Bidwell Lore – The Founding of the City on the Hill Part III: The Meeting House and the Minister

Welcome to week 61 of Bidwell Lore. This week we begin the story of the Meeting House and planning for the first Minister of Township #1.

As hard as it is to visualize today, in the mid 18th century the serene woods and the nearby hilltop site near an old Indian trail – now the Bidwell House property and surroundings – were about to become the center of a thriving and growing community. 
Recap: The 1737 Charter which established Township No. 1 required that the Proprietors lay out the township to include three “publick lotts.” Accordingly, a survey was made of the six mile square township with 60 house lots (later increased to 67, plus over 200 other ‘after division’ lots), a Mill Lot, School Lot, and a Minister’s Lot. At the Proprietors’ meeting held in Watertown on November 15, 1737, they voted that “ye lott No. 25 be set apart for the first settled minister.” Lot 20 was reserved for the second settled minister, Lot 21 for the school, and Lot 2 for the building of a saw mill and grist mill. (The mill lot was later relocated.) The Meeting House was located on part of Lot No. 1 at the top of the hill and at the center of the Proprietors’ proverbial “City on a Hill.” 

The old Boston-Albany Post Road to Indiantown (Stockbridge) ran past the Meeting House site. This road is now Mt. Hunger Road and Art School Road, and on through Beartown. 

Map of the lots laid out for Township # 1, now Monterey and Tyringham,

Hupi Road–Beartown Road–Brett Road was a second main road through the “Old Center” a half mile south of the Meeting House. Along this county highway through Old Center were both Jackson’s Tavern and Chadwick’s Tavern, and the two oldest burying grounds. In later years, Old Center hosted many shops, mills, and many large farms, including the Bidwell Farm, Orton Farm, Tibbals Farm, Col. Giles Jackson’s Farm, and many others.  Col. Jackson alone had 26 children! Of whom as many as 16 attended school at the Rock Schoolhouse at one time!  We’ll come back to Col. Jackson in a future article.

But now we’ll return to the early days of the township as the plan was just beginning to unfold.

The Meeting House and The Minister
The Original Proprietors went through a long and difficult process to build the Meeting House and obtain a Minister. This seems to have been due to several factors: the “French and Indian War” scare in the 1740s, the remoteness and difficulty of establishing a settlement on this rocky ridgeline in the Berkshire Hinterland, the chosen location of the Meeting House high on a cold windy hill, and an apparent rift between two factions of Proprietors. 

Contrary to the terms of the charter for Township No. 1, it appears that relatively few of the original Proprietors actually resided here during the first decade of its settlement. Many of the original Proprietors continued to live in Eastern Massachusetts Bay Colony in the Watertown area. In fact, the Township Proprietors’ Meetings (ancestors of our Town Meeting) were held in and around Watertown until 1750. This seems to have resulted in different priorities between those farmers who were actually residents and trying to carve out a living in the hinterland of Township No. 1 and the non-resident landowners (at least some of whom were apparently land speculators interested primarily in profit).
The Proprietors’ meetings between 1737 and 1750 are full of votes and debates about building, including the costs for building the Meeting House and engaging a minister. They began with high hopes and expectations: on 8 March 1739/40, the Proprietors “Voted & Granted that each proprietor shall pay the sum of Ten shillings toward the procuring boards to be sawd & that may be seasoning for the … erecting a meeting house … [and] Mr John Brewer & Mr Thos Slaton be employed to procure the boards aforesaid and that they take prudent and effectual care to get suitable boards for the outside covering and sufficient good white pine for the inside work.”

They also voted “that each Proprietor pay the sum of Ten shillings within the space of one Month for the obtaining of some suitable person for the Preaching of the Gospel to those which are or shall be residing in said Township … [the committee] are desired to have a particular care to have such supply at the fall of the year when a greater number of the Proprietors are expected to be there…

However, at the same meeting, they “…expected that France will also engage in war with Great Britain in connection with Spain which may probably greatly affect our new settlements…” This disruption seems to have occurred: no Proprietors Meetings were recorded for the next two years.  

War jitters had apparently calmed somewhat by 20 May, 1742, when the Proprietors “Voted ye [meeting house] building be erected with all convenient speed in said town of Twenty five feet square and nine feet stud [inside wall height] for the present accommodation of the Settlers for the Publick Worship of God  …to be well covered & enclosed & a double floor laid & convenient Desk built for the Minister & seats for the People with windows according to the discretion of the Committee that shall be appointed for the performing said service … with what shall be further necessary for said house, said house to be built upon the plot which a former Committee laid out for said purpose agreeable to the plan of the Lotts.”  Each Proprietor was assessed another Forty shillings for this purpose. “Voted that Mr John Brewer, Mr Samuel Brown & Thos Slaton be a Committee to prosecute the affair of building & finishing the said meeting house in the most prudent & frugal manner they can within the space of one year next ensuing & that they render an account of the doings therein to this society.”

