The Legend Grows

The tulip magnolia is back, and so is that “solitary Indian” camped at the edge of town.

First, the magnolia, though, which literally weathered the storm and is now in full bloom, just around the corner from the umbrella table and chairs we put out front for a change, hidden between the main block and budding mock-orange bushes bordering a terrace of large, flat, fitted, porch-floor stones lugged some 200 years ago by a team of Charlemont oxen. Ah, spring, Life is good.

That beautiful old magnolia is inspiring. Gracing the gabled east side of my home facing Green River Road, that tree really set my wheels spinning this morning. Looking out at it, thinking, I realized the lessons even plants can teach if you listen. Radically “pruned” by Mother Nature during that weird late-October 2011 storm which leveled so many of its kind, I really wasn’t sure how that proud ornamental tree, bruised and battered by wet, heavy snow, would fare. But I thought it would be OK and soothed my wife’s worse fears with a sanguine prognosis. I assured her, though uncertain myself, that magnolias are resilient, it would soon to be back in its full spring splendor.

Then more weirdness paid a visit last spring. There it was, late February, the sapping season under way early, and judging from the temperatures, you would’ve thought it was Memorial Day. Like a narcissistic seductress, the thermometer deceived even the trees into early blossoms. Then frosts did a number on many local fruit orchards. My magnolia wasn’t spared, its partially opened flowers quickly stunned, frozen and rotting to a putrid, sewage-treatment brown before falling prematurely to the ground.

Hmmm? Two disasters in four months? Too much to endure? Unlikely.

I can now report that the magnolia’s just fine, thank you, will in a year or two be bigger, broader, stronger and more beautifully proportioned than ever. It just needs to fill in a bit, another reminder that nature has a way of overcoming hardship, sprouting improvement from devastation, a lesson that can at times be compared even to interpersonal relationships. Once the broken branches and rotten flowers are swept up, carted off and disposed of, fresh air can circulate through the healing limbs, and when the cold, blustery north winds blow, they scatter any remaining ill will asunder to fall upon new victims. The strong survive, the weak perish. And here I sit, my sunny magnolia beaming at approaching travelers; a survivor, no fear, its lusty pink flowers alluring indeed, attracting who knows, or cares, what.

But enough of whatever Far Eastern or Native American “ism” it is that’s infiltrated my space, transported by a gentle breeze flowing through the south window, stirring me into introspective diversion on this stimulating morning in the most optimistic of seasons. Time to revisit the enduring topic of Greenfield’s last Indian, said to have lived centuries ago in a wigwam by Bull Head Pond, the location of which I believe I now know. I am no longer stuck on that old dried-up pond along the western edge of the Lower Meadows, the one pinpointed by esteemed Greenfield historian Mary P. Wells Smith. No, I think my suspicions were wrong. I believe Bull Head Pond was indeed that shallow, muddy body of water that sat between the Green River’s west bank and the intersection of Woodard Road and Colrain Street, roughly at the site of today’s Davenport Trucking.

Yes, I could be wrong. Remember, I’m not a Greenfield guy, even though I was born here and did spend my first year in that stuffy, little, upstairs, Elm Street apartment not far from the Bull Head itself. Yeah, that’s right, not far from old Bull Head. Hey, my young mother — a Wauwatosa, Wis., transplant who graduated from Greenfield High before going away to college — may have even wheeled me right past that shallow mud hole on pleasant spring days that spiked fever. It wouldn’t surprise me. If so, I suppose that pond’s imprinted in my consciousness, clinging like a brown bat to the upper right corner of a dark closet in my soul. Maybe that’s what pulled me into this search. That and a basic curiosity that has fueled this bumpy auto-didactic journey called life, one spiced by harmless little mischiefs and narrow escapes along fanciful footpaths carved into the landscape before my Puritan ancestors staked their claims and obliterated indigenous cultures.

Truthfully, I probably should have known enough to avoid this Bull Head Pond adventure. Although it’s true I live in Greenfield and have for 16 years studied my home and its historic neighborhood just up the road from the site of that lost pond, I know I’ll never be from Greenfield. No, I’m anchored in another place not far away, that being the village of South Deerfield by way of Whately and Groton and Boston and Watertown and Hampton, N.H., where my Sanderson progenitor, Boston silversmith Robert of Pine Tree Shilling fame, was an original proprietor. Also listed among the founders on the Watertown Monument, old Bobby boy moved to Boston and became as “proper” a Bostonian as proper could be by appointment to constable, then deacon of the First Church. Then, lo, late in life he took as his third and final wife an educated Quaker lady named Elizabeth Kingsmill, who’s buried next to him in Boston’s Granary Cemetery. That curious Puritan/Quaker marriage is aching for further research and investigation. I find it quite intriguing, maybe even blasphemous to some in his circle, though to me a showy peacock feather in his felt tri-corn. Trust me, I’ll track it down in retirement. It won’t take long. Not once I put my mind to it, find the info in some dark, dusty repository and scour the records. That’s the kind of hunting I prefer these days, gathering another form of sustenance called brain food, harvested by innate curiosity and perseverance.

