Northampton’s River of Time
Maturing Economy Produces
a Prosperous and Lively Town
By BRIAN TURNER
As the once-rich soil of the meadows grew thin from over-farming, Northampton’s more enterprising citizens sought new ways to prosper. “Shop Row” began in 1769 with Ebenezer Hunt’s apothecary. By the 1790s, taverns, blacksmiths and liveries served the stagecoach trade. Tailors and milliners opened clothing stores; lawyers and physicians opened offices; furniture shops sold caskets. Jewelry and books were stocked in specialty stores, dry goods in general stores. By the 1850s “Shop Row,” from Pleasant Street to Old South Street, was renamed “Merchants Row.” (Today the same stretch might be called “Restaurant & Boutique Row.”)
Investment (and speculation) drove Northampton’s new economy. The Erie Canal opened in 1825, from Buffalo to Albany; within 10 years of its operation, the cost of shipping fell from $90-125 a ton to $4 a ton. The success of the Erie Canal inspired Northampton to finance a canal of its own, and a company was formed in 1823. When finished the canal would pass under Main Street through a stone archway to its terminus at State Street. With the canal going through Easthampton, Southampton, Westfield, and Southwick, the goal was to connect Northampton to Farmington, Conn., from where an already existing canal ran to New Haven and Long Island Sound. The canal-builders even dreamed of extending the canal north to Montreal and the St. Lawrence.
Many locals bought stock in the venture, or wished they had, as speculation drove up the value. The canal opened in 1835, but the costs of coping with ice in winter and droughts in summer consumed whatever profits there were and drove the company into debt. The arrival of the railroad soon made the canal irrelevant, although the Erie Canal continued to thrive in spite of railroads. The Northampton canal closed in 1847. Today a plaque commemorates its terminus at the old Freight House that once stood on the corner of Elm and State Streets.
The canal was not the only get-rich-quick scheme to transfix the people of Northampton. In the 1830s, Samuel Whitmarsh built a silk factory on the Mill River. Cocooneries, where the silk worms did their work, multiplied in backyards throughout Northampton. Local families bought silk worms at prices driven up by speculation. The notion that townspeople, in their spare time, could cultivate mulberry trees, tend worms, and harvest silk proved optimistic. Nor did the methods used to weave the thread produce high quality silk. The bubble burst in 1837, a time of general economic distress, and by 1839 Whitmarsh had moved on from Northampton.
Samuel L. Hill, who had absorbed the Northampton Association’s debts, nurtured the silk industry from 1846 on. In the decade before the Civil War, Nonotuck Silk developed a reputation for its quality - the trick, it seems, was not to grow raw silk but to import it, mostly from Asia - in clothes, hosiery, and whole cloth. In 1852 the village that grew up around the silk industry officially renamed itself Florence, after the silk-making center of Italy. The suggestion that the Mill River be renamed the Arno was resisted.
For decades silk sustained Northampton through the cycles of boom and bust. Nonotuck had competitors, and the population of mill workers steadily grew. In a paternalistic spirit coupled with the high ideals of reform, Hill provided a homestead fund so that his workers could own homes, a fund that formed the basis for Florence Savings Bank; he endowed the Hill Institute, a public kindergarten; he built Cosmian Hall (from
“Cosmos”) for the Free Congregational Society, so that his old comrades might discuss Suffrage and Temperance, if not Labor.
With Hill’s death, the Nonotuck Silk firm passed to his son, Arthur, an indifferent businessman. Local control was lost, first when Nonotuck associated itself with Corticelli Silk, and adopted its trademark kitten for advertising. In the 1920s, Corticelli owned the mills outright. In the spirit of re-branding, Prospect Street in Florence became Corticelli Street. The Great Depression brought an end to the struggling silk industry, and today only Corticelli Street remains.
