Sugarloaf Suicide

Boyhood memories, however vivid they may seem, can be unreliable.

Of this sobering fact I was reminded recently regarding a Mount Sugarloaf suicide that occurred during my free and easy days as a South Deerfield youth. I have over the past decade or so tried unsuccessfully many times to chase down that story in newspaper archives. I couldn’t understand why it was so elusive. I knew it happened, and thought I had clear memories of the details that spread around town like wildfire. Atop the list was the “unforgettable” name of the victim: Cheney Bigelow. How could anyone forget such a distinguished New England name?

My latest round of inquiry into this man of South Deerfield lore was inspired by friend Chip Ainsworth’s recycled 2019 column about another tragic Sugarloaf death, that one an accidental fall involving a Smith College beauty queen in October 1965. The old column popped up on Facebook, recounting the tragic tale of Karol Rae Hummon, 21, then the reigning Miss Alaska from the ’65 Miss America Pageant. I remembered the incident well. It happened when I was 12. Hummon slipped and fell 300 feet to her death while casually hiking and sightseeing along the edge of the mountain’s cliff face.

Ainsworth’s column, which I had not seen when it was published in the Greenfield Recorder, immediately got my wheels spinning. I emailed Ainsworth to share my frustration following several unsuccessful attempts to find a newspaper story about the Sugarloaf suicide. I was quite certain it had occurred soon after the tragedy he featured, but he didn’t remember it.

Hmmmm? Another Sugarloaf suicide chase was underway.

I cut and pasted my email to Ainsworth into a Deerfield Now Facebook post, added a few details, and trolled for community feedback that failed to appear. Not a word. I was surprised. Figured the post would stir interest. Maybe it needed time.

Later that day – and quite coincidentally, I might add – my phone rang. The caller ID read David White, an old townie friend we called “Hopper.” I had chummed around with him as a kid and hunted pheasants with him as a young man, but had lost contact with him since I moved to Greenfield in 1997. Recently retired and building his family tree, White knew I, too, chased genealogy and was eager to chat about what he had thus far learned about his rich Yankee roots reaching back to the Mayflower.

“So,” I interrupted early into our conversation, “you’re not responding to my Facebook post from earlier today?”

“What Facebook post?”

“I trolled about that guy who leaped to his death off Sugarloaf when we were kids. I think his name was Cheney Bigelow.”

“Cheney Bigelow?”

“Yeah. That’s the name I remember.”

“Not me. I think it was Edgar Mathias.”

“Hmmm? Maybe so. That name does ring a bell.”

I thanked my old buddy for the tip and promised to dig deeper on Edgar Mathias. Inspiring. Finally, a new clue.

Our rambling conversation ended and I went immediately to my laptop. There I pulled up Fultonhistory.com online, did a few Mathias searches and – Bingo! – finally got a local hit. It was a Memorial Day, front-page Greenfield Recorder story below the fold, headlined “Man Killed in Jump off Summit.” Dated May 29, 1967, the suicide had unfolded the previous day, a Sunday. The victim’s name was indeed reported as “Edgard F. Mathias,” the second “d” in the first name likely a skeleton-crew holiday typo that wasn’t caught.

Born in 1932, Mathias was 35 and living in Springfield when he decided to end his life on South Deerfield’s ancient Connecticut Valley landmark. According to findagrave.com, he was an Army veteran and, given his age, most likely served during the Korean War (1950-53). He is buried at West Springfield’s Saint Thomas Cemetery next to his father, Edgar F. Mathias, Sr. (1894-1974), and mother, Yvonne Montmeny Mathias (1899-1998).

My recollection all along was that the suicide did not occur on a school day, because I remembered being out and about when word hit the street. So, Sunday makes sense. I’m sure the first hint of trouble would have been the sound of the downtown fire alarm rallying call-firemen to the station. Then speeding cars, flashing lights, sirens, and the other typical commotion brought by the loud alarm horn.

Reports started circulating about a suicide leap witnessed by Sugarloaf sightseers and an active search for the body. Kids raced to the scene on their bikes. Many of us knew Sugarloaf and its northern brother well as our childhood playgrounds.

I can’t say I remembered state trooper Ralph Olszewski finding the unconscious victim still breathing at the base of the cliffs, but that was what the newspaper reported. I knew Olszewski from the downtown drugstore. His family was from South Deerfield. In fact, a day or maybe even hours before finding the newspaper account naming him, I had read his obituary.

Isn’t it strange how things like that happen? Had I remembered Mathias’s name and found the newspaper article years ago, I could have probed Olszewski deeper for all the gory details. I often bumped into him near his River Road home in Whately, long after confidentiality restrictions had passed.

Judging from the 1967 Recorder story’s content, confidentiality policies back then weren’t nearly as strict as today’s. Not only did the paper immediately name the victim, it even reported that he had been a recent Northampton State Hospital patient and carried in his wallet papers to prove it. That would not have been reported today. At least not the next day.

Although the paper didn’t report the time of Mathias’s leap, memory tells me it occurred at midday, perhaps between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Sugarloaf-reservation caretaker Charles Sadoski of Whately reported seeing Mathais “quite deliberately jump.” The newspaper was, however, wrong in reporting that Sadoski had “emerged from the summit house” just in time to witness the leap. That was impossible, because the summit house did not exist in 1967. It had been destroyed by fire some 15 months earlier, on the snowy night of March 7, 1966. Sadoski must have, instead, exited an adjacent toolshed that survived the fire.

Whoever wrote the front-page story may have missed another little tidbit that bounced around town like a Superball that day. The story I recall was that witnesses sensed something bad was about to happen when they noticed Mr. Mathias lingering in peculiar fashion along the chain-link fence bordering the cliffs. Their suspicion was validated when he pulled his wallet from his back pocket, removed his wristwatch, wrapped it around the wallet, placed the tidy packet on the pavement, scaled the fence, and took a swan dive to his death before anyone could “talk him off the ledge.”

Only the wallet is mentioned in the newspaper article, because it revealed his identity and mental-health issues.

Mathias was near death when loaded into the ambulance and pronounced dead on arrival at Franklin County Public Hospital. The official cause of death was a skull fracture but, obviously, many additional traumas would have resulted from such a fall.

So, now that I’ve pinned down the victim’s name, a blaring mystery remains. That is, where did the name Cheney Bigelow come from? I have no answer. It must, I suppose, remain a mystery buried far too deep in memory for recovery.

Sturgeon Survive, Native Fishing Camps Fade

Two recent meetings I chose to attend pulled my focus to Connecticut River Basin fisheries and, more specifically, those of our own Pioneer Valley – a topic I have explored in depth over the years, be it with books, scientific reports, fishing rods, shotguns, or paddles in hand.

First came the January 17 meeting of the Connecticut River Fish Restoration Cooperative Technical Committee (CRFRCTC) at the Conte Lab in Montague City. Then the February 7 Battlefield Grant Advisory Committee (BFAC) meeting at Montague town hall’s meeting room in Turners Falls. The first gathering stirred my curiosity about the status of majestic, endangered Connecticut River Atlantic sturgeon. The second drew my attention to ancient, temporary, Native American fishing villages built each spring near waterfalls and manmade weirs and traps on the Connecticut and its tributaries.

Soon after the BFAC meeting, I emailed Ken Sprankle, project leader of the Connecticut River Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office in Sunderland, for an Atlantic sturgeon status report. I was surprised to learn that the large anadromous fish still exists in the Connecticut, though barely.

Sprankle sent me links to informative online sources, primarily reviewing recent Connecticut Department of Energy an Environmental Protection (CT DEEP) efforts to tag, monitor, and further understand a population in peril. Atlantic sturgeon populations reach back 200 million years. Individuals can live 100 years and reach 16 feet in length.

I was surprised to learn of the ongoing Connecticut sturgeon initiative, which I had either seen and forgotten or, more likely, totally missed. My antennae have not been alert to Atlantic sturgeon news in these days dominated by the “save-the-shortnose-sturgeon” campaign championed by vociferous local gadfly Karl Meyer. Given Mr. Meyer’s loud, repetitive, activist wail, one could be excused for being unaware that grander Atlantic sturgeon share the river with their shortnose kin.

My Atlantic sturgeon interest was recently elevated by reading 18th-century Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm’s fascinating Travels into North America, probably the best natural-history account of 1750 northeastern America on record. During canoe explorations up the Delaware and Hudson rivers, Kalm observed many gargantuan, prehistoric-looking Atlantic sturgeon patrolling the shallows and intermittently leaping “a fathom” – six feet – out of the water.

