Waushakum Pond: Lamprey-Eel Fishing Place?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did it not have to be?

 

Dr. Grave-Robber Cooley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rattler Strikes Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Most Horrible Death from the Bite of a Rattlesnake

 

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

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

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

 

The rest is dreadful history.

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

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

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

 

Trust Temple On Swamp-Fite Site

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

Swamp-Fight Revelation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stickball Memories

Just curious, do kids still play stickball?

Probably not. They say it’s bad for the arm to fire a light tennis ball day after day at a strike zone drawn in chalk on a brick wall.

Hmmmm? Maybe so. But playing stickball is what we did whenever we couldn’t round up enough players for a diamond game, and never did I experience significant arm trouble. Early-season tendonitis? Yeah, of course. I think we all battled a touch of that at some point. But nothing serious. That’s what those pungent tubs of greasy Red Hot and liquid Bengay were for. Just rub it liberally into the affected area, work out the kinks warming up and let her rip. The tenderness would linger for a few days, then vanish.

So here I sit, closing in on 70, away from the game I loved for 30 years, pain free and still capable of throwing. No, not like I once could; and, yes, it takes longer to loosen up the cranky old right wing. Plus, my balky left knee complicates matters, altering my landing and follow-through. But once loose, I’m confident I could still sink the carnival dink on a cool autumn night.

Our favorite stickball court was up against the shop-classroom wall in the parking lot behind the high school. The hitter faced the high-school diamond from deep left field. All we needed was three players – pitcher, batter, outfielder – for daylong, round-robin competition. One strike zone fit all, and trust me, it was much bigger than the one you see in hi-def on flat-screen TV these days. That was a negative. It’s always best for a hitter to narrow his or her strike zone. The positive was that a tennis ball is smaller than a baseball and tougher to hit sweet.

I wish I knew that tiny major-league strike zone we see on TV, and, more important, was disciplined enough to make the pitcher hit it during my years as a free-swinging, free-wheeling ballplayer. So, yes, that big stickball strike zone did give us bad habits. Either that or we developed into decent bad-ball hitters. I always thought the strike zone extended higher than the one we see on TV.

The three-man rotation in those old, round-robin stickball contests went from batter to outfielder to pitcher, and we each kept our individual tally of runs. Outs were recorded by strikeouts, anything caught in the air, and ground balls fielded on the pavement by the pitcher. We used salvaged, cracked, wooden bats with taped handles, saving good bats for real games. Impoverished city players were said to use broomsticks, which I never saw.

Our batters were protected from rainy weather under the flat-roofed building’s deep overhang. Far behind the pitcher loomed the high-school diamond’s backstop, way out of reach for us. To the left stood a basketball hoop with a galvanized backboard and metal net. To the right was the “aggie building,” and behind it the garage, where tractors and other grounds-maintenance equipment were stored. We’d drop a marker in short left field to establish a foul line. The right-field line was marked by a lilac bush two-thirds of the way down the aggie building’s west wall.

The ground rules were simple: groundballs past the pitcher were singles; to the lilac bush in the air was a double; past the aggie building was a triple, and to the garage was a home run. Walks and errors also put imaginary runners on base.

Round and round we went, games lasting all day. On nights of Little League games, we’d rush home around 4, get a quick bite, dress in our white, woolen, South Deerfield uniforms with red trim, and head to the little league field at the base of Sugarloaf for a game against Sunderland, Hatfield, Whately, Conway, or Old Deerfield.

Our seasons didn’t end with the school year, just after the summer solstice, as they do today. We played all summer, savoring hot, sticky weather made for baseball.

I never could understand it when, working on the Recorder sports desk, scribes were taking youth-baseball scores for league-championship series before the Fourth of July. Why, I thought out loud, would anyone complete a youth-league season before the best baseball weather arrived?

The answer was that parents didn’t want the season to interfere with their summer-vacation plans. Sad. Who’s youth baseball for, kids or parents? My answer is likely a minority opinion nowadays.

Although playing stickball hour after hour kept us out of mischief for the most part, we weren’t what you’d call perfect little angels. We stretched the rules a little, and practiced individual sovereignty to gather stray tennis balls off the roofs above. Tennis balls broke down when thrown against brick walls and clubbed with bats. Once their fabric cover started to split, balls did little tricks when thrown, and it was only a matter of time before the ball itself split in half. But we had the perfect remedy for maintaining an ample supply.

