Old Roads Have Stories To Tell

One never knows where a road will lead them. Especially an old road. So, let’s talk about roads. Old roads. Ones that began as indigenous paths or, before that, game trails carved into Mother Earth’s skin by migrating herds. The discovery potential in such ancient trails is nearly limitless for those who maintain an open mind and harbor a curious spirit.

I learned that roads could tell fascinating stories during my brief days as a young surveyor still searching for my identity. That was back in the late Sixties and early Seventies, when I rose in status to transitman before moving on to other adventures. It all began with summer jobs as a high school and college student, when I learned the skills of a rodman, a job description that may well have changed today with all the new technology. I don’t think surveyors still use plumb bobs and 200-foot chains, standard tools of the trade in my day.

Back then, a good rodman was a valuable commodity. He was a man who knew the woods and understood terrain features valued by mapmakers. Though I didn’t know of any female rodmen when I was cutting line and giving backsights, I’m sure there are many today.

In those days of turning angles on circular Gurley transit scales, the rodman was a laborer who carried a sharp machete to cut sight lanes for the transitman, lugging and pounding in hubs and stakes to identify traverse stations along the perimeter. During detail work with a boldly calibrated 16½-foot rod in hand, the rodman would record contours along with natural and manmade features.

Among the natural features were brooks, springs, swamps, outcroppings of ledge, and distinctive trees. The manmade items include roads, stone walls, cellar holes, old wells, and buildings. All of this information was recorded in field notes and submitted to office draftsmen who drew maps and plans of the surveyed acreage.

Although many of the roads we marked through forested hilltown terrain had been long ago discontinued or abandoned, they needed to be recorded nonetheless. These roads passed through and bordered expansive old New England farms that had been worked by the same families for several generations and were about to go on the market. Remarkably, many of those roads were then and likely still are today fit for travel by four-wheel-drive trucks and recreational vehicles, not to mention navigable by dirt- and mountain-bikers, hikers, hunters and snowmobilers.

Unfortunately, many of the old four-wheel-drive roads I explored as a teen and young man are now sealed off by sturdy, locked metal gates erected to eliminate all but “official” motorized travel by forest stewards and departments.

I guess it was inevitable once recreational rough-riders came onto the scene. They loved to rev their muscle trucks and spin their big, knobby, mud-splattering tires through boggy depressions while displaying total disrespect for private property. The problem was only exacerbated by inconsiderate gangs of four-wheeler enthusiasts who cut fences and new forest trails. Some even disassembled narrow openings in stone walls for their recreational vehicles to pass through. This raised the ire of landowners, and resulted in many road closings.

Carving Deep History

I can’t say I was aware as a young surveyor that some of the old roads I marked on detail duty – even discontinued portions of old county roads that had been rerouted over the years – had originally been Native paths.

I suppose it’s possible that some astute party chief introduced me to the deep-history context of some roads. If so, the memory escapes me. But it most likely never happened. Too esoteric for the average modern surveyor. No, it seems to me that I employed my own idiosyncratic, autodidactic methods to arrive at that profound and exciting discovery that puts a different spin on old roads.

There is now a sophisticated cult of true believers who promote the idea that some stone walls and mysterious stone structures hidden on landscapes predate 16th-century European emigration by a long shot. Although it’s possible some were indeed Indigenous creations, I’ll reserve judgment for now. I need to know more, must see unimpeachable evidence that isn’t based on bare speculation and hypothesis. As old Muskie used to say in the Saturday morning cartoons, “It’s possible,” an assessment that applies to many mysteries.

What brought me to this topic of old roads and antiquities is my recent, perhaps pandemic-driven, probe into the history and settlement of South Deerfield and north Whately. This sliver of the Connecticut Valley is my place and that of my father’s family. We have been here since the colonial beginning – a short time on the deep-history scale – and were led here by 17th-century Indigenous trails, including the so-called Pocumtuck Path.

This local trail, which connected Old Deerfield to Umpanchala’s Fort on the edge of Hatfield, was already thousands of years old when found by my European ancestors. It ran through Hatfield and Whately as we now know them on Straits and Long Plain roads, then traveled right through the heart of South Deerfield on Main Street, and on to Mill Village Road and Old Deerfield through the Bars and South Meadows.

So important was this meandering north-south Native path – on which the Bloody Brook Massacre unfolded on September 18, 1675 – that it was established as the dividing line between the eastern and western layout of the May 20, 1688 Long Hill Division. This land division allotted parcels in the south end of town to 48 Deerfield proprietors. Then, some 70 years later, after years of passing through, the nascent village of Muddy Brook, now South Deerfield, was born.

Underneath it all to this very day, up and down Main Street, is that same Pocumtuck Path, buried under layers of gravel and asphalt.

Furthermore, that main artery was just one tiny segment of a well-defined network of Native trails that served as the foundation of Whately, Conway, Ashfield, and all settlement of Franklin County townships. Though there is little mention of such trails in the public record, they were here when colonials first entered the valley, and they were followed far and wide into the wild, ultimately determining the settlement pattern of our county. I know that was the case near my Greenfield Meadows home, and the same was true of the home I sold in South Deerfield. The dynamic exists throughout the surrounding hills and dales, ridges, and swamps I got to know as an observant and curious hunter passing cellar holes, old mill sites, and abandoned orchards along fading roads buried deep in the forest.

Up Into the Hills

One of my favorite haunts, with or without a gun, has for more than 50 years been the forested acres surrounding Conway State Forest and Henhawk Trail. It’s a broad swath of upland landscape that touches Williamsburg, Whately, and Conway and Ashfield not far away. This mixed forest of splendid hardwood ridges and foreboding hemlock swamps is traversed by many double-rutted roads, barely discernible today.

The best time to find such old roads, often with a small, indiscrete cellar hole or two along them, is after a fresh, shallow snow that reveals their outline. Thus, I most often discovered such roads with gun in hand during deer season. The ones that don’t appear on early maps must have been private roads to secluded upland farms, abandoned long ago for the more fertile Ohio Valley and beyond.

To learn about this local landscape, I used to study pre-1940 topographical maps, which showed the old orchards, pastures, and farms. There and in town histories published at the turn of the 20th century I’d gather information and build a new level of understanding.

In the process, I learned that Henhawk had been an ancient Indian trail leading to Ashfield, the upper Deerfield River Valley, and beyond. During colonial days it had evolved to a cart path, and eventually became a main road for motor cars between Whately, Williamsburg, and Conway that was used into the World War II era.

It made sense. Our hunter-gatherer Native people, before and after they became farmers of corn, beans and squashes, would have carved paths through their sheltered, upland, winter refuges. There they maintained sugar orchards, nut groves, and berry patches which served two important purposes: producing wild food and attracting important game that also valued it as a food source. This network of well-defined upland trails also led colonials to food, water and observation points, and were thus followed by scouts and adventurers who eventually built their first dwellings on home sites requiring minimal clearing.

Under the Pavement

The same was true in early Muddy Brook, now South Deerfield, and likewise in settlements along the periphery. We’re talking about Mill River, along West Mountain, and Pine Nook along the Connecticut River, places also located along well-established Native paths that soon became roads.

The same can be said for East Whately, Whately Center, West Whately, and Indian Hill, where the first roads were all former Native paths – roads like Mount Esther, Grass Hill, Dry Hill, Poplar Hill, Chestnut Plain, and Whately Glen, where Leicester miller Adonijah Taylor was, according to Deerfield town records, working on the road to Conway from his Indian Hill grist and sawmills soon after settling there in 1760s. Take it to the bank that the road he was opening followed the same Native path that had led him to his new home and business.

Deeds seem to indicate that South Deerfield’s Pleasant Street – which today passes the elementary school, and wasn’t connected to North Main Street by a bridge over Bloody Brook until the 1830s – was a Native path, forking west just north of the bridge where Bloody Brook Monument now stands. It also seems more than likely that Elm and Sugarloaf streets had a history as at the very least secondary Native paths from the Connecticut River to the uplands.

Like their long-abandoned upland tributaries traversing hilltown forests, the narrow Native footpaths pressed into the largely wet, fertile bottomlands had been here for thousands of years by the time they were first trekked by colonials. Over time, these paths were widened for horses and horse carts. Later still for motor cars.

So, when passing through downtown South Deerfield today, be aware that those ancient Native paths are underfoot. It’s a deep-history perspective that can take you to places exciting to visit.

We must never forget that from these paths governed by the lay of the land was born a town, a county, a state, a region and, two centuries later, the United States of America – a deep-history perspective that’s easy to get your head around.

It’s too bad the proud, dignified people whose moccasins laid the groundwork were denied a seat in council reinventing their defiled place.

Writer’s-Block Ramble

Daybreak Friday. Light creeping in over the horizon, sneaking through the tall white pines across the street.

Waiting for the coffee-maker to gurgle its last breath, I’ve already been to Springfield and back. Deer hunters are just now entering the woods, trying to be quiet, hoping this will be the day. Tomorrow will be even better. Saturdays bring more hunters into the woods, which tends to move deer from their beds. Honestly, I can’t say I miss deer hunting. I’ve turned the page. Don’t need it. Been there, done that. Enjoyed it while it lasted. Love the woods, the solitude, the critters. Maybe too much to kill them.

I also love the slow, quiet transition from night to day on the way into a morning stand. Daybreak is the best time of day in my book. And not only for hunting. Mind sharp, body rested, it’s ideal for writing, too. One never knows where the inner consciousness will dance off to at the crack-of-dawn keyboard.

In fact, that’s the problem confronting me this very moment as I sit here trying to settle on a column topic. It happens from time to time, deadline looming, procrastination calling the shots. I’ve been here before, even on a much tighter deadline, pondering where my swirling thoughts will ramble off to. The seat I’m now occupying is couched in uncertainty. Better than being lost in the woods with nightfall near. That’s for sure. Been there, too.

There’s no time for delay. A three-cord load of primo cordwood, seasoned oak and rock maple, will be dropped in front of my sliding woodshed door tomorrow morning. After that, with rain forecast Monday, my first priority will be to get the load under cover. Thus, I must get something written today, anything, a first draft to be revisited at my convenience before Monday’s deadline. That’s my writing routine: blow out the first draft, akin to a black-and-white sketch, then pick away, adding a dab of color here, a dab there during rewrites, all the while tweaking the narrative. Fortunately, it’s not my first trip down this road.


