The Brooks Brook Conundrum

A new player recently entered my orbit, temporarily reorienting my focus about 10 miles north. Her name is Andrea Liebenow Varney, daughter of my late neighbor and friend, Sylvia Smead Gallagher.

Three years younger than me, Varney grew up and graduated from high school in Greenfield, and has lived for decades in Proctor, Vermont. She is particularly proud of her mother’s Smead lineage that links her to the original proprietors of Deerfield and its Green River district, now Greenfield. Which is precisely what led her to me – well, that and my newspaper ramblings, and my friendship with her mom.

Sylvia was a Greenfield Meadows native who grew up on a dairy farm that burned in 1957 and died with her parents. When we met as neighbors sometime in 1997, she was a retired Pioneer Valley Regional School English teacher. She often stopped to chat in passing on her daily walks with a friend through the Upper Meadows. It was at her encouragement that I joined her for two terms on the Greenfield historical commission.

Varney reached out to me around Labor Day, leaving telephone and email messages. She was scrambling to complete a book started by her mother about the Greenfield Smeads. Her mother, who died at 88 in 2015, had been determined to finish the crowning achievement about her family’s historic landholdings. Now Andrea is tunnel-visioned to complete the job.

She thought maybe I could help her with old deeds, especially obsolete place names and landscape features. More than anything else, she was seeking geographical orientation to help her place old Smead land. Having left Greenfield 40 years ago, her intimacy with the Franklin County landscape was not sharp.

Little did she know that, by dumb luck, she had tapped the right vein. Having been immersed in old land records myself since the COVID crisis broke, I understood many issues she was battling. Some of the same hurdles had confronted me when researching old deeds from Deerfield, Greenfield and East Whately.

Plus, I harbor a personal interest in the upper Greenfield Meadows, where I own a historic home on property first owned by important Deerfield proprietor Mehuman Hinsdale (1673-1736), followed by his son Samuel (1708-1786) and his namesake son and grandson. The moniker “Samuel Hinsdale place” has thus been permanently attached to my property.

The Hinsdales were prolific early Deerfield landowners. Mehuman, Deerfield’s first-born English child, owned more land at the time of his death – 5,600 acres – than anyone in his community. The Smeads were also among the top handful of Deerfield landowners. Plus they were connected to the Upper Meadows Hinsdales by marriage and abutting properties. So, of course, I was game to Ms. Varney’s endeavor.

In fact, not long before we met on the phone, I had already tinkered with some old Green River deeds centered on East Main Street and my own neighborhood. Cursory research led to Hinsdale, Brooks, Stockwell, Denio, Allen, Wells, and Willard genealogical refreshers as well.

Ms. Varney’s plea for help awakened this latent research, and ultimately helped me untangle a vexing snag I had put on temporary hold. Preoccupied by South Deerfield and East Whately, I hadn’t wanted to get distracted elsewhere, and when an interesting Green River puzzle arose, I had flicked it aside till winter.

Well, it didn’t quite play out that way. Thanks to Ms. Varney’s dogged determination, we’ve already untangled that key snag – one focused on a four-century-old dividing line between the upper and lower Green River meadow lands.

The tangle goes back to Deerfield pioneers Quintin Stockwell and William Brooks – two important 17th-century Meadows landowners with land about a mile down the road from me – and to Meadows deed references to “Brooks Brook” and “Brooks Plain,” names stricken from the local vernacular centuries ago. Stockwell died in 1714, some 30 years after moving to Connecticut where he is buried. Brooks died in 1688, but some of his children stuck around for the long haul. Greenfield split off from Deerfield in 1753.

Late 19th– and early 20th-century local historians and friends George Sheldon (History of Deerfield, 1895) and Francis McGee Thompson (History of Greenfield, 1904) agree that Stockwell owned the northernmost Lower Meadows lot, and that it was abutted north by Brooks, owner of the southernmost Upper Meadows lot. That establishes where the Lower Meadows ended and the Upper Meadows began. Between their two 20-acre parcels ran a then-unnamed brook first known as Brooks Brook.

Though Sheldon doesn’t try to explicitly define the brook between those two early properties, Thompson does. He claims it’s the stream we know as Hinsdale Brook. That is an unfortunate mistake that has survived and been repeated through the modern day.

In fact, judging from several clear references to the stream flowing between the Stockwell and Brooks lots, Brooks Brook is now known as Allen Brook. Hinsdale Brook forms the northern boundary of my own Upper Meadows property three-quarters of a mile up the road, where there’s not a whiff of evidence that Brooks or Stockwell ever lived or owned property.

