Looming Celebrations Stir Memories

Saturday, 6 a.m. Backyard brook rattling. Sparse, wispy-white clouds creeping eastward in the soothing, pale-blue sky. Perfect for pondering, allowing your mind to run free.

Heavy overnight winds and rains have passed, leaving in their wake an ebullient-green yard, the rich, verdant base only enhancing ornamental trees and bushes to their happiest springtime splendor. There is nothing quite like a bright spring morning to stimulate your senses, stir memories.

Returned from a meandering meadow walk, my saturated, worn Gore-Tex hiking boots facing the sun on the flagstone terrace hauled many years ago by oxcart from Charlemont. I’m sitting in a leather recliner, legs outstretched, head and back upright. Facing south toward the closed glen road passing my upper Greenfield Meadows home, wheels spinning, I can detect any passersby over my laptop screen.

I’m moving into a meditative space I have often visited over the past 41 years, one I always welcome and from which I have produced thousands of columns created by whatever spirit moves me. One never knows where fertile curiosity and mischievous imagination will lead on such an inspiring morning, especially following a freewheeling, freethinking ramble that stimulates introspective thoughts, riffs, and melodies worth capturing and sharing.

Never do such unfettered thoughts flow freer than on brisk, solitary walks, one foot in front of the other, heart thumping, blood circulating, sweat dripping, thoughts swirling into a dust storm of stimuli, the topics darting from here to there and back again. When the time and place is right, such a process can sweep you away from a starting point to a magical place you’re not expecting, one worth exploring.

Saturday’s was such a walk. It stimulated my imagination, stirred memories, and propelled me not ahead but back 50 years and more, to younger days relevant to the present.

Actually, for weeks I have been thinking ahead to a couple of looming birthday celebrations local towns will celebrate. The first is Whately’s 250th next year, then my hometown of Deerfield’s 350th in 2023. Preparations already underway for both, with local historians of many stripes swapping insights to be worked into a public narrative and unveiled down the road.

Plus, there’s Hatfield’s 350th this year, which has already been reduced to a disappointing virtual celebration due to COVID-19 demons, likely to be present virtually anywhere, but especially in dense gatherings. Sad indeed. Hatfield is a proud Yankee town that helped seed the Connecticut Valley with families that still populate our hills and dales. We’re talking about familiar surnames like Allis and Arms, Bardwell and Belden, Dickinson, Hinsdale, Jennings, Marsh, Nash, Porter, Waite, Wells, and many more.

Just one more nagging reminder that I’m getting old is the realization that this will be my second rodeo. Because, yes, I was there 50 years ago for the same towns’ last birthday galas, celebrated in villages where as a kid I played baseball, fished, farmed and foraged … and unapologetically raised hell. So, go figure. That’s precisely where my Saturday-morning walk took me: a half-century back in time. I had no intention of going there when my legs started moving. It just happened. Perhaps the result of a wandering, walking mind. Oh my! How times have changed since then.

Take, for instance, 1970 – the year Hatfield celebrated its 300th birthday. Though I undoubtedly passed through, I have little or no recollection of the event. And even what I think I do recall may well be a combination of many similar celebrations I attended in my younger, wilder days. So, fearful that I’ll meld many into one, why bother trying to piece together my Hatfield memories? Facts matter. Especially in print.

What I now know but didn’t back then is that Hatfield actually goes back more than 350 years. From 1659 to 1670, the infant Hadley was, like Northfield, a town split by the Connecticut River. Finally, after years of grievance and requests, the Hatfield folks were allowed to split off into their own town. A century later, in 1771, Hatfield was split in two, the northern half becoming Whately, today the member of a different county no less.

I had just completed my junior year in high school for Hatfield’s last birthday party, a time when Hunter S. Thompson’s “Gonzo” journalism was born. Richard M. Nixon was president, and America was enflamed in protest opposing the Vietnam War and supporting the civil-rights movement. Segregationist Southern governors George Wallace and Lester Maddox still had strong national voices, and were supported by local townspeople my father privately referred to as John Birchers in the pejorative.

A couple of proud, hard-right characters I recall were Deerfield selectmen, another owned a Sunderland business, and still another flipped eggs and burgers at his greasy-spoon in, of all places, the People’s Republic of Montague Center. Imagine that! In an eatery facing the town common, a large Confederate flag hanging horizontally and menacingly above the grill, the proprietor more than willing to share his reactionary views on race and “long-haired, hippie commies.”

There’s no need to mention names. What would that accomplish in these Trumpish times? The men are dead and buried. RIP, fellas.

The year 1970 also produced Kent State, which unfolded on May 4 and likely means nothing to most high-school students today. On that Ohio college campus, an anti-war demonstration blew up into chaos when National Guardsmen shot four protestors dead and wounded nine others to set off a contentious national debate. On one side of the battle line was Nixon’s law-and-order gang, on the other raged the “new left.”

The debate quickly spilled into my junior English class, where a bespectacled, flat-topped English teacher who had been hired after many years as a Greenfield Recorder reporter assigned an essay expressing our thoughts on whether the soldiers were justified.

As I recall, that was our second assignment of the final semester. I don’t remember the topic of the first, only that my grade was an A, and – horrors – the teacher read my paper aloud to the class. How embarrassing for an adolescent lad of my persuasion.

Well, that all changed quickly with my reaction to Kent State. I thought heads should roll for unjustified killings of peaceful protestors exercising their right of peaceful assembly under the First Amendment. That position, penned by the same hand, was met with bright red insults from a love-it-or-leave-it teacher, who gave me a D and unfairly evaluated the rest of my assignments that semester.

Some may call that a lesson learned. Not me. I call it censorship, unwelcome and unjustified in any fair, freethinking, open and honest classroom. Live and learn, I did. Education’s not always everything it’s made out to be. I had met my first bad editor.

I can’t claim salient memories from Whately’s 1971 Bicentennial Celebration, but I definitely passed through. Seems to me there was something happening at the old youth-baseball field off Christian Lane, before the days of Herlihy Park. Maybe a chicken barbecue? Can’t recall.

What I do remember is Ena M. Cane’s update of Temple’s and Crafts’ Whately histories and genealogies with a bicentennial book of her own. Plus, I still occasionally bump into the stoneware jugs sold in facsimile remembrance of Whately’s 19th-century Thomas Crafts pottery.

This time around, Whately Historical Commissioner Dereka Smith is working up a revision of Temple, Crafts and Cane’s town histories and genealogies with a book of her own, while Northfield master-potter Tom White will produce hand-thrown stoneware pottery in the style of historic Whately potters.

As for the 1973 Deerfield Tercentenary, yes, my memories are clearer. That’s a no-brainer. It was held on my stomping grounds. Dwyer Lot, the site of the beef barbecue and Rotary Club Beer Fest, was right across Pleasant Street from the home my parents shared with my grandfather for my first 12 years of boyhood.

Back then, the elementary school was on the other side of Bloody Brook, where there was also a circular, concrete wading pool with a central fountain circulating water in summer. On the open Dwyer Lot stood a roofed pavilion that hosted many a public cookout. Before pavilion construction, the field served as an agricultural plot where silage corn was grown in my youth, even occasional potatoes if I’m not mistaken.

The reason I suggest uncertainty is that I know memory doesn’t always serve one well, especially on familiar turf, where one story can easily run into another over time.

A case in point occurred during the writing of this piece, relating to what I believed I recalled of Deerfield’s Tercentenary. It seemed to me that it was for this very special occasion that a well-known South Deerfield character had taken it upon himself to spice up the party a bit. What he did was hire a pilot friend from Northampton to enhance the Saturday-night fireworks scheduled to be launched from Mt. Sugarloaf.

Apparently concerned that town officials would sell townspeople short, this proud, inventive Deerfield man decided to command a flyover dynamite-bombing mission. Before midnight, he and a friend or two proceeded to toss eight sticks of dynamite out the plane window while flying over Sugarloaf and its northern brother, shaking houses on Mountain Road, Eastern Avenue, and Graves Street, and even breaking a few windows. A police spokesman told the Greenfield Recorder he was confident he knew who was responsible, which was likely true, because it was no secret around town. Nonetheless, no one was ever prosecuted, and the explosive event soon faded into the ether.

So, there you have it. Although I had the story right, the date and event were wrong. The flyover bombing occurred not during the July 7, 1973 Tercentenary, but during the town’s national bicentennial celebration three years later, on the night of July 3, 1976. Thankfully, at the last minute, I fact-checked the incident, which was a cumbersome task. But I finally tracked it down and avoided disseminating inaccurate information in black and white.

That said, you gotta hand it to good old South Deerfield: back then a hard-drinking, hard-working, hell-raising prankster town. Not unlike the Wild West, I’m glad I grew up where I did.

Can you imagine what would become of similar pranksters today? Tossing dynamite from a Piper-Cub window? Are you kidding? Gitmo would be too good for them!


Family Mattters

As Main Street merchants, vendors, restaurateurs and bar owners count their losses and struggle to stay afloat, the online genealogy companies must be riding high. A right-place, right-time scenario, they are the beneficiaries of a captive audience, housebound and bored silly, that’s searching for anything to break the tedium of COVID-19 quarantine.

Count me among those using the unanticipated isolation for genealogical research. Not new to me, it never gets old, and now many of the most essential information is available at the tip of your fingers in cyberspace, necessitating fewer trips to the library.

I’ve been playing this game since 1989, starting in the weeks after my spinster great-aunt Gladys Sanderson died overnight during the summer of 1989. She was home when I left for a men’s softball game in Buckland, and dead at the hospital before I returned home. Just like that, a generation had evaporated. I then owned the South Deerfield home where this woman we called “Antie” and her brother Waldo, my grandfather, were born. The last survivor of four siblings born at the dawning of the 20th century, she came with the purchase of my home after my grandfather’s sudden 1980 death. She was the unofficial historian of my family’s substantial South Deerfield branch. Tucked away in drawers, folders, envelopes, and metal boxes, and stacked on closet shelves, were documents, correspondence, and photographs that she stewarded as precious records to be protected for posterity. Quite an assemblage of family data, the material opened a window into my Woodruff and Sanderson ancestors, plus many peripherals relating to South Deerfield and Whately.

