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For two tiny towns, big census shifts

In Upton, many signs of growth

Business is good at Upton’s lone grocery store, the Country Sooper, where cashier Alaina Bigelow helped Justin Harden. Business is good at Upton’s lone grocery store, the Country Sooper, where cashier Alaina Bigelow helped Justin Harden. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / March 25, 2011

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UPTON — This is the type of town where people forget to lock their front doors, where parents crowd the lacrosse and soccer fields on game day, and where misbehaving teenagers are sentenced to a few hours of community service washing the fire truck.

But there are signs of development, both big and small, in this sleepy hamlet south of Worcester that now holds the distinction of having the highest percentage of growth in Massachusetts over the past decade, climbing 33 percent to 7,542 residents, according to new US Census Bureau figures.

Almost daily, new faces appear in the general store and dry cleaners. A second traffic light was installed when the new high school was built about 12 years ago, bringing the total to two. The 275-year- old town hired its first town manager last year to oversee the day-to-day operations of a growing government, such as signing payroll.

And then there is the tale-tell sign of expansion: traffic. It is bumper to bumper during the morning and evening commutes along Hopkinton Road, a winding two-lane road that serves as the main east-west artery through town and is bordered by a large pond and houses that peek through a thicket of trees.

“It’s gotten bigger and better, and I’ve gotten busier and busier,’’ said Betsy Halnon, who for 23 years has worked for and now co-owns the Country Sooper, an Upton institution and its lone grocery store. “Everyday someone new comes in.’’

Town officials do not dispute Upton’s burgeoning growth, but say it might not be as dramatic as the federal figures suggest. They contend that Upton was undercounted by nearly 13 percent, or 727 people, during the 2000 Census.

“Which is a pretty good chunk,’’ said Town Clerk Kelly McElreath.

They unsuccessfully tried to reconcile the numbers with the federal government. When the 2010 Census arrived, the town made sure the error was not repeated by participating in a federal program that ensures that all addresses are up to date. McElreath said they discovered 446 households that the federal government did not have on file.

This census, she said proudly, “is truly more reflective of Upton.’’

The population increase means that Upton has and will face logistical changes, such as adding another voting precinct and getting increased funding on population-dependent grants.

But residents and officials said the culture of the place has pretty much remained the same.

“It’s a bedroom community,’’ said town manager Blythe Robinson. “I’m not even sure we’re big enough to have neighborhoods. There’s not a lot of commercial base. We don’t have a lot of bars and restaurants and grocery stores, so we don’t have a lot going on that way.’’

New residents and long-timers do not seem interested in such amenities, anyway.

“If I wanted a big city, I would move closer to the city,’’ Alaina Bigelow said as she rang up a customer at the Sooper, which is part grocery store and part watering hole.

Regulars recently sat at counters eating sandwiches and reading the newspaper while the smell of fresh-baked cookies filled the space and customers ordered ground beef and bought beer.

Bigelow has lived in Upton for 45 years and likes knowing her neighbors — and the quiet.

“When it hits 8 o’clock at night, you can’t hear anything,’’ she said. “No, really, it’s not the city.’’

Residents and officials attributed Upton’s growth to a younger demographic of working professionals with children who want more spacious and affordable housing, and census figures support what they are witnessing in their businesses and neighborhoods.

About 45 percent of Upton’s households have children under 18, and the median household income is about $102, 604. Town officials said the average house sells for about $375,000.

Ricky Gaudette moved to town seven years ago from Worcester. He had just married a woman with a 6-year-old, and they were looking to relocate. The couple explored the area and fell in love with Upton’s rural setting and sense of community. About 25 percent of the town is green space, he said.

So they settled in, and he joined the Upton Men’s Club, a local nonprofit that holds breakfasts for senior citizens, raises money for youth sports, and holds an annual Easter egg hunt. Gaudette said he welcomes the arrival of more newcomers, having contributed to Upton’s growth himself, but hopes the small town feel does not change.

“I don’t necessarily think we need a Stop & Shop downtown,’’ he said.

Like Gaudette, Justin Harden moved from Worcester. Although his 1,500 square-foot, ranch-style house is a little smaller than his former home, it sits on much more land, an acre lot.

“I can sit on my porch and watch the deer run through my yard,’’ said Harden, 38, manager of the Gasco Express gas station. “I can always go to the city if I have to.’’

Harden said that he was immediately embraced by the community and that just about everyone waved hello when he was new to the area and had few friends.

“Everyone,’’ he said, “is a townie.’’

Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com.