Our Town History

Early Settlement of the “Town of the Ancient Trees”

Egremont’s history dates back over 300 years to the days of the Mahican Tribe of Algonquin Indians. The name Mahican is derived from ‘Muk-he-ka-new,’ “the people of the ever flowing waters.” It was on the partially cleared lands of the Mahican settlement of Chief Umpachene that the first white men chose to settle, not knowing “whether on Yankee or Yorker ground.”

They arrived in the area of what is today Egremont in the early 1700s: the Dutch via the Hudson to escape the virtual serfdom of the patroon system, and the English Bay colonists overland, from eastern Massachusetts and Connecticut, in search of new farmland. Among the region’s oldest recorded settlers are the Karner Family,  most notably, Andrew, Lodowik, Robert, Nicholas, and Jacob Karner; the Spoor (Spurr) Family – Capt. John Spoor and his three sons, Isaac, Jacob, and Cornelius; Ebenezer Baldwin; Aaron Loomis; Josiah Phelps; Nehemiah Messenger; Samuel Colver; Samuel Younglove; Robert Joyner; and John & Jacob Vangilder (Van Guilder)

Chief Umpachene, a Sachem for a tribe of Stockbridge Indians, was the first ‘landlord’ of Egremont and the surrounding territories of what is today Sheffield, Mt. Washington and Alford. Umpachene chose a small group of these early settlement families to live with him on a tract of land he had cleared that ran from the ‘point where the Green and Housatonic Rivers meet’ to the Dome of Taghkanic and the evasive New York boundary of the Dutch[1]. It is believed that Umpachene’s ‘wigwam,’ a large 40-foot dwelling covered with bark, was situated somewhere near the confluence of the Green and Housatonic Rivers in Sheffield. Egremont’s permanent settlement dates back to 1730, although no buildings remain from that date.

The creation of the boundaries that define Egremont today took place over the next 40 years with a succession of land deals with the Stockbridge Indians and neighboring and emerging towns.

The earliest recorded land deed between the settlers and local Indians involving “Egremont” took place on April 25, 1724 with the sale of a certain tract of Indian land encompassing what today are the Towns of Sheffield and Great Barrington, as well as portions of Mt. Washington, Egremont and Alford, and including West Stockbridge and Stockbridge “in consideration of the payment secured to them of four hundred and sixty pounds, three barrels of sider, and thirty quarts of rum.”  The condition of the grants to the settlers were that each should pay thirty shillings to the Committee for their land, build a suitable house, and till twelve acres of land within three years’ time.

In 1731, Capt. John Spoor (Spurr) purchased from the Stockbridge Indians four thousand acres of land in what is now North Egremont for 30 pounds and a suit of clothes. This deed became known as the Spoors Grant.

On October 24, 1737, the Indians, “for the love and esteem we have for our friend, John Van Gilder of Sheffield,” gifted him a tract of land lying west of Sheffield’s west bounds, on part of  the Indian Reservation known as Skatehook.

On October 20, 1740, the Mahican Indians leased Andrew Karner a considerable portion of their reservation property for 99 years – land they had retained when they sold land to Province of Massachusetts Bay representatives for the creation of the Lower Housatonic Township.  It is said that the terms of the lease included permission for Andrew’s sister, Mary, to marry John Van Gilder, an Indian who had been raised with the Dutch Van Guilder family.

The “Shawenon Purchase” of 1756 was one of the last defining land transactions between the Stockbridge Indians and these early settlement families. In a deal that signed away the last of their remaining rightful stake in the region, the Stockbridge Indians sold a significant tract of land lying west of Sheffield to a consortium consisting of Ebenezer Baldwin, Aaron Loomis, Josiah Phelps, John and Joseph Van Gilder, Samuel Colver, and others, “for consideration of the sum of 20 pounds paid in hand.” The boundaries of this land in the County of Hampshire were defined as “west of Sheffield, butted and bounded as follows: East Sheffield on the land called the Indian land, on which John Van Gilder and Andrew Carner live, west on the land lately laid to Robert Noble, and others, called Nobletown, and to extend north as far as the said Nobletown to its northeast corner, to run east to Stockbridge west line.” The Shawenon Purchase also grandfathered in land bounded on the north of the tract that had been conveyed previously by the Shauanun and Quinnuhquant to Timothy Woodbridge, Stephen and Daniel Kelsey, Micah and Anthony Hopkins, Eliatha Row, and others, and made provisions for granting Isaac, Cornelius, and Jacob Spoor, and Jonathan Nash (son-in-law) each five hundred acres from the 4,000 acres purchased by their father in 1731.[2] The Shawenon Purchase all but removed Indian ownership of land within the region of Egremont, and created the boundaries by which a new community could be formed and a future built based on the outright ownership of land.

