Middle Street, Hadley, Mass

The view looking north on Middle Street towards Russell Street in Hadley, around 1900. Image from History of Hadley (1905).

The scene in 2021:

Hadley is one of the oldest towns in western Massachusetts, having been first settled by European colonists in 1659 and incorporated as a town two years later. Its terrain is mostly flat, and it is situated on the inside of a broad curve in the Connecticut River, giving it some of the finest farmland in New England. The main settlement developed in this vicinity, with a broad town common on what is now West Street. This common was the town center during the colonial period, and it was the site of three successive meetinghouses beginning in 1670.

The third meetinghouse, which is shown here in these photos, was completed on the town common in 1808. This location was a matter of serious contention, as by the turn of the 19th century much of the town’s development had shifted east toward what is now Middle Street. Tradition ultimately prevailed, and the third meetinghouse was built on the common. However, this proved to be only temporary, because in 1841 it was relocated. The intended location was to be a compromise, located halfway between the common and Middle Street, but the movers ignored this and brought the building all the way to Middle Street, to its current location just south of Route 9.

Architecturally, this meetinghouse reflects some of the changes that were occurring in New England church designs. Prior to the late 18th century, the region’s churches tended to be plain in appearance. Many did not have steeples, and those steeples that did exist tended to rise from the ground level on the side of the building, rather than being fully incorporated into the main section of the church. This began to change with prominent architects like Charles Bulfinch, who drew inspiration from classical architecture when designing churches and other buildings. Bulfinch’s churches tended to feature a triangular pediment above the main entrance, with a steeple that rose from above the pediment, rather than from the ground.

Bulfinch does not appear to have played a hand in designing Hadley’s church, but its builder was clearly influenced by his works. It has a pediment with a steeple above it, and it also has a fanlight above the front door, and a Palladian window on the second floor. Other classically-inspired decorative elements include pilasters flanking the front entrance and dentils around the pediment. As for the steeple itself, it does not bear strong resemblance to the ones that Bulfinch designed, but the builder likely took inspiration from other 18th century New England churches. In particular, it bears a strong resemblance the steeples of churches such as Old North Church in Boston and the First Church of Christ in Wethersfield, Connecticut.

Aside from moving the church to this site, the other major event of 1841 that solidified Middle Street as the town center was the construction of a town hall here. Prior to this point, town meetings were held in the church, as was the case in most Massachusetts towns in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Massachusetts was slow to create a separation between church and state, and not until 1833 did the state outlaw the practice of taxing residents to support local churches. Here in Hadley, this soon led to a physical separation between the church and the town government, although as shown in this scene the two buildings stood side-by-side on Middle Street.

While the church features Bulfinch-inspired architecture, the design of the town hall reflects the Greek Revival style of the mid-19th century. This style was particularly popular for government and other institutional buildings of the period, as it reflected the democratic ideals of ancient Greece. The town hall is perhaps Hadley’s finest example of this style, with a large portico supported by four Doric columns, along with Doric pilasters in between the window bays on all four sides of the building.

The first photo shows Middle Street around the turn of the 20th century, looking north toward the church, the town hall, and Russell Street further in the distance. The photo also shows a house on the foreground, just to the right of the church. Based on its architecture, this house likely dated back to about the mid-18th century, but it was gone by 1903, when the current house was built on the site. This house was originally the home of Dr. Frank Smith, and it was designed by Springfield architect Guy Kirkham.

Today, the town of Hadley is significantly larger than it was when the first photo was taken more than 120 years ago. Russell Street is now Route 9, a major east-west thoroughfare that has significant commercial development thanks to Hadley’s position at the center of the Five Colleges region. Likewise, Middle Street is far from the dirt road in the first photo, and it is now Route 47. However, much of Hadley has retained its historic appearance, including its extensive farmland and its many historic buildings. Here on Middle Street, both the church and the town hall are still standing. They have seen few major exterior changes during this time, and the church is still an active congregation, while the town hall remains the seat of Hadley’s town government. Both buildings are now part of the Hadley Center Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.

Pelham Town Hall, Pelham, Mass

Pelham Town Hall, at the corner of Amherst Road and Route 202 in Pelham, on December 20, 1932. Image taken by Stuart D. Pike, Metropolitan District Water Supply Commission.

The scene in 2015:

The old town hall here in Pelham was built around 1743, the same year that Pelham was incorporated as a town, and it is said to be the oldest continuously-used town hall in the country. Built long before the idea of separation of church and state, it was also used as the town church for nearly a century, making it one of the oldest surviving church buildings in the state.

Pelham was settled 1739 by Scotch-Irish colonists. Most had been part of a group of immigrants who arrived in Boston in 1718, but they faced discrimination in the largely English Puritan town, and many subsequently moved to Worcester. However, they received similar treatment there, and  by the 1730s they began looking west to what was, at the time, the frontier areas of Massachusetts.

In 1738, a group of 34 settlers purchased the land that would become Pelham from Colonel John Stoddard of Northampton. They then laid out house lots and roads, and within a few years they began construction of this meeting house here at the crest of a hill near the geographic center of town. The town hired brothers Thomas and John Dick to build it, and it may have been used for church services as early as 1741, although the entire structure was not completed until 1746.