Had a contemporaneous investigator made a similar trip up our Connecticut River, this same Atlantic sturgeon spectacle would have unfolded. The massive fish are, like Atlantic salmon and American shad, anadromous, which means they are born in freshwater, live as adults in saltwater, and return to their natal freshwater streams to spawn. Shortnose sturgeon, on the other hand, while also identified as anadromous, spend most of their lives in rivers and tend to cling to the shoreline when they do venture into the ocean.

Judging from the material Sprankle sent me, I would not expect a bright future for Connecticut River Atlantic sturgeon. Researchers are, however, gathering and studying progeny, so it’s not hopeless. Sadly, however, that’s about the best outlook one can have regarding the future of Connecticut River Atlantic sturgeon, and the plight of shortnose is no different. A warming climate and water pollution are the major factors weighing heavily against restoration.

Which brings us to the Battlefield Grant meeting that brings us back to the final days of indigenous Connecticut River fishing encampments like the one attacked by Captain William Turner’s troop of King Philip’s War militia in the predawn hours of that fateful day of May 19, 1676.

The peaceful village would have looked like others traditionally built and inhabited each spring at the Connecticut River’s three “Great Falls”, today known as Bellows Falls, Turners Falls, and South Hadley Falls. Similar camps would have been found at lesser falls, like Rock Dam in Montague City and Enfield Falls in northern Connecticut. A fourth set of forgotten falls on the Connecticut mainstem existed at a sharp turn in the river between North Hatfield’s Bashin and North Hadley. That once-rocky site is now submerged under Holyoke Dam backwater.

These ancient seasonal villages took advantage of natural constrictions, falls and rapids that slowed the progress of upstream-running migrant fish gathered in settling pools, where they were easily dip-netted, speared, and shot with arrows. Contributing to bountiful spring harvests were manmade traps and weirs, where fish were also easy prey. The sought-after fish were shad, salmon, herring, and sturgeon, likely including smaller shortnose.

When the BFAC discussion ventured into educational goals, my thoughts went immediately to the battleground’s deep history as an ancient fishery. Yes, metal-detecting experts are reconstructing the battlefield and its retreat-route skirmishes by following the path of spent 17th-century bullets. But that’s only a Eurocentric sliver of the infamous “Falls Fight” tale – a triumphant narrative about mayhem and massacre that turned King Philip’s War in the colonials’ favor.

The Native American people slaughtered by some of my own ancestors that day were there to fish, not fight. They had built temporary riverside shelters and workshops aimed at catching, preparing, and preserving salubrious fish after a long winter.

The indigenous inhabitants knew the drill from experience dating back thousands of years. They’d select the best fish to feast on, and preserve the rest for storage. In a celebratory process saluting nature’s bounty, there would be song, dance and games, fireside storytelling and negotiation, matchmaking and lovemaking with newfound lifetime mates.

Men, women and children were there. They knew their chores and performed them well at a safe place of high spirit and peace. There the creator had placed a river obstruction, which had to be portaged around by canoe travelers. It became a sacred, hunter-gatherer site that invited harmony and diplomacy.

Not nearly enough is known about the makeup of this fishing village, its many stations and diverse activities. Never a sketch, a detailed recollection or description of the fileting and butterflying stations. Not a word about nighttime, torchlight-spearing parties or daytime dip-netters. No discussion of trap construction and repair. It’s sad that no one who was there that fateful day recorded the layout, the contraptions and their functions.

Anthropology and ethnology were then unknown fields of study. What the attackers saw through their twisted Christian lens was a riverside Satan’s Village occupied by copper-colored Devils incarnate. Their mission was mayhem, ridding their New World of the evil, sleeping “savages” – their word, not mine.

Upon returning home from the battlefield meeting, a new source awaited me at home. Rev. J.H. Temple’s History of Palmer had arrived by mail the previous day. I snagged it on eBay and was eager to go through it before placing it in my library next to the former (1845-53) Whately minister’s histories of that town, Northfield, and North Brookfield. The price and condition were right, so I chased it.

I respect Temple as a careful, thorough, late 19th-century historian. Though I never considered it during the buying process, I also recognized Temple as one historian who displayed more than a passing interest in our valley’s indigenous people.

He didn’t disappoint in the Palmer book, immediately digging into the topic and describing Native American fishing practices on the rivers traversing the Hampden County town. We’re talking about rivers like the Swift, Ware, and Chicopee, to name few, and many smaller feeder streams in what is basically now the Quabbin watershed. Native Americans fished all of these streams for anadromous fish, and some of their V-shaped weirs were still clearly visible in Temple’s time.

New to me was his description of downstream-facing weirs with basket traps at the apex, designed to catch spawning survivors returning to the ocean. I’ll take him at his word for now, but must check other sources about Native American fishing practices on rivers in Maine, New York, the Maritimes, and the West Coast to see if I missed or forgot something.

Targeting fish returning to the ocean after spawning makes little sense to me for a number of reasons.  First and foremost is the sporadic tempo of the downstream migration, not to mention the exhausted physical condition of spawning survivors. Why target random, wobbly returnees that are spent and sparse, when vigorous upstream travelers are larger, healthier, more plentiful, and much better eating?

Stay tuned.

G.W. Mark Rests in Secret Peace

Friday morning, raw and rainy, January fading away, and I’m pondering George Washington Mark… again.

You may recall that I wrote about this famous Greenfield folk artist in recent weeks after finding his painting of a storied hound that was once the sporting pet of blacksmith and tavernkeeper Henry A. Ewers (1806-1867), a previous owner of my Greenfield Meadows home.

Mark was born in 1795 in Charlestown, New Hampshire, and in 1817 chose Greenfield as his home. Known as “The Count” and remembered about town for his flashy attire, he died in 1879 – leaving a rich legacy as Franklin County’s all-time finest house, sign, furniture, sleigh, and carriage painter.

When he applied his artistic touch to oil-on-canvas painting and opened a gallery in 1848, his work was largely ignored and eventually even ridiculed by a harsh New York critic from Knickerbocker Magazine. Then, long after Mark had left this world in a custom, 700-pound, metal coffin, his reputation as an American folk artist soared to great heights in the mid-20th century, when his primitive paintings were sought for prestigious American art museums and sophisticated private collections.

Mark’s posthumous celebrity forced art historians and reporters to explore the man as local advertisers trolled for potential surviving examples of his work. The market was ripe.

Greenfield was abuzz with Mark-revival clamor in the wake of regional and national articles appearing in Old-Time New England (Summer 1950) and Antiques magazine (July 1952). Then the man was squarely on the map as an important folk artist, not to mention Greenfield’s only primitive painter of note. His story was destined for intermittent newspaper regurgitation and refreshingly new scholarly avenues of research.

The list of late, 20th- and 21st-century Greenfield newspaper scribes who explored Mark’s life and work included Bill Gorey, Al Oickle, and my old friend Irmarie Jones, known for her popular Just Plain Neighbors column. For parts of five decades, we shared an occasional raucous corner of the Greenfield Recorder newsroom.

In the late 1970s, Greenfield Historical Society president and Recorder freelance columnist Steve Finer took a deep dive into the Mark narrative. The rare-book dealer and historian kept plugging away at the famous artist in his Saturday Editorial Page column. Then, with a bulging Mark file assembled, Finer delivered a comprehensive, well-attended Historical Society presentation.

In the process, Finer placed the most intense community spotlight on Mark since the 1890s, when Greenfield judge Franklin Fessenden scurried to assemble and promote his paintings. Eventually, he gathered more than 30 paintings that ended up in Deerfield historian George Sheldon’s barn before being sold in the 1930s to a New York City department store. Sheldon cherry-picked Old Indian House, which is now displayed at Old Deerfield’s Memorial Hall Museum.

Despite many attempts over the years to fill in missing details about Mark’s fascinating life, the Greenfield artist remains a bit of an enigma today. Cloaked in the allure of the unknown, his story presents many tempting threads of inquiry dangling for further investigation. One never knows what a gentle tug on such a dangler will unravel.

Among many mysteries surrounding Mark are two that most interest me: 1.) who was first wife Mary Ann Skinner (1798-1860), said to be from Gill at the time of their marriage, and 2.) where is Mark buried in that heavy, talk-of-the-town coffin? It’s possible that both questions will never be answered, even in these days of ever-expanding online genealogical resources. That’s no accident, but rather Mr. Mark’s intention. He obviously believed it was nobody’s business, and took special measures to obscure all discovery paths.

