Huntstown Beginnings

Research by Nancy Gray Garvin
Copyright © December 2016 Nancy Gray Garvin and the Ashfield Historical Society

Ashfield is a Proprietor Town, one of the sixteen Canada townships granted by Acts of the General Court of the Province of Massachusetts Bay to the officers and soldiers who had served inTownHall-500x370 the failed 1690 Expedition to Canada during King William’s War. Ashfield, first called Weymouth Canada, and then Huntstown to honor Captain Hunt, was granted in December 1735 to the sixty soldiers and mariners who went from Weymouth to Canada with Capt. Ephraim Hunt. Ephraim Hunt was deceased when his son, Ebenezer Hunt, and other members of the Expedition petitioned the Court for this land “in consideration of their hardships and Sufferings in said Expedition.” They were granted a piece of land not to exceed “Six Miles square...” “Begining at a Stake and Stones in Deerfield Westline...”  This line is now Conway, which was formed from Deerfield in 1767. The Town was to be laid out in Sixty Equal Shares plus a school lot, a minister lot, and a church lot. This was done through a series of five divisions of the land with sixty-three lots in each division. The drawing for the first division lots took place in 1739, the second in 1762, the third in 1770, the fourth in 1782 and the fifth drawing in 1783. The fourth division lots were finalized at the drawing for the fifth division lots.

The Proprietors (the soldiers, their heirs, or their assigns) gathered in Weymouth in July 1739 to draw for their lots in the First Division. These lots had been laid out by five surveyors chosen by the Proprietors in 1738. The surveyors included John Phillips, one of the 1690 soldiers, and Daniel Owen, nephew of a 1690 soldier.

Each Proprietor drew for one of the sixty-three lots, each of about fifty acres, located in the northeastern part of town, and the rights to all future divisions. Some of these men had sold their lots before the first drawing. Some of the proprietors sold their rights to future divisions with the original lot. Others sold the rights to future divisions separately from the sale of their lots.

By 1742 at least twenty-six of the 1739 proprietors still owned their lots, but only one, Heber Honestman, had settled in Huntstown.  Five of the 1690 soldiers were at the 1739 drawing. The rest of those drawing lots were heirs of the soldiers or their assigns. There were ten people who had purchased the right to draw from an heir. One of these was freed slave Heber Honestman, of Easton, who had purchased his proprietors’ right from Josiah Prat, son and heir of 1690 soldier Samuel Prat. Heber Honestman drew Lot #1 and came to Huntstown with his family in the early 1740s to settle on this lot. In his Ellis genealogy, published in 1888, Dr. Ellis gave an undocumented, simplistic sequence of Huntstown settlers. He claimed that Richard Ellis, from Easton, was the first settler in 1745, Thomas Phillips, brother-in-law to Ellis, the second settler, and Chileab Smith, of Hadley, the third settler. Heber Honestman and the other settlers were not mentioned. This “history” continues to be promulgated today.

In 1739 Richard Ellis with his son, Reuben, built one of the first dwellings in Township #1 (now Westminster, Vt.) of which he was a proprietor. The Massachusetts Bay Colony had awarded Township #1 to the 1690 soldiers from Norton, which included Easton. Ellis was “of Deerfield” in 1741 when he sold this property. Beriah Chilson of Uxbridge was “of Huntstown” before August 1742 when Thomas Phillips was still “of Easton.” John Nightingale, from Braintree, was “of Huntstown” in 1742/43 when Chileab Smith was still “of Hadley.” Chileab Smith was of Huntstown by the spring of 1753 when he founded the Baptist Church with four family members.

The Proprietors appointed a committee of six men to build the first grist mill in 1744 on “Pond Brook,” now the South River, north of Plain Cemetery.  By 1753 the Proprietors, who met first in Braintree, then in Hadley, and by 1769 in Huntstown, had built a saw mill and second grist mill on Bear River. In 1754 the newly constituted Court of Sessions recorded a ten rod road from Deerfield to “Heber’s fence” on “Bellow’s Hill.” Of the fourteen families, from Deerfield, Hadley, Hatfield, Easton and Braintree, living in Huntstown in 1754, eight were Proprietors, namely Heber Honestman, Richard Ellis, Thomas Phillips, Josiah Rockwood, John Nightingale, John Sadler, Moses Smith, and Chileab Smith. Of these Proprietors, only Heber Honestman was at the original drawing in Weymouth. The others had purchased their lots after the drawing.

