Colrain Mastodon Tooth

Mastodon remains in the neighborhood? You betcha! Long ago. Just two miles north of my home. Then – presto! – the ancient remains move even closer in a genealogical vein. Surreal. Why does this stuff happen?

I suppose such discoveries are bound to become more frequent when aging out in a place where one’s roots lie deep. So, I guess this is an example of that, demonstrating once again how small one’s place can be. Spooky small. At times, mind-boggling.

Six weeks ago, I had no clue that a mastodon tooth had been found in the fall of 1871 in a frosty Colrain “muck bed” not far from home by farmer Elias Bardwell, reported by Professor Edward Hitchcock, Jr., who identified it. Hitchcock reported that Bardwell intended to revisit the site in the spring of 1872 to look for additional remains. Whether that ever happened is not known. 

Now, after a little research, this discovery has become a family matter. But let me return to that later.

I became aware of this forgotten Colrain mastodon tooth during the final week of November, just before Thanksgiving. I was visiting the South Deerfield home of friend Bud Driver, who was hosting a couple of PhD archaeologists – Richard Michael “Mike” Gramly of Andover and Stuart Fiedel of Amherst. We were there to discuss mastodon-bone artifacts in the possession of Gramly, who was passing through on the last leg of his trip home from Kentucky and Ohio.

Toward the conclusion of our rambling three-hour discussion, we turned to the subject of Fiedel and Driver’s ongoing study of historic mastodon discoveries in the western half of Massachusetts, beginning with a South Egremont site known to scientists as “Ivory Pond,” with which I was vaguely familiar. There, in June 1982, landowner Thomas Marino was excavating a pond and discovered skeletal remains of a mastodon. 

With a collection of bones still in his possession, they were in need of the latest, most-accurate radiocarbon dating. So, Fiedel, Driver and Robert Feranec of the New York State Museum in Albany recently visited the site and retrieved from Marino’s collection a collagen sample that yielded an AMS radiocarbon date of 11,885 plus or minus 30. That calibrates to between 13,580 to 13,770 calendar years before present (BP).

Now, Fiedel has the radiocarbon date for mastodon remains found in 1884 in the central Massachusetts town of Northborough and is near completion of a soon-to-be-published report. Next, the three diligent researchers, committed to studying the peopling of the Americas and its effects on the native mammals of the continent, intend to focus on Bardwell’s Colrain discovery, recognized as Massachusetts’ first known unearthing of mastodon remains.

When our pre-Thanksgiving discussion turned to the mysterious Colrain find, Fiedel inquired if I knew Shearer Road? His examination of an 1871 county map suggested that the Bardwell farm was located on that road. 

Yes, of course I knew the road. It was at the top of the hill behind my upper Greenfield Meadows home. Not only that, but I had hunted deer and turkeys there, and once ran my dogs there daily. So, yes, I even knew the contours.

Familiar with the landscape but not any details about the 1871 find, I immediately suspected two adjacent sites that fit the type of habitat where most mastodon skeletons have in the past been found. To me, the two most likely sites were what I refer to as “spring holes,” that is the swampy headwaters of two small, spring-fed brooks in the western, upland Green River watershed. The first, Punch Brook, rises atop Smead Hill and runs about a mile into Hinsdale Brook just downstream from my home. The second, Workman Brook, rises slightly north and west of there, on Randolph family acreage east of Van Nuys Road in East Colrain, running more than two miles before emptying into Green River just south of the Nelson Road-Green River Road intersection in the town’s southeast corner.

How exciting. The chase was on. Right in my backyard, no less.

I took a ride to East Colrain with Driver to show him the layout, then studied 1858 and 1871 maps that identify family homes along the roads. The maps showed two East Colrain Bardwell farms, likely contiguous: one atop Shearer Hill, the other off East Colrain Road along the northwestern base of Shearer Hill. Then I researched the Colrain Bardwells to figure which was the “Elias Bardwell farm” referred to in records of the tooth discovery. 

What was confusing was that the first Bardwell to call Colrain home was named Elias (1763-1818), and he obviously could not have been the man who found the tooth. Further research showed that Elias had a grandson named Elias (1837-1915), son of Amos (1792-1875), who was undoubtedly the “A. Bardwell” identified on the maps as the owner of the East Colrain Road farm. The “B. Bardwell” in the farm atop Shearer Hill was Amos’ younger brother Baxter (1803-1888), who, according to Deerfield historian George Sheldon’s genealogy, “settled on the old homestead.”

I contacted Greenfield surveyor and map merchant Dave Allen, who I knew had an important connection to Shearer Hill. Maybe he knew something about the old Bardwell acreage. If not, maybe the topic would stir his curiosity and him into action. 

Mission accomplished. Allen soon embarked on deed research, a staple of a surveyor’s work, and concluded that the Elias Bardwell farm where the tooth was found was not atop Shearer Hill as we first thought. Instead, it was off East Colrain Road, overlooking Workman Brook to the south, the brook crossing East Colrain Road and traversing wetland on both sides of it.

Further genealogical research bore personal family fruit with closer links than expected. I knew from the start that I tapped into the Connecticut Valley Bardwell family through my second great-grandmother Abbie Bardwell of Shelburne/Montague/Whately, wife of Thomas Sanderson of Whately. Not surprisingly, that Bardwell branch was distant. 

Not so with another Colrain family I tap into. Little did I know that a much closer relationship to Elias Bardwell existed through my paternal grandmother Merriam Snow, whose great-grandmother and Elias’s mother were sisters. That, from my perspective, is not a distant relative. My grandmother likely knew of her Bardwell relatives on East Colrain Road when, as a child, she spent summers at her grandparents’ farm and orchards off Fort Lucas Road, a short distance west.

Enough of the genealogy, though. Back to Ice-Age mastodons (Mammut americanum), to which I can honestly say I never gave any serious thought before 2014. That’s when friend Gramly started excavating skeletal remains from a Middletown, NY, marsh. His dig recovered bones and ivory from the ancient proboscidean beast dubbed John Charles in his 2017 monograph, “Archaeological Recovery of the Bowser Road Mastodon, Orange County, New York.” Among the recovered bones were some he identified as artifacts – a daring assessment that went against the grain.

I clearly recall Gramly checking in by telephone from time to time during this 2014 dig to enthusiastically report new discoveries, observations, and hypotheses. So excited was he that I could seldom get a word in edgewise, so I listened and learned. 

But still, despite his intellectual excitement, my own personal interest remained lukewarm. “Why should I be interested in ancient North American elephants last roaming the continent 12,000 years ago?” I pondered. “What was the allure? What did it mean to me; to the Connecticut Valley?”

Then came the grappling hook that set the barbs and pulled me. Gramly seized my fascination during an evening phone conversation from his motel room when he introduced the human element – better still, hunter-gatherer ritual and spirituality.

“The prevailing wisdom has been that these beasts came to water during the late Pleistocene, got mired in mud, and died. I say that’s pure hooey,” he said. “There are human hands all over this site. In my opinion, John Charles was killed by hunters and, get this: I believe there’s evidence of ritualistic offerings right there in plain sight among the skeletal remains.”

What he was referring to were notched atlatl blades crafted from mastodon ribs and, he said, intentionally broken in half as grave offerings when new rib bones were salvaged from the fallen beast as raw material for new blades. Gramly’s cutting-edge and very controversial hypothesis is that these grave offerings were left in respect for the fallen prey by young hunters participating in their first kill – an important rite of manhood versus a dangerous beast. 

Gramly suspected that if he reviewed other collections of North American mastodon remains, they would reveal the same, previously overlooked, broken atlatl ribs and other bone and ivory artifacts. Well, guess what? His hypothesis was confirmed by searching through stored remains in upstate New York, Ohio, and Kentucky. Bingo! There were other broken atlatl blades, not to mention other artifacts crafted from mastodon bones and ivory. Not certain of all the artifacts’ function, he’s still working on identification and trading ideas with Fiedel and other colleagues.

For years, experts have cited the absence of stone tools – Clovis points, scrapers, celts, and other and tools – as proof that there was no human association to the mastodon remains found over the years east of the Mississippi River (in contrast to the presence of stone tools at western proboscidean kill sites). Gramly begs to differ. He says archaeologists’ focus is too narrow, that the absence of stone tools could be irrelevant. Bone and ivory tools were routinely used by Old World hunters dating back far beyond 13,000 years. So, why not in the New World? Aren’t we dealing with some of the same gene pools? 

That kind of open-mindedness is what separates Gramly from many other American archaeologists, and creates friction with some who are no more educated, experienced, or credentialed than him but far more rigid. Gramly has one great advantage over his detractors: the guts to challenge conventional wisdom.

So here I sit, formerly unenthused about extinct proboscidean beasts, when suddenly, out of the blue, I learn of this long-forgotten mastodon tooth that showed up in my neighborhood. Not only that, but it was discovered by a previously unknown close Bardwell relative of mine who had it in his possession into the 20th century and likely until his death. 

Who knows where this tooth is today? It could be resting in plain sight on a Colrain shelf, an attic drawer, a library cellar, or offered for sale without provenance for the third time on eBay. Then again, it could have been trashed long ago by someone ignorant of its importance.

It would appear that the only way to learn more about this mastodon tooth is to somehow find the site from which it was pulled, and probe for more evidence. Skeletal remains could still be recoverable there. 

The search could start as early as spring, with landowner permission. Fiedel, Driver and company just want a bone, a tooth, or an ivory tusk that can be radiocarbon dated. All I can say is that I’d love to watch this fascinating process unfold.

Tail Feather Tickles Memories

A white carpet blankets the meadow as the sun rides low in the southern sky, freezing poignant memories of my finest gun dog, Chubby – registered “Old Tavern Farm’s Rabble Rouser” – who suddenly took ill in his eighth year and died well before his time on the final day of pheasant season …

It’s Saturday evening. I’m running around in my pickup to put together a Sunday-football dinner – the Patriots hosting Kansas City at 4:25 p.m. in the long-anticipated rematch of last year’s AFC Championship game. I lean forward to reach for my sound system when I feel a subtle reminder of Chub-Chub tickling my face along the right crease of my nose. It’s the tip of a long, thin, pheasant tail feather, stuck into the passenger-side visor and reaching out past the rearview mirror. I stuck it there after my buddy removed it and two others from a big rooster we shot toward the end of the season in Hadley, hunting a large, swampy aquifer along the southeastern base of Mount Warner. Another reminder of my extraordinary English springer spaniel, who most likely was the victim of coyote poison misdiagnosed as Lyme disease.