It’s not like I don’t have anything to write about. I’ve been on overload in recent weeks unraveling the settlement of Muddy Brook, a mid-18th-century Deerfield village that became Bloody Brook and is now known as South Deerfield, or in the eastern European dialect that arrived at the turn of the 20th century, “Sowdeerfeel.”

Closing in on a year of intense deed research, I still have more questions than answers. Truthfully, it sometimes feels like a losing battle – like the more I learn, the less I know. Have you ever been there, looking for the next pebble to overturn, the next hintful thread to pull and see what unravels?

Along the way, I’ve learned of many new people, folks I’d never heard of who were big Muddy Muddy and Bloody Brook players. What makes it even more interesting to me is that some are my ancient grandfathers, and many others are related, from peripheral tendrils growing off my root ball. But I’m not ready to write about them quite yet. Maybe never will be, if I can’t pin down their occupations, their trades, their places of worship and political leanings during the Revolution and Shays’ Rebellion. Little details to build an accurate profile.

I’m talking about members of the families named Arms, Frary, Barnard, Cooley, Russell, Dickinson, Dwelley, and Billings, to name some, also Parkers and Shattucks, Hardings and Andersons, and, yes, even my own Sandersons – all of them fascinating hometown pioneers. To me, researching these people, their place and mine, is addictive, an unquenchable thirst that intensifies with each forward step.

Take for example placenames that have been lost over time, hometown locations through which I have certainly traveled and never heard of. That would include Indian Plain, Sugarloaf Gore and Willis Hill, to name the first three that come to mind. I want to pin these places down. Get it right. So, give me time. It’s a laborious process.

I’ll get there, though, and will, with historian friend Peter Thomas, lay out the so-called Long Hill Division of 1688. That land allotment divvied up among 48 early Deerfield proprietors a large chunk of land that became South Deerfield, including the outlying neighborhoods of Mill River, Pine Nook, and Sugarloaf.

Nothing against newspapers, but I don’t believe a column with space constraints like this could ever do justice to what I’ve learned thus far, never mind what’s yet to come. The story of South Deerfield, largely ignored by haughty Old Deerfield-centric George Sheldon, is too comprehensive – of book-, not newspaper-length. Maybe I could piecemeal it out once I understand the whole picture. But can I do so in a paper that doesn’t serve Deerfield? It doesn’t seem to fit.

Still, a South Deerfield addendum to Sheldon’s tired old History of Deerfield should be published. And what better time to do so than in conjunction with the town’s upcoming 350th birthday celebration in 2023? It needs to be done for posterity, and we’re on our way.

But enough of that. I just couldn’t resist providing a little nibble into my current preoccupation, and the fact that I am at this very moment infected with writer’s block, which, I suppose, is better than the Omicron variant.


Too bad I can’t get out of this doldrum by going full Hunter S. Thompson on our current state of affairs in Washington DC. Isn’t the time ripe for a full-frontal Gonzo attack on the Supreme Court, the Trump Crime Family, Fox News and the racist Southern foundation of the Republican Party, otherwise known these days as the Trump base? Formerly the George Wallace, Southern wing, which was not insignificant, it seems to be gaining steam these days – even in places where one wouldn’t expect it to catch hold. Yes, even here.

The late Hunter Thompson was on to it way back in 1968, teargas in the air. That’s when Nixon pulled Wallace’s loyal Dixiecrats into the Republican fold to defeat Humphrey in a razor-tight race. Now Thompson is dead, hostile right-wingers rule the GOP, and many respectable, dyed-in-the-wool, New England Republicans with both oars in the water are still onboard. Yes, even after witnessing the Capitol insurrection in vivid hi-def, with the Stars and Bars flapping in the breeze like they did at Gettysburg and Bull Run.

You must be kidding me? Is this unlikely GOP support blind partisanship? Can these loyal partisans not see that the party of Lincoln is now ruled by the secessionists who went to war against him? Are they not aware that home-grown fascism and right-wing thuggery is in the air? Oh my! Where will it end?

It’s crazy-making. Where’s Dr. Gonzo when you need him?

The problem as I see it is that Hunter S. Thompson is the only person who could get away with telling it like it is, in his spicey, unedited diatribes. We need the story told in a style free from heavy-handed, self-appointed arbiters of good taste and bad words sitting in staid editors’ chairs. When HST spoke, people listened, and it resulted in millions of dollars in profit. Yet now an industry on life-support won’t print new voices with Gonzo mojo and moxie. Go figure.

As the timid print-media establishment gasps for air, social media wingnuts and Fox News execs are raking in the millions for quite intentionally poisoning the well. Why does the “objective” print media insist upon keeping it clean while the other side muddies the water with raw sewage from the likes of Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, to name a couple? Has the word objective come to mean afraid to tell the truth?

It now looks like Mitch McConnell’s Supreme Court is going to reverse Roe vs. Wade. Really? Is McConnell Joe Q. Average American these days? The polls indicate otherwise. So how can this be happening in a country that elects its leaders? No clue. You tell me.

All I can say is that I grew up in the ’60s and early ’70s, and never in my wildest dreams thought this could happen here. I thought Joe McCarthy, the Nixon Administration, and J. Edgar Hoover were dead and buried, never again to be heard from. Well, guess what? They’re back, and the tribe is growing like COVID.

Which reminds me, has anyone else had their fill of “balanced” reporting about global warming and climate change? Could you live without the annoying auto-insert disclaimer that reads, “some scientists question whether global warming is caused by human beings.” The obvious question to that cautionary garbage is: who signs these “experts’” checks? It’s beyond ridiculous. There is no denying that humans are destroying our planet on many levels, including global warming.

What we don’t need now is a GOP takeover of Congress in 2022 and a second Trump term in 2024. If that comes to fruition, some may decide it’s time to flee the country or, heaven forbid, even go so far as re-enacting HST’s final act that unfolded on Feb. 20, 2005 at his secluded Owl Farm refuge in Aspen, Colo. There, the high priest of Gonzo journalism treated the media to a front-page story with one thunderous roar of his .357 magnum.

In a flash, the life of a visionary New Journalist was over. Sad and sudden. A great loss to many who gobbled his prose, wanted more. He must’ve had his fill and sensed what was coming down the pike. He didn’t want to stick around for fascist takeover.

Enough! I don’t want to get carried away.

But first, please, just one more little digression – a recommendation for those who enjoy classical country music. So, if it’s pickin’ and grinnin’ at its finest that you seek, go to YouTube on your Smart TV, crank up the volume as loud as you can stand it, and take a listen to Norman Blake and the Rising Fawn String Ensemble in concert at Ohio University. Taped in 1980, it never gets old.




Fall And My Pheasant-Hunting Days Are Fading Fast

As bright, colorful leaves drop to the ground in visible, audible rain out the window, and fall creeps toward winter, I’m thinking about transitions.

Seated at my desk in the southwest-parlor study, I’m peering through gray morning air toward Colrain Road, which, some 714 feet west, becomes Brook Road leading to eastern Shelburne and Colrain. In stagecoach and tavern days, and even after the railroad came through, it was known as the Post Road to Bennington.

I hear water from the roof dribbling through the downspout outside to my left, and the occasional purr and splashes of passing vehicles. Finally, the Japanese maples are shedding their leaves, depositing a scarlet carpet underneath. Though the annual shedding seems a little late this year, I don’t record such annual events, and can’t say for sure. It just seems late to me.

The brilliant carpet enveloping the tree base looks like a reflection when leaves of an identical bright hue are still clinging to the two tall, ornamental trees above. Soon I will mulch them into the lawn with the mower, once again going right down to the wire for the scheduled winter swap-over from mower deck to snowblower.

My last yardwork of fall is always chopping up those red Japanese maple leaves and blowing the tiny, pink burning-bush leaves out of sight as winter insulation under the overhanging branches. Over time, those leaves, too, decompose into fertilizer, a natural process.

Once that final fall chore’s behind me, I’m pretty much buttoned down for winter, awaiting snow and ice and its quaking fall off slate roofs that shakes my home’s skeleton to a tremble after big storms. My cats used to get sketchy whenever the sun came out and the roof began to drip. At the first hint of dropping snow, beginning with small chunks, they’d disappear under a bed or closet shelf to ride out the thunderous, vibrating roar of falling, window-rattling snow. Me? Well, that familiar sound signals that it’s time to throw on a light jacket and remove the thin, 40-foot-long snow pile blocking the vehicles parked in the carriage-shed garage.

The last leaves that must be cleaned up annually are those dropped from my northern neighbor’s Norwegian maple in the backyard. Another neighbor and friend who grew up here remembers when it was planted in the 1950s. The town was giving them away and the people then living there planted a pair between my house and theirs. One was dying and had to be removed many years ago during my residence here, and the lonely survivor appears to be not long for this world.

I suppose it’s inevitable. Norwegian maples don’t belong here. They’re from another continent. No wonder they seem confused, dropping their leaves so long after our native marsh maples, early harbingers of fall, and the bright-orange sugar maples that light the landscape during the peak a month later.

As a working man, Thanksgiving was a day I looked forward to annually. With the upland-bird-hunting season near the end and my flush-and-retrieve springer spaniels in optimal form, Turkey Day represented the start of a monthlong vacation. I used to take the time off in one long chunk to hunt deer, relax, and putter around at home.

The break provided much-needed relief from daily deadline pressure and the stress of running a sports department. Toward the end, the daily stress was compounded by shrinking circulation and ad revenues, poor management decisions, and my own irreconcilable differences with the people calling the shots.

“When the folks sitting at Adam’s Donuts and Brad’s Place know about than the local newspaper about Lunt Silversmith’s demise,” I used to say to anyone who’d listen, “you have a fatal public-perception problem.”

Well, let’s just say the brass didn’t welcome such statements, even went so far as to deem them “nasty” when shared in email or during meetings. OK. Fair enough. I guess nothing cuts deeper than the truth, and there was no denying that the paper was hemorrhaging readers at an alarming rate, with no end in sight.

But let’s not go there. I just couldn’t resist a brief digression.

