Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Doctor in the House - Thursday, April 13, 2023

Photos of Dr. John Olson and his “tonsil chair.”

“Doc” John Olson, also known as “Olie,” Colrain’s last resident physician, will be the subject of a program at a meeting of the Colrain Historical Society on Thursday, April 13, at the home of his daughter, Joan McQuade, 7 Main Road, Colrain. Born in 1900, Doc practiced in that house from 1937 to 1979. Known to tear along back roads in his green Jeep when necessary to deliver a midnight baby, he was also inventive.

The tonsil chair above was his creation, fashioned from an ordinary kitchen chair, making it possible to remove tonsils, usually from a child, while the patient was seated upright, rather than supine. After the brief procedure in his examining room, he would carry the still-etherized patient up steep back stairs to the “tonsil room,” where, on recovering, they would be treated to ice cream by his wife, Caroline Olson. 

The program at 7:30 p.m. will follow the monthly CHS meeting at 7 p.m. 

A potluck supper will precede the meeting at 6 p.m. For the potluck, bring a main course, veggie or dessert to share, along with your place setting. Beverage will be provided. 

All parts of the evening are free and open to the public.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

A History of Colrain’s Incorporation as a Township: 1735 - 1761

Belden Merims, Chairperson of the Colrain Historical Society Board of Directors, wrote that this document was prepared for Colrain’s 250th Anniversary in 2011. Special thanks to Muriel Russell and Liz Sonnenberg, who researched the documents and the background material. 

Official Town of Colrain Seal

 In 1735 Boston had petitioned the General Court of Massachusetts to grant them new townships. In answer to this petition, the House of Representatives enacted the following, which not only resulted in the settlement of Colrain, which was Boston Township No. 2, but also Charlemont, which was No. 1, and Pittsfield, which was No. 3. 

“Voted, that there be and hereby is granted to the town of Boston, three tracts of land, each of the contents of six miles square and to be laid out in such suitable place or places in the unappropriated land of the Province for townships, by surveyor and chainman on oath, and to return plans thereof to this court for confirmation within twelve months.

Provided, the town of Boston do within five years from the confirmation of the said plans, settle on each of the said towns, sixty families of his Majesty’s good subjects, inhabitants of this province, in as regular and defensible a manner as the lands will admit of; each of said sixty families to build and finish a dwelling house on his home lot of the following dimensions, viz. eighteen feet square and seven feet stud at the least, that each of the said settlers within said town bring to and fit for improvement five acres of said home lot either by plowing, or for mowing by stocking the same well with English grass, and fence the same well in and actually live on the spot. 

And also that they build and finish a suitable and convenient house for the public worship of God, and settle a learned Orthodox minister in each of the said towns, and provide for their honorable and comfortable support, and also lay out three house lots in each of the said towns, each of which to draw a sixty-third of said town in all future divisions, one to be for the first settled minister, one for the ministry and one for the school…” 

Colrain was a frontier wilderness then. Other Connecticut River Valley towns in Franklin (then Hampshire) County had been settled in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s, but only some of the hill towns were just becoming populated in the 1730’s, and Colrain was among the first. 

This put Colrain very near the border between the British and French colonies. Britain and France fought a series of four wars between 1689 and 1763, with North America being a minor theater of operations until the outbreak of the French and Indian War in 1754. Such a frontier position made Colrain as much a military outpost as an agricultural settlement. In fact, settlement was not just a matter of clearing trees, building homes, planting crops, recruiting a minister and building a school. The inhabitants of Colrain had to defend their land with their own hands – and in so doing, defend the very Province of Massachusetts itself.

Two brothers, Andrew and John Smith, had already tried to settle in Colrain in 1732. They stayed two years, but had to abandon their home in 1734 due to Indian attacks. In 1736 they returned to settle permanently. 

