In the half-century prior to the Civil War, antislavery sentiment was strong up and down the Connecticut Valley. Yet there was an essential conflict between two schools of Abolitionists: the high-minded movement inspired by reformer and The Liberator editor William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), and a number of rabble-rousers who advocated more direct action.
Five of the latter, all residing in Northampton, are treated in a new book by Bruce Laurie, Rebels in Paradise: Sketches of Northampton Abolitionists (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 2015). Dr. Laurie (Professor Emeritus of History, UMass Amherst) has selected the scholarly Sylvester Judd, African-American Underground Railroad conductor David Ruggles, newspaper editor Henry S. Gere, and preacher-turned-entrepreneur Erastus Hopkins. Not least among them was Samuel Williston’s brother, manufacturer John Payson Williston. All were local business, religious, and political leaders; none was especially subtle in advocacy of favorite causes, be they temperance, political reform, or the abolition of slavery.
Like his elder brother Samuel, John Payson Williston (1803-1872) broke with several generations of Williston male tradition by choosing a manufacturing career over the Congregational ministry. Again similar to Samuel’s experience, the decision was driven by circumstance: neither was able to complete a university education because of poor eyesight. From there, their paths diverged. Samuel, largely through prescient investment, became one of Western Massachusetts’ leading industrial barons and philanthropists, but one whose public advocacy of reformist concerns, however passionately he believed in them, was often held in check by a need to protect his Southern business interests and, perhaps, the desire to project a certain patrician reticence. Continue reading →
Nashawannuck. The name is apparently Algonquian for “Valley of the Little River.” The “Little River” was probably the Manhan — another local Native American appellation. Ironically, the Manhan doesn’t feed Nashawannuck Pond, that large body of water that dominates the Cottage Street district of Easthampton. Scenic it may be, but its original purpose was industrial. Over the course of several decades of the 19th century, Samuel Williston and his associates dammed a small stream to create a power source for the complex of textile mills that sprung up around Williston’s button and elastic factories. In what was surely an unusual idea for its time, the sluice that drove the water wheels passed directly under the factory buildings and fed a collection pond behind them, on Pleasant and Ferry Streets.
The work was accomplished in stages. This 1873 map shows a single body of water — the “Upper Mill Pond” had not yet been named “Nashawannuck” — divided only by a railroad causeway. A few years later a small dam was built just above the railroad, creating Williston Pond. Williston Avenue, incorporating another dam, was built, extending across the pond from the intersection of Village Street (now Payson Avenue), Union Street, and Cottage Street, thus isolating what became known as the Rubber Thread Pond, which remains behind the modern-day City Offices. The result was a system comprising four ponds at descending levels. (Click for a currentmap.)
The entrance to to the spillway is clearly visible right of center, in the postcard image below.
While Samuel Williston’s intentions in creating the pond may have been practical, recreational and scenic implications soon came to the fore. Samuel and Emily Williston donated a large tract of land known as “Brookside” to the town. It was mostly wooded, and abutted Nonotuck Park. Eventually it was developed as a cemetery, but remains a lovely spot. Boaters, including a short-lived Williston Seminary rowing team, swimmers, and fishermen used the pond. In a town dominated by textile mills, whose employees typically worked six 12-hour days or more, it became an essential part of community culture. Continue reading →
This presentation was given at the Easthampton Congregational Church on October 11, 2014, part of the Easthampton CityArts+ monthly Art Walk. The text and graphics have been slightly modified for this blog.
At the time of New England’s Great Awakening, when Jonathan Edwards was pastor in Northampton, Easthampton did not exist. There were a few landholders in the village of Pascommuck, out on what is now East Street. Late in life Edwards would recall that around 1730 “there began to appear a remarkable religious concern at a little village belonging to the congregation, called Pascommuck . . . at this place a number of persons seemed to be savingly wrought upon.”
Note Edwards’ phrase, “little village belonging to the congregation.” In colonial Massachusetts, church and town were interdependent. One could not exist without the other. In 1781 Easthampton residents, citing the growing size of their village, petitioned for severance from Northampton. Attending services in Northampton cannot have been convenient – it was a ride or walk of five or more miles, over roads that barely deserved the name.
Anticipating the success of their request, they began construction of a meeting house on the town common, now the rotary. However, Southampton, only recently independent and perhaps fearing the dilution of their own small congregation, blocked the petition. It was not until June of 1785 that the Northampton church agreed to the formation of an Easthampton parish, thus allowing the town of Easthampton to be incorporated. The following November, 46 adults were dismissed from the Northampton church to form the first congregation in Easthampton. 15 Southampton families followed, and the congregation was formally organized on November 17. Continue reading →
Ephemera: Things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time; items of collectable memorabilia, typically written or printed ones, that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity. Recorded in English from the late 16th century as the plural of ephemeron, from Greek, neuter of ephēmeros ‘lasting only a day’. As a singular noun the word originally denoted a plant said by ancient writers to last only one day, or an insect with a short lifespan, and hence was applied (late 18th century) to a person or thing of short-lived interest. Current use has been influenced by plurals such as trivia and memorabilia.1
Samuel Williston is often presented as an ever- and over-serious, deeply religious, hard-driven New England entrepreneur. Much of this is probably true —though Samuel apparently worked hard at creating his own legend. (For a biographical essay, please read “The Button Speech.”) Occasionally we see glimpses of someone a bit more . . . well, human. His grandson, also named Samuel Williston, recalled “That he had softer feelings than might have been guessed from his manner, was indicated by his toleration of young children about the house, as well as by his habit of feeding daily with his own hands the family cat.”2
So Sam was a cat-lover. But there was also at least one dog, a black Newfoundland named Major. We still have the great man’s dog license. Strictly speaking, Major belonged to the cotton mill. And the town clerk had the temerity to charge Sam two bucks — about $30 in current terms — for the document. One wonders how many Easthampton residents would have paid this.