Pelham was incorporated as a town in January 1743, and the first town meeting occurred here in this building a few months later on April 19. Among the items of business was the selection of town officials. These included five selectmen, a town clerk, and a treasurer, along with a variety of other offices, including two fence viewers, two hog reeves, and two “Officers to Prosecute ye Law Respecting Killing Deer,” which was apparently an 18th century equivalent of a game warden.

With the town government established, the next step was for the town to choose a pastor. During its first few years, the church did not have its own pastor. Instead, the weekly preaching was handled by “suppliers,” who were generally short-term itinerant pastors. One such supplier was Robert Abercrombie, a Presbyterian pastor who began preaching here as early as 1742. A native of Scotland, Abercrombie graduated from the University of Edinburgh and subsequently came to the American colonies, arriving in 1740.

In May 1743, the town selected three residents who would be responsible for consulting with other local clergymen and choosing an appropriate person to become the town’s full-time pastor. This committee subsequently recommended Abercrombie, and four other pastors submitted a letter endorsing him, including Jonathan Edwards, the prominent theologian and pastor of the church in Northampton. The letter read:

Whereas we ye Subscribers have had some considerable acquaintance with Rev. Mr. Abercrombie, Preacher of ye Gospel, and what we know of his qualification by Information and personal acquaintance, we advise ye people of God in Pelham to Invite ye sd Mr. Robert Abercrombie to settle in ye Work of ye Ministrie among them as their Pastor.

This letter was dated August 30, 1743, but the next day a group of 22 residents submitted a letter of their own, stating that they “Do protest against ye proceedings of Part of ye inhabitants of ye sd town in their calling of ye Rev. Robert Abercrombie to be their minister in sd town.” The specific reasons for their objections are unclear, but they succeeded in postponing a final decision until the following March. By that point, the opposition evidently relented, and the town extended a formal call to Abercrombie, which he accepted on March 5, 1744.

Abercrombie was ordained here on August 30, 1744, with Jonathan Edwards delivering the sermon for the occasion. Edwards is often remembered for his vivid metaphors describing sin and damnation that he employed in his famous 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” but his message here in Pelham lacked the same level of intense imagery. He did, however, twice warn his audience here to “fly from the wrath to come,” a phrase that he had used in the closing part of his 1741 sermon.

Edwards’s sermon for Abercrombie’s ordination was titled “The True Excellency of a Minister of the Gospel,” based on John 5:35, “He was a burning and a shining Light.—” He used this verse to explain the role of pastors, and how they are to be a shining light to their congregation, just as John the Baptist was in this particular verse. The printed version of the sermon is nearly 9,000 words long, and likely would have taken around an hour to deliver. The first three-quarters of the sermon focused on the biblical responsibilities of pastors in general, including a grim warning about how pastors who are unfaithful in their positions will suffer torment in hell that is second only to the punishment of demons themselves.

Near the end of his sermon, Edwards turned his attention to Abercrombie. To the new pastor he declared:

You have now, dear Sir, heard something of the Nature and Design of that Office to which you are this Day, in the Name of Christ, to be solemnly set apart. You are therein called to be a Light to the Souls of Men, a Lamp in God’s Temple, and a Star in the spiritual World. And you have heard wherein, in Christ’s Esteem, consists the proper Excellency of one in that Office, and how in this a Minister of the Gospel becomes like his glorious Master, and glorifies him, and is likely to be the Instrument of the Salvation and Happiness of the Souls of Men, and to receive a glorious Reward from the Hands of God. . . .

God in his Providence has brought you far from your native Land, and from your Friends and Acquaintance there; but you will have Reason notwithstanding to acknowledge the good Hand of his Providence towards you, if he is pleased to make you a burning and shining Light in this Part of his Church, and by the Influence of your Light and Heat (or rather by his divine Influence, with your Ministry) to cause this Wilderness to bud and blossom as the Rose, and give it the Excellency of Carmel and Sharon, and to cause you to shine in the midst of this People with warm and lightsome, quickening and comforting Beams, causing their Souls to flourish, rejoice and bear Fruit, like a Garden of pleasant Fruits, under the Beams of the Sun.

Edwards then concluded by speaking directly to the people of Pelham, encouraging them to pray for and support Abercrombie:

If it be, as you have heard, the proper Excellency of a Minister of the Gospel to be a burning and a shining Light, then it is your Duty earnestly to pray for your Minister that he may be filled with Divine Light, and with the Power of the Holy Ghost, to make him so. For herein you will but pray for the greatest Benefit to your selves; for if your Minister burns and shines, it will be for your Light and Life. That which has been spoken of, as it is the chief Excellency of a Minister, for it renders a Minister the greatest Blessing of any Thing in the World that ever God bestows on a People.

Likely aware of the controversy that had divided the congregation a year earlier, Edwards then warned the residents of Pelham to not act in opposition to Abercrombie, and even implied that such people did so because the light of his teachings exposed their own personal sins:

[T]ake Heed that instead of this you don’t take a Course to obscure and extinguish the Light that would shine among you, & to smother and suppress the Flame, by casting Dirt upon it; by necessitating your Minister by your Penuriousness towards him, to be envolved in worldly Care; and by discouraging his Heart by Disrespect and Unkindness. And particularly when your Minister shews himself to be a burning Light by burning with a proper Zeal against any Wickedness that may be breaking out amongst his People & manifests it by bearing a proper Testimony against it in the Preaching of the Word or by a faithful Exercise of the Discipline of God’s House, instead of taking it thankfully, and yielding to him in it, as you ought, don’t raise another Fire of a contrary Nature, against it, viz. the Fire of your unhallowed Passions, reflecting upon and reproaching him for his Faithfulness.

