Two Villages... Sandstone... Two Suburbs

by Michael Gelinas, Board member- Longmeadow Historical Society-  October 2010 Issue

What initiated this ongoing political war was a petition submitted to the Massachusetts Legislature from the West Village of Longmeadow asking the Commonwealth to separate the West from the East Village and to create two independent towns out of the original Longmeadow, which had been set off from Springfield in 1783. The petitioners cited complete "diversity of interests" and lack of communication between the two very distinct villages. Even geography played a role. A member of the Massachusetts House referred to the territory between the villages, as "a howling wilderness, and one might believe that a crow going across would be obliged to carry his rations with him."

Centennial 1883

Yet just a few years earlier, in 1883, about 2,500 people had gathered on the Green, under a huge tent in the West Village, to celebrate the town's Centennial. The Springfield Republican of October 18 described Longmeadow's celebration as "one of the rare occasions whose excellences far surpass their prefatory promise; for nothing of the sort was ever more modestly heralded, and assuredly nothing of the sort was more rich, satisfying, and complete".  Various newspaper reports indicated people from all over the lower valley had come to the town on the 17th, with tethered horses and other conveyances parked up and down the street for miles. The East Village had a large number present, and there was no outward indication of any tension between the two villages.

Emerging Differences

But in the years after the Civil War, pre-existing differences began to become stronger and rise to the surface. These differences involved population, ethnicity, economics, spatial characteristics, and a changing view by the leaders of the nature and basic character of each village. At the bottom of all the differences was a natural resource: brown and red sandstone, which was present in the East, but not the West.  While not as volatile as oil or as valuable as gold, this stone was somewhat rare, and it had become a very important building material. During the l9th century there was an increased demand for building material in a growing American economy. Coupled with expanding and more advanced mining operations, the East Village experienced a continually expanding economy. Longmeadow brown sandstone, and particularly red sandstone, became famous for its use in a variety of places, such as Yale, Princeton, Wesleyan, the Smithsonian in Washington, and Trinity Church in NYC, to name just a few.


The rise of this stone mining activity led to some significant population differences. The variety of task associated with the mining, such as cutters, polishing teamsters, stables, harriers, and boarding house owners led to an influx of Canadians (from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick), followed by Poles, Swedes, and Italians. One social consequence was the rise of religious and social organizations to meet the needs of this growing multiethnic population. The overall growth of population and industry put pressure on the entire town to increase and improve the physical infrastructure. This would become one of the issues to surface in the 1880s and exacerbate other differences.

The growing population of the East was in contrast to a level and then declining population in the West. This was in part due to the earlier settlement (by over a century) of the West and the inability of agriculture to continue to support large families. By the early 1800s many of the sons of "Street" families (especially the Coltons) had gone into religious training for missionary work and /or career advancement or had moved to the growing American western frontier (leaving behind an imbalanced population: more females to males). This situation set up the long-term decline in population by lowering the overall birth rate of the West Village. While new families moved in, they tended to be past childbearing age; they were the initial beginning of Longmeadow becoming a retirement village, or a refuge from the world for wealthier individuals. This "new" population would be less supportive of increasing taxes for infrastructure development of the East Village. At the same time, some of the older farm families were experiencing declining revenues from their aging farms.

The East Village

Differences by themselves don't automatically mean conflict.  People from Longmeadow Street in the West and from other locations had been moving a few miles eastward ever since around 1740. They did not emulate the linear structure of the West (the "Street"), but had scattered farm lots and houses. By 1829 there were enough families in the eastern part to form their own church, and the nucleus of the East Village now existed. But the population of both villages was still basically of the original Puritan stock that settled the lower valley two centuries earlier; both villages were still basically white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant communities. But here was one subtle but vital difference evolving. The East had a younger population, and it was the "frontier" for regional immigration, while the West's population was gradually aging.

[click image to enlarge]

Organizing for Division

Beginning in the Civil War era, there were occasional discussions and rumblings from one village or another about separation. But it was in 1891 that the first full-blown move for a division of the town occurred, and it came from the West Village. A letter dated December 7, 1891 was circulated, asking for opinions and support for "a division of the town... with a view of submitting the matter to the Legislature...".  The letter cited reasons that have been referred to here; but an important additional reason referred to the "many improvements needed by the West village..." that the people of the other village didn't care about. This list was the basis for all future discussions and of the formal petition submitted to the Legislature on December 7, 1892 (exactly one year later).

