History of Wilbraham
(from Bicentennial Program 1963)
About 1675 the people of
Springfield, who had come from the Massachusetts Bay
settlement in the Boston area to the Connecticut Valley in
1636, bought from the Indians the hilly area to the east, and
called it the Outward Commons. Some ten years later they
divided the land among the "landed proprietors" of
Springfield, but regarded it as common wilderness until 1731,
when Nathaniel Hitchcock and his family came to settle on our
present Main Street south of the center village.
By 1741 the population numbered some
30 families, and the area now Wilbraham and Hampden
(approximately) was established as the Fourth Precinct of
Springfield. The first business after organizing the precinct
was the hiring and settlement of the Reverend Noah Merrick as
the first minister, which was accomplished on June 14, 1741,
the same day the church was organized. On June 15, 1763, the
Fourth Precinct, plus a little more land from Springfield,
was "erected into a separate town by the name of Wilbraham",
with a population of about 400.
The southern part of the town soon
developed a desire for its own church in the vicinity of the
Scantic river, with the result that on June 11, 1782, the
town was divided into two parishes, and present Hampden
became the South Parish of Wilbraham. Nearly a hundred years
later, on March 28, 1878, the final step in the division of
the town was taken by the legislature, and the South Parish
became the town of Hampden.
Discarding the practice of their
Boston forebears, the settlers of Wilbraham laid out their
highways to provide means of conveniently going between
objectives, rather than following cowpaths, although this
town was essentially agricultural until World War II. Sheep,
cattle, fruit and grain were the principal products until
poultry, including turkeys, assumed importance about 1930.
Following the close of the second
World War, agriculture has rapidly disappeared and housing
developments have taken its place. Now the town is
essentially residential, with farming limited to a dozen or
so specialized farms. This trend to residential predominance
led inevitably to a serious-minded fire department about
1920, a water system in 1926, a zoning system and planning
board beginning in 1928 and maturing in 1946, and a police
department about 1954.
Industry was limited principally to
textiles in the early days, located on the Scantic river and
on Twelve Mile brook. Later came the Collins Manufacturing
Company (paper) and the Cutler Company (grain processing,
driers and gristmills) on the Chicopee river. The Collins
paper mill was the largest employer.
Education has always been considered
seriously in Wilbraham. The meager private schools and frugal
public schools were given great impetus by the location of
Wesleyan Academy here in 1825. The town has passed through
the district school system, and the sending of advanced
pupils to the academy and to out-of-town high schools, to a
system of larger schools in which pupils are prepared for the
Hampden-Wilbraham Regional High School.
Today, Wilbraham remains located
between the country town and big municipal business.