By OLIVER PERRY ALLEN
As a fitting subject to illustrate some of the varied phases connected with farm life in Palmer during the past two centuries, the farm long known in our early days as the Barnard McNitt place, later as the J.H. Keith homestead, and now owned by Dwight C. Hathaway, just beyond Blanchardville on the road to Warren, has been selected as a type of unusual interest. First, because it was one of the very earliest farms settled in our territory after that of John King; and second, because the main portion of the original farm still retains its identity, although a number of slices have been carved off from time to time. [These slices have mostly been restored to the farm, with enough adjoining land to bring the total acreage to 320.] ....
(end of page 391)
Among the first eight or ten families who came to settle in our district was John Moor with his aged mother Jean, wife Mercy and brother James. At the time of his advent there was said to have been a welcome opening in the virgin forest in the shape of a narrow meadow, hard by the Bay Path, through which flowed a perennial brook, opposite the present O'Neil house [since tom down]. Tradition has it that long years before the coming of the white man a few families of Indians had been in the habit of pitching their wigwams here during the summer season; they planted the meadow with corn, fished in the well-stocked stream or hunted in the nearby forest. On the approach of winter they hied to warmer retreats.
Our knowledge of Indian customs teaches us that the clearing had been made by building fires about the bases of the large trees until they were ready to be toppled over by the wind, and then later reduced to ashes by tradition has a strong semblance of truth, as eighty years before Palmer, its people could often have seen the Indians here in the summer time, for which reason the stream was known as Wigwam Brook. This sunlit spot in the wilderness proved so attractive to Moor that he halted here and erected his humble cabin from the convenient trees at hand and established his new home. Here for nearly a dozen years Moor wrought without molestation from the Indians, while the extending acres of cleared land gave evidence of his industry, which had won for him a desirable home in the wilderness.
As we find no record in the Registry of Deeds in Springfield that Moor purchased the land where he lived, it is assumed that he arranged with Lamb & Co. of Hardwick for it, as they were then claimers of the Elbow District. [Then follows an account of the sale to Barnard McNitt on January 24, 1732.] Moor located at the present Old Center, near the present schoolhouse [removed since 1916], and his house was the place for the Sunday meetings prior to the erection of the little church....
Barnard McNitt was a man of more than ordinary ability whose efforts proved of great value in settling the tangled affairs of the new plantation with the General Court, in having the land titles of the settlers amicably arranged in 1733, when he also had the hundred-acre lot confirmed to him which he had purchased of John Moor, as well as assignment of land to other settlers. On the second division of lands in our district, May 16, 1746, he was granted another hundred acres, adjoining his home lot on the west and northerly side, located on sides of Tamar Hill.
In the fall of 1748 McNitt was chosen as agent to represent The Elbows in an endeavor to have the territory set off as a town, and again in the following year he served in the same capacity and succeeded in so far as to move the Court to pass a bill to form the territory into a district with full powers pertaining thereto. But the Crown having instructed the Governor not to grant any more such privileges in the colony, because of the owing independence of the people, the bill was vetoed. But such a favorable impression had been made by McNitt that a final Act was passed Jan. 30, 1752, making The Elbows a district with the full powers of a town save that of electing a representative.... It will be noted that the people of The Elbows were indebted to the persistent efforts of Barnard McNitt for the legal recognition of our district....
(end of page 391)
After his death the farm seemed to pass from hand to hand in rapid succession for a time. [Then follows an account of the sale by John McNitt to Andrew, and by Andrew to Seth Adams in 1776.] After conducting the farm for two years Seth Adams sold 100 acres, or all of the portion of the farm lying north of the old Boston Post Road -- which ran through the center of the farm at that time -- to Captain Sylvanus Walker for 500, on December 1, 1778. As no mention is made in the deed of any buildings on the land, it is fair to assume that there were none; and therefore that Captain Walker soon after built the house now located a few rods east of the Hathaway place. [The house burned after 1930.] Here he spent the remainder of his life.
He was born in Brookfield January 8, 1728. It is not known just when he came to Palmer, but probably about 1756, when he is credited as from Palmer in the expedition for the reduction of Crown Point. In 1759 he had the rank of Captain in another Crown Point expedition. Some time prior to 1775 he had a lease of the place known in later years as the Deacon Brainerd farm, where he conducted a tavern for some years. In 1775 he was authorized as Captain to enlist a company of Minute Men, and proceeded at once to execute the order. He served with honor in the Revolutionary war, and was urged by Washington to remain in the army and accept a commission as Colonel. On account of ill health he was obliged to decline the honor and return to his home in Palmer, where in 1780 he, with others, was appointed on a Committee of Safety....
