Labor Day Memory

Wednesday, September 6 wakes to damp, gray light, with lacy ground fog blanketing spongy meadows. Evocative indeed. Almost spooky.

Striding at my normal brisk pace up the first half-mile of my daily morning walk around the neighborhood, I find Green River Road still streetlamp-lit as the gap between dawn and dusk continues to narrow, daybreak delivered a wee bit later each day. My feet moving, pulse rising, I deeply inhale to open my jets.

My cranial wheels will soon be whirling to a high hum, thoughts dipping and darting like a feeding hummingbird from one topic to another as I walk familiar ground. Most often, they flow down historic streams bubbling with local perspective. I guess some would call it sense of place, which I hesitate to use these days. I’d hate for someone to label me “woke,” whatever that means. If defined as introspective, analytical, and seeking a better way, count me in.

Often, walking alone as light filters in, I imagine what this neighborhood looked like when the paved road was no more than a footpath, a cart-path, a shortcut traversing wetland meadow leading to the old Jonathan Smead saltbox. Considered the oldest house in Greenfield, the Smead homestead stood sentry on the raised eastern overlook. It was built as early as 1739, ancient for colonial settlement in the upper Meadows.

On this day, however, my holiday thoughts take an abrupt turn down Memory Lane, which I enjoy traveling. Perhaps I have been nudged there by cool hints of autumn in the air, by dabs of faint color in some trees, by emerging roadside yellows and purples, and by loose, dry maple leaves crunching underfoot in places. The message is clear. Soon my woodstove will be radiating soothing dry heat for another season ending in May.

The place where my thoughts meandered on this holiday morning was spontaneous, yet totally predictable. I leaped back 41 years to the early-morning hours of September 6, 1982. Labor Day fell on that day that year, when my first-born child and namesake son was born in Northampton. Though he left this world 13 years ago following aortal dissection and botched surgery, I think of him often, especially alone and snuggled into an inner chamber I love to occupy.

Whether quietly walking a hardwood spine where shagbark hickories and black bears roam or slogging through a thorny marsh where cock pheasants crow and partridge drum, thoughts of Gary and his late younger brother Ryan waft through my consciousness like whistling winter breezes. I always welcome such thoughts, be they in the warmth of peaceful dreams or the chill of a frosty winter hunting stand with my back to a stonewall or twin red pine.

My wife, Joey, calls such occurrences “visitations,” which I don’t challenge or try to explain. When the time is right, they just happen.

But why digress? Back to Joey’s Labor Day labor pains and Gary’s holiday birth, which couldn’t have come at a worse time for me. You see, he chose to arrive on decision day of Athol’s annual holiday softball tournament, for which I had found a sponsor and assembled a team of former hardball players who could handle about anything thrown their way.

The annual Pequoig League Labor Day Tournament was a double-elimination affair that attracted at least 24 modified-pitch teams accustomed to playing a faster brand of semi-fast softball than Franklin County offered. The leagues from Athol, Gardner, the North Shore, and Keene, New Hampshire allowed bunting and stealing, not to mention hard-throwing pitchers known in softball lingo as “slingers.” Though these pitchers couldn’t use the 360-degree, fastpitch windmill windup, they were allowed to stretch modified rules by pivoting their hand and wrist out at the apex of their backswing to above their head and snapping it at release to increase velocity and ball movement.

It was a great way to end the season for a pickup team of old Franklin County hardball players who loved the challenge of knucklers, risers, and sizzling heat that could be heard up and in.

At 29 I was the oldest positional player on our team, but not by a wide margin over some. Readers will recognize the Powertown players, such as Bobby Bourbeau, Mike Parenteau, Fran Togneri, and Ray Zukowski. The rest of the roster included my South Deerfield chums, people like Matty Murphy, Eddie Skribiski, Glenn Deskavich, and Big Richie Kellogg. Top to bottom, that lineup came to play and could handle anything thrown its way.

On that final day of the steamy three- or four-day tourney, our hand-picked skeleton crew was marching into Silver Lake Park for the winners-bracket finals against the tourney favorite, a veteran Keene team with fireballer Tim “Whitey” Lepisto on the mound. Gametime was 11:15, and a large, boisterous crowd was expected.

Because our barebones roster had no depth, there was no room for injury or emergency. How do you find a capable ballplayer willing to sacrifice his Labor Day Weekend by sitting the bench as a backup? It’s not fair.

Winners-bracket finals are always huge. The unbeaten winner moves into the driver’s seat, needing one more win for the championship. The loser falls into the losers’-bracket final, needing to win that game and then beat the winners’-bracket foe back-to-back in the championship finals.

I can’t pretend to have been unaware that my wife’s pregnancy could interfere with my availability before I submitted the tourney entry fee. But her late-August due date convinced me to roll the dice, confident everything would work out. It was wishful thinking. You’d have to have known Gary – or both of us, for that matter – to truly understand the long odds against smooth sailing.

Sure enough, the pressure-cooker started to whistle as the tourney approached with Joey more than a week overdue – not uncommon for first pregnancies, we were told. By the time the tourney opened and the pregnancy endured, all I could do was hope and pray to the hunter-gatherer gods that the birth could wait until after Labor Day.

Not to be. Go figure.

When Joey awoke with labor pains at around 4 a.m., I called a teammate to apprise him of the unfortunate situation. Hopefully, I told him, the birth would happen fast. I’d get there as soon as possible. If I didn’t make it for the first pitch, they’d have to play a man short, without a fourth outfielder, like the real game. By 4:30, less than seven hours before the scheduled first pitch, we were off to the Northampton hospital.

We went straight to the emergency room, where Joey was assessed. With fetal distress detected, an emergency C-section was ordered and the holiday scramble was on. A surgeon was found, and I attended the birth, hung around awhile, and was informed that my wife needed rest. It would be best to give her space and let her rest for several hours of post-op recovery. Music to my ears.

Before 11 a.m., I was on my way to Athol with no hope of playing.

I arrived at Silver Lake Park with Keene at bat and up by two runs, I think either 3-1 or 5-3, in the top of the seventh inning. After witnessing the final two outs from the bench with scorekeeper Brudger Bialecki, I went to the third-base coaching box for our last at-bat. I want to say the storied Lepisto was pitching. He was a hurler with many state titles and Nationals victories under his belt. (But, remember, it was four decades ago. I could be conflating one tourney with another. Does it really matter?)

Down to our final three outs, we rallied to load the bases with two outs, sending always-dangerous slugger Murphy to the plate. It was high drama before a festive holiday crowd ringing the fence-enclosed diamond. Murphy was always a tough out and, as usual, he worked the count to 3 and 2. Then, with one mighty swing of the bat, he ended the game in dramatic fashion – sending a towering, game-winning grand-slam home run over the left-center-field fence.

I can’t say for sure, but do believe we went on to win that tournament. If not, we were runner-up. Honestly, I can’t remember. Don’t forget, I was at the time hopelessly ensnared in more pressing family distractions – ones that raced down Memory Lane like a bolt of flashback lightning on that recent, crack-of-dawn, Labor Day ramble around my neighborhood.

It now seems like ancient history to me as I grow old. I have outlived my sons, and competitive local men’s softball leagues have followed the passenger pigeon’s poignant path. What remains are happy memories and fleeting, ghostly “visitations” that come and go like blustery winds. Never ignore their gentle knocks on the back door. Invite them in to savor joyous reminiscence.

Timber Rattler on Deerfield Mountain

Measuring a property’s perimeter for a new fence can be hazardous to your health.

Potential dangers include but are not limited to stepping in an unseen hole and spraining an ankle, disturbing an underground yellowjacket nest resulting in a pantlegful of angry hornets, and perhaps tripping over an old, rusty, hidden strand of barbed wire and taking a hard, injurious fall.

Then there’s the problem Whately fence contractor Dan LaValley encountered in April – one he wasn’t expecting.

Walking a measuring wheel to determine the length of the back property line for the last house on Juniper Drive in the Pine Nook section of Deerfield, the L&L Fence Company general manager’s tool hit something concealed in six-inch, unmowed spring grass and got stuck. Not an uncommon occurrence; he paid little attention, figuring he had flipped a stick that hit his measuring device.

