Coach Horses in New England

“Every horse had a name. It was 'Git up, Jo; gwan, boys or gals; you are shirky, Bill; you want touching up, Ben; if you don't do better, Ben, I'll swap you for a mule.' All kinds of expressions. Some drivers would fret a team to death, while others would get over the road and you would never hear hardly a loud word to the team. It was just as drivers themselves were constituted. All kinds of horses were used in a stage team, runaways, kickers, biters, and all kinds of tricksters. If the owners could not manage them they went on stage teams, and did good work, and never died. They were seldom sick, as they were well-fed and groomed, and had quick time and short trips. We had some fine teams of matched horses, especially on the Connecticut River roads, which would have sold for seven hundred to a thousand dollars a pair. The horses were usually what were termed native horses, large, full of muscle and gimp, of English descent." (Mr. Miner)

Belchertown - History and Horses

Blue Star Equiculture is a frequent visitor to Belchertown for special events.  Our horses have participated in Belchertown Living History Days, the Belchertown Fair and Parade, BelchertownCAN!, and New Year's Eve rides on the town common.  This year (2011) marks the 250th Annivesary of Belchertown's incorporation, on June 30, 1761, so we thought we'd share some of Belchertown's colorful history - in view of borses and horsepower.

Belchertown's history is written in hoof prints!

The Bay Road and the Age of Stage (Coaches)

Milestone on Bay RoadFor many years the preferred method of travel in the colonies was by water.  Boats plied up and down the coast, and used America’s rivers for navigation.  For this reason, the Connecticut River corridor developed, with towns such as Hartford, Springfield, Holyoke and Northampton developing.  The native population of Nipmuck who lived in the area had a series of trails through the woods that they used. Gradually, as European settlement expanded, these paths were connected into what was known as the Bay Path, which linked Boston and Albany, New York.  Eventually, the path was expanded to accommodate wagon travel, and the Bay Road (which still bears that name between Belchertown and Amherst) was born.

The Bay Road through what is now Belchertown Amherst and Hadley at the time ran through relatively unsettled territory.  The first name given to what would become Belchertown was Cowles’ Spring – then Cold Spring, after a spring where travelers along the Bay Road refreshed themselves.  The first dwelling built in town is believed to have been built in 1733 by Samuel Bascom as a combination home / tavern.  There were many taverns and inns along the Bay Road, and many businesses surrounding travelers making their way between Boston and Albany (or Northampton) sprung up.  Even households not in the taverning business would make some extra income accommodating travelers and their horses.  Along the Bay Road, farmers would keep yokes of oxen expressly for helping to pull a stranded coach or wagon out of the mud or out of the ditch.

The regular stage coach line from Boston stuck to stopping at the taverns where teams for the stage coach company could be switched out for fresh horses while the tired horses were fed and cared for.  On a good day in the first few decades of the 19th century, Boston was a mere 12  hours away!


Horses in Colonial America

“Horseflesh was so plentiful that ‘no one walked save a vagabond or a fool.’ Doubtless our national characteristic of never walking a step when we can ride dates from the days ‘when we lived under the King.”

~Alice Morse Earle, Stage Coach and Tavern Days (1900)

From the beginning of settlement in Massachusetts and other New England colonies, the colonists brought horses with them.  The first small, scrubby horses brought over by the earliest settlers were soon supplemented by larger, better bred horses.  As early as 1635, a shipment of “Flemish horses” had landed at Plymouth, and the Draft Horse had landed in New England.

These “Flemish Horses” of the 17th century were from Flanders, in the Low Countries, and were not of a particular breed that we would recognize today, but rather of a type – in this case, draft-ish.  The Flemish horses were the descendants of the Great Horse of Flanders, foundation stock for the Percheron breed, and were also the ancestors of today’s Belgian Draft horses, although Percherons would not arrive in the New World until 1838 in New Jersey, and Belgians would not be imported until the end of the 19th century.  Flemish horses crossed with local mares would ultimately result in the development of the Narragansett Pacer and later, the birth of “Figure” in West Springfield in 1789, the foundation sire of the Morgan horse, preeminent horse of the 19th century in New England – the all-purpose horse.

Rhode Island was the horse-breeding capital of the colonies, and horses were plentiful.  Before good roads were built in the colonies, horses were ridden and used as pack animals along the paths.  Women were as much at home in the saddle as were men.  Once these paths were widened and graded, horses were driven, put to both heavy wagons and light pleasure vehicles of all sorts.