No, I haven’t gotten over it yet. I still often think of Chub-Chub, who almost completed his ninth hunting season in a career that began as a 6-month-old tagalong with his mother. I can still see him looking back to locate me on hunts, standing broadside, strong, erect, alert posture, head turned, ears raised, signaling, “Come on, Man, I’ve got fresh scent.”

It’s never easy to lose a good dog, known for millennia as man’s best friend. But when it happens to a dynamo in his prime, before he’s showing any signs of age or wear and tear, it’s even tougher – akin to losing a teenager in a car accident. Here today, gone tomorrow. So much left in the tank. That was Chub-Chub. Never a trip to the vet for illness or injury. Never a bad day in the field. Many truly remarkable ones.

Which brings us to the retrieve of that heavy, long-tailed rooster whose three longest tail feathers are still stuck into my passenger-side visor. It was not Chubby’s last retrieve, and it may not even have been his best of the season. Yet it was indeed memorable, now unforgettable as things have played out, because it displayed so much of what made this gun dog truly special.

Veteran field-trialers who knew him marveled that he had it: speed, spring, power, enthusiasm, agility, stamina, nose, spirit, and a soft mouth to boot. A powerhouse in the field, he never left so much as a faint tooth bruise on a retrieve. I don’t think you can teach that. He was a natural – the best of many productive flush-and-retrieve dogs I’ve owned. Perhaps he stood out because he had been mine from the womb, was born and died at my home, which was his home, too. We were bonded from birth. I do believe that makes a difference.

Winding down, the six-week season had reached the time when stocked pheasants that survive have acclimated to their coverts, grow wise, and learn to outmaneuver hunters. They anticipate danger from the distant sound of bells, whistles, and voices, maybe even the slamming or a door, and acquire the uncanny ability to flush within view and earshot but just out of range. They also learn safe escape routes to dense, beaver-saturated alder swamps impenetrable to humans.

Even so, few stocked pheasants winter over like they did when I was a boy and spring broods showed up most years in our South Deerfield yard. Today, even those that escape four-legged predators, of which there are many, fall prey to birds of prey.

The difference between Chub-Chub and his wild cousins, the fox and coyote, was that he worked in unison with me and knew how to get out in front of a runner, turn it around, and force it back in my direction. No, it didn’t always work out that way, but he knew the game. His goal was always to give us a shot and him a retrieve.

That’s the way this Hadley flush-and-retrieve unfolded in the evening shadow of Mount Warner, just one of many for the “Best of Chubby” highlight reel. There were three of us in the field that day, and two dogs, the other Cinda, an 11-year-old bitch with field-trial points to her credit and a pedigree that overlapped Chubby’s in many places. Sometimes kennel and breeding mates, Cinda and Chub-Chub were from the same bolt of cloth.

It was our first visit to the old haunt, an expansive mix of agricultural and ragweed fields, alder and cattail swamp, and woodlots, bordered on the south by a neighborhood and on the east by a horse farm. We knew how to hunt it, where pheasants most often flushed and where to set up for shooting lanes.

We had been burned there many times when the dog or dogs beat us to a double-rutted farm road lined on the right by alders and raced to the culvert at the end, playing the wind for the entire 80-yard sprint. Often, the dog would detect scent and flush a bird or birds before we were within range. Then the chase was on.

To prevent this, we sent Killer to the end of the alder row before releasing the dogs from the truck. That way, we had it covered.

When Cooker and I reached the farm road, he walked it toward Killer with Cinda, and I took Chub-Chub through the alders to a dense field bordered on the east by woods and swamp Chubby knew well. The distance from the road and alder row, across the overgrown field to the wood line, is about 100 yards, and Chubby and I were hunting it out when I heard a cackle and two shots, then lively conversation. Cinda had chased the rooster down a ditch and flushed it some 35 yards out in front of my companions and quickly out of range.

Chub-Chub was busy quartering his field, and seemed to pay no attention to the shooting until he had thoroughly covered it. But then he circled back to me and worked the alder row. There he immediately picked up the scent Cinda had already flushed, followed it out, and disappeared into the dense cover on the other side of a small brook and culvert. I thought he was still close to me when I heard two shots, then a shout from Cooker that Chubby was headed my way with a rooster.

No, he hadn’t totally ignored those first shots, just put them temporarily on the back burner. He had followed out the trail to Cinda’s flush, lost scent, and quickly, unbeknownst to me, gone to my two hunting buddies to the area where the rooster had landed. Soon after reaching Killer and making his presence known, Chub-Chub went to work doing what he did best: finding pheasants. He started hunting, stopped suddenly with his nose high and turned his head toward Killer, ears perked in a familiar pose that called for action.

“Heads up, Cooker. He’s on it.”

I heard a shot, then Cooker’s shout that Chubby was headed my way with the bird.

I found a place to cross the ditch and small brook, entered the field my buddies were hunting and soon saw Chub-Chub coming my way, retrieving the limp bird. He came straight to me and delivered the bird to hand. I dropped it into my vest’s game bag, rejoined my buddies and we walked back to our vehicles.

Chub-Chub had struck again, put on quite a show. He arrived on the scene late, immediately winded scent, flushed the rooster, and retrieved it at least 150 yards to my hand. That dog always knew where I was, even when distracted.

When we got back to my truck and Chubby was secure in his porta-kennel, I pulled the heavy bird from my vest and remarked that it may have been the nicest rooster of the season, with the longest tail feathers.

“Save the tail feathers for me,” I said to Killer, who immediately pulled out the three longest ones.

“It’s easier to pull them when the bird’s still warm,” he said. “Do you want more than these?”

“No. That’s enough.”

So now, there they are, three long tailfeathers extending toward me from my truck’s passenger visor, a daily reminder of an extraordinary gun dog that died before his time.

“If I were you, I’d put a rubber band around those feathers and save them somewhere in memory of Chub-Chub,” said Killer when told of the poignant tickle.

Well, maybe someday. Not yet, though. For now, I think I’ll leave them right where they are.

I still cherish memories of Chub-Chub, difficult as they are.

Chub-Chub’s Tragic Death

Chub-Chub died a horrid, preventable death.

A spry, 8-year, 7-month-old springer spaniel of world-class pedigree, prowess, and stamina, he uttered his pathetic death groan at 10:30 a.m. Nov. 30, a Saturday, ending a tortuous, 3½-day ordeal that I believe could have been avoided.

We buried him noontime the next day. Grey skies, an extended snowstorm approaching to blanket his final resting place and cover up a troubling case of what I view as veterinary malpractice. Poor Chub-Chub suffered mightily, and rode it out to the end with dignity. He deserved better.

Now, with heavy heart, hot fury and dry eyes, let me recount this horrid tale of an incredible gun dog that left this world before his time – coincidentally on the final day of the 2019 pheasant season. He had another incredible season before suddenly taking ill overnight and shunning food. Three days later, he was dead.

Though I will not reveal names or places, I will present the facts of this case as a warning to all that you are never immune from medical error and misdiagnosis. Doctors are human. They make mistakes, some unfortunately attributable to physician arrogance. You know the drill: “I’m a doctor and you’re not. Trust my diagnosis.” Well, this one didn’t pan out.

I suppose tears have been absent because I have become hardened to death and dying. That can happen to a man who’s watched two dear sons fade away in hospital beds three years apart at age 28. True, it gets no worse than that, but this in many ways rivals it because Chub-Chub would have survived to hunt another day with the benefit of attentive listening and quick, accurate diagnosis. Timing was, in my layman’s opinion, crucial. The faster poisoning is discovered, the better chance of survival.

If only this doctor had listened to me, who had been with the animal from the womb, instead of relying on blood work that revealed positive readings for two tickborne diseases – Lyme and anaplasma – I think we could have found a way to beat the poison that killed Chubby, a swamp-busting dynamo that in adulthood never ran a covert where he was less than king.

“Why do you call him Chubby?” wondered a medical assistant who treated him, already in decline, and knew a physical specimen when she saw one. He was in top shape at the end of pheasant season.

“Well,” I explained, “I’ve had him since he was born, and he was a little butterball as a pup. I’ve called him Chubby or Chub-Chub ever since. His registered name is Old Tavern Farm’s Rabble Rouser, more apropos.”

Why couldn’t the vet have respected my opinion, based on many credible factors, and my own insights into the animal himself? I think then we could have saved him, spared him the cruel death he was forced to endure. Finally, his tedious torture was mercifully terminated with two strained, audible breaths and that final death moan, a soft whine, that signaled the end for me and my stoic animal. Curled up beneath the leg rest of my leather recliner, he was exhaling a farewell gasp to me that said, “See you later, Buddy. I gave it my best shot and must now leave you.”

I had slept for three restless nights in that same leather chair, observing my dear four-legged companion, trying to nurse him back to health with medicine, food, water and tender loving care. The problem was that the dog was not suffering from Lyme disease, which he was being treated for with doxycycline and an anti-nausea drug. Chub-Chub had tested positive for both tick-borne diseases 18 months earlier and had never shown a faint glimmer of the lameness, lethargy and appetite loss symptomatic of the diseases.

Better still, he had over two pheasant seasons displayed exceptional agility and endurance while burning up punishing wetland cover that separates the men from the boys. He was a man, built for such cover, and he attacked it with extraordinary athleticism displayed by only the finest of his flush-and-retrieve breed.

A day or two before Chubby took ill, a field-trialer friend who’s seen the best and often hunted often over him marveled in the field that, “He’s still running like he did at 4. He’s in his prime, never seems to tire. In fact, I can’t remember ever seeing him breathing hard.”

Then, less than a week later, the animal is dead from Lyme disease? No freakin’ way. Find me an expert witness who’d testify that dogs can die that quickly from either tickborne disease for which he tested positive and showed no symptoms.