He then ended the sermon on a more positive note, encouraging his hearers to:

[T]hus walk as the Children of the Light, and follow your Minister wherein he is a Follower of Christ, i. e. wherein he is as a burning and shining Light. If you continue so to do, your Path will be the Path of the Just, which shines more and more to the perfect Day, and the End of your Course shall be in those blissful Regions of everlasting Light above, where you shall shine forth with your Minister, and both with Christ, as the Sun, in the Kingdom of the Heavenly Father.

As it turned out, both Edwards and Abercrombie would go on to have turbulent relationships with their respective congregations. Edwards was dismissed from the Northampton church in 1751, and Abercrombie faced similar challenges here in Pelham. For Abercrombie, the issue appears to have centered around his refusal to baptize the infant children of parents who were living in unrepentant sin. The Presbytery in Boston ultimately suspended him in 1754 and dismissed him a year later, but he and his supporters here in Pelham did not go down without a fight. Contesting the authority of the Presbytery to dismiss him, Abercrombie refused to yield his position, and he had to be physically barred from entering the meeting house to preach.

Abercrombie would remain in Pelham for the rest of his life, farming his land while occasionally supplying the pulpit for churches in other towns. He also sued the town for pay that he believed he was entitled to, and the case dragged on for four years until the courts ruled in his favor in 1759. In the meantime, the divisions within the church prevented the town from selecting his successor for nearly a decade, so the church went through a series of “suppliers” until 1763, when a Hampshire County grand jury indicted the down for its negligence in failing to obtain a pastor.

Soon after the grand jury issued this indictment, the town selected Richard Crouch Graham, a 24-year-old Yale graduate who had evidently been one of the suppliers in the early 1760s. He was ordained as the second pastor of the church, with a salary of 60 pounds. This would later be raised to 80 pounds per year, but Graham nonetheless fell deep into debt. According to a 19th century Yale biographical sketch, “his mind gave way,” presumably under the pressure from his financial situation, and he died in 1771, a few weeks before he would have turned 32, leaving a widow and four young children.

As a result, the town was again without a pastor. However, this time it only took four years before Nathaniel Merrill was ordained as the town’s third pastor in 1775, a few months after the start of the American Revolution. While church-related issues had long been divisive here in Pelham, the question of American independence prompted little controversy, with 19th century historian Josiah Gilbert Holland later describing how, “[t]he people of Pelham were on the right side in the Revolution.” Most significantly, this included a vote at a town meeting here on June 20, 1776, when the town’s residents declared “by Unanimous Vote that we are willing to Come Under Independency from under the yoke of the King of Great Brittain.” Exactly two weeks later, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia likewise unanimously approved independence from Britain.

No battles were ever fought anywhere near Pelham during the Revolution, but the war nonetheless came at an economic cost to the town’s residents. Among other problems, the war led to ruinous inflation, causing Merrill’s salary to increase from 80 pounds in 1775 to 2,500 pounds in 1780. However, despite the town steadily raising his salary, Merrill was apparently unwilling to continue to be paid in rapidly-depreciating currency, and he left his position in 1781. That same year, Daniel Shays made his first appearance on the lists of town officers, as one of four men on the town’s Committee of Safety. He would serve in that capacity and in several other town positions over the next few years, before his name came to epitomize the economic plight of rural Massachusetts farmers.

In the meantime, Merrill’s departure meant that the town’s pulpit was once again vacant, so the town again resorted to short-term suppliers. This would, in turn, lead to the most bizarre incident in the long history of this building, involving one of early America’s most notorious con artists. It all began on a spring day in 1784, when a 19-year-old, who went by the name of Reverend Davis, arrived in town with a letter from Moses Baldwin, pastor of the church in Palmer. The letter recommended Davis as a suitable supply pastor, so the town invited him to preach for the next four weeks, at a rate of five dollars per week, plus board and horsekeeping.

As the people of Pelham would later discover, though, Davis was not his real name, nor was he an ordained minister. Rather, he was Stephen Burroughs, a Dartmouth dropout whose father, Eden Burroughs, was a pastor in Hanover, New Hampshire. Prior to arriving in Pelham, he had spent time as a “doctor” on a privateering vessel out of Newburyport. He had then returned to New Hampshire, where he found work as a schoolteacher. However, he ended up in trouble for stealing a beehive, and for his relationship with a “widow” whose husband turned out to be alive and well. Burroughs subsequently left New Hampshire, but not before making off with ten of his father’s written sermons. The doctor-turned-teacher had thus reinvented himself as a pastor, and he preached several sermons here in western Massachusetts before receiving the letter of recommendation from the credulous Reverend Baldwin.

