A Brief History of Middlefield
From Many, Not Quite One
What is now known as Middlefield was once outlying areas of five neighboring towns – Chester, Becket, Washington, Peru, Worthington, and a large tract of land called Prescott‘s Grant. Twelve families, many from Hebron, CT, found their way to this high plateau and rugged land by 1774. They included the households of Samuel and Elnathan Taylor, David Mack, Josiah Leonard, William Mann, and Daniel Meeker. Just ten years later when the town incorporated in 1783 there were 68 resident families.
One of the first orders of business for this new township was to collect taxes to build roads. Only two “good” roads existed along with dozens of ox cart trails. As is the case during mud season today, there was often no way to get from one part of town to another. Thirteen roads were constructed to connect settlements throughout the town. Another priority was to “site” a meeting house for community gatherings, public meetings, and religious worship. This was a contentious issue for a town cobbled together from five different settlements with no clear and established geographical, political or social center. It took six years and 30 town meetings to find agreement across strong personalities and opposing opinions. On that same meeting house site the Middlefield Church stands today.
Politics and Prosperity
Residents were pronouncedly “Whig” in their politics – they favored independence from Britain and many fought in the Revolutionary War. Middlefield was also strongly Federal – the town voted to pass the proposed U.S. Constitution and gave its allegiance to the newly formed federal government and to states rights given to the former colonies. The town voted against the war of 1812, which it viewed as “unnecessary.” By the time of the Civil War townspeople considered themselves mostly Republican, members of “the party of Lincoln,“ and supplied 86 men for the Union army. As but one indicator of progressive attitudes during the civil war period, Middlefield was also a supporter of the growing anti-slavery movement.
The period of 1775-1830 was an era of great growth and prosperity for Middlefield . New roads linked trade between Hartford, Springfield and Pittsfield. Farming for one’s own household and a little extra for trade was the prominent agriculture in the colonial period. That changed with the introduction of sheep and cattle who were brought to Middlefield’s plentiful rocky pastures which were just right for grazing. At this time nearly 75% of forestland was cleared for sheep grazing. Saw mills and tanneries became successful new businesses. The first textile mill was established in 1810 by Uriah Church along Factory Brook. Manufacturing of cloth flourished in what became known as Factory Village. Saxony and Merino sheep provided fine wool for weaving and eventually for the blankets and uniforms of U.S. soldiers. In 1840 the human population reached 686 while sheep numbered 9,840.
By the 1860s Shorthorn Durham cattle became the town’s most valuable product and led to the recognition of Middlefield as a leading breeding area by the Massachusetts Agricultural College. The construction of the Western Railroad was a key commercial link to this isolated highland community. Though the tracks passed the town center by, the railway station near Bancroft provided transport for the products of numerous mills and beef and dairy products which brought wealth to owners and jobs for workers. During construction of the railroad bed and tracks alone, 1,000 immigrants were hired and crowded into tents and temporary wooden structures in Bancroft and Chester
Markets, Floods and Fires
In 1870 Middlefield was a thriving manufacturing town. The woolen industry was threatened, however, by a slump in the woolen market brought about by new tariffs; a fire which destroyed the Church woolen mill; and a dam break in 1874 that brought the full force of water from the town reservoir crashing into Factory Village critically destroying or damaging many homes and most mill buildings. Under these crushing events Middlefield’s mill industry came to an end by 1915.
The forebears of Middlefield have left a significant legacy including independence, courage, entrepreneurship, scholarship, and community spirit. Our inheritance has also been a natural landscape of breath-taking beauty. The peace of the hills, spectacular highland ridges and river valleys, magnificent mountain vistas, and the powerful and shimmering branches of the Westfield River continue to draw and enrich us
(Compiled by Jack Cobb and Cathy Roth from A History of Middlefield, Massachusetts by Edward Church Smith and Phillip Mack Smith (1924), and The National Historic Register report for application (1999) prepared by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.)