Colrain: A History

COLRAIN
A History

By Belden Merims

     In 1732 Andrew and John Smith moved from the established valley settlement of Deerfield to a mountainous frontier wilderness to the north. After two years they were driven out by Indians, it is said, but in 1735 a large tract there named Boston Township No 2 was granted to the town of Boston for settlement. And settled it was, by a hardy band of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians seeking freedom to worship as they wished. They had not found that freedom in eastern Massachusetts, where they had come as early as 1720 from northern Ireland, which they had not found hospitable. However, in 1743 they renamed their town Coleraine after Coleraine, Ireland, which, legend has it, was named by St. Patrick himself. In June, 1761, the town was officially incorporated.

     Settlers each bought 50-acre plots of land, on which they were required to build a home at least 18 feet square and seven feet high, and to clear and fence at least five acres on the home lot. They must also build a church, which they did near the top of what is known as Colrain mountain in the eastern part of town; it would have been small, unheated and fairly primitive. Graves of many of these early settlers can still be found in the cemetery which was established adjacent to the original church.

     During the years of the French and Indian Wars life here on the frontier was perilous, and a settler risked his life to work his fields, where a number were killed or taken captive. It was necessary to build a line of three forts, Forts Morris, Lucas and Morrison, which were not much more than fortified farm houses, sometimes garrisoned with volunteers, to which settlers might run when there was a threat of attack. And some of the men were called away to fight the French and Indians in Vermont and Canada, leaving their families to fend for themselves. With the end of these wars in 1763. the settlers could attend more easily to clearing and planting land, a struggle in itself in these rocky hills.

The Colrain Resolves
     Unlike the settlers in the valley, who were almost all of English extraction, Colrain’s Scotch-Irish settlers had no love for the English. Resentments festered, and in January, 1774, at Wood’s Tavern the prominent men of the town gathered and drew up what became known as the Colrain Resolves. Predating the Declaration of Independence by 18 months, the six resolves declare the rights of the individual, objection to taxation without representation, legal authority for independence, the right of the group to self-government, the necessity for action, a listing of specific grievances, the necessity for independence rather than mere reform, and the struggle for independence transcending the individual.

     When war came, Colrain was ardently patriotic. In 1775, when the alarm rang at Lexington, Colrain Minutemen marched to Boston. Later they served at Ticonderoga and at the Battle of Bennington. Second in command of a company of Colrain men who were assigned to the defense of West Point was John Bolton, who rose to command later. When the Continental Congress failed to pay his men, he mortgaged his property to maintain them. At the end of the war he found himself homeless and spent his last days with his children in New York, dying there in 1807. Ten percent of Colrain’s population, 198 men, served during the Revolution.

Shays’ Rebellion, 1786-1787
     The end of the war did not end the hardship in this frontier area. Soldiers returned to farms largely neglected and now burdened with debt. Petitions to the courts for tax redress were ignored, and the state militia was summoned to resist their demonstrations Many organized under the leadership of Daniel Shays and marched on the arsenal in Springfield. Among the leaders were two men from Colrain, and behind them the largest contingent from any town. The rebellion was put down, but it had the effect on the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia of strengthening the power of the central government in the new Constitution.

Raising the flag
     Again, war with England threatened in 1812. Of the two major parties, Republican Democrats supported “Mr. Jefferson’s War,” and the Federalists opposed it. On Catamount, the steep, rocky southwest corner of Colrain only recently settled, the populace, some 50 families, was largely Republican. Before he marched off to war, Amassa Shippee sought to inspire others by raising a flag on the tiny schoolhouse there. Few had seen the American flag, which had only flown in battle, but Shippee described its design to his wife Rhoda and other women , who wove and dyed and sewed the fabric. Shippee cut two pine trees for a mast. This was the first American flag flown over a schoolhouse, or any public building. In years to come Colrain would celebrate this event in re-enactments, poetry, art and parades.