Cure-alls and Controversy
Thomas Cole’s 1836 landscape, The Ox Bow, immortalized the vista from Mount Holyoke, and thereafter journalists invariably praised the beauty of the valley. In 1851, Jenny Lind, the Swedish singer, looked out from her hotel at Round Hill and proclaimed Northampton the “Paradise of America.” At the time “paradise” described any verdant spot. Idyllic rural settings were the antithesis of industrialization, hence their charm.
Not everyone was charmed. A popular writer on domestic matters, Lydia Maria Child came here in the 1830s to grow sugar beets, in the hope that she might supplant the slave-harvested sugar of the Deep South. Her letters condemned the “iron-bound valley” for its rigidity and complacency on slavery. Polite society did not support slavery, nor did it support abolition. Unable to change Northampton, Child moved away in search of a more progressive place to live.
Reflecting local opinion, the Gazette did not encourage the anti-slavery cause. In the years just before the Civil War, one competitor, the Free Press, founded by Henry Burt, aligned itself with a minor political party, the Republicans, in support of abolition, but it was not a popular position. Northampton received direct economic benefit from southern planters who came north for the summer. When the planters brought their domestic staff, some of whom were slaves, the people of Northampton, whatever they may have thought in private, exercised discretion in their public comments.
The 19th century impulse to reform was accompanied by an impulse to purify the body through diet and exercise—not unlike the health-conscious New Age therapies of today. In 1842 David Ruggles, an African American abolitionist, joined the Northampton Association in poor health, possibly suffering from Bright’s Disease. He attributed his partial recovery while at the Association to the “Water Cure,” or the effects of the local waters in which he bathed. After the Association failed, he opened an establishment on the Mill River where people spent days bathing and resting, and emerged refreshed. (We call it vacation.) Similar Water Cures opened, including an elegant facility on Round Hill that drew its water from a reservoir at Prospect Street.
Sylvester Graham came to “take the waters,” and stayed to promote the healthful properties of his “Graham wafers” baked in Northampton. Each morning he went to Lickingwater Crossing and plunged into the Mill River that once ran south of downtown, thereby saving himself the cost of the Water Cure. In time, Northampton became renowned as a spa town, and a pleasant place to pass a summer.
The young Henry James would spend such a summer here recuperating from an “obscure” injury that kept him from serving in the Civil War. It was in Northampton that he began Roderick Hudson, perhaps out of boredom as much as an artistic calling. On the novel’s first page, James has fun at Northampton’s expense when he writes of one character, “Her misfortunes were three in number: first, she had lost her husband; second, she had lost her money (or the greater part of it); and third, she lived at Northampton, Massachusetts.”
In 1905, upon returning to Northampton, James was pressed by some to explain his 40-year-old remark. James allowed that Northampton was a “humane” community, but lacked the conditions for great art; it is unlikely that he meant this as a compliment.
Amusements and Competition
It is difficult to recreate the enduring sense of possibility (and moments of terror) with which the earliest settlers beheld the wilderness. It is also difficult to overestimate the role that Puritanism played in stilling settlers’ fears, shaping their passions, and regulating their lives. Few accounts exist of the ordinary daily activities of the men, women and children of Northampton’s first two centuries, but we can assume that even the purest of the Puritans had their amusements and carefree moments. As the industrial age progressed and as the town prospered, the good life came to be defined as more than a matter of survival and piety.
On even the most vexed issues, such as slavery, Northampton preferred to take her medicine in sweetened form. The very popular Hutchinson Family singers performed their abolitionist repertoire at Town Hall, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin was staged at the same venue. But when Frederick Douglass spoke at Town Hall he was less warmly received, and on at least one occasion a stone was thrown at him.
Not every entertainment in antebellum Northampton had a social message, nor did the performances require touring professionals. In 1859, Il Trovatore was staged with local singers directed by Dr. Thomas Meekins, a dentist, who sang the lead role. The tradition of the merchant-opera impresario has been carried forward by Richard Rescia, former owner of Foster Farrar Hardware, who ran Project Opera in the 1980s and, until recently, continued to contribute to the productions of the Commonwealth Opera, one of which was none other than Il Trovatore (1993).