But back to the Bull Head, with special thanks to three new sources, beginning with old South Deerfield pal  Dick Weso, who gave me a ring Friday to clear the air and identify mysterious email source Wrwando as his brother-in-law and childhood friend. Then, after input from Weso, who, like his brother-in-law knew the pond as a Greenfield boy, another source dropped in like a streaking comet from the clear, starlit sky. Checking my email one last time on a pre-midnight whim Saturday, sitting there waiting was a surprise from a Bernardston lady identified only as Leslie in my inbox. Further investigation provided a surname — likely that of her husband but, then again, not necessarily — which could place her ancestors with mine at old Fort No. 4 in Charlestown, N.H., of French & Indian War fame. Next morning, with the impetus of Leslie and Weso’s fresh leads driving me, I pulled out my historic-Greenfield-maps CD and came away disappointed. None of them showed the pond I was looking for. Undaunted, I jumped in the truck to take a spin and study the terrain to get my bearings in vaguely familiar territory. Then, on Tuesday evening, when a first-ever ride down Power Square on the way to work revealed the existence of a previously unknown pond in my world, I reached out to Greenfield native Peter Conway, whose father, Joe, rented a River Street apartment across the river from his home to my late grandmother. I was confident Pete would know about that pond I found and the extended meadows where it sat, which he did.

But hold that thought as we double back briefly to Ms. Leslie’s email. Spurred by my public search for the home of Greenfield’s supposed last Indian, the Bernardston lady had embarked on an Internet search of her own and, sure enough, found a written record that piqued her interest and pulled everything into focus for me. What she discovered was a revealing mention of Bull Head Pond and its “solitary Indian” in David Willard’s “History of Greenfield,” an early source (1838) I happen to own, have read but did not revisit during my recent research.

Duh?

Truthfully, I didn’t go to Willard because I knew the book wasn’t indexed. And even if I had skimmed through the “Contents” pages up front, I would have found no hint of Bull Head Pond or its last Indian. But they are there, both mentioned in Willard’s profile of 18th century Greenfield lawyer William Coleman and the stately downtown mansion-house he built circa 1796. That home, which came to be known as the Hollister House (now McCarthy’s Funeral Home), overlooks Bank Row in the front and, from the rear, looks out west over narrow Green River meadows far below, following River Street. Willard, whose family lived in the neighborhood, knew the view well and described it like this:

“The very fertile and beautiful meadows west of these buildings was, within memory, covered with many lofty walnuts, sprinkled over the soil like an orchard, excepting the western part, which was covered with alders, among which and near the margin of Bull Head Pond, where is a fine spring of water, once stood the hut or wigwam of a solitary Indian.”

That description by Greenfield’s earliest historian told me that Bull Head Pond could not be the one 90-year-old Mary P. Wells Smith had identified for author friend Lucy Cutler Kellogg, who located it in the western part of the Meadows in her “History of Greenfield, 1900-1929.” The pond she was referring to stands adjacent to Greenfield Community College at the base of Greenfield Mountain and is too far away for inclusion in any description of William Coleman’s home lot. So the home of Greenfield’s last Indian had to be the one closer to town, yes, the same one senior-citizen Greenfield natives like my buddy Weso remember as Bull Head Pond. “We called the pond east of Woodard Road Bull Head and the one on the other side of the road Cow Head,” recalled Weso, who patrolled that part of Greenfield often before  moving to South Deerfield in 1970. “Old man Jackson, who had a house on the other side of the river on Colrain Street, always had a shiner bucket in that little spring that runs through there.”

Weso became the fourth credible Greenfield source to identify Bull Head Pond as the one that sat at the intersection of Colrain Street and Woodard Road before Davenport Trucking filled it in. Conway became my fifth source during an informative Tuesday night telephone chat at work. He said he himself never called it Bull Head Pond, but rather Pickerel Pond because that’s what he caught there. “You know how it is with kids and ponds like that,” he quipped. “We all have our own names for little ponds we fish. I called that one Pickerel Pond, but that’s just me. I have no doubt that’s the Bull Head Pond you’re looking for.”

Conway grew up on a 16-acre downtown-Greenfield farm few people probably even realize exists. The house and its outbuildings are tucked on the other side of the railroad trestle at the base of Main Street, across the river from Dunkin Donuts, and his brushy, fertile, riverside meadow lying between the river and Main Street’s high plateau is the one Willard speaks of when looking west from Coleman’s. Today there are two manmade ponds, Horseshoe and The Donut, in that secluded sanctuary on the edge of downtown, but Conway says both of them were 20th century creations, ruling them out as potential early Bull Head ponds.

At this point, following years of destructive excavation and filling that’s significantly altered the Woodard Road landscape, it’s difficult indeed to reconstruct old Bull Head Pond of last-Indian fame. My guess is that the Bull Head and Cow Head were, before the construction of Woodard Road, one pond stretching from near the Green River bank well out into Interstate 91. All that’s left now is a stagnant little finger of a cattail pond squeezed between a big white farmhouse with and an unattached red barn and the ramp leading to the bridge over Route 91 to Colrain Road and GCC. Well, that and the ghost of Greenfield’s last Indian, that defiant Pocumtuck tribesman who clung to a place called home and refused to leave when friends and family were felling in mass exodus.

Like my side-yard magnolia, that lonely Indian who lurked on the edge of town survives, and his legend grows.

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