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Time Passages ... Building Brimfield

How hotels, brickyards made a town

This 1924 photo shows brickyard supervisor Joseph Theberge. Photos courtesy, Brimfield Public Library archives. (click for larger version)
August 03, 2009
BRIMFIELD — With cooperative traffic, it takes about an hour and a half to get from Sheraton Monarch Place in Springfield to the Prudential Center in Boston.

A hundred years ago, that trip may have taken a couple days. When it did, many travelers along the way spent their evenings at the Brimfield Hotel.

Over the course of 133 years, three boarding houses stood in Brimfield, all occupying the same basic footprint on the same lot — a site now occupied by the parking lot of Hitchcock Academy.

The first hotel, known as the Temperance House, was built by Henry F. Brown in 1808 and, for 50 years, lived up to its name.

The Brimfield Hotel as it was seen in the late 1800s was the second hotel on the same foundation. (click for larger version)
According to historian Joan Demers, a lifelong Brimfield resident, Brown's Temperance House did not allow alcohol on the premises — officially — and was known as a "dry" house, "or as dry as you could get in those days."

Demers, who first began researching the hotel as part of an Old Sturbridge Village sponsored program in the 1990s, said there are stories about a few wild nights at the Temperance House when some libations may have been smuggled in.

From 1860 through the 1890s, the Brimfield Hotel, which was outwardly grander in appearance and presentation than its predecessor, with which it shared a foundation, served overnight guests in town.

The hotel was renovated and remodeled by Silas C. Herring, a New York businessman who specialized in manufacturing fireproof safes. Herring safes can still be found around in town, in the offices of Hitchcock Academy and even the Brimfield Town Hall.

Herring's Brimfield Hotel, which took in passengers from coaches and later trolleys traveling between Springfield and Boston, mainly stood apart from the Temperance House by serving alcohol to its guests.

An old text uncovered during Demers' research reads, "All that was needed to keep a hotel going was a barrel of pork, a barrel of potatoes and a barrel of rum."

"I guess rum was the drink of the day," Demers said. "Nobody mentioned beer."

"A lot of events were held there, big parties, everything," Demers said.

A very identifiable mark on the face of Brimfield, the 1866 Civil War monument that stands greeting motorists as they enter the downtown, can be seen, brand new, in old photographs just beyond the front door of Herring's Brimfield Hotel.

Following a fire in the late 1890s, the property was purchased and the hotel rebuilt by a trust made up of multiple partners.

"It was sort of a joint ownership," Demers explained.

Including the few owners of the establishment that amassed long tenures, the Brimfield boarding house had approximately 29 owners and innkeepers over its 13 decades.

"The third house burned in 1941," Demers said, "and it almost took Hitchcock with it."

The hotel had been vacant for a few years prior to the fire.

Throughout the latter 19th and early 20th centuries, guests lived the posh life in the Brimfield Hotel, while transient travelers worked in the brickyard on the other side of town.

The Brimfield brickyard, which employed locals and seasonal laborers for little more than 100 years, was located in the village of West Brimfield, now where the MassPike passes through the town.

"It started around 1830, right around the time the railroad came through, give or take a few years," said Demers, whose grandfather was employed at the brickyard.

With bunkhouses on-site at the brickyard where employees could sleep, West Brimfield was the, "less-than-desirable section of town," according to Demers.

"It might have been, but look what they produced," Demers said, acknowledging that after the hard work of pressing, firing and drying bricks, the employees of the brickyard may have been entitled to get a little rowdy.

Having had three principal owners from the 1830s through the 1930s — Brimfield Brick Company, Marcy & Gardner Manufacturing and W. Leach Company — Demers said the reach of the locally made bricks was to everywhere but home.

"The bricks from this brickyard are everywhere," she said. "A lot of the bricks went to Needham, Newton, Natick."

"There's a library in Manchester-By-The-Sea," that was built with Brimfield bricks, Demers said, adding that buildings in Amherst, Springfield and throughout western Massachusetts and all over Worcester County as well as northern Connecticut have Brimfield bricks in their structures.

Commercial and industrial institutions like the Ellis Mills in Monson and the original Palmer National Bank were also built with Brimfield bricks, but "unfortunately a lot of those are torn down now," Demers said.

The brickyard had its own independent rail car that traveled from the yard directly to the station where its cargo would be loaded onto the trains. Due to the geography of Brimfield, with an imposing incline that would have been impossible for a trainload of bricks to safely maneuver, no local bricks were used in downtown Brimfield construction projects.

As a result of damage sustained during hurricanes in 1930 and 1938 and a dwindling supply of clay, the brickyard closed and was soon consumed by construction of the MassPike.

Demers said the demise of the brickyard, which was one of the largest industrial operations in town, and the burning of the Brimfield Hotel, returned a quiet village atmosphere to the town, which for a century had been a bustling hub of social and commercial activity.

"[The people of Brimfield] should know," Demers said, "that it wasn't just this little operation it was a huge operation."

More information on both the Temperance House/Brimfield Hotel and the West Brimfield brickyard are available at the Brimfield Public Library on Main Street.

News staff writer Christopher Tanguay may be reached at (508) 909-4132, or by e-mail at ctanguay@stonebridgepress.com.

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