The impetus for what has become my a 30-year genealogical chase was a 19th-century King James Bible stored atop miscellaneous papers in a large, covered Tupperware box. It was the Woodruff Bible, which displayed on one of its first pages a family register filled out in ink, most likely by my great-grandmother, Fannie Woodruff Sanderson (1865-1947), who died six years before I was born. She recorded birth, death and marriage dates for the family members under her Pleasant Street roof, beginning with her father Asa Franklin Woodruff (1817-1891) and his wife Eliza Arms (1824-1898). No, not a comprehensive, multi-generational lineage, yet more than enough to stir my curiosity. Yes, that partial family record ignited genealogical research that continues to this day.

Really, my most focused research occurred during the early 1990s, before the chasing was good – back in the pre-Google days of library visits, laptop transcriptions into Family Tree Maker files, and CompuServe Genealogy Forum queries. Few folks today have likely ever heard of CompuServe, an early search engine that appeared in the 1980s and was gone by the mid-1990s, never mind its Genealogy Forum. As for libraries, well, my favorites were located in Old Deerfield, Springfield, and Northampton, though I did occasional travel to Connecticut and eventually even Boston. When I ran into a particularly vexing snag, I’d compose a concise query in the CompuServe forum and typically receive a prompt and professional answer with a greeting of “Hi Cuz” or “Hello Cuzzin.”

Oh, how times have changed. No, I’m not saying such online forums no longer exist. They do. In fact, they’ve multiplied tenfold – with one major difference. That is, there’s now a price attached for access to interactive cybernetworks that annually generates hundreds of millions of dollars. Praise the joys of capitalism. Want family info? Pony up, fella.

Which brings us to my most recent genealogical adventure – one sparked by the eBay purchase of a 19th-century leather wallet made by relatives and their South Deerfield neighbors at the old Arms Manufacturing Co. I’m not sure where this dynamic pursuit will lead me, but it’s already brought me back to my Sanderson family’s Whately tannery and leather-working business, as well as the later leather-working industry founded and managed by my branch of the Arms family.

Now I’ve even discovered that another great-grandfather, William Fredrick Bardwell (1806-1885), was a pocketbook manufacturer, according to Whately historian James M. Crafts. Despite being left with more questions than answers at this early juncture, I’m making good progress and am confident many more answers will surface before this probe is finished. I’m sure that the many small, pre-Industrial Revolution, family tanneries and leather and shoemaking shops evolved into assembly-line, factory production.

New and helpful in this recent hunt for information was my inevitable acceptance of a frequently offered, free, two-week trial of Ancestry.com. In need of immediate gratification with libraries closed for the pandemic, I finally succumbed to an offer that seems to appear every other day online. The lords of cyberspace knew my interests well, pitched me for the umpteenth time and, finally, I accepted to gain quick, temporary access to needed census and vital records.

Once I learned to navigating around the program, I was able to glean much new information about South Deerfield ancestors and relatives long ago entered into my Family Tree Maker program. However, with that project ongoing and far from finished, why bother piecemealing it out so early in the process, and chancing errors? I’d rather continue piecing together the puzzle for a future narrative. So, bear with me, please, and allow me to switch gears to a related diversion – one that came to me in timely fashion by email from old friend Dereka Smith. A Whately Historical Commissioner and professional genealogist, she’s working on a book about old Whately homes and families and, out of the clear, blue sky a few weeks ago, decided to pick my brain about the Elijah Sanderson farmstead on the southern foot of Mt. Sugarloaf.

Razed in the summer of 2013, this Whately building represented the last standing of four consecutive Sanderson homes on the west side of the River Roadconsuming more than a half-mile of frontage on the 1871 Beers Atlas map. All that’s left of that family compound today is a decaying old leather and shoe shop that’ll likely soon be reduced to a pile of rubble. The worn, grey building stands diagonally across the road from Paciecnik’s Creamee.

Although Smith’s query opened a vein that loves to be bled, it forced me to double-check many details pulled from memory, first going to Crafts’ History of Whately, then cross-referencing with Ancestry.com files and local newspaper reports gleaned from a cumbersome online archive without search capabilities. If you know the date, you’re OK. If not, well, it could take a while.

Surprisingly, the cooperative sources confirmed much of the information I had stored away in grey matter and, yes, brought in many interesting new twists. The bottom line is that there’s still a lot more to learn. It’ll take weeks, maybe months, of research to connect all the loose ends for an accurate reconstruction picture. So, why rush it here and now and risk nagging corrections?

Now, bear with me. I’ll conclude with an interesting little peripheral outtake: the tragic death of Rudolphus Sanderson, struck in his buggy and killed by a Connecticut River Railroad “express train.” He was at the old North Main Street crossing now spanned by the “Dry Bridge” in South Deerfield. The accident occurred on the evening of Wednesday, December 4, 1867, and is titled “Fatal Accident” in the December 9 Greenfield Gazette. The sensational story got big play in a newspaper full of short local-news blurbs. I guess, messy accidents have always sold newspapers, huh?

Anyway, Mr. Sanderson, married with an adopted daughter, was at the time sharing the original Sanderson homestead (built ca. 1765) with nephew Thomas Sanderson’s family of eight. The home was owned by Rudolphus’ brother and Thomas’ father, John Chapman Sanderson (my third great-grandfather), who had followed his father and grandfather into the tannery/shoemaker trade, and had built a home just north of his childhood home before 1860 to accommodate a growing extended family with two adjacent farmhouses. It was a way of life. I have in my many searches discovered many similar extended 19th-century families existing under one roof. My family was no exception.

The Gazette story reported that Sanderson had traveled from Whately to Meadow Mills for a “grist” and was killed on the return trip. The rest of the story (with minor editing) read like this:

“Although the train whistled at all crossings, Mr. Sanderson for some reason evidently did not hear the whistle. The engine struck his buggy and threw Mr. Sanderson several feet to the side of the railbed. The first the engineer saw of Mr. Sanderson or his buggy, was Mr. Sanderson’s body thrown up several feet in the air. The train was immediately stopped and backed down to the crossing and Mr. Sanderson was carried into Mr. Billings’ [home]. He was insensible and had a bad cut on his chin. He lived about an hour and a half.

“The horse, released from the buggy, was uninjured. The buggy body was cleared from the running part, and all the wheels, springs and shafts were broken. A buffalo robe was found on the top of the engine’s flagstaff and one bag of meal on the cow catcher. Two of the cow-catcher bars were broken by the collision. About 60 years old, Mr. Sanderson was a much-respected farmer. Deacon D.W. Childs of Deerfield insured his life a short time since for $1,000.”

Hmmm? Interesting. Was there double-indemnity back then? Could it have been suicide? Homicide by horse? Drunk driving? Let’s not go there. Long ago.

Here today, gone tomorrow, Rudolphus Sanderson was my third great-granduncle. For those unfamiliar with old railroad jargon, “cow catchers” were iron grills sturdily installed on the front of trains to protect the engine, clear obstructions and prevent derailments. Apparently, roaming cows were a constant concern. Thus, the name.

Buffalo robe? Yes, totally appropriate for the day. Warm, too. Likely a retail product straight from the Sanderson leather and shoe shop in East Whately by way of the Great Plains.

Leather-Working Mecca

An old cliché tells us familiarity breeds contempt. So, how about ignorance? Does not familiarity breed that, too? Well, in my case, the answer is an unapologetic yes. Let me explain, focusing on boyhood South Deerfield.

At the southwest corner of Pleasant and North Main, a short distance up the road from my earliest home and the home of my father and grandfather as well, stood a worn, two-story, clapboarded industrial building painted a dull, flaky red and showing its age. Situated on the east bank of Bloody Brook just above the Pleasant Street bridge, the late 19th-century building’s gabled ends faced east and west, with a parking lot off Main Street on the south side. My friends and I called it the plastic shop because it was indeed operating as such then. My father, grandfather and spinster great aunt all knew it as the Arms’ pocketbook shop, which closed in 1950, three years before my birth.

In the morning shadow of this tired old building I learned to skate and fish. We’d clear the snow with shovels to skate. Then, come summer, we’d dunk worms below red and white bobbers, catching suckers and bullheads from a launching pad near a giant weeping willow standing tall and wide on the west bank. Across from that large, messy tree, raw, rust-colored, factory effluent oozed from a six- or eight-inch pipe, keeping open a small, D-shaped patch of water we carefully avoided no matter how cold it got. I can only imagine in horror the carcinogenic toxicity of that disgusting liquid waste flowing straight from factory to brook back in those days of unchecked industrial air and water pollution. Yes, those were the days when a smart man would not dip so much as his little toe into the river below Sunderland Bridge.

The reason I mention the boyhood building on the corner of Main and Pleasant, it long ago demolished and replaced by a modern, one-story Cowan’s Auto Parts store, is a recent eBay purchase. How better to occupy time during this tedious COVID-19 shutdown than taking daily spins around the online auction site in search of local treasure? From near and far, it shows up week after week. A steady flow keeps on keepin’ on.

What I was excited to find a few weeks back was a 19th-century, three-fold, leather wallet in remarkably good condition. What was its significance. Well, stamped across an inner face was a rectangular impression reading “Made by Chas Arms, South Deerfield, Mass.” Wow! That caught my attention. Though I immediately knew what it was, it was, in all my years living in the factory neighborhood, not to mention many old Arms homes and those of the workforce, never, not once, had I lain eyes on one of its products. I soon discovered that the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association’s Memorial Hall Museum had a worn wallet and a pouch of another style among its collections. But that didn’t matter. The museum pieces had escaped me before I went looking. 