Here in Pelham, the young “Davis” proved himself to be a capable preacher, but some of the parishioners began to become suspicious of him, especially after someone noticed that he was preaching from notes that were written on old, yellowed paper. Believing that he was merely recycling someone else’s sermons, one of the leaders in the church asked him on the following Sunday to preach from a portion of a specific verse, Joshua 9:5, which reads “And old shoes and clouted upon their feet.” However, despite the obscurity of this verse, and his minimal time to prepare, Burroughs delivered a strong sermon. He spoke of shoes as a metaphor of one’s spiritual journey through the world, and how old shoes represented old sins. In particular, he railed against the sin of jealousy, evidently targeting those who had doubted him.

His sermon was convincing, and the church responded by offering to let him continue preaching here for four more months. Burroughs remained here until September 1784, and he may have been able to continue the charade much longer if not for the arrival of Joseph Huntingdon, Burroughs’s friend from Dartmouth. He stayed in Pelham for a few days, and accidentally called Burroughs by his real name several times. Then, while Burroughs was accompanying him for part of his journey home to Coventry, they saw Justus Forward, pastor of the church in the neighboring town of Belchertown. Forward had, as his guest, another clergyman who recognized Burroughs and addressed him by his real name, despite Burroughs’s insistence that his name was Davis.

Realizing at this point that his identity had been exposed, Burroughs returned to Pelham, packed his belongings, and left town in the middle of the night, taking with him a five dollar advance that he had received for the upcoming week’s sermon. The town awoke the next morning to discover their pastor gone, and word soon arrived from Belchertown that he had been an impostor.

Pursued by angry townsmen, Burroughs made his way to Rutland, Massachusetts, where he had an acquaintance. However, the Pelham men soon tracked him down, leading to a confrontation in Rutland that left one of his pursuers with a broken arm and another with a head injury. Burroughs then armed himself with a scythe snath, entered a barn, and climbed to the top of the hayloft. In the meantime, a crowd of Rutland residents gathered along with the Pelham men, and the two groups began arguing over Burroughs. Despite the outrage of the Pelhamites, the Rutlanders seemed less concerned about the accusations, arguing that Burroughs had upheld his agreement to preach for the town, even if it was under an assumed name. Regarding the five dollars that he had received for the upcoming Sunday, they proposed that Burroughs use it to treat everyone to drinks at a nearby tavern.

This compromise proved acceptable to all parties, and Burroughs’s parishioners-turned-pursuers became his drinking companions for the evening, at least until the arrival of the man who had suffered the head injury. He rekindled the hostility toward Burroughs, and the Pelhamites decided to take him prisoner. However, with the aid of sympathetic Rutlanders, he was able to escape from the tavern.

As it turned out, Burroughs’s five months in Pelham was only the beginning of what would become a long and varied career as a con artist. He was subsequently able to talk his way into another four-week preaching stint, this time in Attleboro, Massachusetts, but he soon gave up preaching and turned his attention to the more potentially-lucrative world of counterfeiting.

With the help of one of his few remaining allies in Pelham, he made the acquaintance of Glazier Wheeler, a notorious counterfeiter. Wheeler sold his counterfeit dollars at a rate of three for a dollar, and Burroughs acquired 20 of them, which be brought to Springfield and used to purchase supplies at an apothecary, including sulfuric acid and arsenic, which were evidently needed for producing more counterfeits. However, the fraud was quickly detected, and he was arrested shortly after leaving the shop. Following his conviction, he was sentenced to stand in the pillory for an hour, and then serve three years of hard labor in jail. Within a few months, Burroughs attempted to escape by setting fire to the jail, and he was subsequently transferred to the state prison on Castle Island in Boston. He managed to escape the island with several other inmates, but they were subsequently recaptured.

Burroughs was later released, but his time in prison did little to reform his ways. He became a teacher in Charlton, Massachusetts, but soon found himself back in jail after attempting to seduce several of his students. After this incident, he left Massachusetts and eventually made his way to Georgia, where he was involved in land speculation schemes. He ended up losing money in this venture, and he later headed back north, living in northern Vermont and then in Canada. In 1798 Burroughs published a memoir detailing his life up to that point, and by the early 19th century he had resumed his counterfeiting career, this time forging American banknotes from the relative safety of Canada. However, at some point he settled down, married, raised a family, converted to Catholicism, and evidently renounced his former way of living. He remained in Canada for the rest of his life, and died in Trois-Rivières, Quebec in 1840.

Meanwhile, back here in Pelham the elderly Robert Abercrombie was still living in town during Burroughs’s five months in the pulpit. He was likely well aware of the subsequent controversy, and it is easy to imagine that he may have found some satisfaction in knowing that the town that had spurned him decades earlier had been duped by a teenaged con artist. Abercrombie would remain here in Pelham for the rest of his life, until his death in 1786, when he was in his mid-70s.

In a way, Abercrombie’s death marked the end of an era for the town, and it occurred right at the beginning of what would become the greatest crisis that the town would face in the 18th century. By the mid-1780s, America had won its independence from Britain, but the states were saddled with wartime debt. With Congress lacking the authority to levy taxes, the national government had resorted to issuing paper money to fund the war. The states issued their own paper money as well, and by the early 1780s these notes circulated far below par. Among those who had received payments in paper money were the soldiers in the Continental Army, who now returned home after the war with little to show for it except for paper money that the government might never redeem for face value.

