North Parish Memories Fading Fast

Memories fade over time, and a half-century is a long of time in the local-history realm.

Thus, I suppose it should come as no surprise that recollections of Greenfield’s old Nash’s Mills neighborhood at the beginning of Leyden Road are quickly sliding into oblivion. The church, the dam, the pond and other buildings did, after all, vanish more than 55 years ago to make room for Interstate 91.

What it boils down to is that even people now in their mid-60s were really too young then to provide the intricate details and insight required to paint a complete picture. Yes, there are many who remember the stately, brick, North Parish Church and its popular Parish Hall demolished in 1963 for the highway, while others fondly recall fishing Nash’s Mills Pond with a bobber and worm or Daredevil lure, or skating there in the cold of winter. Then there are those who mention the concrete-and-stone stairs said to be built during the Depression by Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) crews. The stairs followed the south side of the Mill Brook falls from the top of Nashs Mills Road to the bridge over Green River. But inquire about the bedrock waterfall’s color or the blasting required to remove it, or ask how much of the landform was removed to hollow out the highway corridor today spanned by an overpass, and there seems to be only spotty recollection.

“You must remember that the construction site was out of the way, where you didn’t notice it in passing,” recalled Richard Shortell, 72, who grew up in the upper Greenfield Meadows, attended North Parish Church with his parents and was in high school during the 1963-64 highway project.

When asked if the bedrock was the red sandstone with which we’re all familiar in this part of the Connecticut Valley, not one of many neighborhood witnesses queried responded with an authoritative, knee-jerk, “Yes.” Instead the question was greeted with a silent, bemused pause, followed by an uncertain, “Yes, I think so.” Certainly not a definitive response. Nonetheless, likely on the mark.

An exception was 93-year-old Greenfield native Anna Butynski, and even she hesitated. Caught off-guard, the Greenfield Meadows farmer took a while to stir her memory and provide a credible response. Although she couldn’t recall the color of the cascading bedrock waterfall below the dam, she did remember it as “beautiful” and did recall red outcropping of ledge in the neighborhood above, on both sides of the Leyden Road bridge crossing the narrow ravine just above the dam and falls.

“There was red rock all around there,” she said. “I used to lace my skates sitting on red rock along the shore behind the Parish Hall. I’m pretty sure there was red rock that had to be removed at the house across the bridge, too. That was Wayside Farm with a dairy barn when I was young. I remember them delivering milk with a white horse and wagon.”

Butynski grew up on the downtown half of Conway Street and remembers being able to see North Parish Church all the way from Main Street, the steeple taller than the neighborhood trees. As an adult married to Michael Butynski, she and her husband started Colrain Road’s Butynski Farm, which she still owns with extended family and raises vegetables. The state took four acres by eminent domain from the farm’s northeast corner bordered by the Green River during Interstate 91 construction. Although she does remember an extended construction process that included mention of blasting, she didn’t remember hearing explosions or paying much attention to the construction. Though nearby on her abutting acreage, like Shortell, she said it was largely out of sight, out of mind.

Like most people questioned, Butynski had only vague recollections of the natural, cascading stone falls below the dam. Maybe she never focused on them. Perhaps parents in the neighborhood deemed them off-limits to children due to potential danger. Then again, who, other than a fisherman or maybe a landscape artist or naturalist, would have a reason to study the falls, know them intimately and remember their twists, turns and bubbling pools?

Enter Joe Graveline, who’ll turn 70 in December and grew up in the neighborhood. He fished Mill Brook for trout above and below the pond it fed, and he also fished the pond itself for pickerel and bullheads on lazy summer days. “They used to stock trout in the pond, too,” said Graveline, a young teen at the time of Interstate-91 construction through the site. So, yes, he remembers the removal of the pond and falls and the destruction of a village square, where some buildings were moved, others destroyed.

Graveline met me late one afternoon at the base of the falls he remembers, now replaced by two arched concrete tunnels exiting under the north side of Nash’s Mills Road onto what looks like a walled, 45-degree concrete spillway and horizontal tailrace flowing into the stream bed. The spillway appears to be about 40 feet long, the tailrace a bit shorter. “This was the bottom half of the falls,” Graveline said. “There were actually two steps of falls, with a pool and a settling pond at the base of each. I fished the one in the middle and the one at to bottom.”

Although uncertain of the process, Graveline surmised that the construction crews reduced the bedrock by blasting before capping it with the concrete ramps fed by concrete tunnels channeling the brook under I-91. The destruction of a special, picturesque spot had a devastating impact on Graveline and other neighborhood teenagers, not to mention the many fishermen who had frequented it for years.

Graveline was also the source who said he believed the stairs leading from top to bottom of the falls had been the work of the CCC. It makes sense. A 1936 Greenfield newspaper photo shows a new concrete dam that had been finished that summer, which would have fallen during the days of CCC projects. Plus, there was a CCC camp stationed a mile or two north of Nash’s Mills, near where Plain Road converges with Green River Road today. Also, the last factory at the site had been razed in 1931, leaving a peaceful and scenic waterfall.

Graveline didn’t recall the bedrock falls as red, but he did remember red bedrock above and below, citing an outcropping with initials carved into it along the bank of the Green River below Nash’s Mills Bridge. Corroborating evidence of red sandstone there is found in a May 23, 1903 Greenfield Gazette and Courier blurb announcing that: “The Red Rock bathing club had control of the swimming pool at Red Rock in the Green River near Nash’s Mill again this year.” Also, I myself can say with certainty that all the outcropping of ledge I pass in the river bed less than a mile upstream is the same red sandstone with which I grew familiar on the Pocumtuck Range as a boy.

Buttressing my argument in favor of red sandstone from top to bottom at Nash’s Mills is the is found in the “History of the First Church, Greenfield, Mass (1963).” North Parish Church was built in 1831 on land donated by parishioner Eber Nash, whose nearby brickyard also made the bricks for Northampton architect Isaac Damon’s crowning achievement. North Parish Church was the last church Damon built, leaning heavily upon design elements of Asher Benjamin. According to the book published the same year the church was demolished, “Our second House of Worship was built in 1831 on a plot containing sold rock” … a site that offered “a sure and appropriate foundation.”

It sure does sound like a continuation of the same red bedrock on which Anna Butynski laced her skates many years ago across the street from the brick church, on the shore of the pond behind the Parish Hall. That traprock spine runs all the way from the top of the escarpment where Leyden Road climbs out of flood plain near the Pumping Station and follows Leyden Road, Conway Street and Elm Street to the dog park currently located along Colrain Street.

Take a look sometime in your travels at the red bedrock ledge jutting out on the north side of Colrain Street. Then let your mind wander back to the days before Europeans started exploring a New World … and establishing a new thumbprint.

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