Bidwell Lore – The Meeting House Continued

Last week, we learned how Township No. 1’s Meeting House was finally constructed so it could be used by Rev. Adonijah Bidwell for weekly services and for town business. This week, we’ll see if we can figure out what the building may have looked like, and some of the formative events that were discussed and decided inside the walls of this “house for meetings.”

The photographs below illustrate examples of several meeting houses that may be similar to Township No. 1’s Meeting House in the mid to late 1700s period. These remain relatively unchanged from their original configuration and appearance. Notice the interior galleries and pulpit window halfway between the first and second floors.

The first set of images below show the 1774 Sandown, NH, Meeting House, which was a similar size to the Township #1 Meeting House. There are more windows in the Sandown meeting house—16 on the first floor and 21 on the second level—as compared to 10 on the first floor and 17 on the second level at Township No. 1 (the second level window count includes the pulpit window halfway between the first and second floors). In addition, the Sandown windows are probably quite a bit larger than those installed in the Township No. 1 Meeting House. Sandown’s elaborate raised pulpit box is also likely to be much nicer than what Rev. Bidwell’s “Pulpit and Ministerial Pew” would have been. But, the Sandown Meeting House is still a good example of a contemporary Meeting House similar to Township No. 1.

Pictured below is the 1787 Rockingham, Vermont, Meeting House. The Township No. 1 Meeting House was considerably smaller than the Rockingham example and likely not as elegant or as well constructed. The Rockingham, Vermont, Meeting House is five bays wide instead of three bays in Sandown, which was similar to Township No. 1. The elegant raised pulpit in Rockingham was installed later and is, again, much more elaborate than what Rev. Bidwell’s congregation would have seen.

In the photo below, you see the Old Trinity Church, constructed in 1771 in Brooklyn, Connecticut. This building is a good example of an older style building, with a square footprint, hip roof, and fewer, smaller windows. It is possible the Township No. 1 Meeting House looked similar to this, although ours was more rectangular than Trinity.

There are relatively few old Meeting Houses that survive today, and even fewer that retain their original appearance.  Most—like the one in Township No. 1—were eventually demolished and replaced with newer, more modern buildings. A few, like the Sandown, NH, and Rockingham, VT, Meeting Houses and Old Trinity Church, have been well preserved and restored, and retain their original structure and exterior appearances. Most of the other old New England Meeting Houses that still survive in some fashion have been heavily remodeled and altered to where they no longer look like the original building. Many were significantly added to, remodeled, and reconfigured in the early 1800s to become what we now recognize as classic New England Congregational Church buildings. In some cases, the old meeting house building would be raised off its old foundation and rotated 90°. Their entrances were typically moved to the west end and the pulpit to the east end with a center aisle along the long east-west axis.  Entrance vestibules and steeples were added. In a few cases, a “scar” remains in the clapboards showing where the old “Pulpit Window” was removed and new windows were added. 

The First Meeting House in Township No. 1 was, by all reports, not a beloved or comfortable building. But, it stood witness to the birth and maturity of Township No. 1 and to the founding of the United States of America. It formed the center of the community in a way that is hard for us to completely understand today. 

In addition to the weekly church services, Proprietor’s Meetings and later Town Meetings were held in this Meeting House for decades. The town’s discussions, debates, and decisions that constitute this pure form of democracy took place here. Township No. 1 was incorporated as Tyringham in 1762. During the Revolutionary War period, the town’s voters debated and adopted resolutions favoring independence. Their Committee of Correspondence wrote eloquently in support of the patriot cause. The town voted to send its allotment of soldiers to fight for the Continental Army, and to send the taxes to the Commonwealth to support the cause of freedom. Town voters supported the adoption of the Articles of Confederation and later of the Constitution. Imagine the weighty conversations and all of the mundane details of governing that the townspeople of Township No. 1/Tyringham worked out in that building!

Marshall Spring Bidwell, “The Upper Village, Monterey,” 1857
This drawing shows the Second Meeting House and was drawn by the great-grandson of Rev. Adonijah Bidwell. 
Courtesy of Berkshire County Historical Society at Arrowhead

The first Meeting House building continued in service until about 1795, more than ten years after Rev. Adonijah Bidwell’s death in 1784. It was replaced by the second Meeting House which was located one half mile south in what is now called the Old Center. You can see a drawing of Monterey, which includes the second Meeting House, above.

After 1795, the old first meeting house building was deconstructed and the usable parts were sold for reuse by others. The old main highway that passed the Meeting House site was also discontinued about the same time. 

The site of the First Meeting House is part of the Bidwell House Museum’s property and is marked by a stone installed by the DAR in 1927 and an interpretive sign installed by the Museum. The 45’ x 35’ footprint of the meeting house (seen below) is ringed by logs. The original stone doorsteps are still in place at the south and west doorways. 

The Meeting House site is part of the museum’s property that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You can visit the site by following the Meeting House Trail to the top of the hill at the center of the “City on the Hill.” The trail leads from the parking lot, crosses the stone walls marking the four rod (66’ wide) right of way of the old highway (Boston-Albany Post Road) which led through Township No. 1 to Stockbridge and to Albany, and served as the main road for the proprietors during their weekly visits to the Meeting House. 

As you walk up Meeting House Hill today, listen carefully for the whispers in the branches of the trees and imagine the lives of the people who built this City on the Hill. Can you hear Adonijah Bidwell’s voice booming out a sermon? Can you see the families of church-goers in their Sunday best, eating their lunches and socializing on the lawn between the morning and afternoon services? Can you imagine carriages lined up nearby, with horses nibbling on the grass in the pasture surrounded by neat stone walls, or voters arriving in sleds in the winter or early spring for town elections and debates and decisions? Consider the view from atop the hill when the surrounding woodlands had been cleared: Dry Hill in New Marlborough and Mt. Everett in Mount Washington clearly visible to the southwest, and Rev. Bidwell’s manse to the north. 

The spirit of the Meeting House is here to welcome you as it did the colonists 270 years ago.