Here in Massachusetts, the state was deeply in debt. In response, the state government, which was largely controlled by wealthy eastern merchants, raised taxes that had to be repaid in hard money, not in paper currency. This included a poll tax, which was levied on all males aged 16 and older, regardless of income. The other main tax was on property, which placed a greater burden on rural landowning farmers than on the merchants, whose wealth generally consisted of stock investments rather than land. In total, these taxes amounted to about a third of a typical Massachusetts farmer’s income, payable in scarce hard money.

Making matters worse for these farmers, they also faced new demands from their creditors. In an economy with little gold or silver in circulation, they had often paid merchants with goods from their farms. However, like the state government, the merchants were also now demanding payment in hard money. For those who were in debt to these merchants, it was nearly impossible for them to repay their debts while also meeting their heavy tax burden, resulting in many farmers losing their land to foreclosure.

Here in Pelham, life was difficult for the town’s farmers even during good times. Few of the farmers here were impoverished, but few were particularly wealthy either. Farms were generally small, and the town’s hilly, rocky terrain was hardly ideal for agriculture. This, combined with the town’s history of skepticism toward authority figures—whether it was a local pastor or a British monarch—helped contribute to the small town becoming an epicenter in a rebellion that would soon reverberate throughout the country and influence the design of the national government.

Daniel Shays, for whom this rebellion would subsequently be named, was one of these struggling Pelham farmers, although he lived in a few different places before coming to the town. Born in Hopkinton in 1747, he subsequently moved west to Brookfield, then to Shutesbury, and then to Pelham. He served throughout the American Revolution, eventually becoming a captain in the Continental Army. He even received a ceremonial sword from the Marquis de Lafayette, although he later had to sell it because of his postwar financial struggles.

Although he was a newcomer in a small town of close-knit families, Shays had no trouble finding like-minded residents with whom he could share his frustrations. About a half mile from his farm was the tavern of William Conkey Sr., and this became a gathering place for him and his rebels, where they could hold drills outside the building and discuss strategy over drinks inside. Conkey was one of the supporters of the rebellion, as was the rest of his family. Other allies of Shays included several of Robert Abercrombie’s sons, and even Ebenezer Gray, the town treasurer and church deacon who had fallen for Stephen Burroughs’s fraudulent claims several years earlier.

At the start of Shays’ Rebellion, the primary objective was to prevent courts from meeting, which would in turn prevent the courts from foreclosing on any property. To that end, the first major action in Shays’ Rebellion occurred in Northampton on August 29, 1786, when a group of about 1,500 rebels marched on the county courthouse. They succeeded in closing the courthouse, and this was followed by similar efforts in other towns, including Worcester, Concord, Springfield, and Great Barrington.

During this time, there was no national army, in part because of lack of funding and also because of fears regarding standing armies in peacetime. This meant that the Continental Congress was largely powerless against insurrections such as this, leaving it up to state militias to suppress the uprisings. However, given that many members of the militia, especially in here in western Massachusetts, were either participating in the rebellion or at least sympathetic to it, the militia was not necessarily the most reliable solution. Nonetheless, General William Shepard of Westfield managed to raise a sizable militia force here in western Massachusetts, and General Benjamin Lincoln raised a privately-funded militia in the eastern part of the state.

The climatic event of Shays’ Rebellion occurred in early 1787, when Shays and the other leaders set their sights on the federal arsenal in Springfield. With no federal soldiers to protect it, Shepard took control of the facility and guarded it with more than a thousand militiamen. On January 25, Shays approached the arsenal with a similarly-sized force, and advanced despite warning shots from Shepard. He then used cannons to fire grape shot into the insurgent lines, killing four and wounding many others. Armed with little more than swords, clubs, and old muskets, Shays and his men were badly outgunned by the well-equipped militiamen, and the rebels began to retreat.

Following the attempted assault on the arsenal, Benjamin Lincoln and his 3,000-man militia marched west from Worcester in pursuit of the rebels. Shays and much of his force ended up back in Pelham, where hundreds of his men encamped here in the area around the meeting house from January 28 to February 3. From here, Shays then moved on to Petersham, where Lincoln’s militia surprised them at their encampment, took some of them prisoner, and forced the rest to scatter.

Over the next few weeks there were several minor skirmishes, mainly in the Berkshires, but by this point the rebellion was effectively over. Nearly all of the rebels were ultimately pardoned, with about four thousand men signing confessions and taking an oath of allegiance in exchange for amnesty. Only a few of the leaders were excluded from the amnesty offer, and most fled the state, including Shays, who moved to Vermont. However, even he was subsequently pardoned in 1788 by Governor John Hancock, who took a conciliatory approach to the rebels. Shays eventually moved to upstate New York, where he lived in poverty until his death in 1825.

From a military perspective, Shays’ Rebellion was a failure. However, this attempted insurrection would prove to have significant political consequences, both at the state and national level. In 1787, the state legislature responded to some of the farmers’ grievances by lowering taxes and passing debt relief measures. During that same summer, the rebellion also had an effect on the delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The fact that loosely-organized, poorly-equipped farmers had nearly taken a federal arsenal, and the fact that the arsenal required a state militia to protect it, convinced many skeptics of the need for a more powerful central government. As a result, the rebellion helped influence not only the writing of the new Constitution, but also the subsequent debate over its ratification.

Throughout all of these events, the old meeting house here in the center of Pelham remained in use as both the town hall and the church. Architecturally, the building was typical of mid-18th century meeting houses, and very different from the types of churches that would come to dominate the rural New England landscape of the 19th century. On the exterior, the building was essentially devoid of any ornamentation, and it had no steeple, which gave it an appearance more like a large colonial-era house than a church.

