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LOOKING BACK: Stockbridge Town House debate led to separation of church, state

The Town House was built by subscription, rather than tax levy, in part because of the town’s poor financial condition.

Stockbridge — In the late 18th century the Congregational Church was the established or state church of Massachusetts, and although the church was still highly favored, there began to emerge a change in attitude towards church and government business being conducted under one roof. In 1779, the town of Pittsfield sent a Congregational minister and a Baptist minister to the constitutional convention. In 1780, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress adopted the Constitution and Declaration of Rights but it wasn’t until 1831 that the Massachusetts Legislature voted in favor of disestablishment, that is, creating a clear separation between church and state. In 1833, the third article of the 1780 Declaration of Rights was finally replaced. The new article promoted religious freedom and prohibited any form of establishment.

In that political and religious environment, the 1839 Stockbridge Town House was constructed to serve the needs of town government on property leased from the Congregational Society of Stockbridge just south of the Town Square. At first blush, it would seem to suggest that the early 19th century separation of church and state motivated Stockbridge residents to follow the lead of other cities and towns by removing government functions from church buildings.

Even though elements of that pending statewide disestablishment show up in earlier town meeting votes, the decision by the Congregational Society to build its 1825 structure by subscription rather than through a tax levy was at least, in part, fortified by the town’s poor financial condition. Somewhat ironically, at a Special Town Meeting May 3, 1813 John Hunt offered to sell three and one-half acres to the town at $70 per acre. The town was unable to raise the money through taxes and the committee charged with enlarging the town square was only able to raise $110, which was “subscribed from a number of liberal gentlemen.”

The Committee further reported, “The embarrassed situation of the Town at this time, and the many and great burdens the citizens for the year approaching will have to encounter, has been the only reason the committee have to offer against the purchase.” John Hunt subsequently sold the land to Dr. Oliver Partridge, who in turn sold it to Dr. Thaddeus Pomeroy and it was from Pomeroy that the Congregational Society acquired the land and where the current brick Federal Period church now sits. In 1839 through the largess of the Congregational Society, which leased a piece of land to the Town to build a Town House, that Town House ended up resting on the land that John Hunt had offered to sell to the Town some 26 years earlier.

Although, historically there was a town assessor’s position there also appears to have been a certain amount of self-reporting by property owners and one has to wonder if that contributed to a revenue shortfall. Tucked between the pages of the Town of Stockbridge Treasurer’s Book 1, 1777-1820 was a small scrap of notepaper that read, “Harvey Phelps List for 1820, 1 Poll, My Real Estate same as last yr. adding improvements in the House. 1 cow. Stock on hand $50. May 5, 1821. The above is a true list of all my taxable property. Harvey Phelps.”

At a Special Town Meeting, September 1, 1823 it was: “Voted that the Congregational Society and the Town will not build a new Meeting House in the Town.” On November 10, 1823 at a Special Town Meeting it was: “Voted to reconsider the vote by which it was agreed to build a meetinghouse. Voted that the Congregational Society in that Town will build a new meeting house for the use of said Society by subscription, the pews in same to be sold to refund the expense thereof, reserving, however on the floor of the house, at least six pews to be occupied by such persons as are unable to purchase pews, the same to be designated by a Committee to be chosen for that purpose. Voted that a committee of nine be chosen to determine where the proposed new meeting house should be located and of what materials the same shall be built agreeably to a vote this day passed… Voted that Joseph Woodbridge, Theodore Sedgwick, Abner Crosby, Asahel Dewy, Cyrus Williams, Prentice Williams, Seth Wilcox, Henry W. Dwight and John Sage, be appointed a Committee for the purpose of building a meeting house.” The resulting subscription raised over 6,000 dollars.

Change came on several fronts between 1823 and 1839. One created an atmosphere of financial stability and the other resulted in the increasing difficulty of finding a location to hold town business. Town government functions were often held in one of the town’s many and often too small schoolhouses as well as the rapidly deteriorating 1783 Congregational Church on Old Meeting House Road. The Deposit Act of 1836 provided for the distribution of approximately $30 million of the $35 million U.S. Treasury surplus (from tariff proceeds and public land sales) to state banks on the basis of each state’s representation in Congress. The act ended congressional fights over the surplus, thwarted Western hopes for reduced prices for government land, benefited old states more than the new, and diverted attention from Henry Clay’s distribution bill that proposed dispensing proceeds of federal land sales to the states (which President Andrew Jackson pledged to veto). Deposits were halted when the surplus became a deficit during the panic of 1837. Fortunately for Stockbridge the Town had received it’s share before the distribution was cut off.

At a meeting of the Congregational Society held at their church, December 18, 1838, the church body voted, “That the Society give leave to the Town (if they so desire) to place a Town House on their ground, the east side of their lot, and on a line with the front of their House of Worship.” Voted: “That William S. Whitney, Horace Goodrich and William Williams be a committee on the part of the Society, to confer with the locating committee of the Town, respecting the location of the Town House, and to furnish the said Town Committee with a copy of the above vote.”

At a meeting of the Congregational Society held at their church, January 12, 1839, it was voted: “That William Whitney, Horace Goodrich and William Williams be a committee to lease to the Town and define by metes and bounds so much of their ground as the Town may want to set a Town House upon, in accordance with the vote at the last Society meeting, provided the Town shall decide to build one upon the Society’s ground and that the town shall have the use of said ground, free of rent, so long as they shall want the same for the site of a Town House and shall maintain a Town House thereon and use the same for that purpose. Also on January 12, 1839 the Congregational Society issued a “Lease of Land For Use of Town House, in consideration of one dollar to said Society paid…to have and to hold to this Town so long as they may want the same for a place on which to have a Town House.”

During a Special Town Meeting held January 14, 1839: “Voted that whenever and wherever the town house is built it shall be a free house, and that the expense of said house shall be the same wherever built. Voted that the town house be located on the land owned by the First Congregational Society near their meeting house on the Plain, provided said Society will lease the same to the town free of expense so long as the town shall choose to occupy it for town purposes. Voted that a committee be appointed to receive proposals for erecting, also to make contracts for building said house, and to draw from the town treasurer such sum of the Surplus Revenue as the town shall think proper to appropriate for said building – and that Horace Goodrich, John M. Cooper and Charles C. Alger shall constitute said committee. Voted that a sum not exceeding 1,880 dollars be appropriated for building said house.”

From the Town Treasurer’s book 2, 1806-1840: February 24, 1840 the following entry: Town House built by H. Phelps $1,880.00. And so on the site of the current Town Hall a Town House, in the new, Greek Revival style, was built by Harvey Phelps, allowing for the first time, in Stockbridge at least, physical separation of church and state.

Tragically, on June 30th 1902, fire broke out in the Town House. The response to the fire and its aftermath spoke well of both firemen and voters. Like the Phoenix of Greek mythology, it would rise from the ashes. The shell of the Town House, having served as a meeting place for 65 years, would be moved to the rear of the lot, turned sideways, and incorporated into the new 1904 Town Hall. For the next 60 years the Town House served as a stage and basketball court, and following the Town Hall renovation in the 1960s, a police department and assessors office.

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