I could find no newspaper obituary or death notice announcing his wife’s February 15, 1860 passing – only a February 27 Greenfield Gazette and Courier card of thanks to “the Ladies of all the Religious Societies in this place… for the long and constant kindness [shown] in the last distressing sickness of my partner.” He signed that paid expression of gratitude “Your Affectionate and Humble Servant, G.W.  Mark.”

End of story on Mary Ann.

The online FindAGrave.com database names Mary Ann’s final resting place as the North Meadows Cemetery just down the road from my home. The listing also identifies her birthplace as Williamstown and her maiden name as Skinner, both of which are soft but can be found elsewhere with a little digging. Her gravestone stands over one of four graves in the Henry A. Ewers burial plot. Her parentage is not displayed, and may never be proven.

That said, Ancestry.com and other online sources show a Mary Ann Skinner born in Albany, New York, on July 2, 1798 to Jared and Mary (Drew) Skinner and baptized three weeks later at Albany’s Dutch Reformed Church. Jared Skinner’s parentage is unknown, but he is believed to have been of New England stock descending from John Skinner, an original proprietor of Hartford, Connecticut, where his name graces the Founders Monument. A branch of this family that settled in Colchester, Connecticut, sent members to Shelburne and Williamstown before the Revolution. Jared also likely came from that Colchester line.

If the Albany Mary Ann Skinner was the woman who married G.W. Mark in 1818, what brought her to Gill? There is no trace of her parents ever living there, and she was married not there but in Mark’s childhood New Hampshire town.

Well, let’s suppose she was orphaned and adopted into a needy Gill family. Mary Ann Skinner’s Albany father was dead by 1813 when she was 15, and soon thereafter her mother disappears from the public record. Perhaps her Williamstown association began then, when her father’s prosperous brother or cousin, tavernkeeper Col. Thompson Joseph Skinner, could have taken her in as a teen. Then, perhaps, rapid-fire Gill developments brought her here.

Mary Ann was 17 when Gill head-of-household Henry Ewers, Sr. (born 1782) died in 1815, leaving widow Lucy (Gould) Ewers (1782-1854) and three young children, of whom young aforementioned son Henry A., 9, was the oldest.

Lucy was the daughter Ebenezer Brewster and Beulah (Steevens) Gould, a colonial couple with temporary Williamstown backgrounds. Perhaps she was seeking to adopt a girl old enough to help her around the house, learned of Mary Ann from a Williamstown acquaintance and promptly adopted her as a stepdaughter? Such arrangements were common among farm families of the day, and would explain why Mary Ann (Skinner) Mark lies in the Ewers cemetery plot beside Lucy, Henry A. and wife Sally.

Enough said. Makes perfect sense to me.

Which brings us to G.W. Mark’s mysterious unmarked grave and that cumbersome metal coffin. I strongly suspect they lie not in Charlestown, New Hampshire, as vaguely reported, but across the Connecticut River at Summer Hill Cemetery in Springfield, Vermont. I base this conclusion on a careful reading of G.W. Mark’s mother’s FindAGrave listing. Mark was just 4 when Hannah (Thomas) Mark died in 1799. An early Summer Hill burial, she lies next to G.W.’s infant older brother William, whose stone posts only a name. There is, however, a helpful little clue as to G.W.’s final resting place etched across the bottom of his mother’s humble stone. It reads “Erected by her son G.W., 1866.”

So, there it is. At the age of 71, knowing his own life was near the end, George Washington Mark started “making arrangements.” He ponied up to mark the graves of his mother and brother, and very likely secured permission for his own burial in a secret, unmarked grave beside them. The artist his six siblings were all born in Springfield, Vermont.

The timing is perfect. He is said to have purchased the coffin eight years before his death because he didn’t want to encumber anyone with unexpected expenses. That would have been circa 1871, five years after he spruced up his mother’s Summer Hill plot. His will eliminated funeral services and stipulated that his metal casket be tightly sealed with a special cement concoction prepared by him.

If, indeed, Mark is buried at Summer Hill, it would be easy enough to prove it with a metal detector. But why? The eccentric Greenfield artist wanted to rest in peace and never be bothered in an unmarked grave.

 

Mount Toby Visit Stirs Memories

These days, I find myself wandering back and forth between local history and prehistory, and although my current focus leans strongly toward the former, the latter is always within reach.

I get a good dose of cutting-edge discovery about ancient human-proboscidean (mastodon and wooly mammoth) interactions from archaeologist friend Mike Gramly, who in recent years has uncovered ground-breaking (no pun intended) evidence of 14,000-year-old ritualistic offerings at kill sites in New York and Kentucky. That alone is enough to keep North American anthropology on a front burner. Plus, I always keep my finger to the wind about local activity related to Native American studies.

So, it should come as no surprise that a recent email invitation from Northampton book dealer Betsy Frederick piqued my interest. With a fascination in all things local and indigenous, she reached out after reading my recent column about a manmade stone structure I found about a decade ago, buried high and deep in the forest. An expert who studied photos of the feature said it was a Native American prayer seat, which led to my own speculation that the ridgetop enclosure could have been used for vision- or spirit-questing.

Frederick was eager to show me a similar feature she thought could have served the same deep-history function in the woods above her Sunderland home, nestled into Mount Toby’s western skirt.

We met on a Sunday morning at her home overlooking Route 47 from a forested knoll. From there, we drove a short distance to a woods trail that took us to within quick walking distance of the dark-gray stone feature. And, there it sat, a large, sturdy, squared U-shaped stone enclosure poking out from knoll near the edge of a three-story-high cliff. Facing south and east, it appeared to be a natural formation that could, I suppose, have been tweaked at some point by human hands.

Someone with more expertise than I would have to make that call, especially these days when Native American stone-structure fanatics identify every stone wall as a serpent, every game and old logging trail as an ancient path, and every pointed irregularity on forest boulders as raptors’ beaks. I listen, but it’s getting ridiculous.

Frederick isn’t one of them. She came to the Connecticut Valley as a Gloucester college student, liked what she found, and settled in. Her suspicion that the hidden feature could have Native American significance is grounded in reality. She’s sat in this sturdy stone seat for winter-solstice sunrises, the first rays of which stare her in the face.

Frederick knew me from my near-40-year Greenfield Recorder columns. We met many years ago when, similar to this latest rendezvous, she wanted to introduce me to the incredible ledges in the woods enveloping her home. She believed that several overhangs along the base of the tall ledges showed great promise as ancient rock shelters that could have been inhabited during the peopling of our valley during early or even pre-Clovis epic. Who knew? She could be onto something. These shelf caves would have been conveniently located along the shoreline of proglacial Lake Hitchcock, which drained some 13,500 years ago.

***

Though I thought of it more than once on my recent ride to meet her, I never mentioned the poignancy of our first, unforgettable meeting. It occurred at about 11 on the morning of April 6, 2014 at her home. I had stayed up the previous night to watch Coach John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats advance to the NCAA men’s basketball championship game with a win over Wisconsin. Several times during the game, I had called son Ryan’s Northfield apartment to chat, and all my calls went curiously unanswered. I knew he’d be watching. He was a big “Coach Cal” fan dating back to the rags-to-riches days when he put UMass Hoops on national center stage. I was sure “Rynie” would be eager to discuss the game.

My wife was concerned. I told her to relax. Maybe he was visiting a friend or entertaining a girlfriend.

Next morning, still worried, she called his apartment first thing. Still no answer. Sensing something had gone amiss, she showered, dressed, and drove to Northfield to check on him. He was still in recovery from open-heart surgery seven months earlier to repair an aortic dissection that could have killed him.

She called me moments before I left for Frederick’s house. Bad news. She found Rynie unresponsive in his recliner. It was very serious. He was alive, en route by ambulance to the Greenfield hospital. She was on her way. It looked like sepsis. No reason to cancel my appointment. There was nothing I could do at the moment. We could talk later.

Soon I was knocking on Frederick’s door. She asked me in and we exchanged pleasantries. I told her of my son’s dire situation. He may not make it. I don’t recall her reaction. Probably that maybe we should cancel and reschedule. I stayed.

My host threw on a jacket and we took a short drive in my truck, parked, and walked to the base of a series of impressive tall ledges. Following them north, with a sandy-bedded spring brook snaking its way through marsh to our left, we stopped to examine several shallow caves that would have been more than capable of sheltering several people under large, sturdy overhangs.

I returned home to learn that Rynie was indeed septic, and “critical.” An ambulance was transporting him to Springfield’s Baystate Medical Center. It was touch and go. Nine days later, on the day before his 29th birthday, he was dead.

