Wilbraham is a town in Hampden County, Massachusetts, United States. It is a suburb of the City of Springfield, Massachusetts and part of the Springfield Metropolitan Statistical Area. The population was 14,868 at the 2010 census.
17th & 18th Centuries
The area today known as the Town of Wilbraham first became of interest in 1636 when a young man named William Pynchon (founder of Springfield) purchased the area from the Nipmuc starting at the Connecticut River in Springfield and extending to the foot of the Wilbraham Mountain Range by 1674. Wilbraham was first settled in 1730 by Nathaniel Hitchcock along with what is now Hampden, Massachusetts as the Fourth District of Springfield. It was also known as the Outward Commons, Mountains or Springfield Mountain. Hitchcock built a log hut along what is now Main St. Hunting and logging took place in the late 17th century.
The Native Americans did not maintain any villages prior to the colonials' arrival in the Outward Commons; however, they did hunt and fish along the Chicopee River as it was considered good fishing grounds. A soap stone quarry existed on Glendale Road and arrowheads can be found throughout Wilbraham. The poplar trees located along the Chicopee River made excellent canoes, and two have been found carved out along the Chicopee River over the years. The Nipmuc referred to this area as "Minnechaug" which means Berryland.
The major poem "Minneola" (1904) by Chauncey E. Peck tells, over several hundred pages, the stories of the Indians around Wilbraham. The last of which appears to have been an Indian woman named We-sha-u-gan who lived on Wigwam Hill in a wigwam for many years, "after the white man came" (History of Wilbraham, 1863).
Many town residents took part in both the French and Indian War and Revolutionary War, and at one time Wilbraham even had its own militia unit, which at one point was a field artillery battery and often supported the Hampshire Regiment. Wilbraham residents have also served in numerous wars since the French and Indian War.
Wilbraham's first church was the First Congregational Church, which was organized on June 24, 1741. This church would later merge into the Wilbraham United Church. The first minister of the town was Mr. Noah Merrick. The first three selectmen were Lieutenant Thomas Mirick, Deacon Nathaniel Warriner and Stephen Stebbins. Stebbins was the first person to settle in the southern part of the precinct in modern-day Hampden when he built a house on the north side of the Scantic River in 1741.
After many years of submitting petitions to the Massachusetts General Court the town was officially incorporated as the independent "Wilbraham" in 1763, when its population was about 400. Wilbraham was made a separate town because of the walking distance to Springfield, along with differing interests made the people of the fourth precinct petition several times for a new town to be incorporated.
On August 7, 1761 on Wilbraham Mountain a young man named Timothy Merrick was bitten by a rattlesnake and died soon afterward. Folklore and legend has made its way over the years about this incident including a song titled "On Springfield Mountain". The incident probably took place within what is now the adjoining town of Hampden, but at the time was still part of South Wilbraham — though some have claimed it was as far south as Connecticut. This song was one of the earliest of the American ballads.
The Bay Path trail once ran through the north end of the town. It was this trail that Henry Knox used when he moved the cannons that he captured at Fort Ticonderoga in 1775. These cannons were brought to Boston (being pulled by oxen) and placed on Dorchester Heights and used against the British. Knox led the artillery train through the town.
On April 29, 1799 a tragedy on Nine Mile Pond took the lives of six people, including three 16 year old girls. The boat that they were traveling in overturned. One of the victims was not found for sixteen days and a ditch had to be dug in order to drain the pond to find her. This ditch located across the street on Boston Rd became the first town dump.
The Underground Railroad ran through the town and several houses along Main St and on Wilbraham Mountain served as stations.
The Wilbraham town center is among the largest designated historical areas in the country, with fine examples of colonial and Victorian homes from as early as the 1730s along the historical areas of main street. The oldest Methodist meeting house in New England is located in the town's center, as is the campus of Wilbraham & Monson Academy, founded in 1804.
North Wilbraham was the industrialized area of the town and was home to the Collins Manufacturing Company and other businesses. The Collins Manufacturing Company was once the main employer of the town. The building also known as the Collins Paper Mill (which still stands today) was located was built around 1872. It made fine writing paper and, for a short time, it made government currency paper. The mill officially closed down in 1940 but some part continued operating into the 1950s. A fire in 1945 did severe damage to the building, which now stands vacant.
Wilbraham at one time was very famous for its peach orchards and some are still grown on the slope of the Wilbraham Mountain Range. Apples were also grown on the slopes and Rices Fruit Farm used to sell fresh apples, apple cider, apple pies and other items.
Wilbraham Center was the farming area of town and was home to Bennett's Turkey Farm, Pheasant Farm and Rice's Fruit Farm which grew the peaches later celebrated during the Peach Festival. Wilbraham had several potato farms in the south end of town around the time of World War II. None of those farms remain in operation today. Wilbraham was once of the home of a speakeasy called "Worlds End" on Burleigh Rd. It was destroyed by a fire in the mid-1930s.
In the summer of 1928, author H. P. Lovecraft stayed with the noted antiquarian Miss Evanore O. Beebe (co-author of the town's first history in 1913) at her farmhouse on Monson Road in west Wilbraham, touring the locality with his friend and author Mrs Miniter who was a local. He later he modeled the fictional town of Dunwich on the combination of towns in the area, in his story "The Dunwich Horror". He also used the area's folklore in the story. After his death Lovecraft's executor August Derleth later wrote the story "The Peabody Heritage", set in Wilbraham.
The hurricane of 1938 did considerable damage to the town and destroyed the old covered bridge over the Chicopee River on Cottage Ave. A steel bridge rests there today.
The flood of 1955 washed out many of the roads in the town. The dam near the Chicopee River gave way washing out the railroad tracks and parts of Mountain Rd and Boston Rd.
On the afternoon of June 1, 2011 two tornados struck Wilbraham: an EF-1 and an EF-3. The EF-3 which originated in Westfield and traveled through West Springfield and Springfield caused extensive damage to the Tinkham Road corridor of the town. Heavy structural damage to homes, power poles, and trees was experienced. That tornado then moved eastward to cause more extensive damage to the towns of Monson, Brimfield, and Sturbridge. The EF-1 formed after the EF-3 and primarily caused damage to power poles and trees along a section from Stony Hill Rd east crossing Main St. just south of St. Cecilias Church to Crane Hill Rd.