South Deerfield Memories

Although I’ve been a Greenfield taxpayer for nearly a quarter-century, I will always consider South Deerfield as home. It’s where I learned to read and write, bike and skate, hunt and fish, explore swamps and ridges, pick nightcrawlers, build forts and play ball. It’s also where my kids grew up through elementary school, and where a good many of my ancestors lay buried. So, yes, I can go back home. Mentally, I’m there.

The impetus for my most-recent Deerfield research is the town’s looming 350th birthday. Scheduled for 2023, it has refocused my attention on the mercantile and industrial South Deerfield village and its surrounding neighborhoods known, east to west, as Pine Nook, Sugarloaf, Mill River, Sawmill Plain, Mill Village and Turnip Yard, all of them anchored around a railroad depot that arose in 1846, redefining South Deerfield as the mother town’s commercial hub.

No, I wasn’t there for the railroad’s arrival, which brought the big cities and seaports closer and accelerated incoming and outgoing trade. But I sure do remember the old railroad station; it stood off Elm Street on the way out of town. Traveling west, before the railroad crossing, the small building stood on the right, situated between the tracks and Railroad Street, across from the lumberyard. Whether from personal memory or what I have seen in photos, it’s hard to say, but I was there. The exterior image imprinted in memory displays a deep roof overhang facing the tracks, under it a bench or two for passengers. Inside, the image shows dusty floorboards, more benches, convenient trackside post-office boxes and a wooden counter framing an open service window with a rounded crown.

My mother used to walk us there on nice days to watch the bustling railroad activity, freights picking up and dropping off cargo cars at the fertilizer industries and passenger trains stopping for exchanges. She even took us on a train ride or two for fun. I think before I was out of grammar school, the station was closed; by the Seventies, a dismantled memory.

Old “Nip” Peabody was the station attendant I remember. Though I don’t remember his first name, it was probably Carlton, same as his son, mailman “Bud,” and grandson, basketball coach “Gus.” Anyone in South Deerfield who mattered back then had a nickname.

My fondest memory of Mr. Peabody places him seated in a lawn chair at the west end of wooden, first-baseline bleachers during Sunday-afternoon American Legion Baseball games that drew big crowds to the high-school ballyard. Some of the players I recall were Jimmy Duda, Billy Burns, Skip Gerry and Peachy Traceski. Mr. Peabody wore a small, tidy mustache under the bill of his Navy-blue Thomas Ashley Post 229 American Legion cap, and he’d give us Buffalo nickels for every foul tip we retrieved from the dense Jewett pinewoods behind the backstop. A childhood place for fort-building, bushwhacking and many a partridge flush, we kids knew every abandoned bird nest in those young white pines.

We’d lean against the chain-link backstop to watch the ballgames and chase back into the woods for every foul tip. After the games, having acquired pocketsful of nickels, we’d race on our bikes to Professional Pharmacy, Bill Rotkiewicz’s first downtown drug store in the Bloody Brook Block. It stood the west of the common on the corner of North Main and Elm, between the Elm Street bar and the North Main market. There, we’d spend our earnings on Topps Baseball Cards – a nickel for a pack of five, with a wide stick of sugar-dusted bubble gum inside – and maybe even a five-cent ice-cream cone. Ah, for the days of penny candy and nickel-a-scoop ice-cream parlors.

Too bad my childhood baseball-card collections disappeared. They’d be valuable today. I used to store them securely in shoe and cigar boxes. The last I saw of them they were tucked away in an old, Empire chest of drawers in the garage loft. When I sold that house, they had vanished. Someone must have thrown them out as clutter, eliminating any chance of an adult jackpot. It may have been substantial. The sale of a 1950s collection by my softball teammate from Northampton enabled him to put down a major down payment on an Easthampton home in the 1990s. That’s a fact.

Of course, some of my most valuable cards would have been hated New York Yankees we routinely sacrificed as noisemakers attached by clothespins to our bicycle so that they extended through the spokes. The faster we pedaled, the louder they roared. Great fun. Yes, there were, of course, a few Yankee fans who’d destroy Red Sox cards the same way, but not many. Like horse manure back in the day, Yankee fans are everywhere.

Back to the Legion baseballs we hunted in the pinewoods, we never found them all. Hell no. We were always searching for the ones that got away, intentionally and otherwise. How could a kid develop diamond skills without baseballs? And those balls weren’t your run-of-the-mill dime-store variety, either; they were top-shelf baseballs, the best money could buy, official Reach American League baseballs, no less. Every ball sported a cursive, light-blue, facsimile signature of AL President and Hall of Fame slugger Joe Cronin on its cowhide face. Not bad, eh?

Truth be known, we all accumulated basketfuls of those primo balls. Tucked away in our sheds and garages, trust me, they were put to good use when not accidentally breaking windows or denting some crabby old biddy’s shiny Buick. No, never were we lacking for good baseballs with prominent stitches, great for backyard experimentation with different grips creating funky little ball-movement wrinkles when playing catch.

Had anyone ever discovered our stashes and accused us of stealing, we would have had that covered. Those balls were retrieved hours and days after the games, by which time, in our minds, they were fair game.

How about those nice, new balls we furtively dropped into abandoned robins’ nests? Was that OK behavior in a New England Christian town? Well, maybe not, but I suspect Legionnaires who marched in the annual Memorial Day parade would have let it slide.

But why ponder hypotheticals? We never got caught. Plus, those balls kept us out of mischief … for the most part.


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