At the same meeting in 1742, each Proprietor was assessed another 10 shillings for clearing the Great Road between Glasgow [now Blandford] and Mr. John Brewer’s house [on the south side of Main Road], for clearing the road to the saw mill and meeting house spot, and “also for clearing a convenient space of ground where the meeting house shall or may be built or erected.” 

Above, a typed copy of part of the Proprietors Meeting minutes, 20 May 1742

It is interesting to note the phrase in the May 1742 vote that the committee was charged to build the meeting house “the most prudent and frugal manner they can…”  At first glance, this seems innocuous and consistent with stereotypical New England values. However, only six months later, at their meeting on 14 December, 1742, the Proprietors reconsidered their May vote and decided that “the Meeting house shall be built in said Township of Fort[y]h feet long and thirty five feet wide & of a suitable height for one tier of Galleries… and shall be erected upon the place already appropriated for said purpose.”  The “one hundred & thirty four pounds old Tenor” that was appropriated at the last meeting for the building of a Meetinghouse of twenty-five feet square was re-appropriated for the building of this much larger meeting house.

It seems a rift was opening between two factions of the Proprietors; the December meeting voted that the Committee chose at the last meeting “…to build the meeting house then proposed be dismissed.” Messrs John Brewer, John Brown, and Isaac Garfield were chosen as the new Committee to prosecute the said affair of building the expanded meeting house. The new committee then obtained a vote for an additional “sum of three Pounds in bills of Old Tenor or in bills of the new emission [1] equivalent be paid to the Treasurer by each Proprietor to be applied to the building of said Meeting house.” 

In 1743, another ten shillings was voted to be paid by each of the Proprietors for building the meeting house. But, interestingly, at the same meeting, it was voted not to spend any more money on clearing the Great Road. Some of the Proprietors were falling behind on paying their taxes, and notices were sent that their “lotts” will be sold at “public vendue” [auction].  It is unclear whether this failure to pay taxes was due to the economic conditions and the brewing Indian War, or an expression of dissatisfaction with the costs of building the improvements in the township, including the meeting house and roads. 

At the meeting on 25 April, 1744, the Indian War was of grave concern and the Proprietors voted to stop building the meetinghouse, but to protect the building materials: “Whereas there is eminent [sic] danger of an Indian War….therefore, voted, the Comitte for building the Meeting House in sd township proceed no further in sd business saving that they take prudent care to secure the frame by water boaring the mortices and underpinning as they shall think needful to preserve the same and also to secure the boards by moving them at a proper distance from sd frame and sticking them in a proper manner to secure them from damage and also to secure the window frames and all other stuff that is already provided for said use and to satisfy all persons that have done any service in sd affair.” They also decided to forego spending “any further sum of money for preaching.”  (Ministers from other towns or itinerant ministers had occasionally preached to the townspeople.)

Another significant meeting related to the “Indian War” was held six months later on 2 August, 1744: the proprietors voted “sixty seven pounds old tenor granted to fortify sd township be equally distributed toward building three forts in said Township one at the dwelling house of Mr John Brewer, one at the dwelling house of Mr Thos Slaton, one at the dwelling house of Mr Josiah Watkin for the use and benefit of said Proprietor or Inhabitants.” They also reversed their April vote and voted to appropriate “fifteen shillings in old tenor be paid by each Proprietor towards carrying on preaching in sd Township.” The meeting also voted to pay several accounts to reimburse Thos Slaton for expenses between 1742 and 1744, including: “1742…to entertaining the Revd Mr Sargeant when he preached at our place; 7 times at 4s per time  £1 8s” [Reverend Sargeant was the minister of the Congregational Church in Indiantown/Stockbridge] … “to 1250 feet of white Pine boards  £5” [presumably for the meeting house];  and … “to 2 days labor in clearing the meeting house spot  £1.” This meeting also voted to use money in the Treasury to pay off other creditors.

By now, the Proprietors of Township No. 1 had been working for seven years to try to build a Meeting House and engage a minister, as well as all the other tasks involved in building a small town in the hinterland … much less a City on the Hill. They had started and stopped, argued about money, worried about the effects of the Indian War, appointed and discharged committees… and had not made a lot of progress.

Next week, we’ll find out how they resolved their differences.       

[1] “Old Tenor” refers to paper money issued by the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Periodically, the colonial assembly ordered the old currency removed from circulation and a “new emission” of currency was issued at a different valuation.