Several members of Capt. Ephraim Hunt’s family were at the 1739 drawing. Daniel Williams, of Easton, whose wife, Rebecca Hunt, was a granddaughter of Ephraim Hunt, purchased many of the rights to future divisions from these family members, for a total of more than 1600 acres. His son, Ephraim Williams, settled in Ashfield ca. 1775. By 1793 Ephraim Williams, great-grandson of Capt. Ephraim Hunt, was the largest land owner in town. His descendants still own some of this land.

“In the years 1754 and 1755 they were forced to leave the Town for some months for Fear of the Indians. By 1756 twenty-nine people had returned to the Town and fifty-four others were “scattered... for want of Protection.” They successfully petitioned the governor to build a stockade fort around Chileab Smith’s house. A second fort was purported to have been built in 1757 for the Ellis and Phillips family, one-half mile south of the Smith fort.

Huntstown was incorporated on 21 June 1765 as the Town of Ashfield, but the Proprietors continued to meet until the early 1800s. In 1766 sixty-eight property owners were listed on the tax and voter list. Besides those from Massachusetts, a group of settlers had come from Stafford, Enfield, Middletown/Chatham, and other Connecticut towns. By 1776 the local population was 628 individuals. The population peaked at 1,809 in 1810 and then began a gradual decline as the War of 1812 ended and Ashfield residents began to move west. In 1830 it peaked at 1,832 and then steadily declined at each census. In 1940 Ashfield’s population was 872. In January 2009, from the town street list, the population was 1,802 residents and there were 1290 registered voters.

By 1763, Jacob Sherwin, a Congregational minister and Yale University graduate from Hebron, Conn., had settled on “Bellows” Hill. Fifteen original members, including Heber Honestman, met at the home of Ebenezer Belding. By 1771 the Congregationalists had built a church on the Plain, located in the front section of what is now Plain Cemetery. In 1814 they moved into a new building on Norton Hill. In 1857 they hired Charles Tubbs of Springfield to move this building down to the Plain, after a second Congregational building had been built there. In 1868 the two congregations reunited. The 1814 building is now the Town Hall. In 1820 fourteen men established St. John’s Episcopal Church. The present building was built in 1827 on a lot donated by Levi Cook.

In 1786 the original Baptist Church split over a dispute between Chileab Smith and his, son Ebenezer, the first Baptist minister. Chileab and his son, Enos, established a second church just over the line in Buckland. In 1798 the two churches reunited, but disbanded ca. 1850. Some of the members built a second Baptist church in South Ashfield in 1814 and disbanded in 1841. In 1867 another Baptist Society was formed. They disassembled and moved a building from Buckland to Ashfield. This building was later sold to the Grange and is now the Community Hall. The Universalist Church, established with sixty members in 1840, purchased the South Ashfield Baptist Church building in 1844. In 1868 they voted to adjourn and never re-opened. The Methodists met in the two room school house at Chapel Falls from 1832 to 1855.

As outlying areas of the town became populated the town voted to establish various school districts. Each had its own schoolhouse. The first was Baptist Corner in 1766, to be followed in 1772 by a school on “the Plain” and the “Round School” in South Ashfield. In 1777 the town formed the Spruce Corner district. In 1782 Steady Lane, Briar Hill, Cape Street, Northwest and Wardville were established. In 1810 the Chapel District was formed from part of Briar Hill. In 1813 “Beldenville” was formed and in 1815 a second district was formed in South Ashfield. The two South Ashfield districts united in 1889 into a new building. In 1823 the town built a schoolhouse in New Boston (Watson). The fourteenth district in Apple Valley was not formed until 1845. The first Sanderson Academy was established by Rev. Alvan Sanderson in 1816 as a secondary school. Students paid tuition; they met in private homes and later in a building moved to Main Street from Steady Lane. In 1885 John Field donated land for a playing field. After his death his wife donated money for a school and library to be built in his memory on the playing field, now “The Field.”The new school was dedicated in 1889.  It was tuition-free for Ashfield residents. This building burned in 1939. A new consolidated school building opened in 1940. It incorporated all twelve grades and the district schools closed. The Town sold these buildings, of which all but two are now private homes.  In 1967 the town joined with neighboring towns to form the Mohawk Regional School District, now grades K-12. In 1997 the town moved the K-6 students into the building presently in use. The 1940 building was taken down in 2002.

