City celebrates 375 years of history, innovationMay 18, 2011
By G. Michael Dobbs
SPRINGFIELD For Congressman Richard Neal, Saturday's events to acknowledge the 375th anniversary of the founding of Springfield had a d j vu quality.
Speaking on the steps of City Hall, Neal recalled that he stood on the small spot 25 years ago as Springfield's mayor during the 350th celebrations.
Neal was part of the thousands of people who attended the day's activities, from the annual pancake breakfast, to the kick-off event at City Hall with the chorus comprised of Springfield school children to the parade that went through downtown to the fireworks that ended the day at Blunt Park.
Neal, whose fondness for history is well known, noted, "The city has given great moments to the country and to the world."
He read a letter of congratulations from President Barack Obama that said in part, "You've written your own chapter in the narrative of the United States."
Mayor Domenic Sarno told the crowd, "You know, we are a good city."
He then said, "We need each and every one of you to be ambassadors for the city of Springfield."
The children's chorus clearly moved the audience with its rendition of "The Springfield Song," written by Springfield School music teacher Diane Rodriguez.
Even after the ceremony at City Hall concluded, the pancake breakfast was still being served to hundreds of people.
Sarno and his family led the parade, which started at the Springfield Technical Community College campus and went down State Street to Main Street and concluded at Mill Street in the South End neighborhood. Organizations, businesses and representatives all marched in the parade, which was a little more than an hour in length.
Although the weather didn't give the giant Cat in the Hat balloon any difficulty, the new traffic lights along the route had the balloon skimming the street.
For many people, "Springfield" is the name of the Simpson's hometown in the popular animated series.
For those who know a little about the history of this country, "Springfield" has a different meaning.
Springfield, Mass., the oldest and the largest city with that name, is known as the "City of Firsts" for a reason actually many reasons.
Springfield is where basketball was invented. It's where the Duryea Brothers built and tested the first American gasoline powered car. It's the community where the first and perhaps most beloved American motocycle they spelled it without the "r" the Indian was developed and manufactured.
It is the city where the first American armory was built and where the Springfield Rifle was made.
And it was the insurrection by Revolutionary War veterans led by Daniel Shays on that armory that led to the creation of the United States Constitution.
Clarence Birdseye chose Springfield as his test market in the 1930s for something truly radical: frozen vegetables.
A group of brothers, the Granvilles, literally off of the farm picked Springfield to be their headquarters in the 1920s and '30s where they would design and build the GeeBee racing planes that still awe aviation enthusiasts.
The city was the home of Milton Bradley, who revolutionized the toy industry with board games. The city's streets, schools and parks gave hometown boy Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss inspiration for later books and illustrations.
All of these accomplishments happened at a place where an English businessman named William Pynchon, the founder of Springfield, sensed potential in the mid-1600s.
According to historian Ernest Newton Bagg, Pynchon, who was a patentee and magistrate to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was attracted to the Connecticut River Valley as a place rich with fur animals, especially beaver.
After a long voyage from England in 1630, Pynchon began trading goods he had brought from England with native people for furs. What attracted him to Western Massachusetts was the possible encroachment of Dutch traders who had established a trading post along the Connecticut River in what is now Hartford, Conn.
Some of the Dutch traders even came to Springfield, but disease and hunger compelled them back to the relative safety of the Hartford establishment.
Pynchon wanted to succeed where the Dutch had failed and began planning an effort to build a settlement in what is now Springfield in 1635.
Using a "shallop," a light single-mast vessel, Pynchon and his expedition sailed up the Connecticut River. He made a camp in what is now West Springfield and his men used the boat's lumber for their new home.
The native people seemed friendly and Pynchon was impressed with the virgin forests with large a small game, a river teeming with shad and salmon and lands ready for agriculture.
Pynchon left his men and returned to the settlement of Roxbury by foot. When he returned the next spring, he was told the relationship between the natives and Pynchon's men had deteriorated and Pynchon was forced to move his operation to the eastern side of the river.
Despite the problems, caused in part by the damage to the natives' cornfields by the settler's free-range hogs, Pynchon was able to come to an agreement on July 15, 1636, to acquire the desired Agawam land. Further negotiations gave him the control of an area from the Chicopee River to the Mill River.
