O'Mara Follows Long Family Tradition With Williamstown Business

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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Insurance broker Maureen O'Mara is following in a long family tradition — conducting business in Williamstown.

O'Mara is the fourth generation to follow this tradition that began in 1850 when her great-grandfather, Thomas McMahon, came over from Ireland during the potato famine.

"I have a strong sense of family and connection," said O'Mara. "Irish family ties go way back. It's very special. ... I take pride in being a townie. That was, is and ever shall be a very important aspect of my life."

O'Mara's Farm Family Insurance office is in a frame building on Main Street that housed the office of her father, Thomas M. McMahon Jr., and adjoins the building, now Agway, that was formerly his Chevrolet dealership.

"The first Thomas McMahon was in the livery business," she said.

Her office is an illustrated history lesson, a picture gallery displaying her father's portrait — his keenness, humor and strength of character are evident — and photographs of four-horse and six-horse teams of dapple-grays hitched to wagons, ready to take their passengers on excursions up Mount Greylock or to Cole's Grove. McMahon's carriages met Williams College students disembarking from the trains at the station on Cole Avenue.

A Chevrolet plaque dated Dec. 23, 1947, recognizes his son, Thomas McMahon, for 25 years of service. The livery, and the first automobile dealership were on lower Spring Street, where Library Antiques now displays Korean chests and fine vintage china in its windows.

"I started riding where the Williams College ice hockey rink is now," she recalled. The family also sold coal, owning the silos that stand by the train tracks along the Hoosic River.

"We owned the silos and rented the land from the railroad," she said.

One of the anecdotes in her family's trove concerns the visit of the famous showman P.T. Barnum and his circus to Williamstown.

"A bulldog grabbed the trunk of the lead elephant, and the elephants stampeded down Spring Street," she said. "P.T. Barnum went from merchant to merchant to merchant, asking the amount of the damage, and peeling off bills to cover it. P.T. Barnum came into my grandfather's office, gave him the amount he asked for, and said 'I would give 10 times that to find the bulldog that caused this.'

"My grandfather knew when to keep his mouth shut," said Maureen, who heard the story as she was growing up. The dog was lying by her grandfather's feet.

"The first Roman Catholic mass in Williamstown was held in my grandfather's house, before the first St. Patrick's church building was built," she said. "My grandfather was a trustee of the North Adams hospital forever, then my father, and now me," she said.

Her father and grandfather also served on the boards of the Williamstown National Bank and the Williamstown Savings Bank, when they occupied the same building on Spring Street.

When new banking regulations required their separation, O'Mara's father stayed on the board of the National Bank, because that was the commercial bank. O'Mara is a trustee of the Williamstown Savings Bank, and was formerly a corporator. It's a long tradition. She has been active in Rotary, belongs to the Williamstown Grange, and served on the Planning Board for eight years in the early '80s.

The photographs on O'Mara's walls also show that horses were more than just a family business, they were an enthusiasm. One photograph shows her grandfather holding the reins of a pair of glossy, elegant bay carriage horses. Others show her father riding one or another of his favorites.

"My father rode every day until the day he died,"¯ said O'Mara. Her father was walking into the barn to see to the horses when he stepped on an icy patch just below the overhanging roof, fell and broke his hip. He died on the operating table in February 1995. He and friends would ride great distances, and sometimes have exploits, riding down the Thunderbolt Trail on Mount Greylock, for example.

"It was hard on the horses, so they didn't do it again,"¯ his daughter said. O'Mara has all the old livery records, which she hopes to donate to the House of Local History — her mother was president of that organization.

She also has a sleigh that was built in Williamstown by the Bates Wagon Co. on Cole Avenue. "It should stay here in town,"¯ she said.

Her father had considered attending Amherst College, but at his mother's urging, opted for Williams instead.

"My grandmother told him, 'You're part of this town, you should go to the college in this town,' "¯ she recalled. Her father was proud to be part of Williams, where he graduated in 1939. His class held its 25th reunion at his Bulkley Street residence.

Her father sold the automobile business in 1986 to Al Morrison, a milestone for a family that "had been in the transportation business since 1850," O'Mara recalled. She opted to stay with the insurance, rather than the automobile, aspect of the family business.

"In the early 1980s there were very few women in business at all," O'Mara said. "I had three little kids and there was more flexibility in insurance. I believe I made the right decision, but it was tough.

"In the early 1990s, we sold the oil business to O'Connell's."

The families had had business dealings long ago, when her great-great-uncle's Pittsfield livery stable was sold to O'Connell's, which became O'Connell Chevrolet.

O'Mara is a direct agent for Farm Family, a company founded 50 years ago by the U.S. Farm Bureau to meet the needs of the agricultural community.

"We're the principal agricultural insurer in the Northeast,"¯ she said. Now the company is merging with the Galveston, Texas-based American National.

Her youngest son, Kevin, is working with her and serving as a volunteer firefighter in the Williamstown Fire Department while he trains to be a professional firefighter. Her husband, Bill Peterson, in addition to being president of Harbor Hotels Ltd., a hotel and restaurant consulting firm based in Hudson Falls, N.Y., is an associate agent with O'Mara's firm. His company built and managed the Olympic Village in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980. Her daughter, Kathy, teaches theater at a magnet school in New Haven, Conn., and runs a summer theater program, Minerva Stage, here in Williamstown.

And her son Mark is in Alexandria, Va., working as assistant manager of Boston Coach, an executive limousine service. That sounds like a full circle to his great-great-grandfather's livery business.

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