“I wonder if [our vet] would have picked up on the poison?” my wife pondered after Chubby’s death, referring to my longtime vet, whose office was closed for the holiday.

“Good chance,” I answered. “We’ve known each other for almost 50 years and, although we may not agree on everything, I think he would have respected my opinion and looked for poison.”

My previously mentioned hunting buddy, who was once married to a doctor, had another take. “What happened to you has happened to many,” he said. “Doctors often see what they want to see. This one didn’t listen to a word you said. Lyme it was, period. You should have challenged the diagnosis more vehemently.”

The problem was that when I articulated my opinion that Chubby had “gotten into something” that upset his stomach, I never dreamed of deadly coyote bait, which may well have been the culprit, given the old-stand-by site I had hunted for the first time this fall on November 25. I was thinking of rotten carrion, farm garbage, or something else that would upset a dog’s stomach and curb its appetite until it passed in a day or so. I had seen that scenario play out several times with different dogs over the years.

As soon as I realized this wasn’t that, was likely more serious, I called the vet – just before noon on the day before Thanksgiving. Talk about bad timing. I knew I was up against it. The rest is history; sad, sordid history that cost me an extraordinary gun dog and companion.

To me, there is no question that Chub-Chub died from poisoning, something insidious that quickly shut down his system. Trust me, it’s no way to go. The average dog would have likely curled up into a fetal ball for three days and died. Not Chub-Chub. Though impaired and emaciated, he displayed noble spirit to the bitter end, still trying to get out into the backyard through the woodshed door to greet wood vendor Blue Sky no more than 20 minutes before exhaling his death moan. What an indomitable spirit he had. He was hurting badly at the time.

Prior to that, he had followed me from room to room and out to the brook two or three times a day until his horrid death. Out back, he’d walk gingerly to check out the brook, head high to detect the scent of overnight intruders. His nose was good as it gets.

As for the Lyme debate, I readily admit that the doctor who treated Chubby knows much more about the disease than I do, and that some of his symptoms did indeed suggest Lyme. But the tickborne disease did not kill him. The first time he had tested positive for the two diseases, I invited my vet to accompany me on my daily walk to watch him romp. He was healthy and robust, I implored, showed absolutely no signs of illness.

He didn’t doubt me, admitting that only five percent of dogs that test positive show any symptoms. When I disclosed this prior positive test during my recent medical crisis and asked if it could finally be rearing its ugly head, the doctor said no. Chubby had been a carrier that showed no symptoms. Not unusual. This was new. He was showing symptoms of a more recent tick bite. What could I say?

On my way out the door after the six-hour, pre-holiday office visit, this doctor assured me that “Your boy will be back to normal in a couple of days.”

When Chubby didn’t seem to be responding to the antibiotic by noontime the next day and still wasn’t eating, I called the office to report my concerns and was talked off the ledge by the doctor, who called at midafternoon. “Give it time,” the vet said. “It can take 48 hours or more for the appetite to return. What I’m concerned about is fever. Take his temperature, and bring him in if he’s feverish.”

I took his rectal temperature. It was 101.6 Fahrenheit. Normal is 99.5 to 102.5. I forced myself to be patient, even though I thought a dog in peak condition like Chubby should respond to antibiotics quicker. I didn’t want to be a pest, wanted to trust the doctor. But in the end, I knew I should have been more forceful and, even more importantly, had failed Chub-Chub.

Oh well… live and learn. I got burned, big time. Let’s just say my opinion of veterinary medicine has forever changed. Call me a skeptic if you will; maybe even a cynic. Yes, they took my check, and I took their medicine. A bitter taste lingers. That, and the sound of Chub-Chub’s pathetic farewell death whine, which will forever haunt me.

Medicine betrayed him.

The Curious Case of Capt. William Turner’s Bones

There is but one published account documenting for posterity the tease that human bones unearthed by Judge Francis M. Thompson in the Greenfield Meadows could have been those of “Falls Fight” commander Capt. William Turner.

Lucy Cutler Kellogg, on page 1,400 of her three-volume History of Greenfield, 1900-1929 (1931), wrote of her fellow historian and friend Thompson, who himself had published a two-volume History in 1904:

It seems to be an unwritten law that a writer should place on record as little as possible about himself and his work. Hence it is assumed that therein lay the reason for the following not having appeared in Thompson’s Greenfield history.

About 1874 on the Lucius Nims farm near the Meadow road and just south of the road to Nash’s Mills, Judge Thompson uncovered human bones which he thinks were doubtless those of Captain Turner who was killed in 1676 just after the famous Turners Falls fight by Indians while following the trail near what is now Nash’s Mills. The bones were found at an elevated spot near the present road which was the old Indian trail. On account of the low character of the ground Judge Thompson thought that the body would not have been buried at the spot where it fell, but would have been carried to some higher ground such as the spot where the bones were found.

At the time of his discovery Judge Thompson was not so much interested in historical matters as in later years, but kept these bones in a box with some other relics, in an old mill that was burned at the Nash’s Mills neighborhood, so that the bones were consumed at that time. Both George Sheldon and Mrs. Mary P. Wells Smith were inclined to strongly support Judge Thompson in his theory as to the bones being those of Captain Turner.

This story has gained traction over the years, with a recent surge related to the ongoing federal “Battlefield Grant” study of the Falls Fight. Of a vernacular nature, it is not generally known outside of Franklin County.

Now, new information has for the first time come to light. But first, please read Ms. Kellogg’s narrative carefully, study it, and be honest. Does it satisfy your curiosity? Or are you left wondering why it’s so vague and lacking in key details?

Count me among the latter.

Two weeks ago, after rereading Kellogg’s account for the first time in about 20 years – and understanding far more about the history of Nash’s Mills and the Meadows than I did on my first read – I found it sorely lacking. Inadequate, in fact. I wanted more. Much more.

Plus, it drew my suspicions. Why so vague? And why couldn’t Ms. Kellogg and her elder friend Thompson at least name the mill in which the bones had vanished? Hmmm? Something strange there.

The first problem that had confronted me on this fact-checking mission was the realization that I had accepted the wrong site for the supposed Turner burial discovery. When I was a Greenfield historical commissioner during the early years of this millennium, a go-to source for Greenfield historical data told me in casual discussion that the bones were not found along the terrace edge where the Nims home stands today, at the intersection of Colrain and Plain roads. Instead, they were unearthed on an elevated escarpment point overlooking the west bank of the Green River, closer to the site where Turner’s body was recovered by a search party a couple of days after the Falls Fight attack. This elevated shelf is located across Nash’s Mill Road from the so-called Greenfield Swimming Pool and Turner Monument, just south of the bike-path bridge crossing Green River.

Given the source, a Greenfield native and longtime resident, I didn’t question the location until my recent review of Kellogg, who clearly identified a different site along Colrain Road a short distance south of the Nash’s Mill Road outflow.

Perplexed, I phoned a 72-year-old friend, neighbor, and local-history buff who grew up in the Meadows. I wanted his opinion. He knew the tale, concurred with Kellogg: the bones had been found somewhere off the east side of Colrain Road between Butynski Farm and Harper’s Store. With piqued curiosity, I fired up my truck and drove a mile down the road to investigate.

Sure enough, right there in plain view, across from Harper’s Creemee stand and an underhanded stone’s throw from Nash’s Mill Road, stood a site that securely fit Kellogg’s description – a small, peaceful, wooded, gumdrop knoll rising some five feet above the road.

According to my Terrain Navigator Pro measurements, the distance west from where Turner fell to the knoll off Colrain Road is 2,033 feet, and the change in elevation 21 feet. The site favored by my go-to Greenfield historian is 1,046 feet south of where Turner died, with an elevation change of 25 feet.

I wondered: why would a search party sent out to recover war dead have carried Turner’s decomposing corpse more than 2,000 feet for proper interment? Not impossible, but still it will never be proven that the bones were Turner’s. In fact, the probability that they were the Baptist captain’s is slim indeed. And guess what? Judge Thompson knew it.

Location, however, was only one of several questions that arose in my mind from Ms. Kellogg’s description. Thank the starlit heavens that I reviewed her book before publishing inaccurate information that would require a correction.

You see, I was prepared in my last column to include Thompson’s incinerated box of bones as one of many evidentiary items pointing to a curse hovering over the Nash’s Mills neighborhood ever since May 19, 1676 – the day irate Indians slayed Turner crossing the Green River below the Mill Brook falls on his troop’s retreat from their slaughter of an unsuspecting, non-combative, sleeping fishing village of Natives along the north shore of Peskeomskut Falls.

This curse brought no less than nine devastating factory fires and a destructive flood, not to mention the obliteration of a quaint country neighborhood, its placid millpond, and a handsome brick church during Interstate 91 construction. And who knows what carnage has unfolded on that “haunted’ highway corridor since it opened more than a half-century ago?

In the process of dissecting the story about the bones vanishing in a factory fire, I had first suspected the building must have been Thompson’s own chisel factory at Nash’s Mills. Not the case: the F.M. Thompson Chisel Shop burned in 1871, three years before Kellogg says the bones were found.

Maybe she had the date wrong. But, I surmised, if so and the bones had vanished in his factory fire, wouldn’t Thompson have named the site? And wouldn’t he have been capable of pinpointing an accurate date of discovery?

That question begged for a little research and, sure enough, there were four pre-1874 Nash’s Mills factory fires – in 1866, 1868, 1870 and 1871 – but only one after 1874, a blaze that burned Warner Manufacturing to the ground on Nov. 20, 1897.

My suspicions grew. Something didn’t add up. Why the mystery?

Before I threw the destruction of Thompson’s bone collection into the mix of Nash’s Mills catastrophes, I wanted to check Kellogg’s reference one more time. I went to my study and chased it down in the third book I pulled from the bookcase.

The more I studied Kellogg’s retelling of Thompson’s tale, the more questions arose. Something just wasn’t adding up. Why so vague? And why didn’t Thompson include some mention of the bones in his detailed narrative of the Falls Fight and Turner’s death in his own History of Greenfield? That I found most puzzling.

