History Of North Adams, Massachusetts

Reminiscences Of Early Settlers.
-Extracts From Old Town Records.-
Its Public Institutions, Industries And Prominent Citizens,
Together With A Roster Of Commissioned Officers In The War Of The Rebellion.
By W. P. Spear.
North Adams, Mass.: Hoosac Valley News Printing House. 1885.


[Transcribed by Dave Swerdfeger]

THE location of this village proper, by the original survey, was, known as part of settling lot No. 24. The great water power —the Hoosac river then being much deeper than now—and the probability of the early erection of mills here, must have attracted the attention of farmers and other settlers to this point, as it will be recollected that in the year 1750 Captain Ephraim Williams was bound, in consideration of the grant of 200 acres of land, to "build a grist and saw mill within two years on the Hoosac river, and keep, the same in repair for twenty years." These mills were erected at North Adams. The dam was thrown across the river at, or near, where the furnace and machine shop of James Hunter & Son now stands, just above the Main street bridge.

The grist mill was upon the west and the saw mill upon the east side of the river, about where the machine shop is now located. An old-fashioned trestle bridge, uncovered, with no railing except a huge log on each side, but supported by strong abutments, spanned the river just below the mills, and exactly where the"Phoenix bridge" now stands. The dam and mills were erected by a Mr. Hurd, undoubtedly according to some arrangement made by Captain Williams with him. Although no data can be ascertained of the time of erection, yet it is reasonable to suppose that it was as early as 1752, in order to conform to the requirements of the grant. Mr. Hurd, perhaps the Jedediah Hurd who was on the committee of safety in 1779, sold the water power and mills directly to Elisha Jones, or to some one who did sell to him, before or in the early part of the Revolution.

Elisha Jones was the father of Captain Isreal Jones, a staunch Whig, and a member of the- first board of selectmen in Adams; but Elisha, his father and several brothers, it is said, were Loyalists, and having left in the year of the battle of Bennington, 1777, probably to avoid the rough Whig discipline of tar and feathers and fence-rail riding, this mill privilege and five acres of land adjoining, principally on the east side, were confiscated to the Commonwealth.

Giles Barnes derived his title from a committee of the Massachusetts Legislature, appointed to take care of "spoils" of the Tories. In 1780, Mr. Barnes had a partner, for at a town meeting held October 25th of that year it was voted that "the bridge near Day & Barnes' mills be repaired at the town's expense." Mr. Barnes appears to have been a business man of some ability, for he was chosen assessor at the March meeting in 1780, and selectman and town clerk in 1781. In 1782 he seems to have become sole owner of the mills again, for a road survey "was made on the west side of the river at Mr. Barnes' mill," along the very spot from which the iron horse now runs his race with "old Sol" toward the west.

The staunch Whig patriotism of Isreal Jones has been denied. The grounds of denial were that he is believed to absented himself from town in 1777, the year of Burgoyne's capture; that his family connections were Tories, and fled to the British provinces; that his chimney tops were painted white, the usual telegraphic signal of Toryism in the days of the Revolution. Whatever rumors may have been afloat respecting Mr. Jones' political sentiments, they did not affect his standing among his townsmen, who were zealous Whigs and sagacious observers. His character as a man, a citizen and a Christian were never impeached. He was a member of the first board of selectmen chosen in 1779, and held town offices innumerable for years, being very frequently moderator in town meetings. He was chosen representative to the General Court of Massachusetts in 1785, re-elected in '86, and re-elected again for six years, from 1792 to 1797, inclusive.

Isreal Jones was the fourth of fifteen children, and was born in Weston, Middlesex County, in this state. His father, Elisha Jones, was one of the three original proprietors of the township of Adams. Isreal first settled in Pittsfield, but removed to East Hoosac in 1766. He owned and resided for sixty-three years on the farm now occupied by Robert Harrison. He was extensively engaged in settling and dealing in lands. Many of the early deeds were given by him, either as principal or agent. He was by profession and in practice an excellent surveyor, and was constantly employed in that capacity. Most of the roads described in the town records were laid out by him. The federal government, in 1798, appointed him one of the. commissioners to adjust the line between the United States and southeastern Canada. He was a trustee first of the free school and afterward of the college in Williamstown. He was probably one of the first Justices of the Peace appointed in town, and served in that capacity more or less for forty years. He married, in 1767, Alithea, daughter of Rev. Mr. Todd, the first minister settled in this town, and lived with her fifty-nine years. They had nine children. In 1803 he became a member of the church in Williamstown, and regularly attended worship there until he aided in organizing the Congregational church in this village, in 1827. Although a small man in stature, he must have possessed an iron constitution, as he was active, hale and hearty up to the very day of his death, September 11, 1829, when he lacked only ten days of being ninety-one years of age. He rode on horseback to Stamford and returned the forenoon before his death. Laying down to take an after-dinner nap, as was his custom, desiring to be called in an hour, that he might ride to Williamstown before night. When his daughter tried to awaken him the effort was in vain; his soul had departed without a struggle. His death created a profound sensation, for he was truly one of the pillars of the town amid its early difficulties.

