Outdoor Writing Ain’t What It Used To Be

The road to Jay Peak Resort in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom leans north and west from Interstate 91’s Exit 6 in Barton – the final, 32-mile leg of a 3½-hour, 200-mile trip from my Greenfield home.

I was there to attend the Outdoor Writers Association of America’s Vermont 2021 Annual Conference, a first for me though I have been an active OWAA member since 1984. The resort sits a mere five miles south of the Canadian border. Check-in for the three-day, October 4 to 6 event at the Hotel Jay was on a Sunday afternoon, with a Wednesday noontime check-out.

These professional gatherings meander yearly from state to state, region to region, attracting young and old for a jam-packed assortment of meetings, workshops, sight-seeing trips, meals, cocktail hours, and other social events. Some folks even brought fishing equipment and gun dogs. Not me. Attending my first such conference since the 1980s, when I routinely participated in the New England Outdoor Writers Association’s annual meeting, I was there to get a feel for how outdoor writers, not to mention the outdoor-writing paradigm, has changed since I was a young man. Back then, Field and Stream and Outdoor Life hook-and-bullet tales were boilerplate fare, while more creative Gray’s Sporting Journal served professorial readers.

Times have changed. Hook-and-bullet yarns no longer sell. The average modern reader doesn’t care to read about well-placed shots through vital organs and the resulting blood trails to the carcass. I lived the transition during 40 years as a newspaper columnist, could feel it happening at about the midpoint of my career and tried to tell my clueless last editor that modern readers no longer had the stomach for the hunting tales of his father and grandfather. Readers of outdoor columns and narrative were more interested in nature and natural history, fish migration and wildlife restorations that slipped into local history and prehistory. That fact was blatantly apparent at this Vermont conference.

About 150 miles into my drive up the northern Connecticut Valley, above St. Johnsbury, I entered the brilliant world of peak fall foliage. The problem was that there I also ran into foggy rain that got heavier as I proceeded north, limiting visibility and eliminating any chance of helpful distant landscapes, such as ski slopes carved into tall mountains. Though no stranger to the Northeast Kingdom, I had never been in the neighborhood of Vermont’s northernmost ski area, but was able to get there with the help of a couple gas-station inquiries.

Wet, gray, foggy skies enveloped the resort upon my arrival. Checking in at the front desk, I learned I would occupy Room 535, penthouse quarters with a king-sized bed and large-screen, hi-def TV. The fall colors would have been incredible from that top-floor perch had the skies been clear, but I never saw a sliver of the sun before placing my final travel bag in the truck for my Wednesday-morning departure.

On the previous day, before noon, finally, I was for the first time able to see the ski slope behind the motel and the brilliant surrounding landscape. It was worth the wait.

I was surprised to see the getaway-morning sun far to my right as I loaded luggage into the car. In a strange place with no sun to guide me the previous three days, the view through my windows felt south. Wrong. All the while I was facing northeast, toward central Lake Memphremagog in Canada. Any woodsman is well aware that such disorientation can easily occur in an unfamiliar, stormy place with no sun or compass to guide you.

Oh well. Such is life. No big deal. A transitory guest, it is doubtful I’ll ever again step foot anywhere near Jay Peak.

Which brings me to a writing assignment I took on during an uninspiring Tuesday workshop titled Narrative Nonfiction: Nature, Ecology and the Outdoor. Condescending for a retired outdoor writer, I got through it much like I had during distant school daze a half-century ago.

The one-hour assignment was to find a quiet place in which to melt and, for the first 10 minutes, absorb the sensuous stimuli. That done, we were to describe the sights, sounds, and smells we encountered and articulate what we were feeling in a narrative describing a sequence of events and perceptions. It brought me back to deadline writing at work, Creative Writing 101 in college, and literally hundreds of columns I had written over the years after being touched deeply by something encountered on a walk, hike, hunt, or drive – or just plain creative ramblings from an introspective place. It’s what writers do.

I walked back to the motel, took the elevator to the fifth floor, opened floor-to-ceiling curtains for the panoramic view over a small porch with two chairs, sat down and studied the colorful mountain landscape. Here’s what I read to the small class an hour later, without a hint of insecurity or fear:

Overcast. Gray and cool. Visibility fair. Air damp. No day for outdoor assignments without warm clothing. I know the value of comfort in such conditions, and it is hanging in my closet 200 miles south.

I’m seated on a flexible metal chair with a cushioned seat, looking south through large, floor-to-ceiling windows. The curtains are pulled wide open to the right, opening a colorful, sunless fall scene over a small, fifth-floor porch. I see a mountain landscape dominated by red and orange, defiled by a slim, vertical powerline of the same colors, muted.

The nearest ridge wears a gentle slope that slowly ascends to the left before meeting an abrupt, conifer-capped, gumdrop ridge that must offer hard, rough ledge underfoot. That I cannot say for sure, situated here in a place I do not and will never know. It is someone else’s place. I am a brief visitor. A passer-through.

In the place I call home and was born, I could name the faraway peaks and identify the unseen rivers running through distant ravines deeply eroded over many millennia. I could likely point out those crevices still holding remnants of ancient Native weirs and fish-traps, and streams where sophisticated surface collectors can still pick up precious artifacts dating back to Clovis hunters some 13,000 years ago. It’s hard to say where these artifacts come from. Freshets just keep tumbling them downstream like golden nuggets of prospectors’ dreams, deep-history clues for trained modern eyes to interpret.

From my perspective, the beauty of this place created by the recreation industry as a money-maker stops at the gravel parking lot, the surrounding development and the monstrous motel where I’m staying. Hypocrisy from someone enjoying the amenities? Perhaps. But I know my thoughts and moods would be far purer and more meaningful if absorbed into the forest, fishing a brook for speckled trout or sitting still and silent in a deer stand as a hidden, temporary habitat resident.

Looking through the large, modern windows at the lush mountain forest below, I do not know the trails and roads I have not traveled and am having difficulty connecting to the scene as the metal register behind me exhales a warm, sensual whisper.

To appreciate this place like I love my own, I’d have to learn the alder and spruce swamps, the beech and oak groves, the sugarbush, the shagbark hickories, if they’re here. I’d have to trek the ancient footpaths and game trails worn deeply into ridgetop spines. Those who, for eternity, created these ancient indentations on the forest floor were wise and just. They created paths of least resistance to important destinations, be they hunting-and-gathering sites or ceremonial landscapes on which they celebrated solstices and bountiful harvests with song, dance and theatrical oral tales that taught important cultural and spiritual lessons and could last for days.

Many of those ancient paths are still today traveled as paved and altered roads created to accommodate wheeled vehicles in the 19th century. Such cart and bridle paths could not stay with the ancient footpaths through muddy, lowland depressions, which proved at times impassable for wheeled vehicles. Thus, the road-builders cut new paths on higher ground more difficult afoot but easier for horse and carriage and, later, automobiles like those parked below me in a place where moose, cougars and black bears once ruled.

Tell me: is this now a better place because of its ski slopes, water parks, golf course and giant motel? Well, that’s not for me to answer.

To each his own.

Given more time to gather and shape my thoughts, I could have improved the narrative through many rewrites and tweaks. I could have introduced an historic Rogers’ Rangers angle. That is, which of his fleeing bands from the infamous 1759 massacre of Native Americans at St. Francis would have ventured closest to Jay Peak? That could have added a little flavor, I suppose.

I could have also explained that, having seen not so much as a ray of sun since arriving, I had no clue which direction I was pointed when looking through those motel windows. That may have established my disorientation while trying to describe a new place. Plus, I could have spared myself the indignity of a mistake in bold black print. Then again, did it really matter what direction I was looking?

Overall, I’m satisfied with my tight-deadline response about an unfamiliar place. It reminded me in many ways of the many Friday-night football stories I cranked out with the clock ticking and no turning back. Focus is always the key. I know that from experience.

I don’t know or care what others in the workshop thought of my conservationist/preservationist perspective. Maybe they thought me a dinosaur in the world of modern outdoor writing, which seems determined to promote resorts and development that produces outdoor activities like skiing, biking, hiking, kayaking, orienteering, geocaching, tennis, and golf to name some.

I see no need to mire myself in such trivial matters. Asked to bare my soul, I did so, and am more than comfortable in skin wrinkling with age.


Who Was U.S. Deputy Marshal Leonard Arms?

South Deerfield left its mark on the Wild West, including the death of Deputy U.S. Marshal Leonard Arms, gunned down in the line of duty on April 20, 1860 in Topeka, Kansas Territory.

The shooting occurred less than a year before the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor, SC, and four years into a border war between Missouri and Kansas Territory over the slavery issue. The South Deerfield lawman was trying to serve what anti-slavery Free-Staters viewed as an invalid Missouri arrest warrant on John Ritchie at his Topeka home.

When Ritchie objected, explaining that the charges had been long-ago forgiven, he told Arms to get lost and went inside. The deputy followed, imploring Ritchie to surrender before the combatants raised their revolvers. When Arms ignored Ritchie’s warning to come no further, Ritchie killed him instantly with a shot to the throat.

Ritchie, a devoted abolitionist and supporter of radical John Brown – yes, that John Brown, from his Bloody Kansas days – was a pillar of the infant Topeka community. Knowing all the town officials as friends and neighbors, he had little worry of severe consequence on the western frontier. He promptly surrendered, and was the next day acquitted on a murder charge by a friendly justice of the peace. The frontier judge ruled the shooting as justifiable homicide, and Ritchie walked away a free man.

Don’t forget we are talking here about Wild West justice. Didn’t a man have a God-given right to defend himself inside his own home when pursued by an armed invader?

Arms left a widow, Frances A. (Eldridge), and three daughters. His family lived in Wyandotte, Kansas Territory, where he managed a frontier hotel, the Eldridge House, owned by his brothers-in-law the Eldridge Brothers, a triumvirate of Shalor W. (1816-1899), Thomas B. (1825-1882), and Edwin S. Eldridge (1832-1907).