Trouble with crops, a narrowly averted war with the native people and even an earthquake were some of the challenges early settlers faced. Pynchon was right, though, about the richness of the area for furs.
Bagg noted in his 1936 history of Springfield that although there was no record of just how well Pynchon fared during his 15 years of trading furs in the area, his son John continued the business after his father returned to England and regularly shipped 2,000 beaver skins annually to merchants in his native country.
Pynchon has the additional distinction of being the author of the first book "banned in Boston." His 1650 book, "The Meritorious Price of a Man's Redemption," took exception to Puritan theology. The colony's General Court condemned the book and copies were burned on Boston Common.
Pynchon was under great pressure to recant and after one appearance before the Court, he decided to transfer all of his holdings to his son John and return to England before he was forced to appear before the General Court once more. He left the colony in 1652. His death at age 72 in 1662 closed the first chapter in the city's history.
Pynchon's legacy was that his purchase of land just didn't create one community, Springfield, but the following towns and cities as well: Agawam, Chicopee, East Longmeadow, Hampden, Holyoke, Longmeadow, Ludlow, Southwick, Westfield, West Springfield, Wilbraham and Enfield, and Suffield, Conn.
No less than a person than General George Washington had a hand in the next major development of the community. In February 1777, Washington authorized an "establishment of the laboratory at Springfield."
The armory became known as a center for technological innovation in manufacturing and undoubtedly led to Springfield becoming a center for skilled manufacturing.
Another famous gun maker, Smith & Wesson, made the city its home and is still in business today.
Early in its history, the Armory attracted the attention of a group of farmers enraged at the taxation tactics of the Massachusetts state government. In February 1787 as part of a series of armed protests, Daniel Shays, a Revolutionary War veteran and farmer from Pelham, led a group of men to capture the armory. Although Shays failed at the armory, his protest succeeded in showing the weakness of the Articles of Confederation and in May 1787 the Constitutional Convention was convened to re-shape federal government.
Thomas Jefferson expressed his reaction to Shay's Rebellion previous to the attack on the Armory in a letter to James Madison on Jan. 30, 1787. Jefferson wrote, "I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions, indeed, generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people, which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government."
The armory inspired another kind of reaction from American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow and his second wife Frances visited Springfield and the Armory in 1845. The tour inspired what was considered to be Longfellow's most effective anti-war poem, "The Arsenal at Springfield."
The first two stanzas are:
"This is the Arsenal. From floor to ceiling,
Like a huge organ, rise the burnished arms;
But from their silent pipes no anthem, pealing
Startles the villages with strange alarms.
"Ah! What a sound will rise, how wild and drear,
When the death-angel touches those swift keys!
What a loud lament and dismal Miserere
Will mingle with their awful symphonies!"
In the book "Springfield Memories," published in 1876, Mason Green wrote about the development of the city: "Modern Springfield was born with the peace of the War of 1812. In the re-action from embargoes and war from 1814 to 1825 there was a general housecleaning and business re-adjustment. The old tavern site was cleared off for a Common, a church and court-house was built by the side of it and another church (Unitarian) down Main Street, Union and Court Streets were opened, the river bridge, that was swept away by a flood was restored (1818), a line of boats was established between the village and Hartford, connecting with Boston and New York schooners, neighboring water powers were utilized, many mechanics and artisans were called in, who became residents, and the Weekly Springfield Republican was started, which insured the place a future."
In 1936 when the city was celebrating its 300th anniversary, the unaccredited author of one of the commemorative booklets wrote, "Varied are the products of Greater Springfield: Intricate machines, radios and electrical appliances, tires, motorcycles, garments, arms, games and school materials, books and magazines, newspapers, wire, chains, machine tools, cigars, chemicals and medicines, valves, oil pumps, fine paper, jute boxes, clocks and leather goods. Here once were the pioneers in the manufacture of automobiles. Across the river are the railroad shops."
The first American-made gasoline powered car was built and tested in Springfield by Charles and Frank Duryea on Sept. 20, 1893. The city would later be the site for a factory producing Duryea cars.
The Knox Automobile Company produced cars from 1900 to 1914 in Springfield and stayed in business with tractors until 1924. And the city was picked by Rolls Royce as the site for its only American automobile manufacturing plant. The Springfield Rolls Royce facility opened in 1920 and closed in 1931 and the cars made there are sought after by collectors.