You see, stickball wasn’t the only summer activity practiced against the high school’s back wall. Tennis players practiced their stroke against the tall gym wall that met our stickball court on the left, and somehow wild mishits put many a brand-new ball atop the 40-foot roof. To collect them when no one was looking, we’d shimmy up the drain spout onto the lower roof on the other side of the gym and climb a sturdy, stationary, metal ladder anchored into the gym roof. We’d gather the balls and throw them down before descending the ladder and circling around the front to gather stray balls from the shop-building roof directly above the stickball court.

Someone could have been hurt badly or killed by a fall from that tall roof, or even that of the lower shop building. But we were careful and no one ever got hurt, not even when we had to run and jump off a lower roof to avoid authorities passing through. In fact, the only roof-related injury I recall occurred after we were in high school, and it had nothing to do with being on the roof. The victim was late friend Franny Redmond.

I can’t remember exactly what we were doing, probably just horsing around after school. Franny had jumped up to hang from his hands on a cross beam out front by the eight doors leading into the gym area. When he released his grip to fall down, his class ring got caught on the crimped lower edge of protective copper sheathing and left him dangling in pain. With his full weight on the ring finger, the skin peeled back into an ugly, bloody mess. We helped lift him up as he used his free arm to pull up and release the snag. Once free, he dropped to his feet, wrapped the wound in a t-shirt, and went to the hospital for repair. I think doctors had to cut off the ring before stitching the wound.

Other than that, never a serious problem we couldn’t escape with aplomb. Small-town devils we were. We knew the routine, not to mention every dark corner in the neighborhood, and stayed on high-alert for “heat” whenever bending the rules.

It was kids’ stuff, not crime. At least that’s how it was viewed when I was young. I’m not sure cops know the difference anymore. Sad indeed. I sincerely doubt we would have “benefited” from being run through the system and punished.

 

Where Was Bloody Brook’s First Tavern

The question has lingered for nearly a century. That is, where did the first tavern in Bloody Brook, now South Deerfield, stand?

Everyone knows the building’s location in 1932, when South Deerfield building contractor William Gass moved it to its current setting behind Old Deerfield’s Indian House. Today, there it stands as Bloody Brook Tavern museum, Gass’ interpretation of the single-story, center-chimney colonial building as originally constructed. But what lot did this building occupy when constructed around 1750? That’s the vexing question.

Greenfield’s Daily Recorder-Gazette was on the scene for the old tavern’s removal to Old Deerfield. The lead story on August 6, 1932 was headlined “South Deerfield ‘Old Bee Hive’ House Being Moved to Old Deerfield by Gass.” The article, no byline, was strong on tradition but weak on fact – leaving unclear the building’s original location while taking a speculative approach to the year it was moved to its 1932 site.

Because the structure had “stood just south of the Arms pocketbook shop for longer than the oldest inhabitant could remember,” the paper surmised that it must have been moved before or during the railroad’s 1846 arrival to South Deerfield. After that move to what is today 89 Main Street, “improvements” were made with the addition of a second story, an ell, and an 18-by-27 ballroom that was eventually partitioned into rooms for a tenement house. Almost 200 years old and falling into disrepair by 1932, the building was rescued by Gass.

To recount the tavern’s history, the Recorder-Gazette leaned heavily upon its own hardcover Centennial Gazette 1792-1892, which would have been readily available. That’s likely the source for the reference to “the former A.W. Fay place” as the building’s original setting. The Fay farmhouse, more commonly known in deed references as “the Sedgwick Cooley place,” may or may not exist today. It stood and likely still stands on what is today Yazwinski farm at 144 North Main Street.

Centennial Gazette readers would have found the Fay reference helpful in identifying the original tavern site. That was not the case, however, for those reading the 1932 Recorder-Gazette story. By then, Fay had been gone nearly 40 years. Deeds show that Asa W. Fay of Springfield purchased the 84-acre Sedgwick Cooley farm and outbuildings in 1886 from William E. Thayer of Williamsburg. Eight years later, with Fay in financial distress, the property was sold at auction to townsman Azariah Cooley Boyden, who had had deep roots in South Deerfield’s first tavern.

Was it coincidence that Boyden’s mother, Sophia Cooley, had lineage taking her back to the tavern’s beginnings through its first two tavernkeepers – Samuel Barnard (1721-88) and brother-in-law successor Capt. Nathan Frary (1719-94)? Sophia was Sedgwick’s cousin, and the granddaughter of Azariah Cooley (1731-77), who was among the earliest Bloody Brook settlers. Azariah’s widow, Eleanor Wariner, was from the tavern neighborhood, so to speak. Better yet, she had a hand in the Barnard, then Frary taverns themselves as the wife of both men. She married Barnard after her first husband died, then wed Frary after Barnard passed.