Second son Shalor was the best-known of six Eldridge boys born to Lyman and Phebe (Winchell) Eldridge of West Springfield and Southampton. The other three thus far unnamed were Lyman Jr. (1814-1905), James M. (1819-1857), and Joseph L., who was born in 1823 and living in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1863, but seems to have left no death or gravesite record.

There were also two Eldridge sisters, Mary E. and Leonard Arm’s aforementioned widow, Frances A. According to a story in Lawrence, Kansas’ Jeffersonian Gazette, Lyman Eldridge Sr., his wife and all eight of his children were among the early residents of Kansas Territory. According to Kansas Historical Society data, wife and mother Phebe was helping son Shalor run the American House hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1855. She died in 1856 in Southampton, and is buried in Holyoke.


Westward Emigres

The Lyman Eldridge family was in Southampton, where the children attended school, by the mid-1820s. At age 20 Shalor started a prosperous, 11- or 12-year career as a railroad contractor, beginning with the Connecticut River Railroad and moving on to other New England and New York lines. That was likely what brought him to South Deerfield for the births of daughters Mary Jan. 5, 1842 and Josephine Phoebe (Jan. 26, 1846).

Also residing in South Deerfield at the time was his brother James Monroe Eldridge. There is no evidence that either Shalor or James owned property in Deerfield, but they clearly did live there in the 1840s and early 1850s.

In 1841, J.M. Eldridge took Naomi Sprague as his first wife in South Deerfield, where she died three years later. Though there is no birth recorded in the Deerfield Vital Statistics, a son named James was born to them in 1843.

J.M as a widower then married Mary Augusta Arms of that town in 1846. Their lone child, son Edwin C. Eldridge, was, according to the Greenfield newspaper, born in 1853 in the home still a stone’s-throw north of the Bloody Brook Monument.

Still a teen working as a store clerk, young James Eldridge was murdered during Quantrill’s Raid, a bloody daybreak attack unleashed upon Lawrence, Kansas, on August 21, 1863. On that fateful day, the victim’s father had been dead six years and his widowed stepmother and 10-year-old half-brother, the aforementioned Edwin C., were visiting their Arms family back in South Deerfield.


The Leonard Mystery

But enough on the Eldridges. Back to their brother-in-law, Leonard Arms – a mystery man of sorts.

Arms is said by many sources to be from South Deerfield, where, according to the Greenfield newspaper, he was “widely known.” Nonetheless, his lineage and birth have not to this day been pinned down.

Here’s what we do know about the fallen sheriff:

  • On September 19, 1842, according to a Greenfield Gazette and Courier notice, he was living in South Deerfield when he married Frances A. “Fannie” Eldridge in Vernon, Vermont;
  • In September 1844, he was listed among Deerfield supporters of Democrat James K. Polk, in the presidential election against Whig candidate Henry Clay;
  • In 1845, his daughter Frances was born in Deerfield;
  • In 1848, he was listed as a member of the Adams militia;
  • In the 1850 Census, he shows up as a shoemaker living in Adams with a wife and two young daughters.

Inaccurate information posted on Find A Grave and other online genealogical sources claim that Leonard Arms was the son of Erastus and Mary (Graham) Arms of South Deerfield. That would make him the brother of the aforementioned Mary Augusta Arms, wife of J.M. Eldridge, which would make sense given their contemporaneous western migrations to Kansas with the New England Emigrant Aid Company.

But the fact is that were not biological siblings.

I know this because Erastus and Mary (Graham) Arms are my very own third-great-grandparents, and we grew up in the same South Deerfield neighborhood during different times. In my possession are old, detailed, family genealogical records typed by my great-grandmother, Fannie (Woodruff) Sanderson, Erastus and Mary’s granddaughter. Although grandfather Erastus died long before my great-grandmother was born in 1865, she would have known her own grandmother well. They were neighbors until Mary Arms died at 93, when Fannie was 22 years old. There is no hint of Leonard Arms anywhere in Fannie’s personal family register, which most likely was assembled with the help of neighborhood relatives.


An Earlier Sleuth

Is it possible that Erastus and Mary took in Leonard as extended family – perhaps the young son of a brother or brother’s wife who died? This was not unusual at the time. But none of Erastus’ brothers seem to line up, and none show the recorded birth of a son Leonard around 1820, when he is suspected to have been born.

The 1830 Census offers a faint clue, showing Erastus Arms as head of family with an unnamed male dependent between the age of 10 and 14. Could that be stepson Leonard, thus mistaken identity as a son in later Midwestern records? It’s possible, and also a potentiality that stepsister Mary Augusta, some six years younger, called him brother in Kansas.

What’s interesting is that I’m not the first person who’s tried to figure out Leonard Arms’ lineage. Greenfield historian Lucy Cutler Kellogg, author of the History of Bernardston (1902), was still trying to solve the vexing riddle 35 years after her book was published. Why not? Arms was an interesting figure with local roots, he being the victim of a famous Wild West killing. Kellogg must have stumbled across his story while compiling the genealogies for her Bernardston book, and she was still furiously trying to document his lineage on September 7, 1937, when she posted this classified ad in the Greenfield Recorder-Gazette:

“PAYMENT OFFERED for exact date of birth about 1820 and place of same (probably Bernardston or South Deerfield) of LEONARD ARMS, son of Lucius and wife Melitta (Squires) Arms. Mrs. Lucy Cutler Kellogg, 34 Highland Ave., Greenfield.”

I shared this ad with professional genealogist friend Dereka Smith of Hatfield, who set her investigative wheels in motion, confirming the Bernardston birth cited by Kellogg. There was a problem, though: That particular Leonard Arms survived less than three years.

The Kellogg citation did, however, introduce a new element that could contribute to solving our mystery. The Melitta Squires identified by Kellogg was from the same Bernardston family that produced Abigail Squires, the second wife of Josiah Arms, married between 1828 and 1830. And get this: Leonard Arms named his first daughter, born in 1844, Melita. So, it’s obvious what stirred Kellogg’s curiosity.


Revisiting Family

Josiah Arms was the youngest brother and next-door neighbor of the Erastus Arms family. His lone child with Abigail Squires was Obed Squires Arms, a future downtown Postmaster and boot and shoe dealer.

O.S. Arms’ post office and store stood in the Putnam Block (also known as Pierce Block) on the northeast corner of South Main Street. Behind his place of business stood his home, somewhere between where Wolfie’s Restaurant and the South Deerfield Polish American Citizen’s Club stand today. It may have been the 19th-century house I recall being demolished to extend the Polish Club’s parking lot.

Because the Squires family was a “late-comer” to Bernardston, arriving from Connecticut with stage driver and blacksmith Medad Squires (1774-1819) in the late 18th century, Kellogg’s genealogies don’t follow it. Online data on the family is also sketchy.

So, just one more dead-end in the Leonard Arms mystery. Data on Abigail Squires, second wife of Josiah Arms, is likewise sparse at best, and insufficient for definitively connecting the dots.

What we do know, however, is that, according to Greenfield newspaper reports, when Leonard Arms’ daughter, Elizabeth Augusta (born 1855 in North Adams), and her husband, Dr. Charles N. Hart, were passing through the Connecticut Valley in the spring of 1897 in search of a boarding school for their daughter, they stayed with Obed S. Arms for a few days.

Why would they have chosen as their host Postmaster Obed S., and not one of at least three Erastus Arms siblings in the same neighborhood? Hmmm. Could it have had anything to do with the Squires link? Or maybe a link to Josiah Arms – or his first wife Loana (Graham) Arms, the younger sister of brother Erastus’ wife Mary?

Who knows? It’s still a mystery, despite today’s Internet-driven genealogy craze. All you can do is keep pulling loose threads to see what unravels. Sooner or later, some obscure reference may solve the puzzle. Then again, maybe not.


Windblown Tip From An Old Newshound

I crack open my left eye to the twinkle of dawn penetrating the east window behind my upstairs bed. Silence. Not so much as a bird-chirp.

I don’t linger in bed. An interesting book awaits me downstairs on the table next to my recliner. Mind fresh, day young, light low, quiet, there is no better time to read or write than early morning. At least, not in my world.

In semi-darkness, I lift my blue bathrobe from its overnight resting place on an old, wooden quilt rack near the door. I slip it over my shoulders, tie it around my waist, make the bed and step into the dark, narrow hallway – one door to the left, three to the right – pointing west toward the steep back stairs, where the wing joins the house’s main block.

On the other side of the closed staircase, a heavy, iron, squirrel doorstop holds the ballroom door open, gray light filtering through seven double-hung, 12-light windows, extending my view all the way to the wide back door leading into the carriage-shed attic. It’s about a 75-foot run down the hallway and through wing to the back ballroom door, where many years ago the angled back wall of a small, enclosed fiddler’s box drove sound over the heads of revelers in the vaulted-ceiling, spring-floor dancehall.

The long interior perspective is a beautiful way to start the day during the warm months, when air-conditioning is not needed and windows and doors can be left open to promote air flow. It speaks to the building’s spiritual antiquity.

At the base of the stairs – dining room left, taproom right – I turn left. My clothes are hanging on a birdcage Windsor chair at the tail of an old mahoganized-cherry harvest table, its drop leaves down. It’s always darker and cooler downstairs in the summer, and darker inside than out.

I take off my bathrobe, temporarily lay it across a burgundy leather wing chair, and dress before going into the kitchen to push on the coffee-maker. Then I backtrack through the dining room and narrow staircase base to the taproom and bathroom, where I hang my robe on the back of the door and tidy up at the sink for the new day.

In the west parlor, I flick on the TV to catch up on overnight scores and the latest Donald Trump outrage, and rise to pour a cup of coffee after hearing the machine gurgle its last breath. I don’t know what’s worse, that coffee-maker’s last gasp or the screeching rooster across the street.