Another difference between this building and later churches was the interior layout. Rather than having the main entrance at one of the ends, it was located here on the south side, in the middle of one of the long walls. The high pulpit, with its sounding board above it, was located directly opposite the entrance on the north side of the building, and the pews were arranged to face it. During the mid-1700s the church had 27 pews, most of which were divided between two families. As was the case in most New England churches of the period, families purchased their pews, with prices that varied depending on the location in the church.

The interiors of colonial New England meeting houses were generally spartan, with little in the way of decoration or even religious symbolism. They also frequently lacked heat, with some Puritan-minded New Englanders even taking a certain measure of pride in their ability to sit through long sermons in frigid weather. Here in Pelham, the only heat source came from the hot coals that some parishioners would bring in foot stoves, which provided a small measure of relief from the cold. Not until 1831 would this meeting house finally get a stove, some 90 years after it had first been used for religious services.

In a sense, the installation of a stove was a sign of changing times, as Massachusetts continued to shift further away from colonial-era Puritan tradition. One major step in this process occurred two years later in 1833, when the state passed the eleventh amendment to its constitution, ending government involvement in religion. When it was first written, the First Amendment provisions in the U.S. Constitution applied only to Congress, so the individual states were not prohibited from establishing religion. Most states eventually codified religious freedom in their own laws or constitutions, but Massachusetts was the last to do so. State residents continued to be taxed to support local churches until 1833, when the new amendment declared that all religious groups “shall be equally under the protection of the law.”

Here in Pelham, this new doctrine of separation of church and state was soon followed by a physical separation between the two entities. After about a century of sharing the meeting house with the town government, the church moved into a new building of its own. It was completed in 1841, and it still stands just to the west of here. In the meantime, the old meeting house retained its role as town hall, but it was moved back in 1839, onto a portion of the burying ground behind the building. Then, in 1845 it was moved again, this time about 30 feet further north. Also in 1845, the large interior space was divided into two floors, with the upper floor being used for town meetings.

Throughout the second half of the 19th century, Pelham steadily declined in population. This trend was seen throughout rural western Massachusetts towns, as residents moved to growing industrial cities or west to seek better farmland. The town’s population had reached as high as 1,278 in the 1820 census, but two years later the eastern portion of the town was split off to create the town of Prescott. By 1900, Pelham’s population had dropped to 462, having lost nearly two-thirds of its 1820 figure.

The town’s dwindling population had also shifted west during this time. With the loss of land to Prescott, the meeting house was no longer close to the geographic center of town. In addition, by the early 20th century the majority of residents lived in the western part of town, near the border of Amherst. In 1921, residents considered a proposal to begin holding town meetings in the western village, rather than here. However, tradition won out over convenience, and the proposal was defeated by a vote of 52 to 11.

Aside from its use as a venue for town meetings, this building served several other purposes. By the turn of the 20th century the first floor housed offices for the selectmen and assessors, along with the town library and a vault for storing records. Elsewhere on the first floor was the town hearse, and the rest of the floor was used as storage space. The large space in the upper floor was, in addition to the town meetings, used for a variety of plays and other public events.

Although the town had voted to continue using the old meeting house in 1921, it soon faced a far more substantial threat in the subsequent decade. The Swift River valley, which included a portion of eastern Pelham, was being eyed as a potential water source for Boston. The project, which led to the construction of Quabbin Reservoir, would require the disincorporation of four entire towns, including neighboring Prescott, along with substantial land takings from other towns. Pelham itself would be able to remain a town, but its historic center here would be affected, since it was located directly on the watershed divide.

The first photo was taken as part of a project to document all of the buildings in the affected areas. The board in the lower right corner indicates the building’s location, along with its parcel number and other identifying information. Nearly all of the buildings that were photographed were eventually purchased by the state or taken by eminent domain, and were subsequently demolished in order to make way for the reservoir. However, both the town hall and the neighboring church were spared, although nearly all of the buildings to the east of here on the other side of US Route 202 were taken by the state.

Many of the places related to Shays’ Rebellion, including the site of Conkey’s Tavern and the farm that belonged Daniel Shays, were in the section of Pelham that later became Prescott. These sites were, in turn, taken as part of the formation of the reservoir. Neither the house site nor the presumed tavern site are underwater, but they are off-limits to the public on what is now known as the Prescott Peninsula. There is a certain amount of irony here, given that Shays and his fellow townsmen had taken up arms against the state to prevent the loss of their farms, only to have the state take that entire section of their town some 150 years later.

Today, the Pelham Town Hall is one of few remaining buildings with a direct connection to Shays’ Rebellion. It is also one of the oldest surviving church buildings in western Massachusetts. The old meeting house in South Hadley is a few years older, but it has been altered almost beyond recognition, so this one in Pelham is probably the oldest one that has retained much of its original appearance. Because of its historic significance, both the town hall and the adjacent church were designated as contributing properties in the Pelham Town Hall Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.