From her legacy arose two adjoining North Main Street farms, including two dwellings, many outbuildings, a prolific spring for drinking-water, and more than 120 contiguous acres. Fifty-five of those acres now comprise Bloody Brook Farm, owned by the Yazwinski family. That farm lost its upland acreage in the 60s when North Sugarloaf was taken by eminent domain to create a state reservation.

The two bordering “Cooley” farms show up east of the road and the brook on the 1855 Clark map of Deerfield and the 1858 Walling map of Franklin County. They are marked, north to south, as dwellings of “Mrs. E. Cooley” and “S. Cooley” – that is, widow Esther Packard Cooley (1811-58) and her brother-in-law Sedgwick Cooley (1804-69). Esther was the widow of Sedgwick’s older brother Caleb Allen Cooley (1800-1845), and the daughter of Shelburne minister Theophilus Packard, who, with his wife, shared their daughter’s South Deerfield residence for eight years after leaving the ministry in 1846.

Both structures may well survive today, although current Yazwinski farm occupant Poppi (Yazwinski) Kelley offered a possibility that clouds the matter. Her late father was told by someone that his homestead had been moved from another site to its present location long before he bought it in 1950. It’s possible. Many South Deerfield buildings were moved during the 19th century, including two churches and the old tavern of our focus. But the Yazwinski property fits snugly into Connecticut Valley architecture of the 1830s and could easily have been built right where it stands.

The crowded contemporary neighborhood layout suggests that the Yazwinski home was Segdwick Cooley’s and another to the north, a Cape that’s likely older than Yazwinski’s, standing on Capt. Lathrop Drive, was Esther Cooley’s. That center-chimney home now resting on the north side of Capt. Lathrop was owned for many years by carpenter and town official Ed Crafts. Perhaps a more appropriate name for the northern structure would be the Eli Cooley homestead, he the father of Sedgwick and Caleb; or maybe even it was the homesite of Eli’s father, Azariah’s first dwelling.

Of one fact we can be confident; that is that the old Barnard/Frary tavern stood somewhere within the old 84-acre Sedgwick Cooley parcel, bordered west by what is now North Main Street. Given the nature of public houses, the building would have been close to the road. The question is where?

Most likely the tavern stood between the road and Bloody Brook, within a narrow, 700-foot strip of land now occupied by five homes. Think of it: Why would anyone build a colonial tavern on the other side of a brook flowing more than 100 feet from the road? It makes no sense. Taverns served mail routes and didn’t need obstacles for mail stages.

The average distance between road and brook in that narrow strip of land fronting Yazwinski acreage is about 130 feet. That’s enough room for the string of houses now standing there, and more than enough for the historic Barnard/Frary tavern.

Another possibility worth examining is the possibility that the original tavern stood across the street from today’s Yazwinski farm – high, dry and out of the way of spring freshets. But something new must come to light before that can be sorted out. Stay tuned.

Who knows? Perhaps locating the old building’s footprint will be difficult after all these years.

Then again, it could be hiding in plain sight. Afterall, has anyone ever made a serious effort to find it?

A diligent investigator could probably find the buried foundation with a sharp probe. Better still, a metal-detecting wizard could go to work in search of common tavern relics, especially colonial coins. Metal-detecting enthusiasts love old-tavern sites and have been known to bang on the doors of many seeking permission.

Take it to the bank: evidence exists. It’s just a matter of finding it … and solving the mystery of where Bloody Brook’s first tavern was built.

Radical-Right Stuff

Some four months after rupturing my right Achilles tendon, Vernal equinox looming, I resumed my daily morning walks and sent my wheels spinning back to Sixties.

The maiden voyage began just after dawn. I was greeted by neighborhood deer runs carved through patches of shady corn snow, one within a stone’s throw of my front door. Though neighborhood whitetails are basically edge creatures, they’ll march down Broadway in the black of night, the gray of dawn and dusk, and sometimes even at midday, slinking on high alert through foggy, drizzly veils.

It had been a long COVID- and injury-complicated winter, only exacerbated by the vexing deep-freeze we endured for almost three weeks following Presidents’ Day Weekend. I have learned to expect that annual long mid-February weekend to be the gateway to spring. Not this year. Instead, we got one last loud, grumpy snort from Old Man Winter.

