Northampton, Massachusetts


The Northampton of today; where artists and writers, merchants and farmers, scholars and professionals live in unique cooperation began as a Puritan settlement purchased from the Nonotuck Indians in 1654. For the price of 100 fathom of wampum, ten coats and a few trinkets, the Puritans acquired the area of rich farm land.

Northampton in its early days was a strict New England community. By 1656, witch hysteria had reached this western outpost. One woman, Mary Parsons, was tried twice but acquitted both times. Famed minister Jonathan Edwards, whose stern writings inspired a religious fervor called the "Great Awakening", lived in Northampton for 23 years. In the early 1700s he preached fire and brimstone from his pulpit at the Congregational Church. Ultimately, however, his parishioners became fed up with his scare tactics, harsh judgement of alleged sinners and personal extravagance. They dismissed him.

By 1789, Northampton farmers were struggling in the economic depression that followed the Revolutionary War. Merchants in Eastern Massachusetts, anxious to retire the war debt, pushed land-based taxes through the legislature. Since merchants held little land compared to farmers, these taxes had a much more severe impact on Western Massachusetts. Farmers here relied on barter and were land-rich but cash-poor. Few could pay these new taxes. In such cases, the Articles of Confederation that preceded the U.S. Constitution allowed states to confiscate indebted farms. In protest, on August 29, 1789, Daniel Shays, a land holder from the nearby town of Pelham, mustered 500 of his fellow farmers and marched on the Hampshire County Courthouse. They successfully prevented the Court of Common Pleas from convening to seize property. Shays Rebellion was a well-timed political event. It occurred while Americans were electing delegates to the Constitutional Convention and is considered to have influenced significantly the outcome of the new Constitution.

Prior to 1808, poor transportation limited commerce in Northampton. Travelers could only cross the Connecticut River by ferry. From 1808 on, however, transportation improve-ments brought a boom to the city. Four bridges were built, each replacing the other as wind and flood destroyed them. A canal connecting Northampton to New Haven and the sea was completed in 1835 but came to a quick demise with the arrival of the railroad in 1845. Today a plaque in front of St. Mary's Church on the corner of Main and State Streets marks the canal's end.

With better transportation, the city was finally able to take advantage of its strategic location between Boston, New York and Albany. In the early 1800's, an industrial center sprang up along the Mill River in the Leeds section and brought the nation its first broadcloth and the first vegetable ivory buttons, as well as sewing machines, stoves, hosiery and caskets. Farmers planted mulberry trees to raise silk worms for the town's growing silk industry. Polish, Irish and French Canadian immigrants joined the burgeoning work force.

At the same time, Northampton became an educational center. Girls could choose from Anna Laura Clarke's preparatory school or The Gothic Seminary, which became known as the best private school for girls in Western Massachusetts. The Round Hill School for boys opened in 1823 and brought new European teaching methods to the area. Alexander Graham Bell helped to finance the Clarke School for the Deaf, still regarded as one of the nation's finest centers for oral education of deaf students.

Philanthropy thrived in Northampton in the 1800's. Oliver Smith, a land speculator, funded the Smith Vocational School and established a charity in 1845 that survives today. It provides money for education and domestic pursuits for residents of eight local towns. His niece, Sophia Smith, donated a large portion of her fortune to found Smith College in 1871. The Forbes Library, which opened in 1886, was the gift of Massachusetts Judge Charles Edward Forbes. Northampton's general hospital was funded by a Hatfield farmer named Caleb Cooley Dickinson. And in 1891, Edward Lyman built the Academy of Music, the nation's first municipal theater.

Throughout the years, Northampton has welcomed distinguished visitors. Daniel Webster successfully defended Oliver Smith's will in Northampton in 1847. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Sojourner Truth addressed the Free Congregational Society here in the 1860s. The Society, organized in 1863, inspired revolutionary reforms in racial equality, freedom and education for all, women's rights, child labor reform and temperance. Famed soprano Jenny Lind gave a concert here in 1851 and proclaimed the city "The Paradise of America". She liked it so well that she honeymooned in Northampton in 1852. Later, the Academy of Music hosted such theater greats as Ethel and Lionel Barrymore, Sarah Bernhardt and Rudolph Valentino. The Academy remains a town treasure and an ideal environment for watching movies of epic scale.

Many creative people have called Northampton their home. Sylvester Graham, an eccentric Utopian and inventor of the Graham cracker, owned the brick house on Pleasant Street that is now home to Sylvester's Bakery and Restaurant. President Calvin Coolidge practiced law in the Main Street building that houses Fitzwilly's restaurant. He served as Northampton's mayor for two years in 1910-11 and swiftly rose to State Senator, Governor and Vice President of the United States before becoming President in 1923. Poet Sylvia Plath graduated Summa Cum Laude from Smith College in 1955. In recent years, Poet Laureate Richard Wilbur taught at the College and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder honored Northampton's older citizens in his book Old Friends. And, of course, comic book and film stars the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were born here, creations of local cartoonists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. Local art galleries display the work of Leonard Baskin, Jane Dyer and Barry Moser. It is not uncommon to discover that a Northampton social worker or shop owner moonlights as a musician. Creativity is a way of life here, and we almost take it for granted in our residents.

Although creative people have long lived in this area, drawn by the colleges and the rolling beauty of the Pioneer Valley, Northampton became a thriving cultural center in the 1980s. Young entrepreneurs saw the city's unspoiled historic downtown, vacant commercial space and unusual mix of residents and students as opportunities for economic growth. Thornes Market, a bustling bazaar, opened in 1979. Many art galleries, boutiques, music clubs and restaurants sprang up, bringing Northampton a reputation as the place in Western Massachusetts for dining and entertainment. The town's old nickname of "Hamp" gradually gave way to "Noho", which reflects the more recent bohemian atmosphere.

Yet for all its change there is still a balance in Northampton between old and new, between nature and humanity, between the simple and the exotic. Ask people why they moved here and many will tell you that this balance attracted them. Northampton is one of the only spots in New England offering the rich diversity of an urban center with a rural beauty that restores the soul.

Sources: Northampton Historical Society. Van Vorhis, Jacqueline, The Look of Paradise: A pictorial history of Northampton, Massachusetts, Phoenix Publishing, 1984.

From: Living in Northampton and Amherst; A Complete Guide. A Publication of Ruby Press.