Anyway, I stopped deer hunting long before retiring in June 2018. The end came after my older son’s death 11 years ago and, honestly, I can’t say I miss it. Yes, I love waking with the forest and blending into the habitat. But, likewise, I love and respect deer, and enjoy observing them in my travels, be it along the road or bumping into them on walks through wild lands. So graceful and alert. So beautiful to observe. If hungry, I could still kill and process one for the freezer. But I’ve cut way back on the amount of meat I eat, and I still do get a taste of venison here and there and from friends. That’s enough for a man whose wife won’t touch wild meat, is almost nauseated by the smell of it cooking in bacon fat in an iron skillet.

Well, guess what? Now, I’m phasing out bird-hunting, my last outdoor game – one I genuinely loved for the robust exercise, the wing-shot challenge and dog work, and clung to longer than baseball and softball, fishing and turkey hunting, and golf. I clung to the activity with a white-knuckle grip for as long as my deteriorating legs cooperated, which frankly is no longer.

Oh well. I’ve been through transitions before. I stopped golfing in my teens, when I was forced to set my priorities. Baseball was No. 1 in the warmer months, then trout-fishing and, later, turkey-hunting. I could live just fine, thank you, without country clubs and well-dressed warriors in a gentleman’s game. Golfers were good boys who followed dress codes and golf etiquette. Not for me. Give me an early-morning or rainy-day trout stream any day of the week. That was an easy decision.

Adult softball was a different story. Honestly, when playing baseball into my mid- to late 20s, I never anticipated playing in men’s softball leagues. It was a game for fat old men still trying to prove they were “ballplayers” even though they never could hit the fastball, forget the 12-to-6 curve. I tried to continue after blowing out my left knee in 1976, but by the time I got married in 1979, my baseball days were behind me. My wheels were gone and I was done playing physically compromised, unable to go into the power alleys to make the play or take the extra base.

When my grandfather died soon after my wedding, I bought his South Deerfield home, and that of his father and mine, where I grew up as a boy. Back in town as a married man, my youth-baseball buddies approached me about joining their men’s-softball teams. Reluctantly, I took the bait, figured I’d give it a shot, and ultimately settled on the modified-pitch game in which I lingered through age 41. By that time, I was a pudgy catcher/designated hitter limping around the bases with a knee brace.

Hey! Whatever it takes, I thought, catching my last chance to stay in the game. It was fun. I got to analyze the hitters and give targets that I reasoned they’d have trouble hitting squarely. I loved working with the pitchers, hitting in key situations, the dugout and bench camaraderie that had been part of me since boyhood. I hung on far too long and, frankly, thought I’d miss it when I quit. Well, I was wrong. Dead wrong. I soon discovered there were other activities to keep me busy and fully engaged. Baseball’s for young men. I was not young. Time to move on.

Which brings us to my current situation. In my second year without my own gundog, I’m in the process of phasing out pheasant hunting, even though I have a world-class springer available when needed. I hunted that dog as a pup last fall while his owner was making a living as a painter. A near flawless flush-and-retrieve gundog of royal pedigree, he’s fun to watch, and the exercise is great. But now my 20-year, 78-year-old hunting companion has lost sight in his left eye and is reluctant to brave the dense tangles for fear of injuring his good eye. Can you blame him? I understand completely. One tumble in the swamp or stray, snapping twig could blind the man.

So, what should I do? Try to find another trusty, new hunting buddy at 68? No. I think not. It’s time to move on.

My knees are shot from athletic injuries, surgeries, and years of wear and tear. Plus, I ruptured my Achilles tendon last year hunting a dense, thorny swamp for young men, and, hampered by an unsteady base, I don’t shoot like I used to. So why humble myself like I did on the softball diamond? I have other activities that stimulate my energies – things like reading, researching local history and prehistory, tugging at exciting new threads connected to my own genealogy and place to see what unravels, and, of course, writing about it.

On Veterans Day, my trusted old hunting buddy with the bad eye joined me for our first hunt of the season. A packed parking place at our favorite covert forced us to an adjacent field t’other side of the stream, along the northern periphery. We know it well, it has been part of our routine for more than 20 years, and mine for more than twice as long.

Less than two hours later, after three flushes, one wild shot and no hits, we were traveling our familiar route home immersed in conversation. I interjected that, after all our years and good times together, I was losing my interest in hunting like I had previously lost interest in baseball and softball and fishing and turkey-hunting.

He seemed perplexed.

“For Christ sakes, why?” he responded, “You’re only 68 and still have many good years ahead of you.”

He must’ve misunderstood me. I didn’t tell him I was terminal, ready to curl up and die; just that I was turning the page to a new chapter. Maybe my last. Maybe not.

Once stubborn to a fault, I’ve learned how to transition with age. Those thorny tangles I once enthusiastically attacked and conquered are now punishing me, and gentle cover is not my cup of tea.

Outdoor Writing Ain’t What It Used To Be

The road to Jay Peak Resort in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom leans north and west from Interstate 91’s Exit 6 in Barton – the final, 32-mile leg of a 3½-hour, 200-mile trip from my Greenfield home.

I was there to attend the Outdoor Writers Association of America’s Vermont 2021 Annual Conference, a first for me though I have been an active OWAA member since 1984. The resort sits a mere five miles south of the Canadian border. Check-in for the three-day, October 4 to 6 event at the Hotel Jay was on a Sunday afternoon, with a Wednesday noontime check-out.

These professional gatherings meander yearly from state to state, region to region, attracting young and old for a jam-packed assortment of meetings, workshops, sight-seeing trips, meals, cocktail hours, and other social events. Some folks even brought fishing equipment and gun dogs. Not me. Attending my first such conference since the 1980s, when I routinely participated in the New England Outdoor Writers Association’s annual meeting, I was there to get a feel for how outdoor writers, not to mention the outdoor-writing paradigm, has changed since I was a young man. Back then, Field and Stream and Outdoor Life hook-and-bullet tales were boilerplate fare, while more creative Gray’s Sporting Journal served professorial readers.

Times have changed. Hook-and-bullet yarns no longer sell. The average modern reader doesn’t care to read about well-placed shots through vital organs and the resulting blood trails to the carcass. I lived the transition during 40 years as a newspaper columnist, could feel it happening at about the midpoint of my career and tried to tell my clueless last editor that modern readers no longer had the stomach for the hunting tales of his father and grandfather. Readers of outdoor columns and narrative were more interested in nature and natural history, fish migration and wildlife restorations that slipped into local history and prehistory. That fact was blatantly apparent at this Vermont conference.

About 150 miles into my drive up the northern Connecticut Valley, above St. Johnsbury, I entered the brilliant world of peak fall foliage. The problem was that there I also ran into foggy rain that got heavier as I proceeded north, limiting visibility and eliminating any chance of helpful distant landscapes, such as ski slopes carved into tall mountains. Though no stranger to the Northeast Kingdom, I had never been in the neighborhood of Vermont’s northernmost ski area, but was able to get there with the help of a couple gas-station inquiries.

Wet, gray, foggy skies enveloped the resort upon my arrival. Checking in at the front desk, I learned I would occupy Room 535, penthouse quarters with a king-sized bed and large-screen, hi-def TV. The fall colors would have been incredible from that top-floor perch had the skies been clear, but I never saw a sliver of the sun before placing my final travel bag in the truck for my Wednesday-morning departure.

On the previous day, before noon, finally, I was for the first time able to see the ski slope behind the motel and the brilliant surrounding landscape. It was worth the wait.

I was surprised to see the getaway-morning sun far to my right as I loaded luggage into the car. In a strange place with no sun to guide me the previous three days, the view through my windows felt south. Wrong. All the while I was facing northeast, toward central Lake Memphremagog in Canada. Any woodsman is well aware that such disorientation can easily occur in an unfamiliar, stormy place with no sun or compass to guide you.

Oh well. Such is life. No big deal. A transitory guest, it is doubtful I’ll ever again step foot anywhere near Jay Peak.

Which brings me to a writing assignment I took on during an uninspiring Tuesday workshop titled Narrative Nonfiction: Nature, Ecology and the Outdoor. Condescending for a retired outdoor writer, I got through it much like I had during distant school daze a half-century ago.

The one-hour assignment was to find a quiet place in which to melt and, for the first 10 minutes, absorb the sensuous stimuli. That done, we were to describe the sights, sounds, and smells we encountered and articulate what we were feeling in a narrative describing a sequence of events and perceptions. It brought me back to deadline writing at work, Creative Writing 101 in college, and literally hundreds of columns I had written over the years after being touched deeply by something encountered on a walk, hike, hunt, or drive – or just plain creative ramblings from an introspective place. It’s what writers do.

I walked back to the motel, took the elevator to the fifth floor, opened floor-to-ceiling curtains for the panoramic view over a small porch with two chairs, sat down and studied the colorful mountain landscape. Here’s what I read to the small class an hour later, without a hint of insecurity or fear:

Overcast. Gray and cool. Visibility fair. Air damp. No day for outdoor assignments without warm clothing. I know the value of comfort in such conditions, and it is hanging in my closet 200 miles south.

I’m seated on a flexible metal chair with a cushioned seat, looking south through large, floor-to-ceiling windows. The curtains are pulled wide open to the right, opening a colorful, sunless fall scene over a small, fifth-floor porch. I see a mountain landscape dominated by red and orange, defiled by a slim, vertical powerline of the same colors, muted.

The nearest ridge wears a gentle slope that slowly ascends to the left before meeting an abrupt, conifer-capped, gumdrop ridge that must offer hard, rough ledge underfoot. That I cannot say for sure, situated here in a place I do not and will never know. It is someone else’s place. I am a brief visitor. A passer-through.

In the place I call home and was born, I could name the faraway peaks and identify the unseen rivers running through distant ravines deeply eroded over many millennia. I could likely point out those crevices still holding remnants of ancient Native weirs and fish-traps, and streams where sophisticated surface collectors can still pick up precious artifacts dating back to Clovis hunters some 13,000 years ago. It’s hard to say where these artifacts come from. Freshets just keep tumbling them downstream like golden nuggets of prospectors’ dreams, deep-history clues for trained modern eyes to interpret.

From my perspective, the beauty of this place created by the recreation industry as a money-maker stops at the gravel parking lot, the surrounding development and the monstrous motel where I’m staying. Hypocrisy from someone enjoying the amenities? Perhaps. But I know my thoughts and moods would be far purer and more meaningful if absorbed into the forest, fishing a brook for speckled trout or sitting still and silent in a deer stand as a hidden, temporary habitat resident.

