Plainfield house offers look at 19th-century medical practice

Last modified: Monday, December 10, 2012

The shelves of the apothecary cabinet in what once served as the Plainfield home office of 19th-century physician Samuel Shaw are full of medicine bottles and herbs.

“You can smell the herbs that he treated his patients with when you open the drawers,” said Ruby Goodnoff, president of the town’s Ladies Benevolent Society, a church organization that uses the building.

Now known as the Shaw Hudson House, the home was built in 1833 for Shaw and his family. His home doctor’s office has been maintained just as it was during his lifetime, first by his family and then by the Plainfield Congregational Church, which currently owns it. The rest of the house has also been preserved.

William Hosley, an independent scholar, cultural resource consultant, planner, writer and photographer, will give a presentation at the 304 Main St. house from 2 to 3 p.m. on Saturday called “Rediscovering the Shaw Hudson House, Envisioning the Possibilities.” Hosley is principal of Terra Firma Northeast, an Enfield, Conn.-based cultural resource development firm, and former director of New Haven Museum and Connecticut Landmarks.

Talking via his cellphone earlier this week, Hosley described Shaw’s apothecary as “the most important collection of medical material in the whole country.”

“There is nothing like this, if you want to get a sense of the origins of the modern medical profession,” he said. “It’s a perfect snapshot of an emerging industry that needs to be preserved and promoted.”

“If it (the Shaw Hudson House) were in Deerfield or Salem, it would be the most important house,” among those communities’ “house museums,” he said. Though not operating as a “house museum,” the Plainfield home’s authenticity status ranks it with only a dozen others out of the several hundred “house museums” in New England, he said.

“It’s a rare thing to see,” said Hosley. “I’d like to see it become an active house museum.”

Shaw was Plainfield’s eminent town physician in the early 1800s. He began his apprenticeship in the bordering town of Cummington with fellow physician Peter Bryant, who was the father of well-known 19th-century journalist and poet William Cullen Bryant. Shaw married Peter Bryant’s daughter, Sarah, and inherited both Bryant’s practice and early medical books. The couple first lived across the street from where the Shaw Hudson house is now located. After Sarah died, he built the new home at 304 Main St. for his second wife, Northampton native Elizabeth (Clark) Shaw.

After he suffered an accident that impaired his mobility, Shaw’s practice was mainly limited to his home office. Everything was kept as he had it arranged, including his custom-made, wooden wingback chair set next to his medical books, even as the rest of the house was occupied by subsequent family members. Those relatives included his granddaughter, Clara Shaw Hudson, who left the house in trust to the church in 1960 for church-related use.

Both the William Cullen Bryant Homestead, a house museum in nearby Cummington, and the Shaw Hudson house are situated in what is known as the Highlands Region, a rural area that spans northern to southern Massachusetts and encompasses the Hilltowns. “He hopes to draw attention to the Highlands,” said Judith Williams of Plainfield, who is coordinating the talk.

Hosley also hopes to promote Plainfield’s untapped potential as a destination for heritage tourism and travel, learning, leisure and locally grown agriculture. His 50-minute lecture will be followed by a house tour and reception from 3 to 4 p.m.


Christmas party

Santa will make an appearance Sunday, Dec. 16, at the free Community Christmas Party at Sanderson Academy on Route 112. The event, which kicks off at 4 p.m., is open to all Plainfield and Ashfield children from infants to sixth-graders. Santa arrives at 5 p.m. There will be craft activities provided by the Sanderson Parent Teacher Association and cookies to decorate. The party is sponsored by the Hilltown Snowmobile Club, Ashfield Fireman’s Association, Ashfield Lions Club, Ashfield Neighbors and Plainfield Volunteer Firefighters Association.


Yule log tea

It’s time again for the annual Yule Log tea sponsored by the Plainfield Congregational Church’s Ladies Benevolent Society, a charitable organization that has been in existence since the 1860s. Singer Mary Verdi of Pittsfield, a former Plainfield resident, will sing holiday carols. “Everyone is welcome,” said Plainfield resident Ruby Goodnoff, who heads the society. Hot and cold cider, tea, coffee, sandwiches and cookies will be served at the free event held at the historic Shaw Hudson House, 304 Main St., on Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m.

Laura Rodley can be reached at


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