By Barbara Emery Moseley
In the 1700s, on seeing a bareheaded man, people would assume that either he had lost his hat or his mind! The almost universal headgear was the three-cornered hat, which could be plain, or embellished with braids and cockades, and was easily tucked under an arm.
Made of felt, it was produced through a tedious process of treating beaver fur. Indeed, Fort Dummer, built in 1724, near the northwest corner of what was to become Vernon, traded briskly with the Native Americans for beaver pelts. Hats could be felted from any soft fur, but beaver was preferred because of its soft sheen.
In 1731, to protect the hat industry in England, George II enacted the Hat Act, “preventing the exportation of hats out of any of His Majesty’s Colonies or Plantations in America.” The act made little difference because few in the Colonies paid much attention to such royal edicts. In the next year, thousands of hats were made in the Boston and New York areas alone.
Following the 1775 death in Worcester of William Swan, the goldsmith, his widow had moved the family to Northfield, where they had relatives. Sixteen-year-old Timothy was apprenticed to his brother-in-law Caleb Lyman, a hatter. Completing his training, Timothy moved to Suffield, CT, to practice the trade.
The tedious process of turning a beaver pelt into a felt hat required tools with odd names, such as stang, hurl, block, tolliker, and runner-down. Every step was done by hand, including repeated dipping into a boiling acid solution. The fumes from the process were inhaled by the hatter and, over time, could adversely affect the brain. Hence the expression, “mad as a hatter.”
In Suffield, Timothy married Mary Gay, niece of Rev. Bunker Gay of Hinsdale (Vernon). He was this town’s first settled minister and author of several interesting epitaphs in local cemeteries.
The couple had a large family, including sons bearing such distinguished names a George Washington, John Adams, and Charles Pinckney. After 25 years, the family returned to Northfield, where he continued his trade, working with his twin nephews, Thomas and Harry Lyman. At this time, he began to evidence bizarre behavior.
First, he planted a dense hedge of Lombardy poplars and lilacs around his house so that he was totally secluded from the street and neighboring properties. The hedges attracted flocks of “blackbirds” that he considered his pets and which he zealously guarded.
In Suffield, he had begun to compose sacred music. He published “New England Harmony” and was well-known for tunes that became standards in hymnals. In Northfield, one of his compositions was written on a night when a young daughter lay dying. The famous tune “China” was said to have been written in the sand in Beers Plain (an area on the outskirts of town), “while he was recovering from a fit of intoxication.”
Timothy died at Northfield, July 23, 1842, on his 85th birthday, having seen his younger sister, Levinah, married to Jonathan Hunt. Perhaps he knew the mystery surrounding Hunt’s daughter Anna …