Colrain thrives
     Once again at peace, Colrain set about growing and prospering. The very terrain that made farming such a struggle offered streams aplenty to power the mills that cropped up all over town. Even as farmers, or their sons, began to leave the rocky soil for more promising land in New York, Ohio and Kansas, small manufacturing and milling sprung up along these streams. First came sawmills and grist mills, then fulling mills and potash works. The first cotton spinning mill in Franklin County was built at Shattuckville, one of Colrain’s many villages, in 1814. By 1860 it was running 100 looms. Industries elsewhere in town included sash and blind works, a wool carding mill fed by the countless sheep which covered the cleared hills, tanneries, plowworks, manufacture of ox bows and yokes, and foundries.

     In 1810 the population of Colrain peaked at 2,016. The first settlement, with its church and school, had been in the southeast, atop Colrain Mountain. Now the center shifted north and down the mountain to where it is now. And there trade was thriving. Clark Chandler moved his store down to what became known as Colrain City. The brick store (now an apartment house) which still stands on the Common was built in 1819. There was a potash works, a hattery, a tin shop, a cooper’s shop and later makers of wagons, carriages and sleighs.

     In 1830 in what is now Griswoldville the remarkable Joseph Griswold began the manufacture of doors, sashes and blinds, using the available water power. Soon after, he built a cotton mill, and then another much larger, and then expanded into The Griswold Mannufacturing Co., which in 1846 established a New York office. During the Civil War, when cotton was hard to get, Griswold sent one of his sons south following Grant’s army to Memphis to purchase cotton. Short of labor, he sent a man to Canada to recruit French Canadian workers, then built them homes and a Catholic church. For the rest of his life he was the most prominent man in town, the largest employer, and donor of the elegant, neo-classical stone library which still serves the town.

     In 1932, the Griswold Mfg. Co. became Kendall Mills, which at one point employed some 500 men and women, most of them Colrain residents. In 1986, Kendall sold most of their businesses here, which were sold, in turn, successively until today Barnhardt Manufacturing bleaches cotton, employing about 50. It is the only manufacturer in Colrain.

Civil War
     The census of 1790 shows slaves in five Colrain homes. Later a few freedmen were known to live here. Like most of 19th Century New England, Colrain tended to be Abolitionist and Free Soil, and the voters supported Lincoln overwhelmingly. When war came, 176 Colrain men went off, many of them to serve in Louisiana, were some died of typhoid. This from a population of 1,800. Seventeen Colrain men died in the war (as compared with three during World War II). The last Colrain veteran of the war died in 1936.

     In the years following the war Greenfield became a railroad center, and the fortunes of Colrain began slowly to decline, hastened in 1869 by a disastrous flood, which washed away much of the industry concentrated along its streams, as well as many of the roads and bridges in the town. Some industries never recovered, and farmers struggled when their best bottom land was covered in sand and debris. The town was forced to raise taxes to repair the roads and bridges.

     But in 1896 a new trolley line, the Shelburne Falls and Colrain Electric Road, began to carry freight and passengers between Colrain and Shelburne Falls, where either could transfer to the railroad to be transported anywhere in the U.S. Cotton, along with coal, rode the trolley line to Griswoldville to be transformed into product and shipped back. A round trip passenger ticket cost 20 cents, and excursions both ways became a popular recreation. A family in Shelburne Falls might take the trolley to Colrain City on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, stroll about, eat dinner at the Colrain Inn and perhaps take in a band concert by the band shell on the Common.

     The railway line built a recreational area between the towns on company land, Hillside Park, to encourage residents to ride the line. It became a popular spot for the town baseball team to take on other town teams, for family picnics and reunions. But the coming of the automobile and trucking spelled the end of the trolley line in just 30 years. The spot is now the site of the town transfer station.

     From the early days of the town its inns and taverns were centers of social activity: Pennell’s Tavern near the site of the first church, Lyon's Tavern in what is now Lyonsville, Stark’s Hotel on the Vermont line, among others. Best remembered, however, was the Colrain Inn, which began in 1804-5 as Colrain House in the new center of town. In the post-Civil War period, now the Colrain Inn operated by General Orin Gaines and his wife “Aunt Sally”, it was a popular destination, known for its good food, When it burned in 1891, it is said the General never recovered from the shock. A second inn was built on the spot and was destroyed by fire in 1896. Rebuilt again in 1896 with three stories, it prospered until 1936, when fire took the third floor. It reopened with two stories, but never again achieved its former elegance. A final fire destroyed the inn in the 1990s, and patrons of the Green Emporium park on the grassy lot where this iconic Colrain building once stood.