He soon learned otherwise, discovering it was in fact not a harmless stick. He had disturbed a timber rattlesnake, stretched out near a Goshen-stone wall.

“I looked into the long grass, heard a rattle, and saw a snake curled into a strike position,” he said. “So I, of course, jumped back, then actually finished measuring.”

LaValley went to his truck to retrieve a six-foot level and his cell phone before returning to the scene and finding that the black, four- to five-foot rattler hadn’t moved far. He stood back and snapped off a few photos of it stretched out in the grass. When the snake curled into a defensive pose and rattled, LaValley snapped off a blurry shot of its head, ready to strike out in front of its coiled body, recorded a short video of it rattling, and vacated the scene.

He showed his video and photos around in the days that followed, but had erased them from his phone by the time I got wind of the incident on the Fourth of July and queried him by email soon thereafter. He was, however, able to recover two photos from his computer, and emailed them to me. One showed the beautiful, black rattler stretched out in the grass. The other displayed it coiled and ready to rumble.

“I’m not a snake guy, lol, and usually run in the other direction,” he wrote in a subsequent email. “I deleted the photos and video from my phone because I got sick of scrolling past them.”

Among the many people he showed his evidence to was an Environmental Police Officer friend who confirmed it was a rattlesnake. It was likely hunting mice, chipmunks, and red squirrels in a feeding lair near the tidy, modern stone wall about 40 feet from the house. In April it would have recently come out of a winter den populated by several other rattlers. Snakes come out of hibernation in the spring hungry and ready to feed through the forest and meadow.

So, take it to the bank that this mature snake was not a solitary traveler – there are undoubtedly others nearby. But you’d have to be very unlucky, or stupid, to get bit. Timber rattlesnakes, which run in color from black to various shades of brown, are endangered species in Massachusetts, and thus protected. They avoid conflict if possible. State law forbids people from harassing, chasing, disturbing, capturing, harming, or killing timber rattlesnakes.

As it turns out, this recent Deerfield Mountain sighting was personal vindication of sorts for me. Many years ago during this millennium, I wrote a series of Greenfield Recorder outdoor columns about rattlesnakes. Although my impetus is irrelevant, it was most likely related to a hike I took with a friend and a Mount Holyoke College geologist to the summit of Mount Nonotuck, which overlooks Northampton from the south. We were there to investigate a long-forgotten lithic chert source once mined for stone tool material by ancient Native Americans from our slice of the Connecticut Valley.

Nonotuck is the southernmost ridge of the Mount Tom Range, which curls south toward West Springfield along the western shore of the Connecticut River and is one of the state’s strongholds for venomous rattlers and copperheads. This I knew as we poked around on a high lonesome talus slope.

I was also aware, from historical research, that rattlesnakes were common “inconveniences” throughout the Connecticut Valley and most of early New England through the 19th century, and that they are associated with talus slopes.

When I wrote about rattlers in Franklin County locations like the Pocumtuck Range in Deerfield, Rocky Mountain in Greenfield, and nearby Rattlesnake Mountain in southern New Hampshire, across the river from Brattleboro, Vermont, many readers a generation older than me chimed in with personal rattlesnake recollections. One respondent, a woman, wrote of a well-known den on undeveloped land around today’s Cherry Rum Place in Greenfield. Another source identified the rocky ridge from Poet’s Seat Tower to the mouth of Fall River as a Greenfield hotspot.

My own cursory research identified the Mount Toby range in Sunderland, Montague and Leverett as a known rattlesnake lair, with North Leverett’s Rattlesnake Gutter still displayed on maps.

Given what I had heard from emailers and knew from my own travels – including a personal encounter during my land-surveying days with a nest of rattlers basking on sunny ledge along the Mass Pike in Russell or Becket – I wrote that someone who knew where to look could likely still kick up a rattler along the eastern slope of Mount Sugarloaf, or on a secluded shale bed I know in the Conway State Forest.

In response to that prediction came an email from a trail runner or hiker who often toured the Deerfield Mountain ridge trail between the Eaglebrook School ski slope and Stage Road in South Deerfield. There he claimed to have encountered a big rattler crossing the trail in front of him. Intimately familiar with that ridge trail myself, I asked him to pinpoint the sighting. He located it near a threatening “No Trespassing” sign warning violators that survivors would be prosecuted.

That’s all I needed to know. The signs were those of my childhood friend “Fast Eddie” Urkiel, a notorious game bandit widely known and aggressively pursued by game wardens till the day he died. His woodlot’s southern boundary, marked by that threatening warning, is less than a mile up the hill to the west from LaValley’s encounter.

I rest my case.

Was it not predictable that timber rattlers would ride the comeback trail to Franklin County due to reforestation and global warming? Now it’s advisable to learn where dangerous snakes lurk. It’s wise to be cautious, not terrified. We can co-exist just fine, thank you.

Fourth-Grade Photo Stirs Childhood Memories

A 60-year-old photo posted recently on Facebook by a former classmate really got my wheels spinning.

Shot on the final day of school in June 1963, the black-and-white image appeared on Deerfield Now. It showed my fourth-grade class standing on the front granite stairs leading into the two-story, brick South Deerfield Elementary School that then stood on Conway Street, which in those days was Route 116. The building long ago met the wrecking ball, clearing the way for the Deerfield police station.

Our teacher was Nancy Judd, from the family that owned Turners Falls’ Judd Wire. To us she was Miss Judd. In fact, I wouldn’t have known her first name had it not been provided by the Facebook submitter.

Miss Judd was young and innovative – a breath of invigorating air on a staff dominated by old bats. She was by far the best grammar-school teacher I had. Easy for me to say now. The rest of my grammar-school teachers are dead. Which doesn’t mean I’d hesitate to criticize most if they were still among the living. Uh-uh. In this case, it’s not necessary.

My path to Miss Judd was a stroke of dumb luck. Strictly a right-place, right-time dynamic. It happens. I was the beneficiary. If I’m not mistaken, she was a one-year wonder. She popped briefly into my young life, like a hummingbird feeding through a flowerbed, and was gone soon after school ended. She got married, became Mrs. Coughlin, and soon transitioned into an office job at her family business.

At least that’s my recollection. Don’t hold me to it. It was long ago. I wonder if she’s alive? It’s possible. She’d likely be in her mid-80s.

Although I can’t say how many of my pictured classmates survive, I know the two friends I’m standing between are gone. One received a tough cancer-recurrence diagnosis after recuperating from unrelated open-heart surgery, and chose a bullet over surgical intervention. The other drank himself into the grave, 50 years after murdering his younger brother with a serrated steak knife during a drunken scrap over the last piece of cheese available for wee-hour ham sandwiches at their parents’ home. The suicide victim and both brothers were my friends. Life takes strange turns.

That said, I can’t say my first thoughts went there upon viewing the photo.

What immediately came to mind was the summer that followed – when I accompanied my maternal grandparents on a retirement tour of the Midwest. We started by driving the New York State Thruway to Niagara Falls, then stayed with family in Illinois and Minnesota.

The trip gave me my first peek into Black urban poverty, driving through the Gary, Indiana ghetto. Then I was introduced to desolate, rural, Native American poverty on the high plains of South Dakota. There I still vividly recall tattered sheets of flimsy plastic window coverings flapping in sultry prairie breezes. Both glimpses shocked an impressionable, small-town boy from South Deerfield.

My grandfather’s sister, Delia (Keane) Berg, owned a bar and restaurant in Stockton, Illinois, joined to her son John’s downtown gun and tackle shop. Both establishments attracted a steady stream of chatty Midwestern characters. Stockton, a farm town, was an interesting place, a tasty slice of latter-day Mark Twain’s riverboat America.

John Berg, my mother’s first cousin, was then about 30. He took me fishing on the Mississippi River, brought me along to a friend’s dairy farm to reduce a nuisance pigeon population, and taught me how to catch pond snapping turtles on baited overnight droplines attached to floating plastic jugs.

