Building Bridges

Colrain historian Muriel Russell put a bug in my ear this week about a subject she knows I’m fond of, that being my third great-grandfather, Asaph Willis Snow, a carriage-maker who farmed some 350 acres surrounding the old Fort Lucas site of French & Indian War fame.

Russell, a phone pal with whom I share many local interests, knows of my fascination with Snow/Miller ancestors who lived and worked the acreage between the East Colrain burial grounds at the Brick School and Chandler Hill. So she shared her latest discovery of old A.W.’s connection to the Willis Bridge, spanning the North River in a location aptly named Willis Place.

So what, you ask, does this have to do with fish or wildlife? Well, let’s just say there are trout in the rapid stream below, and wildlife is never far in Colrain. Case closed.

Back to Russell, though, she’s now researching, among other things, enterprising Daniel Willis, who emigrated from Sudbury to Colrain in 1794 to establish a woolen mill. A generation later, the man built a charming Federal mansion house of brick, one that came to be known in townie lingo as ”Willis’ Folly,” suggesting he overspent. The stately building, a circa 1820 statement to Willis’ prosperity, still stands on the North’s southern bank, just downstream from the millpond and dam that once powered his primitive machinery. Right beside the Asher Benjamin dwelling is a river-crossing that’s existed for centuries in different forms, the pinnacle of which was a covered bridge likely built during the third quarter of the 19th century. All that remains today of that West County landmark are sepia-toned photos, reminders of the Willis Covered Bridge built by skilled local hands.

According to 1859-60 Colrain documents Russell recently uncovered, titled ”Rebuilding the Willis Bridge,” A.W. Snow was the chief laborer, earning $58.55 of the total $182.11 expenditure. That 32 percent share of the outlay was paid for labor ($55.50) and materials ($3.05 for paint, oil and nails). Iron worker Luther Graves earned the next largest portion, receiving $35.88 for his services, while Snow’s brother-in-law neighbor Hugh Bolton Miller was paid $12.10 for timbers. Two years later, 1861-62 town records reveal that Snow was paid $20 for additional bridge work. Because the records do not itemize specific chores, Russell is unsure whether the site’s first covered bridge was being built or if it was an open plank-bridge that was later covered. Historically, it could have been either.

It is unclear what covered bridge was America’s first, but it is known the first one appeared around 1805. Timothy Palmer (1751-1821), a New Englander from Newburyport, had a hand in most of the early covered bridges in the Northeast. I have seen him described as a millwright, master carpenter, architect and engineer, so call him what you choose but he was definitely our top bridge-builder of the day and is generally credited with designing the template for America’s first covered bridges. Palmer’s open-timber truss bridge in Amesbury was built in 1792 and “weather-boarded” in 1810 to become Massachusetts’ first covered bridge.

Although covered bridges appeared in western Massachusetts a generation before 1860, Russell has found that most of Colrain’s bridges were covered between 1870-1890, lending credence to a later date at Willis Place. But when you consider that a skilled laborer brought home less than $10 a week in 1860, the expenditure for the Willis Bridge suggests it could have been covered at that time. Subsequent research may soon prove a later date, but it’s not out of the question that A.W. Snow built Colrain’s first covered bridge around 1860 at Willis Place.

It is written that Snow followed his father, Colonel David Snow of Heath, into the carpentry trade, and there is no reason to doubt it. His father was a prolific builder in Heath and Charlemont during the first three decades of the 19th century, with the Heath Congregational Church (1833) and Community Hall (1834) among his major accomplishments. He apprenticed under John Ames, builder of the Ashfield Congregational Church, and probably introduced son Asaph to his trade at a young age. Russell’s recent discovery makes it clear that, despite specializing as a carriage-maker/wheelwright beginning in the late 1820s in Colrain Center, A.W. Snow never forgot his father’s tutelage in structural design. This revelation begs the question of how many dwellings, barns and sheds he helped construct during 50-plus years residing on three contiguous East Colrain farms he at one time or another owned, not to mention abutting properties owned by in-laws. And you have to wonder how often his dad assisted? Better still, how many chests of drawers, tables and stands scattered about this county were made by the two Snow joiners? It’s anyone’s guess, but there must be some. Didn’t all rural carpenters of that period dabble in ”country” furniture?

There are, of course, several peripheral mysteries borne of Russell’s recent findings: questions about the woolen industry, the relationship between fullers and carders and clothiers, the woolen-industry genesis in New England and Colrain. And how about Daniel Willis? What pulled him to our western hills, North River and the woolen industry? How did he meet wife Martha Snow, Asaph’s aunt, David’s sister? Was it through brother-in-law clothier Jacob Snow of Heath, Col. David’s older brother? Had the two clothiers crossed paths before moving here? If so, how, considering one came from Sudbury, the other Wilton, N.H.? Fascinating stuff, fertile ground for succulent historical fruit.

Enough! … But, please, before I go, a little tease.

Suppose I were to suggest that David Snow, a virtual stranger to me upon moving to Greenfield in 1997, built the second-story, spring-floor ballroom that spans the wing of my historic Greenfield tavern. Being one of less than a handful of local joiners capable of building such a hall in the 1830s, it’s eminently possible. But there’s more. The man who paid for this ”grand improvement” to an existing structure was from Charlemont and clearly would have, at the very least, known of Snow’s expertise as a builder. Not only that but he purchased from the Charlemont quarry enough flagstone flooring for simultaneous porch construction. If willing to transport cumbersome stone by oxcart from the place he was leaving, isn’t it likely he’d also employ familiar builders? It makes sense.

So, the deeper I dig, the more probable it becomes that the spirit of my fourth-great-grandfather permeates the place I call home. Tell me, please: if true, could it be coincidence? Happenstance? A fluke? Personally, I find that hard to believe.

I sense it’s more profound, which is as spiritual as I get. But that’s enough for now; perhaps even a step too far. Chalk it up as playful pondering — tavern fare, a little out of the ordinary.

I too build bridges.

Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.
Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

2 Responses to Building Bridges

Leave a Reply

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

Mad Meg theme designed by BrokenCrust for WordPress © | Top