Recollections of a Stage Coach ride from Northampton to Boston

To take the coach from Northampton to Boston meant leaving Northampton in the 
wee hours of the morning when the stage came through on its way from Albany. 
Excerpted from Recollections of My Mother, Mrs. Anne Jean Lyman, of Northampton.

She loved to give us pleasure; and on her yearly visits to Boston or Brush Hill, would always take one or two of us with her,— never feeling us a care or an encumbrance, in the long journey of eighteen hours by stage-coach, which had to begin at midnight. Yet how much of the wear and tear of our present life was escaped in those days, by not having to hurry to a railway train. There were no expresses then, and so when it was known in the village that Judge and Mrs. Lyman were going to Boston (and they always took pains to make it known), a throng of neighbors were coming in the whole evening before; not only to take an affectionate leave, but to bring parcels of every imaginable size and shape, and commissions of every variety. One came with a dress she wanted to send to a daughter at school; another with a bonnet; one brought patterns of dry goods, with a request that Mrs. Lyman would purchase and bring home dresses for a family of five. And would she go to the orphan asylum and see if a good child of ten could be bound out to another neighbor till she was eighteen; and if so, would Mrs. Lyman bring the child back with her? Another friend would come in to say that her one domestic had an invalid sister living in Ware; and another a mother in Sudbury, on the stage route. When the stage stopped for breakfast or dinner, or relays of horses, would Mrs. Lyman run round and hunt up these friends, carry them messages and presents, and bring back word when she came home how they were,— it would make Sally or Amy so much more contented through the winter!

The Relay

The neighbors walked into the library where the packing was going on; and, when all the family trunks were filled, my father called out heartily, "Here, Hiram, bring down another trunk from the garret, the largest you can find, to hold all these parcels!" And on one occasion, when all were finally packed, a little boy came timidly in, with a bundle nearly as large as himself, from another neighbor, and "would this be too big for Mrs. Lyman to carry to grandmother; mother says she needs it so much, this lime of year?" "No, indeed," my mother would say; "tell your mother I'll carry any thing short of a cooking-stove." "Another trunk, Hiram," said my father; "and ask the driver to wait five minutes." Those were times when people could wait five minutes for a family so well known and beloved. If a little behind time, our driver had only to whip up his horses a little faster before he came to the Belchertown hills; and when he came to those, the elders got out, and lightened the load, to facilitate the journey. What journeys they were! How full of romance and adventure! The first one I recall was when, at five years old, I was taken up out of a sound sleep at one o'clock at night, by my cousin Emma Forbes; dressed by her in a very sleepy state, she not failing to encourage me by telling me that I was a "good little kitten," who was going to Boston with her and my mother; then dropping asleep in her arms as soon as the stage started, and not waking till sunrise. And such a sunrise! I had never seen it before; and having in a childish way had my vague ideas of another world, I started up, and looking beyond the Belchertown hills, at the glorious horizon, I asked Cousin Emma if we were going to heaven.

My father and Uncle Howe always met with wonderful adventures on these journeys. When they stopped at the good breakfast at Belchertown, they were sure to meet someone they knew, who brought them tidings they had been waiting for. At Ware, later in the morning, a concourse of stages met from the west and south; and some of the passengers would be transferred to our stage for Boston. Then often, what handshakings, what lighting up of countenances, as friends parted for many years met in this seemingly providential way, and knew they were to pass at least twelve hours in each other's company, within the friendly limits of the stage-coach!


Belchertown Common

The Common, at the geographical center of town, was largely neglected and overgrown for much of the 18th century.  Prior to the late 1820s, the Common was a place where livestock – horses, pigs, geese, cattle – could graze and roam freely, though attempts were made at various points to contain and limit the animals.

As late as the 1870s, tax receipts show farmers paying the town for use of the grass on the Common.  A fence was put up around the Common in the Victorian era.

The streets around the Common where you are taking your wagon ride today were used for horse races during the Belchertown Cattle Show!  Today, the Cattle Show lives on in the form of the Belchertown Fair, held every fall since 1855.

Belchertown Cattle Show 1908

Belchertown Cattle Show 1908

The sender of the postcard above in 1908 notes that in the 1850s there were 315 yoke of cattle shown at the Cattle Show, 15 yoke more than were necessary to reach all the way around the Common during the procession.   The yoke shown here is followed by two teams of draft horses.

