaurant. ″We cannot afford to let the politicians kill the entire town.″

Townspeople gather at the Box Car, the Erving Country Store and the post office, talking of their campaign to get the highway routed through a state forest. Sometimes it’s just small talk.

But when Millie Nicewicz, a 74-year-old widow who was married in 1932 at the height of the Depression, turns her attention to the stock market, she says tartly it’s something she never believed in.

″My husband used to play it, but I used to swear and holler and he finally cut it out,″ she said. ″Put your money where you know where it is. I would never want to see another depression.″

Dorothy Potter, a 57-year-old supervisor in the billing department at Erving Paper, said friends in her age group were mindful of the 1929 crash and the Depression that followed several years later.

Mrs. Potter, who was born in December 1929, two months after that crash, remembers frugal childhood years.

″I grew up on a farm so there was plenty to eat,″ she said. ″But we never had nice clothes. We’d wear our shoes ’til there were holes in them, then we’d get new soles. Right now, I don’t think anybody’s concerned.″

Mrs. Potter and her husband, Russell, plan to retire in four years after decades-long careers with the mill.

″Our pensions are secure,″ said Mrs. Potter. ″We didn’t live beyond our means. If one of us got laid off, we’d have to live a little tighter, but we wouldn’t starve to death. We have no mortgage.″

Northeast Utilities is the town’s largest taxpayer with an annual bill of $1.2 million in personal property taxes for its hydroelectric plant along the Connecticut River. Northeast’s stock on the New York Stock Exchange has been as high as 28 and as low as 18 this year.

Sue Elwell, who works in sales and marketing for Erving, said she’d heard the predictions of a poor Christmas but noted that customers had already bought 95 percent of the company’s holiday inventory of printed napkins, paper plates, cups and place mats.

Some townspeople said they’d been planning to cut back on Christmas spending even before the stock market drop simply because prices were too high.

Norma Charbonneau, 57, a widow who is co-owner of the Box Car, is worried about what will happen to her if the restaurant is lost.

″I’m pretty old to start a new business,″ she said. ″I’ll have to go day-by-day.″

Marilyn and Gary Burnett figure they probably lost a couple thousand dollars in money markets, but they’re more worried about losing a home that has been in the Burnett family for eight generations - not to the unpredictable stock market but to the highway.

″I’m more concerned about losing my kids’ heritage,″ Mrs. Burnett said. ″I can always work.″

End Adv Sunday Nov 8

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