The Town of Whately is a study of two dramatically contrasting landscapes: a flat plain stretching between the Connecticut River and the Mill River in eastern Whately, and high hills with valleys carved by brooks in the western part of town. Located in Massachusetts’ southern Franklin County, Whately’s neighboring towns include: Hatfield to the south, Williamsburg to the south and west, and Conway and Deerfield to the north. The Connecticut River forms the eastern boundary of the town.
Whately’s fertile soils, abundant water resources, and wildlife-filled uplands provided a perfect subsistence resource for Native Americans. Native settlements were probably concentrated in Whately’s eastern lowlands, particularly near the Mill River and the Connecticut River, in an area that belonged to the Norwottucks and their Sagamore (leader), Quonquont. The land within the Town of Whately’s borders was once North Hatfield. The land had been purchased by Hatfield in 1695 from Quonquont’s widow and children. Whately was incorporated as its own town on April 26, 1771 and named by then Massachusetts Governor Hutchinson for Thomas Whately, a political mentor of his who was a member of the British Parliament and an esteemed writer on British landscape gardening.
Early colonial settlers grew crops in the valley and uplands, hunted in the forests, and built mills along the many brooks. Pits of red clay, rich in iron deposits, made good bricks and provided material for 21 potters in Whately between 1778 and 1861. Whately’s abundant and powerful streams powered numerous mills in the 18th and 19th centuries, including: grist mills, sawmills, woolen mills, and furniture mills. Whately was the site of the state’s first gin distillery.
Whately’s three by six-mile area includes some of the most lush river valley land in New England and is one of the few areas where the high quality Sumatra tobacco can be grown outside of Indonesia. Tobacco has been a cash crop in town since the mid-1800s and was a particularly large source of income and a way of life in Whately from the 1940s through the 1960s. Agriculture is still a vital element of the economy. In addition to tobacco, other primary crops produced in Whately are vegetables, nursery plants, apples, berries, and maple syrup. Today, Whately’s farms include innovative institutions such as Nourse Farms, renowned as a small fruit nursery, Nasami Farm, home to the Native Plant Trust, and Quonquont Farm, an orchard and event space featuring a delightful farmstand and “pick-your-own” operation. In addition, there are several Certified Organic vegetable farms in town.
Whately’s main street, Chestnut Plain Road, is lined with historic buildings such as the Town Hall and the Congregational Church, as well as many historic houses. With its large trees set back from the road, it is said to be one of the finest main streets in New England.
Whately’s current residents are farmers, college professors, tradesmen, teachers, artists, health workers, and construction contractors, among others. Today more residents commute to jobs outside Whately than in the past, yet Whately residents remain proud of their community and committed to retaining its rural and historic character, scenic landscapes, and abundant natural resources.
Adapted from the Massachusetts DCR’s Whately Reconnaissance Report, as part of the Connecticut River Valley Reconnaissance Survey and the Massachusetts Heritage Landscape Inventory Program, published June 2009.
Images courtesy of the Whately Historical Society