***

The impetus for that 2014 walk with Frederick was columns I had written about the 12,400-year-old Paleo “Sugarloaf Site,” and the indigenous “Great Beaver” origin tale of Mount Sugarloaf and its Pocumtuck Range. The Sugarloaf Site – a Clovis archaeological treasure trove straddling the Deerfield-Whately line across the river from Frederick’s home – was a multi-occupation, seasonal place of repeat encampments, visited for decades by nomadic bands of Paleoindian caribou hunters.

There some of our valley’s earliest human inhabitants left many fascinating traces of their Clovis culture buried on a sandy outwash plain that was once lake bottom. Now the raised terrace is cropland, bordering fertile river meadows between it and the river. Gramly believes it’s one of North American’s largest, most important, Paleoindian sites.

Although Gramly’s 1995 and 2013 excavations uncovered many important artifacts there, he believes his limited research only scratched the surface. There is much more to be gleaned from the site. Nonetheless, it has been largely ignored due to strict state oversight and secrecy.

After my first tour of the Toby rock shelters, I reported to Gramly what I had seen. Months later, I explored similar cliffs and rock shelters behind the Ward Cemetery along the eastern base of North Sugarloaf, just around the corner from the Sugarloaf Site. Since then, Gramly has himself visited some of the ledges along Toby’s western skirt as well as a secluded waterfall in the same area. He was impressed with what he saw, and in awe of what that landscape may someday reveal about the peopling of our valley.

What is it, he wonders, that has kept UMass archaeologists away? Are they shamefully unaware? Have they not a hint of intellectual curiosity? How can they call themselves scientists, he asks?

Gramly can only imagine what would come to light if someone – even an untrained hobbyist with limited knowledge of what to look for – started probing the old Lake Hitchcock shoreline on both sides of our valley. All it would take to scratch up important discoveries around rock shelters, forgotten springs, and waterfalls is a little energy, intellectual curiosity, and the type of hand-held, five-finger claws found in most garden sheds.

Gramly, a Harvard PhD archaeologist with beaucoup field experience, scoffs at the notion that such surface investigation would be invasive, irresponsible and destructive. He calls that opinion a red herring disseminated by cultural-resource-management devotees. In fact, he believes a little “poking around” would be no threat to future professional exploration.

In his mind, someone ought to get the ball rolling toward further research. He himself tried twice, yet today the archaeological hot spot known in the field as the Ulrich Locus languishes under a 15-foot mound of dirt I sarcastically named Mount Dincauze years ago in dishonor of late, respected UMass scholar Dena F. Dincauze (1934-2016). It was she who ordered heavy-equipment operators excavating the site to cover it with a protective mound before convincing the state to buy private land and prevent future archaeological digs.

 

George Washington Mark Treasure Surfaces

Greenfield tradesman and folk artist George Washington Mark was well-known about town and in surrounding communities as an eccentric house, sign, furniture, carriage, and sleigh painter, not to mention a flamboyant downtown character, between 1817 and 1879, when he died in his 84th year.

Born in 1795 in Charlestown, New Hampshire, Mark was said to have spent time on a schooner before arriving in Greenfield at the age of 22 and liberally using the newspaper to advertise his painting skills.

Soon he wed Mary Ann Skinner (1798-1860) of Gill, about whom little is known. The marriage date was Dec. 10, 1818, in Mark’s hometown of Charlestown. Her February 15, 1860 cancer death must have been a long, exhausting ordeal. When it was over, her appreciative husband thanked community assistance in a newspaper posting that began: “To the Ladies of all the Religious Societies in this place, I owe a debt of gratitude which can only be repaid to you in God’s Heavenly Kingdom. For the long and constant kindness you have bestowed on us in the last distressing sickness of my partner.”

Otherwise, Mary Ann (Skinner) Mark’s passing went without public notice in the local newspaper. No death notice or obituary.

Mark remarried some five months later, taking as his second and final wife the widow Mary Diana (Torrey) Ball, whose second husband, Frederick Augustus Ball, had passed in 1856. Her first husband, Amos Temple, died in 1849. She outlived Mark by seven years, died in Sunderland, and is buried at Deerfield’s Laurel Hill Cemetery.

I first learned of Mark in 1997, soon after moving into my current upper Greenfield Meadows home – a National Register of Historic Places dwelling with outbuildings and a rich stagecoach-tavern history. The introduction came from an impeccable source: now-retired Historic Deerfield architectural conservator William Flynt. Pointing out the grain-painted doors gracing many rooms, but particularly the figured-maple examples in the formal upstairs bedrooms, Flynt identified them as the work of Mark and cautioned me to take special care not to ding them with furniture, vacuums, brooms, or luggage. They were, he said, rare examples of masterful Mark’s finest faux-painting.

Now, due to an exciting recent development, the story gets better. Much better.

In this, my 26th year at Old Tavern Farm, a dark, oil-on-canvas, sporting-art portrait of an alert hound resting on a hunting jacket and chaps was brought to my attention. The dog’s front paws cover a double-barreled shotgun’s receiver and hammers as the gun lays across in front, with a tunneling background framed by pines. I was immediately attracted to the 19th-century painting, recognizing it as primitive or folk art.

A local woman brought the painting to my attention because, she said, it had come to her father in 1948 as a gift from a well-known spinster who then owned my home. Helen Gerrett – known by neighbors as the “Mayor of the Meadows” because of her bossy, protective neighborhood ways – told the recipient, a bank colleague, that the painting was hanging in the old tavern when her grandfather, Elijah Worthington Smith, bought the place in 1857. She wanted her friend, an avid bird hunter and outdoorsman, to have the sporting art for his recently purchased Halifax, Vermont hunting camp.

The Greenfield man accepted his unsigned, unframed gift and promptly hung it above the camp fireplace, where it remained for more than 30 years. In 1980, getting old, he passed it on to a daughter who died recently and passed it on to her only sibling, the sister who brought it to my attention. The viewing ignited an exciting discovery mission for me, concluding with what I am confident is a near-certain George Washington Mark attribution.

The first suggestion that G.W. Mark may have been the artist came from a friend and neighbor who is a sophisticated Americana collector. He was vaguely familiar with Greenfield’s only primitive painter after flying cross-country from San Francisco to attend the 1990 Williams College art exhibit, Between the Rivers: Itinerant Painters from the Connecticut to the Hudson. There, at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, he got a close look at the famous Mark painting Chasing the Squirrel, which embedded the Greenfield artist in memory.

“Maybe that Greenfield folk artist who rarely signed his work painted it,” my friend speculated upon viewing the sporting canvas.

When I was stymied by the reference, he insisted that I knew who he was talking about. “The same guy who painted the doors in your house.”

Yes. Of course. George Washington Mark.

The chase was on.

I immediately searched the Internet for information about folk artist G.W. Mark, and discovered that still today little is known about the man, his wives, his grave or his art, much of which, whereabouts unknown, is indeed unsigned. Yet his work bears stylistic “signatures,” rudimentary details like trees and branches, fences and horse-drawn farm equipment, and tunneling landscapes, that are repeated in his few known works. The dog painting displays some of his  trademark characteristics.

My next question was, when did the painting come to my Meadows home? Most logical, I surmised, was around 1841, when Hollister B. Thayer opened his Upper Meadows tavern following five years of expensive “improvements” – including a Charlemont-flagstone-floored front porch, an upstairs spring-floor, vaulted-ceiling ballroom, a G.W. Mark tavern sign, and an assortment of Mark’s distinctive interior grain-painting. Perhaps Thayer was a hunter, I speculated, and Mark gifted him the painting as a housewarming gift.

Then close inspection of the painting’s stretchers suggested a date closer to 1860 than 1840. It wasn’t the patina that spoke loudest but, instead, the mitered corners. Had it been an 1840 canvas, an expert opined, the corners would most likely have been stacked.

Hmmm? Could it be that the tavern’s final keeper, blacksmith Henry A. Ewers, was the painting’s first owner? The tavern blacksmith bought the place from Thayer in 1849 and operated the tavern through challenging temperance times until 1857. Maybe he was a hunter and acquaintance of Mark’s.

Bingo! That inquiry bore fruit.

Yes, everything started to fall nicely into place, despite a few interesting pieces of the puzzle that may have lapsed beyond the point of reassembly. That said, we know Mark and Ewers knew each other as fellow Greenfield fence-viewers in the 1850s, and we also know that Mark’s first wife, Mary Ann Skinner, is buried in Ewers’ North Meadows Cemetery plot down the road from the tavern.

