Gass Family Built a Local Legacy

Unexpected diversions and distractions can sometimes strike historical gold… like the one I stumbled across last week.

Most often these unexpected discoveries come to light as what I refer to as “peripherals” – that is, random findings unveiled entirely by dumb luck while reading, researching, or engaged in informal conversation. Nowhere do such bits of helpful information appear more regularly than newspaper archives. That’s where you find an interesting obituary accompanying one you’re seeking, front-page stories next to the one you’re chasing, or even gossipy little blurbs from a town adjacent to the one you’re exploring.

Because such surprise discoveries are fleeting and often elusive, they can be difficult to recover if you don’t immediately capture them. I have learned the hard way to jot down notes by any means necessary or risk losing unexpected data. Trying a few days later to retrace the path back to such peripherals is rarely easy, and at best time-consuming.

My latest such finding occurred during a recent early-morning telephone conversation with Paul Olszewski of South Deerfield. Five years younger than me, Paul grew up in the same neighborhood as me, and we have known each other in passing for decades. In recent months, we have had many discussions about the history of his North Main Street property. Our conversations have ventured back to founding Muddy Brook families like Barnard, Cooley, Wright, and Anderson, and later immigrant families like Gorey, Yazwinsk, Milewski, Bartos, and his very own.

Our latest chat was focused on a 1909 deed his wife had recently studied. The land record transferred less than an acre of North Main Street frontage from William Gorey to his son Robert. The lot on the other side of Bloody Brook from his father’s antique farmhouse provided more than enough space for Robert’s two-story dwelling, currently owned and occupied by Olszewski.

Being familiar with the document, I filled in additional details about the property reaching back to the original 1688, so-called Long Hill Division East lot, “bounded west by the Country road leading from Deerfield to Hatfield.”

During the meandering discussion that ensued, most of it focused on North Main Street, Olszewski shared an interesting fact. He revealed that his two-bay garage was built as an add-on by the well-known South Deerfield building contractor Bill Gass – the man credited with restoring Historic Deerfield houses to the colonial museums they are today. Off we traipsed into a spontaneous discussion about the colonial-restoration guru.

I soon learned that Olszewski was a valuable source of Gass information. He was able to identify South Deerfield structures built by Gass and, even better, some signature design elements that were immediately familiar to me. His insight came from deep collective memory, having been captive audience to many holiday family conversations involving his Uncle Francis (Olszewski).

I knew his uncle a wee bit from my teenage years myself – when I met him, he was teaching carpentry to his students at Smith Voke in Northampton – but had no clue that as a young man he had learned his carpentry skills from master builder Gass himself.

I already knew a little about Gass’s historic-restoration expertise, and less about his signature architectural design details. Recently I learned that he was also a house mover. An example was his move of Old Deerfield’s Ashley House back to its original location. Another similar project was his move of South Deerfield’s old Frary Tavern to Old Deerfield, where it now stands as the Bloody Brook Tavern Museum.

Gass also had a hand in moving the Hall Tavern from East Charlemont to Old Deerfield, and salvaging many antique Swift River Valley buildings doomed by the Quabbin Reservoir project of 1938. Thanks to Gass and other joiners of his ilk, many of those old, condemned homesteads from the submerged ghost towns of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott are proudly standing today in surrounding communities. Plus, many architectural elements – such as doors, floorboards, staircases, mantles, raised paneling, and chestnut-framing timbers – were saved, stored, and recycled into buildings new and old.

How do you beat that for authenticity?

The historical bombshell dropped by Paul Olszewski was that Gass was also known for sprucing up tired old house exteriors with an outer coating of preservative stucco. Apparently, another trademark of his are the distinctive cobblestone porches I’ve known since childhood without a hint about Gass origin.

Upon learning of these two signature design details, I could immediately name examples from my old hometown. During a brief visit a day or two later, on a quick loop around the downtown area, I passed a few that had escaped my memory. I will surely recognize more in my future travels.