Dr. Meekins also organized local “old folks” concerts, inspired by a troupe of Boston singers who wore wigs and Revolutionary-era costumes, and claimed to be more than a century old when they appeared in public to sing ancient shape-note harmonies. The same sentimentality and mischievousness animates today’s Young at Heart Chorus, an internationally celebrated troupe of senior performers, directed by Bob Cilman and abetted by local theater folk, including Roy Faudree of the experimental No Theater. With the graying of the Baby Boom generation, the Young at Heart Chorus is unlikely to experience a shortfall in membership.
Horse Racing and Baseball
A more traditional form of amusement is the harvest-time agricultural fair. Local farmers gathered in 1819 to celebrate their livelihood with a Cattle Show, much of which took place on Main Street. The Cattle Show later moved into the Meadows and included plowing and pulling contests, and this annual gathering became the Three County Fair. Horseracing was introduced in the 1850s, and in 1890 the Driving Park Association built a grandstand and track for sulky racing.
For many decades the infield of the racing track doubled as a baseball diamond. According to The Hurrah Game (Turner & Bowman, 2002) the antecedents of the national pastime based on the “New York” rules came to Northampton in 1858. Along with the innovation of local news, the Gazette & Courier ran accounts of “invitation matches” among amateur clubs. But aging graduates of the Round Hill School recalled playing baseball as early as the 1820s. It is almost certain that various bat and ball games were played here in the 1700s.
The end of the Civil War intensified the appetite for “base ball,” as the term was then spelled. From 1865-1867, the Florence Eagle Base Ball Club drew crowds up to 5,000, in part because the games provided a good excuse to gamble. Apart from their many victories, the Eagles were remarkable for their heterogeneity, a mixture of free-thinking sons of the Northampton Association (shortstop Arthur G. Hill, mayor 1887 to 1888), hard-scrabble Irish Catholics (second basemen John B. O’Donnell, mayor 1892-1893), and, situated at the greatest distance from Northampton’s elite, an African American first baseman, Luther B. Askin, the earliest known instance of integration in baseball.
From 1891 to 1893, and again from 1904 to 1905, the infield baseball diamond of the Driving Park was used by the Northamptons, a semi-professional club not associated with the National League, at that time the sole “big league.” A number of exceptional players passed through Northampton on their way to big league careers, including Fred Tenney, Marty Bergen, and John W. “Colby Jack” Coombs. The Northamptons played crowd-pleasing series against local rivals from Brattleboro and Holyoke. The National League champion Boston Beaneaters came to town for lucrative exhibition games against the Northamptons, and in 1893 the local club even beat the St. Louis Browns, today’s Cardinals, 4-3.
The grandstand was rebuilt for Northampton’s minor league baseball team, the Meadowlarks, who played from 1909 to 1911 in the Connecticut League, finishing seventh during those seasons. A new edition of the Meadowlarks went on to win the pennant of the Twin State League in 1912 and 1913, but not before a shameful episode in which the Meadowlarks refused to take the field against a black pitcher, Frank Wickware.
In the controversy that followed, the Herald and the Gazette, debated the team’s decision, with the Gazette allowing the use of racial slurs in its pages. In a decision that brought credit to no one, the Northampton incident was cited by the Twin State League as a confirmation of baseball’s notorious “color line,” which held fast until the arrival of Jackie Robinson. In Northampton, professional baseball faded away before World War I, but the Three County Fair and the horses, now thoroughbreds, have been with us ever since, as has the grandstand.
(Next: Disasters, National and Local)
Brian Turner, who teaches composition at Smith College, is co-author of The Hurrah Game: Baseball in Northampton , 1823-1953 (2002) and co-author of A History of the United States Air Force (2004).
Downstreet.net editor Edward Shanahan prepared the series of articles for publication.
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