Main Street, Charlemont, Mass

Looking east on Main Street from the corner of North Heath Road in the center of Charlemont, around 1891. Image from Picturesque Franklin (1891).

The scene in 2020:

These two photos show the scene looking east on Main Street in the center of Charlemont. The town is situated along the Deerfield River, and this valley serves as the primary east-west route through the northern Berkshires. Charlemont was settled in the mid-1700s, and today the town features a number of historic buildings from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, some of which are visible here in this scene.

On the far left side of the scene is the former Charlemont Methodist Church. The exact origins of this building seem murky, with various sources listing it as having been built in 1840, 1820, or 1770. Regardless of its actual date of construction, it was originally built elsewhere in Charlemont, and it served as the town’s Unitarian church. However, this congregation subsequently disbanded, and in 1861 the Methodists purchased it to replace their own church building, which had been destroyed in a fire. They then moved the former Unitarian building to this site on Main Street. Prior to the move, they built the ground floor to house social rooms, and then placed the church on top of this structure.

Aside from the church, the first photo shows a number of houses on both sides of Main Street. Most feature modest Greek Revival-style designs, and they were likely constructed around the mid-19th century. One of the largest of these houses is the one in the center of the scene, just to the right of the church, which appears to have been enlarged several times during the 19th century. The main section of the house has two stories, and on the left is a one-story ell extending toward the church. There is another one-story addition in the rear of the house, which is connected to a barn.

The 1871 county atlas lists this house as the home of Robert R. Edwards, a local manufacturer who ran a small factory in Charlemont that produced scythe snaths. During the 1870 census, he was 52 years old and living in the town with his wife Lydia, presumably here at this house. At the time, his real estate was valued at $4,000, along with $1,000 for his personal estate, so his total net worth was somewhat higher than that of most of his neighbors. By 1879, his factory employed six workers, and produced a thousand snaths per week. Aside from his business, he served on the board of trustees for the neighboring Methodist Church, and he was also on the town’s library committee. He died in 1910 at the age of 92, so it seems plausible that he was still living here in this house when the first photo was taken.

The first photo depicts the scene here in Charlemont shortly before the dawn of the automobile age. Within just a few years, early “horseless carriages” would begin to make their appearances on the streets. One of the challenges for these pioneering motorists, though, was the generally poor condition of America’s roads. As shown in the first photo, Charlemont’s Main Street was a muddy dirt road, with plenty of ruts left behind by many horse-drawn wagons.

Because of conditions like these, by the early 20th century Massachusetts began upgrading its road network, including the creation of the Mohawk Trail, which was formally designated in 1914. This scenic route, which still exists today as the western part of Massachusetts Route 2, links the northern Connecticut River Valley with the northern Berkshires. Main Street in Charlemont became part of this route, and the town center is the approximate midpoint between Greenfield and North Adams.

Today, notwithstanding the upgrades to the road, this scene has remained well-preserved more than 125 years after the first photo was taken. The center of Charlemont retains much of its historic character, and many of the buildings in the first photo are still standing, including Robert Edwards’s house and the Methodist Church. The church building has undergone significant interior changes, having been converted into a house in the 1960s, but its exterior is mostly the same, aside from the missing belfry. Both the church and the house, along with the other surrounding buildings, are now part of the Charlemont Village Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.

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