The reason Mark’s wife is buried next to Ewers’ mother, Lucy Gould Mark, in the Ewers family plot may never be ascertained. It could be related to the fact that Lucy Ewers and Mary Ann Mark, a generation younger, are both said to have come from Williamstown. Could it have been that young Mary Ann Skinner’s mother was Lucy’s relative or childhood friend, died young, and her teenage daughter was taken in by the Ewers farm family of Gill? Such “adoptions” were not uncommon back then. If so, she would have been Henry A. Ewers’ step-sister, and, seven years older, of a perfect age to keep an eye on young Henry.

Finally, get a load of this one. We now can say for certain that adult blacksmith/wheelwright/tavernkeeper Henry A. Ewers did indeed own a spirited hound dog in the 1850s. We know that because of a story that went viral nationally after it appeared in the Greenfield Gazette and Courier on July 27, 1857. The tale was still being told three years later in a Wisconsin newspaper! It went like this (including my own correction of Ewers’ misspelled Wisconsin destination):

A Fast Dog – Henry A. Ewers of this town left on Friday for Aztalan, Wis., where he has purchased a farm. He owned a small dog which he gave to Henry Briggs before he left. The dog followed Mr. Ewers to the depot in this town and upon the cars leaving followed on after, overtaking them at South Deerfield before they left that station. The distance run by the dog was eight miles and the time occupied 22 minutes, or over 20 miles per hour. Mr. Ewers concluded that such a faithful friend was not to be parted with lightly, and took the dog into the cars with him for Wisconsin.

Too bad the Greenfield scribe neglected to give the spirited pet’s name, which was undoubtedly known by many tavern guests and neighbors long before the days of dog licenses and leash laws. George Washington Mark knew the dog’s name, and the newspaper story about the animal he had painted a few years earlier probably didn’t surprise him one bit.

Ewers didn’t live out his life in Wisconsin, returning home to Greenfield some years later. He died in 1867 and is buried in the North Meadows Cemetery, next to his wife Sally, his mother Lucy, and Mary Ann (Skinner) Mark.

 

Not Devil’s Throne, Please

Ten a.m., Sunday before Thanksgiving, rays of blinding sunlight penetrating naked hardwoods from the source low in a partly cloudy southeastern sky.

I’m parked beside a strong metal gate barring the south end of a long-ago discontinued county road born as in Indian trail. There I had reluctantly agreed to meet three members of a local town historical commission and a couple from a neighboring town – three women, two men – and lead them to a hidden, Native American upland ceremonial complex I discovered more than a decade ago.

With the sun to guide me through dense forest, a compass in my pocket (just in case), and a cold southern breeze to keep us refreshed during our uphill trek of a mile or more, I was confident I could find our objects of interest – a balanced rock and ancient stone structure with a spring hole sandwiched in between. Including the circuitous path I intended to hike back to our vehicles, I’d estimate a round trip of three miles or more.

Buried high and deep in vast forest I used to hunt and explore, I found the site more than 10 years ago, when it immediately became the topic of Native Insight, a weekly local-history column I wrote for the Greenfield Recorder. Accompanying that piece were alluring photos of the balanced rock and, better still, the associated manmade stone structure even Indians had forgotten. I did not photograph the spring hole bubbling up from a ravine because I had known it for years as a watering hole and didn’t view it as remarkable.

The photos created a stir, eliciting email queries from untrained curiosity seekers and credentialed Native American scholars alike. They all wanted to learn more about the site, and were disappointed by my stubborn unwillingness to pinpoint its location, a refusal I still honor. In my mind, some places should remain secret, especially spiritual Native American sites.

Though I had known the balanced rock since stumbling in awe upon it as a teenage deer hunter, the stone structure was new and very exciting. I made my discovery soon after reading Manitou: The Sacred Landscape of New England’s Native Civilization, a classic by Byron Dix and James Mavor. I suspected I’d find something up there and my hunch immediately bore succulent fruit.

Since that day of discovery, my goal has been to preserve and protect a potential treasure trove, which is not a function of newspaper publicity unless presented through a cryptic vein. So, I have kept the location of this sacred hunter-gatherer shrine under wraps, despite yearning to find an expert I could trust to respect confidentiality while aging and analyzing it. My own layman’s belief is that the manmade feature dates back to the late 18th century at a minimum, and perhaps millennia earlier. Thus, my protective vow.

My first objective was to figure out what purpose the stone structure had served, situated on a ridgetop knoll with a panoramic view. Facing south with a slight eastern lean, it looked like a throne, framed by heavy rectangular armrest stones on two sides and backed by a remarkably intact, yet potentially tenuous, four-foot cairn steepling to the heavens.

But what was it? That was my dilemma, and back then Native American study then relatively new to me.

To find answers I searched the Internet for an email address at which I could query expert James Gage, who with his mother Mary have published a lot of material about Native American stone structures in the Northeast. I was confident he would offer insight, if not positively identify what I had found.

Gage knew precisely what he was looking at. His immediate response identified it as a Native American prayer seat in a remarkable state of preservation. He opined that it must be hidden away from beaten paths to remain in such extraordinary condition. Even its cairn was miraculously intact. His observations, coupled with the site’s location high and deep in upland forest, only intensified my internal vow to secrecy. I offered to show him the site but he politely declined, saying it was too far from his Massachusetts home on the North Shore.

Because of its south-southeast orientation, Gage thought the secluded throne may have been constructed for Native holy men performing shamanic summer-solstice-sunrise ritual. Though I accepted this interpretation at the time, and still believe it could have been a solstice seat, further research has led me to believe it may have been multi-functional in the Native American spiritual realm.

Perhaps its deep history dates back to the first Indigenous people to permanently settle our valley. Habitational customs found them changing residence among seasonal camps and villages focused on hunting/fishing/gathering and growing. Before thick forest covered our uplands, open tundra would have supported vast patches of lowbush blueberries for annual harvest and celebration. Perhaps the genesis of this site began with feasts and ceremonies celebrating bountiful berry harvests.

Then, as epochs passed and towering forests attracted upland game, the site may have become important fall hunting ground where the seat was occupied during harvest celebrations. Likewise, it could have been used during random visits by shaman seeking isolation chambers for vision quests, or male adolescents enduring spirit quests in seclusion. Yes, of course, solstice and/or equinox celebrations are possibilities as well.

The sad reality is that we will likely never know exactly what went on in this special place. I don’t believe it was built by Boy Scouts, deer hunters, picnickers or geocaching fanatics of the modern era. That just doesn’t fit.

So why, you wonder, did I recently violate my solemn pledge to secrecy by showing it in recent weeks to a group of people I didn’t know – and thus couldn’t trust – including two perfect strangers? Have I not endangered the site?

Truth be told, I did indeed get cold feet coming down the stretch, and almost pulled out at the last minute upon learning that the aforementioned couple from a neighboring town would join us. When I raised alarm, I was assured that this man and woman could be trusted as dedicated protectors of Native American sites. Time will tell. I rolled the dice. I hope I didn’t blunder.

I had previously shown the site to only three people, all of whom I knew could never find it without me. Times have changed. Most people, including some who accompanied me on our Sunday hike, carry cell phones with GPS capabilities. With that in hand, wanderers have little fear of big woods.

That said, I guess it was time to pass the torch. I’m now 70 and, limping from athletic injuries, not what I once was physically. How many more times will my battered knees carry me to that high, lonesome hardwood ridge of whispering winds? How many more times do I want to hike there?

Hopefully the torch I passed won’t ignite a destructive blast. I’d hate to be responsible for erasing another important window into our fertile valley’s Indigenous people. Even more disturbing is the potentiality that the Pagan site could become associated with Christian evils and dubbed “Devil’s Throne.”

Such a Christian name would bother even a man like me from the tumultuous Sixties, who to this day still cranks up the volume to deafening decibels and sings along with Jerry Garcia’s “a friend of the Devil is a friend of mine” chorus.

Colonial Diary Offers Clues About Scandinavian Cupboard

An impromptu weekend trip to a friend’s Lake George summer home, the fascinating mid-18th-century journal of a scholarly foreign traveler, and an interestingly carved and painted 1789 Scandinavian tabernacle or bonnet-top cupboard that had previously stirred my inquisitive juices.

That’s what’s on my plate today, and what I’ll serve in soothing soapstone warmth wafting from the dining-room woodstove to my morning parlor seat.

First, let me introduce the astute foreign traveler. He’s Swedish-born natural historian Peter Kalm (1716-1779), author of The America of 1750: Peter Kalm’s Travels in North America – a classic diary of his colonial travels through budding villages and unspoiled wildlands extending from Delaware to Quebec. Then we’ll take a look at how Kalm’s important two-volume, 776-page work provides unexpected insight into the antique Scandinavian cupboard that has captured my fancy.