The site of this village was formerly a pine forest, with some white oak intermingled. The principal staple of early traffic was, therefore, pine and other lumber; and the material of which the fences and many of the early buildings were constructed was such as to give it the name of "Slab City." Like those farmers who eat only such produce as they can't sell, many of the men who built took lumber that was not merchantable. The stumps of huge trees remained for a long time in the very streets, and Main street, it is said, was only cleared by a "bee" of some fifty men, with teams, headed by that indefatigable roadmaker, Jere Colgrove, Sr.

The digging of cellars and the preparation of gardens were very much impeded by these stumps. In times of freshet, the lower portion of the village was flooded by the river, rocks of enormous size and gravel by the ton being distributed plentifully across the "flats." There are evidences of the river having formerly been much broader than now, and it certainly rose higher and was more ungovernable at the dreaded season of "breaking up" of the ice after the vigorous winters of one hundred years ago. The furious flood has been known to sweep from the point where the lower bridge on Union street is located across the entire village south, to the bank bordering Church and Summer streets. The entire flat where now most of the trade and mercantile business of the village are transacted, would be washed with an ice cold stream, driving the settlers from their houses, sweeping away or greatly damaging the little property they possessed, and literally drowning the hopes they had cherished of a prosperous season, by obliging them to begin anew. The clearing up of the forests and consequent drying of the springs, as well as the more gradual melting of the snow, has diminished the volume of water in all the streams, and such extraordinary freshets are no longer to be feared. Like other dangers, out of sight, they are out of mind.

The village site and its immediate vicinity was called by early settlers the poorest part of the town of Adams. It was miserable land for farming purposes, like most pine land. The first farmers preferred settling on the mountain slope: they said the "flat would hardly bear white beans." The pine lumber, however, was of first rate quality. Tradition states that one tree was felled of the extraordinary height of 114 feet to the first limb. Very little pine timber grew at any other point within a dozen miles or more.

About the year 1756, and during the last French war, a saw mill was erected near the site of the cotton mill now owned by the Freeman Manufacturing Company, called the "Estes mill." This saw mill is supposed to have been on the south bank of the river, and the primitive forest extended to the north bank. Tradition further states that an Indian, standing on a rock on the north bank, fired across the river and shot the man who was running the mill while he was at work, and caused his death. This was the Indian method of warfare.

Oliver Parker, Sr., who settled in this town in 1766, and was a conspicuous Whig and a town officer for many years, built two dams and a saw and grist mill at the "upper union"—the saw mill standing near the southern end of the Eclipse mill and the grist mill near the northern end. These mills were in operation before 1780, and did considerable business. They were carried off in the terrible freshet in the month of April, 1785, called the "Parker's flood" for many years after, on account of the damage it inflicted upon him. He lost about 50,000 feet of sawed lumber by the flood, and the grist mill stones were lodged in the bed of the river, and remained there visible for many years. This flood was one of those which deluged almost the entira village, as above described. Giles Barnes, whose mill property was in great danger from it, and who was a blunt-spoken-man, said "Noah's flood was the only one that ever equalled it." The only road to Parker's mills was the old clay-bank road, over Church hill, which afterward sunk to the ignoble condition of a foot path, but of late years repaired and made a public highway.

Daniel Harrington built another saw and grist mill on the site of Parker's mills, probably before 1790. He ran these mills for several years; was reputed a very straightforward man, fair in his dealings, plain and downright in expressing his opinion.

Amos Bronson, familiarly known as "Elder Bronson," ran a saw mill near the corner of Union street and the road connecting this street with Eagle, past the Eagle mill, prior to 1790. The only road to this was from Eagle street, up the north fork of the river, and is today a very passable highway, making a short cut out between Eagle and Union streets. Mr. Bronson lived in an old house at the corner of River and Eagle streets, which was torn down in 1858 to make room for the store now occupying that site. Elder Bronson was a remarkable man in many respects. He was a very ingenious mechanic, a millwright, a carpenter, and, in fact, handy at anything. He worked by the day at almost any jobs. He was a sort of doctor and a preacher of the Baptist denomination. He labored in the latter capacity for many years. Though plain and rough-cast in his speech and manners, he was a man of sterling honesty and sincere piety. He removed West before 1815„ and died there at a very advanced age.

