Deerfield’s First Mill Site Lives On

I recently visited an old South Deerfield mill site I discovered some 60 years ago as a young lad trout-fishing on the Mill River.

The field trip with historian friend Peter Thomas ignited a research adventure, beginning at the dam and steep ravine below and ending at the expansive old farm today owned by the granddaughter of the man who took me on my first deer hunt in his woodland acreage.

Honestly, as a boy, I never gave much thought to the tidy stonework and streamside ruins of a collapsed wood-frame building that had deposited a decaying pile of revelatory rubble on a small platform of land at the head of a deep gorge. Large, rusty sprocket wheels told me it had been a mill. I left it at that.

What mattered most to me then was the site’s sporting, not historical, value. Frisky brook trout were always available in the deep, silty channel above the dam and, better still, in the splash pool below the 10-foot waterfall dropping over a tight dam-top constriction. I have always remembered the place as soul-soothing – the sound of the waterfall hitting bedrock calming, the steep, wooded downstream perspective peaceful indeed.

Before I was licensed to drive, my mother would drop me off mornings below the Mill River bridge at the intersection of Route 116 and Mathews Road. Equipped with spinning tackle, a bait can full of lively nightcrawlers, an aluminum-framed nylon net, and a wicker creel, I’d fish the pools and runs downstream a mile or so to a wooden farm-bridge in the middle of Settright’s back pasture.

There I’d drop a worm or two into the deep, silty pool below before walking up a short, steep escarpment to a small orchard, where I’d squeeze through barbed-wire fencing at the end of a dirt driveway. I’d walk to the back door, past where the ell met the carriage sheds, knock hard enough to be detected, and go inside to rotary-dial my mother for a ride home.

Back then, widow Nellie Settright was still going strong, approaching if not exceeding 90 and sharing her home with daughter Marge and son-in-law Bill Van Petersilge, a Marine World War II hero who had miraculously survived many perilous island landings on the Pacific theater. Old Nellie, the great-grandmother of current farm owner Carrie Chickering Sears, seemed ancient to me.

The Settright farm came into being not long before the Revolution, when Moses Nims (1718-1791) of Old Deerfield broke ground. Moses left it to son Elisha, who, not long before his death, sold it to his son Rufus in 1809. Seven months later, Rufus sold it to Erastus Clapp, a Pine Nook farmer who moved across town to South Mill River.

Precisely when the extant 18th-century Federal farmhouse was built is unclear. A Greenfield newspaper story about Mr. and Mrs. Francis Clapp’s surprise 40th-anniversary party held there on May 8, 1900 said the home was then 110 years old and had been in the Clapp family for 91 years. This would bring us back to 1790, which seems right. Or maybe that was the year the main block was built, transforming the smaller original dwelling into an ell, typical architectural evolution for historic valley farmhouses.

The Settright family came to Deerfield from Greenfield in the years leading up to the Civil War, buying a North Mill River farm on Dublin Plain before adding the south Mill River Clapp farm to its holdings in 1884. Although the northern farm was sold to Mathews Road and Stillwater Road developers in the 1960s, the family maintains ownership of the old Nims/Clapp farm.

Today the sign over the barn’s milk-room door reads “Indian Acres,” a name adopted in the mid-20th century because of the many Native American artifacts found in tillage east of Route 116.

Getting back to the upstream mill site where we began, though, my interest in it grew with my newfound genealogy and local-history interests, which blossomed after the 1989 death of my spinster great-aunt Gladys. My Grandfather Sanderson’s older sister, “Antie” was our family-history steward, carefully curating old records and photos. When she died weeks short of her 94th birthday under life tenancy in the home I owned, her dresser-drawer collection of family history data immediately captured my fascination.

I was soon led to George Sheldon’s History of Deerfield, where I found my waterfall fishing place identified on Page 269 as the town’s first mill site, dating back to no later than 1689. Amazing. That’s 15 years before the infamous 1704 Queen Anne’s War raid on Old Deerfield.

Sheldon believed, but could not prove, there was an on-site sawmill there in 1689 when the town contracted Hatfield millwright Capt. John Allis to build the town’s first grist mill on the stream, which rises in Conway and runs through Deerfield and Whately before entering the Connecticut River in Hatfield.

When Allis died in 1691, the town reached out to Northampton merchant/fur trader Joseph Parsons Sr. to complete the mill construction. Sheldon thinks the millstone on display in Memorial Hall’s front yard today was spun into action by late December 1692. By 1699, however, the mill had vanished, most likely destroyed by Native warriors.

By the time Deerfield hostilities had calmed down enough for the construction of a new grist mill, millwrights favored closer sites on the Deerfield and Green rivers, which doesn’t mean the Mill River site grew obsolete. To the contrary, Sheldon identified a Phelps sawmill standing there in his day, 200 years later.

That Sheldon assertion is supported by the November 2020 obituary of a man who bought the old mill site in 1971, soon building a home on the west bank and a bridge to it. The obit identifies the deceased’s property as the site of three sawmills, which is an understatement: Three different owners operated sawmills there during the last third of the 19th century alone.

Since learning of the 1692 Allis/Parsons corn mill, I had many times entered into historical discussion about the site, describing my memories of its layout, with a dam going across the stream to a pile of mill rubble on the opposite bank. Although an informed abutter I have known for many years told me the ruins disappeared long ago, I never bothered to investigate. Thus, I was not prepared for what I recently discovered.

After more than a half-century, I found that the stream and scene had changed dramatically. There was no dam, no waterfall, no deep channel above or pool below.

Hmmmm?

Could it be that after so many years, my memory was confusing the site with old mill sites on other trout streams from my fishing past? I wasn’t impossible, but I didn’t think so. Nonetheless, it remained a vexing issue.

Because the site is well-hidden from Route 116 travelers, I had never caught a glimpse of the home resting on a secluded terrace across the stream, or the bridge leading to it. Those features, for starters, stuck out most during my recent return. Then, upon closer inspection from the bridge, it was immediately obvious that much else had changed as well. I impulsively mentioned the perceived changes to Thomas but was not totally certain. Maybe I was misremembering.

Still perplexed a few days later, I finally placed a phone call to the aforementioned informed abutter. I knew he could set me straight. Yes, he confirmed, there once was a dam and narrow 10-foot waterfall, with a deep channel above and a splash-pool below. He too had caught many nice squaretails and rainy-day brownies above and below the dam.

“Don’t worry,” he assured me, “you’re right on point.”

He then elaborated, explaining that a flood washed out the dam, some stonework, and the first bridge built there. It wasn’t during Hurricanes Irene or Katrina. Before that. The first bridge was poorly designed, he said. It sat upon culverts that rested atop deep, unstable loam that had for centuries accumulated above the dam. The bridge itself was too low. Finally, floodwater overwhelmed it and blew out everything, including the old dam.

How about the rubble? Did he recall the wooden remains, the decaying roof truss and rusty sprocket wheels strewn on the opposite bank? No. That was before his time. His father would probably remember it.

Unfortunately, the man who built the home and bridge is dead and gone, thus unavailable for comment. Maybe the destructive flood swept away the mill rubble. Then again, maybe the deceased obit subject tidied it up before Mother Nature intervened.

Does it really matter? Probably not. Can’t we just say it disappeared and leave it at that.

So, there you have it – the tale of the old Allis/Parsons mill and a neighboring farm below. The Mill River runs through both. Today, the mill is gone but not forgotten. After 330 years, stable, stone, streamside remnants mark the spot, and the legend lives on.

 

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