Sharing Williston Northampton and Local History

The Button Mill

S. Williston, Williston & Knight, and Hayden buttons of Easthampton and Williamsburg manufacture. (Click images to enlarge.)

The fabric-covered buttons that made Samuel and Emily Williston’s fortune began humbly enough.  Most small-town and rural families, regardless of occupation, had a cash- or barter-producing sideline; Emily, a talented seamstress, made buttons to supplement her family’s meager income.  The date is uncertain, but sometime early in the 1820s, she had the opportunity to dismantle a fancy button of foreign manufacture and see how it was made.  The several versions of the story are the stuff of legend (and a future blog post); what she and Samuel did with the information is a matter of history.

They organized as many as 1,000 households throughout western Massachusetts – a gigantic cottage industry – in sewing buttons to Emily’s design.  Essentially, fabric was cleverly sewn around a wooden center.  Emily provided patterns and instruction; Samuel, materials, cartage, warehousing, marketing.  The buttons produced income beyond anything the Willistons might have dreamed.  The demand for S. Williston buttons was so great that by 1827, Williston created a “budget” line – fundamentally, discounted seconds – of buttons that sold under another name.  He wanted the public to associate his brand only with the best-quality product.

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Monster! Monster! Dread our fury!

Trial by Jury, 1939. Photo donated by Sally Showalter Hubbard ’40. (Click all photos to enlarge)

One of the pleasures of working in the Archives is that sometimes a question will lead to a whole new line of inquiry.  Or, to put it more simply, one will open a file and an idea for a blog post will jump out.  Recently, research on behalf of a member of the Class of 1940 led to this photograph, from the first in a long tradition of Gilbert and Sullivan operetta performances.  On May 5, 1939, the Glee Clubs of Williston Academy and Northampton School for Girls performed Trial by Jury on a makeshift stage in the basketball court.  Chuck Rouse, Ruth Dunham, and Frederick “Binky” Hyde were co-directors; Howard G. Boardman provided scenery and lights.

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Our Earliest Photograph?

The campus, 1867 (Click to enlarge)

American photography came into its own during the Civil War, when photojournalists like Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner documented the conflict.  Peacetime brought photography to the civilian population, as hundreds of photographers set up studios or embraced picture-taking as a hobby.

We have what may be the earliest extant photograph of the old Williston Seminary campus on Main Street, opposite Shop Row.  Today the Easthampton Savings Bank stands on the site of North Hall, the leftmost structure.  Beyond North Hall we see Middle and South Halls and the Payson Church, now the Easthampton Congregational Church.  The image is by an anonymous photographer, and measures approximately 14 x 10½ inches.  The event of being photographed was sufficiently novel to attract the attention of most of the students, who turned out to watch the process and, not coincidentally, to get into the picture.

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Abner Austin, Fireman

Henry Perry’s description of the Williston Seminary fire of March, 1857, was presented in an earlier post His schoolmate, Abner Ellsworth Austin, class of 1859, wrote a very different account of the event.

Abner Austin’s letter. Click to enlarge.

The Archives hold 10 letters to and from Abner Austin (1839-1918), the gift of Margaret Gardner Skinner and Warren F. Gardner.  Beyond providing wonderful detail about school life, the documents are a testament to Abner’s irrepressible nature.  Even as he is reporting the fire’s impact — the phrase “learning nothing but uglyness” seems heartbreaking — Abner is contemplating his next bit of fun.

Austin entered Williston in the fall of 1856, in the equivalent of the modern 10th grade.  As his letter suggests, he remained for only one year, then returned to his native Meriden, Connecticut.  He went to work as a butcher, then in 1871 opened a livery stable.  He became one of Meriden’s leading businessmen.

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Sharing Williston Northampton and Local History