The Town & the Times

Emily Dickinson’s Amherst in the nineteenth century was an academic, agricultural, and manufacturing town. Samuel Fowler Dickinson built the Homestead (1813) on higher ground, allowing a breathtaking view of the Holyoke Range. However, by the time his granddaughter Emily Dickinson was born in 1830, the town’s industrial center known as the “The Crossing” (near the railroad) was visible -- and audible -- from the Homestead on Main Street. Steam and smoke puffing from the tall chimneys of the factories could easily be seen from the Dickinson grounds, and loud and commanding whistles announced the start and end of the workday.

Main Street looking west to Amherst House

Image: Jones Library Special Collections

Lovell, John L., 1825-1903, "View up the middle of Main Street," in Digital Amherst, Item #401, (accessed September 26, 2009)

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In the 1850s, Main Street was a dirt road with lumbering horse drawn carts transporting goods between the railroad, the village factories, farms, and town center shops, and the Connecticut River. A steady stream of neighbors, workers, students, and visitors strolled past the Homestead and Evergreens throughout the day.

The center of town was bustling and full of life for a small rural community. Phenix Row and Merchant Row housed local shops, and at the peak of the hill on Main Street, across from the town common, stood The Amherst House, an elegant popular inn for meeting and dining. Emily Dickinson witnessed the frightening sight of the hotel burning to the ground on July 4, 1879, and watched its resurrection with indoor plumbing, a billiards room, and a public town library on its second floor. Across from the Amherst House was the Gunn Hotel, which housed the odiferous Henry E. Paige’s Fish and Oyster Market in its basement. Local citizens complained about decaying fruit and garbage that the merchants swept into the streets and the unruly children loitering on the corners.

The town common was an unkempt hay meadow until an Ornamental Tree Association was organized in 1853—Austin Dickinson was its first secretary--charged with beautifying the town’s public grounds. The Association and its successor, the Village Improvement Society, transformed the meadow into a civilized town common and imposed regulations designed to maintain a clean town center. They added a tiered water fountain and ornamental fencing, planted elm trees, and filled in a frog pond. They also forced the Cattle Show, one of the town’s most popular annual events, to another location because the cows damaged the grass. The common hosted military practices, commencement celebrations, bonfires, and touring circuses, including the Van Amburgh Circus, considered the greatest circus in the world.

The Dickinsons were members of an influential and privileged class dedicated to improvements in education. The prominent men and women of Amherst nurtured and attended the finest schools, including the leading local institutions Amherst Academy, Amherst College, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, as well as Yale and Harvard universities. They played an important role in developing the town as an academic and manufacturing community; however, Amherst was also home to those who were less fortunate. Southeast of the Homestead, along the canals and railroad tracks, Irish immigrants lived in clusters of “shantees.” On North Pleasant, a few yards from the small frame home of Emily’s youth (1840-1855), stood a tenement building called the “Bee Hive,” home to a good part of Amherst’s black population, and on the South Amherst common, the town operated a poor farm. The town struggled with how to manage its poorer population. The issue often prompted heated debates in town meetings, but for the most part Amherst settled its differences peacefully.

Amherst went through many changes during Emily Dickinson’s lifespan, and her family and friends were central figures in the town’s development. For Emily Dickinson the poet, the town, its landscape, events, and citizens were often the backdrop and inspiration for many poems.

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