How could I resist jumping into the auction? Nope. Not a chance. In fact, I aggressively pursued my interest by making an offer and – cha-ching – a week and $61.13 later, the carefully packaged wallet arrived in my mailbox from the southcentral Wisconsin town of Reedsburg. Owner Sarah Riedel of the downtown store Antiques on Main had rescued it at an estate sale, found mixed among military papers in a dusty old dresser drawer. It’s pretty typical of the way such items come to light and return to the communities where they were created as collectors’ items. Fact is that the timing of this discovery couldn’t have been better. Deerfield’s 350th birthday celebration is a short three years away. Maybe I’ll loan it to the Historical Commission for some sort of a South Deerfield pocketbook-factory display.

Talk about igniting a fascinating adventure down South Deerfield’s memory lane, the wallet did just that, while also stirring my ever-ready genealogical-research juices. Arms Family roots stretch as deep as any in South Deerfield annals, beginning with progenitor William Arms, who came to the Connecticut Valley in 1676 as a soldier under Capt. William Turner of “Falls Fight” fame. Later, the Arms family was among the first to settle the Deerfield village first known as Bloody Brook during the second half of the 18th century. Even better, the wallet discovery and purchase pulled me back into my family roots in the local leather-working trade, tanner and shoemaker families that evolved into Industrial Revolution cogs at the Arms Manufacturing Co. factory. The South Deerfield manufactory was a big deal in its day, in a class with John Russell’s Green River Works (cutlery) as a Franklin County industry, according to online data published by Greenfield’s Museum of Our Industrial History.

The Arms factory was on center stage a short distance from downtown South Deerfield, where it cranked out fine leather pocketbooks, bill books, letter books and card cases. The products were shipped to New York and sold nationally. Before the railroad, Arms products were shipped by oxcart to Hartford, where they picked up a barge to New York City for distribution. Production and shipping dramatically increased once the Connecticut River Railroad went through town. The freights would stop at loading docks between the Conway and Elm Street crossings, alongside today’s Leader Home Centers hardware store and lumber yard.

Although it’s impossible to piece together the entire picture at a time when Old Deerfield’s Memorial Libraries are closed for the pandemic, there is enough online information available to get a general picture. Perhaps, were I an Ancestry.com subscriber, I could from home assemble some of the pocketbook factory’s workforce from online census records. But without that luxury at my fingertips, I must wait for library access once COVID-19 passes.

In the meantime, I must rely on what I already knew and what I have recently discovered by reading and discussion with knowledgeable sources. It’s not like I came into this discovery mission totally uninformed. I entered the journey with a general understanding of the pre-industrial leather-working trade due to genealogical research into my Sanderson, Arms, Graham and Woodruff families, all of which display strong veins of tanners and shoemakers working their trade in Whately, Deerfield and Sunderland.

It gets even closer. Each morning at daybreak, I crack open my eyes looking at two Victorian Woodruff sisters – great-grandmother Fannie, born 1865, and older Marriette, born 1849 – peering down at me from their framed perches on my upstairs bedroom’s north wall. Plus, several times a day on my way to the study, I pass two earlier photo portraits of their parents – Asa Franklin Woodruff and Eliza Arms – framed on each side of the fan-lit front door. Asa, a New Hartford, Conn., shoemaker, married into Eliza’s South Deerfield shoemaking family in 1842 and settled in town. They would have been South Deerfield neighbors of Dennis Arms, the pocketbook shop’s founder, and Eliza’s grandfather. Dennis Arms’ son Charles, Eliza’s first cousin, bought out brothers William S. and James C. in 1861 and put Arms Manufacturing on the map.

Is it possible that Asa Wooodruff, buried under a tall, obelisk in the downtown Sugarloaf Cemetery, worked for the Arms pocketbook factory? Can’t say at this point. A work in progress. Although more information is needed, I wouldn’t bet against it. That’ll have to wait for now. There’s time. I’ll wait to dig when the diggin’s better. No great rush. Deerfield’s 350th isn’t until 2023. Who knows what great stuff will emerge by then?

Which reminds me of a sobering thought. I was a 20-year-old celebrant of he town’s 300th birthday. Now this. No denying I’m getting old.

Interesting how this latest research mission began with a simple eBay keyword search in the comforts of home, a search I’ve executed many times over the past 20 years. Never a waste of time, this particular foray just happened to produce exceptional fruit. It happens. That’s why I keep going back for more. It’s fun. Sometimes rewarding.

Shad Traps

It’s April, the month that ushers in our annual Connecticut River American shad-spawning run, a natural phenomenon that has for millennia pulled valley people – be they ancient, indigenous villagers, colonial families and commercial fishermen, or contemporary sportfishermen and women – to advantageous May fishing sites.

So, what better for a longtime observer of this spring migration to do during this vexing Coronavirus scare and personal distancing than focus on these anadromous fish, which have by now started their long, exhausting, upriver journey through our valley? Why not revisit what seems like a never-ending effort to accurately reconstruct indigenous, colonial Contact Period fishing camps. What did these busy, festive, riverside camps look like to the first European eyes? Finding the answer involves book-reading, Googling, talking on the phone and exchanging emails with experts in a cooperative effort to fine-tune details and expand upon previous reconstructions.

Not an easy chore. In fact, a somewhat daunting task. Why? Because the earliest New England chroniclers, primarily Puritan ministers and governmental leaders, were blinded by an arrogant, biased Puritan fog and had little or no interest in Indian culture. Sure, sources like Bradford and Wood, Winslow and Winthrop, Morton and Smith and Elliott did report some cultural observations about New England’s indigenous people. But try to find detailed descriptions and illustrations of the complex, spring, Connecticut Valley Indian fishing camps and be prepared for an exercise in frustration. I myself have found no such source – just bits and pieces, dribs and drabs, leaving a difficult jigsaw-puzzle to assemble.

The impetus for my most recent foray into this topic was not the spring shad season. Instead, it was a simple email query from friend Peter A. Thomas, a committed scholar who’s always probing something new on our local-history scene. On this occasion, around the start of March, the author of In the Maelstrom of Change: The Indian Trade and Cultural Process in the Middle Connecticut River Valley, 1635-1665 wondered if by chance I was familiar with Indian fish traps on New England rivers. Yes, I responded, it rang a bell, but I needed a little time to chase down the references.

I had a good idea where to start. The first source I pulled from the bookcase was anthropologist Hilary Stewart’s Indian Fishing: Early Methods on the Northwest Coast (1977). I remember buying the book from a long-ago shuttered Amherst bookstore in the early 1990s, after Deerfield historian and artist Al Dray had introduced me to a site a stone’s throw above Montague City’s Rock Dam that he believed to be the remains of an ancient, stone, Connecticut River fishing weir. After exploring the intriguing site, writing about it and discussing it for weeks and months, I set out to learn more about weirs and indigenous fishing methods. That’s how I found Stewart’s book, still a go-to North American source on the subject that’s valid in the Northeast despite its focus on the Northwest.

Why study coastal indigenous fishing methods so far away, you ask, when trying to understand inland fishing practices of New England tribes? Well, because primitive people worldwide over the ages have consistently displayed an uncanny ability to develop remarkably similar hunting and gathering strategies and contraptions. In fact, it’s almost a given that Indians harvesting migratory fish on rivers and bays on the East Coast used the same types of fish-gathering apparatuses as their distant West Coast cousins. For that matter, fish weirs and traps across the globe tend to share remarkable design similarities, be they in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia or New Zealand.

“Primitive people learned by trial and error,” explained Thomas, a card-carrying anthropologist/archaeologist, during a telephone conversation, “and they thus developed quite similar technologies.”

Most helpful in a rereading of Stewart’s Indian Fishing were her detailed sketches of various weirs, traps, nets and fish-processing stations, with wooden racks constructed to air- and sun-dry and smoke their catch for storage preservation. I suspected that the illustrations were not much different from what would have been found at temporary spring fishing camps along the Connecticut River and its tributaries. The most productive local indigenous sites would have been Chicopee Falls and South Hadley Falls in what is now Hampden County, Hadley Falls (today underwater and silt-covered) between North Hadley and Hatfield’s Bashin in Hampshire County, and Rock Dam, Peskeompskut Falls and Salmon Falls (Deerfield River) in our Franklin County.

Glaringly obvious from Stewart’s illustrations is the fact that many different fish-gathering methods were employed within the same weirs and traps, which funneled great numbers of migrating fish into tight constrictions where they could be easily speared, scoop-netted, seined and trapped in splint baskets. Some weirs and traps were built of stone. Others were made of wooden poles intertwined with saplings and brush to keep fish contained. It was not unusual to catch random sturgeon and salmon in weirs constructed to harvest shad. Fishers working the station were on the ready for such large, tasty bonuses, which were speared or arrowed for festive riverside feasts of fresh baked salmon and sturgeon.

Indians were also experts at reading rivers and using natural features like Rock Dam or the old, pre-dam flume at Riverside/Gill to catch great numbers of migrating fish following channels through tight spots, often congregating to build energy in settling pools at the base of waterfalls. At such sites, many fish could be seined and dip-netted quickly, and even speared or arrowed for a sporting change of pace.

In an effort to support the hypothesis that indigenous migratory-fish-harvesting methods differed little between Eastern and Western North American tribes, I went to University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Frank G. Speck’s Penobscot Man: The Life History of a Forest Tribe in Maine. Speck’s nine-page narrative within on Maine’s indigenous fishing activities pretty-much mirrored that of Stewart’s West Coast fishers, right down to natural materials used for net cordage, poles and handles, the style of tools and weapons, and the design elements of man-made weirs and traps. From the same bolt of cloth, so to speak – amazing human ingenuity employed to exploit a natural resource. Photos of conical Penobscot splint basket-traps shaped like megaphones in Speck’s book are identical to those of the great Northwest drawn by Stewart. Amazing.

To complete my little investigative adventure, I reread John McPhee’s The Founding Fish, which I first read soon after its 2002 publishing date. About American shad and shad fishing along the Eastern Seaboard, McPhee’s book buttresses the argument that shad were every bit as important to European colonials as they had been to the East Coast’s First People all the way from Nova Scotia to Florida. Shad filets, be they barreled or jarred, salted or smoked, pickled or planked, broiled or baked, were a valuable food source prepared and sold by urban merchants in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, not to mention our Connecticut Valley all the wat from Saybrook and Lyme to Hartford and Springfield, Holyoke and Northampton, Greenfield and Brattleboro and Bellows Falls. Yes, shad was a hot commodity in the marketplace.