There is, however, a caveat that helps to justify Thompson’s error. An 1843 flood he cites significantly rerouted Hinsdale Brook to today’s straight channel from within sight of my home to the Green River. Let me explain:

Hinsdale Brook flows some four miles from the western hills of East Shelburne and East Colrain to the Green River, pulling in several sparkling upland springs along the way. Before 1843, the stream passed my house at the base of Smead Hill and took a sharp southern turn maybe 200 yards downstream. From there it followed Colrain Road south, hugging the eastern perimeter of the North Meadows Cemetery before leaning gently east for less than a mile to its old confluence with Green River. Near the end, Allen Brook joined it for a short final run to the Green River.

The 1843 flood overwhelmed a sharp southern elbow downstream from my home and cut a new channel straight to the Green River. Today, just before passing under the Plain Road bridge at the Brookside Animal Hospital, Hinsdale Brook pulls in tiny Punch Brook, a spring stream whose wide, deep channel it seized for a final, short run to the Green River. The confluence is a half-mile upstream from the old one.

The old course of the Meadows’ dominant Green River tributary is shown clearly on the 1871 Beers Atlas map of Greenfield, as well as topo and wall maps that used the same pre-1843 prototype which remained the standard for at least 50 years. Newer maps, of course, reflect the change.

Varney’s collective neighborhood memory told her that the Upper Meadows began around Allen Brook, and that was also my understanding. Thus the confusion surrounding Thompson’s Brooks Brook miscue, which wouldn’t have fit even following its historic, old course.

Interpreting old land records can be a difficult chore, and Thompson got burned by it, or unwisely accepted information he should have pondered. In his defense, Brooks and Hinsdale brooks would not have been named when the Brooks and Stockwell properties were granted. The names came later, and complicating matters even more, Brooks Brook became Allen Brook long before Sheldon or Thompson were born. Nonetheless, Thompson has no excuse. He lived for many decades in the neighborhood where his wife was born. He should have known better.

When I first stumbled upon the Thompson error, I accepted it without further investigation. I figured he’d know. That was my mistake. Yet I knew something was out of whack and suspected it had to be related to Hinsdale Brook’s 1843 change of course. But, being focused on other people and places at the time, I didn’t view it as an urgent matter. I created a file for future reference. It could wait till winter.

Varney was of a different opinion. To her, resolving that snag was of the highest-priority. She needed an immediate determination before she could accurately plot adjacent Smead landholdings. After an intense round of research, her victorious, late-night email to me proclaimed with bold certainty that the border stream in question had to be Allen Brook. Her bold claim set off a string of emails that ended with us in total agreement.

I have since then read the Deerfield town record granting Stockwell 20 acres of his choosing from Green River meadow lands. The grant settled a debt for boarding Deerfield’s first minister, Reverend Samuel Mather, who was here for the infamous 1675 Bloody Brook ambush and gone by 1680.

Sheldon says the Stockwell lot was granted in 1684, which doesn’t jive with the 1694 document published by Thompson. That’s irrelevant. What matters most is that the town record locates the lot’s northern boundary lying “upon the Hill on the north side of the Brook that comes out of the great Ash swamp.”

That headwater swamp still exists off Route 2, up the hill near Kenburne Orchards and a moccasin store. The hill named as the northern boundary also survives, supporting the long-abandoned Gorge Road to Shelburne across Colrain Road from Dennis Menard’s farm. The glaring difference is that Hinsdale Brook no longer passes anywhere near that neighborhood.

By the time of Brooks’s 1688 death, he had purchased Stockwell’s lot, giving him 40 contiguous acres straddling the yet-unnamed Allen Brook. Although there’s no deed recording that transaction, it is noted in the 1740 deed conveying the property from Brooks’s sons, Ebenezer and Nathaniel, to Thomas Bardwell. Thus, the names “Brooks Brook” and “Brooks Plain,” which appear to have been obsolete before 1900.

My final assessment is this: The stream recognized as a border between the Upper and Lower Meadows is today named Allen Brook, not Hinsdale. The stream wouldn’t have been named until after Ebenezer Wells, Jr., bought the old Brooks lot in 1748 and established residence. At about the same time, Amos Allen bought and established residence on the old, south-abutting Stockwell lot.

The historic Allen and Wells dwellings still stand proudly on the west side of Colrain Road. There they are associated with the Allen and Wells families, not the Stockwells or Brookses. The southern property was best known in the 20th century as Holland Farm.

So, there you have it – setting the record straight about a confusing streamside rats’ nest that needed focused teamwork to unravel.


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