Looking through the large, modern windows at the lush mountain forest below, I do not know the trails and roads I have not traveled and am having difficulty connecting to the scene as the metal register behind me exhales a warm, sensual whisper.

To appreciate this place like I love my own, I’d have to learn the alder and spruce swamps, the beech and oak groves, the sugarbush, the shagbark hickories, if they’re here. I’d have to trek the ancient footpaths and game trails worn deeply into ridgetop spines. Those who, for eternity, created these ancient indentations on the forest floor were wise and just. They created paths of least resistance to important destinations, be they hunting-and-gathering sites or ceremonial landscapes on which they celebrated solstices and bountiful harvests with song, dance and theatrical oral tales that taught important cultural and spiritual lessons and could last for days.

Many of those ancient paths are still today traveled as paved and altered roads created to accommodate wheeled vehicles in the 19th century. Such cart and bridle paths could not stay with the ancient footpaths through muddy, lowland depressions, which proved at times impassable for wheeled vehicles. Thus, the road-builders cut new paths on higher ground more difficult afoot but easier for horse and carriage and, later, automobiles like those parked below me in a place where moose, cougars and black bears once ruled.

Tell me: is this now a better place because of its ski slopes, water parks, golf course and giant motel? Well, that’s not for me to answer.

To each his own.

Given more time to gather and shape my thoughts, I could have improved the narrative through many rewrites and tweaks. I could have introduced an historic Rogers’ Rangers angle. That is, which of his fleeing bands from the infamous 1759 massacre of Native Americans at St. Francis would have ventured closest to Jay Peak? That could have added a little flavor, I suppose.

I could have also explained that, having seen not so much as a ray of sun since arriving, I had no clue which direction I was pointed when looking through those motel windows. That may have established my disorientation while trying to describe a new place. Plus, I could have spared myself the indignity of a mistake in bold black print. Then again, did it really matter what direction I was looking?

Overall, I’m satisfied with my tight-deadline response about an unfamiliar place. It reminded me in many ways of the many Friday-night football stories I cranked out with the clock ticking and no turning back. Focus is always the key. I know that from experience.

I don’t know or care what others in the workshop thought of my conservationist/preservationist perspective. Maybe they thought me a dinosaur in the world of modern outdoor writing, which seems determined to promote resorts and development that produces outdoor activities like skiing, biking, hiking, kayaking, orienteering, geocaching, tennis, and golf to name some.

I see no need to mire myself in such trivial matters. Asked to bare my soul, I did so, and am more than comfortable in skin wrinkling with age.


Who Was U.S. Deputy Marshal Leonard Arms?

South Deerfield left its mark on the Wild West, including the death of Deputy U.S. Marshal Leonard Arms, gunned down in the line of duty on April 20, 1860 in Topeka, Kansas Territory.

The shooting occurred less than a year before the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor, SC, and four years into a border war between Missouri and Kansas Territory over the slavery issue. The South Deerfield lawman was trying to serve what anti-slavery Free-Staters viewed as an invalid Missouri arrest warrant on John Ritchie at his Topeka home.

When Ritchie objected, explaining that the charges had been long-ago forgiven, he told Arms to get lost and went inside. The deputy followed, imploring Ritchie to surrender before the combatants raised their revolvers. When Arms ignored Ritchie’s warning to come no further, Ritchie killed him instantly with a shot to the throat.

Ritchie, a devoted abolitionist and supporter of radical John Brown – yes, that John Brown, from his Bloody Kansas days – was a pillar of the infant Topeka community. Knowing all the town officials as friends and neighbors, he had little worry of severe consequence on the western frontier. He promptly surrendered, and was the next day acquitted on a murder charge by a friendly justice of the peace. The frontier judge ruled the shooting as justifiable homicide, and Ritchie walked away a free man.

Don’t forget we are talking here about Wild West justice. Didn’t a man have a God-given right to defend himself inside his own home when pursued by an armed invader?

Arms left a widow, Frances A. (Eldridge), and three daughters. His family lived in Wyandotte, Kansas Territory, where he managed a frontier hotel, the Eldridge House, owned by his brothers-in-law the Eldridge Brothers, a triumvirate of Shalor W. (1816-1899), Thomas B. (1825-1882), and Edwin S. Eldridge (1832-1907).

Second son Shalor was the best-known of six Eldridge boys born to Lyman and Phebe (Winchell) Eldridge of West Springfield and Southampton. The other three thus far unnamed were Lyman Jr. (1814-1905), James M. (1819-1857), and Joseph L., who was born in 1823 and living in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1863, but seems to have left no death or gravesite record.

There were also two Eldridge sisters, Mary E. and Leonard Arm’s aforementioned widow, Frances A. According to a story in Lawrence, Kansas’ Jeffersonian Gazette, Lyman Eldridge Sr., his wife and all eight of his children were among the early residents of Kansas Territory. According to Kansas Historical Society data, wife and mother Phebe was helping son Shalor run the American House hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1855. She died in 1856 in Southampton, and is buried in Holyoke.


Westward Emigres

The Lyman Eldridge family was in Southampton, where the children attended school, by the mid-1820s. At age 20 Shalor started a prosperous, 11- or 12-year career as a railroad contractor, beginning with the Connecticut River Railroad and moving on to other New England and New York lines. That was likely what brought him to South Deerfield for the births of daughters Mary Jan. 5, 1842 and Josephine Phoebe (Jan. 26, 1846).

Also residing in South Deerfield at the time was his brother James Monroe Eldridge. There is no evidence that either Shalor or James owned property in Deerfield, but they clearly did live there in the 1840s and early 1850s.

In 1841, J.M. Eldridge took Naomi Sprague as his first wife in South Deerfield, where she died three years later. Though there is no birth recorded in the Deerfield Vital Statistics, a son named James was born to them in 1843.

J.M as a widower then married Mary Augusta Arms of that town in 1846. Their lone child, son Edwin C. Eldridge, was, according to the Greenfield newspaper, born in 1853 in the home still a stone’s-throw north of the Bloody Brook Monument.

Still a teen working as a store clerk, young James Eldridge was murdered during Quantrill’s Raid, a bloody daybreak attack unleashed upon Lawrence, Kansas, on August 21, 1863. On that fateful day, the victim’s father had been dead six years and his widowed stepmother and 10-year-old half-brother, the aforementioned Edwin C., were visiting their Arms family back in South Deerfield.


The Leonard Mystery

But enough on the Eldridges. Back to their brother-in-law, Leonard Arms – a mystery man of sorts.

Arms is said by many sources to be from South Deerfield, where, according to the Greenfield newspaper, he was “widely known.” Nonetheless, his lineage and birth have not to this day been pinned down.

Here’s what we do know about the fallen sheriff:

  • On September 19, 1842, according to a Greenfield Gazette and Courier notice, he was living in South Deerfield when he married Frances A. “Fannie” Eldridge in Vernon, Vermont;
  • In September 1844, he was listed among Deerfield supporters of Democrat James K. Polk, in the presidential election against Whig candidate Henry Clay;
  • In 1845, his daughter Frances was born in Deerfield;
  • In 1848, he was listed as a member of the Adams militia;
  • In the 1850 Census, he shows up as a shoemaker living in Adams with a wife and two young daughters.

Inaccurate information posted on Find A Grave and other online genealogical sources claim that Leonard Arms was the son of Erastus and Mary (Graham) Arms of South Deerfield. That would make him the brother of the aforementioned Mary Augusta Arms, wife of J.M. Eldridge, which would make sense given their contemporaneous western migrations to Kansas with the New England Emigrant Aid Company.

But the fact is that were not biological siblings.

I know this because Erastus and Mary (Graham) Arms are my very own third-great-grandparents, and we grew up in the same South Deerfield neighborhood during different times. In my possession are old, detailed, family genealogical records typed by my great-grandmother, Fannie (Woodruff) Sanderson, Erastus and Mary’s granddaughter. Although grandfather Erastus died long before my great-grandmother was born in 1865, she would have known her own grandmother well. They were neighbors until Mary Arms died at 93, when Fannie was 22 years old. There is no hint of Leonard Arms anywhere in Fannie’s personal family register, which most likely was assembled with the help of neighborhood relatives.


An Earlier Sleuth

Is it possible that Erastus and Mary took in Leonard as extended family – perhaps the young son of a brother or brother’s wife who died? This was not unusual at the time. But none of Erastus’ brothers seem to line up, and none show the recorded birth of a son Leonard around 1820, when he is suspected to have been born.

The 1830 Census offers a faint clue, showing Erastus Arms as head of family with an unnamed male dependent between the age of 10 and 14. Could that be stepson Leonard, thus mistaken identity as a son in later Midwestern records? It’s possible, and also a potentiality that stepsister Mary Augusta, some six years younger, called him brother in Kansas.

What’s interesting is that I’m not the first person who’s tried to figure out Leonard Arms’ lineage. Greenfield historian Lucy Cutler Kellogg, author of the History of Bernardston (1902), was still trying to solve the vexing riddle 35 years after her book was published. Why not? Arms was an interesting figure with local roots, he being the victim of a famous Wild West killing. Kellogg must have stumbled across his story while compiling the genealogies for her Bernardston book, and she was still furiously trying to document his lineage on September 7, 1937, when she posted this classified ad in the Greenfield Recorder-Gazette:

“PAYMENT OFFERED for exact date of birth about 1820 and place of same (probably Bernardston or South Deerfield) of LEONARD ARMS, son of Lucius and wife Melitta (Squires) Arms. Mrs. Lucy Cutler Kellogg, 34 Highland Ave., Greenfield.”

I shared this ad with professional genealogist friend Dereka Smith of Hatfield, who set her investigative wheels in motion, confirming the Bernardston birth cited by Kellogg. There was a problem, though: That particular Leonard Arms survived less than three years.

The Kellogg citation did, however, introduce a new element that could contribute to solving our mystery. The Melitta Squires identified by Kellogg was from the same Bernardston family that produced Abigail Squires, the second wife of Josiah Arms, married between 1828 and 1830. And get this: Leonard Arms named his first daughter, born in 1844, Melita. So, it’s obvious what stirred Kellogg’s curiosity.