My walks began on pavement, not my way. I prefer wooded maneuvers on ridgetop spines and swampy perimeters, but did not want to start on challenging terrain, where I could easily run into trouble coming off a torn Achilles. Why risk slipping and falling on hidden ice or slick mud? Heading toward 68, caution was wise until calf-strength was rebuilt. Setbacks caused by foolish, freewheeling rambles would have been stupid.

I’ve learned that brisk, solitary walks stimulate deep thinking. Get your legs moving and your heart pumping and one never knows what a fertile imagination will deliver. I don’t seem to arrive at that creative place by walking through noisy neighborhoods, surrounded by homes, people, passing cars and other sounds that disrupt or even preclude freewheeling streams of consciousness. It’s natural sounds that carry me off to the pensive place I seek – things like rattling streams, trickling springs, whistling winds and joyous birdsong. That’s what delivers me to that warm, elusive internal chamber I cherish.

Too bad I’m not yet traveling those thinking trails. I have lots to ponder. My last few weeks have been spent revisiting readings from my high school and college years. The impetus was recent films focusing on events like the 1968 Democratic Convention, the resulting Chicago Seven Trial, and the Chicago police murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.

My college mentor, Howard Ziff, had a front-row seat for all of the above as night editor of the Chicago Daily News. Disillusioned by what he knew were slanted, willfully inaccurate press reports, he changed professions, soon to establish UMass Amherst’s Journalism Department. Talk about being at the right place at the right time. I was there.

The old books I recently retrieved from my study’s shelves were Tom Hayden’s The Trial, Bobby Seale’s Seize the Times, and late, great Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in America: The Gonzo Letters (1968-76), in that order. The Thompson capper pretty much covered it all – from the ugly ’68 Chicago convention, to his own Freak Power run for sheriff, to Kent State, Woodstock, and Watergate, and his friendship with “Rock and Roll President” Jimmy Carter.

Long ago I learned that if interested in what someone really believes, read their correspondence. Which is not to suggest that Hunter S. Thompson, Doctor of his own twisted Gonzo branch of New Journalism, ever held back in print. No, not the case.

I suppose I could have dug even deeper by re-examining Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, penned from Algerian exile. But I didn’t need them. Those first three reads provided more than enough info about the political theater I lived through during the Sixties and early Seventies. Memory alone cannot always be trusted after a half-century, particularly those of us who sampled the forbidden fruits of the times.

Although today’s youth may find it difficult to conceptualize, the Sixties were hopeful, idealistic times of which open defiance of authority and protest in the streets was borne. The first protest I recall occurred in junior high school, when we participated in “skip days” organized by upperclassmen and women who opposed a strict dress code. Draconian rules forbade boys from wearing blue jeans, bellbottoms and sandals, hair below the collar, sideburns below mid-ear, and facial hair. Girls could not wear slacks or shorts, and their skirts could not wander above the knee. Skip days and open defiance of the rules brought fairly rapid change.

Then, in short order, the drinking and voting ages were dropped from 21 to 18. Philosophical justification for the latter was basic: if old enough to die for your country in Vietnam, then you were old enough to vote and drink. Simple logic, eh?

Of course, “traditionalists” pushed back with the disrespect card, but they were outnumbered, as evidenced by the LBJ’s landslide win over ultra-conservative Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. Four years later, though, after assassins eliminated the Kennedys, Nixon re-emerged by pulling the segregationist, Southern Dixiecrats led by George Wallace and Lester Maddox into the Republican fold. He dubbed this new, law-and-order Republican voting block the “silent majority,” and rode it to a razor-slim win over Humphrey in 1968 and a landslide win over McGovern in 1972.

The political landscape had been changed for generations.

Something important to remember in light of what’s gone on recently: Wallace picked up a whopping 13.5 percent of the votes running as a third-party, 1968 presidential candidate. That same element survives today.

Fast-forward to 2016, when a controversial New York City real estate mogul, reality-TV star, and con man slid down the glittering Trump Tower escalator to announce his run for the presidency. Against long odds he won by energizing the modern-day silent majority and Southern vote with racist dog whistles. He spoke in incendiary, white-nationalist code and wrapping himself in cheap patriotism. Even worse, he invited underground elements of the neo-Nazi/white-supremacist movement into plain view. These hate groups soon became the hard right-wing base that almost got him re-elected. Incensed by eight years of our first African-American president, they were responding.

