Family Ties

I spent a nice evening last week with about 25 members of the Whately Historical Society, people who share my interest in old homes, old barns, old taverns and old relics from a kinder day.

Among my guests was the new owner of a home where my displaced ancestors once lived briefly after a July 1882 fire leveled the original East Whately Sanderson farmstead, and another who owned a colonial where I spent many special days and nights smitten with puppy love in an edifice infected with kindred spirits. Back then, I had no idea Asa Sanderson had called the place home after serving in the Revolution, and knew nothing of his big brother, my fifth great-grandfather Deacon Thomas, who likely taught Asa his tanner/cordwainer trade. But those were the years of my wayward teens, when I knew not who I was or why I lived here. I guess you’d call it oblivious, maybe oblivion itself, but all that has changed now, and so has my perspective.

I have written before about my spiritual attachment to the Whately woods. The aristocratic hardwoods, dark hemlock bogs, cellar holes, stonewalls, and streamside mill sites reach back to a different day in our landscape’s evolution. Such elements are not unique to Whately. You can find them throughout the Franklin hills. I’m just more familiar with Whately’s hills and dales than those in neighboring towns. That’s all.

I suppose if I chose to take the shallow exploratory route, I’d attribute my Whately enchantment to simple coincidence — the fact that Babe Manson had taught me to trout-fish there as a young boy, then meeting classmates and teammates whose yards bordered the swift, clean mountain stream. But I know my attachment goes much deeper; right to the core of my soul, the pulse in my wrist, to my pedigree. It’s no revelation. I understood it long ago. No churchgoer, it’s as spiritual as I get, but it’s real; more genuine than anything you can find below the austere white steeple; more powerful; impossible to articulate in a brief sitting.

My latest discovery came the day after our historical gathering, when, on the phone, Fred Bardwell pulled me deeper into my Whately genealogical morass; with each step forward, the blacker the mud, the stronger the suction. It can consume you like whirlpool, this family muck; no, not the Great Swamp, but no less unforgiving.

It was in the process of thanking Fred for the tote bag his club had given me that I digressed, started talking about the Whately woods, its abandoned roads, Chibby’s Pasture, the old mill site by the brook, the hidden well below the broad, forgotten hilltop orchard.

Did he remember Sanderson’s pasture before the woods consumed it?

Of course, he used to milk cows up there as a boy; it was where they pastured them in the summer.

How about Turkey Hill? Did he know it?

No, only Turkey Hill in Williamsburg.

So I described my perception of where Turkey Hill was, based on what little information I have uncovered, and he knew the area but no hill by that name, which doesn’t mean I’m wrong. In describing the location, I mentioned a road and a couple of cellar holes, which he knew as the old Sanderson farm, right there before the top of the hill.

Sanderson farm? What Sanderson farm?

It would have been Neal and Alan’s grandfather’s.

How about them, would they remember it?

No, burned down before that. But that’s where their grandfather lived. The woods opened up as you reached the top of that first rise. The pasture started there.

Did he remember the sugar shack, the one with the potbelly stove, where we used to party before Vietnam draft-dodgers took residence, overheated the stove and burned the shack to the ground?

He didn’t. Neal would.

When I called Neal Sanderson, wife Julie, family historian, answered and we got to talking. Did she know about the Sanderson farm up by Turkey Hill?

Turkey Hill?

She didn’t know it by that name, either. Apparently few do anymore. But she knew the road and cellar holes because her son used to hunt there. She confirmed it had been Neal’s grandfather’s farm, adding that a close relative lived nearby, a milkman. His house also burned to the ground, him in it. Julie said that sometimes when she rides the Whately roads with Neal he points to a woodlot and marvels how difficult it is for even him to imagine he once harvested hay there.

After hanging up, I had to talk to somebody. I called my hunting buddy, the one who had been to Turkey Hill this past spring during, you guessed it, turkey season. I told him what I had just learned, that the cellar holes and the party shack I’d pointed out so many times had gained new personal significance. No wonder those woods are special to me. Kindred spirits. I knew they were there, could feel them.

His reaction was nearly as powerful as mine. He said if he was me he’d put the old-timers in his truck and take them for a ride. Get a feel for the way it used to be before the forest returned. Write it down. Record it.

Sounds like a marvelous idea; essential, in fact, because when memories evaporate they leave no stone-clad craters for posterity, just blithe spirits in a cold, blustery wind.

I know. They whisper in my ear.

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