Also still highly prized are the Indian Motocycles made in the city from 1901 to 1954. The brainchild of engineer Oscar Hedstrom, the "motocycles" were the first ones made in this country and were well-known for their power and durability.
Brought to the city by bicycle racer George Hendee, Hedstrom developed a motorcycle that he tested publicly on May 25, 1901 on Cross Street hill. Newspaper reporter R.D. Pepin wrote about the test on its 25th anniversary.
"Hedstrom bravely climbed the old hill and forcefully demonstrated to the residents of Springfield the first step towards an industry destined to fill a long place in the field of industry, utility and sport."
Pepin noted that Hendee had featured motor-drive bicycles made in Europe at his bicycle-racing track. "The uncertainty of these motors was a source of great anxiety to the management and of dissatisfaction to the patrons of the track," Pepin wrote.
With Springfield a growing center of transportation technology, it's little wonder that a group of brothers came off of the family farm to Springfield to pursue their dream of developing faster and more powerful airplanes. Although the Granville brothers were in business for only five years from 1929 to 1934 and built just 24 aircraft, their revolutionary designs created a legend among aviators.
Springfield was also a city of ideas as well as industry and technology. Abolitionist John Brown made the city his headquarters in 1846 when he established a business to represent wool producers to the New England mill owners. Later, the city was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
G & C Merriam, Company, was founded in 1831 as printers and booksellers and the pair of brothers George and Charles purchased the rights to the name and all copyrights to the best-seller dictionary written by Noah Webster in 1843. Since that time, the nation's best-known reference book has been written and published in Springfield.
When stumped about how to excite his winter physical fitness class, a young Canadian attending the International Y.M.C.A. Training School remembered Duck on a Rock, a game from his youth. Taking a soccer ball and a peach basket, James Naismith developed the game of basketball in 1891, quite possible the most popular indoor sport.
The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame draws more than 250,000 visitors a year to its Springfield shrine to the game.
A number of people prominent in show business and the arts are natives of the city.
During the 1920s and 30s, Broadway and radio star Julia Sanderson was a popular performer.
The classic movie musicals "Born to Dance" and "Broadway Melody of 1940" feature another Springfield native Eleanor Powell. The beautiful and athletic dancer was a star at MGM. She was married to actor Glenn Ford for a number of years and by the end of her life she turned her energies to religion.
Lawrence O'Brien, Kennedy family supporter, postmaster general, head of the Democratic Party and commissioner of the National Basketball Association, was another well known Springfield resident. His father had a tavern where the MassMutual Center now stands and he received his law degree from Western New England College.
Perhaps the most interesting favorite daughter is June Foray, whose family left their home on Orange Street and traveled to California where she eventually became one of the most highly regarded voice actresses in animation providing the voice for Rocky in "Rocky and Bullwinkle," Granny in the Tweety cartoons and many other characters.
Students at the former Classical High School could still find evidence of that school's most controversial graduate, Dr. Timothy Leary. His name could be seen carved into at least one desk. Leary was one of the prominent leaders of the counter culture in the 1960s who urged people to "turn on, tune in and drop out."
Springfield's most beloved native was Theodore Geisel better known to generations of American as Dr. Seuss. The author and illustrator took inspiration from the city of his birth from the names of streets "And to Think that I Saw it on Mulberry Street" to his father's position as superintendent of the city's parks "If I Ran the Zoo."
The Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden at the Springfield Museum complex pays tribute to the innovative storyteller.
Springfield's latest burst of national publicity came in 2007 with a contest that asked fans of "The Simpsons" to pick the Springfield that is actually home to the best known dysfunctional family. Although Springfield Mass., didn't win in a surprising upset to Springfield, Vt., the producers of the animated series and film knew better. They had prepared a special poster before the contest's final results that declared the movie was filmed in Springfield, Mass.
A community of rich diversity and history, Springfield today is the home of national companies, three colleges and a law school. It was named the fourth "greenest" city in the nation and was recognized as one of the greatest centers of small business and entrepeurneurship in the country. Its best days are not behind it.
Historic essay was reprinted from the book "Springfield: A Postcard History" by G. Michael Dobbs.