Hinsdale Houses Tell a Story

Seeking brief respite from a tangled maze of early South Deerfield deeds, I scheduled a short trip to the Granite State last week. There, on a summerlike spring morning, we found warm, welcoming guide Sharron Holmes Smith awaiting our visit at the historic Col. Ebenezer Hinsdale House in Hinsdale, New Hampshire.

Friend and neighbor Richard Shortell wanted to join me, and drove. We share interests in local history and what he calls “old stuff.” Translated, that means Americana, some of which can break the budget of even conservative collectors with sophisticated tastes.

We were anxious to tour the noble, dual-center-chimney, Georgian Colonial dwelling, built in 1759 along the eastern bank of the Connecticut River by the founder of the New Hampshire-Massachusetts border town across from old Fort Dummer on the Vermont side. Col. Hinsdale, a Deerfield man who graduated from Harvard in 1727, was Fort Dummer’s chaplain – or “Indian missionary,” whatever that meant.

I learned of the house museum, purchased in 2009 by the Hinsdale Historical Society, while investigating a new discovery about the colonel’s younger brother, Samuel Hinsdale, the first occupant of the historic upper Greenfield Meadows tavern I call home.

Ebenezer and Samuel were born a year apart in 1706 and 1707, the sons of Deerfield’s firstborn white child, Lieutenant Mehuman Hinsdale (1673-1736). All three were prominent colonial Deerfield citizens, not to mention prolific landowners. Only Samuel lived to witness the Revolution. A Greenfield founding father and ardent patriot – a word I hesitate to use these days – Samuel died in 1786, outliving his “intemperate” brother Ebenezer by 23 years.

Maybe it’s not fair to mention Ebenezer’s intemperance. Wasn’t virtually everyone intemperate back then, when “hardened” cider, weak and strong, was a staple served even with breakfast? Because sweet cider quickly turns to vinegar in storage, colonial cider mills and distilleries produced cider wine and brandy, even potent applejack for special occasions, all of which stored well. Sweet cider was a treat served fresh.

My interest in the Hinsdale House began last fall when I stumbled across a couple of 18th-century deeds recording the sale of Samuel Hinsdale’s Greenfield farm, which stood at “the nook of the falls” on both sides of the “road from the fishing falls to Northfield.” My first impulse, based on a reference to Grass Hill, placed the property north of the High Street Cemetery, somewhere in the area of today’s Stop & Shop. It sounded like an apt name for the vegetation that the first colonial eyes would have found around the so-called Mackin sandbanks.

I was wrong about that, and about my assumed location of the so-called “nook,” which I assumed referred to the Connecticut River’s right-angle elbow at the Factory Hollow outflow.

As I delved into Deerfield’s 1736 “pitch lots” drawn by proprietors in a land division “east of the Green River and north of Cheapside,” I discovered that the “nook of the falls” actually referred to a three-mile stretch on the river in what is now Gill. According to Gill historian Ralph M. Stoughton, who lived there, the nook began at the sharp elbow across from the mouth of the Millers River and extended west, through Great Falls, to the mouth of the Fall River.

The 200-acre Hinsdale Farm sat on both sides of the road in what is now Gill Center, bordered north by Barnard Hill, which is not far south of Mount Hermon. In 1769, Samuel sold 117 acres, a house, and outbuildings to Benjamin Hosley for more than ₤213.

Eight years later, Hinsdale unloaded the rest of his acreage, selling 80 acres to George Loveland, who ponied up ₤24 for “land which lyeth on the Bald Hill, so called, in the nook of the falls and is the land on which the aforesaid Loveland now dwells.”

Interesting. It was a small world back then – one with a solemn honor system intact. Apparently, Hinsdale knew Loveland and trusted that he’d settle his debt years after building a farm for his family.

My next question was why Hinsdale, whose father was the No. 1 landowner in Deerfield by a wide margin, would have chosen to settle in the town’s isolated northeast corner. Though it’s uncertain precisely when he broke ground at “the nook of the falls,” it seems likely it would have been after 1748, when he was licensed to run a tavern at his late father’s Old Deerfield homestead following younger brother John Hinsdale’s unexpected 1746 death.

So, Samuel Hinsdale probably moved his family to their fertile “nook of the falls” Deerfield farm around 1750, three years before the establishment of Greenfield and 43 years before Gill would split off. Although the location seems a bit isolated to suit the desires of a man of means, it’s possible he chose it to be close to his enterprising older brother.

Ebenezer Hinsdale, who never gave up his Deerfield residency, accepted his Fort Dummer post in 1740 and in proceeding years helped build Fort Hinsdale across the river. Samuel would have been “in the neighborhood,” so to speak, less than 20 miles south.

Living in what is now Gill when brother Ebenezer broke ground for his Hinsdale estate in 1759, it is not a stretch to surmise that Samuel took part in the construction. Isn’t that what brothers did back then? Though difficult to pinpoint exactly what role he may have played, Hinsdale House tradition states that some of the building materials came from Deerfield. Although that seems far-fetched if referring to Old Deerfield village, not so if some materials were coming what became Gill. Even more likely is the potential that the structure was built by top Deerfield/Northfield joiners. The proud building wears all the marks, inside and out, of master colonial woodworkers.

The house is a refined statement to the best of mid-18th-century, upper-Connecticut Valley architecture crafted by human hands employing simple tools. It’s all there, from the decorative interior panels and molding to the fireplaces and brick oven to the wide, worn pine floors, fitted-stone foundation, and attic ridgepole.

Sparsely but tastefully furnished with early furniture, much of it donated by late Greenfield High School science teacher George Dyer of Ashfield, the house has the warm feel of a worn 1950s farmhouse. It’s the type of place I recall from cleaning out houses for auctioneer Bill Hubbard, or partying at friends’ old homes in our western hills.

The big tub sink set in a wooden kitchen counter stirred a phantom memory I didn’t know existed, all the way back to my grandmother’s Nova Scotia farmhouse I visited as a 5-year-old. Huh? Where did that come from? It’s surreal how the mind, when stimulated, can pull images from the deepest chambers of memory.

Six years after Col. Ebenezer Hinsdale died in 1763, brother Samuel set the wheels in motion for his move across town to the Meadows. Although that contradicts family tradition and my National Register of Historic Places narrative, deeds don’t lie. So, it must be changed if I get a chance to compose an addendum. Then again, maybe the next owner will take the ball and run with it.

The fact is that Samuel Hinsdale didn’t break ground in the Meadows until about 1770, when he was 63, his oldest namesake son 29 and younger son Ariel 20. The Hinsdale residence and a distillery were built across the road from my house, which in its earliest form was a smaller building run as a tavern on the road to East Colrain. The building evolved over three generations into a much larger structure sold in 1836 to Charlemont taverner Ebenezer Thayer.

The rest is history … now “on the record,” I suppose.

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

Leave a Reply

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

Mad Meg theme designed by BrokenCrust for WordPress © | Top