Town History

Introduction

The Town of Northfield was established in 1723, but the history of the area is rich and deep. The mountains, the lowlands, the proximity to the Connecticut River, its streams and forests, all shaped the history over thousands of years. Most of its cultural resources have yet to be discovered and because of its relatively sparse development, Northfield was designated by the Massachusetts Historical Commission as one of the most promising sites for archaeological investigation.

History of the Community - Beginnings Prior to 1723

Archeological research shows Indigenous people were resident in what is now Northfield for 12,000 years prior to the arrival of colonists. Between the Hudson River and the Connecticut River valleys was a major paleo game corridor where Indigenous people followed the animal migratory routes of plentiful elk and caribou (herds estimated to be 600-800,000).

Native communities --- likely associated with the northern boundary of the Pocumtucks of the Middle Connecticut River Valley and the Abenaki/Sokoki -- also took advantage of the large tracts of agricultural lands along the Connecticut River, fished the river and its tributaries, and hunted in the lowlands and forests. Upland deposits of surface quarts were used for tool-making.

The first Colonial settlers arrived in 1673 via a major native pathway and inhabited the southernmost portion of what is now Main Street. They selected this site as their first settlement because the land had already been cleared and cultivated by its former inhabitants. Their thatched-roofed dwellings were built close to one another inside a stockade on the site of the original enclosure built by the Squakeag band resident to this area, on what is now believed to include 24 Main Street.

Land to the north of Cowas brook (now Mill Brook) belonged to the Abenaki sachem Nawlet, while land to the south belonged to Massamet, of unknown tribal origin. There exists a deed for the transfer of Nawlet's land (which was later amended to be more "fair") and a deed for some of Massamet's land being transferred, but no deed has yet been found for the transfer of the southernmost part of town.

The colonists' initial relationship with the native inhabitants was cordial but tenuous and it deteriorated as they continued to demand exclusive use of more and more land and disrespected the burials of Indigenous people. As the northernmost settlement of Massachusetts, Northfield was settled and abandoned twice before colonists established it permanently in 1723.

During the wars, Squakeag, the Indigenous village, centered around what is now called Four Mile Brook, an outlet into the river now known as the Connecticut River. Squakeag had the distinction of being a haven for Indigenous war refugees.

Metacom (King Philip) is known to have wintered north of the village for at least one year, where Mary Rowlandson met him after her capture from Lancaster. It is believed that some of the major Indigenous decisions of the wars were made at Council Fires, located just off Millers Falls Road. Much of Squakeag's rich history is yet to be discovered.

Growth of the Town of Northfield Through the 1700s and 1800s

Northfield Map 1871

Throughout the 1700s, farming of crops and livestock was the town’s economic base. Industrial development, in the form of sawmills and gristmills, did occur, but on a smaller scale than neighboring towns, as Northfield’s waterpower was seasonal, not year-round. Roadways were constructed to help supply necessary goods and services.

The 1800s saw the farms of Northfield expand and prosper. Just as the Connecticut River nourished early Native American (Indigenous) and English (Colonial) inhabitants with rich farm fields, it served as the region’s earliest highway for the movement of people and goods. Between 1686 and 1936, seven ferries operated along the river, making Northfield a regional crossroads. In winter, farm products were transported across the frozen river on sledges to awaiting markets inside and outside the region.

Despite three attempts to settle the town, and few Colonial dwellings survived, the original town plan is still very much in evidence in today’s Northfield. Northfield’s center has remained relatively untouched since the early 1800’s, a distinction the town owes to the Stearns family of artisan builders, whose work was as durable as it is beautiful. Residential development spread quickly to the outlying area of Northfield Farms (south of the center) and across the Connecticut River to West Northfield.

