A Spring, A ‘Fridge, And A Rattlesnake Lair

I think of it as dry, buoyant flotsam, tiny pieces of bark or twigs, maybe dried leaves, slowly circulating around an eddy.

In such a scenario, the floating objects often make the same circle more than once before catching an alternative drift and disappearing downstream to a new eddy that momentarily traps them in a similar swirl, temporarily stalling downstream flow that will eventually, if lucky, find its way to the main artery, the ocean and beyond.

Anyone who’s fished free-flowing streams understands this dynamic and uses it to their advantage when trying to coax a strike from a quick, alert mountain trout, be it dead-drifting live bait or hand-tied artificials. A skilled angler capable of keeping the baited hook off the bottom while continually manipulating it around the same loop is more likely to be successful than an angler lacking sophisticated finesse.

Now, with that streamside imagery in view, let’s jump to the pursuit of historical research and the way people and places and salient issues keep coming back at you like that feathery flotsam circling an eddy and moving on to another, where it will repeat the process. And think of the often-interrupted downstream flow as the tedious journey to a conclusion, if ever you are fortunate enough to arrive at one.

The historical figure who reappeared this week in the continuous flow of information that seems to find its way to me is Deacon Phinehas Field — born 1799 in Northfield, died 1884 in Charlemont. I first bumped into the good deacon when I found him cited in Pressey’s History of Montague as the source of an Indian myth associated with Mt. Toby, then was reintroduced when 19th century Gill historian/landowner Rosewell Field appeared and I tried to genealogically connect the two. From the same bolt of Northfield cloth, it turned out they weren’t as closely related as I assumed.

A contemporary of Deerfield historian George Sheldon and a prolific profiler of local history deep and shallow, Deacon Field swung through my sphere with his “remembrances” recorded from East Charlemont on Aug. 2, 1871 in the earliest volumes of Pioneer Valley Memorial Association’s “History and Proceedings” now under the professional scrutiny of Dr. Peter A. Thomas of South Deerfield. Thomas emailed snippets this week, including an interesting short narrative titled “Rattlesnake’s Den, Northfield,” which he knew would spark my sense-of-place curiosity.

Accompanying Field’s “remembrances” was a friendly professorial challenge from Thomas: “Now I want to see how you slip the account of the rattlesnake den and Indian legend into your column.”

Let’s start with the reference, word for word, as it appears in the “Proceedings”:

On the Gulf Road, half-way up the mountain, is what is known as Cold Spring; on the brow of the steep hill east of this is what is called “Rattlesnake’s Den.” In the olden times, “Uncle Nezer” (my grand father’s brother) was wont to go in late autumn and early spring, on sunny days, to hunt the reptiles — while they were basking in the sun, before they “denned” for the winter, or before they dispersed for the summer. “Uncle Nezer” was a sort of “medicine man” and held the gall and oil of the rattlesnake in high estimation. The den is composed of a number of fissures in the rocks that blow cold in summer, and hot in winter. The current is so strong that a dried leaf is carried off by it, and so warm in winter that no snow can lie un-melted near these openings. My father, on a cold winter day, once while sled ding wood, resorted to this place to warm himself, but the atmosphere soon produced faintness.

Then, immediately following that tale, the indigenous folklore:

An evil spirit has his abode deep down in the ground in this place, and these fissures are his breathing holes. Long ago, he foamed and bellowed so, in his deep cavern, that he shook the whole mountain, and large rocks were thrown into the air. This monster has been quiet, so I am informed, since I first knew his dwelling-place.

With those little tidbits in mind, the chase was on. Some local historian, naturalist or hunter from Northfield had to know something about these interesting landmarks, especially the upland spring, likely a water source that’s still important to someone, be it a landowner, hiker or health nut committed to drinking pure water from Mother Earth’s womb.

Well, that speculation bore no fruit. Zero. Zilch. One potential source, a woman named Joanne McGee, was unavailable this week.

“They travel,” said a source who knows Joanne and husband Bill McGee, “and are probably out of town.”

Good news. There’s still hope we can dig up something from Ms. McGee when she becomes available for a thorough brain-picking.

“If you reach her and she wants to take you to the site, I’d like to go with you,” said Northfiield’s Sam Richardson, who had been suggested as a potential source but had never heard of the sparkling spring or vipers’ den.

Likewise, Joel Fowler — another recommended source, history buff and member of the Northfield Historical Commission — knew nothing of either site despite often touring the woods off Gulf Road. The same can be said of Ms. Jessie Wiggan, another devoted hiker, explorer, dog-walker and history buff who’s spent a lifetime in Northfield and has deep roots there, to boot. Nonetheless, despite no personal knowledge, she did offer a tinge of hope.

“I once hiked with Joanne McGee to the Ice Cave up there and she marked the site with her GPS and, I think, she took photos of it,” Wiggan reported. “I think she’s your best bet if you can get through to her.”

Given the apparent geological similarity between the Rattlesnake’s Den and the contemporary Ice Cave, simple deductive reasoning could lead a man to the knee-jerk conclusion that they are the same site. But wait. Not so quick, despite their similar characteristics and proximity. They do indeed both breathe warm air in the winter and cold air in the summer, thus Ice Cave’s early use as a natural refrigerator. According to the “History of the Town of Northfield” by J.H. Temple and Sheldon, both sites are adjacently located on Brush Mountain but are not the same: “Passing up the Gulf Road, one comes to Cold Spring, about 20 rods (some 320 feet) from which is a fissure in the rocks, perhaps 10 feet deep by 4 feet wide, extending into the mountain indefinitely, where ice and snow collect in winter, and are usually found in considerable quantities as late as the fourth of July. A little to the south, and higher up the mountain, is the den. This is a small opening to an internal cave where the reptiles resorted in great multitudes for their winter sleep.”

Later in the same Introduction narrative, Temple and Sheldon echo Field by identifying Brush Mountain as a place of high spirit to the Squakheag tribesmen who called Northfield home before colonial settlers arrived during the last quarter of the 17th century. Their collaborative narrative reads: “They believed that Hobamok, the (same) evil Spirit (associated with the Beaver Myth of Deerfield’s Pocumtuck Range beginning with Mt. Sugarloaf), dwelt inside the mountain, and that the fissures in the rock above Cold Spring, where the snakes dwelt, were the holes through which he sent forth his hot breath and melted the snow. … Partly from dread of the evil Spirit, and partly from the fear of rattlesnakes, the Indians shunned the Gulf, and the adjacent mountain sides.”

Meanwhile, another reliable source, old friend Tom White, a Northfield potter and hunter who’s familiar with the Gulf and beyond but does not know the spring, the ice cave or the rattler’s den, promised to make a few well-placed queries with folks in the know. So that’s another lead that could bear fruit as well.

“You know, that’s where they wanted to build the gas pipeline and compressor,” he said. “You ought to come up here soon and we’ll take a ride up there and look around. I have access to a spot that’s been cleared up there, where you get one of the most spectacular views in the region. On a clear day, you can see Mt. Wachusett, Mt. Monadnock and Mt. Ascutney.”

Could you also see the southern mountains named Sugarloaf, Toby, Warner, Tom and Holyoke? Well, he wasn’t certain but said, “Probably.”.

Stay tuned. Another interesting discovery mission has flowed this way and must be further explored.

Off I go.

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