Most of Colrain’s early settlers were Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. In fulfillment of the requirements of the grant, the town began building its first meeting house in 1738 – located adjacent to the present Chandler Hill Cemetery. Soon the settlers began building their first forts: Fort Morris, also known as South Fort, and Fort Lucas, also known as John Clark’s Fort. Fort Morris was located in the settlement’s center, near the current Shelburne town line. Fort Lucas was located off Fort Lucas Road. 

Two more forts would be built later: Fort Morrison, located on Avery’s farm on Rt. 112, and Fort McDowell, located on the ridge behind the church site. In most cases they were nothing more than a log blockhouse or a home enclosed by a palisade. Most were manned by locals, but some at times were guarded by soldiers. Families would cluster inside them during attacks. 

Even with these defenses, the town suffered losses. In one attack in 1746, Matthew Clark was killed and his wife and daughter severely wounded as they attempted to reach Fort Lucas from their home. In 1748, John Mills was shot while passing fom his house to South Fort. Around this same time, a woman by the name of Pennell was taken captive by the Indians. 

1754 Petition #1 from Memorialist Committee 

“To his Excellency William Shirley, Esq., Capt. General and Governor-in-Chief in and over his Majesty’s Province of the Massachusetts Bay. To the Honorable his Majesty’s Council and the Honorable House of Representatives in General Court assembled, October 1754. The memorial of the inhabitants of a place called Colrain, in the county of Hampshire, humbly showeth. That your memorialists since the enemy began to do mischief around us we have been thrown into the utmost confusion and distress, not having garrisons enough to contain above half the people in town, we were obliged to throw by our husbandry affairs and fortify ourselves and have made an addition of 50 feet square to the South Fort; so that we have been entirely disappointed of sowing wheat this year, and we being all penned up in fort have lost the most of our crops this year; so that our difficulty is so great we are afraid we cannot neither support ourselves nor the Gospel for this frontier settlement, and our young men all as one and many more of the inhabitants must be obliged to draw off unless supported. Wherefore your memorialists humbly request your Excellency and Honors to consider our distressed condition that we may be supported by putting us under the pay of the government. We are 38 families in number in this town and as in duty bound will ever pray. Thomas McGee, George Clark, James Stewart, Committee.” 

This petition seems to have provoked no response from the authorities. So in the spring of the following year, 1755, the town sent a second – and wordier – petition to the government. 

“To his Excellency William Shirley, Esq., Capt. General and Honorable Council and House of Representatives assembled at Boston, March 25th, 1755. The petition of your memorialist committee for the town of Colrain so-called, in the name and behalf of the inhabitants of said place, are for the most part those who underwent the distress of the last desolating war and have hereby been very much reduced so that we cannot but just live to support our families. Nevertheless, by the blessing of God, we hoped to have been able in a little time to support ourselves, families, and the Gospel ministry settled amongst us, if we had been favored with peace in our borders. But our hopes are now very much dashed, the sudden alarm of our Indian enemy last summer has considerably injured us, for hereby we lost most of our crops and were very much hindered, -- the most of us (and some of us totally frustrated) in preparing our land for wheat by reason of fortifying and putting ourselves into the best posture we are able for safety and defense. 

In consequence of these things and the rational fears we are possessed with of being obliged this ensuing spring and summer not only to eat our bread at the peril of our lives because of the sword of the wilderness, but also (if God prevent not) totally routed and broken up so as to leave this place in a great measure depopulated, if we may do this instead of being killed or “captivated” or both. Then our minister must leave us in order to find bread somewhere else. Then the Church of Christ planted in this howling wilderness where Satan’s seat was, must be as it were unchurched, as in the melancholy case of Falltown [Bernardston]…. These consequences… will inevitably follow if we are not supported by the Government ….Our humble petition and request is that your Excellency and Honors would please to condescend to …afford us freely relief and support as is possible, by granting us some larger protection, our present being very scant, by a supply of more soldiers in order better to man out our forts; and if the inhabitants may carry on any secular business, to strengthen our guards and also put the inhabitants under Province pay (at least part of them) that they may hereby be able in some poor measure to support their families which otherwise must and will suffer….  