Early nineteenth century Northfield was a vital and energetic community. The archives of the Northfield Historical Society are full of programs and playbills from theatrical productions, lectures, dances, and other entertainments that took place with great frequency and enthusiasm.With prosperity also came appreciation and time for learning and self-improvement. The first Social Library was founded by a group of citizens in 1813 with composer Timothy Swan. Swan, whose hymns and secular songs were ubiquitous throughout New England, was its first librarian.

In the practice of law, Northfield was considered “a focus of legal talent” in the county, and is credited with producing at least one Supreme Court justice: Benjamin Robbins Curtis. Curtis is famous for his dissent supporting the plaintiff in the high court’s Dred Scott decision. President Lincoln used his dissent in drafting the Emancipation Proclamation.

Several Significant Trends Benefitted Northfield

Postcard of Northfield MA Train Station

Transportation and Travel: Northfield’s location in the heart of New England made it a hub for the new railroads crisscrossing the region. Sitting at the confluence of the Connecticut and Millers rivers, one rail line connected Northfield to Millers Falls on the eastern side of the Connecticut River and the other primary route connected Northfield to Vernon, Vermont on the western side. This fueled the trade of farm crops and the growth of commercial farming. It also encouraged the development of food processing facilities for canning and pickling, as well as the creation of the Northfield Cooperative Creamery (on the Northfield campus).

Beginning in the 1840’s, passenger trains ran from New London, Connecticut to White River Junction, Vermont, via several Western Massachusetts towns including Palmer, Amherst, Millers Falls, and Northfield. By the late 1800’s, Northfield boasted four railway stations. Until passenger rail service ceased in 1959, if you were going anywhere in New England by train, you went through Northfield.

Education and Religion: Due to the educational and religious fervor of the times, the town became home to several academies. Impressed by the sophisticated rail access and the availability of land, native son D.L. Moody and his famiy founded the Northfield Seminary for Young Women in 1879 and two years later, the Mount Hermon Boys School across the river in Gill. Through their efforts, Northfield became an internationally-known center for missionary training and Protestant thought and influenced the character of Northfield. The Town of Northfield enjoyed a reputation as "school town".

Recreation and Tourism: Northfield's picturesque hills, clean air, ponds and streams, and rail service made it a popular destination for those city dwellers seeking a summer retreat from heavily industrialized urban centers like New York City. A grand hotel -- The Northfield Inn -- with an array of amenities and sports like golf, tennis, swimming and ice skating, drew wealthy tourists, celebrities and politicians to town, including President Theodore Roosevelt. Small scale retail and service businesses sprang up in response to the influx of tourists.

While building his grand summer home, the Chateau, Moody devotee Robert Francis Schell, donated $60,000 to the Town for the building of a pedestrian and vehicular bridge connecting passengers from the East Northfield railroad station (on the west side) to East Northfield. Completed in 1904, the Schell Memorial Bridge connected thousands of tourists to Northfield, as well as students between the two campuses of the girls and boys schools. In 1939, the American Youth Hostel movement was founded in Northfield, bringing hundreds of youth outfitted with backpacks and bicycles by rail to begin their tours of upper New England.

The development of the automobile brought a new industry to town where auto repair and even manufacturing shops and service stations dotted the landscape and touring became a popular pastime and source of visitors.

Eventually, the Town of Northfield saw the loss of most of its mills and shops to the more urban towns of Greenfield, Brattleboro, and Keene. Adding to the erosion of the town's commercial and industrial base, farming also began a serious decline. Small dairy farms were consolidated into larger commercial ones. Throughout the twentieth century, education remained the town's principal industry and employer.

Northfield was tested during the twentieth century, when the town experienced two punishing floods and the 1938 hurricane. The river, always a source of sustenance, took a huge toll on the town. The devastating effects on the community from fires and natural disasters were evident in the photographic record, reminding us how the work of generations can be destroyed in a few hours. After the disasters, however, Northfield's people responded by forming clubs, building new public schools, and coming together to celebrate important historical milestones with parades, festivals and pageants.

Northfield Open Space and Recreation Plan 2021-2028