So, it was off to the Internet for an online search of the published Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (PVMA) Proceedings. Maybe Thompson had addressed the bones in that publication. Nope. Not the case. Why?

And something else that didn’t bear out was Kellogg’s excuse that, at the time of his discovery, Thompson was not as interested in local history as in later life. While it’s true that his membership did not date back to PVMA’s inaugural year of 1870, he did become a member in 1877, was granted life membership in 1882, and was elected vice president in 1886. Could it be possible that he had not been interested in local history three years before he joined the group, upon finding the skeleton around 1874? Seems unlikely. Maybe even preposterous.

Considering how active Thompson had been in PVMA research between 1877 and his 1916 death, I speculated that perhaps there existed some sort of Francis M. Thompson Papers in Historic Deerfield’s Memorial Libraries collections. So, I took the short ride to Deerfield and was quickly able to engage librarian David Bosse in my pursuit.

His curiosity stirred, he soon produced an enticing lead: an obscure two-folder collection of correspondence from Thompson to Deerfield historian George Sheldon. Did I want to explore the letters? Yes, indeed.

Bosse went upstairs to retrieve the box of data, which included one folder of correspondence between 1896 and 1904, another from 1905 to 1915. In the latter, I struck long-hidden gold in Thompson’s own handwriting.

There, three or four letters into the pile, on personalized Franklin County Probate Court stationary dated a week apart, May 1 and May 8, 1905, Thompson addressed the looming placement and dedication of the Turner Monument at Nash’s Mills. By then, the granite boulder selected for the monument had likely been retrieved from Leyden by George Wright and delivered to Greenfield Granite and Marble Works on Miles Street, where it was to be faced and inscribed as it stands today.

Greenfield politician Frank Gerrett – an Upper Meadows resident residing on the farm I today call home – was chairman of the Greenfield Old Home Week Association committee charged with selecting a site and planning the July 26, 1905 dedication ceremony. The committee eventually chose to place the monument on the triangular North Parish Church common overlooking Nash’s Mills Pond, just south of Leyden Road’s Cutlery Bridge that spanned the dam and waterfall. In the event of wet weather, Gerrett was confident his church could accommodate the 400 or 500 spectators expected.

As it turned out, weather was not a problem, and the “Turner Square” dedication drew a thousand spectators. The event is chronicled in Kellogg’s Hearth Stone Tales, published five years after her History of Greenfield. With a chance to add credence to Thompson’s discovery of bones that may have belonged to Turner himself, she mentioned not a word about them in a two-page narrative. Curious indeed! But why? By then, Thompson wasn’t around to dissuade her – he had been dead 20 years. The tale was surely often told back then, as it is today. Still, no mention.

Maybe she was aware that Thompson knew, in the days before radio-carbon dating and DNA analysis, that there was no way prove the bones were Turner’s. His first mention of the bones in his letters to Sheldon appears on May 1, in the context of choosing a site for the Turner monument. He admits:

I don’t dare go much on the bones found, and think we better put the Monument about 40 feet west of the end of the bridge, and on the south side of the road – a rod or so away…

Then, in the May 8 follow-up letter to his friend and PVMA colleague, he goes a step further by casting doubt on his discovery, and confessing:

It doesn’t seem to me that we could hardly honor those bones as the body of Capt. Turner on what information we now have.

In the next paragraph, Thompson drops the bombshell, entrusting Sheldon with a sacred family secret that solves a 150-year-old mystery:

By the way, I find that Mrs. Nims, who always thought the bones ought not to have been disturbed, had one of the men put them in a box and bury them near the place where they were found and say nothing to anybody.

So, there you have it: the real story, straight from the horse’s mouth, debunking a clever ruse of bones consumed in an unnamed Nash’s Mills factory fire. Hey, he could have said his dog ate them.

But let us briefly digress to identify Mrs. Nims. She was Thompson’s mother-in-law, Susan (Cordelia Amadon) Nims, wife of farmer Lucius Nims, who owned the middle of three contiguous Nims farms that ran from today’s Hatch greenhouse on Plain Road to Four Rivers Charter School a little less than a mile south on Colrain Road.

Now owned by the Butynski family, who still farms the acreage, the middle farm was the original Nims farm in the Meadows, with the first dwelling built by Thomas Nims in the mid-18th century. The farm was passed to son Hull Nims and grandson Lucius Nims. According to private family papers compiled by descendants of the Meadows Nims line, the 18th century homestead burned sometime before 1810, when Hull Nims’ built a new Federal home. The prosperous Meadows farmer and Revolutionary War veteran then proceeded to build bookend farmsteads for sons Thomas to the north (1824) and Albert to the south (1839). The Hull Nims home was torn down in the 1960s and replaced by the ranch where Anna Butynski now lives.

Although “Mrs. Nims” lived until 1890, she must have ordered the reburial of the bones before 1880. The farm was sold out of the family after her husband’s 1879 death.

We now know that, thanks to Mrs. Nims, a Brookfield woman of conscience, those mysterious Greenfield Meadows bones didn’t disappear in any industrial fire. That tale was a clever cover, pure subterfuge. On orders from Thompson’s mother-in-law, those bones – which were likely stored on some spooky, out-of-the-way shelf in a Nims barn or shed – were respectfully boxed and reburied near where eldest child Mary’s husband had dug them. Exactly where is anyone’s guess, but traces probably still exist.

Provincial George Sheldon cannot be overappreciated. Due to his commitment to preservation, the well-concealed cat’s finally out of the bag. Had not the determined Deerfield antiquarian saved those Thompson letters, the truth would never have surfaced.

Did Lucy Cutler Kellogg know the real story? Unlikely. Nims, a woman of proud Protestant tradition, wouldn’t hear of it. She believed secrets should be kept and the interred should rest in peace.

North Parish Memories Fading Fast

Memories fade over time, and a half-century is a long of time in the local-history realm.

Thus, I suppose it should come as no surprise that recollections of Greenfield’s old Nash’s Mills neighborhood at the beginning of Leyden Road are quickly sliding into oblivion. The church, the dam, the pond and other buildings did, after all, vanish more than 55 years ago to make room for Interstate 91.

What it boils down to is that even people now in their mid-60s were really too young then to provide the intricate details and insight required to paint a complete picture. Yes, there are many who remember the stately, brick, North Parish Church and its popular Parish Hall demolished in 1963 for the highway, while others fondly recall fishing Nash’s Mills Pond with a bobber and worm or Daredevil lure, or skating there in the cold of winter. Then there are those who mention the concrete-and-stone stairs said to be built during the Depression by Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) crews. The stairs followed the south side of the Mill Brook falls from the top of Nashs Mills Road to the bridge over Green River. But inquire about the bedrock waterfall’s color or the blasting required to remove it, or ask how much of the landform was removed to hollow out the highway corridor today spanned by an overpass, and there seems to be only spotty recollection.

“You must remember that the construction site was out of the way, where you didn’t notice it in passing,” recalled Richard Shortell, 72, who grew up in the upper Greenfield Meadows, attended North Parish Church with his parents and was in high school during the 1963-64 highway project.

When asked if the bedrock was the red sandstone with which we’re all familiar in this part of the Connecticut Valley, not one of many neighborhood witnesses queried responded with an authoritative, knee-jerk, “Yes.” Instead the question was greeted with a silent, bemused pause, followed by an uncertain, “Yes, I think so.” Certainly not a definitive response. Nonetheless, likely on the mark.

An exception was 93-year-old Greenfield native Anna Butynski, and even she hesitated. Caught off-guard, the Greenfield Meadows farmer took a while to stir her memory and provide a credible response. Although she couldn’t recall the color of the cascading bedrock waterfall below the dam, she did remember it as “beautiful” and did recall red outcropping of ledge in the neighborhood above, on both sides of the Leyden Road bridge crossing the narrow ravine just above the dam and falls.

“There was red rock all around there,” she said. “I used to lace my skates sitting on red rock along the shore behind the Parish Hall. I’m pretty sure there was red rock that had to be removed at the house across the bridge, too. That was Wayside Farm with a dairy barn when I was young. I remember them delivering milk with a white horse and wagon.”

Butynski grew up on the downtown half of Conway Street and remembers being able to see North Parish Church all the way from Main Street, the steeple taller than the neighborhood trees. As an adult married to Michael Butynski, she and her husband started Colrain Road’s Butynski Farm, which she still owns with extended family and raises vegetables. The state took four acres by eminent domain from the farm’s northeast corner bordered by the Green River during Interstate 91 construction. Although she does remember an extended construction process that included mention of blasting, she didn’t remember hearing explosions or paying much attention to the construction. Though nearby on her abutting acreage, like Shortell, she said it was largely out of sight, out of mind.

Like most people questioned, Butynski had only vague recollections of the natural, cascading stone falls below the dam. Maybe she never focused on them. Perhaps parents in the neighborhood deemed them off-limits to children due to potential danger. Then again, who, other than a fisherman or maybe a landscape artist or naturalist, would have a reason to study the falls, know them intimately and remember their twists, turns and bubbling pools?

Enter Joe Graveline, who’ll turn 70 in December and grew up in the neighborhood. He fished Mill Brook for trout above and below the pond it fed, and he also fished the pond itself for pickerel and bullheads on lazy summer days. “They used to stock trout in the pond, too,” said Graveline, a young teen at the time of Interstate-91 construction through the site. So, yes, he remembers the removal of the pond and falls and the destruction of a village square, where some buildings were moved, others destroyed.

Graveline met me late one afternoon at the base of the falls he remembers, now replaced by two arched concrete tunnels exiting under the north side of Nash’s Mills Road onto what looks like a walled, 45-degree concrete spillway and horizontal tailrace flowing into the stream bed. The spillway appears to be about 40 feet long, the tailrace a bit shorter. “This was the bottom half of the falls,” Graveline said. “There were actually two steps of falls, with a pool and a settling pond at the base of each. I fished the one in the middle and the one at to bottom.”

Although uncertain of the process, Graveline surmised that the construction crews reduced the bedrock by blasting before capping it with the concrete ramps fed by concrete tunnels channeling the brook under I-91. The destruction of a special, picturesque spot had a devastating impact on Graveline and other neighborhood teenagers, not to mention the many fishermen who had frequented it for years.

