Like most of the hilltowns in Western Massachusetts, Hawley is a place that the frontier passed through quickly. It was first settled in 1771 by tough pioneer families who created subsistence farms. In 1792, the town was incorporated and named after the Honorable Joseph Hawley, a respected lawyer and legislator
For fifty years, settlers cleared and fenced most of the thirty square miles occupied by the town, turned it into farmland, built sawmills, grist mills, a tannery, small woodworking enterprises, several taverns, and other businesses, and created a prosperous community. Hawley’s population peaked in 1820 with 1,089 residents. Hawley’s town common served as the center of a thriving village at that time.
Except for the plateau land in East Hawley, the town’s steep hills and rocky soil made farming difficult, however. When the Erie Canal and then the railroads opened richer farmland in the Midwest, farming in the hill towns became marginal. At that same time, as the nation industrialized, jobs in factories and offices also drew residents away. After 1820, Hawley’s population steadily declined, dropping to 224 in 1970. Then, after 1970, the population began to rise again, partly because of the arrival of retired people, some of whom had initially bought summer and vacation homes in town. The population in the 2020 census was 353.
Only a few people today continue to grow crops and tend cattle on the land. The forests that cover most of the land produce abundant timber and maple syrup. The town’s most successful business, however, is Sidehill Farm Yogurt, located on the plateau land of East Hawley, and Meadowsweet Farm that supplies milk for the yogurt-making facility.