More than 80 years after the first photo was taken, very little has changed here in this scene. The building is not used as frequently as it had been in the past, though. The town offices are now located about a quarter mile to the west of here, and since 1968 most of the town meetings are held at the elementary school in the west village. However, the town continues to hold at least one meeting here in the building each year, maintaining its distinction as  the purported oldest continuously-used town hall in the country. This unbroken streak, dating back more than 275 years, has withstood church feuds, the American Revolution, an impostor preacher, and a large-scale rebellion, and the town even managed to maintain the tradition during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a brief pro forma meeting here in October 2020.

 

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.

Florida Baptist Church, Florida, Mass

The Florida Baptist Church, seen looking north on Church Road in Florida, around 1893. Image from Picturesque Berkshire (1893).

The scene in 2020:

The origins of the name of Florida, Massachusetts are murky, but there seems to have been a certain level of irony to it, since the town has little in common with its southern namesake. Located high in the Hoosac Range of the northern Berkshires, just south of the Vermont state border, Florida has cool weather and high elevations. The town center, shown here, is nearly 1,900 feet above sea level, and the town’s lowest point, located along the Deerfield River, is nearly twice the elevation of the highest point in the state of Florida. Because of this remote, mountainous location, the area was not settled until around 1783, and it was not incorporated as a town until 1805, when it acquired the name of Florida.

In the vast majority of New England towns, incorporation was soon followed by the establishment of a Congregational church. However, here in Florida, the town’s first church was a Baptist church, which was established in 1810 with about 20 members. The first church building was constructed in 1824, and it was used until 1861, when the building here in this scene was completed. The old building was then sold and converted into a house, and it still stands just a little to the north of here, at the present-day corner of Church Road and the Mohawk Trail.

Architecturally, the new building featured a Greek Revival-style exterior, similar to the other small church buildings in the hill towns of western Massachusetts during this period. Writing many decades later in 1907, the North Adams Transcript described how, in the shadow of the impending Civil War, “the whole parish made many sacrifices and literally bared their backs to the burden, considering personal labor, and economy in wearing apparel, thus erecting a new house of worship at the cost of $1,800.” At the time, the church had 51 members, and it had two different pastors who served here in 1861. Rev. J. M. Mace was the pastor for at least part of the year, but he was succeeded by Rev. John Fairman, who served from 1861 to 1865.

Throughout the first half of the 19th century, Florida’s economy was largely agricultural, although the lumber industry was also prosperous here, with at least 14 sawmills in the town by the mid-1850s. However, during the 1860s the town saw a population boom as a result of construction on the Hoosac Tunnel. This 4.75-mile railroad tunnel was built between 1851 and 1873, and most of it, including the eastern portal and the central shaft, is located within the town of Florida. The tunnel runs about a half mile to the north of the church, and about a thousand feet underground. The eastern portal is just under a mile away from here, although the actual travel distance is about 3.5 miles by way of steep, winding mountain roads.

The influx of workers in Florida led to a brief but substantial rise in population, more than doubling in residents from 645 in 1860 to 1,322 in 1870. Much of this growth appears to have been concentrated in the area around the eastern portal along the Deerfield River, so it seems unclear as to what effect this influx had on church membership. Given that many of the workers were Irish, and thus presumably Catholic, it seems unlikely that many would have been interested in making the long uphill climb to attend services at a rural Baptist church.

In any case, the tunnel workers left as quickly as they had arrived, and by the 1880 census the town was down to 459 residents. However, while the town itself experienced a net loss of more than a quarter of its residents between 1860 and 1880, the church saw a substantial increase during this time, growing to 79 members by 1885. During this time, in 1883, the building underwent renovations and repairs, including wallpaper, paint for the pews, and repairs to the chimney. The total cost for the project was about $400. Just after it was completed, the newly-repaired chimney was struck by lightning, but the damage to the building was minimal, and the repair costs were estimated at under five dollars.

The first photo was taken around a decade after these renovations occurred. It shows the view looking north, with the church in the center and a small cemetery next to it. In the foreground, the road is a muddy, heavily rutted path that is lined by a stone wall on the right side and some sort of drainage ditch on the left. Further in the distance, Spruce Mountain provides a dramatic backdrop to the scene. Its peak, on the left side of the photo, rises more than 2,700 feet above sea level, making it one of the highest mountains in the state.

The church was renovated again in 1907. This work was apparently limited to the interior, and it was done by Daniels & Canfield of North Adams. The dedication ceremony was held on September 15, 1907, and the event included guest speaker James McCullough from Savoy, whose grandfather Nathaniel McCullough had been the pastor of the Florida church in the early 1830s. Rev. Willard E. Waterbury of Springfield delivered the sermon, which was based on Isaiah 52:1—”Awake, awake; put on thy strength, O Zion; put on thy beautiful garments.”

Today, more than 125 years after the first photo was taken, parts of this scene have undergone significant changes. Perhaps the most ominous sign of the passage of time is the much-enlarged cemetery next to the church. Other changes include the old Florida Town Hall, which was built in 1923 across the street. The road itself has gone from a muddy dirt path to a paved road, but the most significant transportation change to this scene is the Mohawk Trail, which opened in the early 20th century. The Mohawk Trail made it easy for cars to pass over the Hoosac Range, and over the years it has served as a popular route for scenic road trips.

Throughout this time, the Florida Baptist Church has remained a distinctive landmark for travelers as they approach the road’s high point at Whitcomb Summit. Its exterior appearance has changed somewhat over the years, including a 1980 renovation that involved alterations to the front entryway an addition to the rear, but overall it survives as a good example of a mid-19th century rural New England church.