The highlight of my extended Illinois stay was a Sunday dinner of baked snapping turtle prepared by Great-Aunt Delia. It was delicious and unforgettable, to this day my only snapping-turtle feast. Delia told me in her Irish brogue that snappers offered an assortment of seven different types of meat from under one shell. Though I sampled them all, don’t ask me to name them. I know three were beef, pork and chicken. Maybe lamb, too. That’s the best I can do.

Our next stop was Minnesota, the so-called “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” My mother’s older brother Bob lived in a northern Twin Cities suburb of St. Paul named New Brighton. My late uncle, a World War II vet and Georgia Tech graduate, was a well-paid electrical engineer at Honeywell. He had four children close in age to me, including a namesake son who would be killed as a teen 10 years later when his car was struck by a train near his rural Saugerties, New York, home.

Salient memories from my extended Minnesota visit included discovering tiny snapping turtles hatching from the sandy, undercut bank of a backyard “crick,” learning about developing film and making black-and-white prints in my uncle’s well-equipped cellar darkroom, and shooting trap and skeet at the local sportsmen’s club.

From there we embarked on a camping adventure through South Dakota and eastern Wyoming – what I would then have called “cowboys and Indians” territory. We visited the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, the gold rush town of Deadwood, the Badlands, and Devils Tower, all of which left deep impressions.

I saw my first buffalos, visited the saloon where Wild Bill Hickok was killed by Jack McCall, fed wild Badlands burros, and even found an Indian artifact I still own in the small creek flowing through our campsite on the prairie-dog infested Devils Tower plain.

At Mount Rushmore, I met Benjamin Black Elk (BBE), a Sioux Native of the high plains, who joined us for a lunch of buffalo burgers and fries. His calm dignity impressed me greatly.

My grandfather, a Galway Bay native and kisser of the Blarney Stone, had the so-called Irish gift of gab. He struck up a conversation with the Oglala Lakota elder dressed e struck up a conversation \in full Native regalia, headdress and all, as he shook hands and promoted the now-classic Western movie How the West Was Won, in which he had a bit part. When an invitation to join us for lunch was accepted, I got the opportunity to meet him up close and personal.

BBE was the son of iconic holy man Black Elk, a Custer’s Last Stand witness who knew Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and many other warriors associated with the famous 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn. In 1932, Black Elk collaborated with poet John G. Neihardt to write Black Elk Speaks, a classic anthropological work that’s still in print and widely read. We knew nothing of it at the time.

I realize now that that glorious summer, combined with Miss Judd’s enlightening fourth-grade class that preceded it, were the high points of my uninspiring 13-year journey through Deerfield’s public schools.

It was all downhill after 1963, beginning with the hiring of a new, sadistic elementary principal named Dan McAllister, who greeted me to fifth grade with an evil snarl. McAllister was an angry, handicapped man who acted upon his frustrations by intimidating boys to tears in his office – a small, stuffy room situated off a landing halfway up the staircase. He would invite you in for disciplinary matters, and close the door behind you. His next move was a firm grip with thumb and forefinger on the back of your neck, followed by the vicious threat to smash your head through the east wall.

In today’s world the man wouldn’t last six months in a Massachusetts school. He’d be disgraced by news accounts, never again to torment helpless young schoolboys.

Two years of dealing with that man’s cruelty under puberty’s spell didn’t teach me to curl into a fetal ball of submission. No, it taught me to hate, to fight back, and to question authority. Before the calendar moved into 1964, toward the final bell of a November fifth-grade afternoon, President Kennedy was shot in Dallas, igniting the tempestuous Sixties. When I got home, Kennedy was dead, and my mother was bawling. I will never forget it.

Soon the sound of protest and the smell of tear gas were in the air as Vietnam lingered on, political assassinations continued, cities burned, Nixon was reborn, and challenging authority became cool.

Even the likes of sinister Dan McAllister, with the fearful “clump, clump, clump” of his elevated shoe hitting the wooden floor, could not stem the idealistic tide. I followed autodidactic paths to knowledge, and found a few college mentors to nudge me in the right direction.

I found a way.

Shad Run Ain’t What It Used To Be

Early June – front yard sweetened in pink weigelia, peony and mock-orange fragrance – 2023’s Connecticut River American shad run down to a trickle.

Although the announced June 8 tally of 269,720 could grow slightly by the time all fish passageways are closed, it’ll be irrelevant. The run’s over. Chalk it up as another so-so spring run, in keeping with recent trends. Although the number is about 80,000 better than last year’s, it pales in comparison to the glory years – 1983, 1984, 1991, and 1992 – when over a million shad entered the river, and to many other years with a half-million or more. Since 1976, the average run stands at 316,415.

The numbers don’t mean what they once did. Officials stopped compiling a total Connecticut River basin count in 2017. Now the tally is limited to shad passing the counting stations at the West Springfield and Holyoke dams.

From my punky perch high in the crown of an old, riverside sycamore, the Connecticut River anadromous-fisheries program seems to have taken a significant step back due to reduced funding since the cooperative, multi-faceted Atlantic Salmon Restoration Program died in 2011. Plain and simple, the cash cow was slain when the salmon-restoration plug was pulled.

With salmon now out of the mix – four thus far this year, none last year – the landscape has changed, and it’s starting to show in the fish-passage infrastructure. For years, migration past the Turners Falls dam has been under attack as ineffective. Now, the Rainbow Dam on Connecticut’s Farmington River is closed due to poor performance. So there you have it: one less outpost on a beautiful, important Connecticut River tributary. It promises to get worse in the years to come, as climate change sounds a death knell of rising river temperatures and shifting migration ranges.

I have now reported on the annual upstream migration of shad and other fish through our valley for parts of five decades. That would include American and gizzard shad, alewife and blueback herring, American eel and sea lamprey, striped bass, shortnose sturgeon, and still even an occasional wayward Atlantic salmon. My primary focus has always been gamefish. That means salmon, American shad, and, to a lesser extent over the past quarter-century, stripers. I have also watched with interest the demise of blueback-herring runs, which once far outnumbered shad and are now reduced to irrelevance.

By a wide margin, American shad are the gamefish of our annual spring migrations, and many recreational anglers take advantage of the approximately six-week-long sporting opportunity. The annual run begins in late April, when water temperatures rise into the 50s Fahrenheit, and peaks when river temps reach into the 60s. It stops when they rise into the upper 60s and low 70s, signaling spawning time. Then shad establish fixed spawning lairs and stop running.

This I have learned not only from personal observation during many enjoyable years of shad fishing, but also from countless conversations and email correspondence with experts employed by a network of state and federal agencies.

As a longtime recipient of the weekly Connecticut River anadromous-fish-migration reports issued by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, I look forward to them, and have learned to independently interpret numbers that ebb and flow relative to river flow-rates and water temperature. Once snowmelt is out to sea from the upper extremes of the Connecticut Valley in northern Vermont and New Hampshire, river temperature and volume are controlled exclusively by the weather, especially rainfall.

River temperatures rise during clear, sunny, warm weather and drop during the inevitable flooding brought by spring rains. The mix of rising river temperatures and a moderate, steady flow produces optimal shad runs. On the other hand, the runs slow dramatically when heavy rain events raise the river to turbulent flood levels and drop the water temperature.

Whether these dynamics would exist on a Connecticut River without dams is a question worth pondering, because some of the migration slowdown caused by flooding results from temporary closure of fish passageways at overburdened dams. Nonetheless, my sense is that even without dams, the flood waters would slow shad and other migrating fish, which seek refuge along the edges during turbulent events.

In a perfect world for shad runs, snowmelt and spring rains would raise the river slow and steady to a crest, then gradually recede through to the peak, after which the shallows become calm for optimal spawning. But it never quite happens that way. Instead, weather events produce erratic annual runs. Nonetheless, by early June, the run is typically over, and spawning has begun.