On February 4, 1793, Captain Walker sold fifteen acres of land on the westerly part of his farm to William Mason, who came from Spencer, with certain rights in the water of Wigwam Brook, which flowed on the eastern side of said land. The price paid was 18. Mason conducted a tannery here for many years with great success. The house built by Mason in 1793 contained, besides living rooms, space in the basement for dressing the tanned hides, and room in the attic for storage when finished. The large wheel used for elevating the hides still remains in the attic. Mr. Mason continued in the tannery business with marked success until 1820, when he disposed of the property to his son William and bought the farm near the schoolhouse on the hill, where he died in 1843. The son also prospered in the tanner's trade until after 1830, when he became fascinated with the new silk industry. He indulged in a few succeeding years in trying out the scheme, which for a time promised well, but in the end culminated in a complete failure. Mr. Mason then sold out and moved West about 1840.
[The fifteen acres and the 1793 house were bought and restored to the Barnard McNitt farm by the present owner. In a misguided hour the quaint little house, where a tannery and a cottage silk industry were operated, was torn down. The foundation walls remain, with the stonework of a double fireplace in the basement. The wheel once used for hoisting tanned leather to the low attic is now kept in the attic of the garage on the McNitt farm.]
The tannery trade discontinued, the [fifteen-acre] farm passed through the hands of various owners, including Daniel Converse, John Fenton, W. D. Mason, John Dadman, Cyrus Merrick, and Lewis Sholes, until John O'Neil purchased the place in 1862 and continued in possession till his death January 24, 1899, at the age of eighty-seven. His daughter, Margaret O'Neil,
(end of page 392)
was the next owner until her death, March 28, 1912. The estate remained unsettled for several ears until sold in 1915 to Justin Rouvellat, formerly of New York City]. Rouvellat later sold the place to the present owner.]
On October 10, 1796, Captain Walker deeded to Gideon Abbott, who had married his daughter Mary, a small lot of forty square rods, located on the brook and highway just east of the Mason farm. Mr. Abbott erected a dwelling house but resided there only a few years; he sold the property on August 24, 1799 to Joseph Converse and in due time the land reverted back to the old farm. [The house disappeared a century ago.]
On October 11, 1796, Captain Sylvanus Walker, doubtless with the thought of the approaching end of his life, sold the remaining eighty-four acres of his farm to his son, Sylvanus, Jr., for $350. This tract surrounded the Mason [tannery] farm, running along the stores of Tamar Hill, and was bounded on the south by the old Boston Road, and on the east by the Converse farm. Captain Walker died January 9, 1797.
In January 1800, Sylvanus Walker, Jr., sold eighty-one acres of the land he had purchased of his father to Isaac Warren of Palmer for $500, reserving three acres with the buildings thereon for himself. It does not appear he remained long on the place. Some years later the place was occupied by Dr. Ebenezer Robinson, father of the late Judge Robinson, and still later by Josiah Brooks for many years. It finally came into the possession of the Blanchards, from whom it was purchased by Frank D. Warner of Springfield, by whom the place [three acres and buildings] was sold in 1914 to James Mitchell of Suffield, who is the present owner; it is occupied by Mrs. Richard Wright, who holds a life lease of the property. [This bit of land never has been restored to the Barnard McNitt estate. The next owner after Mitchell was Leo Chouinard; the house burned down one day while he was absent. A post-Revolutionary house, it was of definitely later design than Barnard's house.]
We will now go back a few years and take up the history of the other portion of the McNitt farm on the south side of the Boston Road, which we left in possession of Seth Adams, who died about 1786. His estate of about ninety-six acres was sold by his widow, Ann Adams, to Stephen Baldwin of Dorchester, Mass., for 114, 8s. Stephen Baldwin sold to Andrew, son of the late Seth Adams of Palmer for 150 on December 29, 1789. By him the farm was sold to his brother, Benjamin Adams of Palmer, for $1,000 on October 21, 1796. In 1801 Isaac Warren sold the eighty-one acres he had purchased from Sylvanus Walker, Jr., to Benjamin Adams for $666. By this sale nearly all the original McNitt farm on both sides of the old Boston Road became united n one farm again.
On September 2, 1802, Benjamin Adams sold the united farm, with the addition of about 100 acres in North Monson [across the Quabaug River] to Timothy Holton of Ellington, Conn., for $4,000.... Timothy Holton sold the farm with the Monson addition to John Holton of Palmer for $4,000 on April 28, 1807. The farm soon changed ownership by its sale to Benjamin Merrick, who came from Brimfield and paid $3,900 for it, on April 11, 1808. He died on the Palmer farm October 25, 1811. His son Benjamin, then in his nineteenth year, came into possession of the farm in due time.