Back in colonial days and then during the Federal Period, shad fishing was not a sport. Shad were market fish that kept families and merchants fed. The same can be said for salmon, though it was caught in far fewer numbers. Still, salmon held higher status and was thus more expensive due to the old supply-and-demand principle. Nineteenth-century historians like Sylvester Judd of Northampton (and others) reported that commercial seines working their magic between Holyoke and Turners Falls would on a good day retrieve a few thousand shad and maybe a dozen salmon from one haul. After dams obstructed upstream fish passage above Holyoke on the Connecticut, and also on many large tributaries that supported grist and lumber mills, salmon runs diminished before totally disappearing from our valley before 1850.

So, did I learn anything new from my little spin through Stewart, Speck and McPhee? Well, yes. I discovered that fish traps of many designs – some associated with weirs that were in their own right traps – were widely used on our Connecticut and other Northeastern rivers. Like hunting traps used to funnel deer to constricted ravine kill sites, fish traps were built to increase the harvest at advantageous river sites created by Mother Nature. Constructed to maximize the catch and minimize the effort, the traps were a formula for success.

I wonder how many still exist in various degrees of preservation along our rivers and streams? My guess is that they’re there for the inquisitive.

Was Giles Weaver Really J.D. Salinger?

Who was that mysterious stranger occupying Room 34 of South Deerfield’s “Warren Hotel” in September 1970?

His byline appears as Giles Weaver in the Winter 1970 revival edition of The Phoenix, a small literary magazine published after a 40-year hiatus by James Cooney at his West Whately Morning Star Press. Cooney introduces Weaver to his Phoenix readers as a pseudonymous “writer living like a solitary Bushman in America’s Kalahari,” and leaves it as that.

Some scholars believe Weaver was none other than reclusive author Jerome David (J.D.) Salinger, most known for his novel The Catcher in the Rye. The late Cooney himself refused to discuss it when queried, and today his son says no, Weaver was not Salinger. Still, the mystery endures. May never be solved to everyone’s satisfaction.

Had it truly been Salinger, a deeply private man and troubled World War II vet, a worn, out-of-the-way railroad inn like the Hot’l would have been a perfect place to hide in plain sight while undergoing outpatient psychiatric care at the Northampton Veterans Administration Hospital (VA). Salinger would have then been living comfortably on Catcher royalties, and thus could easily have paid cash and registered under an alias to conceal his identity. Although he could have afforded the posh inns in Northampton or Deerfield and registered under another name, the possibility that he’d be recognized would have been far greater in academic communities.

Too bad current Hot’l owner Betsy Shea can’t produce a registration book for September 1970. Who knows? She may yet find one. If so, we would at least know what name was registered for Room 34. Was it Giles Weaver? Some obscure, aspiring writer no one has ever heard of? Or maybe even Jerome Salinger, which seems unlikely, given the backwater site and the fact that the author wanted to slip the public eye.

 The Phoenix Weaver bylines appears in successive 1970 and 1971 revival editionsTitled by Cooney Further Notes From The Underground, what unfolds is a series of rambling, at times outright bizarre, though well-written letters. The first letters are addressed from the Warren Hotel. The more hostile final letter came from “Everywhere, Somewhere, Zip-zip, 000.” Despite an open invitation from Cooney for more, Weaver’s byline never again appeared in the magazine, which rode off into the sunset in 1984.

By 1970, the 51-year-old Salinger would have been nearly 20 years into self-imposed literary exile and seclusion at his Connecticut Valley home nestled high atop a Cornish, N.H., hill. The last work ever published under his name was Hapworth 16, 1924, which appeared in The New Yorker in 1965. After that, total silence and secrecy right up to the 91-year-old author’s peaceful death at home on Jan. 27, 2010. To call Salinger a fascinating enigma would be a gross understatement. His eccentricities only added to his allure.

English professor Mark Phillips was the first writer to suspect Giles Weaver was a Salinger pseudonym. The seed of inquiry was sown when Phillips interviewed for a job in 1978 at Cooney’s Morning Star Press. Eager to work for an interesting radical intellectual who had “discovered” Henry Miller and Anais Nin and published such literary luminaries as D.H. Lawrence, Jean Giono, Robert Duncan, Derek Savage, and Kay Boyle, among others, Phillips applied for an advertised Phoenix job. Somehow in the course of the interview, the topic briefly turned to Salinger, who Cooney said had experienced “some type of mental crisis.” Then, after imparting additional information that Salinger had once corresponded with his young daughter and had met his wife at her Smith College library workplace, Cooney asked Phillips if he had read Giles Weaver in The Phoenix and abruptly dropped the subject.

This Weaver tease stirred Phillips’ curiosity, and likely continued spinning his cranial wheels for days. Was Cooney trying to tell him something? Was he firing a starter’s pistol to ignite a chase? Hmmmm? Phillips reviewed Weaver’s Phoenix prose and found many clues that he believed fit the Salinger oeuvre stylistically, philosophically and spiritually. When he revisited Cooney to further pursue the Weaver/Salinger mystery, the publisher refused to discuss it, telling Phillips that Weaver was a mental patient who vanished as fast as he had appeared. The exchange did nothing to diminish Phillips’ curiosity.

Out of the Phillips inquiry eventually came a speculative, four-page paper making his case that Giles Weaver was most likely a Salinger pseudonym. Soon respected biographer Kenneth Slawenski came forward to agree, despite never mentioning a word about Weaver in his acclaimed J.D. Salinger: A Life – widely accepted as the definitive Salinger biography. To this day, Slawenski believes Giles Weaver was Salinger. On his website www.deadcaulfields.com he opens a post on the Weaver question with, “Here, I risk being tarred and feathered by Salinger purists who recoil in horror over the mere suggestion that Salinger may have been the secret author of the Giles Weaver entries. …. The entries (exploring the possibility) were once carried on this site but were removed due to a thunderstorm of recrimination. Since then, I have come to the careful conclusion that Giles Weaver and J.D. Salinger were, in all likelihood, the same.”

Having myself grown up in South Deerfield at the time of Weaver’s visit, I was long ago intrigued by his 1970 Phoenix ramblings, live from the Hot’l Warren. When I recently reviewed the entire Weaver package on a sunny-afternoon whim, the reading triggered online keyword searches about the Cooneys, The Phoenix, Giles Weaver and – Bingo! – I found the Phillips and Slawenski material exploring the Weaver/Salinger question.

In September 1970, I was walking and driving the South Deerfield streets as a senior in high school. It seems very likely to me that I would have passed this stranger in my travels, be it on the sidewalk or at Billy Rotkiewicz’s Frontier Pharmacy restaurant counter. Even though 50 years have passed since then, I thought maybe I could solve this hometown riddle with a little digging. I knew I had a clearer understanding than either Phillips or Slawenski of all Weaver’s local references: from Brattleboro and Putney, Vt., to the Warwick Commune, Wendell Depot’s general store, Connecticut River boat cruises, the railroad tracks from South Deerfield to Northampton, Coolidge Bridge, Forbes Library, Childs Park, and Miss Florence’s Diner (incidentally, on the road between downtown Northampton and the VA). Plus, I was familiar with the Cooneys, their West Whately neighborhood and stately Federal home. I even shared a few mutual friends.

Because Cooney and Salinger have been dead for years, I thought old confidentiality issues may have passed and could now be ethically broken. Maybe Cooney’s grown children would be willing to disclose a long-held family secret. When feelers I put out to a source who maintains a close relationship with the Cooneys were not pursued after a few weeks, I decided to take the bull by the horns. I reluctantly telephoned Cooney’s son, Gabriel, a well-known local photo-artist. What did I have to lose? If Weaver was indeed Salinger, Cooney may after all these years be willing to let the cat out of the bag.

Although we had met briefly some 45 years ago in front of his Poplar Hill home, I knew he would not remember me. Still, he picked up the phone and seemed willing to talk. Maybe he recognized the Caller-ID from my newspaper days in Greenfield. Maybe he was familiar with my name for another reason. Perhaps my surname’s deep Whately heritage did the trick.

When asked if he had ever met and could confirm or deny that Giles Weaver was J.D. Salinger, Gabe Cooney paused for a moment and asked if I could hold while he spoke to his wife. When she didn’t respond to his call, he suggested that I call back in 10 minutes. OK. Sounds good.

When I called back, he answered on the first ring and admitted, yes, he had met Weaver, but he was not J.D. Salinger. I tried to deftly pursue the conversation, but Cooney politely cut it off, reminding me of that old Phillips conversation with his father. Like father, like son? Maybe. A convincing denial? Hard to say. Why did he want to speak to his wife?

Whether or not he was being truthful, I respect Gabe Cooney, especially if he’s still honoring a solemn vow of confidentiality between Weaver and his father. I see dignity in such a decision, if that’s how it played out. I’d say Phillips nailed it when he praised Cooney’s dad as “the kind of man Salinger could count on to protect his identity and be faithful to his wishes to be left alone.” How could a faithful son interfere with that?

Oh well. What can I say? I gave it my best shot. Did my homework. Now, unless new information comes to light, I will accept Gabe Cooney’s gracious answer. Which doesn’t necessarily mean I and others view it as the final word.

“I hope it was Salinger who stayed here,” said Hot’l owner Shea. “So cool.”

Agreed. Cool indeed. I too hope so.

So, the J.D. Salinger mystique lives on 10 years after his death. Scholars and fans alike are still trying to figure the enigmatic artist out. Salinger never made it easy and is still elusive as an attic ghost creeping through the breezy cobwebs.

Valley Fishing Calendar Has Changed Little Since Colonial Days

Friend Peter Thomas is back at it, nose to the grindstone.