In 1792 or '93 David Estes came to this town from Rhode Island. In 1793 he bought settling lot No. 25, embracing all the land north of Centre street almost to Liberty, and extending eastward to the site of the Freeman Print Works. This lot was formerly owned by Murray & Jones, who were among the original grantees of the township. Murray fled in the Revolutionary struggle, being a Tory, and his share of the lot was confiscated. Eli Persons bought it of the Commonwealth and sold it to Burrall Sutton and Burrall Wells. These parties sold it to Jencks Ruttenfur, and he in turn sold it to David Estes for £150, or about $500 of our money at that time. This lot was in those days a complete wilderness, and valuable only for its mill privileges. The garden plats did not thrive.

David Estes was a man of great industry and economy, and had a keen eye for practical utility. He commenced making cut nails by manual labor in 1793 or '94, having procured the tools in Rhode Island, and brought the nail rods from Salisbury, Conn., in a one-horse cart. The nails were cut of proper length by heavy shears, and headed cold in dies brought together by pressure of the foot on a spring. Most of the early buildings after Mr. Estes came were put up with his nails. They were tough, and would clinch like wrought iron—differing from the deceitful cut nails of modern times. Many of these nails, taken out of old buildings, would last another century, and many yet remain in buildings. Shingle nails sold for 17 cents per pound, or 50 cents per 1000; larger nails at from 12 1/2 to 15 cents per pound. Saddle nails were also made by Mr. Estes, and sold in Brattleboro, Greenfield and many other places. The nail business was continued until about the year 1810, when Mr. Estes became absorbed in more extensive enterprises.

In February, 1794, Jere. Colgrove, Sr., with his brother-in-law, Elisha Brown of North Providence, R.I., bought Giles Barnes' property, heretofore mentioned as doubtless the first mill in North Adams. The estate included an old saw and grist mill, the mill privilege, and about 80 acres of land, 5 acres being west of the river and a part of the confiscated lot No. 26. The remaining 75 acres were east of the river, and is now the most thickly settled part of the village. It included a 1 1/2 story frame house, standing near the corner of Main and Marshall streets, having a large garden. The price paid Mr. Barnes was about $1200. Most of the pine timber had been cut off. The mills, being probably forty-years old, were much dilapidated. The grist mill was never run by Mr. Colgrove, and the saw mill was only run to prepare lumber for building new mills. The following year he built a new dam where the present dam of M. D. & A. W. Hodge now is, and a grist mill on the present site of their grist mill, thus obtaining a greater head of water than Barnes' mills enjoyed.

The new saw mill was directly opposite, on the west side of the river. These mills stood until about the year 1820. They enjoyed a steady run of custom. Wheat was a staple crop on new land, one farmer in the notch raising nearly 700 bushels in one year. Lumber for building purposes was also furnished on contracts by Mr. Colgrove. After the first year he operated the mills alone, having purchased the interest of Mr. Brown.

About the year 1800 Jeremiah Colgrove built an oil-mill on the west side of the river. The process of manufacturing oil by him was quite simple. Flax seed was crushed between iron rollers and under mill stones; it was then mixed with water, heated and steamed in an iron barrel, then pressed with a screw-press of great power, operated by a horizontal wheel that would turn the screw up or down as might be desired. The arms of this press consisted of two oaken logs of the utmost solidity and strength that could be obtained. They squeezed out the oil in a pure state. It was sold in Troy, Albany and elsewhere. The oil cake being an excellent article of food for cattle and sheep, met with a quick sale in the vicinity of the mill. Flax being extensively raised in this section and made into domestic linen, the seed was plentifully obtained and the oil business paid well. The introduction of cotton cloth, and the rapidity with which it superceded home-made linen, blighted the culture of flax and the seed could not be obtained cheaply enough to render the business a lucrative one.

It gradually declined after the year 1828 and the oil of this mill ceased to lubricate the wheels of the machinery here about 1830. The mill was run by various parties, among them being E. D. Whitaker, who in 1827 advertised in the first newspaper printed in the village for "500 bushels flax seed." Portions of this mill were afterwards used in the construction of a grist and saw mill run by water and steam power, and which was burned in 1854.

