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Historic Main St. in Hatfield, MA

Town History


     English colonists moving up the Connecticut River settled in Hatfield about 1660 on land that had been purchased from the nearby Native American Indian village of Norwottuck. The location was desirable because of the large amounts of relatively flat, rich, and stone-free agriculture land and the small waterfall which could power a mill on what became known as the Mill River. For a decade the settlement was legally part of the Town of Hadley, but in 1670 Hatfield separated from Hadley and built its own meeting house which served as the center of government and the Congregational Church. During King Philip’s War in 1675-76 between the colonists of New England and the Native American Indians, the settlement on Main Street was surrounded by a stockade, many men from Hatfield fought in campaigns up and down the valley and fought off three attacks on the village.

     During the eighteenth century the town prospered and the growing population of the western and northern regions of the town eventually separated to become the Towns of Williamsburg and Whately. Enterprising Hatfield farmers fattened cattle that were sold to markets in larger towns and cities. The reputation of Hatfield beef was sufficient to cause General Washington to station an officer in Hubbard’s Tavern to purchase meat for the troops in the Continental Army. In addition to agriculture, the waterfall on the Mill River powered a grist mill and a saw mill, while the Running Gutter Brook powered a linseed oil mill.

     In the early nineteenth century broom corn became a major cash crop and the handicraft production of corn brooms took place in many homes. The building of the first railroad through the town in 1846 brought in many Irish and French Canadians, the first significant numbers of people who were not of English ancestry. Many of these people began their years in Hatfield working as farm hands or making corn brooms and their descendants eventually founded St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church.

     In the second half of the nineteenth century tobacco became the major cash crop and in the early twentieth century onions, asparagus, and potatoes were also grown in quantity. To meet the need for the considerable labor these crops required, immigrants from Eastern Europe, particularly Poles, were encouraged to settle in the Town. Eventually the Poles founded Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church and Slovak families founded Holy Trinity Lutheran Church.

     The appearance of the town changed as successful farmers and entrepreneurs built stately homes on Main Street, small farmers and recent immigrants built more modest houses throughout the town, fields were dotted with the barns used to dry tobacco, several large tobacco sorting shops were built, and a succession of small mills were built near the waterfall. At various times during the nineteenth and twentieth century the falls powered a grist mill, a saw mill, a wood-working shop, a button shop, a gun factory, a spark plug factory, and a large machine shop. Neighborhoods of homes and retail businesses grew up around the mills as well as the railroad depots in West Hatfield and North Hatfield.

     Hatfield was known for more than its agriculture and industry. In the nineteenth century the town was home of several notable philanthropists. Oliver Smith, who had made a fortune as an investor in agriculture and land, endowed the Smith Agricultural and Industrial School and the Smith Charities, both of which still play a major role in the region. A generation later Sophia Smith endowed both Smith Academy, which still serves as Hatfield’s high school, and Smith College, one of the premier women’s colleges in the United States. And Caleb Cooley Dickinson endowed the Cooley Dickinson Hospital.

     In more recent years Hatfield has retained its relatively small size and rural appearance. Much of the land is still dedicated to the production of corn, potatoes, and vegetables for market. But as agriculture has become more mechanized fewer people in town work in the fields. Since the building of Route I-91 in the 1960s, increasing numbers of people who live in Hatfield commute to jobs in neighboring communities. The small factories on the Mill River are now closed, but they have been replaced by several assembly and distribution centers and retail businesses located close to I-91. Although many residents now work outside the town and have ties to other communities, there continues to be a strong sense of identification with Hatfield which retains its town meeting form of government and its own independent school system. As the signs along the roads leading into town say, Hatfield enters the new century, proud of its past and optimistic about its future.

- Courtesy of the Hatfield Historical Commission


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