Coffee in hand, I head for the study, walking through the dining room, the parlor, and a small, enclosed hallway behind the Federal fanlight front door. I want to quickly go through my email, and maybe glance at a few local and historical/genealogical Facebook sites I often peruse before opening that book awaiting me near the TV, which I’ll turn off.

In the study I notice two printed sheets of paper on the Oriental carpet, and another folded piece of white scribbled-upon notepad paper resting on the corner of a large gold couch to the left of my desk. Hmmmm? Overnight winds must have stirred things up through the open window behind my desk.

I pick up the two printout sheets on the floor and place them back on the pile they came from on my desk, then retrieve the folded notepad page that must have been buried underneath. It had been torn from one of those narrow reporter’s notebooks that fit in your pocket. Being a lefty, and thus needing to awkwardly curl my wrist to write on such pads, I never had much use for them, preferring something wider pinned to a clipboard. But that’s just me. Right-handers seem to prefer the pocket-sized variety.

I open the wrinkled scrap paper to inspect the scribblings and discover a note written in ink, and pencil jottings of web addresses, telephone numbers, and little reminders about this and that. I must have first used it as a bookmark to keep it handy, then removed it from the book and dropped it on my desk, soon to be forgotten.

The initial note probably dated back to 2018, my last year at the Greenfield Recorder. It was a news tip about winter moose mortality from a former newsroom colleague who’d retired from the Springfield Union News and picked up a part-time job at the Recorder. News-gathering was in the man’s blood. He just couldn’t stay away.

I must have originally saved the note as a reminder to further explore the topic, then added my own random jottings. But why, after recently retrieving the useless notes from the sofa, I didn’t drop them in the wastebasket, well, you tell me. Still to this day, it sits on my desk.


Now, fast-forward a few days, and the story gets intense. A few days later, about 7 p.m., the TV’s on and my wife and I are sitting in the parlor after supper. I’m looking through papers I’ve printed about Quantrill’s infamous Civil War attack on Lawrence, Kansas as she fiddles around with her smart phone, making the rounds through texts and email and Facebook and obits and whatever else tickles her fancy.

On a whim, I rise from my seat and move to the charging laptop on my desk. Sitting there checking email, Googling additional information to augment what I’ve just read or whatever, my wife calls out to me from her parlor chair.

“Hey, Honey, did you know Ralph Gordon died?”

Honestly, I didn’t even know she knew I knew the man.

“Nope,” I answer, “can’t say I did. When?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Recently.”

“Well, wait till you hear what I’m about the tell you,” I respond as I rise from my chair. “It borders on bizarre.”

Before I go any further, let me say that I didn’t really know Gordon all that well. I had met him in passing over the years on the street or at Greenfield High School football games I was covering when he was still working for Springfield Newspapers. By the time he came to the Recorder, circulation and revenues were in freefall, the hair-triggered circular firing squad had formed, insecure blame was being directed every which way, and, well, let’s just say the newsroom was toxic. No, definitely not the friendly, light-hearted place I had known for most of my tenure. Even folks coming in off the street with news tips were made to feel uncomfortable, like unwanted trespassers. No way to run a news-gathering operation.

Anyway – not to digress any further – that narrow, folded sheet of scribbled-upon notepad paper deposited by a rogue overnight wind onto the corner of my gold sofa had been penned by none other than the Ralph Gordon who had died. He wanted to share the alarming news report he had read about New England winter moose mortality caused by tick infestation and hair loss.

By now, most people have seen a story or two about this tick-borne moose plague causing much suffering and death. But back then it was fresh and Ralph, an old news hound, deemed it worth sharing with an outdoor columnist. Written in cursive, his tip was short and sweet, reading verbatim:


I thought you might be interested in some moose problems in Me., Vt., & N.H. & maybe Mass. – & other items I have earmarked.


He must have attached an Associated Press clipping. I can’t recall. I will, however, never forget the message delivered by that rogue wind or some other spiritual power riding the dark night air to a peculiar resting place in plain sight. It was at least a 100-to-1 shot that any wind-blown piece of paper would land where Ralph’s note did. Not only that, but why did that devilish wind decide to disturb only three of many stacked sheets, the third of which was his note in bold, blue ink?

Surreal? Yes. Simple coincidence? No. I don’t buy it. I think it was meant to be – a sign that Ralph’s smirking, wind-blown spirit had passed through. He had left me another tip, his last, one hinting his passing.

Why do such things occur if not to remind us there’s a power out there that’s beyond our comprehension? It arrives in many ways from sundry sources, including dark night winds, rattling rivers, trickling springs, and somber morning mists wafting through thorny wetland tangles.

Some of us try to remain alert and receptive to such signs, inviting mysterious messages – always looking and listening, seeking clues and hidden hints. Others flock to the chapel to drop their weekly contribution into long-handled baskets in the name of their God, and only theirs.

Well, count me among the former, the lookers and listeners and humble interceptors of spiritual unknowns.

Fighting a Loyal Salmon Crusade

This all began with an email from a local environmentalist gadfly. He wanted to share a recent guest column he had written for the Northampton newspaper. What followed was a string of email correspondence between me and him and another writer still beating the dead horse called Connecticut River Atlantic salmon. The lively discussion stirred dormant memories from decades back, when I was a lonely critical voice in the toxic wilderness of Connecticut River Atlantic salmon restoration.

The memories hark back to my first years at the Greenfield Recorder, where I spent 40 years in the newsroom, 32 as sports editor and 37 writing a weekly outdoor column – On the Trail – that focused on hunting, fishing and nature wrapped in local history, and random musings. My Recorder years (1979 to 2018) bore witness to my marriage, the birth of two sons and grandsons, and the tragic death of my sons before the age of 30. A wild ride any way you slice it.

The Recorder was an afternoon paper when I started, with a Saturday-morning edition necessitating a Friday split shift with a barebones night production crew. The basement press rumbled and rolled daily at 11 a.m. Monday through Friday, and again at the stroke of midnight Saturday.

The departing Friday day shift and the incoming night crew exchanged pleasantries while passing in opposite directions through the doorway. At midnight Saturday, our skeleton crew would hear the press squeak and groan to a thunderous roar before grabbing a paper fresh off the press, sent upstairs on a hand elevator from the bowels of the plant. We’d quickly check for potential embarrassing headline errors, put the newsroom to bed, and scoot to the local bar for last call – a great way to wind down before heading home after another furious deadline crescendo.

During my early years in the 1980s and early ‘90s, I was still playing in men’s softball leagues from May through mid-October, fishing rivers and upland streams, hunting turkeys and deer, and wing-shooting pheasants, grouse, woodcock and even an occasional duck bursting from a swampy brook before the steel-shot mandate took hold. That’s why I wrote an outdoor column. I was plugged into the scene, always curious and trying to gain an edge against prey; wanting to know its history, its habits, and the habitats it preferred. Plus, I’d track annual hunting harvests and fish migrations, fish and wildlife restoration projects, and local personal-interest hunting stories.

As a columnist, I was there for remarkably successful New England wild-turkey and black-bear restorations, and was later recognized and often criticized as a believer in cougar sightings, regardless of what the experts said. Then, of course, there was the Atlantic salmon restoration project, an expensive, high-priority state and federal boondoggle that never caught a break.

Some visionary fisheries biologists warned from the start that it was too late to bring salmon back to the Connecticut River. Sadly, they opined, that ship had sailed. But their opposition was ignored by gung-ho, altruistic colleagues they pejoratively referred to as “true believers.” Even worse, such opposing viewpoints were greeted with anger, and their voices of reason were kept under wraps. Plain and simple, their humble view was that salmon restoration here was doomed from the start, due to environmental and climatic factors beyond scientists’ control.


In the Field

Having grown up in this slice of the Connecticut Valley, where my DNA stains many a fertile floodplain, I was in the right place at the right time, so to speak, as an outdoor writer working for the newspaper of my parents, my grandparents, and their great-grandparents. Plus, I had vested interest in shad because I was learning to catch them with shiny objects attached to large, sharp hooks.

I was likewise interested in salmon, which would be the grandest of all freshwater gamefish in my place, if the restoration program succeeded. If salmon returned, the best places to fish for them would be major tributaries like the lower Deerfield River, which I knew intimately after years of crafting my trout-fishing skills there with live bait and artificials, spinning and fly tackle.

I knew all the hidden, double-rutted cart roads accessing the river’s secluded stretches, and I knew the deer runs snaking their way down vertical banks to the water. Those were the days before whitewater yahoos took over the lower Deerfield with their loud, obnoxious presence. Before them, the fishing was nirvanic, the atmosphere tranquil; after them, chaotic for anyone accustomed to the old ways.

During my first decade or so at the Recorder, I was a young man, working nights, with boundless energy. May and June daybreaks below the mouth of the South River were downright heavenly. I’d rise well before dawn, pack fishing gear into my Jeep Cherokee, and arrive at stream’s edge before the birds sang – a very special, reflective time of day. On the return home with my catch a few hours later, my South Deerfield neighbors were pouring their first cups of coffee.

My catch-and-release days came later, after my grandmother died. She loved trout, especially little brookies she’d batter and fry with home-fries, bacon and eggs in a black iron skillet. As for larger big-river trout, she’d bake them wrapped in aluminum foil or give them to her neighbor. Trout must have been in her East Colrain DNA, I suppose. Never asked. Didn’t think in those terms back then.

It was on the Deerfield River, fishing for trout in riffles racing toward deep pools, that I began to understand shad migration. Wearing polarized glasses, I’d catch their passing silver flashes heading upstream between me and the morning sun peeking over the steep eastern horizon. By accidentally hooking into a few on colorful streamers, I discovered they were fun to catch – on the average bigger, heavier, and stronger than trout.

Soon I was hooked, and found my way to the most popular shad-fishing place in New England below the Holyoke Dam. I started on the South Hadley Falls side, where I learned it was safer to leave an unoccupied vehicle, and soon discovered the backdoor into the sparsely populated east bank of the tailrace pulling migratory fish into the Barrett Fish Lift, which transports them over the dam.