Well, we know where this powder-keg empowerment of white nationalism got us. From Charlottesville to the Capitol siege, racist hate groups harkening back to the KKK and the John Birch Society were given a loud, public platform. We watched the “Unite the Right” mobs in hi-def, heard their hateful chants in Dolby sound.

Has anyone forgotten the anti-Semitic chants and tiki-torches of Charlottesville? Not likely.  Some found the scene terrifying. Others cheered it on. Frightening indeed. And while we’re at it, why to this day have we heard nothing more about the motive in the Christmas-day suicide truck bombing in Nashville? Who is being protected? By whom? Why?

It’s too bad Hunter S. Thompson took his own life before the Trump-train whistles blew. He knew what was coming, consistently railing against what he called homegrown “fascists,” “greedheads,” “swine” and more profane monikers too spicey for the mainstream.

Long aware of creeping fascism in Amerika, I have bitten my tongue in print for four years. Friends of mine are Trump supporters. Though I can’t understand how anyone could support the narcissistic snake-oil salesman, why engage in irreconcilable political debate? But now, fresh off Thompson’s Gonzo Letters, chronicling an era I love to revisit, I cannot resist taking a few swipes at the man Spike Lee dubbed “Agent Orange.”

The made-for-TV spectacle we all witnessed during four, in-your-face Trump years only reinforced my long-held beliefs about who was behind the Sixties assassinations. They’re still here, very real and not hard to find. Just look for the swastikas, nooses and rebel flags, and listen for the fascistic, xenophobic rhetoric our European brothers know best.

An undercurrent before Trump, it’s mushroomed in the public square. Scary indeed.

South Deerfield Memories

Although I’ve been a Greenfield taxpayer for nearly a quarter-century, I will always consider South Deerfield as home. It’s where I learned to read and write, bike and skate, hunt and fish, explore swamps and ridges, pick nightcrawlers, build forts and play ball. It’s also where my kids grew up through elementary school, and where a good many of my ancestors lay buried. So, yes, I can go back home. Mentally, I’m there.

The impetus for my most-recent Deerfield research is the town’s looming 350th birthday. Scheduled for 2023, it has refocused my attention on the mercantile and industrial South Deerfield village and its surrounding neighborhoods known, east to west, as Pine Nook, Sugarloaf, Mill River, Sawmill Plain, Mill Village and Turnip Yard, all of them anchored around a railroad depot that arose in 1846, redefining South Deerfield as the mother town’s commercial hub.

No, I wasn’t there for the railroad’s arrival, which brought the big cities and seaports closer and accelerated incoming and outgoing trade. But I sure do remember the old railroad station; it stood off Elm Street on the way out of town. Traveling west, before the railroad crossing, the small building stood on the right, situated between the tracks and Railroad Street, across from the lumberyard. Whether from personal memory or what I have seen in photos, it’s hard to say, but I was there. The exterior image imprinted in memory displays a deep roof overhang facing the tracks, under it a bench or two for passengers. Inside, the image shows dusty floorboards, more benches, convenient trackside post-office boxes and a wooden counter framing an open service window with a rounded crown.

My mother used to walk us there on nice days to watch the bustling railroad activity, freights picking up and dropping off cargo cars at the fertilizer industries and passenger trains stopping for exchanges. She even took us on a train ride or two for fun. I think before I was out of grammar school, the station was closed; by the Seventies, a dismantled memory.

Old “Nip” Peabody was the station attendant I remember. Though I don’t remember his first name, it was probably Carlton, same as his son, mailman “Bud,” and grandson, basketball coach “Gus.” Anyone in South Deerfield who mattered back then had a nickname.

My fondest memory of Mr. Peabody places him seated in a lawn chair at the west end of wooden, first-baseline bleachers during Sunday-afternoon American Legion Baseball games that drew big crowds to the high-school ballyard. Some of the players I recall were Jimmy Duda, Billy Burns, Skip Gerry and Peachy Traceski. Mr. Peabody wore a small, tidy mustache under the bill of his Navy-blue Thomas Ashley Post 229 American Legion cap, and he’d give us Buffalo nickels for every foul tip we retrieved from the dense Jewett pinewoods behind the backstop. A childhood place for fort-building, bushwhacking and many a partridge flush, we kids knew every abandoned bird nest in those young white pines.

