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Warwick turns 250 Sunday

Ball, ice harvest set for this weekend

  • This image provided by the Warwick Historical Society shows Charles  and Henry Shaw cutting ice on Moore’s pond  circa 1939-44.<br/><br/>Story DR submitted image  <br/>

    This image provided by the Warwick Historical Society shows Charles and Henry Shaw cutting ice on Moore’s pond circa 1939-44.

    Story DR submitted image

  • This image provided by the Warwick Historical Society shows Charles  and Henry Shaw cutting ice on Moore’s pond  circa 1939-44.<br/><br/>Story DR submitted image  <br/>

WARWICK — Just over 250 years ago, a little settlement known as Gardner’s Canada, nestled in the hilly woods against the New Hampshire border, petitioned the Bay State legislature to be incorporated as a town.

On Feb. 17, 1763, the settlement was incorporated, and given a new name.

“We don’t even know what Warwick was named after,” admitted Ed Lemon, curator of the Warwick Historical Society museum. Some say it’s named for Warwick, England, others say it was an homage to the famous Guy Cliffe, 13th Earl of Warwick.

Whatever the cause, Warwick replaced the monickers of Gardner’s Canada and Roxbury’s Canada, names which the settlement took on for more logical reasons: The land grants that would become Warwick were given in honor of those who fought under Capt. Andrew Gardner in a French and Indian War battle on Canadian soil.

“In the late 1600s, a group of soldiers from Roxbury were sent on a rather futile attack on a position in Canada,” said Lemon. “As a reward, the survivors and orphans of the soldiers of this failed mission were given the Warwick land grant.”

“Let’s face it; it’s one of the hilliest regions of Massachusetts, so it was perhaps not the best possible reward,” said Lemon.

The first six houses of the settlement were built in 1739, and, by 1765, the town had 161 residents in 36 houses, according to a 1982 report by the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

Despite the rough lay of the land, “people settled, and they made of it what they could,” said Lemon.

One of the things they made the most of was the woods. Lumber and wood products became the chief industry of the town.

“By 1865, the town had 20 sawmills, and produced 1.5 million (board) feet; 10 percent of the lumber in Franklin County” and the most from any one town, said Lemon. That same year, he said, Nahum Jones’ boot shop employed 20 men, and produced $20,000 worth of boots, a sizeable sum in those days.

Before the Civil War, many of those boots were shipped to the South, where they were worn by slaves. The dormant factory was torn down around 1890, which cleared the lot for the current Town Hall, built in 1895.

The town also had a short-lived glass factory, which was built in 1812, produced its first panes in 1813, and struggled for five years before folding.

“The glass factory was one of Warwick’s most famous industries, because it failed miserably and bankrupted many wealthy residents,” said Lemon. Inexperienced owners, trouble getting raw materials, and even an incident where a glass furnace exploded, were among the many difficulties the factory faced.

Though it closed nearly 200 years ago, remnants from the glass factory can still be seen.

“Not a trace of the factory remains, but there are fragments of glass all over,” said Lemon. “You can even pick them up along the roadside today.”

Other commercial ventures included brush-making, and three leather-producing tanneries, a tavern, a general store and an inn. The town’s turbulent topography never lent itself well to farming, though some still tried.

When war broke out between the Union and Confederacy in 1861, Warwickians signed up to serve. The first to do so, William Lawrence, was killed three months later in the first Battle of Bull Run. He is the only Warwick native buried in Arlington National Cemetery, said Lemon.

Another of Warwick’s native sons, John Bowman, also served in the Civil War, but for the other side.

“He happened to be visiting relatives in the South when war was declared, and he was shanghaied into service,” Lemon said. Eventually, however, he broke free, deserted the Rebel army, and headed home to the woods of Warwick.

He was headed home as many Warwickians were leaving town. The railroad had come through the region in the 1850s, but the tracks didn’t touch Warwick, and without high-speed transportation, the town’s industry suffered, and residents sought greener pastures.

In fact, today’s under-800 population is closer to the 1870 population of 769 residents than the 1,250 who lived in town in 1719.

Though the town’s population has grown overall since its incorporation, Warwick has shrunk physically. In 1781, residents voted to set off 4,060 acres, which, in addition to land from Athol, Royalston, and Erving, became the town of Orange. This resulted in the staircase-shaped southeast border of Warwick; previously, it was more or less square.

Though much has changed in town, its residents have kept their take-charge nature through the generations. Today, the town operates its own, soon-to-be-upgraded wireless Internet provider and is working to bring cell phone coverage to town, and the firefighters are planning to build a public safety complex with volunteer labor. Born of necessity, these projects are a testament to Warwick’s do-it-ourselves nature.

“We’re an independent bunch, some might say ‘ornery,’ others might say ‘stubborn,’ but it seems to have served us pretty well,” Lemon reflected.

Back in the 1900s, the town did much the same. When phone companies refused to wire and serve Warwick, they formed the Warwick Telephone Company, which first consisted of six phones connecting the east and west sides of town, Lemon said. It served the town until the Hurricane of 1938 took out all the poles and lines, and New England Telephone and Telegraph came to install their own system afterward. In the 1950s, firefighters built the two-bay station the department still uses today. They also raised the money to buy the 1957 Dodge fire engine that’s still in service.

Despite the unconducive landscape, some residents still make a go at agriculture.

Hettie Belle Farm raises grass-fed cattle and organic pigs, chickens, and other fowl. Chase Hill Farms makes milk and cheese, and works the land the old-fashioned way, with horses.

While some, like Chase Hill Farm’s Fellows family, have been in town for generations, there’s a place in the community for newcomers, too.

“Warwick sucks you in, and, before you know it, you’re involved in something,” said Lemon. He and his wife, Patricia, moved to town 16 years ago, and soon, she found herself on the Selectboard, and he was running websites for the town and the Historical Society.

“If you’re new, people will ask you, ‘how’d you like to be on such-and-such committee?’ And most of the time, people say ‘yes’,” said Lemon. “A lot of people are willing to do a lot of volunteer work, and stuff gets done.”

In anticipation of the town’s birthday, a 250th Anniversary Committee was formed, and it’s planned several celebrations. On this, the weekend of the anniversary, there will be a Gala Costume Ball starting at 8 p.m. in Town Hall today, and at 1 p.m. Sunday, residents will bring their antique ice-cutting tools to Moore’s Pond, for a historic ice harvest. The celebrations will culminate with the weekend-long Old Home Days in August.

Lemon said a new compilation of Warwick history is in the works.

“We’re working on a book called ‘A History of Warwick in X number of Objects,’ based on the book ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’,” he said. Lemon expects the book to be out as early as summer.

For more on Warwick’s history, go to www.warwickma.org/history.html. There, you’ll find links to electronic versions of local history books, genealogical data, old maps and much more. Also, the Historical Society’s artifact collection can be seen at whs.steamkite.com.

David Rainville can be reached at:
drainville@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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