I’d cross the river shallows between the Holyoke Bridge and the dam, picking my way to an island and crossing it to “the other side” of the tailrace, which I’d have virtually to myself. Facing me from the opposite shore was a maddening, elbow-to-elbow crowd spending more time untangling crossed lines than fishing. Not for me. Same reason I stopped fishing the Willoughby River steelhead run in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom each spring.

I met commercial fly-tier Indian Al Niemiec there, and he showed me the way, telling me I could ignore the danger signs. We met by chance in the dirt parking lot not far from a riverside youth-baseball field and became fast friends. A veteran angler and Amherst College man from Chicopee, he showed me the secrets of catching shad with silver, willow-leaf, metal blades soldered to large hooks and fished with sink-tip flyline. In my experience, willow-leaf blades more than double the catch of those using ubiquitous shad darts.


Numbers Game

Curious about these anadromous fish streaming past me all day in schools and pods, I soon became even more interested in salmon. Wouldn’t it be great if they were running upriver in similar numbers? That’s when I started asking questions of the federal officials I routinely spoke to each spring when tracking weekly migration numbers and comparing them to previous years in my column.

The goal of the salmon-restoration project from the start was to re-establish a large enough annual run to justify sportfishing. The obvious question was, what kind of numbers were we shooting for? Better still, how many salmon would have migrated up the Connecticut River annually before dams built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries blocked their path?

When the experts couldn’t answer that deep-history question, it seemed odd to me, perhaps even evasive. If we couldn’t quantify what used to be, how then could we set a reasonable modern-day goal? It made no sense.

As I kept gently pressing folks like Dr. Henry Booke at the Cronin National Fish Lab in Turners Falls and Micky Novak at the Sunderland National Salmon Station, it became clear to me that they had no answer and were insecure about it. It wasn’t their fault. There were no records, just fanciful tales that almost never lead to future successes. No, Martha, you couldn’t walk across tight river channels on the backs of salmon, no matter what the tales say.

When pinned down, Booke, whom I had met while he was still a UMass professor, tried to deflect my constant line of questioning by taking issue with my focus on raw numbers. The numbers didn’t matter, he scolded. We’d get there if we were patient and supportive. Cynicism, criticism and pessimism did no good. We needed to be positive, optimistic. The fish would come in time. We had to give the restoration program time to work.

Huh? Something was adding up. I was supposed to believe numbers don’t matter in a scientific experiment? Preposterous. How could any scribe with a sliver of pride or good sense accept that perspective, even between quotation marks? The problem was that most if not all did. So did I, likely more than once, before I saw the light.

The only way to protect my integrity and credibility was to investigate what I could find about historic and prehistoric shad and salmon runs. I began searching for data in town histories, 18th and 19th-century newspapers, and sparse records here and there in dusty old volumes. That way, I could get a handle on the status of historic salmon migration and thus figure out for myself realistic future goals in a modern, polluted world.

The journey for information led me through local-history rooms in many Connecticut Valley libraries, where, notebook in hand, I went through indexes of town histories written primarily between 1850 and 1910 to get a feel for the anadromous-fish scene. It was immediately clear to me that, although there were indeed spring salmon passing through our valley in colonial days and into the Federal Period, their numbers had been greatly exaggerated. Shad always outnumbered salmon by a wide margin on their annual upriver migration, and were thus the dominant spring fish.

Even Native Americans here before white Europeans arrived caught far more shad than salmon, viewing the latter as a welcome bonus when caught in weirs, traps, and nets situated along the river each spring.


Pie in the Sky

Eventually, as I continued researching and piecemealing out what I found in my column – much of which was contrary to what salmon-restoration officials wanted to hear – a few timid sources came forward, off the record, to admit I was on the right path. Then, one day in downtown Greenfield, a woman I didn’t know but would soon join on the Greenfield Historical Commission approached me with a bombshell. UMass anthropologist/archaeologist Catherine Carlson had written a 1992 doctoral dissertation that supported what I had been reporting. Based on examination of biological data gathered from more than 70 known Northeastern prehistoric fishing sites, she found little evidence of salmon. Very little.

The woman promptly snail-mailed me a copy of Carlson’s academic journal article excerpting her dissertation. Salmon-restoration proponents knew of the report and were furiously working behind the scenes to discredit it and keep it from public view. It was the last thing they needed while trying to defend disappointing salmon returns in the news each spring. But word got out, and the damage was done.

OK, yes, it is indeed possible that Native American cosmology reserved a special place for salmon and disposed of their remains honorably, perhaps discarding them back into the rivers from which they were taken. Thus, the absence of remains in riverside refuse pits. It’s not out of the question. Such special treatment was the custom for bear remains left off the ground in trees. Why not salmon, king of the annual run?

Still, there is no tangible evidence that salmon runs ever approached the much larger shad runs in our Connecticut River, or in the Hudson River for that matter. That’s undisputable fact. The rest is history.

Twenty years after Carlson’s dissertation was published, and some 25 years after I started picking away at the topic the best I could – with abysmal annual salmon counts staggering into the 21st century’s second decade – the plug was mercifully pulled on restoration in 2012.

This year two salmon returned to a large tributary in Connecticut. Last year there were none. Not a one. Zero. Which is precisely what one can soon expect annually.

Some fisheries biologists knew it was a Hail Mary from the start. Few listened, and those who did were ostracized, criticized, and ridiculed as naysayers. But the true believers finally had to throw in the towel, raise the white flag, and retreat. They put up a good fight, and never got to sample that pie in the sky they savored.

Chasing a Rare Griswold Treasure

Does anyone else track the vintage cast-iron cookware market? It’s pretty wild. Didn’t so much as dip on eBay during the Americana crash.

Take, for example, a recent, old-fashioned, on-site, South Reading, Vermont auction. There the contents of a tidy, bucolic, 100-acre gentleman’s farm were being sold in the morning shadow of picturesque Mount Ascutney. W.A. Smith Auctions was selling the worldly possessions of a late, well-heeled, southern Connecticut couple that lived at the retirement home nestled into the western edge of a five-acre meadow bordered by a neat stonewall and mixed-hardwood forest. Classic central Vermont, in the heart of ski country.

It was a steamy Friday morning, high sun filtered through thin pinkish smoke from western wildfires. Flexible white-plastic stacking chairs were set up for buyers in tight rows facing the auctioneer under a blue-striped tent, connected by a second tent to the home’s modern sunroom and deck. Talk about the comforts of home, they had it – the sturdy deck and sunroom, likely the retirees’ addition to their antique, center-chimney Cape, looking out at a private meadow friendly to deer, turkeys and bears, maybe a wayward moose.

The rear tent contained the merchandise to be sold, including antique case furniture, tables and chairs, and other household furnishings, such as beds and sofas, artwork, silver and jewelry, and anything else capable of tickling a buyer’s fancy. Among the wares resting on folding rectangular tables was a rare 1930s Griswold No. 7 Oval Roaster – a large, showy cast-iron baking pot that had obviously prepared many tasty pot and oven roasts, smoked shoulders and harvest stews, and will cook yet many more.

That festive covered cooking vessel with bold lettering on its lid had “wood-burning cookstove” written all over it. Looking at it, you could almost smell the soothing hickory-and-maple-smoke scent wafting through wainscoted parlors on a winter day.

Having collected vintage cast-iron cookware for decades, I had more than a passing interest in this large, handsome roaster. I had seen a few on eBay in recent years demanding an opening bid of 300 bucks or more. Maybe this one, sold at a weekday, on-site auction advertised as accepting no phone or online bidding would come in cheaper, I told my wife, who rode co-pilot. Just the possibility was enough for me to justify a 90-minute journey to a place I love to visit anyway. Plus, being Lot 31, the hammer would likely fall on it less than an hour into the estimated six-hour sale.

“Worst case scenario is, in my opinion, $350,” I predicted to my wife.

“I’m hoping for less than 200,” she answered. Isn’t that what wives are for?

Collecting cast-iron cookware was nothing new to us. I started pounding the pavement for it some 35 years ago, perusing backroad tag and estate sales, indoor and outdoor flea markets, and occasionally even auctions in search of early cookware marked Erie, Victor and Griswold, or Sidney, Sidney Holloware and Wagner Ware Sidney O. My target was cookware made before I was born in 1953, the best stuff dating back to between the 1890s and 1930s.

We’re talking about: skillets, hinged skillets, double skillets, double-hinged skillets, and high-sided chicken pans; handled griddles, bailed griddles and skillet griddles; muffin and gem pans; Dutch ovens, Scotch bowls and kettles. You name it, I’ve found it over the years. But big oval roasters like the one on the block in Vermont don’t appear often. There’s good reason. Folks don’t part with them. Why should they? Functional and durable, they last forever with minimal care.

And, oh my, do they ever produce superb meals from stovetop and oven.

Something average Joes who grew up with cast iron in their childhood homes seem to know little or nothing about is fitted skillet covers with self-basting rings on the inside. These cost as much as or more than the No. 8 frying pans they fit, and much more for larger and smaller pans. Cooking with skillet covers has become a lost art. But do they ever come in handy for a wide variety of stovetop and oven cooking. I think everyone should own at least one for their most-used black frying pan.

When I was in the bed and breakfast business for more than 15 years, decorative cast-iron cookware came in handy as presentation pieces for the breakfast and party table. Placing an oven-baked daisy ham from the smokehouse on the breakfast table in the cast-iron skillet it was baked on was always a nice touch. So was putting out cornbread in a hot No. 6 skillet fresh from the oven. How can you beat cob-shaped corn muffins served in Griswold pans? Plus, nothing makes better blueberry and raspberry muffins than heavy cast-iron popover pans. All of it evoked old-fashioned ambiance for travelers passing through the area. Call it Connecticut Valley hospitality.

