How Did We Become Williamstown?

Building 1753 House P19863784

Building the replica of the “Regulation House” in 1953.

In 1750 the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony, wanting to encourage permanent settlement in the western parts, passed legislation that in order to incorporate, and for settlers to gain title to their cleared lands, a town must have a settled pastor.  That same year, the first lots were sold in the newly surveyed West Hoosuck plantation, which later became Williamstown.

West Hoosuck occupied a strategic location.  It lay adjacent to the Dutch colony of New York, and at the junction of two Native American trails in land that was part of Mahican territory.

The Court sold the house lots in order to create a buffer settlement in this northwest corner of the colony.  It needed to protect towns to the east and south from raids mounted along the Indian trails and to prevent Dutch settlers in New York from encroaching upon Massachusetts territory from the west.

The area was a heavily forested wilderness, and although some of the lots were purchased by speculators, many were acquired by soldiers from Fort Massachusetts, four miles to the east.

Drawing of the blockhouse.

Drawing of the blockhouse.

2) Hardship and Danger

The early years were difficult for the settlers.  Because the French and Indian War brought fear of ambush and arson by Native American tribes supporting the French, in 1756 a blockhouse and stockade were built at the site of the present Williams Inn as a refuge from repeated raids.

3) The Settlement Grows

With the coming of peace in 1760, settlement began to increase.  More land was divided and cleared, some roads were cut, and farming became the dominant way of life in the valley.  Small saw, grist, and fulling mills appeared, easing the labor of colonial living. Professionals and craftsmen began to arrive as well: a doctor, a lawyer, cobblers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and shopkeepers.

Until the Industrial Revolution, the town flourished on a combination of dairy farming, sheep herding and wool production, and its small local mills and general stores.

4) Becoming Williamstown

In 1765, after 12 years of searching (mostly during the French & Indian war), a settled pastor was found who was willing to come to the wilds of West Hoosuck which then officially became incorporated as Williamstown.  This was the first term complied with in the will of Colonel Ephraim Williams, Jr .  Williams had bequeathed funds to found a free school for local children only if the hamlet were incorporated and renamed Williamstown, and lay within Massachusetts.  After the American Revolution, the border with New York was finally agreed upon (putting our town safely on the Massachusetts side of the border), the school opened in 1791 but its life as a free school was short.  The free school became Williams College in 1793.

When it opened, the college was a small, struggling institution with only one building and eighteen students, a tiny piece of the town with limited impact.  As the college slowly grew into a larger enterprise embracing increasing numbers of more highly educated faculty and student members, its influence on the town burgeoned.

Farming was Williamstown’s primary way of life, but the presence of the college shaped and changed the town.

Observatory with students in early days

Observatory with students
in early days

5) The College: A Defining Presence Shaping the Town

Typical rural towns do not have astronomical observatories!  In 1838 Professor Albert Hopkins designed the building, helped his students quarry the stone, and together they erected in Williamstown the first permanent observatory in the United States.

This same professor Hopkins formed The Alpine Club in 1864 “to explore the interesting places in the vicinity and to become acquainted…with the natural history of the localities…”  It was the first mountain-climbing organization in the country, sponsoring climbing and camping excursions in the local hills “to improve the pedestrian powers of the members,” which included people from both the town and college communities.

During a thunderstorm, in August 1806, 5 Williams students who had formed a prayer meeting found refuge next to a haystack in Sloan’s meadow.  This prayer meeting led to the formation of the worldwide American Foreign Missionary movement.

The college provided unique employment opportunities for women and minorities, and its students and faculty lent their talents to community groups, from local churches to the Boys’ Club.

6) The Industrial Revolution Alters the Landscape

The coming of the railroad and the Industrial Revolution changed the face of the village.  Although the meager waterpower in Williamstown limited the extent of its industrialization, the town was transformed by the appearance of the Walley Mill and the Williamstown Manufacturing Company (Station Mill), both textile mills, and by the construction of A. Loop and Company (Water Street Mill), which manufactured twine.  The mills brought jobs and immigrants to fill those jobs to the community, increasing its diversity.