The good doctor of anthropology and archaeology is at his core an historian. These days the retired author of In the Maelstrom of Change: The Indian Trade and Cultural Process in the Middle Connecticut River Valley, 1635-1665 is photographically digitizing the Sylvester Judd Manuscripts at Northampton’s Forbes Library when not performing the same chore on Deerfield town records. Prior to this latest venture, I helped him photograph the earliest records of the Sunderland and Whately Congregational Churches. These were preceded by those of the South Deerfield Congregational Church and early Conway town records. All of this information is important to any historical or genealogical researcher toiling to piece together colonial settlement patterns and the introduction of new families to our slice of the Connecticut Valley.

From time to time, when Thomas comes across a subject that he knows will be of interest to me or about which he thinks I may have insight, he emails me a comment or query accompanied by attached documents he’s referencing. The topics can vary widely, from roads and trails to fish and wildlife to rivers and streams to people and places, to maps and deeds and Indian place names and other topics.

Before Christmas, Thomas paid a visit at my Greenfield home on his way home from South Deerfield to Richmond, Vt. He wanted to share an Indian calendar recorded in fur-trader John Pynchon’s own handwriting at some point inside the first 10 years of Springfield, established in 1636 as Agawam Plantation, a market town focused on monopolizing Connecticut Valley fur trade. I knew the calendar from reading Northeastern Native American linguistics scholar Gordon Day’s An Agawam Fragment, first published in the International Journal of American Linguistics (1967), then republished 21 years later in the more widely read In Search of New England’s Native Past: Selected Essays by Gordon M. Day.

It never ceases to amaze me how perceptions change during rereads of material first read decades ago. It makes perfect sense. Years of reading and writing expands your knowledge base. The first thing that jumped out at me when re-evaluating the Pynchon calendar – following years of studying Native American prehistory, spirituality and literature (oral history) – was that it was obviously a “modern” adaptation rooted in the horticultural epic that began with maize agriculture about 700 years before the Mayflower dropped anchor in Plymouth.

I immediately remarked to Thomas that I’d prefer to see the hunter-gatherer calendar digging 11,000 years deeper into our Valley Indians’ culture even though I knew such a document will never come to light. Unfortunately, it’s too late for that.

“But from a cultural point of view, we would expect nothing different,” said Thomas. “Human culture is adaptive and corn/bean/squash horticulture almost certainly arrived with far more than just seeds – origin stories, prayers, hoes, growing techniques, etc. No cultures are static.”

Of course, the World Wide Web offers many calendars of Indian moons, which seem to make a lot of sense no matter where you live. But still, wouldn’t it be much better if our ancient Connecticut Valley moons were known, especially those of the Pocumtuck and Norwottuck villages in what we now know as Franklin and Hampshire counties? Also, the moons of immediate upriver and downriver villages, which would have differed slightly based on climate and length of growing season. Prime examples are the absence of a maple syrup moon south of Hampshire County and slightly earlier planting and fishing dates in the lower valley, where sprouts and leaves appear sooner.

Unfortunately, we must instead settle for this Colonial Contact Period calendar, translated by an Englishman with little understanding of the Algonquian language or its Connecticut Valley dialects, and based on a “Three-Sisters” maize-horticultural lifestyle backboned by corn, squash and beans. Amazingly, the Pynchon calendar mentions not a word about bird or animal prey, nut- and berry-gathering or marsh collection of roots, tubers and medicinal plants. There is, however, one lonely exception: a March-April start of the spring fishing season. Otherwise we get the setting, weeding, hilling, harvesting and eating of corn, the ripening of squash and beans, and no mention of deer, moose, rabbits, beavers, bobcats and bears, not a peep about wild turkeys or migratory ducks and geese, all of which would have been important to a hunting culture.

Don’t be misled. This doesn’t mean hunting was not important to the Indians encountered by the first colonists to settle our valley. We know idt to be a fact that our indigenous people were indeed hunters and gatherers who depended on Nature’s bounty. However, by the 1600s, agricultural fields produced the foundational element of Valley Indians’ diet, at least south of what is now Vermont, and the Pynchon calendar demonstrates just that.

“There may be a more deep-seated concern,” said Thomas. “If we look at the Indians north of the St. Lawrence who followed a non-horticultural, hunting-gathering lifestyle, the one looming feature of the winter months was starvation times. The storage of a reliable, if labor-intensive food for the winter (corn) was critical for a secure population and one that allowed these communities to grow and prosper. So, old is not always best.”

In the final assessment, the calendar is what it is, yet still important – most likely following the month-to-month routine of the Agawam (Springfield) or Woronoco (Westfield) Indian villages the Pynchons knew best; perhaps even the downriver Podunk (Windsor, Conn.) Indian villagers. Why lament what’s lacking? There is plenty of interesting local information to glean, with some of its tendrils even reaching the “Falls Fight” of King Philip’s War fame. That data centers around the calendar month “Namassack kesos,” which signaled the start of fishing season in “part of March, part of April.” Remarkably, despite the warmer winters and earlier springs in contemporary times of global warming, our fishing season still lines up quite favorably with that old calendar. Remember the old April 15 “Opening Day” of trout season? Well, it still fits into the Pynchon calendar spawned during the Little Ice Age (LIA, 1300-1850), when average temperatures across the board were five to seven degrees cooler than today; this despite the fact that the old-style English calendar in Pynchon’s time was approximately 10 days earlier than today. That means May 19 then is May 29 today, which still fits the timing of our contemporary anadromous fish runs. The annual two-weekend, Holyoke Water Power Shad Derby always coincides with Memorial Day Weekend.

Which brings us to that fateful, predawn, “Falls Fight” sneak-attack by colonial militia on a sleeping Indian fishing village at Peskeompskut Falls in what is today known as Riverside/Gill. The date was May 19, 1676, still to this day, “right on the money for the peak of our shad run,” according to Dr. Caleb Slater, Mass Wildlife’s Anadromous Fisheries Project Leader. Still, doesn’t that claim beg many questions, especially if we assume that the fishing activity we’re discussing was focused on migratory shad, salmon, herring, sturgeon and lamprey eels, all valued by Indians as essential post-winter food. These anadromous species all begin their upriver spawning runs after river temperatures climb to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, which would not have been achieved by late March and early April during the LIA. Even mid-April would be stretching it. Then again, ecological changes and manmade river and tributary obstructions may confuse our perception of the annual spring Connecticut River water-temperature formula based on runoff and river flow. Could it not be that the many dams now found in the river basin, not to mention the different makeup of contemporary upland forests framing the valleys, have changed the flow dynamic and skewed our perception of the pre-dam, old-growth valley?

The old, mature forests of the Contact Period would have absorbed much more spring runoff and rain than out modern forests, and thus would have kept river volume down. Then, 18th- and 19th-century clearcutting would have dramatically increased runoff and river volume, which is inversely proportionate to river temperature. When the river rises, its temperature drops and vise-versa. However, Slater says he’s confident that despite all the changes, the Connecticut River’s hydrology has not changed much, a belief buttressed by the facts we know about the Falls Fight. That is: No. 1, the Indians’ multi-station fishing villages were set up in full force on May 19; No. 2, Indians would not have been there unless the time was right; and No. 3, though incredibly unlikely given the fact that our climate has warmed dramatically, if a contemporary angler was today booking an advance Franklin County shad-fishing trip to Franklin County, he or she would target mid- to late-May.

It doesn’t matter that the shad run as we know it doesn’t line up with the start of fishing season on the Pynchon calendar. Likely the start of the Indians’ fishing season had nothing to do with anadromous runs. They would have started by fishing for Eastern brook trout in streams, beaver ponds and at the inflow and outflow of natural lakes and ponds, which always open up before “ice-out” and are among the most productive early-season fishing sites. That type of fishing would have supplied a much-needed early-spring food source before the anadromous herring runs closed the season with a grand, celebratory crescendo. And remember, anadromous fish runs would have started and peaked earlier in the lower valley. Likely the peak at Enfield Falls would have occurred up to a week before the peak at South Hadley Falls and up to two weeks before the peak at Turners Falls. The Bellows Falls run would have been even later.

So, in the end, little has changed over the centuries, despite dams and the warming climate. Anglers start chasing spring trout in April, shad in May. The Indians’ supplemental summer catch would have included trout and American eels, a sweet, savory river delicacy.

Shaping Political Bedrock

I didn’t know Jimmy Cooney. He didn’t know me. But I did know of the man who was 20 years older than my father, and felt his strong presence at two or three social gatherings involving mutual West Whately friends.

My most memorable Cooney encounter occurred at an afternoon May Day celebration, probably 1970 or ’71, me soon to be 17. If my memory serves me, he was not tall, had a heavy build with strong shoulders and wore a navy beret or fisherman’s cap, probably the former. Don’t hold me to it, though. The finer details get foggy 50 years and many dead brain cells later.

Those who knew him well described Cooney was irascible, and indeed he was all worked up about something that fine spring day, wildly gesturing in animated conversation with friend, neighbor and fellow radical-traveler Marshall Kitchener Smith, who was hosting the event and offering samples of his homemade apple, pear, plum, rhubarb and/or dandelion wine, some of the finest our western hills had to offer. I’m sure there were hundreds of topics the two pals and political soulmates could have discussed in a peaceful manner but, no, they had traipsed into something sensitive. Maybe the wine had an influence. Or maybe it was Knickerbocker Natural, Marshall’s beer of choice. Then again, maybe it came down to heritage. Marshall was English, Jimmy Irish. Isn’t that more than enough to ignite argument?

Both men owned 200-year-old homes, both were avowed pacifists, and both were card-carrying Sixties peaceniks with a hand in organizing Sunday peace vigils protesting Vietnam, one in Northampton, the other in Amherst. They had also both been members of famous communes – Marshall at Scott and Helen Nearing’s back-to-the-earth settlement in Jamaica, Vt., Cooney at iconoclast Hervey White’s community in Woodstock, N.Y. So, they were cut from the same cloth, so to speak, which didn’t mean they had to agree on everything. Maybe they were discussing something as benign as teenagers, hedgehogs, stray cats or how to roof a henhouse. No clue. I kept my distance. Was young. None of my business.