I vividly recall one notable exception to this formula. Relying on memory alone, I would have said my recollection occurred on Memorial Day weekend in 1984; however, thanks to a tool I wouldn’t have had back then, I Googled it and found that the flooding event actually took place on the weekend after the holiday, the worst occurring between June 1 and 4.

I was a 30-year-old (soon to be 31) Greenfield Recorder sportswriter at the time, with a weekly outdoor column running each Thursday. The Recorder was then an afternoon paper with a Saturday a.m. edition that necessitated Friday split-shifts, with a skeleton night crew responsible for production of the Saturday morning paper. My Friday-night post was the so-called “sports slot,” with a midnight deadline for production of the sports section. I’d work to a furious deadline crescendo, wait for the press to roll, take one last look at my pages, and head for the South Deerfield Polish Club for last call to wind down before hitting the hay.

That June 1, driving home to South Deerfield during the midnight hour, I had to drive a quarter-mile or more through foot-deep floodwater that spilled over onto Route 5 between the current Old Deerfield Antiques shop and the northern entry into Old Deerfield. The river crested at 15 feet above flood stage the next afternoon in Hartford, Connecticut, temporarily halting what would become the second straight shad run of more than a million.

When all was said and done and the river finally settled down, the river-basin shad count was 1.231 million, which stands today as the third-best run since numbers have been kept. The previous year produced the second-best total, 1.574 million, bettered only by 1992’s record 1.628. The only other count to top a million was 1991’s total of 1.196.

Those numbers will almost certainly never again be approached.

Back then I was then an avid shad angler, making my own lures by soldering stainless-steel willow-leaf blades to large, hollow, stainless-steel hooks. My preferred tackle for the Holyoke tailrace was an 8½-foot graphite fly rod, equipped with 6-weight sink-tip line, rigged with a creative string of leaders separated by bead-chain trolling sinkers. I had learned this deadly setup from commercial fly-tier “Indian Al” Niemiec, founder of Indian Nymphs and Flies, later politically corrected to Native American Nymphs and Flies.

Once sinker adjustments were to deliver the willow leaf at the proper level in the migration channel, the action was incredible. Many a day we left the site arm-weary, following several enjoyable hours of toe-to-toe battles with pugnacious shad.

Because that ’84 flood delayed the run for weeks, I was still catching shad hand over fist into July, working a busy channel three-quarters of the way across the Deerfield River below the mouth of the South River. I had shifted to trout-fishing on that familiar stretch of river with a precious 4-weight Tonkin-cane rod after things slowed down in Holyoke. I remember fishing dry flies and cream-colored Caddis Emergers there on my 31st birthday, June 30, when I noticed the unmistakable silver flash of small shad schools passing up the channel.

No problem. I dug into my vest for the Velcro-sealed fabric bag that held my extra spool of sink-tip line, snapped it into place, and had a blast catching shad on light tackle with a variety of colorful streamers. Though I feared breaking my delicate Thomas & Thomas Hendrickson bamboo rod, it passed the test with backbone to spare.

I returned to the scene for three days with heavier shad-fishing gear and homemade willow-leaf lures, and enjoyed continued success. Then came the Fourth of July holiday, by which time I found shad circling spawning beds in the shallows. Experience told me the season was over.

I briefly stood still to observe the spawning ritual, knowing they would no longer strike shiny objects. Then I turned tail to hike back up the steep deer run to my Jeep and call it a season – one extended a month by a flood the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the Hurricane of 1936.

It was a year to remember in Mother Nature’s classroom – my kinda place.

Turkey Talk

I enjoyed a fascinating spring turkey season and never handled a gun.

Who needs one? Not me. Not now.

After many blissful decades of roaming through marsh, meadow, and high lonesome hardwood spines hunting fur, fish, and feathers, I’m now perfectly content as an elder observer. Whether touring the road on my daily daybreak rambles circling a neighborhood where wildlife sightings are common, or hiking a wooded trail, I stay alert to the sights and sounds of nature. I look. I listen. I evaluate. No need for a deafening roar and jarring recoil finale. To me, observation and analysis, stitched in introspection, is more than enough.

Take for example the recently-concluded, four-week, spring turkey season, during which I was thoroughly entertained by a gobbler I wasn’t hunting. That’s not surprising. Wild turkeys have fascinated me since they entered the local scene some six decades ago. Though younger folks accustomed to often seeing turkeys may find it difficult to fathom, I remember a day not long ago when there were none.

Hard to imagine, huh? But true.

Around 1960, when I was a boy, the turkey situation in my world was about to change. First, New York devised a plan that reintroduced turkeys to the Hudson Valley by capturing surplus Pennsylvania birds for release there. The initiative worked to perfection and set into motion a string of events that ultimately re-established a thriving, sustainable turkey population in New England as well.

As New York’s turkey population grew and expanded, birds started crossing into southwestern Vermont, where state wildlife biologists wanted more. To meet that goal, Vermont forged a trap-and-release agreement with New York that paid immediate dividends. Then, with turkey populations rapidly spreading along our borders with New York and Vermont, birds inevitably started appearing in western Massachusetts habitat in Berkshire and northwestern Franklin counties – including border towns like Leyden, Colrain, Heath, and Rowe.

Enter bespectacled, professorial MassWildlife biologist Jim Cardoza, who in 1969 became Massachusetts’ first Turkey Project Leader. I got to know Cardoza well. We often discussed turkey-restoration on the phone or at events as he pulled the strings on his successful program, which has since the Seventies delivered us to our current status. The success story was a colorful feather in Cardoza’s fedora, opposite the one saluting his similarly successful reign as state Bear Project Leader.

By the time Cardoza retired in 2009, a state that had zero turkeys when he joined MassWildlife now had them interfering with city traffic.

When Massachusetts spring turkey hunting was reborn in the spring of 1980, precious few permits were issued by lottery, and hunting was limited to a small swath of western Massachusetts. Back then, permits were tough to get, and turkeys were hard to find. Not anymore. Now wild turkeys are everywhere, including neighborhoods like mine, where I’m never surprised when a hen scoots through the backyard.

Before becoming a turkey hunter I was a turkey-restoration chronicler. I kept readers apprised of new measures enacted under a gold-standard management scheme, including trap-and-release programs aimed at populating eastern Massachusetts counties all the way to the tip of Cape Cod’s final frontier. I also tracked and compared weekly and annual harvests along with writing many personal-interest stories for the local rag about turkey hunters. I still feel today like a beneficiary of the Cardoza team’s masterful plan, despite deciding about a decade ago to retire my camo and lock down my shotgun.

I didn’t stop hunting because the thrill was gone. Honestly, there is nothing quite like the heart-pounding process of calling an amorous tom to the gun from its daybreak roost. It’s exhilarating. Exciting. Captivating. Many times I have articulated the experience to prospective hunters, informing them that if their blood doesn’t boil to a gobbling turkey closing in fast and loud, they have no pulse.

Yet for me, the kill was never the greatest satisfaction, and it got old. Why kill such a beautiful creature? My wife won’t eat wild fish, fowl, or game, and I ain’t hungry.

Nonetheless, I still enjoy observing turkeys and studying their seasonal patterns. I love to hear the coffee-shop chatter about a dozen longbeards in one winter flock; or mixed flocks exceeding 60 in number feeding through the deer woods; or big, dominant, springtime toms strutting their stuff for the ladies in someone’s backyard. It’s nature. It’s magical. I never tire of watching, listening, and learning.

Which brings us to a neighborhood boss gobbler that captured my fancy this spring – a garrulous tom that brightened the first leg of my daily daybreak romp around the neighborhood. That bird sounded off at the same time every day, rain or shine, warm or cold, windy or calm. He was boisterous in sounding off from various, overnight, sidehill roosts overlooking his fertile meadow and wetland mix.

The commotion began a good two weeks before the season opened on April 24 and continued non-stop through the final week. Like clockwork, he’d deliver his first muffled gobble soon after my sneakers hit the pavement, then many more before I got out of earshot.

He was consistent, for sure, but his distant calls were tough to pinpoint from the road. Too far. I could have easily solved that problem by cutting the distance in half with a pre-dawn walkthrough the meadow. Then I could have marked him, set up in a strategic spot, and called him to me if that was my goal. It wasn’t. I was content just listening – an art that ripens with age.