Tourists strolling near the Sand Springs Gazebo.

Tourists strolling near the Sand Springs Gazebo.

7) Growth of a Summer Resort

The scenic beauty of its setting in the Berkshire Hills, improved means of transportation, and rampant epidemic diseases in cities during the summer months caused the town to develop as a summer resort. Both the elegant Idlewild Hotel in South Williamstown and the Greylock Hotel on the corner of North and Main Streets thrived.  Henry Tague, Greylock’s manager, coined the catchy and descriptive phrase “Williamstown: the Village Beautiful,” still in use today.

Sand Springs, prized by the earliest Indian tribes and first settlers for the medicinal properties of its thermal spring, also flourished as a grand resort and sanatorium.  People came to drink and bathe in its water to cure various ailments.  Later, it began bottling and selling its spring water for drinking, becoming a pioneer in the American soft drink industry by adding flavorings to the sparkling water to create Sand Springs Ginger Ale.

BreedingCattle8) The Ups and Downs of Farming

Farming continued in Williamstown during this period.  In 1861, there were 138 farms in Williamstown.  In 1930, 102 farms remained.  By 1970 that number had fallen to only 12, although with the increased use of farming machinery those 12 were maintaining more cows than all 138 farms had managed the century before.  Woods and houses took over some former pastureland.  Self-sufficiency farming faded, and some dairy farms became truck farms, producing vegetables for local restaurants and markets.  As the century turned in 2000, only two dairy farms remained in Williamstown.

E. Parmalee Prentice and his wife Alta, daughter of John D. Rockefeller, founded Mount Hope Farm, a fusion of an experimental farm and grand estate.  Its “farmhouse,” an elaborate 72-room Georgian mansion called Elm Tree House, was surrounded by formal gardens.  The farm, which gradually grew to over 1300 acres during the 1900s, was noted for its success in using genetic principles to improve the yield of potatoes and to boost the production of egg-laying poultry and of dairy cattle.  Mount Hope’s findings were known and used worldwide.  Its publications were translated into many languages, and the farm hosted representatives from dozens of developing countries to study its methods.  Locally, the farm was important because even during the Depression it was a major employer of trades people, domestics, and farm workers; it was the largest contributor to the town’s tax coffers; and it kept many acres of Williamstown land in agricultural use well into the twentieth century.

9) Evolution of BusinessSpring_Street_1950s_P2006_747_12

After World War II, Williamstown grew rapidly and businesses changed.  While small shops predominate on the town’s three major business streets, recent major employers have included General Cable, Steinerfilm, Ivy Guild, Sweet Brook Nursing Home, Williamstown Medical Associates, and the Mount Greylock School District.  With the admission of women in the 1970s and its expansion to over 2000 students, Williams College became and remains the town’s largest employer.

10) Continuing Themes

The college continues to shape the town just as it did in the 1800s.  Today the town is invigorated by the Williams Class of 1962 Performing Arts Center; by exhibits at the Williams College Museum of Art; by the Berkshire Symphony, sponsored by the college music department and composed of both students and professional local musicians; and by attractions at the Chapin Rare Book Library.  Many of the town’s renowned cultural attractions, such as the Williamstown Theatre Festival and the Williamstown Film Festival began as town/gown collaborations.  Others, like the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, were attracted to Williamstown in part by the presence of the college.

Apart from the college, Williamstown continues to be celebrated for its scenic beauty just as it was during its heyday as a summer resort, and it remains a summer vacation area.  Its rural character is being lovingly preserved by the town’s Conservation Commission and the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation despite the decline in agriculture and increase in population.

View of Mount Greylock in Spring with apple blossoms.

View of Mount Greylock in Spring with apple blossoms.

11) The Essence Endures

In fact, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1838 description of the town remains remarkable accurate today.  “I had a view of Williamstown at a distance of a few miles—two or three, perhaps—a  white village and steeple in a gradual hollow, with high mountainous swells heaving themselves up, like immense, subsiding waves, far and wide around it.”