Most of the early Ashfield residents would today be called subsistence farmers. They usually had one cow, a horse or oxen, and swine. Crops were mostly hay, corn, rye, and oats. There were 188 sheep on the 1766 tax valuation list. In 1821 there were 7,667 sheep. By 1840 Ashfield was the leading wool-producing town in the county. About 1812 Samuel Ranney began raising peppermint in South Ashfield by taking wild plants from the banks of the South River. He built a steam still to extract the oil. In 1821 the Town listed five distilleries on its tax assessments. At least one of these may have been used to distill cider into brandy from native apple trees growing mostly in Apple Valley. In 1824 over $40,000 worth of peppermint oil was produced and in 1825 several hundred acres were planted to peppermint. Jasper Bement began using young men as itinerant peddlers to distribute household notions, distilled mint and other essences to outlying places in New England and upstate New York. Peddler Archibald Burnet went to Phelps, New York, took a job on a farm and married Experience Van Demark, daughter of his employer. The Burnet family brought mint from Ashfield to Phelps. It grew so well there that the Burnets, Ranneys, and other mint-growing families from Ashfield moved to Phelps by 1836 and took the mint industry with them.

In the early 1800s Daniel Forbes began grafting apple trees and producing new varieties in Apple Valley. Apples became a major crop and are grown commercially today on the same farm. In 1855 Ashfield was the leading butter producer in the county; cheese was another common product. In 1855 there were fourteen sawmills. Small woodworking shops made items such as broom handles, axes, hoes, wooden faucets and surgical splints. There were tanneries, several carding and fulling mills, and a pottery in South Ashfield. In 1878 the Great Pond Dam, then privately owned, broke during a heavy rain and some of the industry on the South River was wiped out by the ensuing flood.  By 1892 George Thayer operated a mill in Spruce Corner, earlier owned by Amasa Holbrook and Nelson Gardner, and made apple barrels. In 1900 Thayer & Harmon began manufacturing wooden handles. William Ford rebuilt his water-powered mill on Ford Pond in Watson after it burned in 1892. By 1910 he was manufacturing whip butts and apple barrels in connection with the Thayer mill.  The Ashfield Cooperative Creamery opened in 1880. It processed 121,494 pounds of butter the first year.  In 1912 production peaked at 797,000 pounds. The creamery closed in 1927 after it became more profitable for farmers to ship their milk to the H.P. Hood & Sons milk station in Shelburne Falls.

Agriculture continues to be an integral part of the Ashfield economy as consumers “Buy Local.” Presently Ashfield has one operating cow dairy farm. Several other farms raise beef cows. These farmers pasture their animals, harvest hay and corn on their own land and on other land they use for free or rent, thus maintaining the town’s open spaces. There are several beekeepers, some of whom sell honey commercially. There are two commercial fruit orchards. Forestry products, Christmas trees, and maple syrup are produced and sold. Several farms have sheep and produce wool products. A growing number of market gardeners sell their produce to local stores and restaurants. Several farms sell eggs from free-ranging chickens. Many of these farmers sell their products from May to November at the very successful Farmers’ Market held each Saturday on the Town Common. In December 2005 the Town voted to form an Agricultural Commission and in May 2006 a Right-to-Farm Bylaw easily passed at the annual town meeting.

Sources: Huntstown Proprietors Records, Huntstown Proprietors’ Treasurer’s Book, Tax and Voter Lists, Ashfield Town Hall; Hampshire County Deed Abstracts; Mark Williams, The Brittle Thread of Life The New England Backcountry in the Eighteenth Century (unpublished PhD. dissertation, Yale University, 2006), 396-403; Roy Akagi, “The Town Proprietors of the New England Colonies” (PhD. dissertation, University of Penn., 1923), 193; F.G. Howes, History of Ashfield, Vol. I; F.G. Howes, Huntstown Proprietors Map, Ashfield Historical Society; E.R. Ellis, Biographical Sketches of Richard Ellis ...(1888) Ashfield Historical Society; “A Record of the Plantings, Gathering and Proceedings of the Baptist Church of Christ in Ashfield,” Ashfield Historical Society; Newsletters, Ashfield Historical Society; Pat Smith and Nancy Garvin, “Route 112 Scenic Byway Corridor Management Plan, Archeological and Historic Resources” (FRCOG, 2009), 5: 22-26; Mass. Historical Commission, “MHC Reconnaissance Survey Town Report, Ashfield, 1982,” Ashfield Historical Society; Warren Chase, “Notes on Old Deeds,” Ashfield Historical Society; Mark Williams, “Corrections and Additions to Warren Chase’s Notes,” Ashfield Historical Society.