Sugarloaf Witch-Tale Origin?

It’s noontime. I’ve walked the dogs, lugged in wood from the woodshed, showered, poured my last cup of coffee, and am reading on a comfortable leather recliner in the sunny south parlor. Retirement’s great. Work no longer looming.

The wireless phone rings. Cradled on a small dropleaf table between my chair and its twin, I pick up the receiver to read the caller-ID panel. A local cell phone I don’t recognize. I answer anyway, chancing an unwanted pitch from a telephone solicitor, or worse still, an annoying robocall. Don’t you hate those recorded sales pitches? This was not that. A welcome surprise. Paul Grzybowski, a trusted source I met several years ago at Turners Falls’ Discovery Center.

“Hey, Paul. What’s goin’ on?”

“Well, I have something for you. I know you share my interest in the tale of the Sugarloaf witch myth, and I’ve have found something of that’ll be of interest to you.”

“Wow! Great timing. Surreal, in fact. Our brain waves must have connected. Not an hour ago I sent in a Sugarloaf column to the Montague Reporter. Not about the witch. The caves. But it sure seems like more than a coincidence that you’d call now. Why do these things happen?”

He laughs like he’s been there and says, “Yeah, I hear you. But, honestly, I didn’t even know you wrote a Reporter column, just that we shared an interest in that Sugarloaf witch. So, I wanted to touch base.”

The Sugarloaf myth my friend was referring to dates back to colonial days, originating during the mid-18th century. At that time, Sugarloaf Brook crossing the mountain’s southern skirt served as the border between Hatfield and Deerfield, traveling a quarter-mile east before turning south toward its Connecticut River confluence at what’s now Herlihy Park off River Road. The Sugarloaf base then spills gently out into a fertile plain once known as the Canterbury section of Hatfield and then, after its 1771 incorporation, Whately. So, there you have it: our own little Canterbury tale.

Unsettled during the first 75 years of the contact period due to Indian dangers, the first settler to set his stake at the foot of Sugarloaf was Abraham Parker, a Groton man who arrived in 1749, having likely spent some family time at the Fort at No. 4 in Charlestown, NH. His father, Capt. Isaac Parker of Groton, was then continuing a proud family military tradition by serving at the Connecticut Valley’s northernmost colonial frontier outpost. Abraham broke ground for his home that evolved into a big farm and gristmill over the years and still stands as the large yellow house sitting upon the fork in the road.

A few years after Parker’s arrival, brother-in-law (my sixth great-grandfather) Joseph Sanderson joined him, moving from Groton wife Ruth Parker and eight young children. Thus, the riverside village of Canterbury was born, and there the Sugarloaf witch tale was spun and respun in front of crackling fires and out in the fields, Sugarloaf always towering above. Witch tales were big in Calvinist lore, the devout Protestants always wary of the devil’s influence, especially in the howling wilderness of Indian country.

The tale, which to my knowledge was never recorded for posterity, involves a male witch who leaps from Sugarloaf’s tip to the fertile southern plain below. There he alights on a giant oak in what likely later became Sanderson’s yard, hops down and disappears into the ground below, never again to be seen or heard from. He did leave a couple of calling cards, though: 1, the large, muscular, disfigured oak limb on which he landed and, 2, the obvious ground depression into which he vanished.

The depression came to be dreaded by schoolkids passing it daily in their coming and goings from a one-room East Whately schoolhouse built in 1827 that no longer stands. Young, screeching schoolkids – including many from my own family – scooted past it in feigned fear whenever they passed it.

I first heard the tale from my spinster great-aunt Gladys Sanderson, the unofficial family historian we called “Antie,” who was known to me from the beginning of my South Deerfield upbringing. She had learned it from her “Ant Mattie” (Martha Almira Sanderson Field), who was born in 1876 in East Whately, attended the old school and passed the local folklore down to her niece. I remember Aunt Mattie as a 100-something-year-old widow living on her Field Farm in Bradstreet. There, in the late 1970s, she was still taking care of herself and held Hatfield’s gold cane as the town’s oldest resident. She’s buried in the Bradstreet Cemetery with her husband and stepson, Bob Field, less than five miles south of the old East Whately schoolhouse, which stood along the northern perimeter of her family home.

The witch’s depression was between the school and her home. That home was built by my fourth-great-grandfather John Chapman Sanderson in the mid-19th century on family land just north of the original family homestead. Neither house was standing when the witch supposedly touched down. The original homestead was built about 1760 and burned to the ground on July 3, 1882, when Aunt Mattie was 6. Most likely the tale originated during my ancestors’ first eight or so years at the base of Sugarloaf, when the family lived in a temporary shelter close to the Parker farm for protection from Indian attack.

The new information Grzybowski was eager to share was gleaned from the type of Internet research most of us have tinkered with during rainy days or idle moments. Googling keyword combinations that included “Sugarloaf” and “witch,” he stumbled upon the medieval English Legends of John O’Kent, a fictional wizard also known as Jack o’ Kent or Jacky Kent from the days of Robin Hood and Friar Tuck. This character from the Welsh/English border was associated with a famous stone castle and known for outwitting the devil. Because he first appears in print in 1590, he would have definitely been familiar to Pilgrims and Puritans settling New England in the 1630s. In one of many tales, Jacky Kent is a giant, and he leaps from the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain in Wales. He lands in the Skirrid, where to this day his heel marks remain as a reminder. Sugar Loaf is the southernmost peak of Wales’ Black Mountains range.

So, take it to the bank. Grzybowski is on the right track. The Jack o’ Kent legend must be the source of our Sugarloaf witch tale. It wasn’t a reworked Indian tale of a bear or panther leaping from Sugarloaf, but rather an English tale that crossed the Atlantic with New England’s first European settlers. Our tale was probably crafted by my Parker and Sanderson relatives, the first two families to settle the Canterbury section of Hatfield, now River Road, Whately. Who knows when it stopped being told? It was probably already on its way out by the dawning of the 20th century.

It never hurts to dust off and bring back into the light such tidbits of old valley folklore. Thanks to Paul Grzybowski for the noontime call. I’m glad I answered it. If you want more, take a Google adventure. And if you want to go even deeper, explore the Demon Wittum. That Mount Toby myth just may be from the same bolt of cloth.

Then again, maybe not.

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