Smith, who grew up in Turners Falls, was the first organic home farmer I ever observed up close and personal. He was trained well, by the very man (Nearing) who wrote “Living the Good Life,” a Sixties bible for homesteaders fleeing urban life for rural nirvana. Smith raised chickens for eggs and meat, kept a well-maintained compost pile to fertilize his gardens, fruit trees and berry patches, heated and often cooked with wood, and fermented his own wines of various potencies, stored on damp wooden shelves on both sides of steep, open stairs descending to the dirt-floored cellar. He even maintained an outhouse tucked away in back of the barn, just in case it was needed.

I was all eyes and ears around Marshall. Though a tad peculiar, he was bright, well read and interesting. My lasting impression is him seated in an old Windsor chair at his round, wooden reading table in the fireplaced room off the kitchen. An independent carpenter and handyman, he had chosen to live an alternative lifestyle and was an activist in radical politics of the Vietnam era that put the nation on the edge of rebellion, especially after Nixon joined forces with Dixiecrats in the name of law and order to win the 1968 election. He could sense trouble on the horizon and, go figure, now that Dixiecrat voting block backbones the Republican Party.

Smith taught me to be skeptical, a cynic, cautioning that it was unwise to believe what you read in the newspapers and heard on the nightly news. He would often send me home with issues of Ramparts magazine and I.F. Stone’s Bi-Weekly,radical publicationshe had already read. Once in a while I’d sleep over, maybe during a snowstorm, waking to a big, festive country breakfast with delicious home-baked bread, fried or scrambled eggs and bacon prepared either in the oven or atop the cast-iron wood cookstove. To show my gratitude, I’d occasionally stack wood in the shed just outside the kitchen door. He’d come out from time to time to check my progress and slip me a Knick Nat as a thankful gesture. This I never told a soul, even friends, until long after Marshall was dead and buried. It was confidential. Between me and him. If he thought it was wrong, he wouldn’t have done it. Call it autonomy, something else he taught me about. I prefer to call it individual sovereignty, a state of being Kropotkin valued.

Whether he knew it or not, Marshall was helping to shape my worldview with a different strain of bedrock. For that, I am more grateful than the pints of Knick Nat he shared before I had come of age. Had I not been exposed to this way of thinking when young and impressionable, it may have eluded me. Of course, some would say I’d be a better man without it. I disagree.

So, what exactly is it that has led me back a half-century to Poplar Hill, that bucolic place mired deep in the adolescent muck of my consciousness? That’s easy. On a recent winter whim (I honestly can’t recall the precise impetus), I dug into my literature bookcase to revisit James Peter Cooney’s little-known literary magazine The Phoenix, published from 1938-40 in Woodstock, N.Y., then revived from 1970-84 at his West Whately home’s Morning Star Press. To raise start-up cash for what Cooney himself called the 1970 “renewal issue,” he published a hardcover, cloth-bound, two-volume compilation of his seven pre-World War II issues, a book that’s likely tough to come by today. The cost was $55. I bought the hardcovers along with the comeback Winter 1970 magazine from a local dealer 15 or 20 years ago, read through them with interest and worked them into the handy bookcase next to my study’s desk for reference and posterity. Local history.

Well, now I have reread them, a process that spurred the rereading of Blanche Cooney’s acclaimed “In My Own Sweet Time,” a 1993 autobiography that brings the reader into the Cooney family’s inner sanctum, a very private place. The reading refreshed my memory of a Poplar Hill family I didn’t know but had always found interesting. The youngest child, a female, was three years ahead of me in high school. I had many times sat in solitary hunting silence looking across meadows at the Cooney’s stately Federal home, crowned by a windowed widow’s walk more generally associated with the coastal homes of wealthy sea captains and sailing ships.

Cooney was no lightweight. Quite the contrary, in fact. He was a leftist intellectual. Ahead of his time, he was a pre-WWII critic of American corporate farming’s “monoculture” practices, not to mention their use of toxic chemical fertilizers way before whistleblower Rachel Carson (Silent Spring) and, more recently, Wendell Berry – the octogenarian Kentucky poet/essayist who’s still beating the same drum. Jimmy Cooney dared to be different, and didn’t hesitate to challenge large corporations, government and cultural norms of capitalistic, war-driven societies.

A literary visionary, Cooney was the first American to publish controversial expatriate Henry Miller and his illicit Paris lover Anais Nin. Still to this day, his segmented Phoenix publishing of French novelist Jean Giono’s Refusal to Obey is the only English translation of the important work. Other luminaries published in Cooney’s magazine included D.H. Lawrence (posthumously), Derek Savage, Hervey White, Robert Bly and many other familiar names from the American literary scene.

No, get this. Mysterious, enigmatic J.D. Salinger may have even made a couple of pseudonymous contributions to The Phoenix after going into Cornish. N.H., seclusion during the mid-1950s. Who knows? It’s distinctly possible. Perhaps even probable. But that’s a tale for another day. A fascinating tale at that. Potentially future column fodder. We’ll see. Let me work the local channels.

Off I go.

War-Club Speculation

Scholar Marge Bruchac filled the house. Standing room only for her January 26 presentation that kicked off Historic Deerfield’s three-legged Winter Lecture Series, “Captivated: Histories and Legacies of the 1704 Raid on Deerfield.”

Who said the Happy Valley doesn’t give a hoot about our indigenous past? Deerfield Academy security officials would beg to differ. They had to bar the doors at 250-seat Garonzik Auditorium before Historic Deerfield public historian Barbara Mathews had finished introducing Dr. Bruchac’s 2 p.m. PowerPoint lecture. The topic was “Before 1704: Wampum Traditions and Landscapes of Memory.”

An upstate New York native of Abenaki descent, Bruchac has deep academic ties to the valley, and has served for many years as a Historic Deerfield consultant on Native American affairs. She earned her undergraduate degree at Smith College in 1999, then got her master’s (2003) and doctorate (2007) at UMass-Amherst. Today she’s an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, where she coordinates the Ivy League school’s Native American and Indigenous Studies program.

Not only is she a familiar figure on the local lecture circuit, but so too are brother Joseph and his son Jesse, both Native American storytellers.

Bruchac’s Sunday-afternoon presentation touched on a little of everything from our slice of the Connecticut Valley indigenous palette. She went through it chronologically – from deep history of the Pocumtuck Range’s ancient Beaver Myth, to the European Contact Period, to post-King Philip’s War (KPW) diaspora, to the displaced valley Natives’ return to fight in wars against English colonists occupying their old homeland, accompanied by French soldiers and Indian allies from northern villages stretching all the way to the St. Lawrence Seaway.

What most caught my attention, and really got my wheels spinning, was an unexpected subject with which I was quite familiar and about which I had written not long ago.

In discussing the meaning and uses of wampum, Bruchac turned to use as inlay on Indian war clubs. To illustrate this practice, she brought to the screen many examples, including a rare 17th-century ceremonial club with strong local ties and mystery.

This decorated wooden club with a maple patina has a Connecticut Valley provenance dating back to KPW (1675-76), and very likely to the infamous “Falls Fight” of May 19, 1676 or its immediate aftermath. It has been said that young John King II – who lived in Northampton and eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant, but was just an 18-year-old boy at the bloody pre-dawn ambush of a sleeping Indian fishing village composed of mostly old men, women, and children – picked up the club on that Riverside/Gill site now under the federal scrutiny of the so-called Peskeomskut Battlefield Grant study.

That attack, led by Captains Turner and Holyoke, wreaked havoc and mayhem on the unsuspecting, festive Indians and turned the war in colonial favor. Bruchac didn’t seem to doubt King family tradition that the famous club was picked up at the “Falls Fight” or somewhere along one of many chaotic retreat paths back to Hatfield, a popular opinion that can probably never be proven.

A detailed footnote in noted anthropologist Edmund “Ted” Carpenter’s Two Essays: Chief & Greed lays out the full King family provenance of the ceremonial club. The rare relic remained in the King family for some 300 years before being “loaned” in the 1970s by Esther Diefendorf to New York City’s Museum of the American Indian (MAI), founded by wealthy, unscrupulous Edwardian collector George Gustav Heye (1874-1957). The club was never returned to King descendants, but was instead sold out the back door after Heye’s death to a private collector with deep pockets. Today it is on prominent display at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York.

Too bad the rich, written family history that accompanied the club from Diefendorf to MAI never left the building when it was sold, and is now lost. Had the family narrative survived, we would now know where young John King found his wartime memento. Instead, we can only speculate. The possibilities are many, some even unrelated to KPW. Truth told, short of an improbable discovery among papers in some old, dusty desk drawer, the King family tradition is probably forever lost. Sad indeed. Which doesn’t mean we can’t ponder an intriguing possibility brought to my attention by local researcher Howard Clark, a founder of the non-profit Nolumbeka organization dedicated to local Native American preservation and research.

The club has for many years been classified as an Eastern Woodlands artifact, which means it’s from a geographical area east of the Mississippi River, and more specifically in this case, from the territory between the Ohio Valley and the Northeast. That means its origin could have been either Eastern Algonquian or Iroquoian. Given the family tradition that it had been picked up during KPW by a Northampton soldier here in the valley and that the war was between colonial and indigenous New Englanders, it was for years assumed to have been an Eastern Algonquian relic.

Enter author Lars Krutak, who in 2014 featured the club in Tattoo Traditions of Native North America: Ancient and Contemporary Expressions of Identity. In the “Eastern Woodlands” chapter of his work, he identifies its many iconographic carvings as Iroquoian, Seneca, or Mohawk in style, which evokes some interesting possibilities that snugly fit Clark’s theory. Krutak isn’t the only scholar to classify the club’s iconography as Iroquoian. So does Carpenter (1922-2001), who knew Woodland symbols like few others. Relying on the exhaustive notes of iconic American art historian Carl Schuster (1904-1969), Carpenter co-authored the monumental Materials for the Study of Social Symbolism in Ancient & Tribal Art, a three-volume, 12-book, worldwide bible on the subject. Although he never commits to an Iroquoian origin for the club in Chief & Greed, he does indeed identify one of its carved images as a turtle wearing the four-pointed Seneca star. So, he does at the very least lean toward an Iroquoian attribution.

