Pop quiz, readers: Which of the following Western Massachusetts towns — Gill, Leyden, Ripton, Richmond, Buckland, or Cummington — isn’t real?
If you’re at a loss, you’re not alone. There are 351 cities and towns in the Commonwealth, many of which you may never have the good fortune to visit, and that’s a lot of names to remember.
Even state legislators sometimes have trouble keeping them all straight.
In the early 1980s, a group of friends out in Western Massachusetts felt that the region was so overlooked by Beacon Hill that they invented a town in Berkshire County called Ripton — and briefly secured $60,000 in state funding for their hoax of a hamlet.
Legend has it that George “Gige” Darey, a town selectman in Lenox and longtime chair of the state’s Fisheries and Wildlife Board, concocted the town with a handful of conservationist friends, including Berkshire Natural Resources Council cofounder George Wislocki and Lenox Land Trust cofounder Sarah “Sally” Bell, who’s credited with naming Ripton.
The group began submitting government forms on official-looking “Town of Ripton” letterhead, first lodging complaints with state Fisheries and Wildlife director Richard Cronin about Boston hunters and the lack of stocked trout in the town. Then, in the 1984 state budget — passed by both the House and Senate and signed by Governor Mike Dukakis — Ripton was awarded $50,000 “for riprap and general stream maintenance of the Lazy River” (”riprap” means to fortify riverbanks with stones) and another $10,000 for “weed control and cleanup at Darey’s Pond.”
Like the town itself, neither body of water actually exists. But it would be weeks before anyone noticed the error.
The point of the prank
Beyond a good laugh, the point of the prank was to expose how little attention Beacon Hill lawmakers paid to rural parts of the state. “They did it sort of as a joke to sort of make fun of Boston politicians,” said Bob Durand, a former state lawmaker and secretary of environmental affairs and a longtime friend of Darey’s. “They actually got Ripton in the budget, and money was allocated.” The funds were reportedly placed into a state escrow account but never paid out — because the Department of Revenue couldn’t find Ripton.
“We had Ripton stationery, and we used to write letters to the Legislature, and inevitably people believed it,” Wislocki recalled with a laugh. “No one in state government could tell you where all those rural towns are … a couple of legislators caught on, and we kept putting it in budgets, and the funny thing is, they don’t read the [expletive] thing, so it stayed in there.”
In 1985, the Air Force wanted to build a series of early-warning communications towers in the town of Hawley, which fought back against the unwelcome intrusion. That’s when Air Force and state officials received a letter from a made-up member of Ripton’s Board of Selectmen saying that their town, boasting a similar topography to Hawley, would be proud to honor their country by accepting the radar towers, which could even serve as nesting sites for eagles.
“The story goes that the Air Force came out and scoured the Berkshires looking for the town of Ripton, and they couldn’t find it,” Durand said.
Ripton’s founders usually mailed their “official” letters when they were traveling around the state, to shroud their geographical location. This time, though, Wislocki slipped up: A carbon copy of the Air Force letter was traced back to his office at the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, where the postage machine stamped outgoing mail with the sender’s whereabouts.
“Once the story was out … they couldn’t pull their legs anymore,” lamented Ginny Akabane, Darey’s longtime partner. But the town lived on in the imagination, as Darey would send friends an annual Town of Ripton calendar until his death in 2018, stocked like a fishing hole with inside jokes and dubious dates. Town Meeting in Ripton, for example, was always held on June 31.
But even after the jig was up, Ripton would continue to sneak into state political proceedings. In 1991, when a proposed landfill along the Appalachian Trail in nearby Hinsdale drew the outrage of local residents, a letter emerged in which Ripton officials volunteered to host the dump. And in 1992, Ripton again worked its way into the preliminary state budget, nabbing nearly $400,000 to establish five positions investigating “the predacious activities of the endangered howame analyst” (howame being, perhaps, slang for “House Ways and Means”).
“I don’t know how to describe it other than Western Mass people making fun of the bureaucrats in Boston,” said Wayne MacCallum, former Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) director and another longtime friend of Darey. “Gige was always pulling pranks.”
Darey’s sense of humor, friends said, helped forge powerful partnerships between unlikely allies, leading to the preservation and protection of some of the state’s most beloved landscapes.
“We always had a hard time getting the sporting groups and the environmental community together,” Durand said, but Darey united hunters and wildlife activists around land conservation in what would be called the “Guns and Roses” coalition. “It became a political force on Beacon Hill in the ‘90s, when we got the Rivers Protection Act through.” (You might remember Durand diving into the Charles River with Governor Bill Weld to mark the bill’s passage in 1996.)
“Gige was great about reaching out to opposing groups that may not always agree on every issue,” Durand added. “But he found a common ground somewhere and was able to bring people together. And a lot of that was his humor.”
Leaving a mark
While Darey’s Pond in Ripton remains a landmark of legend, Darey’s lifelong commitment to conservation means tangible, mapped landscapes now bear his name, too. In 2004, the state officially renamed the Housatonic Valley Wildlife Management Area in Lenox after Darey.
And though Ripton may not be a real place, its founders and friends have nonetheless left very real marks on maps of the Berkshires.
As a town selectman, Darey helped stop the construction of a highway bypass through a wildlife sanctuary in Lenox, among other achievements; Bell helped the BNRC conserve more than 2 miles of ridgeline in the Hoosac Range. And both helped found not just Ripton, but the Massachusetts Outdoor Heritage Foundation — a nonprofit that raises money for MassWildlife and has helped fund habitat restoration, endangered species and wildlife research, land acquisition, and educational initiatives such as the Teaching With Trout program.
Could there be another Ripton?
Asked whether someone could pull such a prank today — in an era in which rampant disinformation sometimes wins out over rigorous, real-time fact checking — Durand said it wouldn’t surprise him. “I mean, the bureaucracy is so large that people aren’t always paying attention,” he said.
State Representative Smitty Pignatelli of Lenox thinks that it’s unlikely, and what’s more, he added, the Berkshires-Beacon Hill divide is no longer the chasm it once was, making such a stunt unnecessary.
“At that time, the leadership at the State House was oblivious to what was going on outside of Boston,” said Pignatelli, whose district would presumably include Ripton — were it a real place.
“I think that the tide has shifted dramatically,” he said. “We’re still fighting for scraps in the state budget, don’t get me wrong — but they know where Lenox is, they know where Great Barrington is, they know where Stockbridge and Sheffield are. So I don’t think we need to make up any more fictitious towns to get their attention.”
Jon Gorey blogs about homes at HouseandHammer.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jongorey. Subscribe to our free real estate newsletter at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp.