Old Hawley Town Commons

October 13, 2010 § 11 Comments

Driving through the hills of Western Massachusetts this past long weekend, we came across the old Town Commons of Hawley.  Hawley today is a town that is home to fewer than 400 people and has no real centre to it.  Aside from a Highways Department, there’s not much evidence of an infrastructure in Hawley, though there is also a Town Hall.  There is no post office or schools in Hawley, nor is there, to my knowledge a church.  There is one corner store, though, but no gas stations.  For services, the people of Hawley tend to travel to neighbouring towns, in particular, Charlemont.

Hawley Town hall

But Hawley has a history.  Pioneers from nearby Hatfield made their way up the mountains and into Hawley.  It was incorporated as a town in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1792.  From then until the mid-19th century, Hawley was a centre of the forestry industry, as well as several smaller businesses, like the usual: blacksmiths, taverns, etc.  There was once an old town commons on what is today called East Hawley Road.

Today, the old Town Commons is the parking lot for a series of trails that explores the bog and lakes around the area.  There is also an information kiosk about the old town commons, including a plan of what used to be there.

Now, it’s not like North America is a place without history, though sometimes it’s as though Europeans seem to think it is.  The aboriginals have been here for thousands of years, and there are remnants and ruins of their cultures littered across the continent.  The Spanish have been in Mexico since the early 16th century.  The French have been in Canada since the early 17th century, around the same time the Dutch and the English landed in what is now the United States.  And those European colonies conquered, colonised, and displaced the aboriginal populations as they expanded across the continent.  So none of this is news, but my point is that there is evidence of earlier settlements and cultures across the continent.

Out west, there are ghost towns.  These places were once booming frontier towns whose time has come and gone.  The most recent spate of ghost towns date from the 80s and 90s, as frontier industry dried up and hit hard times.  Sometimes, the ghost towns aren’t on the frontiers.  As a teenager, I lived in Port Moody, BC, which itself had annexed and old Imperial Oil Company town, cleverly called Ioco (get it, Imperial Oil Co.?).  By the time I lived there in the early 90s, the town had long since been abandoned, the oil refinery on its last legs (it’s since been closed).

Lawn Bowling in Ioco, c. 1920

In the eastern part of the continent, ghost towns are rarer, but if you find yourself in the countryside, there are abandoned farmhouses and homesteads.  In the swamps of Eastern Ontario between Kingston and Ottawa, near the Rideau Canal, one sees countless abandoned homesteads from the windows of the train.  This was marginal land, settled in the 19th century and then abandoned and farm kids moved into the industrial towns and cities that dot the landscape of eastern Ontario.  In Western Massachusetts, the area around Hawley is littered with decaying stone fences that once marked of homesteads from each other.  Now they appear as seemingly random markers in the woods.

But to see visual evidence of a settlement that no longer exists is something else.  I found it slightly strange to be standing on a site that 150 years ago was home to taverns, churches, shops, and the like.  More people lived in Hawley in those days, of course, and travel to the neighbouring towns wasn’t as easy as it is today.  The roads of Western Mass are narrow and windy as they go up and down the hills, around corners, avoiding private property, mountains, hills, lakes, creeks, and rivers.

Drawing of Old Town Commons, Hawley, MA

But once there were people in Hawley, and there was a common.  And that’s where they conducted their business, got married, had their children baptised, got drunk, fought, and came together as a community.  It was rather eery to stand in that same place on a sunny Sunday 150 years later, contemplating whether or not the bog would be a good place to walk the dog, and pondering the Volkswagen, Subaru, and Volvo station wagons that brought the yuppies from Boston, New York, Northampton (and, of course, Montréal) to the trails that lead out from the Old Town Common of Hawley.  The land today is owned by the 5 Colleges of the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts.  And they’re the ones who’ve put the effort into at least re-creating the plan of the Old Commons and they take care of the bog and the trails.

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§ 11 Responses to Old Hawley Town Commons

  • It’s kind of amazing to be in the forest in our area and to realize that in most places everything was clear cut and that the stone fences marked the borders of farms which have now disappeared back into forest.

    There was a gentleman here in Shelburne who donated his family’s land to the Audubon Society. He continued to live there until he died a few years ago in his nineties. He often lead visitors on walks around the land (High Ledges, Shelburne>). He would point out that a well-grown wooded area had been a pasture when he was a boy.

    Thanks for a nice post; I enjoy your blog.

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      It is indeed a bizarre notion to be standing in the midst of forest, in the middle of nowhere and come to the realisation that you are, in fact, standing in the midst of a former clear-cut, and that you are standing on a former town site.

      Seeing all those former homesteads and settlements in Western Mass always reminds me of the Talking Heads’ song, “Nothing But Flowers.”

  • Margo Shea says:

    Really enjoyed your post. Just don’t want Five Colleges, Inc. to get all the credit for bringing back to (virtual) life the common. The Hawley Historical Commission and the Sons and Daughters of Hawley took on the historical sleuthing. See more here:
    http://sites.google.com/site/sonsdaughtersofhawley/old-towncommon

    Continue the good work, Dr. Barlow!

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      Indeed, I stand corrected, it was the Sons and Daughters of Hawley who did the work here, the land is owned by the Five Colleges, Inc.

  • Thank you for your interesting and appreciative post on Hawley’s Old Town Common historic site, for which I am the historian. I just came across your post today. You can take a virtual tour of the site by going to:

    http://sites.google.com/site/sonsdaughtersofhawley/old-towncommon

    and also access two essays I wrote on the history of the common and the project. One is an attachment (click on “Rediscovering Hawley’s Old Town Common” at bottom of the page), the other can be accessed through the link to the Public Humanist.

    The kiosk (which contains some information on the adjacent Hawley Bog as well as the Hawley Common) and nine interpretive signs were created by the Sons & Daughters of Hawley. Most of the common is still owned by the Town of Hawley, the rest of the area included in the historic site is owned by Five Colleges, the University of Massachusetts Foundation, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (state forest), and a private landowner. All the landowners were enthusiastic supporters of the work undertaken by the Sons & Daughters of Hawley. MassHumanities and Highland Communities Initiative generously provided funding for the project.

    Recently, the Sons & Daughters of Hawley received a new grant from MassHumanities to carry out an archeological dig at the site of the Sanford Tavern at Hawley’s Old Town Common in collaboration with Mohawk Trail Regional High School. Students from the school will participate in the dig under the supervision of an archeologist and a teacher. We hope to learn something new about life in Hawley 180 years ago!

    This entire project has been a great pleasure to work on!

    And, as you say, Hawley’s Old Town Common is worth a visit!

  • John Matthew Barlow says:

    John,
    Thanks for the comment, I’m happy to discover someone involved in the Town Commons site is reading this. I just love, as I noted in the post, the idea of the forest re-claiming what was once a town site and I’m excited about the dig there. When are you doing it? I’d be fascinated to find out what’s discovered there, I’ll be down the road in Charlemont over the summer. Thanks again.

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