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West Stockbridge History

Learn more about the Campaign to Restore the Old Town Hall in West Stockbridge

Old Town Hall West Stockbridge MA
Berkshire Eagle Article

 

West Stockbridge has a rich history, encompassing the waxing and waning fortunes of its five villages.

Originally known as Queensborough (or Quapaukuk, as the native Americans called it), the town was formed from the western portion of Indiantown (later Stockbridge), a sizable territory sold to European settlers by Mahican tribal chief Konkapot in 1724, as well as a long corridor along the New York state line known as the "Gore." The territory running from the State Line area of West Stockbridge south through West Center and Alford was in dispute and town historian Robert Salerno cites historical accounts reporting that shooting broke out after the American Revolution before New York and Massachusetts finally apportioned the area.

The first known settler in Queensborough was John George Easland, a soldier stationed at the fort on the Abbey Farm on North Plain Road in Great Barrington; historical accounts report his arrival in the West Center portion of the "Gore" in 1758.

Other early homesteaders were Col. Elijah Williams of Stockbridge and Joseph Bryant of Canaan, Conn., who arrived in 1766, followed by 40 other families by the time the town was incorporated in 1774.

Early settlers from West Stockbridge fought in Canada during the French and Indian Wars. One of them, Nathaniel Wilson, escaped capture by the Indians only by hiding in a hollow log, so the story goes. The Indian scouts trailing him decided the log was empty when they saw a spider web covering the mouth of the log, and he escaped, returning home to West Stockbridge, where he raised 21 children. David Bradley, who served in the Revolutionary Army for 17 years, returned home to a family that eventually included 10 children.

George W. Kniffen, a native of Rye, N.Y., moved to Richmond in the 1830s, where he was elected twice to the state Legislature; after relocating to West Stockbridge, he represented the town in Boston beginning in 1857. He also was a major developer of the downtown commercial area, where a block of Main Street was named after him.

West Center first developed as a farming community; the original Congregational Church was established there in 1786 and survived until destroyed by fire after lightning hit the steeple in 1956. Its outdoor chapel survives as a popular seasonal site for weddings as well as for summer and fall foliage services on the last Sunday of the month, and Easter sunrise services. There was also a tavern where members of Shay's Rebellion gathered and organized the tax revolt that followed the Revolutionary War. There are at least 14 historic houses still standing in the area several miles south of Route 102, as well as the West Center Brick Schoolhouse, and the settlement seems well-qualified for certification on the National Registry of Historic Places.

After incorporation at the behest of West Center residents who petitioned the Legislature, Queensborough was renamed West Stockbridge. The town's commercial center gained momentum after the rail line connecting Boston and Albany (followed by a southern spur to Housatonic and Great Barrington) was completed in 1838.

Col. Williams had arrived in 1766 and established an iron works mill on land just west of the Shaker Mill, after he dammed Shaker Mill Pond fed by the Williams River. This was the beginning of the town's long history as an industrial center for the production of quality marble and iron ore, which was exported via the new rail line. Much of the marble was used to build the Statehouse in Boston and the old City Hall in lower Manhattan.

Other thriving industries in the 19th century included a paper mill, a machine-shop grist mill, lime kilmns and an iron furnace. According to historian Salerno, the town's industrial activity peaked with over 30 quarries at one time in the various communities.

The old Town Hall is in the process of gaining National Registry status, following the Grange Hall and the First Congregational Church on Main Street, which was erected later than its predecessor in West Center.

The village of Freedleyville was home to a marble quarry and to the Crocker Marble Saw Mill, industries built around 1802 in the area near the present-day West Stockbridge Sportsmen's Club off Route 41, along Alford Road in the vicinity of the Williams River, whose hydraulic power sparked development. By 1830, nine quarries in that area were exporting marble.

Several private houses from the era survive, along with the Freedleyville School, which later became the Rutherford House.

Rockdale, a once-sizable settlement along Route 41 south of Freedleyville where the road crosses a bridge over the Williams River at Glendale Road, now has just three historic sites built around 1800, including the Platt & Barnes Rockdale Grist Mill. The last remnant of the village's industrial activity was a buckwheat mill that closed in the 1920s.

Williamsville, also along Route 41 just north of the Great Barrington town line, remains a self-contained historic area that originally developed around a small iron works, Independence Forge, also created by Elijah Williams in 1783. Still visible at the foot of Water Street is a furnace stack. Along with the Williamsville School, the Williamsville Inn (still operating as a hostelry and restaurant) and the site of Comstock Mill, at least 16 private residences are believed to qualify for official historic-district status.

State Line was a hamlet along Route 102 adjoining Canaan, N.Y., and had its own school and a post office (converted into a private home in the 1970s). West Stockbridgians fondly remember the State Line Cafe, whose bar actually crossed the two-state border.

Patrons 18 to 21 (the Massachusetts minimum age) congregated for alcoholic beverages at the bar, most of which was safely in New York state. The business closed about 35 years ago.

In the center of West Stockbridge and the immediate outskirts, historic buildings abound. Among them is a bright yellow house off Main Street (Route 102) which originally housed the Spencer family, among the first leaders of the Mormon Church.

A larger, three-story yellow house in the same vicinity was built by the Rev. William Du Bois (no relation to W.E.B. Du Bois of Great Barrington), who not only served the parishioners of the downtown First Congregational Church but was also the district representative for several terms in the 1920s, as well as postmaster. His grandson is Laughran "Larry" Vaber, 78, a long-time GE public relations executive who continues to maintain the family homestead. His paternal ancestors first came to the town in the 1860s.

During the Prohibition Era in the 1920s, the large Italian population imported grapes and made wine, according to Salerno. He tells of a farmer who was an active bootlegger, claiming he was shipping cattle in and out of Canada, but actually ferrying homemade brew. Although industry faded in the late 1800s and early 1900s, agriculture survived as a mainstay as the town's economy (only several farms still remain).

As many as nine one-room schoolhouses dotted the town until the 1930s, when the Village School on State Line Road (Route 102) opened. The Village School was closed two years ago when the Berkshire Hills Regional School District consolidated at the new Muddy Brook Elementary and Middle School near Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington.

Learn more about the Campaign to Restore the Old Town Hall in West Stockbridge

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