Bidwell Lore – A Second Meeting House, a Mohican Burial Ground, an Arboretum, Part I

Welcome to week 47 of Bidwell Lore! This week we start a new story about the history of the meeting houses in Stockbridge; below is Part I.

“Let no one say the past is dead.
The past is all about us and within.”
Oodgeroo, Aboriginal poet, Australia

The first meeting house in Stockbridge, constructed in 1739, was paid for by the provincial government for the use of the Stockbridge Mohicans during both religious and secular activities. In addition, the provincial government provided funds for a schoolhouse and a home for the Rev. John Sergeant. Over time Sergeant would preach to the Mohican people in their own tongue. As the town’s English population grew, Sergeant would preach a second time to the English inhabitants following the Mohican service.   
A meeting house, for those not steeped in early New England history, was built to house both town government and religious activities under the same roof. The Congregational Society, the established or state church of Massachusetts which was still highly favored in the late 18th century, began to see a change in attitude towards church and government business being conducted under one roof. In 1779, the town of Pittsfield sent a Congregational minister and a Baptist minister to the constitutional convention. In 1780, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress adopted the constitution and Declaration of Rights. It was not until 1831 that the Massachusetts state legislature voted in favor of disestablishment. In 1833, the third article of the 1780 Declaration of Rights was finally replaced. The new article promoted religious freedom and prohibited any form of establishment. In that political and religious environment, the 1839 Stockbridge Town House was constructed to serve the needs of town government on property leased from the Congregational Society of Stockbridge just south of the Town Square. At first blush, it would seem to suggest that the early 19th century separation of church and state motivated Stockbridge residents to follow the lead of other cities and towns by removing government functions from church buildings.

First Congregational Church in Stockbridge, built in 1824, as it looks today
First Congregational Church in Stockbridge, built in 1824, as it looks today

Even though elements of that pending statewide disestablishment show up in earlier town meeting votes, the decision by the Congregational Society to build its 1824 structure (the 3rd meetinghouse in Stockbridge) by subscription rather than through a tax levy was at least, in part, fortified by the town’s poor financial condition. Somewhat ironically, at a Special Town Meeting May 3, 1813, John Hunt offered to sell three and one-half acres to the town at $70.00 per acre. The town was unable to raise the money through taxes and the committee charged with enlarging the town square was only able to raise $110, which was “subscribed from a number of liberal gentlemen.”  The Committee further reported, “The embarrassed situation of the Town at this time, and the many and great burdens the citizens for the year approaching will have to encounter, has been the only reason the committee have to offer against the purchase.” John Hunt subsequently sold the land to Dr. Oliver Partridge, who in turn sold it to Dr. Thaddeus Pomeroy and it was from Pomeroy that the Congregational Society acquired the land where the current brick Federal Period church now sits. In 1839, through the largesse of the Congregational Society which leased a piece of land to the Town to build a Town House, that Town House ended up resting on church property that John Hunt had offered to sell to the Town some 26 years earlier.

Historic Map of Stockbridge
Historic map of Stockbridge

At a Special Town Meeting, September 1, 1823, it was: “Voted that the Congregational Society and the Town will not build a new Meeting House in the Town.” On November 10, 1823, at a Special Town Meeting, it was: “Voted to reconsider the vote by which it was agreed to build a meetinghouse. Voted that the Congregational Society in that Town will build a new meeting house for the use of said Society by subscription, the pews in same to be sold to refund the expense thereof, reserving, however on the floor of the house, at least six pews to be occupied by such persons as are unable to purchase pews, the same to be designated by a Committee to be chosen for that purpose. Voted that a committee of nine be chosen to determine where the proposed new meeting house should be located and of what materials the same shall be built agreeably to a vote this day passed… Voted that Joseph Woodbridge, Theodore Sedgwick, Abner Crosby, Asahel Dewy, Cyrus Williams, Prentice Williams, Seth Wilcox, Henry W. Dwight and John Sage, be appointed a Committee for the purpose of building a meeting house.” The resulting subscription raised over $6,000.
Long before the Congregational Society built the third meeting house in 1824, the town constructed two meeting houses in 1739 and 1784. The first Indian Meeting House was built on the town square.
June 1, 1745 (Special Town Meeting) Layout of the highways in Stockbridge by Josiah Jones and David Naunauneekaunuck, Surveyors for Highways, to be confirmed and established as follows: “A square laid out about the meeting house Twenty Six rods each way, ten rods east of the meeting house, sixteen rods west, six rods south and twenty rods north. Stakes being set at each corner of said Square.”