We’d lean against the chain-link backstop to watch the ballgames and chase back into the woods for every foul tip. After the games, having acquired pocketsful of nickels, we’d race on our bikes to Professional Pharmacy, Bill Rotkiewicz’s first downtown drug store in the Bloody Brook Block. It stood the west of the common on the corner of North Main and Elm, between the Elm Street bar and the North Main market. There, we’d spend our earnings on Topps Baseball Cards – a nickel for a pack of five, with a wide stick of sugar-dusted bubble gum inside – and maybe even a five-cent ice-cream cone. Ah, for the days of penny candy and nickel-a-scoop ice-cream parlors.

Too bad my childhood baseball-card collections disappeared. They’d be valuable today. I used to store them securely in shoe and cigar boxes. The last I saw of them they were tucked away in an old, Empire chest of drawers in the garage loft. When I sold that house, they had vanished. Someone must have thrown them out as clutter, eliminating any chance of an adult jackpot. It may have been substantial. The sale of a 1950s collection by my softball teammate from Northampton enabled him to put down a major down payment on an Easthampton home in the 1990s. That’s a fact.

Of course, some of my most valuable cards would have been hated New York Yankees we routinely sacrificed as noisemakers attached by clothespins to our bicycle so that they extended through the spokes. The faster we pedaled, the louder they roared. Great fun. Yes, there were, of course, a few Yankee fans who’d destroy Red Sox cards the same way, but not many. Like horse manure back in the day, Yankee fans are everywhere.

Back to the Legion baseballs we hunted in the pinewoods, we never found them all. Hell no. We were always searching for the ones that got away, intentionally and otherwise. How could a kid develop diamond skills without baseballs? And those balls weren’t your run-of-the-mill dime-store variety, either; they were top-shelf baseballs, the best money could buy, official Reach American League baseballs, no less. Every ball sported a cursive, light-blue, facsimile signature of AL President and Hall of Fame slugger Joe Cronin on its cowhide face. Not bad, eh?

Truth be known, we all accumulated basketfuls of those primo balls. Tucked away in our sheds and garages, trust me, they were put to good use when not accidentally breaking windows or denting some crabby old biddy’s shiny Buick. No, never were we lacking for good baseballs with prominent stitches, great for backyard experimentation with different grips creating funky little ball-movement wrinkles when playing catch.

Had anyone ever discovered our stashes and accused us of stealing, we would have had that covered. Those balls were retrieved hours and days after the games, by which time, in our minds, they were fair game.

How about those nice, new balls we furtively dropped into abandoned robins’ nests? Was that OK behavior in a New England Christian town? Well, maybe not, but I suspect Legionnaires who marched in the annual Memorial Day parade would have let it slide.

But why ponder hypotheticals? We never got caught. Plus, those balls kept us out of mischief … for the most part.

 

Bill Russell: Winner In A League Of One

Sunday, February 9, 1969, a cold, threatening nor’easter brewing in gray winter skies.

I was 15, a Frontier Regional School sophomore, no driver’s license, hoping the storm would not derail a much-anticipated road trip to Boston Garden. The plan was to attend ABC’s 1 p.m., nationally-televised, NBA game-of-the-week matinee between the defending-champion Boston Celtics and their rival Philadelphia 76ers – play-by-play man Chris Schenkel and color analyst Jack Twyman at the mics.

Henry Boron was driving. He owned a small downtown market in South Deerfield and had established some impressive Celtics connections. Son Rickey, Frontier’s first 1,000-career-point basketball scorer, attended and eventually rose to counselor at a pair of summer camps owned and operated by Celtics teammates. Sharpshooting Hall of Fame guard Sam Jones owned one; backup backcourt mate Larry Siegfried the other.

Henry, no shrinking violet, had built relationships with many Celtics at the camps, including Hall of Fame coach/general manager Red Auerbach. Leave it to Henry, a first-class schmoozer and well-known Hinsdale railbird. The rugged, outgoing, square-jawed grocer had no fear, was not taciturn by any stretch. He had social skills, was good with kids, and loved a good laugh or small-town prank.

What a great time the late Sixties were for Connecticut Valley basketball fans. Two hours east, future Hall of Fame player-coach Bill Russell’s incredible run of 11 NBA championships in 13 years was nearing the end simultaneously with the Amherst emergence of Julius Erving – a skinny UMass sophomore forward from Roosevelt, New York. The kid could jump through the roof, and Erving fever was selling out Curry Hicks Cage. The valley had never owned a talent like Erving, who, after blossoming under late UMass coach Jack Leaman, went on to a glorious Hall of Fame NBA career.

