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Isolated hamlets defined pre-trolley Colrain



Recorder Staff
Sunday, September 11, 2016

COLRAIN — About 120 years before Colrain residents dreamed of being connected to high-speed internet, they dreamed of the “electric road” that would connect Colrain and its many hamlets to Shelburne Falls. That road was the Shelburne Falls and Colrain Street Railway.”

“The year of grace, 1896, will be made memorable in the history of Colrain by at least two important occasions: the reunion of the citizens of the town and the opening of the Shelburne Falls and Colrain Electric Street Railway,” says an old article quoted in a history called “Griswold Manufacturing” by George W. Richardson.

Town historian Belden Merims recently took about 50 audience members on a trip through the town’s collective memory, to tell them what life was like in the days before the trolley ran through what was known as “Colrain City” down to Foundry Village, Griswoldville, Lyonsville, Adamsville, Shattuckville, Elm Groove and other hamlets before reaching Shelburne Falls with both freight and passengers.

Before then, Merims said, Colrain was a bigger town with pockets of isolated residents who seldom left their respective communities. “If you lived in a hamlet,” said Merims, “you probably knew all the people there. You didn’t get out very much,” she said. “You grew up and went to a one-room school about a mile away. You went to church, and that was your social life. You probably married someone in your area. If a child got sick, you did your best, and if you didn’t, your child died.”

“The whole landscape of Colrain was much more open,” said Merims, showing slide-projector images of a less forested town with more open farm fields than today’s Colrain. The town’s population in 1900 was 1,749 — about 80 people more than now. But instead of one school, Colrain had 13 in 1896, and most were single-room schoolhouses. “The idea was no one should have to walk more than one mile to school,” she explained. That year, Colrain had 321 students in 13 schools, 24 female teachers, who were paid $23 per month and three male teachers who were paid $29 per month.

Many children were pressed to work in the mills or on the farm by the time they reached high school age. But families that could afford to do so might send their children off to Arms Academy in Shelburne. Merims said the town would vote to pay $9 for each qualified student’s 12-week tuition, but parents would shoulder the room and board costs to have their sons stay in Shelburne Falls during the school week.

When the trolley came, children could attend Arms Academy without having to be boarding students, and this was one major change for the town, Merims said.

Colrain had inns that were often full. “In 1896, many families had summer boarders,” she said. “After the Civil War, there was a twice-daily stage to Colrain that brought mail and people. The coming and going of stages was of great interest to people. But after the 9 p.m. run, people would go to bed.” Merims said the houses would be dark at night, with the exception of a doctor’s house or one or two eccentric people.

The town had more shops in those days and doctors who set up practices in their homes. One of them was Dr. John Wesley Cram. His home was struck by lightning and caught fire. “There were no phones and no water,” said Merims. So townspeople rang the church bell, which summoned help from the Shelburne Falls Fire Department truck, which was pulled by eight horses.

In 1896, the Civil War Veterans Memorial Hall was completed, as a tribute to the 176 townsmen that had served in the war. Of that group, 17 had died in the war. “It was probably pride in this Memorial Hall that prompted a Colrain reunion in 1896, said Merims. The plans for a town reunion filled “all the sheds and barns and bedrooms in town,” said Merims.

The “History of Colrain, Massachusetts” reports that the reunion was so successful that half the crowd couldn’t get into Memorial Hall for the reunion ceremonies.

The coming of the trolley: Oct. 13

How the Shelburne Falls Trolley and Colrain Electric Street Railway changed Colrain will be the topic of the next program hosted by the Colrain Historical Society meeting on Oct. 13. That meeting will be held in the Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum, at 14 Depot St., Shelburne Falls. The trolley museum owns the car that moved people and freight between Colrain and the Buckland railroad station from 1896 to 1927.