Graveline was also the source who said he believed the stairs leading from top to bottom of the falls had been the work of the CCC. It makes sense. A 1936 Greenfield newspaper photo shows a new concrete dam that had been finished that summer, which would have fallen during the days of CCC projects. Plus, there was a CCC camp stationed a mile or two north of Nash’s Mills, near where Plain Road converges with Green River Road today. Also, the last factory at the site had been razed in 1931, leaving a peaceful and scenic waterfall.

Graveline didn’t recall the bedrock falls as red, but he did remember red bedrock above and below, citing an outcropping with initials carved into it along the bank of the Green River below Nash’s Mills Bridge. Corroborating evidence of red sandstone there is found in a May 23, 1903 Greenfield Gazette and Courier blurb announcing that: “The Red Rock bathing club had control of the swimming pool at Red Rock in the Green River near Nash’s Mill again this year.” Also, I myself can say with certainty that all the outcropping of ledge I pass in the river bed less than a mile upstream is the same red sandstone with which I grew familiar on the Pocumtuck Range as a boy.

Buttressing my argument in favor of red sandstone from top to bottom at Nash’s Mills is the is found in the “History of the First Church, Greenfield, Mass (1963).” North Parish Church was built in 1831 on land donated by parishioner Eber Nash, whose nearby brickyard also made the bricks for Northampton architect Isaac Damon’s crowning achievement. North Parish Church was the last church Damon built, leaning heavily upon design elements of Asher Benjamin. According to the book published the same year the church was demolished, “Our second House of Worship was built in 1831 on a plot containing sold rock” … a site that offered “a sure and appropriate foundation.”

It sure does sound like a continuation of the same red bedrock on which Anna Butynski laced her skates many years ago across the street from the brick church, on the shore of the pond behind the Parish Hall. That traprock spine runs all the way from the top of the escarpment where Leyden Road climbs out of flood plain near the Pumping Station and follows Leyden Road, Conway Street and Elm Street to the dog park currently located along Colrain Street.

Take a look sometime in your travels at the red bedrock ledge jutting out on the north side of Colrain Street. Then let your mind wander back to the days before Europeans started exploring a New World … and establishing a new thumbprint.

New Look At Falls Fight Retreat Path

How about a couple of new twists to a centuries-old tale – one bringing in natural history, another introducing a largely forgotten waterfall that vanished in the name of progress and interstate highways?

Today’s discussion is centered around the fabled “Falls Fight” of May 19, 1676, a surprise attack that turned King Philip’s War in favor of colonials coming down the homestretch. On that fateful day, Connecticut Valley militia led from Hatfield by Boston Capt. William Turner descended upon a sleeping, pre-dawn fishing village of Indians camped at Peskeomskut Falls between Gill and Turners Falls, slaughtering mostly non-combatant old men and women. Then, the retreating soldiers had the tables turned on them by vengeful, counterattacking Indians racing in pursuit from adjacent riverside encampments.

The fleeing soldiers’ retreat took them over the hill that is now north of Route 2 and west of Main Road before crossing Fall River at Factory Hollow. From that point on, the battle appears to have degenerated into a helter-skelter dash for survival along two wetland corridors. The retreat path is now under the microscope of Connecticut archaeologist Kevin McBride and his metal-detecting battlefield-reconstruction sleuths combing the ground for associated musket balls.

Once across Fall River to their awaiting horses, the soldiers had a choice: follow scout Experience Hinsdale south toward Deerfield through the dense tangles of White Ash Swamp, or follow Capt. Turner, Lt. Samuel Holyoke, and probably guide Benjamin Wait back down the same path they had arrived on, crossing Green River near its confluence with Mill Brook.

Those who followed Hinsdale were quickly dispatched by Indians. The others carried on, had a fighting chance.

The four-mile trek through heavy wetland cover to the Green River ford followed White Ash Swamp’s northern perimeter to Cherry Rum Brook, which merged with larger Mill Brook a half-mile from Green River. About 200 yards east of Green River, at the top of what would become a small Greenfield industrial village known as Nash’s Mills, stood a bedrock waterfall cascading down exposed red sandstone to the Green River.

According to Terrain Navigator Pro measurements, the elevation drop from the west edge of the Silver Street-Conway Road intersection to the mouth of Mill Brook is approximately 60 feet. The straight-line distance from top to bottom is 590 feet, the meandering brook’s length 780 feet.

Tradition has it that Indians wounded Capt. Turner crossing Green River, and that he died on the west bank, just downstream from today’s Green River Swimming and Recreation Area. A Turner Monument now stands along Nash’s Mill Road, not far away.

Though early 20th century Greenfield historian Lucy Cutler Kellogg claims there was an island at the site of Turner’s death, there seems to be little corroborating evidence. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t an island. Such details can be lost over time. Perhaps deed research would confirm the island. It’s always possible where two streams with strong currents collide to create a swirling, depositional eddy. There is indeed a sizeable island just upstream from Mill Brook’s outflow into Green River on 1961 Interstate Route 91 construction maps. Could that be the island Kellogg notes? Who knows? In the big picture, an island at the site is insignificant compared to the presence of falls, which would have produced the cover sound of a loud spring roar during Turner’s retreat.

McBride and company have confirmed the retreat route identified by many historians, recovering musket balls along both banks of the meandering, at times steep Cherry Rum-Mill Brook corridor. Though the team is still in the process of sorting it all out, the evidence seems to place the colonials following the south bank as the Indians picked away at them from elevated ambush sites along the opposite bank.

Steep ravines and sharp turns presented several advantageous locations for surprise attacks throughout the wetland terrain. The Indians had a significant advantage. They knew the land. The colonials did not.

The vexing question for posterity is: What did the landscape between Peskeomskut and the Green River look like in 1676? That is, before the brook was dammed above the waterfalls to create Nash’s Mills Pond – and before Interstate 91 construction removed the bedrock falls and tunneled Mill Brook under 91 and Nash’s Mills Road, where today it exits two arched concrete tunnels and flows down a walled ramp to the Green River floodplain?

More precisely, what were the fleeing soldiers facing as they raced down that final half-mile from the Cherry Rum-Mill Brook confluence to the Green River?

I could find no reference to the Mill Brook falls in George Sheldon’s History of Deerfield (1895), which is curious when you consider it was cited four years earlier in the Greenfield Gazette’s “Centennial Edition.” The falls are again referenced in Francis M. Thompson’s History of Greenfield (1904), which makes sense: Thompson intimately knew the falls and dam supplying waterpower at Nash’s Mills. He himself owned a chisel manufactory there, which burned in 1871.

Thompson wrote that Mill Brook was “improved for mills” at a site “located at the considerable falls near its entrance into the Green River at Nash’s Mills.” He also says Jonathan Catlin “at a very early date” had a mill there. That means, “before 1755, when he deeded half interest to Daniel Nash for a mill and mill yard.” Eleven years later (1766), Catlin deeded the other half-interest to another miller, Aaron Denio Jr.”

Published descriptions of the falls are vague at best. Thompson basically parrots the “Centennial Edition” account, which states, “The height of the fall, excellent chance for flowage and secure rock foundation for a dam made the water privilege there of much value.” What height, he does not say.  

A circa 1895 photo looking up at Warner Manufacturing Co. from Nash’s Mills Road provides visible evidence. The black and white shot – rescued at auction in a Greenfield photo album dated 1899 – displays the southwest corner of the three-story, clapboard factory building, with a dam flowing onto a natural stone waterfall along the south side. The water flows about 10 feet over the dam, falling upon a long stretch of roiling falls cascading over bedrock toward the Green River. What cannot be seen is Nash’s Mills Pond behind the dam, or the iron-railed Leyden Road bridge crossing the narrow ravine at the head of the falls.

A factor that speaks to the site’s early industrial value is the 1719 Deerfield road laid from the west end of Green River Village (Main Street in Greenfield) to Country Farms (the fertile northern Greenfield flood plain east of the Green River, extending south on both sides of Leyden Road from the pumping station to the base of a serpentine upper terrace traversed by Country Club Road).

Following the path of today’s Conway Street and Leyden Road, that old road crossed Mill Brook a short distance north of the Silver Street outflow, where the landscape was dramatically altered during Interstate 91 construction in 1963-64. The bedrock waterfall was blasted and removed to hollow out the I-91 corridor now spanned by a long overpass connecting Conway Street and Leyden Road.

The year 1719 was very early for roadbuilding through what was to become Greenfield, strongly suggesting that it had been an existing indigenous footpath to the falls and beyond. In Native American culture, significant waterfalls were sites of high spirit, celebrated as portals to the underworld, as well as important fishing places. Petroglyphs and pictographs are often found around falls where migrating fish were seasonally harvested. Spring salmon may have accumulated in the settling pool at the base of Mill Brook falls annually, and the same can be said of Eastern brook trout running upriver for their annual fall spawning.

Tributary paths likely intersected the marshy main path from Peskeomskut to Green River. This terrain that today sits north of Silver Street and south of Barton Road was known in the early-historic period as Trap Plain, a bountiful hunting and trapping ground. As recent as the final quarter of the 19th century, Cherry Rum Brook was still referred to on maps as “Trap Plain Brook.”

By the time of King Philip’s War, 40 years after the founding of Springfield, beavers had been overharvested to extirpation in southern New England by Indian trappers supplying the Pynchon fur-trading dynasty. That doesn’t mean signs of old beaver colonies were not prevalent. The remains of old beaver ponds must have left dense marshland and wet, fertile soil along brooks that had been dammed.

So, Turner and his men were most likely negotiating swampy, jungle-like habitat through the Cherry Rum/Mill Brook corridor. Plus, once they got near the Mill Brook falls, their ability to detect sounds around them would have been greatly diminished if not totally erased.

Isn’t it interesting how, despite being surprised and totally unprepared for a daybreak attack on their sleeping village, the Indians had Turner and his fleeing troops right where they wanted them during the retreat? The colonials were trying to escape through unfamiliar terrain well known by their native pursuers, whose people had hunted there for millennia. Unlike their prey, such as deer, bear and moose, the colonial soldiers were ignorant of trails and terrain, and hesitant to leave the beaten paths, making them easy marks. On horseback, their movement was even easier to detect.