A Farming Town
     In the beginning, survival farming was the only occupation in Colrain. Of necessity it was varied. The terrain lent itself to sheep for wool and some cattle for milk and meat; the valley land proved useful for grains, hay, potatoes, a little tobacco. Farmers augmented their income by sugaring (gathering sap to make maple syrup), keeping bees, growing apple trees. By the 20th Century most farms were dairy farms, and while they have dwindled here as elsewhere in New England, in 2010 Colrain had more than any other town in the state, eight.

     Every farm had its orchard, and apples run through the town’s history to this day. In fact, before World War I, Colrain was the number one apple producer in the state, the apple capitol. Cider was the beverage of choice in early New England, sweet or fermented, and Colrain had numerous cider mills. The most successful of these was the Cary Cider Mill in Foundry Village. In 1879 Cary produced 1,000 barrels of cider, marketing the beverage and vinegar from Springfield to Boston to New York. The mill employed local men through the 1950s. Today cider is pressed at the town’s largest commercial orchard, Pine Hill Orchard, and the production of fine hard cider was pioneered by the West County Winery, which continues to sell its fine wines here and in Boston and New York.

Covered Bridges
     Near the old Cary cider mill is a perfect replica of the last of Colrain’s covered bridges. In fact, it may have been apple trucks crossing the original bridge that weakened it sufficiently to close it in the 1970s. Given its watery terrain, it is not surprising that Colrain once had 11 covered bridges. Floods weakened or swept away most of them. When the existing uncovered bridge in Lyonsville caved in under a herd of cows in 1895, it was replaced by the unused Fox bridge in Shattuckville, disassembled and rebuilt in Lyonsville. That covered bridge survived three floods before being weakened and closed.

     Colrain loved the last of its covered bridges. In 1979 it was pulled off its abutments by a team of oxen and left in the field to await restoration. After some years, the state took over, replicated the original using most of its old timbers and its trusses, and what one sees now looks exactly like the old Arthur A. Smith Bridge, closed to vehicles.

Artisans and Crafters
     In the beginning, isolated on the frontier, every man and woman had to be artisan and crafter. Women carded, spun and wove wool to sew into garments and coverlets. The men cut and hewed logs, built simple homes and furniture. With time, some specialized. And there were blacksmiths, hatters, cabinetmakers, tanners and leather workers, tinsmiths and tool makers, builders. Finest of Colrain’s cabinetmakers and builders was Jessie Lyons, some of whose pieces, and those of his son David, are still to be found in local homes. But finest of all, perhaps, is the carved pulpit from which the Rev. Samuel Taggert gave a eulogy shortly after the death of George Washington. Believed to be about 240 years old, it remains in the Brick Meeting House.

     In recent years Colrain has seen a revival of the arts and crafts, visible each November in the Crafts of Colrain tour of artisans’ studios: woodworkers, cabinetmakers, dyers and weavers, candlemakers, a calligrapher, photographers, a potter and a quilter and artists open their studios to show and sell their work.

Catamount
     In the summer of 1875 many families who had left the rocky hills of Catamont for more arable land in New York and west returned to renew old friendships and to visit familiar scenes. They were welcomed by the remaining residents of the hill, who had prepared a picnic ground for the occasion near the “Dens.” So rewarding was the event that the Catamount Hill Association was founded to hold reunions every five years, beginning in 1880. The two-day events, with picnics, hikes, and the reading of prepared papers attracted participants from great distances, some camping, others staying with old friends and relatives. In 1912 the Association held a centennial flag-raising at Hillside park. Though Catamount is empty of residents now, the reunions of its descendants continue to this day. 2012 will mark the bi-centennial of the flag-raising, which will be celebrated by meetings and a hike of the plateau led by Colrain historian Muriel Russell.

     For more information on Catamount, and on Colrain’s history, see A History of Colrain Massachusetts by Lois McClellan Patrie, available at the Griswold Memorial Library in Colrain.