by J. A. Buxton
Chapter V - The Town of West Brookfield
After the incorporation of West Brookfield in 1848, the town went on quietly for many years. The town hall was build, some people left the town, new people came to take their place, and the town slowly but surely grew.
Around the time of the Civil War, the vestry of the Congregational Church was used to hold town meetings. On one side of the vestry sat the people who believed in slavery, and the other side was filled with people believing in abolishing slavery. Each side wanted to be heard, and the people often would yell and scream trying to drown out the voices of the people on the opposite side. Needless to say, these meetings were not too orderly. Sometimes the people would get so angry that they would chase each other over the benches, much to the amusement of the little boys, eagerly watching the town meetings.
The town seemed to be mostly pro-slavery, so that many people who didn’t believe in slavery were excommunicated from the church. Bowman Stone, the brother of Lucy Stone, was one of the people who was excommunicated. Anther man was repairing his barn when the committee came to excommunicate him. He was pulled off his barn and taken to the church; then, after being excommunicated, he was returned to his barn where he continued repairing.
When the excitement of the war had finally died down, the town continued along in its own quiet, peaceful way. The town voted to appropriate the Dog Fund of 1871 as the nucleus of a town public building, although no committee was appointed to expand the appropriation. An effort had been made before this year to have a town library, but it had been unsuccessful.
In the spring of 1872, the Dog Fund was voted for a library, and a committee was chosen to expand the funds of 1871 and 1872, which amounted to $344.50. The legality of this transaction was questioned, but soon the plans went through. The library was formally opened on January 5, 1874 after being dedicated in the spring of 1872. When the library opened, T. S. Knowlton was the librarian, and the library contained only 298 books.
During the first year, Charles Merriam, a native of West Brookfield, a resident of Springfield, gave the library 500 volumes, $500 in cash, and supplied the reading room with plenty of reading matter. At the close of the first year, the library contained about 1,068 books, which had been taken out by 605 people. Mr. Merriam, over a period of time, gave 1,000 books and an endowment fund of 50 shares of New York Central and Hudson River Railroad stock, then quoted at 113, making the cash value of the endowment approximately $5,650. The library was then in an ante-room of the town hall.
The lot across from the town hall was bought for the erection of a regular town library, and early in the spring of 1880, the erection of a library had begun. On November 12, 1880, the library was dedicated by Colonel Homer B. Sprague and given to the town with the name of Merriam Public Library.
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There have been many generous gifts given to the town of West Brookfield. In 1878, David Slade Stebbings gave a bell weighing about 1,000 pounds to the Methodist Church; he also gave a similar bell to each school in town. The bell in the School Street school had the following inscription on it:
“A wise man will hear and increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels.” (Proverbs1:5)
In the parish records of the Congregational Church of August 1, 1882 are recorded various contributions to the town. Mrs. Merriam of Springfield gave a 25 pound bell to the Congregational Church; Hon. George M. Rice of Worcester gave a four-dialed clock for the church tower; Hon. E. W. Bond of Springfield contributed a marble baptismal font; Mrs. Mary Merriam of Springfield donated a beautiful pulpit bible. Another gift was the semicircular desk and swivel chair in the library, which was given by Mrs. Helen Barnes.
Around 4:30 on Thursday, June 9, 1885, a dark cloud began to gather on the south section of Coy’s Hill. The cloud soon took on a circular motion and advanced along the top of the hill to the north, coming into the north section of West Brookfield. Leander H. Chamberlain, at the north end of Lake Wickaboag, saw it coming and also saw the roof of his mansion come off and sail into the air at a terrific rate of speed. The roof landed in an orchard and smashed. Water flooded the house so that $1,000 worth of damage was done. No other house was even touched, but the summer residents quickly returned to their own homes.
There have been serious fires in West Brookfield. The most disastrous fire in this town occurred on January 13, 1886. Burned down in this terrible fire were the three-story McIntosh Shoe Company building, the Olmstead Corset Factory, and the home of Mr. Charles S. Jackson. All these buildings were located on Central Street.
The Blair Block, which now contains the stores in the center of town, was destroyed in 1877. On December 16, 1928, and again on May 13, 1938, the Ye Old Tavern was ruined by fire; each time it was rebuilt.
The Conway block, which was then the largest block in town, had its two-story building burned to the ground on February 16, 1931. On August 9, 1950, the birthplace of Lucy Stone was completely demolished by fire leaving ten children and six adults homeless.
Another tragedy, though not a fire, occurred on November 7, 1907. The Modern Express train crashed, killing one man, Mr. Charles Hyde of Newton, Massachusetts and injuring 20 other people.
On Saturday evening, February 15, 1902, the town was alarmed by a loud explosion at the home of Elmer Gould who lived at 3 Cottage Street. At the time, the house was occupied by Mrs. Gould, her sister, known to the town as Auntie Fenton, and a maid in the kitchen. When Mr. Gould arrived home from his business at the grain store, he was informed that something was wrong with the acetylene gas with which the house was lighted.
He took a lantern and entered the cellar by the hatchway where the gas tanks were located. There was a terrible explosion followed by an instant of silence when everyone was too frightened to move. Some of the nearby neighbors thought that the end of the world had finally come. The people rushed to the Gould’s house and were met by an unhappy sight. The house had been lifted completely from its foundation.
Mrs. Gould had been talking at the door to Mrs. John Tomblen who was departing after a pleasant social call. Both were standing directly over the gas tank, which had ignited and were instantly burned to death. Mr. Gould and the maid had been forcefully thrown out a window and a door into the back yard. Auntie Fenton, in the front room, was found alive but had been caught by her long watch chain and found hanging on the chandelier. Rose, an only child, was at school at the time in Ossining, New York.
During these years, the small town of West Brookfield slowly grew. New businesses opened, and the population increased as each year went by.