Whip Factories on Elm Street, Westfield, Mass

Looking north on Elm Street in Westfield, toward the intersection of Franklin Street, around 1890-1895. Image courtesy of the Westfield Athenaeum.

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Elm Street in 2015:

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As mentioned in a previous post, Westfield was once the world’s leading producer in whips. When the first photo was taken, there were some 37 whip factories in the city, and by the start of the 20th century they combined to produce 99% of the world’s supply of whips. Two of these companies were photographed here; in the foreground to the right was the New England Whip Company, and just beyond it, in the much larger building with the tower, was Cargill, Cook & Co. Beyond these two factories were several other brick buildings, all of which were probably built around the 1870s or 1880s, just as Westfield’s whip industry was reaching its peak.

The whip industry was a boon to the entire city, but the lack of diversity in Westfield’s economy was felt as the whip factories started closing in the early 1900s. Automobiles had largely replaced horse-drawn carriages, which meant little demand for the city’s whips. Some of the historic whip factory buildings were later repurposed and are still standing in Westfield, but the ones in the first photo have since been demolished, and there is now a gas station on the site. The Swift Building, a three story brick building barely visible at the far end of the row of buildings in the first photo, is the only one left from the 1890s view. Otherwise, the only surviving structure from the first photo is the railroad trestle in the distance. There have not been any trains along this track for many years, but the right-of-way is in the process of being converted into a rail trail.

American Whip Company, Westfield Mass

The American Whip Company building and the old Westfield Library building on Main Street, probably in the early 1890s. Image courtesy of the Westfield Athenaeum.

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The location in 2015:

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The American Whip Company was one of many whip manufacturers located in the “Whip City” of Westfield, Massachusetts. The building in the distance of the first photo was built around 1884, and less than a decade later the company merged with 13 other Westfield companies to form the United States Whip Company.  The added on to the facility with the “U” shaped building seen in this post; it is still on the site today, although it has been extensively modified.

The original 1884 building is still there, although it’s not visible from this angle; it is immediately behind, and slightly to the left of Subway and Domino’s today.  The old library building, however, is long gone – it was presumably demolished around 1892 when the United States Whip Company building was constructed on its spot.  Today, the Westfield Athenaeum is located on the other side of the Green, next to Court Street.

United States Whip Company, Westfield Mass

The United States Whip Company building on Main Street in Westfield, around 1920. Image courtesy of the Westfield Athenaeum.

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The site in 2015:

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The United States Whip Company was established in 1892 with the merger of 14 whip companies, and they built this building on Main Street in Westfield as their headquarters.  It was part of a large complex that took up much of the block between Main Street and Thomas Street, and some of the buildings were originally used by the American Whip Company, one of the companies later involved in the 1892 merger.

Westfield gained the nickname of the Whip City because of its many whip manufacturing companies, but by the turn of the 20th century essentially all of these were owned by United States Whip Company.  By the end of World War I, around 99% of the worldwide whip production was from Westfield, and the United States Whip Company accounted for about 85% of the market.  They were by far the world’s leading whip producer, but they were the leader in a rapidly shrinking industry.  Automobiles were making horse-drawn carriages obsolete, which meant a limited demand for Westfield’s primary manufactured goods.  In 1895, the city had 37 different whip companies; by 1926, not long after the first photo was taken, there were only 37 people working in the whip industry.

Today, the building on Main Street is still there, although it has been significantly altered over the years.  The brick exterior has since been covered in stucco, and the building that was once the world’s leading producer of whips is now home to Subway, Domino’s, and other businesses.  Along with the storefronts on the first floor of the original building, the space in between the “U” has been filled in with a one-story commercial block.

Elm Street, Westfield Mass

Elm Street in Westfield, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892)

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Elm Street in 2015:

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When the first photo was taken, Westfield was a significant industrial center, with factories that made everything from buggy whips (hence the city’s nickname as the “Whip City”) to organs, and as a result the town had a fairly prosperous downtown.  In the years since the first photo was taken, the town has become a city, most of the factories have closed, and much of the city’s commercial activity has left the downtown area.  However, many of the historic commercial blocks from the 19th century survive today, and the city has been making an effort to revitalize the downtown area, including a complete renovation of the town green and the rotary that surrounds it, part of which can be seen here in the 2015 photo.

The most prominent building in both photos is the commercial block to the right, at the corner of Elm and Main Streets.  Known as the Morrissey Block, it was built in 1842 as a boarding house, and by the time the first photo was taken it was operated as the Westfield House Hotel.  After the hotel closed, the second floor was used as the Westfield District Court in the early part of the 20th century, and today the historic building is used for a variety of commercial and office spaces.

First Congregational Church, Westfield Mass

The First Congregational Church and the old Town Hall in Westfield, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892)

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The buildings in 2015:

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The scene at the rotary in downtown Westfield is very different from over 120 years ago, but several historic buildings have survived, including the First Congregational Church and the Town Hall.  The Town Hall in the foreground is actually the older of the two, having been built in 1837.  It served a variety of roles since then, first as a town hall and later as a city hall, when Westfield was incorporated as a city in 1920.  However, it was also used for high school classrooms from 1855 until around 1868, and later as a police station and district court.  It was used as city hall until 1962, when the city offices were moved up Broad Street to the former State Normal School building.  The building has seen some changes over the years, with the most obvious being the removal of the cupola, which happened in 1912.  However, it otherwise retains much of its historic exterior appearance, and today it is used as offices for a mental health agency.

Beyond the old Town Hall is the First Congregational Church.  The original church was established in 1679, with Edward Taylor serving as the town’s first pastor.  He had first come to Westfield in 1671 and began serving as pastor before the church was formally established, and he would continue until his death in 1729 at the age of 87.  However, today he is probably best known as one of the first American poets, although his works weren’t published until over 200 years after his death.

His original church building is long gone, and the one that stands on the site today was built in 1860.  The original steeple was destroyed in a storm in 1886, and I’m not sure if the first photo was taken before or after that.  It was published in 1892, but the photo itself could date to much earlier than that. According to the Massachusetts Historical Commission, “Several smaller steeples were in use until 1962 when a tall steeple was erected similar to the original one.”  The steeple in the first photo doesn’t appear to be a “small steeple,” yet the present-day one also doesn’t bear much resemblance to the first one, so I’m not sure which one is shown in the first photo.  In any case, though, otherwise the brick exterior of the church is well preserved, and it continues to be used by the same congregation that Edward Taylor began serving in 1671.

Green District School, Westfield Mass

The Green District School in Westfield, at the corner of Washington and School Streets, probably around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892)

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The location in 2015:

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The Green District School was a public school in Westfield, but for a time it was also used as the observation school of the Westfield Normal School, located directly across School Street and visible in the background in the first photo.  Here, prospective teachers at the Normal School could get in-classroom experience analogous to present-day student teaching.  The Normal School later built their own training school in 1900, on the spot of the old Normal School building.  This building is still there today, in the background of the 2015 photo.  The Green District School continued to be used as a public school long after its affiliation with the Normal School ended, but today the Westfield Police Department headquarters occupies the school’s former location.