I had been listening to that bird’s throaty daybreak gobbles for more than a week when a neighbor called to chat. Toward the end of our rambling conversation, he reported a sighting the previous evening of a gobbler for the ages, beard dangling to the ground, all puffed up and fanned out for a backyard harem of nine hens.

I told him I wasn’t surprised. I had been listening to that bird every morning for more than a week. I knew he was a good one, not to mention an easy target if I wanted to take him. He was, in my humble opinion, ripe for the picking.

His rambunctious gobbling continued right through the final week of the season, when it started to diminish. The mating season was winding down as hens tended nestsful of eggs. Finally, not a peep on the final day or since. Poor devil. With his favorite activity in the rearview, his harem was unavailable. Oh well. That’s life, Big Boy.

To this day, I have not laid eyes on that gobbler, but he taught me something. The lesson learned was that unfavorable weather doesn’t shut down dominant toms’ gobbling. Experience had told me that there was more noise from the roost on clear than cloudy mornings, especially following prolonged spring rain that tended in my experience to shut them down.

I always felt most confident as a hunter on the first clear morning following rain, figuring the toms would gobble their fool heads off to greet clear skies offering optimal range.

Now I know that’s not true – at least not for the boss gobbler I monitored this spring. It surprised me to hear him gobble a couple of times the morning I got caught in a sudden downpour that drenched me to the bone. Even on that stormy morning, with big, heavy, saturating drops pouring down, he was determined to establish his presence.

It surprised me. During my hunting days, I had low expectations in rainy weather. In fact, I recall many silent mornings in wet woods – even when I was doing everything in my power to initiate a gobble with a variety of owl hoots, crow calls, and plaintive hen yelps and clucks. Even desperate fly-down cackles couldn’t get a response.

Back then, my rule of thumb was to stay home in rainy weather and be there on the first clear morning when lustful gobbles would fill the air with or without my inducements. Given what I witnessed this spring, I’d tweak my strategy a tad if I was still hunting. Wet weather would not present discouragement. I now understand that, when hunting a king of the mountain like the bird I encountered this spring, he’ll gobble in a hurricane.

It took me a long time to figure that out. Too long. Stern old schoolmarm Sentience finally set me straight.

Kids’ Stuff: South Deerfield Memories

Looking for a hook to hang my hat on, so to speak, spun me into reminiscence leading up to my May 7 “Deerfield 350th Founders’ Day” talk.

The topic was the earliest settlement of Bloody Brook, or Muddy Brook – names that were interchangeable between the 1750s and 1840s for a village now called South Deerfield. My problem was that so very little is known about its groundbreaking days. I wanted to pull the audience in with something light before launching into a long-overdue look at the history of a place that has been ignored by historians in a town where history is important.

Rather than imagining what it was like to roam the mile-and-a-half-long path that connected the first handful of forgotten dwellings along what is today Main Street, I decided instead to start with the South Deerfield I knew. That is my childhood town, where spinster great-aunt Gladys annually flowered family graves in the village’s oldest burial ground, Sugarloaf Street Cemetery – that of the founders.

My talk would be delivered from the auditorium lectern at Frontier Regional School, which wasn’t my comfort zone. My legacy in that place was that I couldn’t pass senior English. Oh well. What does it mean a half-century later?

I would have been far more comfortable pointing out interesting features from the driver’s seat of a country drive, or attaching surnames to stone-clad cellar holes lining a wooded walk along some discontinued road, or leading a group up a tidy stone wall to a high, lonesome hardwood spine with oaks, beeches and royal shagbark hickories. I’d be out of my element in an academic auditorium, would try not to bore anyone.

It was worth mentioning that I would be standing on a site that once represented the center of my tiny universe. It was my childhood neighborhood and that of my ancestors dating back to the village’s birth.

In the days leading up to the event, with soft spring pastels stirring my imagination, reminiscence sometimes flowed like surging stormwater. I pondered the approaching presentation for Deerfield’s 350th birthday realizing that I, as an untamed 20-year-old, had attended the 1973 Tercentenary a half century ago. Better still, my ancestors had been there for the 100th and 200th celebrations as well. Many great-grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, cousins, and in-laws had attended the 1835 gala dedication ceremony for a new Bloody Brook Monument, and yes, kinfolk were also on hand in 1875 for the 200-year memorial remembrance of those slain during the infamous September 18, 1675 Indian ambush.

Nine of my great-grandparents and scores of relatives rest downtown in the village’s aforementioned oldest burial ground. I am proud that my DNA indelibly stains that hallowed ground and can never be taken from me. There seem to be few people left in the village with ancestors in that ancient graveyard.

I wanted to share swirling memories that sped back to my wayward youth, when South Deerfield was a rowdy, two-cop town – one by day, the other by night. We had three downtown barber shops, two service stations, a car dealership, five village markets, a bakery with hard-crusted Polish rye, two package stores, and four bars, including one called “Mucker’s.” We even had a cobbler, the village’s last, who fixed our shoes and resoled hardy Chippewa boots.

Oh my, what a cast of characters we had, starting with devilish pharmacist Billy Rotkiewicz. All town news and gossip rolled through his drugstore and soda jerk – first at Professional Pharmacy west of the common, then Frontier Pharmacy south of it. Teenage lover boys and even “liberated” hippie chicks with bold resolve would approach the counter to sheepishly purchase condoms.

“Nope,” Billy would snap like only he could, “Sold out. Spring fever. Try Boron’s Market.”

Stymied on their daring initial attempt, they’d trudge diagonally across Elm Street, where Evelyn Boron worked the till near the front door. When asked for condoms, she’d curl a wry grin and with a faint twinkle inquire, “Let me guess – Billy Rotkiewicz?”

South Deerfield was a hell-raising, fun-loving town back then, with Billy beating the drum to which many of us marched. Seems we were always up to something – cruising the streets after dark and creating all sorts of smalltown mischief, especially around Halloween, which for us started with the first hint of fall foliage. How could we possibly wait till the end of October?

On rare occasions when night cop Pistol Pete Kuchieski caught up with us, he’d wave a stern finger and, in the most intimidating voice he could muster, sternly say, “I know you’re good kids, but this is gonna be your last warning. Next time I’ll have to write you up.”

For most of us it never happened. He was bluffing. Only the most serious offenses would require legal action. Praise the heavens for Pistol Pete. He had a heart, recognized the difference between kids’ stuff and crime, and would tell us straight up that the last thing he wanted to do was to give any of us a record. We sat in the classroom with his own kids.

A colorful character named Robert “Hawk” Wilson was a common attraction on the downtown streets. A small, wiry man, The Hawk staggered around wearing a light-colored cowboy hat and bolo tie with a turquoise slider. He trudged a path between the bars and the drugstore all day, every day. Billy, his most merciless needler, harangued him day and night, and kept him nourished: on the house. Say what you will about Billy; he was, at his core, a big-hearted, mischievous man.

When Hawk approached us on the street, he’d stop to face us down in his best gunfighter pose, arms bowed out to the side like Gary Cooper or Alan Ladd in the old Westerns. We’d take the same posture and draw on him for our daily giggles. “Too late!” he’d bark with a faux snarl. It was great, lighthearted, smalltown fun. Poor Hawk. The end was not kind to him.

I asked the audience to bear with me for one more short digression. I wanted to describe an example of the type or harmless downtown mischief that occupied our time on sticky summer days. I chose a game we played with an elderly target we knew as Yakims. He spoke broken English and, if memory serves me, lived on the corner of Braeburn Road.

Most everyone smoked back then, and Yakims toured the busiest downtown sidewalks salvaging leftover tobacco from large, discarded cigarette butts. When he found a good candidate, he’d pick it up and, between thumb and forefinger, manipulate the tobacco out into a pocket-sized tin. It became the stash from which he rolled his own cigarettes – not the same kind we later rolled in the shadows.

Well, we used to humor ourselves with a playful little game at Yakim’s expense.