Prior to 1785 there were only five dwellings in the village.
  • Giles Barnes resided in one standing on the west side of Marshall street near the corner of Main. The cellar afterwards formed a part of the ditch for the old Brick Factory. This is believed to have been the first house erected in North Adams. It was a low, one-story structure.
  • Josiah Wright resided in a house on Marshall street, just south of the Arnold Print Works property.
  • Eli Colton, from Wilbraham, built and resided in a house on the present site of the old part of the Berkshire house.
  • Samuel Day resided in a house near the corner of Main and State streets, which was afterwards part of the Old Black Tavern building, most likely the eastern part of that famous structure.
  • Wm. Farrand purchased and lived in a house on the site of the large square house on the hill at the foot of Main street and west of the Main street bridge.
The principal land holders in the village in the year 1795, were Jeremiah Colgrove Sr., Israel Jones, David Estes and David Darling. In the year 1794 when Mr. Colgrove moved here there were less than a dozen dwellings in the whole village. Their locations and the occupants names were as follows:
  • A small house occupied: by Mr. Rose, stood on the site of the dwelling on Robinson's hill at the foot of Main street,
  • Asa Doty resided in a house located under the hill, a little west and north of Main street bridge. The same was many years afterwards occupied by Hodge & Dean, tanners, in part for finishing off leather, etc.
  • Mr. Corliss lived in a house just in the rear of where now stands the Berkshire house.
  • Amos Bronson had a dwelling on ground where Freeman's store is located, north of Eagle bridge and corner of River and Eagle streets.
  • David Darling owned and resided in a low structure and kitchen attached to same, which afterwards formed the east wing of what is familiarly known as the "Black Tavern," on the corner of Main and State streets.
  • In 1795 Mr. Darling opened and kept a public house in this small structure, the first and for a long time the only hotel in North Adams, and to be particularly described hereafter.
  • Ebeneezer Slocum resided in a house on Church street.
  • Elisha Houghton had a dwelling about 25 rods north of the oue above mentioned, believed to be on the site of house at south corner of Liberty and Eagle streets.
  • David Estes owned and occupied the house now standing on Centre street, west of J. A. Bond & Bros.' stable. No street was then laid out and only a foot path or lane lead from his house to Eagle street.
  • Captain Geo. Ray lived in a dwelling near the river bank a little north of the site of Hodge's grist mill.
  • Josiah Holbrook lived in a log house near the residence of Ivory Witt on State street.
  • Jeremiah Colgrove Sr. resided in a small frame house near the corner of Marshall and Main streets until 1810.
Total number of dwellings in 1794, eleven.

Josiah Holbrook, mentioned above, was a man of giant stature, almost as large boned as the horse he bestrode. He had a voice like thunder, and was remarkably bold and determined in spirit. He was one of the American volunteers at the battle of Bennington in 1777, and tradition states that he made prisoners of thirteen of the Hessian soldiers who had wandered from the battle field. He caught them drinking at a spring, seized all their guns and pointing one at them while he shouldered the others, bawled in terrible tones to his imaginary comrads to "Come on, boys! here they are," drove the whole baker's dozen of mercenaries, like unresisting sheep, into the camp. On being questioned by General Stark as to the manner in which such a herd was captured, he replied "I surrounded them, sir."

Mr. Holbrook was one of the rebels under Shays in 1786, and marched eastward with several others. After the defeat of that movement and his return home, a party of four troopers tried in vain to arrest him, but he frightening them away. He was only captured by a company surrounding his house at night, breaking in the door, seizing him and binding him to the bed. He submitted because he could not help it, gave up all his arms, took the oath of alliegance to the commonwealth, and was released. His name with junior appended, his father being of the same name, appears in the town records as one of the rebels who was pardoned by General Lincoln when he marched into this county in 1787.

Mr. Holbrook resided in this house for many years, and though it is some 80 rods south of Main street, it was a standing joke among the villagers that Holbrook's whisper could be distinctly heard by everybody when he was out of doors, while his voice resounded to the top of Hoosac mountain. He had one of those heroic souls set in an iron constitution that were well fitted to grapple with the difficulties of a new settlement in a country like this.