Although we’ve been out of the hospitality grind for many years, cast-iron cookware still dominates our pantry. There’s an art to caring for and keeping it seasoned, which is by now second nature in our daily routine. We prefer wooden to metal spatulas except for the most stubborn problems, and use little or no soap on cast iron. Only when absolutely necessary do we soak a pan for extended periods to aid in difficult cleanup brought by losing focus to untimely cooking distractions. Even then you can eventually scrape off any tough, burned-on mess stuck to the pan, though it sometimes necessitates elbow grease and a stiff metal spatula. Over time, a cared-for, seasoned, vintage skillet or griddle pan becomes glassy and slick, requiring little cooking oil to panfry meat, and a dab more for pancakes or French toast.

Those who know the construction markers on collectible skillets can recognize them even when the trademarks are totally hidden under decades’ worth of black, crusty grease. The best way to clean such a skillet is to place it in a hot open fire to burn off the crud. Then you scrub it down in hot, soapy water with a wire brush, scouring pad or fine steel wool, dry it, and season it with the oil of your choice before placing it in a slow oven or atop the woodstove for a few hours.

I prefer bacon fat or clarified butter (ghee) for seasoning, but that’s just me. Olive oil, corn oil, canola oil, coconut oil or even spray-on Pam all do the trick. It’s a good idea during the process to take the pan out of the oven from time to time and remove excess grease before it forms a tacky residue on the surface.

It never hurts to tune up even seasoned pans from time to time, just to keep them smooth and shiny, and it’s crucial to thoroughly clean pans after cooking. I clean a dirty pan by scraping it with a wooden spatula or scouring pad under hot, flowing water. Then the proper drying process is essential to keep a pan in tip-top shape. Use paper towels to rub it down, starting inside the cooking basin and working your way around the outer pan. That way you’re wiping the greasiest part first and using the greasy paper towel to spread the residue over the rest of the pan, including the handle for aesthetics.

A heated woodstove on which to dry the pan is a plus for those who heat with wood.

Cast-iron cookware made before 1950 is cast thinner and smoother than the modern stuff, making it easier to manipulate and clean. The more prominently marked pans, such as the large-logo Griswolds from the 1920 and 1930s, command the highest prices. The newer stuff is clunky, its surface is rough, making it less functional.

Which brings us back to that oval roaster I chased 90 minutes north to central Vermont.

My price estimate to start the trip was dead wrong. Despite the absence of phone and internet bidding, there was a little wrinkle capable of driving up the price – that is absentee bids. In other words, those who wanted to place a maximum bid without attending the auction could phone it in during the days leading up to sale day. There were many left bids on the oval roaster. The underbidder was one of them.

The hammer fell at $425, which jumped to $501.50 with the auctioneer’s juice. And there you have it. No oval-roaster bargain was to be had that day in South Reading, Vermont – proving once again that if it’s quality you’re chasing, be prepared to pony-up fair market value.

Something else: by the time that classic piece of cast-iron cookware again hits the market, it’ll likely cost more.



Waushakum Pond: Lamprey-Eel Fishing Place?

Finally, a breakthrough concerning a longstanding, personal and vexing lamprey question – that is, did Northeastern indigenous populations utilize anadromous sea lampreys as a food source during the eel-like creatures’ annual, upriver, spring spawning runs among millions of American shad, Atlantic salmon, striped bass and river herring?

This mystery I explored at length and was unable to solve coming down the stretch of my four-decade run as sports editor/outdoor columnist for the local daily newspaper. More recently, in retirement over the winter of COVID isolation, I was queried out of the blue on the topic by a third party, passing on the question from a Happy Valley author who occasional writes guest columns in the Northampton paper.

I had no answer, other than admitting that my search had come up empty despite a strong suspicion that our Native populations had indeed valued lampreys as an abundant and valuable spring food. Why not in a culture that valued rattlesnake as part of its diet? Nonetheless, no written proof that I could uncover.

Oh yes, I found many online lamprey recipes, and even a website featuring a Merrimack Valley vendor in New Hampshire who offered deep-fried, crosscut lamprey steaks. I also knew that our familial, freshwater, American eel was a Native American delicacy. Still, nary a word about lampreys as Native food. Just one more case, I suppose, of not so “benign neglect” by colonial chroniclers more interested in removing “pagan savages” from the landscape than understanding their lifeways.

Now, let’s fast-forward a few months to a more recent, unrelated, personal search that led me to a quick rereading of a book I store upstairs in the Gov. Winthrop desk and bookcase formerly owned by my maternal grandmother. Be it irony or just simple coincidence, this tale will bring us back to Winthrop. But I won’t go there yet. First, the book, written by Harral Ayres, published in 1940 and now pricey. Titled The Great Trail of New England: The Old Connecticut Path, it’s probably the best available source for anyone trying to understand the makeup of Native footpaths that traversed the land during North America’s 16th– and 17th-century colonial Contact Period. Readers gain insight into Native paths that can be applied to others, such as our own Mohawk Trail.

I was probing Ayres’ book in what seems like a never-ending study of the August 25, 1675 Hopewell Swamp Fight, a skirmish at the foot of Mount Sugarloaf between colonial soldiers and Indians that kicked off King Philip’s War in the Connecticut Valley. My goal was to get a better feel for the so-called Pocumtuck Path, which was the most-traveled Contact Period route from Hatfield to Deerfield – and the trail upon which the Swamp Fight unfolded.

Ayres’ fine book traces the deeply trodden footpath that led the first Massachusetts Bay Colony explorers to the Connecticut River at a location that later became the town of Windsor, Connecticut. That’s where the path crossed the river and continued south to Hartford, Wethersfield, New Haven, and beyond.

At its eastern beginnings, the trail had two legs that merged into one trail in South Framingham. One leg began in Cambridge, the other in Boston. From South Framingham, the path led to Hopkinton, where it again split before reconverging into one at the Chaubunagungamaug Crossing across the narrows of a body of water now known as Webster Lake. From there, the path split again. The southern leg led through northern Connecticut to Windsor. The north fork, which came to be known as the Bay Path, went to Springfield, Westfield, and the Hudson River.

Enough about the Great Trail, though. That discussion that could go on indefinitely, and Ayres’ book covers nearly 450 pages. Our focus is the question of whether lampreys were a traditional spring food of our indigenous people, which brings us back to South Framingham and a body of water straddling the Ashland border in the Sudbury River Valley, not to mention Gov. Winthrop.

Today known as Waushakum Pond, Indians knew it as Ouschankamaug, which Ayres translates as “lamprey-eel fishing place” in the Eastern Algonquian, or more specifically Nipmuck, tongue. His reference to the site describes a lamprey feast stumbled upon and joined by three important Connecticut Valley Indians journeying from Windsor to Boston on a diplomatic mission in the spring of 1631. They intended to meet Gov. John Winthrop the elder and pitch their fertile valley to pioneer English settlers.

So, according the Ayres, our indigenous populations did indeed savor lampreys as food. Or did they? Could not Ayres have been mistaken due to incorrect translation or some other form of misunderstanding? After all, has there not always been and will there not always be great disagreement among “experts” regarding the pronunciation and meaning of New England Indian words?

Ayres knew the problem. Thus, a detailed footnote I may have missed during my first reading of his book. This is what that footnote has to say about twisted translations, pronunciations, and phonetic spellings of Indian words from now-extinct dialects:


Indian names become corrupted into so many forms it is hard in this day to trace many of them back to their Indian form and meaning. Ouschankamaugs, “lamprey eel fishing places,” were common. Lampreys were among the first freshwater fish in spring. At all seasons they appear to have been a favorite food.

Near that beaver dam, the word prevailed for a time as Washakamaug, and finally degenerated into Shakum Pond. The word is in the records at Lancaster, Mass., as Weshakin. Hubbard gave the name of the Dorchester tract at Windsor, Conn., as Cufchankamaug. Trumbull located it indefinitely as somewhere in ancient Windsor.

There was such a fishing place on the Hockanum River in East Hartford. Roger Williams (1643) rendered the word Qunnamaugsuck – apparently “place of the long fish.”


In my mind, that’s pretty convincing evidence that Indians ate lampreys. It has always made sense that they would have taken advantage of such an easy spring food source after long, cold, barren winters. And although freshwater American eels were also harvested, lampreys would have easy picking for a couple of months each spring when Indians built seasonal riverside camps to catch and process anadromous fish by seine, dip-net, trap, weir, bow and arrow, and spear. Would they ignore lampreys, discarding any caught by accident? That’s very unlikely, even preposterous, considering that they still find their way onto dinner plates in the modern world and are easy to prepare.

Today lampreys are even sold from mobile, roadside restaurants of the “clam-shack” genre.

Huden’s Indian Place Names of New England and Bright’s Native American Placenames of the United States both translate close variations of Ayres’ ouschankamaug as “eel-fishing places,” which is helpful but leaves open for conjecture exactly what type eel they’re seeking. Plus, lampreys are not eels – a scientific fact that would have been unknown to Indians and early New England settlers alike. They sure do look like eels, and are ubiquitously still referred to as such by laymen who call them “lamprey eels.”

Of course, there was another key element of Ayres’ story that had to be confirmed. Was Waushakum Pond accessible to anadromous fish before dams and development blocked their path? Well, a step in the right direction are the online profiles identifying the pond as a Sudbury River tributary. If so, migratory fish had access.

Nonetheless, curiously, not one state or federal fishery biologist queried could confirm that yes, absolutely, anadromous fish had access to Waushakum Pond before 19th– and 20th-century obstructions. Even a source from the watchdog conservation outfit OARS – the acronym for what started as the Organization for the Assabet River but now covers the Sudbury and Concord rivers as well – did not know if anadromous fish ever had access to the pond.

The Sudbury, Assabet, and Concord rivers are all tributaries of the Merrimack, and thus would have supported the same spring anadromous-fish runs as the Connecticut River. The outflow from Waushakum Pond trickles out along the mid-east side and runs into Beaverpond Brook, which empties into Lake Cochituate, a manmade reservoir that provided Boston with drinking water for some 100 years until 1951. The reservoir was created by damming Cochituate Brook, an important Sudbury River tributary fed by Beaverpond Brook, which accepted Wausakum Pond outflow. The Indian word cochituate meant “swift river,” so the flow would have been right for migratory fish runs.