Belchertown – Carriage Capital

In the first half of the 19th century, Belchertown was manufactured more carriages and wagons than any town in any other state.  From early 1800s until after the Civil War, Belchertown’s carriage industry had a reputation for making fine carriages and wagons.  The finest make of carriage bore the label “Made in Belchertown,” quickly putting Belchertown on the map across the young United States.

The first wagon manufactured in Belchertown was known as “Warner’s Butterfly” and featured a light blue exterior with yellow interior.  More conventional models were also made, and carriages from Belchertown were shipped as far away as Australia and Persia.  In 1845 alone, Belchertown produced 677 vehicles, almost two vehicles, built entirely by hand, per day.  Convoys of Belchertown carriages could be seen making their way south along the Old King’s Highway and turnpikes to Virginia.

The first carriage shops in Belchertown were on Federal St. (now Rt. 9) away from the center of town.  These shops were all destroyed in a fire in the 1830s and were never rebuilt, in favor of moving the shops to the center of town.  There were as many as ten separate carriage makers in town, located along North and South Main St., Maple St. and Park St.

Belchertown’s prominence in carriage-building faded after the Civil War as business shifted further west to Studebaker and other carriage makers in the Midwest.

Carriage shop 1868

(Leach's carriage shop, was at the corner of Park St. and Labish St. in Belchertown.  It burned in 1893.)


The Railroad Arrives in Belchertown, 1853

"Those Yankees talk of constructing a railroad over this route; as a practical engineer, I pronounce it simply impossible."

~ Captain Basil Hall, riding in a stagecoach over the future Boston & Albany Railroad route, 1829

The Arrival of the TrainThe Boston and Albany Railroad ran through Palmer to the south, on its way to Springfield.  The first railroad to reach Belchertown was the Amherst and Belchertown Railroad that ran from Amherst to Palmer.  Beginning in 1853, he railroad connected the town with more markets which helped some of the industries in the town.  The railroads helped the dairy industry in Belchertown deliver tons of butter to distant cities and towns.

Contrary to popular belief, even at the time, the railroad did not spell the end of horse-drawn power in Belchertown or elsewhere; horses were needed to move rolling stock without the use of the energy-costly engine, to bring goods and baggage to and from rail depots, to supply coal to the engine, and to deliver passengers to their hotels.  Belchertown, once the railroad came, became a popular summer destination and several hotels were built.

The railroad did, however, spell the end of the old coach routes through Belchertown.  Railroads could reliably travel the same routes that had taken days in mere hours.

Ironically, the development of our nation’s rail network also led to the decline and demise of Belchertown’s carriage-building industry, which, once the largest center of carriage-construction in America, became moribund before the arrival of the automobile.  Because of the railroads, carriage manufacturers were able to set up factories out west and still be able to ship vehicles back to the East Coast markets.  Studebaker set up shop in the 1850s in South Bend, Indiana, and became the country’s leading manufacturer by the end of the 19th century.

Silkworms and Fancy Hats

Silk HatDeacon Ephraim Montague sold over $18,000 worth of mulberry trees to feed silkworms in a brief silk industry boom in Belchertown.  Bardwell Village, at the southeastern part of town, was home to Eagle Mills that made fine silks.

According to the “Old Home Week” committee of 1902 and local legend, the first silk hat in America was manufactured in Belchertown, across the street from the Congregational Church in a home then owned by Mr. Hyde.  Of course, silk hats have been favorites of carriage drivers ever since!

(At left, a New York City carriage driver brushes his silk top hat, ca. 1906.)

Belchertown’s Dairy Industry – with the help of horses

Belchertown’s soil has never been particularly good for growing, and so most agricultural enterprises have focused on lumbering, orcharding, and raising livestock like cattle and hogs for meat.  In the late 19th century, the dairy industry flourished, and it could not have done so without the collaboration of the dairy company working with both horses and the railroad.

The Belchertown Creamery was started by Dwight F. Shumway and Monroe Heath in 1889 in Turkey Hill.  The factory to make butter was moved to Parsons Hill.  Every day, teams of horses would set out to the small dairy farmers in Belchertown, Ludlow, Enfield and Greenwich (the last two now being under the Quabbin Reservoir) to pick up that day’s cream and deliver it to the factory.  Up to 20 trains per day on the Boston-Maine and Central Vermont railways would then ship tons of butter to cities far and wide.

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