Word of Erving’s Yankee Conference high-wire act traveled like wildfire through the valley. You had to get there early to attend his 1968-69 freshman games, in the days before freshmen were eligible for NCAA varsity basketball. Even though dunking was then forbidden in the college game, Erving’s preliminary 6 p.m. freshman games were sold out, standing-room only once word got around. No lie, the lines for game-day ticket sales and free student admission started forming at 4:30. I saw it with my own eyes, and got there early with my dad.

But let us not digress. Back to that memorable 1969 Celtics-Sixers showdown.

Though I wasn’t privy to the household “negotiations” leading to Henry Boron’s decision to brave the looming storm, I’m sure his son’s pleading was the deciding factor. A gambler at heart, Henry must have figured he’d roll the dice and live with the outcome. Forecasters predicted a midday start for the storm. He may have hoped we could get there and back before all hell broke loose.

Well, that didn’t happen.

Honestly, I have no recollection of the ride to Boston, and can’t even recall who else was with us, if anyone. Though I believe someone else was there, both Borons are dead and so could be the other passenger for all I know. I asked around and could not come up with a fourth or fifth party.

What I know for sure is that I was there, and we witnessed a classic Celtics win before surviving a harrowing journey home through a blizzard in one piece. Treacherous Route 2 was clogged with stranded vehicles in the breakdown lane and jack-knifed tractor-trailers flipped on their sides in the median strip. Henry would plow past the stranded vehicles, snow flying over the roof of his Chevy three-seater station wagon, tooting the horn with taunting laughter to unfortunate marooned motorists.

“If you let your foot of the gas in conditions like this, Boys, you’re all done,” he’d say, appearing to enjoy the challenge.

As it turned out, we were in good hands. By the grace of God and Henry’s driving skills, we miraculously made it all the way home, likely a rare feat that day for folks in our predicament. Few would have attempted the 200-mile round trip to begin with.

After we got home, schools were canceled for two days while Franklin County dug itself out from a storm that, according to the February 10, 1969 Greenfield Recorder, dropped up to 22 inches in some places. Even the mail was halted when trucks could not get to western Mass.

 

What got me thinking back to the memorable storm and Celtics win 52 long years ago was former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s record seventh Super Bowl win on February 7. Accomplished at the unprecedented age of 43 over the favored, defending-champion Kansas City Chiefs in his first year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Brady’s latest Super Bowl title secured his status as the greatest quarterback, maybe even the greatest football player, of all time, not to mention one of the classic winners in any of North America’s four major professional sports.

I have no qualms with any of that, and have in recent years been in Brady’s corner regarding the debate over who was more important to the Patriots dynasty, Belichick or Brady. But when Boston talk-jocks Felger & Mazz anoint him as our No. 1 all-time, all-sport winner, it is clear to me that they’re wet behind the ears and never saw Russell play. He isn’t even Boston’s greatest winner.

Although I am not questioning Brady’s greatness, for my money, Russell is our greatest winner. The numbers speak for themselves. No one can match his career’s 11 titles in 13 years. The man didn’t have enough fingers for his championship rings.

During the years of Celtics glory with Russell, the 6-foot-10 center lost only two career best-of-seven playoff series. The first was a 4-2 1957-‘58 finals loss to the St. Louis Hawks in which he barely played due to a foot injury. The second was a legitimate 4-1 defeat to Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1966-‘67 Eastern Conference finals.

Russell responded to that first loss with eight straight NBA titles, then avenged the loss to Wilt’s Sixers with two consecutive championships before retirement. The proud Celtics warrior must have been insulted when experts had the audacity to crown the 1966-‘67 Sixers as the greatest NBA team of all time after halting the Celtics’ unparalleled streak of eight straight titles.

To display their indignant mettle, Russell’s Celtics dethroned those Sixers the following year by climbing out of a 3-1 hole to beat Philly in their best-of-seven 1967-‘68 Eastern Conference finals before beating the Los Angeles Lakers in six games for the title.

Then, after a lackluster fourth-place Eastern Conference finish in 1968-‘69, 35-year-old player/coach Russell took down the powerful Knicks and Sixers before outlasting the favored Lakers and new wunderkind Wilt Chamberlain with a Game 7 road win in Russell’s final NBA game.

Russell is American sports’ greatest winner, better than Brady, better than Maurice “Rocket” Richard – whose 11 Montreal Canadiens’ championships matched Russell’s total with the benefit of five additional years – and better than any New York Yankee. Brady has won seven Super Bowls in 20 seasons or, to be fair, seven wins and 10 appearances in 18 full seasons.

