Beaver Stone, Billings Place

Under the microscope today is a peculiar carved stone and a forgotten colonial home that met the wrecking ball many years ago, both from Deerfield.

First, the stone. Round in form and about the size of a human hand, it surfaced recently in parched Fuller Swamp Brook, where it was picked up by a curious woman walking the Wapping field behind the old Samuel Childs Farm. News of the discovery came to me by Saturday-night phone call, breaking early-evening silence as I closed in on answers about the aforementioned historic South Deerfield home to which we’ll return.

Not recognizing the caller-ID name, I didn’t answer. But when the Smart TV revealed that a message had been left, I went right to it. Messages are usually a good sign.

The caller was Brent Pitcher, a fit, quiet man I know from the Nolumbeka Project, a local Native American advocacy group honoring Northeastern tribal heritage. He wanted to share digital photos of the interesting stone, texted to him by the discoverer. She was convinced it was the work of human hands, maybe Native American, depicting a beaver face with two buck teeth.

Having been immersed for the past two or three years in South Deerfield deed research that had more than once meandered through Wapping and the Bars, I knew there was an early placename “Beaver Dam” and a small stream named “Beaver Dam Brook” right there in the South Meadows, where the stone was found. So, of course, I was interested. Plus, how could I ignore a find that could be related to the deep-time Beaver Myth of Sugarloaf and the Pocumtuck Range? In my mind, this beaver stone could have had legs to interesting places.

My immediate reaction upon hanging up was, “Hmmm. Why does this stuff happen to me?”

Little did Pitcher know that I had spent much time in recent months reading about ancient, ritualistic, stone, bone, and ivory portable-art objects recovered from Paleoindian mastodon bone-fields. These talismans have been recently identified by archaeologist friend Dr. Richard Michael Gramly. Inspired by an initial discovery during an excavation he led in 2015 at Middletown, New York, Gramly and ancient-religion guru Dr. James B. Harrod have together examined and identified many previously unidentified primitive art objects stagnating in curated collections.

This year, Gramly published a groundbreaking compendium of essays, Human and Proboscidean Interactions in North America, to which Harrod made many important contributions. Much of their discussion focuses on North American portable zoomorphic art objects with deep connections, imagery and symbolism linking them to the Old-World Gravettian culture dating back 33,000 years, and ancient Eurasian and northeast Asian people who eventually crossed the Bering Strait to North America.

The first such portable-art specimen recognized in North America was a piece of ivory shaped like a mastodon in profile. Gramly noticed it when recording materials unearthed during his Bowser Road dig north and west of New York City.  He and Harrod then closely re-examined the curated Hiscock Collection at the Buffalo (New York) Museum of Science – a well-known assemblage of skeletal mastodon remains and artifacts – to confirm their suspicion that other examples would appear in existing collections. Then, yes, the Hiscock Collection did indeed contain previously unidentified portable art, some of it from the earliest sled burial known to man.

And get this: the Clovis sled runners were crafted from mastodon tusks, split lengthwise in half.

Since then, a fascinating, well-executed, zoomorphic sculpture of a mastodon in profile, carved in bone, has come to light in an Ohio museum collection. And the search goes on. Next stop is the Blue Licks Battlefield site in Kentucky, where an old collection of mastodon bones and who knows what else is awaiting examination. Gramly recently returned from his maiden voyage at Blue Licks, a two-week dig on land owned by a friend that bore intriguing fruit and promises to produce much, much more.

The minute Pitcher emailed me photos of the mystery beaver stone, I forwarded a frontal shot to Gramly. Who better to evaluate such a find? He studied the photo, and immediately said he doubted a Native American origin but would like to examine it in hand.

“I’ve never seen anything like it, which immediately raises doubt,” he said. “I’m not ready to say it’s Native American. It could be old. Maybe colonial. But it looks like white-guy work to me – an imaginative, even humorous characterization of a beaver.”

So, the jury’s still out. Stay tuned.

Now, let us return to the vexing historical snag I was trying to unravel when Pitcher’s phone call broke my investigative spell, exploring a long-ago demolished and now forgotten historic South Deerfield home. When the phone rang, I was hot on the trail of a demolition date for the North Main Street building that burned beyond repair when I was a kid. My memory of the building is vague at best. All I recall is a glum, unoccupied, boarded-up building across the street from the Karas and Manson homes and Yazwinski Farm. Nothing else.

I could easily follow the building’s history into the early 20th century, but was having difficulty tracking it in deeds after 1930 – documents that would offer names helpful for keyword searching newspaper archives. Many foreign families settled in South Deerfield between 1880 and 1920, and they held no connection to the village’s founding families, and little interest in the provenance of old homes they had purchased.

The house on which we’re focusing was built by Samuel Dwelley around 1770, maybe earlier, and was recognized in 19th-century South Deerfield as the Timothy and Charles W. Billings residence. Timothy Billings (1770-1860) was its second owner. He married Dwelley’s daughter, Amy, in 1795 and lived with his in-laws before buying the landed estate in 1801. When his oldest son Francis (1797-1861) came of age, he built south of his father. The ninth of Timothy and Amy’s 12 children, Charles W. Billings (1815-1901), stayed put, eventually inheriting his father and grandfather’s home, where he died.

I knew the old Dwelley/Billings place was still standing in 1930, and gone by 1970. But was it burned, or torn down? Hints, but no answers. The missing link was the name of the house’s final occupant – the search a tangled maze.

Finally, in an act of desperation, I posted a nighttime query on the “Deerfield Now” Facebook page, which gets a lot of traffic and can be a good resource for 20th-century memories. My post describing the building and inquiring what had become of it was launched after I had questioned two nonagenarian women who passed it in youth. Both remembered the building as the “Miller place,” and neither knew much about either the owner, John W. Miller, or anything about the building’s demise.

Bingo! The answer came within minutes. The first respondent was Paul Olszewski, four or five years younger than me, who grew up within view of the decaying historic homestead and “messaged” me. It burned, he said, was owned by the Legac family and eventually purchased by the abutting Hosley Brothers auto dealership.

Former selectman David Wolfram, with a long family history in the volunteer fire department, soon confirmed Olszewski’s information. The place, owned by the Legacs, burned, was boarded up, and eventually torn down. By the next morning, many others had chimed in, including some Legac family and friends.

Deeds and news accounts bore them out. The Legac family of four was dining in Florence at 6:15 p.m. on Thursday, February 20, 1964 when neighbor Albert “Babe” Manson noticed the fire from his home across the street. Manson immediately called the fire department and – according to Facebook respondent and his daughter, Diana Tardiff – raced across the street, kicking in the door to save the frantic family dog, Sambo.

The building’s interior was destroyed. The Legacs boarded up their home and vacated to New York. The town condemned the building as a public health hazard more than three years later, and on September 20, 1967 gave the owners 30 days to remove it or the town would do so at their expense. Less than a year later, on August 20, 1968, the vacant lot was sold to Hosley Brothers, Inc., which wanted more space for roadside display.

Although the fire, family fundraisers, and town wranglings over the building were covered by the newspaper, the stories were typically buried, and I could find not one solitary word about the historic significance of what would have been one of the village’s oldest standing buildings. No mention of Dwelley or Billings families, or what they had meant to South Deerfield.

No wonder so many historic South Deerfield buildings with charm, character, and important tales to tell have met the wrecking ball since – all in the name of progress. That, I find sad. Sad indeed.

 

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