Given such overwhelming odds against survival, isn’t it amazing that the so-called “boy hero,” 16-year-old soldier Jonathan Wells of Hatfield, lived to tell and retell his famous escape tale, one that’s been picked at for centuries by historians.

Although I have been unable to uncover any detailed descriptions or survey plans unveiling precise dimensions or height of the Mill Brooks falls, I haven’t given up. I thought maybe the local newspaper would be helpful, but a cursory probe of online Greenfield Gazette and Courier archives was disappointing at best.

Excepting destruction of the stately, brick North Parish Church and the rescue of a buried Lane Construction worker from Brattleboro, there also appears to have been little reporting on the Interstate 91 project. Curious? Yes. The local newspaper should have been all over that Route 91 project that destroyed landmarks, altered trout streams and changed the town forever. But, no. Not the case.

All I can do is keep digging and sharing what I uncover. I’m not alone. It’s a four-man collaborative effort, with lots of email and phone calls among us. Exciting indeed.

We’re on it. It’s dynamic. Who knows? Maybe this narrative will pull in other recollections and photos. One can only hope.

Benjamin Munn’s Saga

Old friend Billy Wardwell and his cheerful, trademark smile, full gray beard extending to his chest, stopped by on a bright summer morning carrying a large, earth-tone, rectangular item from his car. On his way to 18 holes of vintage golf, he was clad in proper attire, right down to the bowtie and knickers that old, wood-shafted golfers wore.

What he lugged under his arm went back three generations deeper, to the first quarter of the 19th century.

Having picked up this bound volume of Greenfield Gazettes – dating back to the late Federal period, June 1, 1823 through June 1, 1825, plus one from 1817 – at South Deerfield bookbinder John Nove’s shop, he thought I may have an interest. He was right. I did. It’s still here, resting face-up on a leather ottoman in the study. It contains many little tidbits of interesting information that speak to the days of aspiring young Greenfield.

Anyone who’s read old newspapers knows that the local-news product is spotty at best, even poor notwithstanding staples like obituaries, legal notices and the occasional special-interest story. The latter are sparse. Most of the “news” is regurgitated from city newspapers dropped off at local taverns by mail stages and post riders.

Then, of course, there are the merchant’s advertisements, which give you a feel for what’s happening in the business district. In this case, you find familiar names to anyone who’s explored early 19th-century Greenfield – artisans like pewterer Samuel Pierce, cabinetmaker Daniel Clay, foundry man William Wilson, and painter George Washington Mark all trying to make a go of it.

Mixed in with the ads are bulletin-board, lost-and-found notices about livestock, purses and wallets, and even an occasional personal plea that strikes your funny bone. Try this one on for size, a notice that appears several times in 1823, headlined “Look Out!” in bold, black, attention-seeking letters. Posted by jilted husband Elijah Clark of Leyden and dated Aug. 13, it reads:

“Whereas my wife Lydia left my bed and board on the 18th of March last without any provocation, I do hereby forbid all persons harboring or trusting her on penalty of law.”

So, tell me, do you suppose Mr. Clark is a batterer? Just a thought. The first that came to mind.

Other than that, you’re apt to find detailed accounts of public hangings in New York City or Atlanta, piracy on the high seas, devastating city fires, or some scurrilous bank embezzlement scheme in Philadelphia or Newark, NJ.

Then, once in a while, you get a tale like the one brought to the paper by an anonymous local source who thought readers would be interested. Although it would be tough to chase down two hundred years later, I suspect the source could have been Deerfield historian Epaphras Hoyt, identified by Historic Deerfield Inc. as a man of affairs who served as High Sheriff of Franklin County from 1814 to 1831… also active as an author, surveyor, postmaster, justice of the peace, register of deeds, and major general in the Massachusetts militia during his long life of public service.

The source is irrelevant. It’s the story of Benjamin Munn that matters. Found dead on a road from Deerfield to Shelburne on the evening of July 26, 1824, this wayward joiner had a distinguished and mysterious past. He was, as they say in Chicopee, quite the boy, yet no youngster when he met his sudden hilltown demise.

Born Feb. 1, 1738 in Deerfield, Munn had been around, to say the least. I suppose a good Federal Period carpenter would never go hungry, and Munn was all that. Carpentry was in his blood, so to speak, he the third in a line of three Deerfield carpenters named Benjamin Munn.

Munn was also fifth-generation Connecticut Valley, dating back to namesake progenitor Benjamin Munn, a Hartford founder, Pequot War veteran and early Springfield resident who died there in 1675, probably killed by Indians. Son John Munn (b. 1652, Springfield) settled at Westfield and fought at the King Philip’s War Falls Fight (May 19, 1676).

John’s son Benjamin, our Benjamin’s grandfather (b. 1683, Westfield), was the first of the three consecutive Deerfield carpenters named Benjamin. He came to Deerfield with his mother and stepfather John Richards, the Deerfield schoolmaster who arrived before 1698, according to historian George Sheldon. Richards’ stepsons, brothers Benjamin and John Munn, joined their mom as the first of the family to live in Deerfield.

Benjamin I, his wife Thankful Nims, and their infant child survived the famous 1704 Indian attack in the family’s snow-covered, cellar home on the Richards lot. Thankful was the daughter of Deerfield’s Godfrey Nims, and removed to Northfield.

Son Benjamin II (born 1709, Deerfield) married Mary Wait, daughter of “Brave” Benjamin Wait of Hatfield, a famous Indian fighter and scout who was a victim of Deerfield’s 1704 Meadow Fight. Benjamin II and Mary produced our Benjamin, born 1738 in Deerfield. Benjamin’s first cousin John (b. 1741, son of John, Benjamin) was one of the first permanent settlers in the part of Deerfield that became Greenfield, then Gill. The family operated the ferry there, retaining the property around Munn’s Ferry Road into the mid-20th century.

Our Benjamin Munn was a French and Indian War soldier of distinction, having served from about 1755 to 1760 under commanding officers the likes of legendary Israel Putnam and Robert Rogers (of Rogers Rangers fame) in the Lake George-Fort Ticonderoga-Crown Point-Lake Champlain theater.

Surviving the perilous frontier campaigns, Munn married Patty Bartlett of Northampton, where they lived briefly before packing up for Sudbury and opening a tavern. From that post, he answered the 1775 call from Cambridge to fight the British at Bunker Hill before, soon thereafter headed to the Maine frontier due to “pecuniary embarrassments” (financial difficulties, in the current lexicon), and then to Nova Scotia, leaving his wife wondering where he fled. An unsubstantiated online report on one of the genealogical sites claims he was, like convicted brother Phineas, a Tory, but that seems dubious given his Bunker Hill service.

Although little appears to be known of Munn’s Nova Scotia life, he surely carved out an identity as a carpenter and faded from the memory of Deerfield friends and neighbors. Then, a half-century later, in 1822, out of the clear blue sky, presumed long dead by most who had known him as a young man, Munn returned to his native town without warning, like a ghost from the past.

According to the anonymous newspaper informant, Munn’s circuitous trip home had been chronicled in an 1822 Gazette, which I did not chase down. It was a journey worthy of acclaim, if not local folklore. The 84-year-old man had walked some 100 miles to a ship anchored in Halifax port, sailed to Boston and proceeded to hoof it another 100 more miles home to Deerfield.

There, his widowed younger sister Lydia Bradley was living on The Street, while another younger widowed sister, Mary Joiner, was living in Shelburne, either at a home she had shared with late husband Edward Joiner, or possibly with son William Joiner and daughter-in-law Content (Bardwell) Joiner. Content was the daughter of Ebenezer Bardwell, an early settler of Foxtown (the southeastern Shelburne/Bardwells Ferry area). Both Edward and Mary died in Shelburne. The Deerfield Joiners (also spelled Joyner in some records) can be confusing to follow due to the fact that there were two Edwards and two Williams.

Regardless of where Mary lived in Shelburne, it’s safe to assume that it was in Foxtown, and that the route from Deerfield would have crossed the Deerfield River to Wisdom, then up either Old Albany or Hawks roads to the western hills. The newspaper doesn’t identify the road Munn traveled, perhaps suggesting readers would know the route.

Then again, maybe it was just shoddy reporting, always a possibility.

In Deerfield, Munn likely bunked with sister Lydia. By the time of his phantom return, his ex-wife, who had presumed herself a widow and married Timothy Parsons of Northampton, had herself been dead for five years. Anyway, according to the Aug. 3, 1824 Gazette account, Munn left Deerfield on foot to visit his Shelburne sister. The day was Monday. Witnesses had seen him along the way before he was later found dead by the side of the road that evening. He had walked about 10 miles before expiring.

There were reports of rain and hail storms passing through the hills that day. The coroner ruled death by natural causes. The newspaper correspondent praised Munn as a walker with “remarkable power of limbs for traveling… Few young men walked with greater ease or rapidity.” He was 86.

So, there you have it – the tale of Travelin’ Man Benjamin Munn, the former Rogers Ranger, found dead over an embankment along the road to his sister’s Shelburne home on July 24, 1824. Although there seems to be no record of his final resting place, you can bet the farm it’s not far away. Proud Benjamin most likely wanted to return home to die and be buried where he was born. He made it.

Rifles That Sang

Discovery. It’s enticing. A mission. A search. A chase. An addictive game. Connecting can be euphoric. Especially when an answer comes out of nowhere. Totally unexpected. Slaps you upside the head like a branch in the woods.

Which brings us to a peculiar, 8½-inch, black, pointed, ground-stone object (pictured below) I purchased years ago among a collection of 19th-century powder horns, bullet molds, wedges, and powder flasks and pouches handed down as family relics to the late Lucius Nims of Greenfield. He said the miscellaneous items could be traced back to his great grandfather Hull Nims, a Revolutionary War veteran and prosperous Greenfield Meadows farmer.