At Egremont’s first town meeting in March 1757[3], Samuel Colver was chosen the town’s first Proprietor Clerk, and Joseph Phelps, John Tuller, Samuel Winchell Jr. and Jacob Spoor were selected to form a committee responsible for parceling out this newly acquired land among the proprietor families. The Committee was charged with hiring a surveyor and within one month’s time creating a plan for giving each proprietor family a 100-acre lot on the south side of Green River, “leaving land for highways where they think convenient.” It was voted that Committee members be paid 2 shillings and 8 pence a day each for their services to this task, and that those doing business or traveling on behalf of the Proprietorship be reimbursed for their time, horse, and expenses.

At the next meeting, held April 18, 1757, the proprietors voted that John Hollenbeck, Robert Joyner, William Joyner, Samuel Winchell, Jr., Andrew Race and several others with land granted to them prior [to the Shawenon Purchase] could retain “half” or “whole” rights to said land in exchange for paying a pre-determined fee in “shilling York money” to the Proprietors “in three months time.” This move consolidated all lands and created the boundaries for Egremont, and reimbursed the Proprietors for some of the money expended on the Shawenon Purchase. At this meeting, the proprietors also charged the Committee to “go on and lay out the land [from the purchase] immediately, or as quickly as possible.”

Over the next year and a half, the proprietors focused on surveying land and building their homesteads. Maps were drawn up, deeds filed, land cleared, and the soil tilled as these families worked together to build a new life for themselves and their children out of a wilderness settlement along a well-worn Indian route between the Hudson River and upstate New York.

Once the business of surveying and recording the proprietor lands was behind them, the Proprietors turned their attentions to creating the infrastructure of a community as a way to entice new settlement. At the March 1758 meeting, the Proprietors voted to lay out the balance of the non-settled land from the Shawenon Purchase in one hundred acre lots for speculation. In November, with the balance of the homesteads carved out, the Proprietors approved the Committee’s recommended locations for highways and voting that they be “immediately laid open.” They also “impowered” the Committee to “lay out all mill places and burial places,” and land was set aside for a meeting house, which was built in 1767 on Town House Hill.

On February 13, 1760, the Village of Egremont, a district of Sheffield, was officially incorporated. The new entity was most probably named for an Englishman, Charles Windham, Earl of Egremont, who was the British Secretary of State during the Revolution, although this detail is unrecorded. Despite the new name, “South Egremont” was called Hollenbeck up until February 1835, and a portion of North Egremont was known as “Little York” until the town’s incorporation, and was then known as the Village of Egremont until January 9, 1842, when its name was officially changed to North Egremont.

The hard work of the proprietors paid off. A growing community built on fertile farmland and undisputed land rights was particularly attractive to young families and Revolutionary War veterans with a pension in their pockets. By 1800, Egremont’s population had grown to 835[4], and the foundation for the next stage of the Town’s development was set.

Egremont’s Industrial Age

For the next wave of settlers and for the next generation of early settlement families, the post-Revolution era in Egremont was about building new wealth on the region’s inherent natural resources, which included abundant farmland, marble, water power, and central access to what was becoming a well-established inland trade route between the Hudson River and Western Massachusetts and upstate New York.

During the first half of the 19th century, downtown South Egremont’s economy shifted from being primarily agricultural to manufacturing. South Egremont became home to marble quarries (regional marble was prized by sculptors and architects alike) and flour mills powered by Karner Brook, as well as such businesses as the Dalzell Axle Company (it is said that one of Queen Victoria’s royal coaches, still in use today, has Dalzell axles made in South Egremont), The Baldwin Chair Factory (a sampling of Baldwin Chairs can be seen in the Town’s Local History Museum), and A.A. Benjamin’s Insole factory (where about 50 workers made about 180 pairs of cork insoles each day).