Revisiting Family

Josiah Arms was the youngest brother and next-door neighbor of the Erastus Arms family. His lone child with Abigail Squires was Obed Squires Arms, a future downtown Postmaster and boot and shoe dealer.

O.S. Arms’ post office and store stood in the Putnam Block (also known as Pierce Block) on the northeast corner of South Main Street. Behind his place of business stood his home, somewhere between where Wolfie’s Restaurant and the South Deerfield Polish American Citizen’s Club stand today. It may have been the 19th-century house I recall being demolished to extend the Polish Club’s parking lot.

Because the Squires family was a “late-comer” to Bernardston, arriving from Connecticut with stage driver and blacksmith Medad Squires (1774-1819) in the late 18th century, Kellogg’s genealogies don’t follow it. Online data on the family is also sketchy.

So, just one more dead-end in the Leonard Arms mystery. Data on Abigail Squires, second wife of Josiah Arms, is likewise sparse at best, and insufficient for definitively connecting the dots.

What we do know, however, is that, according to Greenfield newspaper reports, when Leonard Arms’ daughter, Elizabeth Augusta (born 1855 in North Adams), and her husband, Dr. Charles N. Hart, were passing through the Connecticut Valley in the spring of 1897 in search of a boarding school for their daughter, they stayed with Obed S. Arms for a few days.

Why would they have chosen as their host Postmaster Obed S., and not one of at least three Erastus Arms siblings in the same neighborhood? Hmmm. Could it have had anything to do with the Squires link? Or maybe a link to Josiah Arms – or his first wife Loana (Graham) Arms, the younger sister of brother Erastus’ wife Mary?

Who knows? It’s still a mystery, despite today’s Internet-driven genealogy craze. All you can do is keep pulling loose threads to see what unravels. Sooner or later, some obscure reference may solve the puzzle. Then again, maybe not.


Windblown Tip From An Old Newshound

I crack open my left eye to the twinkle of dawn penetrating the east window behind my upstairs bed. Silence. Not so much as a bird-chirp.

I don’t linger in bed. An interesting book awaits me downstairs on the table next to my recliner. Mind fresh, day young, light low, quiet, there is no better time to read or write than early morning. At least, not in my world.

In semi-darkness, I lift my blue bathrobe from its overnight resting place on an old, wooden quilt rack near the door. I slip it over my shoulders, tie it around my waist, make the bed and step into the dark, narrow hallway – one door to the left, three to the right – pointing west toward the steep back stairs, where the wing joins the house’s main block.

On the other side of the closed staircase, a heavy, iron, squirrel doorstop holds the ballroom door open, gray light filtering through seven double-hung, 12-light windows, extending my view all the way to the wide back door leading into the carriage-shed attic. It’s about a 75-foot run down the hallway and through wing to the back ballroom door, where many years ago the angled back wall of a small, enclosed fiddler’s box drove sound over the heads of revelers in the vaulted-ceiling, spring-floor dancehall.

The long interior perspective is a beautiful way to start the day during the warm months, when air-conditioning is not needed and windows and doors can be left open to promote air flow. It speaks to the building’s spiritual antiquity.

At the base of the stairs – dining room left, taproom right – I turn left. My clothes are hanging on a birdcage Windsor chair at the tail of an old mahoganized-cherry harvest table, its drop leaves down. It’s always darker and cooler downstairs in the summer, and darker inside than out.

I take off my bathrobe, temporarily lay it across a burgundy leather wing chair, and dress before going into the kitchen to push on the coffee-maker. Then I backtrack through the dining room and narrow staircase base to the taproom and bathroom, where I hang my robe on the back of the door and tidy up at the sink for the new day.

In the west parlor, I flick on the TV to catch up on overnight scores and the latest Donald Trump outrage, and rise to pour a cup of coffee after hearing the machine gurgle its last breath. I don’t know what’s worse, that coffee-maker’s last gasp or the screeching rooster across the street.

Coffee in hand, I head for the study, walking through the dining room, the parlor, and a small, enclosed hallway behind the Federal fanlight front door. I want to quickly go through my email, and maybe glance at a few local and historical/genealogical Facebook sites I often peruse before opening that book awaiting me near the TV, which I’ll turn off.

In the study I notice two printed sheets of paper on the Oriental carpet, and another folded piece of white scribbled-upon notepad paper resting on the corner of a large gold couch to the left of my desk. Hmmmm? Overnight winds must have stirred things up through the open window behind my desk.

I pick up the two printout sheets on the floor and place them back on the pile they came from on my desk, then retrieve the folded notepad page that must have been buried underneath. It had been torn from one of those narrow reporter’s notebooks that fit in your pocket. Being a lefty, and thus needing to awkwardly curl my wrist to write on such pads, I never had much use for them, preferring something wider pinned to a clipboard. But that’s just me. Right-handers seem to prefer the pocket-sized variety.

I open the wrinkled scrap paper to inspect the scribblings and discover a note written in ink, and pencil jottings of web addresses, telephone numbers, and little reminders about this and that. I must have first used it as a bookmark to keep it handy, then removed it from the book and dropped it on my desk, soon to be forgotten.

The initial note probably dated back to 2018, my last year at the Greenfield Recorder. It was a news tip about winter moose mortality from a former newsroom colleague who’d retired from the Springfield Union News and picked up a part-time job at the Recorder. News-gathering was in the man’s blood. He just couldn’t stay away.

I must have originally saved the note as a reminder to further explore the topic, then added my own random jottings. But why, after recently retrieving the useless notes from the sofa, I didn’t drop them in the wastebasket, well, you tell me. Still to this day, it sits on my desk.


Now, fast-forward a few days, and the story gets intense. A few days later, about 7 p.m., the TV’s on and my wife and I are sitting in the parlor after supper. I’m looking through papers I’ve printed about Quantrill’s infamous Civil War attack on Lawrence, Kansas as she fiddles around with her smart phone, making the rounds through texts and email and Facebook and obits and whatever else tickles her fancy.

On a whim, I rise from my seat and move to the charging laptop on my desk. Sitting there checking email, Googling additional information to augment what I’ve just read or whatever, my wife calls out to me from her parlor chair.

“Hey, Honey, did you know Ralph Gordon died?”

Honestly, I didn’t even know she knew I knew the man.

“Nope,” I answer, “can’t say I did. When?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Recently.”

“Well, wait till you hear what I’m about the tell you,” I respond as I rise from my chair. “It borders on bizarre.”

Before I go any further, let me say that I didn’t really know Gordon all that well. I had met him in passing over the years on the street or at Greenfield High School football games I was covering when he was still working for Springfield Newspapers. By the time he came to the Recorder, circulation and revenues were in freefall, the hair-triggered circular firing squad had formed, insecure blame was being directed every which way, and, well, let’s just say the newsroom was toxic. No, definitely not the friendly, light-hearted place I had known for most of my tenure. Even folks coming in off the street with news tips were made to feel uncomfortable, like unwanted trespassers. No way to run a news-gathering operation.

Anyway – not to digress any further – that narrow, folded sheet of scribbled-upon notepad paper deposited by a rogue overnight wind onto the corner of my gold sofa had been penned by none other than the Ralph Gordon who had died. He wanted to share the alarming news report he had read about New England winter moose mortality caused by tick infestation and hair loss.

By now, most people have seen a story or two about this tick-borne moose plague causing much suffering and death. But back then it was fresh and Ralph, an old news hound, deemed it worth sharing with an outdoor columnist. Written in cursive, his tip was short and sweet, reading verbatim:


I thought you might be interested in some moose problems in Me., Vt., & N.H. & maybe Mass. – & other items I have earmarked.


He must have attached an Associated Press clipping. I can’t recall. I will, however, never forget the message delivered by that rogue wind or some other spiritual power riding the dark night air to a peculiar resting place in plain sight. It was at least a 100-to-1 shot that any wind-blown piece of paper would land where Ralph’s note did. Not only that, but why did that devilish wind decide to disturb only three of many stacked sheets, the third of which was his note in bold, blue ink?

Surreal? Yes. Simple coincidence? No. I don’t buy it. I think it was meant to be – a sign that Ralph’s smirking, wind-blown spirit had passed through. He had left me another tip, his last, one hinting his passing.

Why do such things occur if not to remind us there’s a power out there that’s beyond our comprehension? It arrives in many ways from sundry sources, including dark night winds, rattling rivers, trickling springs, and somber morning mists wafting through thorny wetland tangles.

Some of us try to remain alert and receptive to such signs, inviting mysterious messages – always looking and listening, seeking clues and hidden hints. Others flock to the chapel to drop their weekly contribution into long-handled baskets in the name of their God, and only theirs.

Well, count me among the former, the lookers and listeners and humble interceptors of spiritual unknowns.

Fighting a Loyal Salmon Crusade

This all began with an email from a local environmentalist gadfly. He wanted to share a recent guest column he had written for the Northampton newspaper. What followed was a string of email correspondence between me and him and another writer still beating the dead horse called Connecticut River Atlantic salmon. The lively discussion stirred dormant memories from decades back, when I was a lonely critical voice in the toxic wilderness of Connecticut River Atlantic salmon restoration.

The memories hark back to my first years at the Greenfield Recorder, where I spent 40 years in the newsroom, 32 as sports editor and 37 writing a weekly outdoor column – On the Trail – that focused on hunting, fishing and nature wrapped in local history, and random musings. My Recorder years (1979 to 2018) bore witness to my marriage, the birth of two sons and grandsons, and the tragic death of my sons before the age of 30. A wild ride any way you slice it.

The Recorder was an afternoon paper when I started, with a Saturday-morning edition necessitating a Friday split shift with a barebones night production crew. The basement press rumbled and rolled daily at 11 a.m. Monday through Friday, and again at the stroke of midnight Saturday.

The departing Friday day shift and the incoming night crew exchanged pleasantries while passing in opposite directions through the doorway. At midnight Saturday, our skeleton crew would hear the press squeak and groan to a thunderous roar before grabbing a paper fresh off the press, sent upstairs on a hand elevator from the bowels of the plant. We’d quickly check for potential embarrassing headline errors, put the newsroom to bed, and scoot to the local bar for last call – a great way to wind down before heading home after another furious deadline crescendo.