First Congregational Church, Fall River, Mass

The First Congregational Church, seen looking up Cherry Street from the corner of June Street, around 1913-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The church in 2020:

The First Congregational Church of Fall River was established in 1816, and throughout most of the 19th century the church worshipped in a building at the northwest corner of North Main and Elm Streets. However, in 1913 the church moved into this new building, which was donated by one of its parishioners, Sarah S. Brayton. The building was designed by the prominent Boston architectural firm of Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, and it features a granite, Gothic Revival exterior. It was formally dedicated on January 9, 1913, on the 97th anniversary of the church’s founding. Among those in attendance was Sarah Brayton, who was 78 years old at the time, and the dedication sermon was delivered by the Rev. Nehemiah Boynton of the Clinton Avenue Congregational Church in Brooklyn.

The first photo was taken within a few years after the building was completed. It is a rather strange angle, because it shows the rear and side of the church, with the parish house in the foreground on the left. Further up in the distance, on the other side of Rock Street, is the B.M.C. Durfee High School, which was built in 1886. The three girls on the sidewalk are likely students at the school, and are apparently walking home at the end of the school day. During the early 20th century, the Durfee High School ended at 1:25 p.m., and the photo was taken ten minutes later at 1:35, according to the school’s clock tower.

Today, more than a century after the first photo was taken, almost nothing has changed in this scene except for the trees, which now partially hide the buildings. The church is still an active congregation, and the exterior of the building has remained well-preserved. Further up the hill, the old high school building was converted into a family and probate courthouse in the 1990s, but it has retained its historic exterior appearance. The high school building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, and two years later both it and the church were designated as contributing properties in the Highlands Historic District.

Free Quaker Meetinghouse, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Free Quaker Meetinghouse at the corner of Fifth and Arch Streets in Philadelphia, in March 1859. Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia, Frederick De Bourg Richards Photograph Collection.

The scene in 2019:

Philadelphia was the national capital throughout most of the American Revolution, with the city serving as the meeting place of the Continental Congress. However, it also had a large population of Quakers, whose religious beliefs included a strong emphasis on pacifism. This caused significant tension between the colonial leaders here who favored independence, and the Quakers who opposed fighting the war. Far from simply refusing to serve in the military, many Quakers refused to pay taxes that would fund the military, and some even refused to use the currency issued by the Continental Congress, believing that the currency was also being used to pay for the war.

Even within the Quaker community, though, there was significant dissent regarding the war for independence. Here in Philadelphia, some were ultimately expelled for supporting the Revolution, and in 1781 they formed the Religious Society of Free Quakers. The group collected money to purchase a lot and build a meeting house, and among the contributors were George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. The design and construction of the building was largely done by Samuel Wetherill and Timothy Matlack, who were among the leaders of the Free Quakers. Matlack had been a delegate to the Continental Congress during the Revolution, but he is probably best remembered for his penmanship; he hand-wrote the official engrossed copy of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

The meeting house was completed in 1783, and the occasion was commemorated by a marble tablet under the gable on the Arch Street side of the building, which reads “By general subscription for the Free Quakers, erected in the Year of our Lord, 1783, of the Empire 8.” The last part of the inscription refers to the fact that it was the eight year of the American “empire,” with 1776 as its starting point. At the time, the term empire was a bit of an overstatement for a loosely-affiliated group of 13 states on the east coast, but it ultimately foreshadowed the country’s future expansion across the continent.

Aside from Matlack, several other notable Philadelphians were involved with the Free Quakers, including Betsy Ross, the heroine of the famous but likely apocryphal story about the first American flag. Another likely attendee was Dolley Payne, whose father appears to have joined the Free Quakers after being expelled from the Pine Street Meeting. However, Dolley herself was later expelled from the faith when, in 1794, she married a non-Quaker: future president James Madison.

The Free Quakers steadily dwindled in number during the early 19th century, as the original members either died or moved elsewhere. During this time, though, the building was used for a number of other purposes aside from religious gatherings. From 1788 to 1791, part of the building was the home of John Poor’s Academy for Young Ladies, and from 1791 to 1799 it was occupied by the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania. Then, from 1800 to 1836 it housed the Philadelphia Select Academy.

In the meantime, the Free Quakers continued to use the meeting house until the late 1830, and after this it was used purely for secular purposes. The next long-term occupant was the Apprentices’ Library Company, which moved into the building in 1841. The library made some changes to the building, including two additions in the 1850s and 1860s, and the organization remained here until 1897. The first photo was taken during this time, in 1859, and the photo shows signs for the Apprentices’ Library on both sides of the building.

Today, more than 160 years after the first photo was taken, and nearly 240 years after the building opened, the Free Quaker Meeting House still stands here as an important landmark at the corner of Arch and Fifth Streets. All of the other historic buildings nearby were demolished in the mid-20th century in order to create the Independence Mall, but the meeting house survived, likely because of its connection to Revolutionary-era Philadelphia. However, the building was relocated in 1961, in order to accommodate the widening of Fifth Street. It was moved 33 feet west and 8 feet south to its current location, and this project also included removing the 19th century additions and subsequently restoring the building to its 1780s appearance.