Williamstown is located in the far northwest corner of Massachusetts bordering Vermont and New York. We are the home of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williams College, and 8,220 residents including 2,000 Williams College students.
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In 1750 village lots in the newly surveyed West Hoosac plantation were first offered for sale by the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Court probably had two motives in establishing the plantation: to settle and fortify the northwest corner of the colony, lying along a heavily used Indian path, and thereby protect towns to the east and south; and to prevent Dutch settlers in New York from inching over their eastern boundary into Massachusetts. The area was a heavily forested wilderness, and although some of the lots were purchased by speculators, many were acquired by soldiers from Fort Massachusetts, four miles to the east.
The early years were difficult for the settlers. The French and Indian War brought fear of ambush, scalping, and arson, and in 1756 a blockhouse and stockade were built at the site of the present Williams Inn, as a refuge from repeated raids.
With the coming of peace in 1760 settlement began to increase. More land was divided and cleared, some roads were cut, and farming became the dominant way of life in the valley. Small saw, grist, and fuelling mills appeared, easing the labor of colonial living. Professionals and craftsmen began to arrive as well: a doctor, lawyer, cobblers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and shopkeepers.
In 1765, to comply with terms in the will of Colonel Ephraim Williams, who bequeathed funds for the founding of a local free school only if the hamlet was incorporated and re-named, Fort West Hoosac officially became Williamstown. The school opened in 1791 and became Williams College in 1793.
Until the Industrial Revolution, the town flourished on a combination of dairy farming, sheep herding and wool production, small local mills and general stores. The American Foreign Missionary movement was born here at a prayer meeting in 1806, when a group of Williams College students, taking shelter under a haystack from a sudden thunderstorm, proposed sending the Gospel abroad. And always, the scenic beauty of the surrounding mountains was an important part of life. The Alpine Club, formed in 1863 under the inspiration of Professor Albert Hopkins, sponsored mountain climbing and camping excursions in the local hills, it declared purpose being “to explore the interesting places in the vicinity, to become acquainted…with the natural history of the localities…also to improve the pedestrian powers of the members.”
The coming of the railroad and the Industrial Revolution changed the face of Williamstown. Although the amount of water power in Williamstown limited the extent of industrialization it experienced, the town was transformed by the appearance of the Walley Mill and Williamstown Manufacturing Company (Station Mill), both textile mills, and A. Loop and Company (Water Street Mill), which manufactured twine.
Summer tourism grew, and both the elegant Idlewild Hotel in South Williamstown and the Greylock Hotel on the corner of North and Main Streets, were in their heyday. The catchy and descriptive phrase “Williamstown the Village Beautiful” was coined by Henry Tague, manager of the Greylock, who was also successful in pushing for construction of the Taconic Trail. Sand Springs, famous to the earliest Indian tribes for the medicinal properties of its thermal spring, also thrived as a grand resort, and later as a Sanitarium, and bottling plant for spring water. When flavorings were added, Sand Springs Ginger Ale became a renowned soft drink.
Farming continued in Williamstown during this period, and Mount Hope Farm, a major experimental farm that gradually grew to over 1300 acres, was noted for its success in using genetic principles to improve the yield of potatoes and to boost the production of egg-laying poultry and dairy cattle. In addition to being a large local employer, Mount Hope’s findings were useful worldwide.
After World War II, Williamstown grew rapidly. Businesses changed. Recent major employers have included Carrol Cable, Steinerfilm, Ivy Guild, Sweet Brook Nursing Home, Williamstown Medical Associates, and the Mount Greylock School District. But with the admission of women in the 1970s and its consequent expansion to over 2000 students, Williams College is the largest employer by far.
Today, with a population of 8,056 including students, Williamstown continues to be known for the scenic beauty of its surrounding mountains, for Williams College, and for the cultural attractions of its Theater Festival and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.