The most likely site of the trailside, 1631 Indian eel feast noted by Ayres seems to be somewhere near the ancient wetland confluence of the Waushakum Pond outflow and Beaverpond Brook. Ayres describes the site as, “By the beaver dam and the little primitive lakes nearby,” where “the eel season was at hand.”

Although the old migratory-fish passageway from the Sudbury River to Waushakum Pond has been sealed off by the Lake Cochituate dam, you can take it to the bank that it once existed, and Indians did indeed harvest lampreys there. Regardless of the river system, Indians did their fish-gathering where the fishing was most productive, and narrow, tributaries with beaver dams would have been ideal. And while we’re at it, you can bet similar fishing stations for lampreys existed at suitable tributaries up and down the lower Connecticut Valley, likely as far upstream as Bellows Falls, Vermont.

It has for many years been my opinion that Indians harvested lampreys for food. Now, finally, after years of searching, the first trace of confirmation appears in an obscure, scholarly book. Not about Indian diet or fishing technique, it describes an important New England trail that passed or crossed many lakes, ponds, and streams where fish were gathered and celebrated.

Did it not have to be?


Dr. Grave-Robber Cooley

Dennis Cooley was likely South Deerfield’s first native-born physician – one who, had he stayed put and practiced locally, may have never lived down a dark, macabre stain on his reputation. Like so many others of his time, he started over on what was then the Wild West of the Great Lakes or Northwest Territory, becoming a leading citizen of Washington Township, Macomb County, Michigan, where he died in 1860.

Cooley’s February 18, 1789 birth date presents him as the oldest of 14 children born to Eli and Chloe (Allen) Cooley, whose home stood on the east side of the so-called “county road from Deerfield to Hatfield” in what was then Bloody Brook, now North Main Street, South Deerfield. His grandparents, Azariah and Eleanor (Warriner) Cooley, were among Bloody Brook’s founding families.

Growing up in Deerfield and educated in its schools, Cooley established lasting friendships with upper-crust contemporaries like Dr. Stephen W. Williams – a well-known Old Deerfield physician and med-school classmate – and author/educator Edward Hitchcock – an early Deerfield Academy headmaster, Conway minister, and Amherst College president. The three friends maintained lively correspondence throughout their lives, no matter where their travels took them.

According to Cooley’s online Find A Grave profile, he moved to Georgia and practiced medicine for five years after graduating in August 1822 from Berkshire Medical College in Pittsfield and soon being approved for medical practice by the Massachusetts Medical Society. Despite his move to the sunny South, however, he found time to return to Franklin County at least briefly in the fall of 1824. That’s when he made a regrettable decision that would stick with him locally for the rest of his life.

In those days, just as today, medical researchers were always on the lookout for cadavers to dissect and study. For just such a specimen Cooley, sometime after November 15, 1824, fixated on the corpse of a Greenfield man who had taken his own life in bloody fashion. The problem was that he secretly exhumed the corpse from its grave in the dark of night, leaving behind an empty casket – which was soon discovered.

Six years later, on a trip home to marry childhood neighbor Elizabeth Anderson, he was arrested, jailed, tried, and convicted by the state Supreme Court. Well, sort of. Because, you see, Cooley escaped serious consequences when the court ruled that by the time of his 1830 arrest and prosecution, the two-year statute of limitations had passed.

Who knows what Cooley’s philosophical, grave-robbing justification was, or what exactly he intended to do with a pre-embalming-fluid cadaver more than 1,000 difficult miles away from his Georgia home and practice? Did he intend to carve up his pungent prize in an old friend’s barn? On a kitchen table? Were there accomplices with shared human-anatomy fascinations? Did he believe the suicide victim was a mortal sinner destined for the fires of hell, and thus free for the taking? At this point, nearly 200 years later, we’ll never know the answers.

Medical research on cadavers at the time was common at medical schools and hospitals. Friend Peter Thomas, former director of the University of Vermont archaeology department, recalls the time he was called to investigate many bones unearthed by construction crews making improvements to the basement of the college’s old Pomeroy Hall medical school. Related burial sites were also discovered under an athletic field and on private property owned by a college trustee in nearby Williston, Vermont. Those buried remains were undoubtedly mostly paupers, many of them immigrants who had lived and died on the streets of New York City, or maybe even Burlington, without the means for a proper burial. With the state or city stuck with burial costs, such people apparently became much-needed medical-research specimens.

Such cadavers were also common in the elite, Ivy League medical schools of the time, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, and Penn. In the name of scientific research, this gruesome practice was deemed philosophically justifiable from a utilitarian perspective aimed at understanding human anatomy and saving lives.

As for the Greenfield man who unwittingly “donated” his body to medicine, Mr. Pierce Chase (1775-1824), he is an interesting character in his own right. Relying on Greenfield newspaper reports, the spelling of his first name is inconsistent, varying between Pierce and Peirce. From this point forward, I’ll use the traditional spelling P-i-e-r-c-e, which appears in his online Find A Grave profile and on wife Abigail (Mott) Chase’s (1784-1832) High Street Cemetery gravestone in Greenfield. Though the suicide victim’s own gravesite is unknown, it is assumed that he too was buried at High Street, within walking distance of his Factory Hollow home near the mouth of Fall River.

Although Chase, a miller and property owner with a home and family, was far from a have-not, he seems to have fallen on hard times by his November 13, 1824 suicide at age 47. He ended his life by slashing his neck with a razor, leaving a 40-year-old wife and three young sons ages 16, 9, and 7.

When Abigail died eight years later, in 1832, Chester Bascom was appointed guardian of minor brothers James, 17, and Lyman, 15. Bascom (1786-1841) came from a long line of Factory Hollow clothiers and fulling millers, and had sold Chase property in Greenfield’s industrial northeast corner in 1811.

Soon after Chase’s burial, there was evidence his grave had been tampered with and further investigation revealed an empty casket. The community was stunned. The corpse had been stolen. A notice in the Greenfield Gazette and Franklin Herald speculated that the dirty deed had been done “between the 15th and 25th day of the month.” Soon to follow was a notice in the same paper that Greenfield selectmen and 51 subscribers had put up a $200 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator(s). That was a lot of money back then, representing about a year’s pay for an unskilled laborer or farm hand.

How and when Dr. Dennis Cooley was outed as the grave robber is unclear from newspaper and Thompson’s History of Greenfield accounts. Wouldn’t it be interesting to read the transcript, if extant, of the two-day state Supreme Court trial presided over by Greenfield Justice Elijah Alvord, Esq.? Perhaps a project for another day.

In the meantime, there you have the forgotten tale of Bloody Brook’s Dr. Dennis Cooley. What an unwelcome surprise awaited the doctor upon returning home from the Michigan wilds for the joyous occasion of marrying an old hometown sweetheart. Likely, by the time legal wrangling were over some seven or eight months later, and he was free to return with new wife to his Washington Township home, his neighbors never heard a peep about any faraway grave-robbing scandal. Dr. Cooley was thus able to live out the final 30 years of his life as an unblemished pioneer physician and postmaster.

Such men living on the edge were able to hide their sordid pasts, and dismiss any and all hideous rumors as small-town gossip perpetrated by hateful rivals. There was then no Internet or 24/7 cable news to uncover that type of dishonesty and shame. That was the beauty of life on the old frontier, especially those with skeletons in their closet, no pun intended.

The Rattler Strikes Back

One never knows what interesting little tidbits of local lore will appear in 19th-century newspapers, be they little blurbs of town gossip, full-length news stories, obituaries, articles of interest lifted and “localized” from faraway publications, and even advertisements.

To briefly digress, I can’t help but recall aspiring young reporters who joined the newsroom from fancy collegiate J-schools and were immediately confronted with the dreaded assignment of “localizing” a wire story that had been all over the TV news. The ploy was to bring the national story home by channeling it through local people and places.

I can still hear the instructions no one wanted directed their way – instructions that produced rolling eyes behind the assignment editors’ backs. “You know the drill,” the editor would say. “Put a local spin on it. Get quotes from this person or that.”

Pee-yew! It reeks of John Q. Average, lazy, unimaginative newspaper editor manufacturing “local” news for small dailies, a stench any cub reporters worth their salt immediately recognize. Idealistic and eager to roll up their reporting sleeves, they’d prefer probing a complicated investigative piece exposing crime, corruption, or professional misconduct, something new and exciting that creates a community buzz.

Of course, my experience is from late 20th and early 21st century newsrooms removed more than 170 years from the story we will examine here. Wire news came to us electronically, 24/7 through cyberspace, a far cry from the pre-radio and television era of newspaper publishing. Our oldest newspapers relied on post riders, stagecoaches, and railroads to deliver “wire” news from faraway cities like Boston, New York and Philadelphia, nearer still, Hartford, Albany and Worcester.

Back then, most of the local news came from community correspondents living within their paper’s circulation, be they full-time “stringers” trolling their towns for news on their daily travels or venerable guest contributors commenting on current events within their area of expertise. Plus, of course, editors that put the paper together would also consistently chime in on important issues.

The interesting front-page story I recently stumbled across in the weekly Greenfield Gazette and Courier dated Tuesday, January 25, 1848 touched on a familiar topic that immediately seized my attention. Written by guest contributor Dr. Stephen W. Williams (1790-1855) – a Deerfield physician from the same “royal” family that produced the so-called “Redeemed Captive,” Rev. John Williams – the understated headline read Rattlesnakes – Crotalus Horridus (which is Latin for timber rattlesnake). A lengthy newspaper story for its time and place, it was reprinted from the scholarly Boston Medical and Surgical Journal.