Political War

Town meetings over the next three years became more noisy and less civil. Each side accused the other of a variety of Machiavellian moves, illegal activities, and lack of impartiality by the Moderator (elected from the East by the 2-to-1 voting advantage of the East Village).  The Springfield papers, of course had a field day with this situation. "FEUD RENEWED," "ANNUAL FRACAS," and "STORMY MEET|NG" were banner headlines in the local papers.  One veteran Selectman from the West, Charles Newell, was arrested at one meeting. He was vigorously and loudly protesting and accusing the Moderator of cheating by not allowing a ballot on the question to include an option for a pro-division vote.

Legislative Intervention

Meanwhile the legislature had been considering the question of division for several years. The first YES vote for division in early 1893 was vetoed by Gov. William Russell. One reason was that the tax burden of each village would change significantly: the West would decline and the East increase. Also, a division would create a town (the West village) that would have a population of only 570 and a little over 100 voters. Another reason was that on two separate occasions there had been an emphatic 2-to-1 vote against division, and the governor saw no real grievance that should override the explicit will of the majority to keep the town whole. However, another petition to the Legislature in early 1894 received a positive vote and the signature of Gov. Greenhalge.  At the time it was speculated that the high-handed and arbitrary tactics of the East village and its leaders convinced the new Governor that the growing "war of the communities" could only end by creating two separate towns.  

So on July 1, 1894, the "new" Town of Longmeadow was born. When the new town received the news of the coming split on May 22, "bells were set ringing merrily in Old Longmeadow Street... bonfires were lighted and firearms blazed. The village band paraded the streets reinforced by horns and shouts... and firework....".

Leadership and a Vision

Was this division inevitable? What role did individuals play in these events? And perhaps most important, what values informed the actions of the leaders and their vision of an ideal community?

A preliminary answer is suggested here. Certain names show up in the drive for division and the establishment of a new town government and the necessary infrastructure, like a water supply system (beyond personal wells, brooks, and water troughs on the "Street") Some of these people controlled large tracts of land, some that were estates of some of the older farmers; some got involved in real estate developments like South Park Terrace, or were shareholders in the new electric trolley lines. The new town with its historic linear development and open land to the east of the Street was a resource perfect for the building of a suburb for the burgeoning city of Springfield. The Springfield Republican had hinted at this in a February 1892 editorial arguing for the division of the town: lt noted the East's future prosperity would grow with the quarries, and the West's "nearness to Springfield" will take care of the West Village.

And finally, what of the vision of  the West's leaders?  They were inheritors of and still strong believers in the old Puritan vision of a "City Upon a Hill" articulated by the Puritan leader John Winthrop in 1630 with the founding of the Mass Bay Colony. The belief in a superior people and culture that was inherent in Puritanism still existed in the late 1800s.  It had morphed into a set of beliefs that fall under the label of Social Darwinism. People of Anglo-Saxon heritage were believed to be at the top of the population pyramid, in contrast to the "New Immigration" from southern and eastern Europe. The Chair of the Longmeadow Centennial "welcomed on behalf of Mother Longmeadow all her Saxon children" (but made no ethnic reference to other groups of people residing in the East Village). The keynote speaker, in lecturing on Longmeadow's early history referred to inferior and savage Indians, and French colonists (particularly nuns and priests) in derogatory terms. Another speaker referred to the Old village as a "select and favored refuge..." where there was "no air of foreignness as you would find in the coastal cities." He told his audience that the beauty of the old village was that the "original blood" of the Puritan middle-class English migrants has continued "without any general admixture of foreign elements."

It was in this cultural context that began the discussions on the "Street" that would lead to a movement for separation from the East Village. There were all the other differences, from stone to squabbles to suburb, but the identification of the West Village as a "happy harbor of God's saints" certainly provided a rationale for creation of a "new" Longmeadow over the next generation. The first major planned development was called South Park Terrace, (south of the Forest Park boundary and fronting the "Old Longmeadow Street").  Its advertising booklet referred to the peace and quiet and tastefulness and temperate enterprise and quick trolley ride to downtown Springfield owners.

Check back to the Town Crier Archive often to read new articles as they are posted.

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