We’d lay out sidewalk bait by threading 2- or 4-pound-test monofilament fishing line through long, tempting cigarette butts and hiding around the corner or behind the telephone booth with the other end of the invisible line in hand. When Yakims stooped down to pluck our bait from the sidewalk, we’d give it a little tug and watch a profanity-laced chase ensue. He must have thought a soft summer breeze was depriving him of his treasure. Fun while it lasted – he soon got wise to us, and our downtown sportfishing ceased.

So, that was my intro, followed by brief acknowledgments of those who have helped me most, and a quick list of essential sources I’ve used to understand the mid-18th-century building trades. Then it was off to a 70-minute PowerPoint journey, up one side of North Main Street and down the other. I focused on nine early properties I had researched.

I think it went as well as could be expected, despite never looking at the nine-page, single-spaced narrative I had prepared after finishing the intro. I decided on the fly that it was more important to look at and interact with the folks in the audience. I hope it worked.

I viewed the 90-minute presentation as a starting place, a work in progress that’ll outlive me. I only scratched the surface and stirred up a little dust from the tangled web known as Bloody Brook history, which has thus far been largely ignored.

Hawks Tavern at North Mill River

I have in recent years often wondered: Why is so little known about the old Hawks Tavern in South Deerfield’s North Mill River District?

Now, after finding two previously unidentified shots of the building among a collection of digitized Howes Brothers photos in friend Peter Thomas’ Deerfield’s 350th archive, the question looms even larger. The photos do not depict some backwoods watering hole. No, instead it was a classic, sprawling public house, ballroom and all, supported by neighbors and wayward travelers alike.

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words. Well, this one has even greater value. I took one look at the first black and white photo of a large, worn building, felt a gush of joyful excitement and thought, “Wow! What a building.” Then another B&W appeared. They’re both local treasures. Praise the heavens for the Howes Brothers. Though still a work in progress, the story must be told.

Hawks Tavern stood along the lower eastern Conway line where the old county road parted into two county roads. Both legs headed west-northwest from the crotch to Ashfield and beyond. One ascended Fields Hill and dropped down through Pumpkin Hollow, once Conway’s center with a long common. The other, north of it, crossed the South and Bear rivers before heading to Ashfield and Buckland.

Nestled into a comfortable setting east of that old fork, the tavern had a long presence that likely evolved over three generations of Hawks ownership. An expansive ell doesn’t show in the frontal shots.

The building appears to have been the brainchild of Asa Hawks (1732-1801), who bought some 250 acres in 1788 and opened for business in the 1790s. Son Asa, Jr. and his brother Zeeb entered the picture after their father’s death, and Asa, Jr.’s son Jonathan (1794-1853) and some siblings rode it into the mid-19th century. By then, Hawks dwellings occupied both sides of the road, and the evidence suggests there may have been a third nearby.

Tavernkeeper Jonathan Hawks’ 1853 death signaled the end of family ownership, initiating a series of land transactions concluded by Conway farmer Collister S. May’s 1854 purchase of the tavern stand and 59 acres. He maintained the building’s tradition in reduced form with May’s Tavern – also called May’s Hotel and Mill River Hotel – until his 1886 death. Like other roadside public houses from the tavern-and-turnpike days, the proud old business faded to oblivion with the arrival of the railroad, which transitioned the mode of transit and travel to the steel rail.

Son William May (1869-1944), known to friends and neighbors as Wil, took over the property after his father’s death and shared the home with two sisters in a post-tavern, extended-family arrangement. Older, grocer-meat dealer brother George (1859-1930) was not far away, living on North Main Street, where noises from his slaughterhouse drew his neighbors’ ire.

May heirs started selling off land in 1945, and finally sold the last tavern-associated parcel in 1987.

Few people today seem to be aware that the historic tavern still stands, separated into two neighboring homes along the Mathews Road intersection with Conway Road (Route 116). One half is the dwelling at 300 Conway Road in its original setting, the other a tidy home up the road at 312 Conway Road. The latter was moved in 1911 by Wil May to create an income-generating, two-apartment “tenement,” according to a May 19, 1926 Greenfield Recorder story about a fire that destroyed the upper story. The brief newspaper article reports that the building had once housed the old, upstairs Hawks Tavern “Dance Hall,” or ballroom.

It’s quite possible, if not probable, that the ballroom had a springfloor, if the carriage-shed wing housing it was added after 1830. Such tavern buildings typically evolved over time as profits grew and new generations wanted to add their thumbprint. Documentation of such Hawks Tavern “improvements” seems, unfortunately, to be out of reach today. Very little was ever recorded about the old tavern despite its existence in a history-conscious community with a rich local-history repository.

Surprisingly, preeminent Deerfield historian George Sheldon says nothing about the tavern in his History of Deerfield. The omission makes no sense. Maybe he had a falling out with the Hawks. Sheldon not only lived in Deerfield during the establishment’s heyday, his genealogies profile every associated Hawks without one word about their tavern.

Curious indeed. It’s not like the building was out of sight, out of mind. Located on a busy road to booming Conway and just a hop, skip and a jump from Old Deerfield, the tavern stood on hallowed ground. Across the road, Deerfield’s first mill was built on the Mill River as early as 1689 and in was full operation as a gristmill in the 1690s. Another important historical site rests a half-mile or less up the hill. There Cyrus Rice built Conway’s first dwelling in 1762. Plus, a booming sawmill was in full operation there for most if not all of Sheldon’s life.

Chalk it up as one more glaring example of Sheldon’s snooty Old Deerfield-centric ways, which are blatantly obvious to anyone researching the town’s surrounding villages.

Though I myself was born of South Deerfield roots that reach as deep as Anglo roots there lie, and though I fished through the old mill site many times as a boy, it’s unlikely I would have known of the tavern had not venerable Conway historian and friend Deane Lee told me about it. I used to visit his stately Cricket Hill home, with a beautiful view of Mount Monadnock, to discuss history, genealogy and the surrounding forest.

Because Mr. Lee descended from the North Mill River Lee family (thus Lee Road), he knew of the tavern and, during an impromptu country ride on which he accompanied me, pointed out the two adjacent buildings that were once joined. “It was a busy place in its day,” he said with an engaging twinkle, and I didn’t for a millisecond doubt it.

Many years later, retired Franklin County Engineer and former Greenfield selectman Bill Allen was at the wheel of his full-sized SUV showing me the old Conway-Ashfield county-road layouts. When we passed the Hawks Tavern site he, too, mentioned the two buildings that had once been joined as a single large tavern. “An ideal tavern site because of its location at the fork of two country roads,” he said. “You can bet it was a roaring establishment.”

Despite pointing it out to me, I don’t recall either man using the name Hawks when identifying the tavern site. Thus, I didn’t associate that surname with it. I only knew there had been a public house there.

Then came my recent investigation of ancient South Deerfield deeds, which brought me through the Mill River District, settled in the 1760s and maybe a tad earlier. Months ago, I took Thomas on a little field trip to the old mill site of my trout-fishing days and discovered much had changed. A waterfall I remembered well from fishing its plunge pool was gone, and so was the narrow millpond above. Both features were swept away by a 21st-century flood.

Prior to that, while examining Mill River deeds in my still-unresolved search for the Elijah Arms’ Tavern site in early 19th-century Bloody Brook, I largely ignored several Hawks Tavern references. My focus at the time was elsewhere. Then, after a circuitous route back to Hawks Tavern through a round of Jewett-family research, everything fell into place. I then realized Hawks Tavern was the one Lee and Allen had showed me.

Wanting to investigate further, I revisited the deeds and made contact with a lifelong North Mill River neighbor now living across the road. Octogenarian John Pekarski told me his father knew Wil May and that he himself remembered the old man’s descendants that succeeded him on the property. In fact, Pekarski’s parents had once been tenants of the “Old Dance Hall” apartments.

Then came the Howes Brothers photos. So, fancy that. Hawks Tavern mystery in the rearview.

In the meantime, family-history researchers chasing Hawks leads have queried Historic Deerfield’s Facebook page for information about the tavern, and are told it no longer exists. Long gone, they say.