When laying out the community, the Proprietors had paid careful attention to the Town’s infrastructure, charging the committee to include roadways in its planning and making roads and bridges one of its top priorities. They knew access to and through the region for the transportation and trade of goods would be of paramount importance to families settling and investing in Egremont’s future. By the turn of the century and the dawn of Egremont’s Industrial Age, it was time to connect Egremont to its neighboring communities and the world beyond western Massachusetts.

In the late 1790s, Col Joseph Curtis, along with Joseph Benjamin, Seneca Tullar, William Brunson, and Nicholas Race were appointed to investigate a petition to expand the County Road leading from Great Barrington to Sheffield, beginning at the County Road leading from Great Barrington to New Marlborough. The County Road was altered and expanded in Great Barrington to S. Egremont in October 12, 1801, from Simeon Cooper’s Tavern in Great Barrington to Hooker Hubbard’s Mill.[5] Today, that road is Route 23, which runs through downtown South Egremont.

In 1806, Francis Heare, John and Michael Hollenbeck, Andrew and Nicholas Race, Octavious Joyner, and others filed with the State of Massachusetts to form The Alford and Egremont Turnpike Corporation, “for the purpose of laying out, making and keeping in good repair, a turnpike road thro the towns of Egremont and Alford; beginning at the line dividing this Commonwealth from the state of New York, and the termination there of Hillsdale and Chatham, in the state of New York, near the dwelling house of Nehemiah Clason; thence southerly, near the dwelling houses of Josiah Curtis, George Darby, and Ebenezer Hatch, to the dwelling house of Joshua Millard; thence near the dwelling house of Amasa Austin; and thence by the dwelling house of Joseph Curtis to the Twelfth /Massachusetts Turnpike near the dwelling house of Frances Heare.”[6] On June 24, 1811, the Corporation was authorized and empowered to erect a [toll] Gate on the Alford and Egremont turnpike road “fifty-two rods south of the north line of said Egremont, which line divides the towns of Alford and Egremont.” In 1811, another turnpike, the Great Barrington & Alford Turnpike was erected, traveling through Egremont on Boice Road and Prospect Lake Road into Hillsdale.

Prominent citizens during this period include Wilber Curtis, son of one of South Egremont’s largest landowners at the turn of the century, Col. Joseph Curtis (his home is site #1 on the South Egremont Walking Tour), and Levi Haere, son of Francis Haere, Egremont’s earliest innkeeper and tavern owner as well as Wilber Curtis’ brother-in-law. In 1820, these two men sold off much of the land they inherited upon Joseph Curtis’ death in 1810 to newcomer Chester Goodale, who arrived in Egremont in 1812 apprenticed to a tanner/shoemaker and died in 1879, “one of the wealthiest citizens in Berkshire County.” Goodale, along with other second generation locals such as Wilber Curtis, Joseph Benjamin, William and Jerome Hollenbeck, and newcomers David Dalzell and the Baldwin Bothers, forever changed the face and fortunes of downtown South Egremont with their vision and hard work.

To attract the labor they needed to support their growing businesses, they embarked on the construction of new houses along Button Ball Lane, Old Sheffield Road, and up and down Main Street. They also helped to establish churches, school houses, taverns, general stores, meeting houses, and cemeteries to create a community for these new citizens. South Egremont underwent tremendous expansion and prosperity during the early to mid-1800s guided by these entrepreneurs and businessmen.

In 1838, Egremont had grown enough to support five school districts within its broders and by the 1850 Census the Town’s population had increased to 1,013.  Although South Egremont Village was experiencing an industrial revolution during the 1800s, the rest of Egremont remained residential farmland. According to the History of Western Massachusetts published in 1855, “the people of Egremont are mostly devoted to agriculture. Corn, rye, oats and wheat are the principal grains raised.[7]” By the 1870s, the town of Egremont was comprised of 93 farms, 180 dwelling houses, 256 voters, 931 inhabitants, five school districts, two flouring mills, and three saw mills,[8] in addition to such manufacturing enterprises as the Dalzell Axle Company and Baldwin Chair Factory. But by the dawn of the 20th century, many of these enterprises were on the cusp of extinction. By the 1900 Census, Egremont’s population had eroded to 758, and all the gain the Town had made in its population during its industrial era had moved on and away, and agriculture returned as the dominant enterprise of the community.