Archaeologist/anthropologist Dr. Richard Michael Gramly knows this four-pointed star and Iroquoian iconography well, and he views Carpenter’s Seneca attribution as narrow.

“That four-pointed star is not Seneca, it’s Iroquoian,” explained Gramly, who knew Carpenter personally, and whose Persimmon Press published the second edition of Chief & Greed. “The star is the symbol of the Turtle Clan and could just as likely have been Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga or Cayuga. Turtle Clan was the clan of Iroquois nobility, a prestigious clan of leaders. It started with the Leni Lenape (Delaware) Tribe. So, let us not forget that there were also Eastern Algonquian Turtle Clans.”

That is not to say that Gramly is challenging Krutak’s conclusion that the overall nature of the club’s carvings suggest an Iroquoian, not Eastern Algonquian, origin. No. Gramly trusts Krutak’s opinion, which by the way conforms with Clark’s suggestion that the club may have entered the Connecticut Valley with the Mohawk prince Saheda, infamously murdered along with his gift-bearing peace delegation in late June of 1664 on their way from Albany to a council with the Pocumtuck Tribe.

Saheda’s delegation never made it to the Pocumtuck Fort in what is now Old Deerfield. Instead, the travelers were ambushed and killed somewhere along the trail – maybe near the well-known, ancient fishing place Salmon Falls (now Shelburne Falls) – by a vengeful band of Sokoki warriors settling a score. Months before that, Mohawks had attacked the Sokoki Fort at Hinsdale, New Hampshire, scattering Sokokis in all directions, including south for temporary refuge at the Pocumtuck Fort. Many historians believe that some of the Sokoki warriors living with Pocumtucks knew of the incoming diplomatic Mohawk party and took the law in their own hands. Perhaps that was how the King club arrived in the valley. Maybe Saheda was carrying it the day he was murdered, and it was taken by a Sokoki warrior who died as an elder 12 years later at the Falls Fight.

This hypothesis seems to be supported by confusing a mention in the New York Colonial Documents (NYCD). Dated July 12, 1664, less than a month after Saheda’s murder, this second-hand report made an intriguing reference that could be related to the Saheda’s club: New York Indians (Mahican?), including one named Cajadogo, met four “Northern savages” traveling west along the Mohawk Trail as they reached the western bank of a river named “Mill Kil” in a canoe. The New York Natives knew of Saheda’s murder and inquired: “How will it be now with the Northern savages, for the Onejages have a knife and a hatchet lying upon their arms.” The Northern “savages” responded that they had only followed through on orders from the English.

Could these Indians have been referring to what later became the King war club, which could easily have been referred to as a hatchet or tomahawk at the time? It’s possible.

Although it is absolutely true that this hypothesis about a cryptic colonial reference could never be proven, it makes a lot of sense and, if true, would add immense historical value to the rare relic. Too bad it wasn’t scrutinized centuries ago by an Indigenous medicine man with a deep understanding of the pre-literate grammar of design. Such a wise man could have deciphered not only the precise meaning of the club’s carved symbolism, but also very likely the owner’s identity.

More on Mastodon Tooth

Back to the ancient mastodon tooth recovered nearly 150 years ago in a Colrain “muck bed” two miles up the hill from my upper Greenfield Meadows home and discussed in my last column. New information worth sharing has since come to light.

To me, a retired newspaperman, it made sense all along that Elias Bardwell’s December 2, 1871 discovery of this 1.5-pound proboscidean molar on his East Colrain Road farm would have made the local newspaper. Yet I couldn’t connect online despite several name-, topic-, and site-specific keyword searches. At that point, I decided it wasn’t worth a chase to tedious library microfilm.

Well, as it turned out, I didn’t need microfilm. Reporter editor Mike Jackson came to the rescue. The young man’s innate curiosity and laudable perseverance struck online gold in cumbersome, unindexed Greenfield Gazette and Courier archives. Jackson knew of a multi-newspaper online archive to search and, sure enough, found precisely what he was looking for: the fresh Colrain tooth tale.

I cannot overstate what a luxury it is to submit copy to such an engaged, diligent editor. Never in more than 40 years in the newspaper business have I worked for such a man – an editor most interested in the story, not kowtowing to some advertiser or protecting a town official or editorial opinion with bogus claims of poor taste, inappropriateness or reporting bias. Haughty, rigid newspaper editors at small-town dailies are a dime a dozen, Jackson a rare exception.

So, yes, there it was, buried in this obscure yet very useful online newspaper repository, including the Gazette and Courier – a four-page weekly broadsheet covering Franklin County in the 19th century. On Page 2 of the Greenfield paper’s December 11, 1871 issue, a little blurb about Bardwell’s discovery headlined “Big Tooth” looks more like a contemporary classified ad for cord wood than a news story. Though brief and speculative, the report provides key, previously elusive information about Bardwell’s find – contextual stuff like the precise date (December 2, 1871), why he was digging (to fertilize cropland with organic marsh muck), and what exactly was meant by “muck bed” (swamp) in 19th century vernacular.

Most interesting is the rapid sequence of published reports citing Bardwell’s find, then expert intervention. First, the December 11 newspaper story understandably misidentifies the tooth as “three united teeth that must have belonged to a species of animals long since extinct.” Can we really expect an 1871 local newspaper to know anything about mastodon teeth? Unlikely. A quick trip through the eBay market of mastodon teeth clearly illustrates how someone who knew nothing about Columbian mastodons could believe a single, six-peaked tooth was three. Plus, the Gazette and Courier report admits uncertainty by closing with the suggestion that the peculiar, large molar be “sent somewhere for scientific inspection” and, presumably, positive identification.

Someone at the paper likely recommended tooth inspection by Amherst College professor Dr. Edward Hitchcock Jr., an expert with deep Deerfield roots. He’d likely know what he was viewing. Hitchcock was a scholar of Ice Age beasts and would have been the contemporaneous authority on Connecticut Valley prehistory, paleontology, and geology.

It didn’t take long for a Hitchcock assessment – less than a month, in fact, in a time before motor vehicles, when a winter trip between Colrain and Amherst could be a daunting task. We know it all happened fast because the Gazette and Courier published a follow-up less than a month later, on January 8, 1872, under a small, bold “Coleraine” headline. This brief account corrects the record with Hitchcock’s identification as not three but one tooth – “a grinder” from the mouth of a “veritable mastodon.”

Just four days later, on January 12, 1872, Hitchcock wrote a letter reporting Bardwell’s discovery to the editors of the American Journal of Science: Scientific Intelligence, Geology and Natural Science, documenting the tooth for posterity in a respected national periodical.

That 1872 Journal of Science reference is what alerted Amherst archaeologist Stuart Fiedel and South Deerfield sidekick Bud Driver to the Colrain tooth, perhaps only a tiny piece of the ancient mastodon remains at the site. Because the Bardwell tooth seems now to have disappeared or, at the least, lost its site association, the men would like to find associated skeletal remains from which to get a radiocarbon date. The date would allow them to plug the Colrain find into a sparse western Massachusetts database that includes two other sites, one in South Egremont, the other Northborough.

Though there are undoubtedly other Western Mass swamps that contain mastodon remains, they have not been and probably never will be found. The small fraternity of scientific sleuths currently trying to solve North American mastodon puzzles is slim indeed, though seemingly gaining a little steam recently, this Colrain probe a local example.

The East Colrain beaver-pond wetland bordering the southern meadow facing the old Elias Bardwell farmstead snugly fits the profile of sites where mastodon remains have most often been uncovered over the years, often by farmers digging swamps into ponds. Because mastodons drank an incredible amount of water daily, they gravitated to springs not only for water but also for the plant foods growing in wet areas during the late Pleistocene.

Such wet, mucky sites were thus advantageous to predators like dire wolves, saber-tooth cats and, yes, even Paleo hunters trying to mire and kill their large, dangerous prey without being injured or killed. What remains buried some 13,000 years later, preserved in lime-rich marl (clay), are bones, ivory tusks, teeth, and perhaps even human remains and/or artifacts linking them to Clovis or even pre-Clovis human hunters.

The digging of ponds is relatively easy these days with mechanical equipment such as backhoes. However, 19th-century farmers who relied on hand shovels and elbow grease and horse- or ox-drawn contraptions didn’t shy away from opening up a pond for livestock or, more likely, filling their carts with organic swamp muck, with which they fertilized agricultural fields.

Such fertilization was common and necessary in hilltowns like Colrain, where topsoil was thin and railroad depots distant, increasing the cost of imported fertilizers like guano, shipped from South America and lugged to the countryside by rail. Hilltown farmers relied on homegrown fertilizers, including organic swamp muck, manure, and compost waste, such as apple pomace from the cider mill, which could be spread over fields.

If you read between the lines of the January 8, 1872 Gazette and Courier piece about the mastodon tooth, it’s likely that Bardwell was filling an oxcart with swamp muck the day he found the tooth. Why? Because the story closes by encouraging local farmers to “keep their eyes open to such things, now that they are doing so much with” swamp-muck fertilizer.

How important and widespread was the mucking of farm fields? Howard S. Russell, author of A Long, Deep Furrow: Three Centuries of Farming in New England, cites “one farmer applying 5,000 oxcart loads of swamp mud to 25 acres in the course of 15 years.” Do the math. That computes to 320 loads per year, more than a load a day excluding Sundays.

Although December may seem a little late for such an 1871 Colrain chore, the richest, blackest, organic muck of inner swamps never freezes solid and would have been accessible to Bardwell, who could have stayed atop the frozen outer margins without breaking through.

So, there you have it: a new twist that better identifies the location of Bardwell’s hilltown tooth discovery. Now, with the site narrowed down, it could be easier for researchers to go there and take core samples, or comb the wetland with probing rods to find bones of the beast whose massive molar surfaced in the East Colrain “muck bed.”