During my early years in the 1980s and early ‘90s, I was still playing in men’s softball leagues from May through mid-October, fishing rivers and upland streams, hunting turkeys and deer, and wing-shooting pheasants, grouse, woodcock and even an occasional duck bursting from a swampy brook before the steel-shot mandate took hold. That’s why I wrote an outdoor column. I was plugged into the scene, always curious and trying to gain an edge against prey; wanting to know its history, its habits, and the habitats it preferred. Plus, I’d track annual hunting harvests and fish migrations, fish and wildlife restoration projects, and local personal-interest hunting stories.

As a columnist, I was there for remarkably successful New England wild-turkey and black-bear restorations, and was later recognized and often criticized as a believer in cougar sightings, regardless of what the experts said. Then, of course, there was the Atlantic salmon restoration project, an expensive, high-priority state and federal boondoggle that never caught a break.

Some visionary fisheries biologists warned from the start that it was too late to bring salmon back to the Connecticut River. Sadly, they opined, that ship had sailed. But their opposition was ignored by gung-ho, altruistic colleagues they pejoratively referred to as “true believers.” Even worse, such opposing viewpoints were greeted with anger, and their voices of reason were kept under wraps. Plain and simple, their humble view was that salmon restoration here was doomed from the start, due to environmental and climatic factors beyond scientists’ control.


In the Field

Having grown up in this slice of the Connecticut Valley, where my DNA stains many a fertile floodplain, I was in the right place at the right time, so to speak, as an outdoor writer working for the newspaper of my parents, my grandparents, and their great-grandparents. Plus, I had vested interest in shad because I was learning to catch them with shiny objects attached to large, sharp hooks.

I was likewise interested in salmon, which would be the grandest of all freshwater gamefish in my place, if the restoration program succeeded. If salmon returned, the best places to fish for them would be major tributaries like the lower Deerfield River, which I knew intimately after years of crafting my trout-fishing skills there with live bait and artificials, spinning and fly tackle.

I knew all the hidden, double-rutted cart roads accessing the river’s secluded stretches, and I knew the deer runs snaking their way down vertical banks to the water. Those were the days before whitewater yahoos took over the lower Deerfield with their loud, obnoxious presence. Before them, the fishing was nirvanic, the atmosphere tranquil; after them, chaotic for anyone accustomed to the old ways.

During my first decade or so at the Recorder, I was a young man, working nights, with boundless energy. May and June daybreaks below the mouth of the South River were downright heavenly. I’d rise well before dawn, pack fishing gear into my Jeep Cherokee, and arrive at stream’s edge before the birds sang – a very special, reflective time of day. On the return home with my catch a few hours later, my South Deerfield neighbors were pouring their first cups of coffee.

My catch-and-release days came later, after my grandmother died. She loved trout, especially little brookies she’d batter and fry with home-fries, bacon and eggs in a black iron skillet. As for larger big-river trout, she’d bake them wrapped in aluminum foil or give them to her neighbor. Trout must have been in her East Colrain DNA, I suppose. Never asked. Didn’t think in those terms back then.

It was on the Deerfield River, fishing for trout in riffles racing toward deep pools, that I began to understand shad migration. Wearing polarized glasses, I’d catch their passing silver flashes heading upstream between me and the morning sun peeking over the steep eastern horizon. By accidentally hooking into a few on colorful streamers, I discovered they were fun to catch – on the average bigger, heavier, and stronger than trout.

Soon I was hooked, and found my way to the most popular shad-fishing place in New England below the Holyoke Dam. I started on the South Hadley Falls side, where I learned it was safer to leave an unoccupied vehicle, and soon discovered the backdoor into the sparsely populated east bank of the tailrace pulling migratory fish into the Barrett Fish Lift, which transports them over the dam.

I’d cross the river shallows between the Holyoke Bridge and the dam, picking my way to an island and crossing it to “the other side” of the tailrace, which I’d have virtually to myself. Facing me from the opposite shore was a maddening, elbow-to-elbow crowd spending more time untangling crossed lines than fishing. Not for me. Same reason I stopped fishing the Willoughby River steelhead run in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom each spring.

I met commercial fly-tier Indian Al Niemiec there, and he showed me the way, telling me I could ignore the danger signs. We met by chance in the dirt parking lot not far from a riverside youth-baseball field and became fast friends. A veteran angler and Amherst College man from Chicopee, he showed me the secrets of catching shad with silver, willow-leaf, metal blades soldered to large hooks and fished with sink-tip flyline. In my experience, willow-leaf blades more than double the catch of those using ubiquitous shad darts.


Numbers Game

Curious about these anadromous fish streaming past me all day in schools and pods, I soon became even more interested in salmon. Wouldn’t it be great if they were running upriver in similar numbers? That’s when I started asking questions of the federal officials I routinely spoke to each spring when tracking weekly migration numbers and comparing them to previous years in my column.

The goal of the salmon-restoration project from the start was to re-establish a large enough annual run to justify sportfishing. The obvious question was, what kind of numbers were we shooting for? Better still, how many salmon would have migrated up the Connecticut River annually before dams built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries blocked their path?

When the experts couldn’t answer that deep-history question, it seemed odd to me, perhaps even evasive. If we couldn’t quantify what used to be, how then could we set a reasonable modern-day goal? It made no sense.

As I kept gently pressing folks like Dr. Henry Booke at the Cronin National Fish Lab in Turners Falls and Micky Novak at the Sunderland National Salmon Station, it became clear to me that they had no answer and were insecure about it. It wasn’t their fault. There were no records, just fanciful tales that almost never lead to future successes. No, Martha, you couldn’t walk across tight river channels on the backs of salmon, no matter what the tales say.

When pinned down, Booke, whom I had met while he was still a UMass professor, tried to deflect my constant line of questioning by taking issue with my focus on raw numbers. The numbers didn’t matter, he scolded. We’d get there if we were patient and supportive. Cynicism, criticism and pessimism did no good. We needed to be positive, optimistic. The fish would come in time. We had to give the restoration program time to work.

Huh? Something was adding up. I was supposed to believe numbers don’t matter in a scientific experiment? Preposterous. How could any scribe with a sliver of pride or good sense accept that perspective, even between quotation marks? The problem was that most if not all did. So did I, likely more than once, before I saw the light.

The only way to protect my integrity and credibility was to investigate what I could find about historic and prehistoric shad and salmon runs. I began searching for data in town histories, 18th and 19th-century newspapers, and sparse records here and there in dusty old volumes. That way, I could get a handle on the status of historic salmon migration and thus figure out for myself realistic future goals in a modern, polluted world.

The journey for information led me through local-history rooms in many Connecticut Valley libraries, where, notebook in hand, I went through indexes of town histories written primarily between 1850 and 1910 to get a feel for the anadromous-fish scene. It was immediately clear to me that, although there were indeed spring salmon passing through our valley in colonial days and into the Federal Period, their numbers had been greatly exaggerated. Shad always outnumbered salmon by a wide margin on their annual upriver migration, and were thus the dominant spring fish.

Even Native Americans here before white Europeans arrived caught far more shad than salmon, viewing the latter as a welcome bonus when caught in weirs, traps, and nets situated along the river each spring.


Pie in the Sky

Eventually, as I continued researching and piecemealing out what I found in my column – much of which was contrary to what salmon-restoration officials wanted to hear – a few timid sources came forward, off the record, to admit I was on the right path. Then, one day in downtown Greenfield, a woman I didn’t know but would soon join on the Greenfield Historical Commission approached me with a bombshell. UMass anthropologist/archaeologist Catherine Carlson had written a 1992 doctoral dissertation that supported what I had been reporting. Based on examination of biological data gathered from more than 70 known Northeastern prehistoric fishing sites, she found little evidence of salmon. Very little.

The woman promptly snail-mailed me a copy of Carlson’s academic journal article excerpting her dissertation. Salmon-restoration proponents knew of the report and were furiously working behind the scenes to discredit it and keep it from public view. It was the last thing they needed while trying to defend disappointing salmon returns in the news each spring. But word got out, and the damage was done.

OK, yes, it is indeed possible that Native American cosmology reserved a special place for salmon and disposed of their remains honorably, perhaps discarding them back into the rivers from which they were taken. Thus, the absence of remains in riverside refuse pits. It’s not out of the question. Such special treatment was the custom for bear remains left off the ground in trees. Why not salmon, king of the annual run?

Still, there is no tangible evidence that salmon runs ever approached the much larger shad runs in our Connecticut River, or in the Hudson River for that matter. That’s undisputable fact. The rest is history.

Twenty years after Carlson’s dissertation was published, and some 25 years after I started picking away at the topic the best I could – with abysmal annual salmon counts staggering into the 21st century’s second decade – the plug was mercifully pulled on restoration in 2012.

This year two salmon returned to a large tributary in Connecticut. Last year there were none. Not a one. Zero. Which is precisely what one can soon expect annually.

Some fisheries biologists knew it was a Hail Mary from the start. Few listened, and those who did were ostracized, criticized, and ridiculed as naysayers. But the true believers finally had to throw in the towel, raise the white flag, and retreat. They put up a good fight, and never got to sample that pie in the sky they savored.

Chasing a Rare Griswold Treasure

Does anyone else track the vintage cast-iron cookware market? It’s pretty wild. Didn’t so much as dip on eBay during the Americana crash.

Take, for example, a recent, old-fashioned, on-site, South Reading, Vermont auction. There the contents of a tidy, bucolic, 100-acre gentleman’s farm were being sold in the morning shadow of picturesque Mount Ascutney. W.A. Smith Auctions was selling the worldly possessions of a late, well-heeled, southern Connecticut couple that lived at the retirement home nestled into the western edge of a five-acre meadow bordered by a neat stonewall and mixed-hardwood forest. Classic central Vermont, in the heart of ski country.

It was a steamy Friday morning, high sun filtered through thin pinkish smoke from western wildfires. Flexible white-plastic stacking chairs were set up for buyers in tight rows facing the auctioneer under a blue-striped tent, connected by a second tent to the home’s modern sunroom and deck. Talk about the comforts of home, they had it – the sturdy deck and sunroom, likely the retirees’ addition to their antique, center-chimney Cape, looking out at a private meadow friendly to deer, turkeys and bears, maybe a wayward moose.