But if your Excellency and Honors are not pleased to grant us these requests, be pleased as expeditiously as possible to inform us of it, that we may endeavor to fortify ourselves as well as we can by drawing off or otherwise as wisdom and prudence may direct…. “ 

This time the threat of abandoning the town, which would’ve created a gap in the Province’s frontier defenses and made the interior vulnerable to attack, seems to have had an impact on the authorities. The second petition resulted in the placement of more Colrain inhabitants under Province pay and the provision of additional soldiers. 

However, distant campaigns in 1755-57 drew local and outside soldiers away from Colrain at times, leaving townspeople exposed again. 

Such circumstances caused Rev. Alexander McDowell to take matters into his own hands by building the town’s fourth fort. And when he petitioned the government for assistance, he threatened not only to abandon the town, but to take his congregation with him, leaving the frontier not only a defenseless, but Godless place as well. This petition was referred by the governor to Capt. Israel Williams with a request that protection be afforded to Rev. McDowell. 

In 1758, fifty Indians appeared near Fort Morrison. John Henry and John Morrison were shot at and one wounded as they rode to warn the other forts. The two men captured an unbroken colt in the fields and rode to safety on its back. The Indians burned some of Morrison’s buildings and killed some of his stock. 

In 1759, Indians attacked Fort Morrison again. Only three men were inside and one – Maj. Willard – was soon wounded and disabled. But the women melted teapots to make bullets and the two remaining men – Deacon John Hulbert and Joseph McCowen – fired so fast that the Indians were led to believe there were many more inside. Daybreak came before the Indians could push a burning cart against the wall in an attempt to take down the fort. Though the Indians retreated, Maj. Willard had had the children inside the fort dressed warmly, fearing that they may be captured and marched to Canada. 

Then a final, tragic event. In a 1759 petition written by Joseph McCowen he describes losing his wife, his child, his health, and his income.

“Whereas your petitioner being in the service of the Province on the 20th of March last, was together with his wife and young child captivated by the enemy Indian near Capt. Morrison’s garrison. His wife not being able to travel far was killed; he with his child went into Canada where the child remains still, but your petitioner was the last fall redeemed by an exchange of prisoners and is returned home, but in a poor state of health. Your petitioner therefore humbly prays that whereas he has endured great hardships while in the hands of the Indians, and sustained much damage in his temporal interest, that your Excellency and Honors would commiserate his circumstances and grant that his wages may be continued whilst your petitioner was in captivity, or any other way as in your wisdom you shall think best; and your petitioner shall in duty bound ever pray. Joseph McCowen. Colrain, Dec. 26th, 1759.” 

In response, the government voted to allow McCowen four pounds out of the public treasury “in full consideration of his services and sufferings.” 

Finally came the fall of Quebec in 1759, and the fall of Montreal in 1760. The end of the conflict on this continent brought an end to the worst of the “Indian disturbances” in Massachusetts. The settlement of Colrain, having endured so long under the “sword of the wilderness” was anxious to pursue life as a genuine town. In 1761 they petitioned for incorporation – and got it.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Willis Block at the Lyonsville Mill

A very long 5-story brick building partially obscured by trees in the foreground. Several chimneys protrude from the roof, two with smoke. A tree covered hillside is in the background.
Willis Block brick tenement in Lyonsville

If you were living in Colrain in the early 1950s, you remember this massive brick tenement on Route 112 in Lyonsville about where Matt Slowinski’s pallet shop is now.

Known as the Willis Block when it was built after the Civil War by Joseph Griswold, it was one of the largest tenements in Franklin County. The five-story center portion, known as the Boarding House, held 111 single rooms. In the two wings there were 21 apartments, each with six rooms on three floors, plus an attic and cellar. Some of these were later subdivided. 

Rents in 1877, probably for the single rooms, were 65 cents per week. Some of the workers then made only $2 per week at the Upper Mill next door. Families began to move out in the 1940s, and the building was razed in 1955. 
Moses Supprise was born there in 1893 and lived there all his life until 1954. He is buried in Colrain’s West Branch Cemetery.