Whately Squire Goes To Happy Hunting Ground

There’s a glaring void in Whately’s North Street/Whately Glen neighborhood. His name is Lyndon “Sonny” Scott, a humble Whately dairy farmer and proud descendant of the town’s founding families. He died at 88 a couple of months ago, removing yet another valuable historical source who knew the land surrounding his expansive farm like no other. He’s now part of that land.

I already miss Scott’s quiet presence out in his yard, across the street at one of his barns or walking the roads on his smiling daily rounds; and I miss his soft voice, his local wisdom, and his warm blue Yankee eyes that reminded a lot me of my father’s. There is good reason for that resemblance. Both men were products of the same Whately gene pool, which has mixed and matched and blended since Rev. Thomas Hooker’s Newtown congregation of English Puritans founded Connecticut Colony in the 1630s and a faction split off in 1659 to migrate north and settle Hadley and Hatfield.

I remember Scott’s mother, bank-secretary May, sitting at the Frontier Pharmacy restaurant counter daily when I was a kid touring the streets of South Deerfield in the Sixties. I also attended the same high school as his three children, and often stopped to chat as an adult when passing through his neighborhood, especially during pheasant hunting. The Scott farm’s acreage once extended roughly from the Deerfield line passing through the Great Swamp all the way to Roaring Brook Road in Conway, with vast forest property on both sides of the South Deerfield reservoirs.

No one knew the ridges, swamps, rocks, and rills in Whately’s northwest corner better than Lyndon Scott. An expert deer hunter and woodsman who moved through the forest like a cat, he had toured his woodlands and marshes since boyhood. He knew all the stonewalls, property lines, and corners of his land, not to mention the discontinued roads, cellar holes, and stone-clad wells hidden under forest canopy.

Following a sudden health event brought on by advancing age, one that doctors apparently never totally understood, he had lost his eyesight overnight a few years ago. Nonetheless, his blindness never diminished his spirit or stopped him from touring the roads and trails, still with a hop in his step. He said that although doctors classified him as blind, he could detect some light, shapes, and movement, just enough to stubbornly continue putting one foot in front of the other on home turf he had trekked since childhood.

When our paths crossed, we most often chatted out along Whately Road by the old Hillside Dairy and White Birch Campgrounds or along the dirt Glen Road to Conway. With his vacant eyes seemingly look right past me, he would first politely and sheepishly ask to whom he was speaking. That was sad. He was not. The humble man remained upbeat, seemed to accept his blindness with aplomb and without regrets or complaints. After all, he had much to be thankful for, and lots to contribute as a sage elder who dated back to the final days of horse-drawn farming. His humble manner, dignity, and humility bespoke his rural Yankee pedigree.

I vividly recall our last conversation about a year ago near the end of pheasant season. Finished hunting the wetlands bordering his meadow across the road, I spotted him in front of his garage and pulled in to chat. When our rambling conversation turned to the deer I had jumped that day – and many other times over the years – in the field hidden by a tree line forming the northern perimeter of his old pasture, now a hayfield, he warmly smiled.

Yes, he said, deer often bed in that field after feeding on acorns along the north-south oak ridge behind it. At night, they’d rise to feed in the hayfield under the cover of darkness, munching the same nutritious clover and rye on which his dairy herd once feasted. Over the years, he said, many hunters had bagged nice bucks on that hardwood ridge extending back into and overlooking the foreboding Great Swamp.

Scott was curious if I had ever explored that ridge. If so, had I ever found the remains of the old building there? My answer was no. I had never followed the ridge back into the woods.

“Well,” he said, “someday when we have more time, I’ll show it to you. Maybe you’d have some ideas about it. I know it wasn’t a house. My guess is maybe some sort of a small lumber operation.”

Obviously, now that field trip will never happen. Sad but true. Nonetheless, he planted a seed for potential future inquiry, one that has already germinated. Which brings us to the present time, and a curiosity pulling back to the site. Who knows? I may soon poke around up there if I decide to hunt that back field bordering Mill River and the swamp.

What recently re-ignited my interest in the site was a project I helped friend Peter Thomas complete. I assisted him in photographing the old, handwritten Hatfield town, church, and proprietors’ records dating back to 1660. From the photos, Thomas created sharpened digital files that can be enlarged and more easily read on a computer screen. My job was to limit distortion by holding the pages flat, the tip of my index finger memorializing my presence in many frames.

Of course, I couldn’t resist skimming the pages for interesting tidbits and names of ancestors. Thus, before our second visit to Hatfield Town Hall, I decided it best to bring along a notebook in which I could record points of interest for future reference. I pulled a used, six- by nine-inch steno pad from a tidy pile stacked at eye level on an upper shelf in the narrow supplies closet alongside my study’s fireplace. Although I noticed that it contained five or 10 pages of notes, I was in a rush and did not investigate the topic.

Then, trying to minimize the hours in Hatfield, I never once opened the pad to enter notes. That, I decided, would have to wait until I had them available on my hard drive.

Later that night, curious about the notebook within reach of where I was seated, I opened it to see if the notes should be discarded. A quick look told me no, definitely not.

The pad contained notes I had taken 10 years ago during a spin through my fifth great-grandfather, Deacon Thomas Sanderson’s, 18th-century tannery and shoemaking account book (1769-1797) housed at Old Deerfield’s Memorial Libraries.

What a stroke of good fortune. To be perfectly honest, I had forgotten those notes existed. You know how that goes. Yet they couldn’t have appeared in a timelier fashion. A treasure trove of local history focused on the old Hatfield/Whately neighborhood called Canterbury, the peripheral information among many debits and credits enhanced some of the Hatfield records most interesting to me personally.

A simple coincidence? Not in my mind. Such discoveries occur for a reason. This one motivated me back to Old Deerfield, where I re-examined my ancestor’s account book. In the 2010 notes, I had fortunately recorded an alphabetical list of the family tannery/shoe-shop patrons, as well as notes of interest here and there regarding specific transactions. Among those patrons were many names with which I was more familiar today than I was 10 years ago, having studied early church and town records for South Deerfield, Sunderland and Whately.

Something I found most interesting, and prominently noted from my first notes about the Sanderson account book, was the prevalence of barter economy between the merchant and community. With little specie available during the Revolutionary War era, debts were paid with labor – such as hoeing corn, cutting firewood, roofing and construction of buildings – and commodities, such as “cyder,” maple syrup, furniture, lumber, chestnut shingles, and animal pelts.

I was not surprised to find on my recent review of the account book quite a few debts settled with loads of hemlock boards and tree bark, but I was surprised that Deacon Sanderson went so far as to note that they were coming specifically from the Great Swamp, just two miles as the crow flies from his Canterbury farm.

The inner bark of hemlocks and white oaks, including chestnut oaks, contain tannins used in the curing and preservation of leather for shoes, clothing, belts, wallets, and bridal-leather associated with saddles and equestrian straps and reins. In Old English the word tannin meant leather maker. So, obviously bark would have been an important commodity to a tannery, and thus would have been taken in trade by 18th– and 19th-century tanners, saddlers and cordwainers like those at the Sanderson tannery and shoe shop. The Great Swamp is still populated by hemlocks and white oaks, both of which do well in wet habitats and would have been prevalent in colonial times as well.

Imagine that. Could the ruins brought to my attention by the late Lyndon Scott have been associated with a Great Swamp lumber mill that once supplied the Sanderson tannery with bark and lumber in payment for leather goods?

As late North Hadley farmer and friend Fred Kucharski – dubbed “Freddie Bender” – used to say, “You betcha believe it.”

I sure do wish Scott was still in the neighborhood. I’d love to run this fresh discovery by him.

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