The rear tent contained the merchandise to be sold, including antique case furniture, tables and chairs, and other household furnishings, such as beds and sofas, artwork, silver and jewelry, and anything else capable of tickling a buyer’s fancy. Among the wares resting on folding rectangular tables was a rare 1930s Griswold No. 7 Oval Roaster – a large, showy cast-iron baking pot that had obviously prepared many tasty pot and oven roasts, smoked shoulders and harvest stews, and will cook yet many more.

That festive covered cooking vessel with bold lettering on its lid had “wood-burning cookstove” written all over it. Looking at it, you could almost smell the soothing hickory-and-maple-smoke scent wafting through wainscoted parlors on a winter day.

Having collected vintage cast-iron cookware for decades, I had more than a passing interest in this large, handsome roaster. I had seen a few on eBay in recent years demanding an opening bid of 300 bucks or more. Maybe this one, sold at a weekday, on-site auction advertised as accepting no phone or online bidding would come in cheaper, I told my wife, who rode co-pilot. Just the possibility was enough for me to justify a 90-minute journey to a place I love to visit anyway. Plus, being Lot 31, the hammer would likely fall on it less than an hour into the estimated six-hour sale.

“Worst case scenario is, in my opinion, $350,” I predicted to my wife.

“I’m hoping for less than 200,” she answered. Isn’t that what wives are for?

Collecting cast-iron cookware was nothing new to us. I started pounding the pavement for it some 35 years ago, perusing backroad tag and estate sales, indoor and outdoor flea markets, and occasionally even auctions in search of early cookware marked Erie, Victor and Griswold, or Sidney, Sidney Holloware and Wagner Ware Sidney O. My target was cookware made before I was born in 1953, the best stuff dating back to between the 1890s and 1930s.

We’re talking about: skillets, hinged skillets, double skillets, double-hinged skillets, and high-sided chicken pans; handled griddles, bailed griddles and skillet griddles; muffin and gem pans; Dutch ovens, Scotch bowls and kettles. You name it, I’ve found it over the years. But big oval roasters like the one on the block in Vermont don’t appear often. There’s good reason. Folks don’t part with them. Why should they? Functional and durable, they last forever with minimal care.

And, oh my, do they ever produce superb meals from stovetop and oven.

Something average Joes who grew up with cast iron in their childhood homes seem to know little or nothing about is fitted skillet covers with self-basting rings on the inside. These cost as much as or more than the No. 8 frying pans they fit, and much more for larger and smaller pans. Cooking with skillet covers has become a lost art. But do they ever come in handy for a wide variety of stovetop and oven cooking. I think everyone should own at least one for their most-used black frying pan.

When I was in the bed and breakfast business for more than 15 years, decorative cast-iron cookware came in handy as presentation pieces for the breakfast and party table. Placing an oven-baked daisy ham from the smokehouse on the breakfast table in the cast-iron skillet it was baked on was always a nice touch. So was putting out cornbread in a hot No. 6 skillet fresh from the oven. How can you beat cob-shaped corn muffins served in Griswold pans? Plus, nothing makes better blueberry and raspberry muffins than heavy cast-iron popover pans. All of it evoked old-fashioned ambiance for travelers passing through the area. Call it Connecticut Valley hospitality.

Although we’ve been out of the hospitality grind for many years, cast-iron cookware still dominates our pantry. There’s an art to caring for and keeping it seasoned, which is by now second nature in our daily routine. We prefer wooden to metal spatulas except for the most stubborn problems, and use little or no soap on cast iron. Only when absolutely necessary do we soak a pan for extended periods to aid in difficult cleanup brought by losing focus to untimely cooking distractions. Even then you can eventually scrape off any tough, burned-on mess stuck to the pan, though it sometimes necessitates elbow grease and a stiff metal spatula. Over time, a cared-for, seasoned, vintage skillet or griddle pan becomes glassy and slick, requiring little cooking oil to panfry meat, and a dab more for pancakes or French toast.

Those who know the construction markers on collectible skillets can recognize them even when the trademarks are totally hidden under decades’ worth of black, crusty grease. The best way to clean such a skillet is to place it in a hot open fire to burn off the crud. Then you scrub it down in hot, soapy water with a wire brush, scouring pad or fine steel wool, dry it, and season it with the oil of your choice before placing it in a slow oven or atop the woodstove for a few hours.

I prefer bacon fat or clarified butter (ghee) for seasoning, but that’s just me. Olive oil, corn oil, canola oil, coconut oil or even spray-on Pam all do the trick. It’s a good idea during the process to take the pan out of the oven from time to time and remove excess grease before it forms a tacky residue on the surface.

It never hurts to tune up even seasoned pans from time to time, just to keep them smooth and shiny, and it’s crucial to thoroughly clean pans after cooking. I clean a dirty pan by scraping it with a wooden spatula or scouring pad under hot, flowing water. Then the proper drying process is essential to keep a pan in tip-top shape. Use paper towels to rub it down, starting inside the cooking basin and working your way around the outer pan. That way you’re wiping the greasiest part first and using the greasy paper towel to spread the residue over the rest of the pan, including the handle for aesthetics.

A heated woodstove on which to dry the pan is a plus for those who heat with wood.

Cast-iron cookware made before 1950 is cast thinner and smoother than the modern stuff, making it easier to manipulate and clean. The more prominently marked pans, such as the large-logo Griswolds from the 1920 and 1930s, command the highest prices. The newer stuff is clunky, its surface is rough, making it less functional.

Which brings us back to that oval roaster I chased 90 minutes north to central Vermont.

My price estimate to start the trip was dead wrong. Despite the absence of phone and internet bidding, there was a little wrinkle capable of driving up the price – that is absentee bids. In other words, those who wanted to place a maximum bid without attending the auction could phone it in during the days leading up to sale day. There were many left bids on the oval roaster. The underbidder was one of them.

The hammer fell at $425, which jumped to $501.50 with the auctioneer’s juice. And there you have it. No oval-roaster bargain was to be had that day in South Reading, Vermont – proving once again that if it’s quality you’re chasing, be prepared to pony-up fair market value.

Something else: by the time that classic piece of cast-iron cookware again hits the market, it’ll likely cost more.



Waushakum Pond: Lamprey-Eel Fishing Place?

Finally, a breakthrough concerning a longstanding, personal and vexing lamprey question – that is, did Northeastern indigenous populations utilize anadromous sea lampreys as a food source during the eel-like creatures’ annual, upriver, spring spawning runs among millions of American shad, Atlantic salmon, striped bass and river herring?

This mystery I explored at length and was unable to solve coming down the stretch of my four-decade run as sports editor/outdoor columnist for the local daily newspaper. More recently, in retirement over the winter of COVID isolation, I was queried out of the blue on the topic by a third party, passing on the question from a Happy Valley author who occasional writes guest columns in the Northampton paper.

I had no answer, other than admitting that my search had come up empty despite a strong suspicion that our Native populations had indeed valued lampreys as an abundant and valuable spring food. Why not in a culture that valued rattlesnake as part of its diet? Nonetheless, no written proof that I could uncover.

Oh yes, I found many online lamprey recipes, and even a website featuring a Merrimack Valley vendor in New Hampshire who offered deep-fried, crosscut lamprey steaks. I also knew that our familial, freshwater, American eel was a Native American delicacy. Still, nary a word about lampreys as Native food. Just one more case, I suppose, of not so “benign neglect” by colonial chroniclers more interested in removing “pagan savages” from the landscape than understanding their lifeways.

Now, let’s fast-forward a few months to a more recent, unrelated, personal search that led me to a quick rereading of a book I store upstairs in the Gov. Winthrop desk and bookcase formerly owned by my maternal grandmother. Be it irony or just simple coincidence, this tale will bring us back to Winthrop. But I won’t go there yet. First, the book, written by Harral Ayres, published in 1940 and now pricey. Titled The Great Trail of New England: The Old Connecticut Path, it’s probably the best available source for anyone trying to understand the makeup of Native footpaths that traversed the land during North America’s 16th– and 17th-century colonial Contact Period. Readers gain insight into Native paths that can be applied to others, such as our own Mohawk Trail.

I was probing Ayres’ book in what seems like a never-ending study of the August 25, 1675 Hopewell Swamp Fight, a skirmish at the foot of Mount Sugarloaf between colonial soldiers and Indians that kicked off King Philip’s War in the Connecticut Valley. My goal was to get a better feel for the so-called Pocumtuck Path, which was the most-traveled Contact Period route from Hatfield to Deerfield – and the trail upon which the Swamp Fight unfolded.

Ayres’ fine book traces the deeply trodden footpath that led the first Massachusetts Bay Colony explorers to the Connecticut River at a location that later became the town of Windsor, Connecticut. That’s where the path crossed the river and continued south to Hartford, Wethersfield, New Haven, and beyond.

At its eastern beginnings, the trail had two legs that merged into one trail in South Framingham. One leg began in Cambridge, the other in Boston. From South Framingham, the path led to Hopkinton, where it again split before reconverging into one at the Chaubunagungamaug Crossing across the narrows of a body of water now known as Webster Lake. From there, the path split again. The southern leg led through northern Connecticut to Windsor. The north fork, which came to be known as the Bay Path, went to Springfield, Westfield, and the Hudson River.

Enough about the Great Trail, though. That discussion that could go on indefinitely, and Ayres’ book covers nearly 450 pages. Our focus is the question of whether lampreys were a traditional spring food of our indigenous people, which brings us back to South Framingham and a body of water straddling the Ashland border in the Sudbury River Valley, not to mention Gov. Winthrop.

Today known as Waushakum Pond, Indians knew it as Ouschankamaug, which Ayres translates as “lamprey-eel fishing place” in the Eastern Algonquian, or more specifically Nipmuck, tongue. His reference to the site describes a lamprey feast stumbled upon and joined by three important Connecticut Valley Indians journeying from Windsor to Boston on a diplomatic mission in the spring of 1631. They intended to meet Gov. John Winthrop the elder and pitch their fertile valley to pioneer English settlers.

So, according the Ayres, our indigenous populations did indeed savor lampreys as food. Or did they? Could not Ayres have been mistaken due to incorrect translation or some other form of misunderstanding? After all, has there not always been and will there not always be great disagreement among “experts” regarding the pronunciation and meaning of New England Indian words?