The obstacles in the way of conducting business successfully, for want of a circulating medium, were such as to be beyond the comprehension of the present generation. There was a constant money pressure, equal to that of hydraulic power. There was neither money nor property enough in town to pay the taxes and leave a fair support behind. The rates were abated to a large extent every year. The old Continental money had depreciated so as to be almost worthless. At the close of the war it required $20 of this money to buy a dinner, and $1000 or more to buy a suit of clothes, while the condition of the poor discharged soldiers who were paid off in the miserable shinplasters at their normal value was pitiful indeed.

Oliver Parker, Sr., in 1777 "got his name up" for tavern keeping, on the Isreal Jones (now Harrison) place. Soldiers from the east and southeast passed through the town on their way to take Burgoyne in such numbers that Landlord Parker had almost a captain's company to dinner every day for a while, and they consumed four or five beeves per week. Every nook and cranny of the house was filled at night, the barrooms and other floors were piled thickly with weary soldiers, and even the barn and sheds were appropriated for their use.

Hardship and fatigue made sleep sweet on the roughest couch. A large share of these customers would leave no pay for their entertainment, but the Parkers were too staunch Whigs to act penuriously toward the defenders of American liberty. Hotel keeping under these circumstances could not have been a very lucrative business, and the Continental or "card money" that was paid in had a sort of imaginary fluctuating value that might make a man the poorer the more he possessed of it.

While Oliver Parker sustained the bodies of the soldiers with good fare, whether he made or lost by it, his brothers, Didimus and Ezra, with his nephew Giles, marched to Bennington and shared in the glory of winning that memorable victory. Didimus Parker was a Captain at Bennington.

At a town meeting held January 17, 1786, it was "voted that it be recommended to the General Court to pass a law making both real and personal estate a tender. "Voted "that it also be recommended to the General Court to strike a paper currency in this state."

The heavy burden of debt in which most of the towns were involved by their aid to the Revolution, the suspension of industrial enterprises and loss of profit therefrom by drawing off so many of the best men for the army, and especially the lack of a uniform circulating medium in which payments of all kinds could be made, maddened men into violent and lawless demonstrations.

Shay's rebellion was mainly kindled by the oppressive load of taxation and the impossibilities of casting of the load through the courts or Legislature. The state tax imposed on this town was felt to be peculiarly onerous. In one instance it was not paid under four years. At a town meeting held January 9, 1792, Israel Jones was chosen an "agent to go to the General Court and obtain an abatement of the tax laid on the inhabitants of the town in 1788."

Oliver Parker, Sr., was ruined pecuniarily, sent to jail and his bondsmen mulcted, because he could not perform impossibilities—collect the taxes in such hard times. Town meetings without number were held on the great question of "how to raise the wind." Farmers' produce was accepted for taxes at a stipulated price, the town debts were paid in the same way in 1781, and all the highway taxes were worked out by men and oxen for many years. But even with a general system it was "hard sledding." A great many honest, industrious, frugal men were unable to feed their households and satisfy the tax gatherer from the produce of their stony, stumpy and rudely tilled acres.

At a town meeting held August 26, 1786, it was voted "that the present assessors of this town be a committee to settle with the collectors and make abatements of such taxes as they shall suppose necessary." October 30, 1786, the selectmen were appointed a committee for the same purpose; but at the same meeting it was voted "that the collector collect the town taxes and pay them to the town treasurer immediately, and the town will support him in so doing."

The pressure of poverty was so severe that the town's poor were increasing with undue rapidity, and March 11, 1791, Ezra Parker was instructed by the selectmen "to warn and give notice unto twenty-eight persons," whose names were set down in the warrant, "the same being laborers or transient persons, as the case may be, who have lately come to this town for the purpose of abiding therein, not having obtained the town's consent thereto, that he or she depart the limits thereof, with their children and others under their care, if such they have, within fifteen days." The constable makes returns that the warning was given by him in due form to the twenty-eight persons named, and such further legal proceedings were threatened as will save the town from becoming a paupers* nest. The crime of being poor and shiftless was more severely punished in those days than now. No man was allowed to vote unless he owned a freehold estate of the annual income of £3, or some estate to the value of £60.

The river and brooks were nobly stocked with trout at the first settlement here, and before the mills and factories had bewitched the water. The woods afforded considerable game—deer, squirrels, wild fowl, etc. Deer have been shot within the village limits. Bears ranged the mountains, foxes were more numerous than poultry yards, and wolves were so troublesome that the town offered a bounty for their heads. Among the early residents there was so much destitution, and yet such a neighborly spirit, that Giles Barnes, who seems to have been a decided wag, said a family would make soup of beef bones one day, pass them to another family next day to be made a second soup of, and so they would go around until the whole settlement had participated.

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