The remarkably durable Brady did not play as a rookie, and lost another season to a serious knee injury sustained in the season opener. Other than that, he answered the bell.

I feel fortunate to have witnessed Brady and Russell, and bristle at the uninformed opinion that Russell’s accomplishments are irrelevant because they occurred so long ago. Felger would have you believe Russell went back to the days of the two-hand set shot. It’s not true. In my opinion, Russell would have been dominant in today’s game, as would Hall of Fame teammates John Havlicek and Sam Jones, and opponents like Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Hal Greer, Willis Reed and Walt “Clyde” Frazier.

Remember, in Russell’s day there were far fewer teams and also fewer “cupcakes” on an 82 schedule. Plus, because teams played each other so often, the rivalries were more intense than today.

I got to see Russell’s greatness up close and personal that day of the 1969 storm. Having injured a knee against the New York Knicks a week earlier, he was questionable for the game. So, we were relieved upon learning by inside information that he was expected to play.

Our source was none other than Auerbach himself. How? Well, Henry Boron had tickets waiting for him in Auerbach’s desk, and his office was our first stop once inside rickety, smelly, old Boston Garden. Henry walked right into the office like he owned the place and left us seated in a narrow waiting room facing two or three pretty, long-haired teenage girls as he boldly rapped on Auerbach’s door.

“Come in,” we heard muffled from behind the closed door, and in went Henry, disrupting a meeting between Auerbach and then NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy, whose daughters were seated across from us in the lobby. Henry soon emerged with a fistful of tickets for midcourt, courtside seats right behind the ABC announcers, compliments of the Celtics.

How could a teenage boy forget a day like that? It was surreal.

Anyway, the game itself turned out to be an overtime thriller, won by the Celtics, 122-117. Down 110-108 with three seconds remaining, the Celtics called timeout to set up a last-second play attempting to tie it. Remember, there were no 3-pointers then.

Coming out of the break, Havlicek was stationed near the ABC broadcasters for the inbounds pass, which he lofted high toward Russell, jockeying for position in the paint with Sixers center Darrall Imhoff. Russell, who had already blocked two shots in the final minute, timed his jump perfectly, gracefully soaring over Imhoff for a two-hand slam to tie it 110-110 at the buzzer, sending the game into overtime.

It was classic Russell – 35 years old in his final season, no less. Favoring the sore knee, he came off the bench with his team trailing by 10 in the first quarter to lead the comeback win. He finished with nine points, three assists, and 23 rebounds, not to mention the late-game heroics, all on a tender knee.

The online box score shows Sixers’ small forward Billy Cunningham (later Erving’s Sixers coach) leading all scorers with 37 points and the Sixers with 19 rebounds. Chet Walker added 26 points, Hal Greer 16.

Boston was led by tireless Havlicek’s 31 points to go with 12 rebounds and seven assists. Sam Jones and Don Nelson added 24 and 21 points, respectively.

As was the norm in Russell’s day, the Garden was about half full, with an announced paid attendance of 6,095. Who knows if our party was included? Maybe so.

Upon exiting the building for our car, the blizzard was roaring, the parking lot and vehicles buried under several inches of snow. First, we had to clean off the car and get out of Boston. Then we had to make it all the way home to South Deerfield. There were no guarantees, but we made it.

Three months later, on May 5, the Celtics and aging Russell bounced back from a 3-2 best-of-seven deficit to beat the host Lakers, 108-106, in Game 7 at LA’s Fabulous Forum. It was the game of Don Nelson’s famous 15-foot jump shot that bounced around the rim and took forever to drop through the net; better still, the game when overconfident Laker owner Jack Kent Cooke, buoyed by his new 7-foot-1 toy named Wilt, was unable to release thousands of celebratory balloons suspended high in the rafters for a postgame party.

Colored blue and gold with the words “World Champion Lakers” printed in bold, black letters, the balloons clung in nets to the ceiling as the jubilant Celtics celebrated their second straight title, both over LA, and their eleventh in 13 years. It was a fitting tribute to North America’s greatest all-time sports winner – William Felton Russell – whose feats may be forgotten but will likely never be duplicated.

Russell didn’t come to play. He came to win, and the man won like no other, including Brady, great in his own right but no Russell, no matter what blabbering talk-jocks Felgie & Mazz would have you believe. They’ve only seen the goateed No. 6 on YouTube and have no clue what they missed.

Such a dismissive attitude toward Russell’s greatness is understandable. He never got a fair shake in Boston.

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