Shelburne was first settled in 1756 as part of Deerfield, Massachusetts known then as “Deerfield Northwest.” It was initially organized as the district of Shelburne in 1768 (named in honor of William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne) and was officially incorporated as a town in 1775.
The early history of Shelburne surrounds the area of Shelburne Falls, then known as Salmon Falls. The Falls were considered an important native fishing site and prior to colonial settlement was also the site of extensive colonial fishing. A 1743 statute designated twenty acres of land along the Deerfield River for use as a public fishing area, which was later sold in the 18th Century to a private landowner. The uplands of Shelburne were also utilized as pastureland by colonials prior to settlement.
Permanent settlement of Shelburne began in the vicinity of Shelburne Falls, c 1760, by five families. Only sixteen years later, the population had risen to 575 with most of the settlement occurring east of Shelburne Falls. The majority of these early settlers were Presbyterian Scotch Irish who migrated from New Hampshire. By c. 1770, settlement began in the area of the Hill Cemetery in central Shelburne with the construction of the town’s first meetinghouse. The rich soils of the uplands used both for crops and grazing, provided the early residents of Shelburne with their economic base. Lumbering also took place at this time, but on a smaller scale.
Between 1775-1830, sawmills and gristmills took advantage of the waterfalls in Shelburne, but agriculture was still the number one commercial activity. Between 1760 and 1790 Shelburne’s population expanded 105 percent but essentially remained the same for the next forty years.
During the Early Industrial Period (1830-1870), the population in Shelburne grew by 59 percent, reaching 1,582 by 1870. Although Shelburne remained predominantly an agricultural community, manufacturing made its way to town with the establishment of a cutlery company, Lamson and Goodnow, in 1837. Soon thereafter, Shelburne Falls became home to small tool manufacturing shops for manufacturing of farming implements, and two fabric mills. In addition to manufacturing, the production of butter and cheese, maple syrup, and apples for export, produced prosperity in Shelburne and resulted in an expansion of a residential district along Water Street and the construction of commercial blocks along Bridge Street. The civic center of the town was moved from Village Hill in central Shelburne south to Shelburne Center along Greenfield Road.
Manufacturing continued to thrive in Shelburne during the period 1870-1915. Contributing to this growth were the arrival of the Troy & Greenfield Railroad in 1867, the Shelburne Falls and Colrain Street Railway in 1896, and the introduction of hydroelectricity in 1912. In addition to Lamson and Goodnow, Shelburne’s industry consisted of hardware manufacturers, box makers, a silk manufacturer and knitting mills. Agriculture also continued to prosper. By the 1880s, Shelburne was considered the leading milk producer in Franklin County and was third in the production of cheese. With its location on the rail line, dairy farmers in Shelburne also began selling milk to distributors for markets in Boston, Springfield and Northampton. In spite of the fact that its economy was booming, Shelburne’s population slowly decreased over this period. Residential construction ceased outside of Shelburne Falls while the town’s commercial district along Bridge Street expanded, though primarily during the 1870s.
Between 1915 and 1920, Shelburne’s population saw a period of decline and then increased 10 percent over the next twenty years to 1,636. The trolley system closed in 1927, yet Shelburne Falls continued to grow as the center of both commercial and industrial activity in town. In 1914, the Mohawk Trail (Route 2), which was designed as a scenic tourist route, brought tourism related commercial development to that portion of Shelburne along the highway. The major industry this period was the Mayhew Steel Products Company, which manufactured a variety of forged tools and employed approximately 200 people in 1930. Dairy farming, along with other farm products such as apples and maple syrup, continued as the primary agricultural activities in the uplands of Shelburne.
Since the early 20th century, there has been a shift from manufacturing to tourist-related businesses such as restaurants, retail establishments, bed and breakfasts, etc. Shelburne Falls has a strong artistic community, which is evident with the many art galleries and studios located in the village. Agriculture still plays an important role and many farms and orchards continue to operate. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 1997 Census of Agriculture, there were 46 farms in operation at that time.
Shelburne’s significant historic resources are its village and agricultural land use patterns. The villages of Shelburne Falls and Shelburne Center retain interesting buildings associated with the town’s residents and events. The living history of productive fields, pastures and old farmsteads also contributes to the town’s special character. The architecture in this working landscape represents what the rest of New England once looked like.