If you doubt me, look for yourself. The misinformation is there for all to read.

Let’s correct the record. Shout from the Sugarloaf summit that Hawks Tavern is alive and well, hidden in plain sight in two pieces in the only neighborhood it has known.

End of story.

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.

Springtime Flashback Hearkens Back to Youth

Choosing a column topic, a process I once faced twice a week, is a decision that can be influenced by many different factors and stimuli.

Maybe I’ve finished a provocative book, read an interesting magazine article, attended a gripping presentation, seen something on the boob tube, or engaged in impromptu conversation that initiates a strong reaction. Often nature-driven, the narrative may address something I’ve seen during a country ride, solitary hike or, back in the day, hunting an isolated hardwood ridge or thorny alder swamp.

Once in a while, as deadline pressure builds, a totally spontaneous subject is delivered like a gift from the heavens. Other times an idea unfolds during restless bedtime introspection, the wheels spinning to a sleep-interrupting scream. Then, with the topic already settled by still, gray, daybreak waking time, a few paragraphs may begin their development before lifting from the pillow.

This week, the topic arrived quite unexpectedly during an early-morning walk to the backyard, brookside dumping place carved out for weekly pailsful of woodstove ash and embers. As I embarked on this familiar path, I could plainly hear Hinsdale Brook’s jovial springtime rattle from the driveway in front of the carriage sheds, long before I turned north and followed the barn back to the soothing sound.

Standing along the high, southern bank, sandwiched between the kennel and cook-shed under a naked maple, I bore witness to the swollen stream’s audible and visual glee as its cleansing, whitecapped meltwater raced toward the Green River three-quarters of a mile away. Though frosty, spring was in the air, evoking pleasant thoughts and memories.

Not surprisingly, my mind first wandered back to a deep trout-fishing past, a springtime pursuit enjoyed by many. For me, spring fishing was a tradition dating back to childhood and extending well into adulthood, occasionally with wide-eyed sons in tow.

Having long ago learned to analyze trout-stream dynamics, I can still read the runs and riffles, the pools and eddies, from a fishing perspective. Looking down that morning, I visualized plunking a soft pendulum cast upstream from trout in their feeding lairs and dead-drifting my offering past them for an aggressive, predatory strike. Whether using live bait or artificials, success comes down to the angler’s abilities to read water, understand feeding patterns, and present bait in a natural manner without a hint of suspicious drag.

There is no better time than spring for trout fishing; well, then and during sticky summer rainstorms that color the water brown with silt and washed-in feed. But I didn’t dwell long on fishing thoughts that morning. My thoughts hopped like an ovipositing mayfly to baseball, a springtime game that in my world trumps all others – even fishing and turkey hunting.

I’m not certain why baseball memories moved in as I stood along that rollicking trout stream. It just happened, transporting me to a place I love to visit. I suppose the impetus could have been a surprise visit a day or two earlier by an old summer teammate who occasionally stops on his way home to Vermont. Many years ago, we used to play weekend Northern League doubleheaders in places like Bennington, Vermont and Half Moon, New York against good college-age ballplayers.

Then again, maybe the baseball reminiscence was driven by all the gloom-and-doom Red Sox chatter leading up to Opening Day at Fenway Park. Whatever the stimulus, memories raced back more than a half-century to my turbulent Frontier Regional School days, when the “privilege” of playing ball was always at risk if you had a beef with a vindictive teacher, coach, or principal.

I must say that liked my baseball coach. The late Tommy Valiton, a Buckland boy who loved to hunt and fish, was a spirited bundle of mischievous enthusiasm. We became good friends and hunting buddies long after our days at Frontier and before he left this world for the Happy Hunting Ground nearly two decades ago.

Tommy was the lesser of two valuable commodities Buckland gift-wrapped to Frontier. The other was his fellow Arms Academy alum Vi Goodnow, a legendary pioneer of girls’ athletics in the Pioneer Valley, if not the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Both coaches delivered state championships to the South Deerfield school. Not a bad contribution from a quaint little hilltown buried deep in our bucolic western hills.

I hope my memory’s clear, my story accurate. I’ll do my best. It was long ago.

I’d say it was 1969, my sophomore year, when Valiton returned to Frontier with a master’s degree after a one-year sabbatical at the University of Maine. Playing in cold, windy Down East springtime conditions, Tommy had carved out a nice little career for himself in the early ’60s as a speedy center fielder and leadoff man for Coach Jack Butterfield’s Black Bear baseball teams. As a Frontier teacher he returned to his old stomping grounds to secure the salary-boosting degree.

During this brief return to the Northcountry, Tommy couldn’t stay away from the baseball team and its indoor, preseason practices. That should come as no surprise. Hardball was in his blood. And there in the UMaine fieldhouse, he was introduced to an exciting new tool – indoor pitching machines enclosed in mesh batting cages. He immediately recognized what a huge advantage a cage would give his early-season high-school hitters forced to practice indoors.

A winner and fierce competitor, Tommy was always looking for an edge. He knew a batting cage would provide just that. The more he watched the Black Bear hitters honing their stroke in the cage, the more he realized he had to find a way to obtain one for Frontier.

Though I can’t remember every minute detail, it seems we embarked on an aggressive fundraising campaign to raise enough money for an “Iron Mike,” an over-the-top pitching machine, and the needed materials to construct a safe gymnasium batting cage. I think we sold raffle tickets or candy bars to raise the money as Tommy wheedled industrial-arts colleagues to build sturdy metal frames to support the netting. I believe he himself built the protective shield protecting those feeding the machine from dangerous comebackers.

And so, the spunky, little, crewcut devil and former US Marine from Buckland pulled it off. Because of him, Frontier was the first local beneficiary of a batting cage. If I’m not mistaken, that included even bigger Amherst and Greenfield. It gave us an edge, and put us in the Western Massachusetts Tournament when there was only one division for all.

With a good team and high hopes entering my senior year, our promising season was derailed by disciplinary action and ineligibility issues that whittled the roster down to a shadow of itself. Of course, I was right in the middle of the developments. It was sad. The promising team lost more games than it won.

We won our first two games, one of them a thrilling, low-scoring comeback against Mahar Regional School ace George Eastman. Then, a day or two later, I was ruled academically ineligible and our wins became forfeit losses.

I could have prevented the catastrophe had I not cut down my course load for my last two semesters of high school. Instead, having fulfilled my foreign-language requirement, I dropped Spanish and left myself without any academic wiggle room. Down to four classes as I played out the string, I had to pass them all to maintain athletic eligibility.

My problems began with a third-semester creative-writing class taught by an old battle axe named Alice Spindler, with whom I had “history.” The single assignment on which our grade was based was to write a short story. When I submitted my story about an Indian, Spindler accused me of plagiarism without a speck of evidence and flunked me.

She said that although she couldn’t cite the source, she knew I was incapable of crafting such a story.

Well, with my father a sitting school committee member and Coach Valiton eager to reverse the decision, it wasn’t over yet. Strings were pulled to arrange an emergency morning meeting with the principal, vice principal, guidance counselor, teacher, coach, my father, and me. Before going in I was advised that if I played my cards right, the teacher would likely pass me. I was urged to keep my cool, diplomatically defend myself, and offer a contrite apology for any perceived disrespect.

Meeting day arrived, and the teacher spoke first. She came at me with both guns a blazing, airing out a long list of grievances against me. Her presentation so enraged me that, when given the chance, I fired back with a satisfying counter-tirade. A contrite apology was not in play. Although I fought the law and the law won – in my mind I won the battle and lost the war. My baseball season was over.

I’m sure the teacher and administrators felt victorious. They likely believed they had taught an irascible student a valuable life lesson. They were right. What I learned was that it’s better to stand your ground and speak your mind than genuflect to empty, bullying authority.

I went home, put my Wilson A2000 baseball glove away for a while, fished trout streams until the summer American Legion Baseball season began, and never looked back.

