Reminiscences of old Northampton, sketches of the town as it appeared from 1840 to 1850, pub.1902
by Henry S. Gere (Editor of the Hampshire Gazette)
It is wise now, for the living to chronicle what they can of the appearance of the town and of the manners and customs of the people in the early times. Some of the things thus chronicled may seem of small importance to the new-comers, those whose interest in bygone matters is little, but, as the years increase, these small things may become of large magnitude. What would we, the few that are left of the "old guard," give for a minute description of the old town as it appeared a hundred years ago ? And what a priceless thing it would be, if the veil could be lifted and we could see the town and its people at a much earlier date. What curiosity and pleasure would fill one's soul if he could look into the "old church" on a Sunday service in the eighteenth century and view the preacher and the congregation. Their quaint dress, their plain manners, their devotional attitiule, their systematic arrangement of sitting in the pews in the order of standing in the community, the curious pews, the more curious pulpit, the elevated "sounding board," the old-fashioned choir, the old-time singing, the old-time chorister, the old-time deacons, seated in front, the unique service, the long prayer, the longer sermon, the standing in prayer time, the tythingman, — all these, with the primitive architecture of the " meeting house," the bell rope near the front entrance, the horsesheds in the rear, would give a charm to the picture far outranking anything visible in these later days or that has been handed down to us from the "old masters."
But those scenes are gone and forever closed. The past can only be viewed by what is recorded. Therefore I write. And let him who reads and feels inspired to add to the record of these reminiscences, let him write also.
There were six religious societies here in 1845 — the Old Church, the Edwards, Unitarian, Baptist, Episcopalian, each with a meeting-house of its own, except the Methodist, which met in the old town hall. There was a small choir, located in the northerly corner of the hall, and William Lavake played the large bass viol. The society had no organ, or musical instrument of any kind, except those of the violin type. The congregation was small. With the growth of the town, six more religious societies have been added.
THE OLD CHURCH THE CHARM OF THE TOWN.
But the greatest charm of the town, and the one around whose memory the old-timers most delight to linger, was
the "Old Church." There was a tender sacredness about it that touched the heart of the inner man. Its architecture
seemed perfect, and people never tired of looking at it. It was a pleasing object to look upon both day and night, and
when the full moon shone upon its front its charms were brought out with peculiar distinctness, to the special ad-
miration of the beholders. If its architecture was pleasing, its painting corresponded. It was painted white, as all
country churches should be, symbolical of purity. It was the pride of the town, and indeed, of the people of all the
surrounding region. There it had stood for sixty-four years, a majestic edifice, lofty and grand, symmetrical in
form, beautiful in appearance, dedicated to public worship, good morals, and good government, a never-failing benediction upon all the people. There the people had assembled year after year, when it was the only house of worship in the town, and it had come to be to two full generations a religious home, surrounded with many tender associations. In the broad sunlight of a midsummer day, June 27, 1876, while thousands of people gazed upon the conflagration, it fell a victim to the devouring element, and was lost to view. Many who witnessed its destruction did so with heavy hearts and tearful eyes, for an object dear to them was passing forever away.
The interior of this church was like that of all the Congregational meeting-houses of its time in this region. The pulpit was high, very high, almost on a level with the galleries. Winding steps led to it on either side. The singers' seats were in the front, opposite the pulpit, and there was a gallery on both sides. The pews were of the old-fashioned style, rather high, with a door to each, which was opened and shut as the worshipers passed in and out. There was no carpeting on the gallery floor as late as about 1846, and the tread of the late-comers there resounded through the edifice with a noise which in these later days would attract general attention. I have a distinct recollection of seeing, and hearing, our present Col. Joseph B. Parsons, then a lad of about seventeen years, walking down the east gallery about the year 1846, after the beginning of the services. There was vigor in his step then, and weight, too. and the bare floor resounded with the vigorous tread of his march.
In 1862 quite extensive changes were made in the interior of the church, under the direction of Charles Delano and
Marvin M. French. The pulpit was lowered several feet, and the pews were reduced in height and the doors removed. The letters "B. M." and "B. W.", which designated the pews in the rear of the singers' seats set apart for the exclusive use of black men and black women, were removed, and since then there has been no exclusion of colored people from this or any other church in the town. These changes greatly improved the appearance and convenience of the interior.
The organ was introduced in 1856. This was a great innovation, and some of the older and more conservative people made strenuous opposition to it. Among them were Deacon Aaron Breck and his wife, who fought it as a needless and almost sacrilegious mode of worship. They were finally overcome by the advancing modern ideas, but they
grieved to see it introduced.
These were the hey-days of the old church choir. There were about one hundred singers, sometimes one hundred and twenty-five. They were trained by that master of church music, Dr. George W. Lucas, who had singing schools in nearly all the towns of this region. What a musical inspiration he was! A tall man, somewhat spare, full of music as a sponge saturated with water, he led the large choir on state occasions, as a great general leads a victorious army. Some of the members of this choir were Deacon Daniel Kingsley, Silas M. Smith, William K. Wright, Phenix Williams, A. H. Palmer, Dr. T. W. Meekins, Elijah D. Clapp, Justin Smith, Munroe B. Foote, David B. Whitcomb. Alvah L. Bartlett, William Strong, Alfred J. Munyan, John Lawrence. In previous years some of the leading men of the town were members of this choir. Among them were Asahel Pomeroy, Hon. Lewis Strong. Deacon John P. Williston. Levi Strong, Joseph Strong. Preserved Bartlett, Col. Thomas Pomeroy, Ansel Bartlett. Capt. Jonathan P. Strong, Charles Edwards, Samuel Stebbins. Elihu C. Hunt. Theodore Bartlett, and Deacon Jared Clark. Also, Miss Miriam Wright.
The leading lady singers were Mrs. Charles Delano. Mrs. Dr. Thomas W. Meekins, Miss Julia Shepard, daughter of Col. George Shepard, Miss Carrie Parsons, daughter of Capt. Samuel Parsons and now Mrs. J. D. Kellogg, Miss Emma Hubbard, now Mrs. Charles E. Herrick, Miss Sarah Burt, Miss Louise Smith, now Mrs. Hildreth, and Miss Mary Smith.
The old-fashioned choir had its instrumental music. There were skilled men with the bass viol, the violin, and the flute. The large bass viol, owned by the parish, was operated successively by Charles Hooker, William Lavake and Jabez French; William K. Wright and Amos H. Bullen played the violin; and Dr. Elisha Mather, Charles E. Forbes, Elisha Turner and Watson Loud played the flute.
Among the leaders of the choir were, at different times, Asahel Pomeroy, Enos Wright, Elias Mann, Levi Strong, Charles Porter, Asa Barr, George H. King. A. H. Palmer, W. B. C. Pearsons, J. L. Jenkins, Silas M. Smith, and Dr. T. W, Meekins. These were all able choristers, but none of them could equal Dr. Lucas in the essential elements of leadership. Prof. Hoadley was the first organist and was succeeded by Prof. George Kingsley.
After the introduction of the organ, the great choir began to dwindle, and, though the more modern music was more artistic and more acceptable to the younger people, there were many of the old-timers who felt a touch of sadness at the departure of the monster collection of singers with their old-fashioned church music.