20th Century Egremont

In the first decade of the 20th century, in an optimistic effort to keep industrialized South Egremont connected to the outside world for the transportation of labor and commercial goods, Daniel Knowlton, owner of the marble quarry in Egremont, petitioned the Berkshire Street Railway to run a trolley line from Great Barrington to South Egremont. First, though, the Town needed electrical power, which arrived in 1909. The following year, plans were completed for laying the tracks. The line was built by the Woronoco Construction Company of Westfield, MA. It started just south of the Fairgrounds in Great Barrington, cut west through the Wyantenuk Country Club, across Route 23, and continued west to Creamery Road. Construction stopped in front of the Congregational Church in downtown South Egremont. The first trolley rolled into town on December 21, 1910, and the following spring, tracks were laid to extend the line to the Dalzell Axle Works. But the trolley was too late to save industrial Egremont. In 1909, the Board of Directors of the Dalzell Axle Company decided that the business could no longer generate a profit and voted to cease manufacturing.  That same year, Daniel Knowlton’s new quarry business also closed down. Less than 10 years later, the trolley was replaced by the automobile, and South Egremont’s industrial era had come to a close. By 1924, Egremont’s population had been reduced to 441 residents.

South Egremont next resurgence came in the late 1920s with the arrival of Major Hugh Smiley. Major Smiley saw opportunity in the weathered community of Egremont. With a group of local investors, Smiley formed the Olde Egremont Association (Smiley was the first president) and purchased over 3,000 acres of undeveloped land, farmsteads, and properties in South Egremont Village with the intent to put Egremont on the map as a seasonal destination spot and resort community. The Olde Egremont Association promoted “Olde Egremont” to travelers, seasonal guests, and second homeowners as the “land of yesterday; settled 1730, restored 1930” The Association restored a number of historic properties in and around “Olde Egremont,” including the Egremont Inn, General Store (today Farshaw Books), and Olde Egremont Tavern (today Kenver’s), fabricating a new history for these buildings to aggrandize the Town’s historic roots. The Association also ‘built for spec’ log cabins “with the charm of yesteryear and the modern conveniences of today,” and carved out new housing developments. They also embarked on a plan of beautification and economic development.

Membership Certificates in the Association were issued for a “nominal fee to all owners of property in “Olde Egremont…whether he be a cabineer, a cottager, or owner of a large country house.” A Membership Certificate entitled the holder to the liberties of the Association’s properties, “comprising some 3000 acres of land, a splendid trout brook, membership in the Mt. Everett Golf Club, miles of horseback trails winding along the foot of Mt. Everett, free use of the ‘Ole Swimmin Hole’, and substantial discount on all purchases at the General Store, Tavern, Egremont Inn, and other units of the Olde Egremont Association.” As a marketing tool to sell its “furnished cottages, real log cabins, Colonial cottages, half timbered houses, and little farms for season rent,” the Association began publishing a quarterly pamphlet in 1932 entitled, The Olde Egremont Herald, which contained promotional information about the Association’s businesses and properties, promoted the historic and natural beauty of the town and environs, and provided the comings and goings of town residents and their guests.

In the end, the Depression put an end to Major Smiley’s ambitious plans and by the late 1930s he had unloaded practically all of his South Berkshire holdings, eventually moving to Henniker, NH, where died in 1955. In the aftermath of the Depression and the era of the Olde Egremont Association, Egremont returned to its sleepy rural roots of rich fertile farmland.

Egremont Today

Smiley’s vision of a charming, quaint, historic New England town continues to inform Egremont’s identity. Today, Egremont is a small residential community of approximately 1,000 full time residents and second home owners, and is known for its fine restaurants, antique shops, Catamount Ski Resort, B&Bs, small businesses, historic charm, and welcoming attitude.

 

 

[1] Old Dutchess Forever by Henry Noble MacCracken
[2] Transcription of the Deed, as signed October 29, 1756 and received March 5, 1757
[3] Based on transcriptions from the Proprietor Records, Town of Egremont
[4] 1800 US Census for Egremont, MA
[5] Knurow Collection, Pittsfield Public Library, Vol. 10
[6] Acts and Resolves of Massachusetts 1810, ch.30; 1811 ch.68
[7] History of Western Massachusetts, 1855
[8] Gazetteer of Massachusetts, published by B.B. Russell, 1874