Isn’t it dandy how important information can appear when least expected to a reader’s delight?

Though born in Sweden, Kalm, the son of a Finnish clergyman and Scots mother, was educated in Finland. He was, at the University of Uppsala, the student of famed naturalist Carl Linnaeus (commonly spelled “Linne”), one of many important friendships he built among pillars of Finland’s scholarly botanical community.

It was Linnaeus who sent Kalm on his professional North American mission. The assignment was to gather data on North American plants that could be economically useful to Scandinavia. Privately, Kalm also harbored a deep interest in the history of New Sweden, a short-lived upper Mid-Atlantic colony that began in 1638 along the Delaware River, vestiges of which were still obvious during his tours through Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.

Kalm’s journal records what he saw along the way from Wilmington, Delaware, to Philadelphia and up through New Jersey to what is now New York City. From there he followed the Hudson River upstream to its headwaters above Albany, Schenectady, and Saratoga before venturing into what was then uncharted territory – a no-man’s land following Lake George to Lake Champlain and into Canada.

He describes in invaluable detail the colonial villages, the isolated farmsteads and their people, the trees, forests, and soils, the birds, snakes, and wildlife, the rivers and streams, their watercraft and fish, and what was left of the Native American people who had once called his study area home. Sadly, most Natives had by Kalm’s time fled to temporary inland refuge west of the Alleghenies.

Indian presence dramatically increased above Albany, and the learned Kalm predictably showed great interest in their lifeways. In fact, I have not read a better description, and I doubt that one exists, of an early Northeastern Native American fishing camp than the one he stumbled across and recorded on June 22, 1749. Nestled into an old, unoccupied Dutch Island located in the Hudson River’s upper reaches, it was an “old ways” sturgeon camp where men, women, and children worked together to gather and preserve fish stores for winter.

Although what Kalm witnessed occurred roughly three generations after the Connecticut Valley’s infamous, May 19, 1676, King Philip’s War massacre of a Native fishing camp at Peskeompskut Falls in Gill, the fish-gathering activity would have been similar, if not identical. It’s also quite likely that at least some of the Native people Kalm observed descended from Connecticut Valley ancestors driven to the untamed Lake George/Lake Champlain corridor after the “Falls Fight.”

Kalm described in detail the fishing camp’s temporary wooden shelters and pelt bedding, canoes and spears, and wooden drying racks with slim filets dangling in the sun. He also shared his fascination with the people – their hair and face paint, their clothing and accoutrements, their barter economy – while describing massive sturgeon often leaping four feet in the air from the shallows they occupied.

His description of the sturgeon camp and its people is an anthropological treasure. He unfortunately did not offer the same minute detail about the material culture of his own people who had settled New Sweden and were by his day under English rule.

Which circles us back to my friend’s interesting painted Scandinavian cupboard, which I believe to be the work of a skilled American joiner of New Sweden roots.

Yes, it could be Dutch or Norwegian, I suppose. But its rich earthy-green color, the carved and painted vine-and-leaf motif on the doors, and other decorative elements framing them suggest Swedish to me after viewing many Scandinavian cupboards online. Not only that but, given its high-style formality, I suspect that some expert may be able to attribute the piece to an important 18th-century Swedish-American cabinetmaker. Not a one of the many Swedish cupboards I viewed online could match its dignified presence.

My friend bought the piece about 10 years ago at the Brimfield Flea Market while in the process of furnishing her new stone vacation home, built on Lake George property owned by her New Jersey family. The May’s Field vendor told her that it was Scandinavian, and may have accompanied immigrants across the Atlantic Ocean to America.

She showed the piece to me back then and, although it greatly interested me, I didn’t take photos and, regretfully, could not delve deeper in the comforts of home. That said, I never believed it was made overseas. I knew off the top of my head that Swedes had been here by the late seventeenth century and possibly earlier. Then, upon discovering recently that they had been here for 150 years by the time it was constructed, my opinion only strengthened.

On my Lake George sojourn last month I did take photos, thoroughly examine the cupboard, and vow to learn more about its history. Also, having read another scholarly book about the construction of Fort William Henry on Lake George’s southwestern shore, I had seen Kalm’s book referenced and was determined to buy it upon returning home. Little did I know that my online purchase would kill two birds with one stone. Not only did Kalm improve my insight into colonial forests, settlements and Indians, rattlesnakes, blacksnakes, sturgeon, and you name it. His book offered a surprise addendum titled History of the Delaware Swedes.

Although he didn’t cover colonial Swedish material culture or its artisans, he taught me much about New Sweden. Then an online keyword search pulled me to the University of Pennsylvania, which seems to have an active group of New Sweden scholars, at least one of whom must specialize in the colony’s furniture and furniture-makers. If so, I may yet get an attribution for my friend’s extraordinary piece, and learn whether it was hung on a wall or the top section of a Queen Anne chest on frame with cabriole legs that long ago disappeared. Though I suspect the former, I’ll reserve judgment for now. It’s a work in progress.

I am, however, supremely confident that my friend’s cupboard is a keeper. So, too, is Kalm’s journal.

Lake George Oozes WMass Links

Midweek, early evening, front-yard burning bushes displaying a light, peaceful autumn crimson that’s brightening by the day.

My wife Joey is watching local news in the west parlor when she hears the familiar audible alert for an incoming text. It’s longtime friend Debbie, from Cohasset. Debbie wonders if we’d like to join her for the weekend in upstate New York, at her posh home on the shoreline of Lake George’s picturesque Dark Bay.

Hmmmm? Tempting.

Joey rises from her chair and walks through the wing to see what I think. I’m watching The Beat With Ari Melber in another parlor as she approaches through the dining room. She breaks the threshold and says, “Honey, Debbie just invited us to Lake George for the weekend. Would you be interested?”

“Sure. Why not?” was my kneejerk response.  “We can hit the road Friday morning.”

“OK. Let me check with her.”

The answer from Cohasset was yes. A midday Friday arrival would be perfect. Debbie planned to arrive on Thursday night. She proposed taking her boat to the south shore restaurant across the bay in Lake George Village for lunch?

Sounded good. We’d see what Friday brought.

You’d have to know the property to understand the generous offer. My arm never needs twisting for a trip to Lake George – the colonial, and before that Indigenous, inland gateway to the St. Lawrence Seaway. There kindred, starlit spirits lurk to the relaxing call of common loons accompanied by soothing percussion of short, quiet waves lapping the midnight shore.

I was psyched. The acreage where Debbie’s family compound sits was once owned by President Teddy Roosevelt’s New York City sportsmen’s club. Now situated in a privileged world folks like me can only visit, it’s a hop, skip, and jump across the water to the curling peninsula on which Red Sox owner John Henry’s palatial vacation home lies. You ought to get a look at that place. Judging from the staging assembled across the front, it’s about the get a new addition, maybe a spacious porch facing the water and mountains to the north.

The weather forecast looked great – all the makings for a glorious weekend in place. Hey, maybe we’d even find flaming foliage somewhere along the way, its peak running late after an exceptionally wet summer.

Anticipation of the trip immediately set my cranial wheels awhirl. I have rich ancestral connections dating back to the early colonial period in the upper Hudson Valley, as well as the foreboding yet stunningly beautiful Lake George-Lake Champlain corridor. I immediately dug into my library to accurately refresh my personal connections, just in case the topic came up in conversation or we visited an historic site where accurate data would come in handy.

The Connecticut Valley, and especially the Deerfield-Hatfield area, sent many soldiers, scouts, and militia to the Lakes George/Champlain theater from the final days of King Philip’s War (1675-78) right through to the War of 1812. Most intense around Lake George were the decades of the 1740s and 1750s, when the Hatfield-Deerfield Williams family not only commanded but also supplied a “Line of Forts” protecting western Massachusetts’ northern border from Northfield to North Adams. The same family connections also spilled into Stockbridge, the upper Hudson Valley, and, yes, Lake George, where Ephraim Williams, Jr. met his maker at the infamous September 8, 1755 Bloody Morning Scout ambush, a Battle of Lake George component.

That ambush site was near where we were staying, in the neighborhood of Fort William Henry, which was under construction at the time and occupied in November 1755.

The historic first English penetration up Lake George – which flows south to north – occurred following a September 19, 1677 Indian attack on Hatfield during which 21 captives were taken north to Canada. Among the hostages were the wives and children of well-known Hatfield scout Benjamin Waite (often spelled Wait) and neighbor Stephen Jennings, who became the first Englishmen to paddle the Lake George-Lake Champlain water route to Canada. Their mission was to find their way there, negotiate the release of their families, and bring them home.