I must admit to being humored when Tommy Valiton would introduce me to friends as a former ballplayer of his “who writes for the newspaper and couldn’t pass English.”

What else could I do but curl a sardonic grin?

 

The Monument Church Question Lingers

I finally bought and read a biography of John Brown (1800-1859) which has been on my radar for a few years.

Why the delay? Not due to a shortage of biographies about the radical Connecticut-born abolitionist who attacked the Harpers Ferry, Virginia armory and was hanged for insurrection leading up to the Civil War. In fact, many options became the problem. I wanted the “definitive” work – but how would I find it? Procrastination led to impasse, but nothing to lose sleep over.

Having chased many leads over time, I was reluctant to pull the trigger before a recent Amazon suggestion piqued my interest. Likely all about timing, it just caught me at the right moment. Further investigation convinced me I had finally found the right source. So, I bought a “very good” hardcover and dust jacket in a mylar cover.

The unmarked book came from the library of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Herbert Donald (1920-2009), the biographer of other Civil War-era figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Charles Sumner. That validated him for me. Plus, dig this: the book I bought, To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown, was authored in 1970 by a UMass history professor named Stephen B. Oates, who died at 85 a couple of years ago in Amherst.

Had I been interested in Old John Brown as a UMass undergraduate in the early 1970s, I’m sure Oates would have been offering a course. Isn’t that what college professors do – offer classes that explore their books? But the timing was wrong: I was young and more focused on nighttime rambles, hitting baseballs, and tracking fly balls deep into the right-center gap against low, blinding late-afternoon sun. I found my way to Oates’ Brown biography a half-century later.

My interest in Brown wasn’t new, first sparked decades ago by Henry David Thoreau’s famous essay A Plea for Captain John Brown, written by the transcendentalist of Walden fame as the condemned man awaited execution in a Charlestown, Virginia jail cell. Thoreau differed with the mainstream press depiction of Brown as a dangerous madman, and wanted to correct the record in defense of a principled and defiant man willing to die for his belief that slavery was immoral and must end.

The Oates book taught me that Brown: 1) was a Mayflower descendant from a founding family of Windsor, Connecticut; 2) had many connections from a Torrington, Connecticut, upbringing to the town of my own Woodruff family’s New Hartford; 3) enrolled briefly in 1816 as a teen at Moses Hallock’s school in nearby Plainfield; and 4) became a radicalized abolitionist in the 1840s as a citizen of activist Springfield.

Situated along the Underground Railroad pipeline to Canada, Western Massachusetts’s largest city was then the home of aggressive antislavery organizations, with a strong following of rabid abolitionists who had free and open access to The Liberator, the antislavery newspaper published in Boston by William Lloyd Garrison.

I wanted to link this strong antislavery Connecticut Valley sentiment to contemporaneous “Free Soil Party” support in South Deerfield, some of it running through my Arms family lineage. So committed to the Free-Soil cause were some of these South Deerfield citizens who emigrated to Kansas Territory in the mid-1850s for the sole purpose of ruling the ballot box to establish a new slave-free state.

Off to the western frontier these local antislavery crusaders flocked by train, boat, and horse-drawn carriage. The move west was buoyed by funds from Worcester abolitionist Eli Thayer’s Emigrant Aid Societies – first of Massachusetts, then New England. Once there, these local folks and other political allies founded Lawrence, Kansas, today the liberal home of the University of Kansas.

These “northern rabblerousers” were not welcomed with open arms by slave owners and their militant allies from the bordering slave state of Missouri, many of whom rated progressive Massachusetts No. 1 on their enemy list.

From this collision of two strong-willed forces arose what has come to be known in American history as “Bleeding Kansas,” where the blood did indeed flow from both sides. There, on that slice of the Midwestern prairie, guerilla and open warfare broke out between Free-Staters and pro-slavery Border Ruffians on what is now recognized as the Civil War’s staging ground.

Although Old John Brown never lived in Lawrence, he wasn’t far away, settling in Osawatomie after his 1855 arrival from New York’s Adirondacks. It didn’t take long for him to build strong Lawrence alliances. He and his sons drank the antislavery Kool-Aid Lawrence was serving, and all were determined to defeat slavery in the new territory by any means possible, including violence.

Brown is most remembered in Kansas and Missouri for the vengeful, overnight, Pottawatomie Creek Massacre he led on May 24, 1856, a few days after a Missouri sheriff and his redneck vigilantes sacked Lawrence with fire and fury. Brown’s retaliatory raid left five pro-slavery farmers viciously hacked to death by anti-slavery sabers.

Nobody in Lawrence took a bigger hit during the 1856 annihilation than three Connecticut Valley brothers named Eldridge, all of them claiming strong mid-19th century ties to South Deerfield. As business partners, the Eldridge brothers Shalor W., Thomas B., and James M. built, owned, and operated the opulent Free-State Hotel – hailed as the finest hotel west of St. Louis, and hated by pro-slavery forces as a shining anti-slavery beacon.

All three Eldridge brothers had lived in South Deerfield at some point after 1845 and were well-known in Franklin County before moving to Kansas between 1854 and 1856. Their branch of the Eldridge family was from Southampton by way of West Springfield. Shalor was a railroad contractor, James married Mary Augusta Arms of South Deerfield, and Thomas owned a shoe and dry-goods store on East Main Street in Greenfield where the Garden Theater now stands.

Plus, sister Frances Ann Eldridge married “Augusta” Arms Eldridge’s stepbrother and cousin Leonard B. Arms, a US Deputy Marshal famously gunned down in 1860 by Free-Soiler John Ritchie in Topeka.

Something I have thus far been unable to confirm is my suspicion that political differences regarding the slavery issue, which came to the fore in the 1830s and lingered for two decades, were a factor involved in the contentious 1848 split in South Deerfield’s Congregational Church. A scholarly friend, who is far more interested in churches than I am and who has studied the church’s history, is not convinced. On the other hand, he admits that information concerning the dispute is vague, and likely intentionally so.

I was hoping Oates would help me track the pre-Civil War abolition movement and, more importantly, that of our slice of the Connecticut Valley. Though helpful, his information and that of South Deerfield church records leaves many unanswered questions that may never be resolved.

Slavery became a church issue throughout the North beginning in the 1830s, creating fissures and disagreement among parishioners. Few back then supported total freedom and citizenship for freed slaves. Some supported “colonization,” which meant freeing enslaved people and shipping them back to Africa, while others favored citizenship without the right to vote. Still others, even in Thoreau and Emerson’s progressive Massachusetts, were unapologetic white supremacists who preferred to ignore the slavery issue.

The hot moral issue of slavery clearly cast sparks that could, and did, according to Oates, split communities and churches – especially on the Western frontier of Ohio and Illinois, but also in New England and New York. This political undercurrent obviously existed in South Deerfield as well, and may have been a contributing factor that split its church.

Then again, maybe it was pure coincidence that outspoken abolitionist ministers Rev. Samuel Ware and Rev. Theophilus Packard, Jr. settled in the community. Ware (1781-1866) was approaching 60 and semi-retired when he came to town in 1837, plunking down a tidy $4,600 for the old, 90-acre Arms/Whitney farm on the east side of North Main Street, south of the Bloody Brook Monument. An avowed abolitionist, Ware was admitted to the church in 1838.

Maybe it was also a coincidence that in 1848 Ware sold to Shalor Eldridge the half-acre lot on which the Monument Church was built. Eldridge immediately flipped the lot for no profit to the Monument Church’s building committee.

Hmmmm?

According to the deeds, Eldridge was at the time residing in Northfield. So, he was out of sight, out of mind for the rapid-fire sales, and no stranger to Ware. Like Eldridge, the minister’s wife, Lucy Strong Parsons, grew up in Southampton, a small Hampshire County town where she would have known the Eldridges since childhood. Six years after conveying the Monument Church lot, Eldridge and family moved to the Kansas Territory for political reasons aimed directly at the emancipation of slaves.

I have to wonder if Monument Church pastor David A. Strong of Connecticut was also an abolitionist? Although I have thus far been unable to answer this question, it wouldn’t surprise me.

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