The stone’s peculiarity arose from the fact that it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the collection. Like that lonely little petunia in an onion patch, it stuck out. Didn’t belong. Looked like a Stone-Age, Native American artifact. Perhaps a hide-scraper. Maybe a woodworking gouger, knife or chisel. Possibly even some sort of a stabbing, bludgeoning weapon for hand-to-hand combat, although I had never seen anything that compared in reference books. It looked and felt more like some sort of tool.

During my innkeeping days, I had on many occasions shown the interesting object to whomever I thought would possibly be interested and may even be able to identify it. Tucked away in the bottom drawer of an 18th-century, tiger maple, Chippendale blanket chest with a Hampshire hills provenance and likely Northampton origin, I’d fetch it as a post-breakfast table conversation piece. I showed it to many without giving my thoughts and the unanimous opinion was that it was a Native American artifact. Likely, old Hull Nims or one of his kids had turned it up from the rich Meadows croplands with one of those old, two-handled, V-shaped, horse-pulled cultivators on acreage today farmed by the Butynski family.

Enter veteran anthropologist/archaeologist Mike Gramly, who, though I didn’t know it at the time, is a card-carrying Indian-artifact appraiser. I met him in September 2013, when he was leading a week-long archaeological excavation of the “Sugarloaf (or DEDIC) Site” along the Deerfield-Whately border – one of North America’s richest Paleoindian treasure troves. Finding myself in the company of many lithic scholars with decades of experience uncovering and identifying artifacts, I brought my worked-stone curiosity to the site for inspection. If it was of Native American origin, these folks would know.

With the crew tidying up the site down the stretch during Saturday-afternoon cleanup, I retrieved the shiny, pointed, black stone from my truck and passed it around among four or five experts. They examined and handled it, and their consensus was that they were not familiar with the form, but suspected it was not an Indian artifact.

“Show it to Mike,” said one of them. “He’s good at this stuff.”

Overhearing the conversation from nearby, Gramly soon joined us. The man holding the stone object handed it to him for examination. He held it up to the sun, pondered the shape, the edges, the point and the round handle and said, “What you have here is not an Indian artifact. It’s a scythe-sharpening tool, and a pretty rare find at that. Even rarer are the cattle-horn holsters farmers carried them in. Hard to come by these days.”

How about that? It just so happened there was just such a cattle horn in the Nims collection. Though I hadn’t associated it with the stone tool, it came with it, and did indeed fit when tested. With a piece chipped from the rim, I had surmised without giving it much thought that maybe it was an incomplete powder-horn blank that had been broken and kept for future reduction. But, no, it belonged with the stone sharpening tool used to keep grass-cutting scythes sharp for the hayfields.

Back then, hay was not baled; it was cut with scythes, piled in thatched ricks for drying, stored loose in barn hay pits and lofts, and pitchforked into stables and stalls. Nowadays, you only see hayricks in oil paintings, photos and films depicting earlier times. How nice to have this relic from a neighborhood with an agricultural legacy.

But the story doesn’t end there. Nope. It gets better.

Fast forward five or six years from the Gramly ID and, quite by chance, I discovered the old name for scythe-sharpening stones. They were called rifles. Try Googling that and finding it, even when you know what you’re looking for. I don’t believe you’ll find it. The only place I didn’t check was the Oxford Dictionary. It could be there, but I have my doubts. The word was probably colloquial and/or vernacular. Perhaps of New England origin. Definitely obsolete. How did I find it? By reading. Better still, following a scholarly footnote. Let me explain.

Reading “A Walk to Wachusett” in Henry D. Thoreau Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition, edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer, Yale University Press (2013), there it was on Page 49. Thoreau and companion Richard Fuller (Margaret Fuller’s brother) were walking through Acton and Stow at daybreak during their famed four-day walk from Concord to the top of Mount Wachusett in early July of 1842. Breaking into a settled clearing from the cool Acton woods, Thoreau captures the essence by describing fenced meadows, tree lines, and dimly lit houses and outbuildings.

Of the tranquil, bucolic, dawn scene he writes: “It was solitude with light, which is better than darkness. But, anon, the sound of the mower’s rifle was heard in the fields, and this, too, mingled with the herd of days.”

Fortunately, Editor Cramer uses footnotes to clear up a couple of obsolete words that could cause confusion among even sophisticated contemporary readers. No. 1, the “mower’s rifle” is not a long gun used for hunting and protection but rather, “An instrument used after the manner of a whetstone for sharpening scythes”; and 2), the final word “days” does not refer to days of the week but instead is a “Variant of deys: dairymaids or milkmaids.” So there. Has anyone ever told you it’s wise to follow footnotes? Well, here’s a perfect example, a luxury indeed when reading dated prose.

And so, the search continues. You can’t understate the importance of reading and conversing when chasing information and solving vexing unknowns. If there’s a moral to this example of exciting intellectual discovery, it is this: Never ignore cumbersome footnotes, even if you have to chase them all the way to the back of the book. That was not necessary in this case. Cramer’s footnotes were listed in the right margin of each page, a convenience that surpasses even placement at the page bottom.

Had I been lazy that day while reading something I had read before in an earlier publishing, I’d probably think that farmer fired his rifle at a woodchuck, whose hayfield holes were capable of breaking horses’ legs. Not so. Just sharpening his scythe in daybreak still

It’s All About Place

So, what exactly does a retired man with time on his hands do during the sultry dog days? That was a recent question asked of me in passing through the marketplace.

I can’t say I gave a thoughtful answer. The questioner wasn’t expecting one. Just small talk to which I responded with a playful quip. You know. Something like, “As little as possible,” or, “Trying to stay out of mischief.” Ha-ha.

Hours later, as the setting sun cast me into dusky introspection, I revisited the question and internally answered it.

I try to remain productive, though at a slower, steadier pace than when work loomed largest. I still read a lot, write a little, and chat face-to-face, by phone or email. I also discipline myself to pick away at a chore or two a day, trying not to overburden myself with drudgery. Plus, there’s always the little stuff – caring for pets, winding, oiling and regulating antique clocks, feeding the woodstove in winter, keeping the house cool in summer, airing out the barn when the sky is high and dry. I pick berries when ripe and water the Roma tomato daily, suckering and tying as needed.

I even cleaned out the barn this summer. Long overdue. Finally, after 22 years of procrastination fueled by the responsibility of stewarding historic property, I concluded that I did not have, and likely would not find, a use for the barn collection left behind by former generations. With my wife’s assistance, I realized reminiscence had become clutter.

So, we went to work, selling some contents to dealers and reorganizing what was left. It put a little cash in our pocket for miscellaneous expenses like fruit and vegetable runs. There’s more. A couple dump runs will clear the stables, especially in the four not-so open stalls. Then, alas, a tidy, organized barn, its cupola and open chestnut framing a statement to its historic New England character.

I view all the aforementioned as mindless routine, though rewarding, mundane chores that must be done. Yet never can I put such chores in a league with reading and researching and studying the place where I was born and call home.

I’m talking about towns like Deerfield and Greenfield, Whately and Conway. But it goes deeper, expanding into Franklin County and the Pioneer Valley, Massachusetts, New England and the Northeast. Then there are the rivers: the Connecticut, Deerfield and Green, Millers and Westfield, Ashuelet and West, even the Merrimack and Penobscot. They’re all connected in a sense of place that drives me.

Everything revolves around place, inspiring my reading, travels and discourse. When you think of it, what do you really know if you don’t understand your place? It must be a lonely, hollow existence for those who move so often that they never find one that’s theirs.

In recent weeks, there’s been an enticing historical buzz in the air. Lots of little ongoing projects that you don’t hear much about. As a result, I reread two books and, at the telephone suggestion of independent archaeologist Mike Gramly, added one to my library that, having finished it, I know should have been purchased long ago. I thought it was “dated.” Uh-uh. Not for the most part.

My first reread was Harral Ayres’ The Great Trail of New England, a hard-to-find 1940 study of the Indian footpath that led Puritan pioneers to the Connecticut Valley, where, between 1633 and ‘35, they settled Windsor, Hartford, Wethersfield, and Springfield. I remember buying the title from the Brattle Street Bookstore years ago. I had spotted a 1939 ad in the “Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society,” and hunted it down online. One copy available. Not cheap. Worth it.

My renewed interest in the indigenous footpaths that greeted New England pioneers to these shores and led them up and down the coast and inland was spurred by recent interaction with an energetic group of Conway Historical Commissioners and local-history sleuths tracing the town’s oldest roads and cellar holes. All Connecticut Valley towns on both sides of the river, in the flatlands and hills, were settled along such foot-wide paths that greeted pioneers. These trails evolved into bridal and cart paths, county and town roads and turnpikes.

Although Ayres’ book doesn’t venture this far north, it describes the major artery from Boston to Hartford and New York, and mentions the tributaries leading to Broookfield, Lancaster, and Springfield. Although unstated, those northern tributaries off that southern New England east-west artery intersected the Connecticut Valley trails, eventually crossing our Mohawk Trail, it another major, indigenous, east-west footpath from the coast to the Hudson Valley and beyond.

Ayres details the landscape surrounding the trail as well as Indian villages and friendly interactions with Natives along the way. An important tool he uses to capture the trail’s essence is John Winthrop, Jr.’s diary recording his circuitous, 10-day, 230-mile round trip from Boston to Connecticut and back. His late-fall route from Boston to Windsor goes – accidentally – on the northern path to Springfield. From there, he travels south to the Windsor ferry and Hartford, then south to Saybrook, where he takes the coastal path home though Providence.

Half of his tiny journal was written in Latin, the other half English. The Latin portion was translated and published for the first time in Ayres’ work. The narrative describes river crossings, bartering for food with Indians, and overnights under trailside wigwam frames the men had to cover. Their dealings with Natives they encountered were friendly – and remember, the Pequot War, New England’s first Indian war, had ended only seven years earlier, so Indians had reason to distrust colonists.

My Connecticut Path read dovetailed nicely into an ongoing, cooperative, local-history probe in which I had been involved with contact-period scholar and friend Peter A. Thomas. With work already underway for Deerfield’s 350th birthday celebration in 2023, Thomas has been working diligently to unravel the deeds and settlement of Deerfield, which began in the mid-1660s as Pocumtuck, a compensatory 8,000-acre grant to Dedham.