When they reached Albany, after much official maneuvering, Waite and Jennings secured the assistance of a Mohawk warrior, who delivered them through deep snow to Lake George’s frigid southern shore on December 10. There the Native warrior equipped them with a canoe and sketched out the Lake George-Lake Champlain route to Canada on a piece of birchbark before bidding them adieux.

The Hatfield adventurers made it to Lake Champlain on December 16 and reached the Canadian frontier around January 6. In Quebec they negotiated the release of 17 surviving captives and were homeward bound on May 2, 1678. By May 23 they had reached Albany, where they rested while awaiting the arrival of a Hatfield escort team to help them home.

As my eighth-great-grandfather, Brave Benjamin Waite gives me English roots that grow no deeper in the Lake George/Lake Champlain corridor. In my world that’s a spiritual connection – one that pales in comparison to that of Native Americans who greeted Europeans to this continent, and even to the Frenchmen who had beat the English to these North Country Lakes by about 70 years.

Waite is one of many genealogical links that I and many other locals with early Connecticut Valley lineage share with Lake George colonials. They start with Waite and Jennings, continue with early 18th-century woodsmen and scouts like Captain Martin Kellogg, and intensify during the mid-18th century with the likes of Martin Severance, Agrippa Wells, and Moses Harvey, to name only a few.

On their heels came a new breed of pugnacious Scots-Irishmen who marched with (Robert) Rogers’ Rangers, and whose families populated inland New Hampshire and the earliest Colrain and Pelham settlements. Many soldiers from old, established Connecticut Valley families joined these Rangers and stayed with them right through to the conclusion in 1763 of the Seven Years War, which ended some 75 years of the so-called French and Indian Wars.

Today these colonial warriors, saluted for their rugged individualism, hatred of Red Coats, and healthy mistrust in government, lie in their final resting places, their graves marked by simple slate stones in our oldest burial grounds. Many of them were known soon after the Revolution for rejecting Federalism, which they saw as a breeding-ground for a new American aristocracy, and supporting Shays’ Rebellion.

I’m thankful that an evening text and trip to Lake George opened an old historical vein that loves to bleed, and brought me back to a place where my earliest North American ancestors braved the storm of colonial war. I’m also thankful that this exploration led me new, exciting information about an early Bloody Brook (South Deerfield) settler named William Anderson, who has for decades been a fascination of mine.

Anderson is said by Deerfield historian George Sheldon to have arrived on these shores as a Scottish soldier under British General James Abercrombie (1706-81), who arrived in 1757. Abercrombie’s claim to shame was his defeat as commanding officer at the siege of Fort Carillon, later Ticonderoga. There, on July 8, 1758, despite leading nearly 16,000 soldiers who greatly outnumbering the French, he suffered a humiliating defeat he would never live down, losing more than 2,000 soldiers in the process.

Anderson, a survivor, returned to Carillon a year later, this time under Lord Jeffery Amherst, who defeated the French and captured the fort. Five years later, according to Sheldon, the soldier from Dunfermline, Scotland, was settled at “the Old Anderson Place” in Bloody Brook, which may be so. Thus far, however, despite diligent searches, I have been unable to pin down the location.

Fresh genealogical information indicating that Anderson’s given surname was Jansson, not Anderson, may help me solve the vexing mystery.

Then again, maybe not.

 

Feinstein Lost Famous Porn Spat

The recent passing of longtime Democratic politician Diane Feinstein of California took me down a faded path that, among readers, I probably followed alone. So, why not share?

It was a meandering trail that circled through racy neighborhoods of San Francisco strippers, police raids, arrests, pornography and obscenity charges, guns, murder, luxury Mercedes sedans, Harvey Silk – and, yes, even the glory days of “Night Manager” Hunter S. Thompson, high priest of Gonzo journalism.

Imagine that: a blast from the past, stirred by the death of a stubborn 90-year-old lioness of the US Senate, who should have retired long before old age sullied her dignity and took her down. In her final days, she was reduced to a confused, pathetic sight indeed. Why would anyone with her resources hang on so long and choose such a demeaning public exit?

Addictive power sure can lead to humiliating ends, and did just that regarding this Left Coast moderate. After graduating from Stanford University, her career took a meteoric rise from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to mayor to powerful US Senator. Then, sadly, she exited in a sad state that displayed on television as dementia.

I had heard brief personal tales of the San Francisco mayor from a friend who knew her as a customer at his jewelry business in the city’s historic district, and who had been to her home. I had also read about her pornography wars against a San Francisco strip club featured in a biographical compendium about HST published in 2017. Other than that, I only knew her as portrayed on the nightly news and daily cable-news feed.

As I absorbed the many Feinstein tributes in the days following her death, it occurred to me that one of her early springboards to fame was being totally ignored. Not one word did I read or hear about her very public, Goodie Two-Shoes crusade against the infamous O’Farrell Theatre and its controversial owners – flamboyant brothers Jim and Artie Mitchell, who made the movie Behind the Green Door, made a star of Marilyn Chambers, and eventually could fill the fingers on both hands with theaters they owned.

When I went to Wikipedia for Feinstein’s profile, I found the same void related to her altruistic and unsuccessful stand against the Mitchells. Nope, not so much as a whisper.

Hmmmmm?

I suppose Feinstein preferred to ignore defeats and focus on her political victories. Who doesn’t? Still, how could her losing, decades-long battle against the flamboyant Mitchells – Army vets and pranksters with “Okie” roots – be ignored? The brothers Mitchell partied hardy, fished from their notorious boat moored in the Bay, made porn flicks, ran strip joints, spent millions in legal fees and, in the process, managed to rake in dough and soften federal laws governing porn.

By the time the dust had settled, Jim Mitchell had done time for shooting brother Artie dead with a handgun (1991, voluntary manslaughter) and died himself young (2007, age 63), but not before he had carved out a West Coast reputation as the undefeated “Rocky of the First Amendment.” As defendants in more than 200 obscenity-related court cases, not once were the Mitchell Brothers convicted.

Put that in your bong and smoke it.

Although her porn wars with the Mitchells were ignored in mainstream Feinstein obits, I knew right where to refresh my memory with a full and quite biased accounting. From my bookcase I pulled out Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson, an unvarnished Warren Hinckle III tell-all published in 2017 by flower-power San Francisco institution Last Gasp. The late Hinckle was a San Fran newsman and HST pal who had a bigger impact on shaping Gonzo style than Rolling Stone magazine founder Jann Wenner, who loves to hoard credit.

Swashbuckling Editor Hinckle was the man who put leftist Ramparts magazine on the map, publishing the San Francisco monthly during the Vietnam War/civil-rights era when Sixties musical legends like Jerry Garcia, Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, Jorma Kaukonen, David Crosby, Chris Hillman, and Peter Rowan were walking the Haight-Ashbury streets, sitting at Tenderloin bars, and performing to pulsating psychedelic crowds at Golden Gate Park and the Fillmore.

In 1970, after Ramparts fell into fatal financial distress, Hinckle took charge of short-lived Scanlan’s Monthly. There he assigned Thompson to the Kentucky Derby for his breakout article, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” and Gonzo journalism was born. Better still, Hinckle paired Thompson with zany British illustrator Ralph Steadman, whose art accompanied Thompson’s unique tales all the way to the author’s abrupt end.

Like Thompson, Hinkle had no use for “objective journalism” as laid out in the doctrinaire Associated Press manual. Thus, he was the perfect editor for that inaugural Dr. Gonzo-Steadman piece, which, by the way, is republished in its entirety in Hinckle’s Thompson book. Gonzo style was ready to roll, and the Thompson-Steadman partnership for the ages was off and running.

Hinckle, who died the year before his long-delayed Thompson tribute hit the streets, was never widely recognized nationally except in counter-culture circles; however, that was not the case in “Frisco,” where he was born, raised, educated, employed, and died. The University of San Francisco alum became a household name in the progressive city built by the California gold rush and known to many as America’s Paris. Having lost an eye to a childhood archery accident, the carousing journalist was known for the apropos black pirate eye patch he sported.

When he wasn’t managing provocative left-wing magazines that mattered, Hinckle wrote books and penned popular columns for his city’s two daily newspapers – the Chronicle and Examiner. Later his byline appeared in the free San Francisco Independent, a publication similar to our own weekly Valley Advocate in its earliest days of the ’70s.

