For thousands of years, people have been settling in this bend of the Connecticut River, drawn here by the rich soil, access to the water, and scenic vistas.
Once covered by a vast glacier that gave way in time to a large glacial lake (Lake Hitchcock), the Connecticut River Valley around 10,000 BC became home to Paleo-Indians who initiated centuries of human occupation. By the sixteenth century A.D., the Valley sustained Algonkian peoples who hunted and fished here.
As early as 1614, the residents of the Valley began to encounter the first representatives of European nations exploring North America. In time, English colonists driven in part by a search for religious freedom began to settle the Connecticut Valley. A dissenting Connecticut congregation under the leadership of Rev. John Russell in 1659 founded Hadley as an agricultural community on the east bank of the Connecticut River. John Pynchon purchased the site of the new settlement, a fertile peninsular plain defined by a bend in the Connecticut River, from the Nolwotogg community on behalf of those settlers. The first settlers laid out this area, formerly known as the Norwottuck Meadow, as the center of the new settlement before their arrival, with the Town Common, referred to as “the Broad Street,” as the central feature. The common measured 20 rods wide and one mile long, with the Connecticut River defining both ends, and was reportedly based on the original plan of Wethersfield, Connecticut. Eight-acre home lots were ranged along both sides of the common, with farmlands behind.
In 1675-76, during King Philip’s War, to guard against Indian attacks, a palisade that ran far enough behind the houses to include most of the barns and farm buildings enclosed the street and common. Legend has it that, during that conflict, the town was saved from destruction when, at a critical moment, William Goffe—one of judges who had helped execute the King of England, now hunted as a regicide—who showed up in the midst of the townspeople, warned them of the danger, and led the town in fending off the assault, disappearing shortly afterward. Goffe, later known as “The Angel of Hadley,” became the subject of many legends. As one of the English judges who sentenced King Charles I to death, he had fled to hide in New England when the English monarchy was restored in 1660.
Though the years, the common remained the focus of town life. The meetinghouse occupied a prominent site, animals were pastured on the open land, militia drills were held periodically, and Hadley’s Liberty Pole was erected there during the Revolutionary War. Taverns at the north and south ends and at the center of the common served the needs of passengers on the ferry, stagecoach, and riverboat routes.
As the number of settlers grew and they dispersed across the land, the desire for local places of worship also grew. As an answer to the problems of settlers traveling many miles to church, the towns of Hatfield, Granby, South Hadley and Amherst formed from he sprawling town of Hadley. The town continued to grow as an agricultural town. While farming was most common during this time, the exporting of everything from produce to beef to furs grew. Most of the products were taken by flatboat down the Connecticut River and to the Boston area as well. It was around 1792 that broomcorn became the dominant crop in Hadley. So abundant was this crop that Hadley would come to be known as the nation’s broomcorn and broom manufacturing capital. Broom and brush making became a thriving industry here, exporting all across New York and New England, and as far as Ohio.
Over time the soil that produced so much broomcorn slowly depleted. By 1840, tobacco would take its place as the major crop as well as seed onions and other vegetables. The Massachusetts Central Railroad crossed the northern half of the common in 1887, providing a faster way for Hadley farmers to ship their produce to market. The Connecticut Valley Street Railway, laid out along Russell Street about 1900, made local travel to Northampton and Amherst easier.
During these same years, the scenic quality of Hadley landscapes also began to draw attention. In the early nineteenth century, a painting of the “oxbow” by Thomas Cole—taken from the top of the Holyoke Range—made Hadley one of the most famous landscapes in the nation, and one of the first destinations to emerge in a burgeoning tourist industry.
It was during the late 1800s that, because of labor shortages and a drop in land values, Hadley experienced a decline in farming. It was also about this time that a large number of Irish, French Canadian and, later, Polish immigrants that were recruited from Ellis Island for labor purposes settled in Hadley. It was the Polish immigrants that are credited with saving Hadley’s farmland as they worked the fine Hadley soil back into fertility. By 1920, asparagus became the popular crop in Hadley, soon making the town the asparagus capital of the world. Despite a disease that wiped out much of the crop in the 1950s, asparagus remains a hallmark of the community today.
Today, while commercial development has flourished along Route 9, Hadley remains largely agricultural and residential. Though malls and commercial businesses now lie along Russell Street on Route 9 to the east of the town’s center, Hadley has the largest number of acres in agriculture in the Pioneer Valley, which includes crops of corn, potatoes, tobacco and scores of other vegetables. At the turn of the 21st century, Hadley is emerging as a leader in the preservation of those historic agricultural landscapes. The Hockanum Rural Historic District was among the first efforts in Massachusetts to advance the National Park Service’s aims to document rural districts. Community groups have partnered with state agencies to vigorously preserve the scenic assets of the Holyoke Range. A substantial amount of Hadley farmland has been preserved under the APR program, and significant effort has been made to document and preserve the Great Meadow, a unique landscape in the crook of the Connecticut River that may be the last extant example of open field agriculture in the United States—named by PreservationMass, a statewide historic preservation group, one of the commonwealth’s “10 Most Endangered Historic Resources.” Today, Hadley is a town that sees an exciting future deeply rooted in its rich heritage.