Williams’ narrative was written in reaction to a tragic snake-bite that had six weeks earlier (December 10, 1847) killed a New York City physician named Arnold Francis Wainwright. Because Williams identified the victim only as Dr. Wainwright with no hint of a first name, we can assume the writer knew that readers were well aware of a story that had gone viral. That likelihood is buttressed by the fact that Williams also failed to provide details about the crazy snakebite itself. His objective was obviously to give local readers a follow-up on the latest rattlesnake science, where they were found, the potency and medicinal value of their venom, and the newest medical treatment for those bitten by them.

Plus, of course, he wanted to present his narrative through a Franklin County lens. He accomplished that objective right up front by informing readers that rattlesnakes “were formerly found in great abundance in our sandstone and greenstone ranges of mountains in Deerfield and Greenfield, but few are found there now. Occasionally we hear of their being killed upon Mount Toby and the range of mountains east of the Connecticut River in this county.”

Then came the intriguing kicker that really sunk in its hooks – it an interesting bit of Deerfield folklore attributed to the December 8, 1835 Franklin Mercury and pulled by Williams from Massachusetts Historical Society archives. Below (in italics) is my lightly edited version of this local anecdote.


A Mr. Jonathan Hawks was ploughing not far from the mountain called Sugar Loaf that lies near the ferry leading to Sunderland, when he noticed a number of turkeys coming into the field and got his gun to kill them. Before he was ready the turkeys made off toward the mounting and, as he was advancing up the same, he was surrounded by a number of rattlesnakes. Being of a heroic spirit, and manlike, loathe to turn and run, though surrounded by such spiteful and malignant serpents (as those serpents are the most spiteful of any serpents that crawl upon the ground), he set down his gun, (as they had none,) and took a stick that lay handy. He stood his ground and fought them, killing 34 serpents on the spot. The rest were so frightened at the valor and activity of the man, that they were glad to quit the field of battle and hide themselves in the holes under the rocks and leave the hero in the possession of the field. He took 33 eggs out of the snakes he killed, thus destroying in all 67 serpents.


I find it interesting that Williams – himself the descendant of an iconic, early Deerfield family – did not attempt to further identify protagonist Hawks by connecting him to a Franklin County Hawks household of the day. Also, perhaps due to time limitations, he was willfully vague about when the incident unfolded, willing only to speculate that it “must have occurred nearly 100 years ago.” Obviously, the 1835 Herald story was published decades and perhaps even generations after the incident, thus the original correspondent didn’t know the date either.

Further research in George Sheldon’s History of Deerfield genealogies indicates that Williams’ knee-jerk prefaced estimate probably should have read “more than 50 (instead of 100) years ago.” The only Jonathan Hawks (1762-1792) I could find living in Deerfield in the late 18th century appears to have been the son of Asa (1732-1801) and Elizabeth Smead Hawks (1732-1816) of South Deerfield’s western farm village of Mill River. That Jonathan Hawks married Mary French of Greenfield and, according to Deerfield vital statistics, died as head of a town household.

As for the story itself, well, let’s just surmise that it had over time been “slightly” exaggerated, embellished, or in news-critic parlance “sensationalized.” Nonetheless, can there really be any question that rattlesnakes were once common in parts Franklin County, and especially along Mount Sugarloaf’s sunbaked talus slopes? After all, such rocky terrain is classic snake habitat. In fact, I believe it’s safe to assume that an expert snake-hunter or daring hiker could still today stir up a rattler there on a hot summer day. Rattlesnakes and copperheads are not uncommon a short distance south of Sugarloaf, in the Mount Tom Range between Interstate 91 and the Westfield River in Woronoco.

That’s quite enough about Mr. Hawks, though. Let’s move on to unfortunate Dr. Wainwright who, incidentally, probably got exactly what he deserved. And, no, this snakebite did not occur in the wild, but rather in an oil-lamp-lit city tavern.

Although Williams spared Gazette and Courier readers all the gory details of Wainwright’s tragic final hours, eyewitness D.B. Taylor – on the scene from snakebite to death – laid it all out in a New York Globe piece picked up by the upstate Albany Evening News on December 13, 1847. In italics below is my slightly edited version of the front-page story that shook New York, New England and eventually the nation.


Most Horrible Death from the Bite of a Rattlesnake


… On (the afternoon of Dec. 9, 1847), Dr. W. received from a brother-in-law in Alabama, through the mail, a number of rare plants, etc. from that state. Also, probably for the purpose of furnishing a subject for scientific experiments, a six-foot-long rattlesnake was included in the package.

The reptile was securely boxed, but it seems that Dr. W. for the purpose of exhibiting it to some friends in the evening, took the box to the Broadway House on the corner of Grand and Broadway. There, knocking off the top, the snake was let loose upon the barroom floor. Throwing itself into a coil, the dangerous creature immediately commenced that low hum, or species of ringing (not a rattle), that is peculiar to the species, and seemed inclined to remain quiet. Probably the change of climate produced a sort of torpor, and it was repeatedly teased with a stick. Without betraying much viciousness, indeed, one gentleman ventured so far as to raise it with the toe of his boot, no less, escaping unscathed.

After being exposed some twenty minutes to the gaze of those present, Dr. Wainwright attempted to return the snake to the box, and for that purpose, foolishly seized the venomous viper with his naked hand. In an instant, with only the slightest premonitory rattle, the reptile raised his head, threw back his upper jaw, and struck. The fangs entered Mr. W’s fingers, fastening on the inside of the ring-finger of the right hand!


The rest is dreadful history.

Although in the neighborhood of one of the nation’s best medical colleges and hospitals, with many top doctors available, Wainwright could not be saved. As his swelling and pain migrated, he begged for emergency amputation of his entire arm as a desperate life-saving measure. When sophisticated medical consultation deemed amputation inadvisable, the emergency measure was nixed and the victim was soon sinking into his death throes.

Wainwright, 36, a Brit, left a wife and two children. His careless behavior was likely buoyed by alcohol in a raucous tavern scene. He poked the proverbial hornets’ nest and got stung with a lethal dose of venom. Frankly, the astute professor of medicine and chemistry should have known better.

A moral to the story? Maybe to handle with care any and all packages from in-laws.


Trust Temple On Swamp-Fite Site

In recent years an intense spotlight has focused its beam on the Falls Fight of May 19, 1676 – the bloodiest day in the history of our splendid slice of the Connecticut Valley.
Much federal money has been and will continue to be spent trying to pin down exactly what happened before, during, and after this so-called “battle,” which historians generally identify as the event that turned the tide of King Philip’s War (KPW) in the colonials’ favor. The predawn attack on a sleeping Native fishing camp along the north shore of the falls in what is now Riverside, Gill dealt a severe, unmerciful blow to Native people celebrating nature’s spring bounty.
Hopefully, ongoing “Battlefield Grant” research will, by the time all is said and done, put its definitive stamp on not just the Falls Fight but also the other major local battles leading up to it. If so, the mission will begin with the August 25, 1675 Swamp Fight mentioned in my previous column. The first Connecticut Valley engagement of the war, this morning skirmish unfolded on a sandy-plain site overlooking Hopewell Swamp from the west on Mount Sugarloaf’s southwestern skirt. Following it in rapid succession were the ambushes at Beer Plain (September 2) and Bloody Brook (September 18).
Because the three primary Swamp Fight chroniclers never set foot on the site, including even Hatfield’s own minister, Rev. John Russell, a cloud of uncertainty has hovered over it for more than three centuries. Then, to make matters worse, a self-published book written by a South Hadley author who rode a publicity tour through local historical societies exacerbated the confusion by throwing a bizarre new wrinkle into the public square in 2009.
This author – who five years earlier had written a book about 19th-century Whately pottery – took it upon himself to defy prevailing wisdom by moving some two or three miles west not only the most-traveled 17th-century Native path through our part of the valley, but the long-accepted sites of the Swamp Fight, the Bloody Brook Fight, and even Poplar Spring, a well-known spring that crossed the indigenous trail near today’s intersection of Christian Lane and Long Plain Road in East Whately.
Compounding the confusion, two respected Connecticut Valley historians of the highest order put their stamp of approval in bold black letters on the back cover of the spiral-bound softcover. First, a respected female Forbes Library reference librarian saluted the work as “A ground-breaking piece of research.” Then, a male New England scholar often affiliated with Old Deerfield, now dead, opined that, whether or not one agreed with all of the author’s conclusions, “the sheer volume of early documents and later historical writings consulted with respect to the topographical history of our immediate area here in Deerfield” was impressive.
In defense of the reviewers – both of whom I’ve met and hold in the highest regard – they were reacting to a topic that sat on the periphery of their expertise. Although the reference librarian’s knowledge of Northampton history and Connecticut Valley genealogy is truly remarkable and reliable, she’d be the first to admit she’s not a KPW scholar.
Ditto for the other reviewer, an effete researcher whose bailiwick was early New England architecture, material cultural, and genealogy. He would have been 86 and slowing down when penning the requested review.
The three 17th-century historians to document the Swamp Fight were Rev. William Hubbard (1621-1704) of Ipswich, Rev. Increase Mather (1639-1723) of Boston, and the aforementioned Rev. Russell (1626-1692) of infant Hadley. All three of these learned men relied on second- and third-hand reports to come to agreement that this inaugural battle took place at a site above Hatfield village near Sugar Loaf Hill.
Later, the consensus among devoted 19th- and 20th-century Connecticut Valley historians was that the battlefield sat about a quarter-mile south of Sugarloaf Brook. There a steep, triangular ravine juts out into the plain, pulling a trickling spring into the swamp.
This ravine was identified as the site from which Native warriors ignited the skirmish by firing the first shots at pursuing English soldiers. That opening salvo pulled the soldiers into pursuit through the swamp, where a tree-to-tree skulking battle continued for three hours, resulting in the death of nine English and an estimated 26 Native warriors. It’s likely that Native rear scouts kept track of their pursuers’ progress and, losing ground, set up an ambush to give women, children, and elderly a chance to escape.
Leading the English troopers in pursuit of the Natives were Captains Richard Beers and Thomas Lathrop. The Natives were fleeing to save their firearms, which were to be confiscated. Beers and Lathrop would soon die in similar ambushes – Beers in Northfield (September 2) and Lathrop at Bloody Brook (September 18).
Among the English killed at the Swamp Fight were Richard Fellows of Hatfield, Azariah Dickinson of Hadley, and Samuel Mason of Northampton. Relatives and descendants of the fallen and those who lived to tell about it, as well as family and friends of Bloody Brook Battle participants, would surely have known the battle sites. Not only that, but you can safely assume they pointed them out in passing. Battlegrounds where family and friends, neighbors and parishioners lose their lives are not forgotten in the collective memory.
Which brings us to Rev. J.H. Temple of Whately, who wrote the first History of Whately in 1872 and placed the starting point of the Swamp Fight on J.C. Sanderson’s land a short distance west of his River Road homestead, where today the J.M. Pasiecnik Farm Stand and 5J Creamee stands.
Temple was so certain he had the site pegged that he hired an Ashfield artist to grace his book’s frontispiece with a sketch looking up the ravine from which the first shots were fired. Clearly, he harbored no doubts about the spot, and he had good reason for his confidence. His information was gathered information from aged members of his congregation who dated back to the days before Whately split off from Hatfield in 1771. Some of those sources would have had grandparents who knew King Philip’s War veterans.
Temple published his book at a time when Franklin County was abuzz with historical curiosity about its KPW battle sites, and roadside monuments were being erected to mark them by the side of roads. This community project was perpetuated by Old Deerfield antiquarian George Sheldon, best known as the author of the History of Deerfield (1895). Sheldon fueled a local-history renaissance during the final third of the 19th century by founding the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (PVMA) after the Civil War. The PVMA assembled a cadre of like minds and stirred public interest with a steady stream of historical and genealogical data printed in the Greenfield and Turners Falls newspapers.
Myself, I rely on family tradition to buttress my confidence that the Swamp Fight unfolded where Sheldon, Temple, and the vast majority of historians before and after them say it did. My great-grandfather, Willis Sanderson, was born and lived next door to his grandfather, aforementioned J.C. Sanderson, for the first 16 years of his life. So, he would have worked and played on the contiguous farm acreage surrounding Hopewell Swamp.
I learned of a mysterious battle before Bloody Brook from my great-aunt Gladys (1895-1989), Willis’ daughter, who in conversation about Bloody Brook would note “a lesser-known battle occurring a few weeks before Bloody Brook on Father’s farm.” I don’t think she even knew its name. Gladys was my grandfather’s spinster sister. We called her “Antie,” and like many other unmarried women of old New England families, she was the unofficial keeper of family records, photos and memories.
“Antie” had deep roots in South Deerfield. Her grandmother was a member of the Arms family that was among the first settlers there in the late 18th century. In the village first called Bloody Brook, Arms homes were clustered around the Bloody Brook Monument before and after it was erected in 1838. So, you can take it to the bank that Bloody Brook and KPW was a common topic of conversation in her household. The monument stood but a couple hundred yards east of the home where “Antie” was born and died. Her Arms kin were even closer, situated right on the Bloody Brook battlefield, where my widowed mother still lives.
Too bad I took a focused interest in the local KPW battlefields after “Antie” died. It was her Woodruff family Bible, with handwritten names filling in the genealogy page at the front, that nudged me toward further genealogical and local-history research. Oh, how I’d love to speak to “Antie” today about a whole host of topics dear to me.
But isn’t that the way it seems to go? Always a day late and a dollar short. Woulda, coulda, shoulda. The way it is.
So, sorry, fellas, but I can’t buy the 2009, loose-leafed, spiral-bound softcover’s hypotheses surrounding Bloody Brook and King Philip’s War. I believe Temple and Sheldon and, most of all, my own family’s oral tradition.
I have blood in the game: family lore based on collective memory. How can you beat that?