No San Francisco journalist of his day knew the city’s underbelly quite like Hinckle, a hard-drinking, old-time journalist in the Bay Area tradition of quirky Ambrose Bierce. In fact, in 1991 he even revived the Argonaut, a San Francisco political rag that for many years in the late 19th century published Bierce’s popular “Prattle” column.

Hinckle and his Bassett hound Bentley were regulars at the O’Farrell Theatre, where he enjoyed VIP status, along with HST, who served as night manager for a couple of years in the mid-1980s. Try to imagine the wild scene: Dr. Gonzo perched high above center stage on his director’s chair, training the spotlight on nude performers for a crowd that could on any given night include the likes of revolutionary activists Abbie Hoffman or Huey Newton, poets and performers like Allen Ginsberg and Marilyn Chambers, random pols from nearby City Hall, police, lawyers and a steady cast of celebrities from the rich music scene.

The O’Farrell was a destination capable of pulling in virtually anyone, from curious tourists to local luminaries and regular patrons making their daily rounds. Feinstein viewed the place as an undesirable den of depravity, a city black eye that needed to be closed. She was, however, not exactly preaching to the choir in the progressive Bay Area, where freedom of speech and thought were sacred human rights.

I didn’t choose to focus on a neglected chapter of the Feinstein story to in any way diminish her proud legacy. Like all politicians, she won some battles and lost some. Count the extended O’Farrell dustup among the latter, and it only gets richer when the Hinckle-HST dynamic jumps in. Thompson intended to write a book that never came to fruition about his night-manager days.

Although I never uttered a word in print about Hinckle’s book the first time I read it, I couldn’t resist when mired in Feinstein eulogies. I would recommend Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson to any fans of HST or Sixties/Seventies lookbacks. It opens with Hinckle’s 200-page “intro,” is followed by personal essays from 42 friends who knew Thompson best, and promises soon to be “out of print” and hard to find.

 

Midfield Takedown

It’s no secret that Mother Nature can be a cruel, unmerciful witch, capable of administering unimaginable pain and suffering while snickering at weepy, bleeding-heart sentimentality.

Nature lovers moored in reality accept the good with the bad, of which there is plenty to go around. The following tale about an unfortunate encounter between a maturing fawn and a big tom bobcat fits the bad like a homespun Merino sock.

The story unfolds in bucolic Waldo County, Maine, where my brother-in-law, Buzz, manages a 125-acre gentleman’s farm about a half-hour inland from Belfast. There, over the past 50 years, he has creatively manicured the old Howard dairy farm into an idyllic, off-the-grid nature preserve tailored to his self-sufficient ways. He harvests cordwood and mushrooms from his woodland, apples from his orchard, lowbush blueberries from his hillside, eggs and meat from his henhouse, and trout from his ponds.

If he still hunted, he could add salubrious wild meats to his diet, but he can do without venison, wild turkey, woodcock, partridge, and waterfowl.

A retired professor and doctor of foreign culture and language, he and his female partner, Leigh, study birds, trees, plants, wildlife and the environment with Thoreauvian passion. A legacy is in place to protect the place when he is gone.

Like the rest of New England, his Montville farm has endured an unusually wet summer that interfered with his orchard, garden, and tractor chores, not to mention the natural seasoning process of open-air cordwood piles. Though Buzz and Leigh made necessary core adjustments as best they could, their normal routine was disrupted, and the necessary modifications weren’t always ideal.

Committed to optimizing their acreage as a sustainable farm and nature refuge, they are fully aware and accepting of nature’s cruelties for wildlife that shares their land. Their isolated location only enhances one of their favorite and constant activities: bird and wildlife observation, be it through the bay window, off the seat of a tractor or doing chores in the barn, fields, orchard and woods.

They know one deer from another, how many tagalong fawns each doe has in tow, the number of antler points displayed by resident bucks, how the nesting season went for turkeys and grouse, and when the occasional moose, bear, or bobcat passes through.

With four eyes constantly scanning the terrain, assessing and sharing what they have seen, the couple doesn’t miss much. It’s a labor of love. Their life mission.

Which brings us to the big bobcat that showed up earlier this summer, a “bruiser” Buzz estimates to weigh in the neighborhood of 50 pounds. If so, it’s a whopper in bobcat world. The graceful, cautious cat showed itself “from time to time” this summer, forcing Buzz to protect his chickens – easy pickins’ for such an efficient, opportunistic predator.

Online research told Buzz that a dominant tom like the one sharing his property covers a range of 36 miles and intentionally works alternate quadrants of that sphere to avoid overhunting an area. Bobcats primarily hunt small game, such as rabbits, woodchucks, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, waterfowl, turkeys and grouse, but are known to take down small deer by ambush and stalking, most often pouncing from trees and other elevated perches.

For several weeks prior to the recent incident, Buzz and Leigh had noticed palpable unease among the deer feeding close to their house. On several occasions under the cover of darkness their curiosity was piqued by the sound of deer delivering sharp, blowing alarms that warned of looming danger.

On September 15, they were awakened at 5 a.m. by a piercing, scream-like fawn distress call accompanied by incessant blowing by its doe mother. The pathetic distress calls continued for five minutes, then stopped as the doe continued blowing and stomping about. Buzz and Leigh knew a kill had occurred. They planned to investigate the scene in the light of day, well aware that what awaited them would not be pretty.

Walking out into the field later that day to a patch of green grass surrounded by a higher hayfield, they easily found the kill site about 80 yards into the middle of the field. There, Buzz reports, “the fawn was tackled, killed, dragged to the edge of the forest, partly eaten and neatly covered by leaves and sticks – classic evidence of a bobcat caching its kill to conceal it from ravens and other scavengers.” The cat had eaten a leg and part of the back before covering his prize for future feedings.

Buzz says the conditions for a midfield kill were ideal: wet, quiet terrain, light predawn fog and mist, a concealing hill, and a favorable, soft breeze that was barely detectable. Those advantageous factors provided the cat with enough cover to creep within pouncing distance and take down the estimated 40- to 50-pound victim.

Fawns, typically born around Memorial Day, grow quickly and are more than capable of fleeing danger by September. Buzz thinks the odds were squarely against the experienced adult cat, perhaps a one-in-10 shot. Everything had to line up perfectly, and did.

The kill was quick. The cat tackled its unsuspecting prey with a jarring neck shot, using his claws and teeth to puncture the fawn’s throat in several places. The fatal wound was a gaping hole opened along the carotid artery and jugular vein that bled out the fawn quickly.

With his kill-assessment phase complete, Buzz’s nature classroom was just beginning.

Wearing rubber gloves and boots to minimize human scent when examining the scene and taking photos, he and Leigh carefully re-covered the fawn with leaves and sticks. He returned to the scene later that day and set up a trail camera, seeking confirmation that the big bobcat they’d been seeing was indeed the predator, and to examine the culprit’s feeding patterns.

Well, as that old folk song goes, the cat came back, but it didn’t even wait till the very next day. Instead, it returned a couple of hours after the camera had been deployed. As expected, it was the big tom they’d been watching, and he made quick work of devouring his prize. By Day 3, the carcass was reduced to bones – a fascinating process to watch.

Though I didn’t tell Buzz so until after the perpetrator had been positively identified, I initially held out hope that the kill had been the work of a cougar. They, too, bury their kills and return in subsequent days to eat them. Never in the world of modern-day New England cougar sightings has anyone captured such an event on film. Could this be the first? On my own brother-in-law’s farm? Nope. Too good to be true. Just a bobcat. Fascinating, nonetheless.

Buzz was particularly interested in one aspect of the feeding routine. With his hunger satisfied on the first visit to his cached fawn, the cat dragged what was left to a new location 15 feet deeper into the forest. “There,” wrote Buzz, “he covered the remains with copious amounts of leaves and sticks. Clearly, this was a time-consuming job. The ground all around the fawn was scraped clean, and all of the debris there located was piled on the remains. Indeed, this second covering was even more thorough than the first.”

On a poignant note, the fawn’s mother kept returning to feed at the kill site, perhaps hoping for a miraculous reunion with her fawn. On the day of the kill, she grazed not 50 feet from the covered fawn carcass. A sad sight indeed – one interpreted by my brother-in-law from the proper perspective.

“We love seeing deer, and especially fawns,” he wrote in an email to friends. “That said, we also like having large carnivores around and know they play an important role in keeping the deer herd in check.”

To him, it all came down to a basic balance-of-nature principle that’s as old as life itself – a tenet that some New Age “nature lovers” would rather forget. Such selective denial is not progressive thinking. It’s ignorance.

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