Ayres knew the problem. Thus, a detailed footnote I may have missed during my first reading of his book. This is what that footnote has to say about twisted translations, pronunciations, and phonetic spellings of Indian words from now-extinct dialects:


Indian names become corrupted into so many forms it is hard in this day to trace many of them back to their Indian form and meaning. Ouschankamaugs, “lamprey eel fishing places,” were common. Lampreys were among the first freshwater fish in spring. At all seasons they appear to have been a favorite food.

Near that beaver dam, the word prevailed for a time as Washakamaug, and finally degenerated into Shakum Pond. The word is in the records at Lancaster, Mass., as Weshakin. Hubbard gave the name of the Dorchester tract at Windsor, Conn., as Cufchankamaug. Trumbull located it indefinitely as somewhere in ancient Windsor.

There was such a fishing place on the Hockanum River in East Hartford. Roger Williams (1643) rendered the word Qunnamaugsuck – apparently “place of the long fish.”


In my mind, that’s pretty convincing evidence that Indians ate lampreys. It has always made sense that they would have taken advantage of such an easy spring food source after long, cold, barren winters. And although freshwater American eels were also harvested, lampreys would have easy picking for a couple of months each spring when Indians built seasonal riverside camps to catch and process anadromous fish by seine, dip-net, trap, weir, bow and arrow, and spear. Would they ignore lampreys, discarding any caught by accident? That’s very unlikely, even preposterous, considering that they still find their way onto dinner plates in the modern world and are easy to prepare.

Today lampreys are even sold from mobile, roadside restaurants of the “clam-shack” genre.

Huden’s Indian Place Names of New England and Bright’s Native American Placenames of the United States both translate close variations of Ayres’ ouschankamaug as “eel-fishing places,” which is helpful but leaves open for conjecture exactly what type eel they’re seeking. Plus, lampreys are not eels – a scientific fact that would have been unknown to Indians and early New England settlers alike. They sure do look like eels, and are ubiquitously still referred to as such by laymen who call them “lamprey eels.”

Of course, there was another key element of Ayres’ story that had to be confirmed. Was Waushakum Pond accessible to anadromous fish before dams and development blocked their path? Well, a step in the right direction are the online profiles identifying the pond as a Sudbury River tributary. If so, migratory fish had access.

Nonetheless, curiously, not one state or federal fishery biologist queried could confirm that yes, absolutely, anadromous fish had access to Waushakum Pond before 19th– and 20th-century obstructions. Even a source from the watchdog conservation outfit OARS – the acronym for what started as the Organization for the Assabet River but now covers the Sudbury and Concord rivers as well – did not know if anadromous fish ever had access to the pond.

The Sudbury, Assabet, and Concord rivers are all tributaries of the Merrimack, and thus would have supported the same spring anadromous-fish runs as the Connecticut River. The outflow from Waushakum Pond trickles out along the mid-east side and runs into Beaverpond Brook, which empties into Lake Cochituate, a manmade reservoir that provided Boston with drinking water for some 100 years until 1951. The reservoir was created by damming Cochituate Brook, an important Sudbury River tributary fed by Beaverpond Brook, which accepted Wausakum Pond outflow. The Indian word cochituate meant “swift river,” so the flow would have been right for migratory fish runs.

The most likely site of the trailside, 1631 Indian eel feast noted by Ayres seems to be somewhere near the ancient wetland confluence of the Waushakum Pond outflow and Beaverpond Brook. Ayres describes the site as, “By the beaver dam and the little primitive lakes nearby,” where “the eel season was at hand.”

Although the old migratory-fish passageway from the Sudbury River to Waushakum Pond has been sealed off by the Lake Cochituate dam, you can take it to the bank that it once existed, and Indians did indeed harvest lampreys there. Regardless of the river system, Indians did their fish-gathering where the fishing was most productive, and narrow, tributaries with beaver dams would have been ideal. And while we’re at it, you can bet similar fishing stations for lampreys existed at suitable tributaries up and down the lower Connecticut Valley, likely as far upstream as Bellows Falls, Vermont.

It has for many years been my opinion that Indians harvested lampreys for food. Now, finally, after years of searching, the first trace of confirmation appears in an obscure, scholarly book. Not about Indian diet or fishing technique, it describes an important New England trail that passed or crossed many lakes, ponds, and streams where fish were gathered and celebrated.

Did it not have to be?


Dr. Grave-Robber Cooley

Dennis Cooley was likely South Deerfield’s first native-born physician – one who, had he stayed put and practiced locally, may have never lived down a dark, macabre stain on his reputation. Like so many others of his time, he started over on what was then the Wild West of the Great Lakes or Northwest Territory, becoming a leading citizen of Washington Township, Macomb County, Michigan, where he died in 1860.

Cooley’s February 18, 1789 birth date presents him as the oldest of 14 children born to Eli and Chloe (Allen) Cooley, whose home stood on the east side of the so-called “county road from Deerfield to Hatfield” in what was then Bloody Brook, now North Main Street, South Deerfield. His grandparents, Azariah and Eleanor (Warriner) Cooley, were among Bloody Brook’s founding families.

Growing up in Deerfield and educated in its schools, Cooley established lasting friendships with upper-crust contemporaries like Dr. Stephen W. Williams – a well-known Old Deerfield physician and med-school classmate – and author/educator Edward Hitchcock – an early Deerfield Academy headmaster, Conway minister, and Amherst College president. The three friends maintained lively correspondence throughout their lives, no matter where their travels took them.

According to Cooley’s online Find A Grave profile, he moved to Georgia and practiced medicine for five years after graduating in August 1822 from Berkshire Medical College in Pittsfield and soon being approved for medical practice by the Massachusetts Medical Society. Despite his move to the sunny South, however, he found time to return to Franklin County at least briefly in the fall of 1824. That’s when he made a regrettable decision that would stick with him locally for the rest of his life.

In those days, just as today, medical researchers were always on the lookout for cadavers to dissect and study. For just such a specimen Cooley, sometime after November 15, 1824, fixated on the corpse of a Greenfield man who had taken his own life in bloody fashion. The problem was that he secretly exhumed the corpse from its grave in the dark of night, leaving behind an empty casket – which was soon discovered.

Six years later, on a trip home to marry childhood neighbor Elizabeth Anderson, he was arrested, jailed, tried, and convicted by the state Supreme Court. Well, sort of. Because, you see, Cooley escaped serious consequences when the court ruled that by the time of his 1830 arrest and prosecution, the two-year statute of limitations had passed.

Who knows what Cooley’s philosophical, grave-robbing justification was, or what exactly he intended to do with a pre-embalming-fluid cadaver more than 1,000 difficult miles away from his Georgia home and practice? Did he intend to carve up his pungent prize in an old friend’s barn? On a kitchen table? Were there accomplices with shared human-anatomy fascinations? Did he believe the suicide victim was a mortal sinner destined for the fires of hell, and thus free for the taking? At this point, nearly 200 years later, we’ll never know the answers.

Medical research on cadavers at the time was common at medical schools and hospitals. Friend Peter Thomas, former director of the University of Vermont archaeology department, recalls the time he was called to investigate many bones unearthed by construction crews making improvements to the basement of the college’s old Pomeroy Hall medical school. Related burial sites were also discovered under an athletic field and on private property owned by a college trustee in nearby Williston, Vermont. Those buried remains were undoubtedly mostly paupers, many of them immigrants who had lived and died on the streets of New York City, or maybe even Burlington, without the means for a proper burial. With the state or city stuck with burial costs, such people apparently became much-needed medical-research specimens.

Such cadavers were also common in the elite, Ivy League medical schools of the time, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, and Penn. In the name of scientific research, this gruesome practice was deemed philosophically justifiable from a utilitarian perspective aimed at understanding human anatomy and saving lives.

As for the Greenfield man who unwittingly “donated” his body to medicine, Mr. Pierce Chase (1775-1824), he is an interesting character in his own right. Relying on Greenfield newspaper reports, the spelling of his first name is inconsistent, varying between Pierce and Peirce. From this point forward, I’ll use the traditional spelling P-i-e-r-c-e, which appears in his online Find A Grave profile and on wife Abigail (Mott) Chase’s (1784-1832) High Street Cemetery gravestone in Greenfield. Though the suicide victim’s own gravesite is unknown, it is assumed that he too was buried at High Street, within walking distance of his Factory Hollow home near the mouth of Fall River.

Although Chase, a miller and property owner with a home and family, was far from a have-not, he seems to have fallen on hard times by his November 13, 1824 suicide at age 47. He ended his life by slashing his neck with a razor, leaving a 40-year-old wife and three young sons ages 16, 9, and 7.

When Abigail died eight years later, in 1832, Chester Bascom was appointed guardian of minor brothers James, 17, and Lyman, 15. Bascom (1786-1841) came from a long line of Factory Hollow clothiers and fulling millers, and had sold Chase property in Greenfield’s industrial northeast corner in 1811.

Soon after Chase’s burial, there was evidence his grave had been tampered with and further investigation revealed an empty casket. The community was stunned. The corpse had been stolen. A notice in the Greenfield Gazette and Franklin Herald speculated that the dirty deed had been done “between the 15th and 25th day of the month.” Soon to follow was a notice in the same paper that Greenfield selectmen and 51 subscribers had put up a $200 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator(s). That was a lot of money back then, representing about a year’s pay for an unskilled laborer or farm hand.

How and when Dr. Dennis Cooley was outed as the grave robber is unclear from newspaper and Thompson’s History of Greenfield accounts. Wouldn’t it be interesting to read the transcript, if extant, of the two-day state Supreme Court trial presided over by Greenfield Justice Elijah Alvord, Esq.? Perhaps a project for another day.

In the meantime, there you have the forgotten tale of Bloody Brook’s Dr. Dennis Cooley. What an unwelcome surprise awaited the doctor upon returning home from the Michigan wilds for the joyous occasion of marrying an old hometown sweetheart. Likely, by the time legal wrangling were over some seven or eight months later, and he was free to return with new wife to his Washington Township home, his neighbors never heard a peep about any faraway grave-robbing scandal. Dr. Cooley was thus able to live out the final 30 years of his life as an unblemished pioneer physician and postmaster.

Such men living on the edge were able to hide their sordid pasts, and dismiss any and all hideous rumors as small-town gossip perpetrated by hateful rivals. There was then no Internet or 24/7 cable news to uncover that type of dishonesty and shame. That was the beauty of life on the old frontier, especially those with skeletons in their closet, no pun intended.

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