Thomas isn’t the first researcher to examine the confusing earliest deeds, and won’t be the last. However, unless some forgotten seventeenth-century translation key comes to light in the secret drawer of a dusty attic dresser, the incomprehensible Indian place names may never be deciphered.

Still, what is certain is that the first colonial survey crew, explorers, fur traders, and settlers like Samuel Hinsdale and Samson Frary traveled to the Connecticut Valley by way of Ayres’ trails. From Springfield, they took the trail through Westfield to Northampton and on to Hadley, Deerfield, and Northfield.

Enter Gramly, a paleontologist with a fascination of the Connecticut Valley that goes back at least 12,350 years – the radiocarbon-date attached to the Paleoindian “Sugarloaf Site” he has twice excavated along the Whately-Deerfield line. Gramly will implore, to anyone willing to listen, the importance of our valley in the North American archaeological record.

So, of course, he’s game when the discussion turns to ancient indigenous trails leading to and along New England’s largest river. Gramly speaks about such topics with unencumbered glee, not to mention venerable insight. Few understand the deep history and peopling of the Americas like Mike Gramly. Even fewer are willing to get their hands dirty, their shirt saturated discovering more.

First and foremost, Gramly is a teacher – one who’ll talk the night away to curiosities. He’s a book author, publisher, and dealer, well-read with a personal library counting into the thousands, most of it archaeological and anthropological. Thus, he’s a great source for suggested readings.

“I don’t know if you own C.C. Willoughby’s Antiquities of the New England Indians (1935),” he told me during a recent telephone conversation. “If not, you ought to. Though written long ago, it’s relevant, and the author winds in and out of your valley.”

Cha-ching, I found one online, the gilt on the spine and cover bright and crisp, the binding, as my late father used to say, ‘Tight as the bark on a four-foot oak.’”

Gramly was right. Willoughby shares much helpful information about Connecticut Valley Indians, their tools and culture, plus many detailed sketches of valley artifacts collected in Deerfield, Gill, Montague, Hadley, South Hadley, Holyoke, Springfield, Windsor, and Hartford. The illustrated relics were then housed at museums in Deerfield, Amherst and Holyoke, along with various local historical societies. I’d venture a guess that many of these treasures are no longer where Willoughby found them. Like so many priceless Museum artifacts, they were probably sold or pilfered out the back door long ago.

Reading Willoughby’s narrative on Maine’s mysterious “Red Paint People,” their cemeteries and culture, piqued my dormant interest in the topic and sent me to a bookcase for Bruce Bourque’s The Swordfish Hunters (2012). I bought the book and had it autographed by the author at Gramly’s last Sugarloaf Site dig in 2013. I immediately read it, and in June 2016 I hosted Bourque and Gramly overnight for a memorable Lake Hitchcock symposium at Eaglebrook School.

My reread of Bourque’s groundbreaking work was far more meaningful than the initial read, when I was new to archaeology and barely knew the difference between a feature and an artifact.

Isn’t it interesting how discovery missions get started? This time the impetus was a study of old Conway roads and older Deerfield deeds, discussions with scholars Thomas and Gramly, reading an old book, rereading another and a newer one, and melding the information into form. Yes, Ayres, Willoughby, and Bourque brought me home, with little nudges from Gramly and Thomas.

Although it’s a fact that “Red Paint” cemeteries are a coastal phenomenon not found here, there were indeed Connecticut Valley burials marked with mortuary-ceremonial red ochre. So, a form of “red paint” in a similar context does indeed show up here… What does it mean?

This search, and all of its diversions, are a work in progress. It’s addictive and underway, new information continually tweaking the narrative. I must keep reading, following leads from people who know more than me and asking questions, many questions, all related to this place, one where my occidental DNA is found in most of the oldest graveyards.

There’s lots to learn from those “historic” burial grounds reaching back 300 or 400 years, yet far more from our indigenous prehistory that digs some 13,000 years deeper.

Sugarloaf Witch-Tale Origin?

It’s noontime. I’ve walked the dogs, lugged in wood from the woodshed, showered, poured my last cup of coffee, and am reading on a comfortable leather recliner in the sunny south parlor. Retirement’s great. Work no longer looming.

The wireless phone rings. Cradled on a small dropleaf table between my chair and its twin, I pick up the receiver to read the caller-ID panel. A local cell phone I don’t recognize. I answer anyway, chancing an unwanted pitch from a telephone solicitor, or worse still, an annoying robocall. Don’t you hate those recorded sales pitches? This was not that. A welcome surprise. Paul Grzybowski, a trusted source I met several years ago at Turners Falls’ Discovery Center.

“Hey, Paul. What’s goin’ on?”

“Well, I have something for you. I know you share my interest in the tale of the Sugarloaf witch myth, and I’ve have found something of that’ll be of interest to you.”

“Wow! Great timing. Surreal, in fact. Our brain waves must have connected. Not an hour ago I sent in a Sugarloaf column to the Montague Reporter. Not about the witch. The caves. But it sure seems like more than a coincidence that you’d call now. Why do these things happen?”

He laughs like he’s been there and says, “Yeah, I hear you. But, honestly, I didn’t even know you wrote a Reporter column, just that we shared an interest in that Sugarloaf witch. So, I wanted to touch base.”

The Sugarloaf myth my friend was referring to dates back to colonial days, originating during the mid-18th century. At that time, Sugarloaf Brook crossing the mountain’s southern skirt served as the border between Hatfield and Deerfield, traveling a quarter-mile east before turning south toward its Connecticut River confluence at what’s now Herlihy Park off River Road. The Sugarloaf base then spills gently out into a fertile plain once known as the Canterbury section of Hatfield and then, after its 1771 incorporation, Whately. So, there you have it: our own little Canterbury tale.

Unsettled during the first 75 years of the contact period due to Indian dangers, the first settler to set his stake at the foot of Sugarloaf was Abraham Parker, a Groton man who arrived in 1749, having likely spent some family time at the Fort at No. 4 in Charlestown, NH. His father, Capt. Isaac Parker of Groton, was then continuing a proud family military tradition by serving at the Connecticut Valley’s northernmost colonial frontier outpost. Abraham broke ground for his home that evolved into a big farm and gristmill over the years and still stands as the large yellow house sitting upon the fork in the road.

A few years after Parker’s arrival, brother-in-law (my sixth great-grandfather) Joseph Sanderson joined him, moving from Groton wife Ruth Parker and eight young children. Thus, the riverside village of Canterbury was born, and there the Sugarloaf witch tale was spun and respun in front of crackling fires and out in the fields, Sugarloaf always towering above. Witch tales were big in Calvinist lore, the devout Protestants always wary of the devil’s influence, especially in the howling wilderness of Indian country.

The tale, which to my knowledge was never recorded for posterity, involves a male witch who leaps from Sugarloaf’s tip to the fertile southern plain below. There he alights on a giant oak in what likely later became Sanderson’s yard, hops down and disappears into the ground below, never again to be seen or heard from. He did leave a couple of calling cards, though: 1, the large, muscular, disfigured oak limb on which he landed and, 2, the obvious ground depression into which he vanished.

The depression came to be dreaded by schoolkids passing it daily in their coming and goings from a one-room East Whately schoolhouse built in 1827 that no longer stands. Young, screeching schoolkids – including many from my own family – scooted past it in feigned fear whenever they passed it.

I first heard the tale from my spinster great-aunt Gladys Sanderson, the unofficial family historian we called “Antie,” who was known to me from the beginning of my South Deerfield upbringing. She had learned it from her “Ant Mattie” (Martha Almira Sanderson Field), who was born in 1876 in East Whately, attended the old school and passed the local folklore down to her niece. I remember Aunt Mattie as a 100-something-year-old widow living on her Field Farm in Bradstreet. There, in the late 1970s, she was still taking care of herself and held Hatfield’s gold cane as the town’s oldest resident. She’s buried in the Bradstreet Cemetery with her husband and stepson, Bob Field, less than five miles south of the old East Whately schoolhouse, which stood along the northern perimeter of her family home.

The witch’s depression was between the school and her home. That home was built by my fourth-great-grandfather John Chapman Sanderson in the mid-19th century on family land just north of the original family homestead. Neither house was standing when the witch supposedly touched down. The original homestead was built about 1760 and burned to the ground on July 3, 1882, when Aunt Mattie was 6. Most likely the tale originated during my ancestors’ first eight or so years at the base of Sugarloaf, when the family lived in a temporary shelter close to the Parker farm for protection from Indian attack.

The new information Grzybowski was eager to share was gleaned from the type of Internet research most of us have tinkered with during rainy days or idle moments. Googling keyword combinations that included “Sugarloaf” and “witch,” he stumbled upon the medieval English Legends of John O’Kent, a fictional wizard also known as Jack o’ Kent or Jacky Kent from the days of Robin Hood and Friar Tuck. This character from the Welsh/English border was associated with a famous stone castle and known for outwitting the devil. Because he first appears in print in 1590, he would have definitely been familiar to Pilgrims and Puritans settling New England in the 1630s. In one of many tales, Jacky Kent is a giant, and he leaps from the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain in Wales. He lands in the Skirrid, where to this day his heel marks remain as a reminder. Sugar Loaf is the southernmost peak of Wales’ Black Mountains range.

So, take it to the bank. Grzybowski is on the right track. The Jack o’ Kent legend must be the source of our Sugarloaf witch tale. It wasn’t a reworked Indian tale of a bear or panther leaping from Sugarloaf, but rather an English tale that crossed the Atlantic with New England’s first European settlers. Our tale was probably crafted by my Parker and Sanderson relatives, the first two families to settle the Canterbury section of Hatfield, now River Road, Whately. Who knows when it stopped being told? It was probably already on its way out by the dawning of the 20th century.

It never hurts to dust off and bring back into the light such tidbits of old valley folklore. Thanks to Paul Grzybowski for the noontime call. I’m glad I answered it. If you want more, take a Google adventure. And if you want to go even deeper, explore the Demon Wittum. That Mount Toby myth just may be from the same bolt of cloth.

Then again, maybe not.

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