Swamp-Fight Revelation

For months now, I’ve been jumping back and forth from old Greenfield newspapers, Registry of Deeds land records and various other sources and field trips in a concerted effort to fine-tune my understanding of the land I traveled as a boy and young man, and which I still explore.

I would describe my focus area as South Deerfield spilling into Whately. It is the land of my forebears, deeply stained with my father’s DNA, and mine.

The most exciting newspaper discovery I stumbled across appeared while keyword-searching the Gazette and Courier for my third great-grandfather, John Chapman Sanderson (1804-86), a major Whately landowner and gentleman farmer who built his mid-19th-century home on the west side of River Road on the lot of today’s Pasiecnik creemee stand. Next door on the south stood the original Sanderson homestead of his great-grandfather, Joseph Sanderson, the second settler to set his stake in the Hatfield village earliest known as Canterbury.

The key information I found appeared under a Whately heading in the Jan. 1, 1872 newspaper. It publicized Rev. J.H. Temple’s forthcoming History of the Town of, Whately, Mass.: Including a Narrative of Leading Events from the First Planting of Hatfield, 1660-1871. What grabbed my attention was the second and third sentences of paragraph No. 2, which read:

“The frontispiece will represent the scene of the Swamp Fight, which occurred on Aug. 25, 1675 west of the residence of J.C. Sanderson, Esq. This sketch was drawn by Mrs. A.H. Hall of Ashfield.”

More detailed than most town news stories of the day, the 450-word filing was written by none other than James M. Crafts, then a community correspondent, later the author of his own History of Whately (1899). Crafts, who descended from many of Hatfield’s founding families, sang praise of Temple’s credibility as a Whately historian, writing:

“For this work we are confident there are but few men so competent as Mr. Temple to do justice to the topic. Thirty years ago, he was settled in Whately over the Congregational society. At that time there were some old men more than 90 years of age still living, whose minds were clear with truly wonderful memories. With these men Mr. Temple enjoyed such intimate relations that he drew from them very much of inestimable value to lovers of history.”

If you do the math, Temple had been in town since about 1840 and thus had spoken to sources born as early as 1750, only 75 years removed from the Swamp Fight. So, these venerable sources would have known older residents who were alive for the Swamp Fight, which set off the Connecticut Valley campaign of King Philip’s War (1675-76) – a Native rebellion that placed what would become Franklin County in grave danger for at least 10 months.

The new revelation was not the Hopewell Swamp battle site, which has long been recognized by authoritative historians, but instead the identification of the artist who sketched the woodblock illustration appearing at the front of the book. Hall’s depiction of the site on J.C. Sanderson’s land where the fight began had for decades confused me. Looking up a ravine from the depths of the swamp, her sketch portrays a deep, narrow crevice supporting a small brook, with mountains in the background. The vexing issue was that never in my lifetime has such a brook existed where she places it – that being the upper end of Hopewell Plain traversed by Long Plain Road in East Whately. So, what was going on? Was it a simple case of artistic license, or had the terrain been altered?

For years, I assumed the former. Now I know better. The sketch is still remarkably accurate if you know the site from which the Hall perspective was born.

I began to form this realization shortly before my June 2018 retirement. The first clues were revealed on the earliest topographical maps of Whately published during the last 15 years of the 19th century by the United States Geological Society. The old maps show a small brook that no longer exists running west to east across Long Plain Road. The stream flows from a spring just west of the railroad tracks. This spring stream was tunneled under the tracks, crossing Long Plain Road between today’s Fairview Farms office building and the livestock auction. From there it crossed the vast plain before dropping into a deep ravine entering Hopewell Swamp. After making its way through that dense marsh and pulling in the backside of another boggy spring before crossing Chang Farm and traveling under River Road to join Sugarloaf Brook just north of Herlihy Park.

The section of that brook running from the tracks to Hopewell Swamp never existed in my memory or in that of anyone else I queried, including the current landowners, brothers Alan and Brad Sanderson, slightly younger distant cousins of mine. Topographical maps published since 1935 bear me and them out. On the 1935 map published after a 30-year hiatus, the brook has vanished and the plain appears as the one I knew as a farm hand, pheasant hunter and wayward teen seeking nighttime privacy from the adults.

Most likely, shade-tobacco farmers at some point tunneled the small stream through pipes and buried it to create one open, uninterrupted agricultural plain. Today, the spring is still piped under the plain, exiting a concrete and stone-framed 14- to 16-inch pipe in the very ravine artist A.H. Hall depicted in her sketch – the western hills gracing the landscape. In my younger days, there was a hidden farm dump there, and many a cock pheasant came cackling out of the surrounding brush, not to mention the mucky, cattail swamp below and beyond.

This buried spring brook exits the aquifer that gave us what is today known as Tri-Town Beach, a swimming hole that bubbled up in the early 1960s during Interstate 91 construction. I remember its beginning. We called it Manmade Lake and used it as a private swimming hole popular as a place to skip school on fine spring days.

So, yes, there was a brook crossing that plain traversed by the Native trail known as the Pocumtuck Path, which led travelers from Hatfield to Deerfield in the earliest days of settlement. Problem is, it’s no longer visible. When Hatfield and Deerfield villages sprouted in the late 17th century, the Pocumtuck Trail was the trunkline off of which all others trails branched. In later years, this path became a county road, not to mention the dividing line for the earliest land divisions of Deerfield, Whately and Hatfield.

When the Hatfield Norwottucks fled their village in the dark of night and were pursued on the morning of Aug. 25, 1675 by Hatfield troopers, they took this path northward and sprang an ambush from the wooded brook ravine dropping into Hopewell Swamp. A skulking battle ensued, continuing through the swamp for about three hours before the blackpowder smoke cleared. Nine colonials and an estimated 26 Indians died.

Although I have learned that you can’t believe everything you read in the newspaper, take it to the bank that A.H. Hall set up her easel where the Swamp Fight began. The mystery of that hidden brook has sewn confusion far too long. Now that we know there was indeed a brook where early accounts seem to place one, the rest of the story falls into place nicely. That skirmish “below Sugar Loaf hill” fits like a tailored suit.

Mad Meg theme designed by BrokenCrust for WordPress © | Top