Second Meetinghouse site at Old Meeting House Road today

At the time the town square was created in 1745 it appears that the intent was for it to be free of any road. Even the 1750 survey of Main Street by Colonel Timothy Dwight began and ended on the east side of the square. The 1739 meeting house was located partially on what is currently Main Street, just north of the Children’s Chime tower. Given its proximity to the town burying ground, that made sense. By 1800 survey maps indicated that the town square had been cut by Plain Street [1] and Church Street. By 1783 the town had begun plans to build a second meeting house and after the town created a second committee to direct the first committee, a location was chosen at what is now the intersection of Old Meeting House Road and North Church Street, now the Field Arboretum, a Laurel Hill Association property. The 1739 meeting house, after the construction of the second meeting house, was moved to 2 Glendale Middle Road and converted to a barn. In 1824, as the third meeting house was being constructed just south of the town square, Doctor Oliver Partridge offered a history of the second meeting house:

               “More than 50 years ago [2] I came into this town & more than 10 succeeding years the English inhabitants met after the Indian meeting, in the Indian Meeting house built by the state near the burying ground.[3]
The town increased & east to the southwest and north with industrious farmers amongst whom was the sensible and judicious Deacon Elanthan Curtis – he bought a mile square, with his three enterprising & laborious Sons Abel & James & Elanthan & [illegible] they increased first in wealth. Others further north & east of the Pond bot[4] up all the farms-
              The town became so numerous more than 40 years ago, that we were much crowded & heaped up in the Indian house – they came from N. E. & N. from 5 ½ down to less than a mile from the S. W. more than 3 miles. –
            We must have a new house – tis allowed – where must we build – if we move further north than the Indian house, the east road people will be worse off than any – & we can not make across the south end of rattlesnake mountain & its probable (going the South) that north of the pond will before long join Lenox. The eagle eyed Deacon Bradley spied out a place across said end of snake mountain where we laid around, hilly & uncomfortable & sometimes in winter, so filled with snow & marked by blasts as to be impassable, as we sense No majority now for a move north
              A Committee from abroad (Deacon Williams of Deedham their [illegible]) having particular regard to roads from S. & E, & W. near Elijah Brown’s Esqr. There set a stake – nobody was pleased, it being a muddy place – it was too near the Brown’s & they did their utmost not to lend there & finally we built on this place[5], then very uneven on which there were a number of little hillocks in leveling *near Bement[6]
of which we plowed up the bones of 13 Indians who were probably some of the Nipmet & Pauomptucoh Tribes whom Major Talcott & Company pursued from Westfield & killed on this plot in 1676 140 years ago – see the Indian Wars – [7]
              We were more harmonious, submitting to the majority & soon built our house
       I do not recollect & am very sure that I never heard the word Church used in this business. The Town built the house – for what – that the town as a town might meet there on the day of rest & be intrusted in the principles of morality (as taught in the bible) by the men they had chosen & contracted to pray, that the ensuing generations might grow up well instructed & become at least good members of society.
As Said 1784 Town & Meeting House 1784 & 1824 Miscellaneous”[8]

…Come back next week as we share Part II of this story and discuss the second Congregational meeting house, built in 1784.

[1] Later Main Street.
[2] Dr. Oliver Partridge (1751-1848) came to Stockbridge in 1771 at age 20 after completing his medical training.
[3] Indian Meeting House built in 1739 just north of Children’s Chimes. Burying Ground refers to town cemetery.
[4] Bought.
[5] Now the Field Arboretum a Laurel Hill park, at Old Meeting House Road & North Church Street.
[6] Now 5 North Church Street.
[7] Commonly called King Philip’s War.
[8] Dr. Partridge wrote this history in 1824 when the third meeting house (brick Federal style Congregational Church) was built on the Town Square. Dr. Oliver Partridge Papers, Stockbridge Library Museum & Archives.