I couldn’t have learned of Gass’s stucco background at a more appropriate time. In recent weeks my attention had turned to the house on North Main Street I knew as “the Dana Jewett place,” with its narrow swath of pine woods running west to the railroad tracks along the northern border of the Frontier Regional School athletic fields.

I was recently perplexed when a dependable nonagenarian source told me that when she was young, this palatial home was brick. Familiar with the building since as far back as my memory reaches, I knew it only as stucco. When I contacted the current owner, the fact that it was a brick building was also news to her.

Researching the property further, I found that Henry D. Packard had the home built in 1912 and moved into it with his wife Jeannie C. in 1913. The Packards died within a week of each other thirty-five years later, in early December 1947 – the same year my nonagenarian source graduated Deerfield High School. Two months later, Jewett bought the place.

I suspected it was Jewett who had hired a local contractor to spruce up his new digs with a fresh sheet of white stucco, remarkably similar to that of a home a half-mile up the street. Maybe, I speculated, the two homes had been treated by the same hand.

Although it made perfect sense that a man of Jewett’s social status would have used a master such as Gass for home-improvement projects, I never thought of Gass as a potential stucco contractor. I knew of him only as a skilled finish carpenter, not a mason or plasterer. Once I learned that he was associated with stucco restoration, I surmised it most likely that he would have hired masons for that chore. Who these masons were is anyone’s guess, and might in my estimation be difficult to ascertain before the Gass clue.

So I did a little more poking around and, sure enough, Gass’s younger brother Samuel was a mason who liberally advertised many services in his newspaper ads, including plastering. Although I can’t say for sure that Samuel worked for his older brother, it’s a safe assumption. The brothers lived their entire lives in South Deerfield, and as adults owned downtown homes within shouting distance. So, yes indeed, it’s likely that many stucco coverings and cobblestone porches in town were the handiwork of Samuel, of whom I have no recollection. He died in 1962, when I was 9. I do remember his wife and their disabled, adopted son.

I also have vague memories of Bill Gass, a downtown regular who died in 1986. I can still visualize his trademark bow tie and, if memory serves me, suspenders. I was more familiar with his sons, Ed and Billy, who were of my father’s vintage, and knew his grandchildren, Paul and Karen, better. I didn’t know their younger siblings, sister Jacqueline or late brother Danny, as well.

I never realized how little I really knew about the Bill Gass family before my recent research. Online data unveils a prolific Irish family of local building contractors beginning with William Gass, Sr. (1878-1952), whose obituary says he was born in Newburgh, New York and had lived in South Deerfield for 58 years, which brings us back to 1894.

That information doesn’t square with his father’s FindAGrave profile, which claims that Samuel Gass was born in Ireland in 1845 and died in 1885 in South Deerfield, where he is buried. So, it would appear that the family touched down in South Deerfield long before 1894. Sons Thomas J. (born 1877) and William E. (born 1878), both future Franklin County contractors, would have both been 7 at the time of their father’s death, Thomas soon to be 8.

William E. Gass, Sr., married Bridget Toomey from Whately in 1901. In 1908, he was awarded the contract to build the downtown Redmen’s Block, which opened in early June 1909 on the corner of South Main and Elm streets. On the second floor was the spacious Redman’s Hall, which hosted meetings, gala dances, weddings and other gatherings, and basketball games. The tall building met the wrecking ball in 1978 and was replaced by the modern Deerfield Spirit Shoppe building on the lot today.

Sons and grandsons of William and Thomas carried on the prolific Gass tradition for many years, establishing sterling reputations as building contractors in Deerfield, Greenfield, and Amherst. Old Deerfield contractor William E. Gass, Jr., “employed about 60 full-time employees” according to a profile in Harry Andrew Wright’s four-volume The Story of Western Massachusetts, published in 1949. Examples of the Gass dynasty’s work can be found in many Franklin and Hampshire County communities.

From humble beginnings, the Gass boys worked hard, and left a legacy that will outlive us all.

Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.
Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

4 Responses to Gass Family Built a Local Legacy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Mad Meg theme designed by BrokenCrust for WordPress © | Top