(end of page 393)
Benjamin Merrick, Jr., was born in Brimfield in 1793; he married in 1810 Lucina Cooley, daughter of Zadock. Their children were all born on this historic farm; all survived their father, who died on the old farm April 8, 1832. In the settlement of the Benjamin Merrick estate, Zadock Cooley [probably as administrator] sold the home farm to his son, Merrick Cooley, for $3,075, on May 15, 1834. On the same date the widow, Lucina Merrick, and heirs sold Pliney Cooley the lot of twenty-six acres bordering south on the highway, who transferred the same to Harvey 0. Hancock in 1845 for $300. He built a residence and lived there until his death in 1891. The place is now owned by Mrs. Jane Coburn. [The Coburn place of twenty-six acres, lying between the old Boston Road and the present Boston Road to the southward, is another part of the original Barnard McNitt farm still in other hands.]
On March 6, 1844, Merrick Cooley sold the Palmer and Monson property to his brother-in-law, John Ward of Palmer, for $4,000. Mr. Ward held possession of the property but a short time, for on November 2, 1844, he disposed of his interest in the Palmer portion of the Merrick farm to William H. Bradway of Palmer for the sum of $3,000. Mr. Ward's interest in this property was due to the fact that he had married Charlotte Cooley for his first wife, and after her death had married her sister, the widow Lucina Merrick.
A notable change occurred in the history of the farm in Palmer when on February 24, 1845, W. H. Bradway sold the Merrick place to the town of Palmer for a poor farm for $2,200. Prior to this date the town had farmed out the poor who were unable to care for themselves among different families at a certain rate per week, or to the lowest bidder. Joseph Hawley Keith was appointed warden of the poor farm in 1855 and continued to act in that capacity with deserved favor till April 1, 1863, when he purchased the farm for $2,200. A new poor farm was located at the Old Center.
About 1868 Mr. Keith removed the unsightly stone chimney from the center of the house, which added much to its improved appearance. [Who can be sure of its unsightliness? It must have been an interesting feature. The house brook was constructed in that period.] Mr. Keith remained for thirty years on the farm after its purchase, and conducted it with a good degree of success. His two youngest children were born there, William and Dr. Silas. [Charles, an older son, was father of Frank S. Keith, now trust officer of the Palmer National Bank. ]
Desiring a change, Mr. Keith sold the farm March 17, 1893, to George H. Powers of Palmer for $2,500. From this date down to 1906 the ownership of the ancient farm passed so frequently from one to another that it is often a tangled problem to find just how the matter stands. The following statement seems to present the facts fairly:
On October 8, 1896, George H. Powers sold the farm to Frank D. Warner of Springfield for $3,000. On the same date Warner placed a mortgage on the farm. On December 4 of the same year the property was sold by O.W. Studley to Mary J. Plympton for the nominal price of one dollar. On May 19, 1897, Mary J. Plympton sold the same 120-acre farm to Sarah E. Norton for one dollar. On December 13, 1897, Sarah E. Norton sold or mortgaged the same farm for $1,500 to Hermann Jungmann and Frederick Dersler of
(end of page 394)
New York City. On April 16, 1900, Dersler sold his rights in the farm to Jungmann for one dollar and other valuable considerations. On November 21, 1901, Jungmann sold the farm to Andreas N. Johnson for $2,500. On November 1, 1902, Johnson sold to Nellie M. Greer of Palmer for $2,600, and finally, on August 18, 1906, Nellie M. Greer sold the farm to Dwight C. Hathaway, who came from Chicopee, for one dollar and other considerations....
[These $1 sales indicate trades for other property, but we cannot be sure. Mr. Hathaway sold a strip of land across the south end of the farm to the Southern New England for $2,600, and the rest of it to the present owner on January 1, 1922. The right-of-way strip was recovered at a tax sale for $550. The farm then included 100 acres. Other tracts were added, which extended the farm well beyond the original boundaries, but which failed to retrieve two or three small pieces. The place now extends a mile northward from the Boston Road. ]
Men of action have dwelt here from the time the pioneer John Moor laid low the giant pines, and the brainy Barnard McNitt with Scotch persistence and persuasive arguments won the victory at the General Court for town rights, so much desired by our growing community. We also had the intrepid Captain Walker, the hero of two wars, who won the friendship and admiration of Washington because of his valor....
Now about 100 acres are left of the original farm, which includes the fine old eighteenth century mansion, a pleasing feature which we trust will long remain to bind the fleeting past with the present....
(end of page 395)