Yes, the tooth could have been transported downstream by a freshet or the break of a beaver dam along upper Workman Brook, the spring sources of which are less than a half-mile above the meadow and beaver-pond basin visible from the old Bardwell house. In the upper Pleistocene when mastodons roamed, that beaver meadow would likely have been a pond.

Stay tuned. This is a developing story awaiting spring exploration.

Colrain Mastodon Tooth

Mastodon remains in the neighborhood? You betcha! Long ago. Just two miles north of my home. Then – presto! – the ancient remains move even closer in a genealogical vein. Surreal. Why does this stuff happen?

I suppose such discoveries are bound to become more frequent when aging out in a place where one’s roots lie deep. So, I guess this is an example of that, demonstrating once again how small one’s place can be. Spooky small. At times, mind-boggling.

Six weeks ago, I had no clue that a mastodon tooth had been found in the fall of 1871 in a frosty Colrain “muck bed” not far from home by farmer Elias Bardwell, reported by Professor Edward Hitchcock, Jr., who identified it. Hitchcock reported that Bardwell intended to revisit the site in the spring of 1872 to look for additional remains. Whether that ever happened is not known. 

Now, after a little research, this discovery has become a family matter. But let me return to that later.

I became aware of this forgotten Colrain mastodon tooth during the final week of November, just before Thanksgiving. I was visiting the South Deerfield home of friend Bud Driver, who was hosting a couple of PhD archaeologists – Richard Michael “Mike” Gramly of Andover and Stuart Fiedel of Amherst. We were there to discuss mastodon-bone artifacts in the possession of Gramly, who was passing through on the last leg of his trip home from Kentucky and Ohio.

Toward the conclusion of our rambling three-hour discussion, we turned to the subject of Fiedel and Driver’s ongoing study of historic mastodon discoveries in the western half of Massachusetts, beginning with a South Egremont site known to scientists as “Ivory Pond,” with which I was vaguely familiar. There, in June 1982, landowner Thomas Marino was excavating a pond and discovered skeletal remains of a mastodon. 

With a collection of bones still in his possession, they were in need of the latest, most-accurate radiocarbon dating. So, Fiedel, Driver and Robert Feranec of the New York State Museum in Albany recently visited the site and retrieved from Marino’s collection a collagen sample that yielded an AMS radiocarbon date of 11,885 plus or minus 30. That calibrates to between 13,580 to 13,770 calendar years before present (BP).

Now, Fiedel has the radiocarbon date for mastodon remains found in 1884 in the central Massachusetts town of Northborough and is near completion of a soon-to-be-published report. Next, the three diligent researchers, committed to studying the peopling of the Americas and its effects on the native mammals of the continent, intend to focus on Bardwell’s Colrain discovery, recognized as Massachusetts’ first known unearthing of mastodon remains.

When our pre-Thanksgiving discussion turned to the mysterious Colrain find, Fiedel inquired if I knew Shearer Road? His examination of an 1871 county map suggested that the Bardwell farm was located on that road. 

Yes, of course I knew the road. It was at the top of the hill behind my upper Greenfield Meadows home. Not only that, but I had hunted deer and turkeys there, and once ran my dogs there daily. So, yes, I even knew the contours.

Familiar with the landscape but not any details about the 1871 find, I immediately suspected two adjacent sites that fit the type of habitat where most mastodon skeletons have in the past been found. To me, the two most likely sites were what I refer to as “spring holes,” that is the swampy headwaters of two small, spring-fed brooks in the western, upland Green River watershed. The first, Punch Brook, rises atop Smead Hill and runs about a mile into Hinsdale Brook just downstream from my home. The second, Workman Brook, rises slightly north and west of there, on Randolph family acreage east of Van Nuys Road in East Colrain, running more than two miles before emptying into Green River just south of the Nelson Road-Green River Road intersection in the town’s southeast corner.

How exciting. The chase was on. Right in my backyard, no less.

I took a ride to East Colrain with Driver to show him the layout, then studied 1858 and 1871 maps that identify family homes along the roads. The maps showed two East Colrain Bardwell farms, likely contiguous: one atop Shearer Hill, the other off East Colrain Road along the northwestern base of Shearer Hill. Then I researched the Colrain Bardwells to figure which was the “Elias Bardwell farm” referred to in records of the tooth discovery. 

What was confusing was that the first Bardwell to call Colrain home was named Elias (1763-1818), and he obviously could not have been the man who found the tooth. Further research showed that Elias had a grandson named Elias (1837-1915), son of Amos (1792-1875), who was undoubtedly the “A. Bardwell” identified on the maps as the owner of the East Colrain Road farm. The “B. Bardwell” in the farm atop Shearer Hill was Amos’ younger brother Baxter (1803-1888), who, according to Deerfield historian George Sheldon’s genealogy, “settled on the old homestead.”

I contacted Greenfield surveyor and map merchant Dave Allen, who I knew had an important connection to Shearer Hill. Maybe he knew something about the old Bardwell acreage. If not, maybe the topic would stir his curiosity and him into action. 

Mission accomplished. Allen soon embarked on deed research, a staple of a surveyor’s work, and concluded that the Elias Bardwell farm where the tooth was found was not atop Shearer Hill as we first thought. Instead, it was off East Colrain Road, overlooking Workman Brook to the south, the brook crossing East Colrain Road and traversing wetland on both sides of it.

Further genealogical research bore personal family fruit with closer links than expected. I knew from the start that I tapped into the Connecticut Valley Bardwell family through my second great-grandmother Abbie Bardwell of Shelburne/Montague/Whately, wife of Thomas Sanderson of Whately. Not surprisingly, that Bardwell branch was distant. 

Not so with another Colrain family I tap into. Little did I know that a much closer relationship to Elias Bardwell existed through my paternal grandmother Merriam Snow, whose great-grandmother and Elias’s mother were sisters. That, from my perspective, is not a distant relative. My grandmother likely knew of her Bardwell relatives on East Colrain Road when, as a child, she spent summers at her grandparents’ farm and orchards off Fort Lucas Road, a short distance west.

Enough of the genealogy, though. Back to Ice-Age mastodons (Mammut americanum), to which I can honestly say I never gave any serious thought before 2014. That’s when friend Gramly started excavating skeletal remains from a Middletown, NY, marsh. His dig recovered bones and ivory from the ancient proboscidean beast dubbed John Charles in his 2017 monograph, “Archaeological Recovery of the Bowser Road Mastodon, Orange County, New York.” Among the recovered bones were some he identified as artifacts – a daring assessment that went against the grain.

I clearly recall Gramly checking in by telephone from time to time during this 2014 dig to enthusiastically report new discoveries, observations, and hypotheses. So excited was he that I could seldom get a word in edgewise, so I listened and learned. 

But still, despite his intellectual excitement, my own personal interest remained lukewarm. “Why should I be interested in ancient North American elephants last roaming the continent 12,000 years ago?” I pondered. “What was the allure? What did it mean to me; to the Connecticut Valley?”

Then came the grappling hook that set the barbs and pulled me. Gramly seized my fascination during an evening phone conversation from his motel room when he introduced the human element – better still, hunter-gatherer ritual and spirituality.

“The prevailing wisdom has been that these beasts came to water during the late Pleistocene, got mired in mud, and died. I say that’s pure hooey,” he said. “There are human hands all over this site. In my opinion, John Charles was killed by hunters and, get this: I believe there’s evidence of ritualistic offerings right there in plain sight among the skeletal remains.”

What he was referring to were notched atlatl blades crafted from mastodon ribs and, he said, intentionally broken in half as grave offerings when new rib bones were salvaged from the fallen beast as raw material for new blades. Gramly’s cutting-edge and very controversial hypothesis is that these grave offerings were left in respect for the fallen prey by young hunters participating in their first kill – an important rite of manhood versus a dangerous beast. 

Gramly suspected that if he reviewed other collections of North American mastodon remains, they would reveal the same, previously overlooked, broken atlatl ribs and other bone and ivory artifacts. Well, guess what? His hypothesis was confirmed by searching through stored remains in upstate New York, Ohio, and Kentucky. Bingo! There were other broken atlatl blades, not to mention other artifacts crafted from mastodon bones and ivory. Not certain of all the artifacts’ function, he’s still working on identification and trading ideas with Fiedel and other colleagues.

For years, experts have cited the absence of stone tools – Clovis points, scrapers, celts, and other and tools – as proof that there was no human association to the mastodon remains found over the years east of the Mississippi River (in contrast to the presence of stone tools at western proboscidean kill sites). Gramly begs to differ. He says archaeologists’ focus is too narrow, that the absence of stone tools could be irrelevant. Bone and ivory tools were routinely used by Old World hunters dating back far beyond 13,000 years. So, why not in the New World? Aren’t we dealing with some of the same gene pools? 

That kind of open-mindedness is what separates Gramly from many other American archaeologists, and creates friction with some who are no more educated, experienced, or credentialed than him but far more rigid. Gramly has one great advantage over his detractors: the guts to challenge conventional wisdom.

So here I sit, formerly unenthused about extinct proboscidean beasts, when suddenly, out of the blue, I learn of this long-forgotten mastodon tooth that showed up in my neighborhood. Not only that, but it was discovered by a previously unknown close Bardwell relative of mine who had it in his possession into the 20th century and likely until his death. 

Who knows where this tooth is today? It could be resting in plain sight on a Colrain shelf, an attic drawer, a library cellar, or offered for sale without provenance for the third time on eBay. Then again, it could have been trashed long ago by someone ignorant of its importance.

It would appear that the only way to learn more about this mastodon tooth is to somehow find the site from which it was pulled, and probe for more evidence. Skeletal remains could still be recoverable there. 

The search could start as early as spring, with landowner permission. Fiedel, Driver and company just want a bone, a tooth, or an ivory tusk that can be radiocarbon dated. All I can say is that I’d love to watch this fascinating process unfold.

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