Berkshire County campground boasts unique hydroelectric system and Cold War-era bomb shelters
For nearly 50 years, the Privacy Campground in Hancock, Massachusetts, has attracted a loyal following. For more than half that time, it’s been powered almost entirely by a unique hydroelectric system.
The campground has another amenity most campgrounds lack: a couple of bomb shelters, including one for the public.
At 90, property owner Andre Rambaud is rail thin and slightly bent over, but still manages to handle a chainsaw to cut up fallen trees for firewood. He moved to Hancock in 1960 to get away from the suburban sprawl of Long Island. As far as he’s concerned, this part of the northern Berkshires is paradise.
But in recent months, paradise has been a bit dry. This fall Rambaud had to turn his hydropower system off because of the lack of rain.
“There’s nothing like having your own power,” Rambaud said during a tour of his nearly 500 acres in late October. “Up to now, [the hydropower] worked good. It’s just that [recently we were] having a drought, so the aquifer doesn’t get refilled. And if the aquifer doesn’t get refilled, I have no water.”
Rambaud said snowfall will replenish the aquifer and he expects to restart his hydroelectric system this winter.
When it comes to green energy, Rambaud is all in. He has a windmill to charge the batteries for the many alarms he installed on windows and doors on the campground’s buildings. And his land is used for one of the Berkshire Wind Power Cooperative’s dozen turbines on Brodie Mountain.
His hydroelectricity system is an impressive feat of engineering. Three quarters of the way up the mountain, Rambaud created a 12-by-6-foot reservoir that is fed by water bubbling up from the aquifer.
A mile of underground pipe brings the water down the mountain to a turbine housed inside a public bomb shelter Rambaud erected on his property. By the time the water reaches the turbine, he said, it has a pressure of 300 pounds per square inch, the equivalent of the water pressure coming out of the most powerful fire hoses.
Rambaud is a veteran of the Korean War and lets vets camp for free at his campground. Although he insists he hasn’t kept up with modern electronic technology, his military electronics training has enabled him to assemble a number of quirky projects.
An odd sight greets arrivals to the campground. A working traffic light on a pole marks the intersection of two dirt roads. Cars drive over an air hose similar to those that make a bell ring at gas stations, triggering a 30-second red light.
‘If somebody were to attack my house, this could be used’
Rambaud also has a video camera pointing at the water turbine’s instrument panel that allows him to monitor the hydropower system from his home kitchen.
Rambaud may strike some as obsessed with security. This may have something to do with the fact that he was 8 years old when his family fled Nazi-occupied France.
The door to his garage, which leads to a personal bomb shelter, gives you a sense of the lengths he will go to stay safe. The door was built with two layers of wooden boards that have metal spikes embedded in them to disable a chainsaw if someone tried to cut through them, Rambaud explained. Doors on his power tool cabinet, storage building and personal bunker are secured with the kind of combination locks used on bank safes.
The door to his 9’ X 10’ personal bunker weighs 1700 pounds, he said. Inside he has a periscope to monitor the outside world. It is stocked with gas masks, a Geiger counter, guns and ammo, and a series of pipes that enable him to release smoke bombs in his house and garage in the event of a home invasion. The smoke bombs contain a poisonous gas used to kill woodchucks, he said.
“This is a safe room, not just in case of war,” Rambaud said. “If somebody were to attack my house, this could be used. You feel safe when you have a room like this. It’s just nice.”
An 82-foot tunnel runs from his personal bomb shelter to the public shelter, which can accommodate 100 people. Rambaud served as Hancock’s civil defense director for 40 years. At 1,500 square feet, the public shelter is currently used for storage, including for three antique vehicles. Rambaud still has his parents’ 1939 Pontiac sedan, a working 1951 Willys Jeep and a tiny two-cylinder French Citroen.
There are 35 camping sites that come with picnic tables and fire pits. Ten miles of hiking trails traverse the property, with three ponds, a brook and a waterfall.
There’s cell reception at the Privacy Campground but no Wi-Fi because Rambaud doesn’t use the internet himself. He also doesn’t accept credit cards. Though the campground has a website, the only way campers can book a stay is to call Rambaud on the phone. You can come as a tenter, as he calls the people who stay in tents, or rent one of the five small cabins.
Rambaud no longer allows people to stay in motor homes or camping trailers.
“The people who own trailers are usually not very nice,” Rambaud said. “They come here and they think they own everything. They’re very picky.”
But it is OK to camp in a van. Before the campground closed for the season on November 1, I met Sven and Mave, two of the last campers on the premises who were staying in a work van. Both declined to share their last names. Sven, a 30-year-old tattooed man from Minnesota, thought the campground’s analog reservation system was a hoot. Mave, a 29-year-old Wisconsin native was impressed with the natural beauty of the land.
“I don’t think I’ve been somewhere that’s been cultivated so well to preserve nature and have that be the main focus,” she said. “I think the peaceful aspects of this place have been what’s drawn me.”
Uncertainty over land’s future
Rambaud said the campground has not been profitable, but he has no regrets about running the place for the last 48 years. Most of those years were spent with his late wife Birgit. Her ashes are housed in a diamond-shaped concrete memorial with a fountain in front of Rambaud’s house.
“It’s been a wonderful life,” Rambaud said. “It’s very healthy because you’re doing outside work all the time. You meet a lot of nice people. The tenters are nice people. It’s like family because they’ve been coming back every year for 30 or 40 years now.”
But the work of maintaining the campground has become too much for a 90-year-old man, so Rambaud is planning to sell it. A neighbor hopes to buy the property and has vowed to continue operating the campground and let Rambaud live in his house for as long as he likes.
Rambaud is insisting the land never be developed.
“I worked my whole life building this campground and I want to be sure that it stays just the way that it is,” he said. “I want to preserve the trees. I don’t want logging.”
“There is a threat of development there,” said Sophie Anthony, the New England Forestry Foundation’s conservation project manager, referring to the campground’s proximity to the ski resort Jiminy Peak.
Rambaud had been working with the foundation to acquire a conservation restriction on his property, which would bar development. The text of the restriction was approved by the state’s Division of Conservation Services in January 2021, but Hancock’s Board of Selectman has informed Rambaud that the town would not sign it.
Rambaud claims one of the selectmen, Sherman Derby, has held a grudge against him for more than 20 years because of his support for the Berkshire Wind Power Project. Derby, whose family has lived in Hancock for seven generations, scoffed at the notion that bad blood between him and Rambaud would impact his decision on the conservation restriction.
“I only do what’s in the best interests of the town,” Derby said. “I don’t do it because I like or dislike anybody personally.”
Derby said he didn’t remember whether he voted for or against the conservation restriction. He referred questions about the denial to the town’s lawyer, Jeremiah Pollard. Pollard did not respond to numerous phone messages and emails.