Great Horned Owls Nest

All I can say about last week’s start of the four-week 2024 Massachusetts spring turkey-hunting season is, what a difference a year makes.

It matters not that I no longer view wild turkeys through a hunter’s lens. My interest in the state gamebird will never fade. I will forever continue to observe and learn about these large roadside birds, which did not exist during my South Deerfield boyhood.

Last year, beginning about a month before opening day, I was greeted daily over the first half-mile of my daybreak walks by aggressive gobbling along the northern perimeter – rain or shine, far and near – interrupting the calming still of dawn. Later, on the Meadow Lane home stretch, occasional gobbles could be heard from the wooded western hillside across the road from my upper Greenfield Meadows home.

This year, not a peep – not even one of those distant, barely discernable rattles I long ago learned to identify. Hmmmm?


I suppose, with deep analysis, I probably could have arrived at a hypothesis sooner than I did. But I can’t say I ever really dwelled on it. I just kept my daily antennae alert, heard nothing and figured the gobbling would soon begin.

One obvious factor that didn’t line up and only confused matters was our mild winter and early spring. Why, of all years, would spring gobblers choose silence this year? It made no sense. Just another peculiar stoke of nature, I surmised.

Then, on the evening of the April 8 eclipse, my phone rang. A neighbor and friend called to chat about a new discovery in his yard. A woman who lives across the street from him had alerted him to a Great Horned Owl (GHO) nest, wedged into the crotch of a dead white pine about 40 feet above his driveway.

Interested, I walked to his yard to take a look – my first observation of a GHO nest in more than 70 years on this planet. What a treat. A mating pair had taken over and reinforced a former crow, raven, red-tailed hawk or maybe even gray squirrel nest, and it contained two large, light-colored fledglings being fed by the adults. According to many sources, GHO nests typically produce two nestlings.

By the time I saw the fledglings, I would estimate they were about six weeks old. They stood stoic and motionless on the nest’s edge, calmly peering down at me on that first encounter. Numerous online sources report that GHO nestlings begin practicing hunting skills at three weeks by pouncing on sticks comprising the nest. By six weeks they become “branchers,” hopping from limb to limb and eventually stretching their wings in preparation for flight.

Awkward flight tests then begin at seven weeks, and they maneuver their way to the ground after about eight weeks. Their parents continue to feed and protect them through the summer, and by autumn the young ones move on to seek new territory of their own.

The fact that the nest was there didn’t come as a great surprise. I had been aware of new owls in the neighborhood for at least a few months. I now know the timing made perfect sense. Online information identifies GHO as early nesters in the bird world.

I can’t recall when I first starting hearing those unfamiliar adult hoots, but it was probably in late December or January. I regularly heard them as I passed marshy meadows skirting the upland base north of my home. I immediately suspected GHO because I knew there had been a previous nest in the same area many years ago, when I was directly impacted.

Back then my sons were schoolboys and my daily Recorder shift brought me home at around 2 a.m. My last chore before bed was to run and water my English springer spaniel gundogs out back by the brook. That was the last time I remember hearing the long, haunting GHO hoot, which in no way resembles joyous barred owl hooting with its familiar cadence of Who cooks the stew? Who cooks for you awwwwwllllll?

When my small, female, calico Manx, Kiki, went missing, I felt certain she had been the victim of those large, wee-hour GHO I kept hearing, and I still believe this to be the case. Known as the “tiger of the north woods,” they hunt small animals like rabbits and squirrels. Kiki was no larger than a rabbit, and her highly visible white base would have made her easy pickings as she hunted the backyard stonewall day and night for mice, chipmunks, and you name it.

I now believe that the loud presence of GHO in the neighborhood is a likely reason why turkeys seem to have vacated territory within earshot of my home and morning ramble. I know turkeys do not view owls as friends. That I discovered as a turkey hunter who employed barred-owl locating calls to stimulate aggressive responses from combative gobblers establishing their domain.

On the other hand, hen turkeys likely try to avoid building their ground nests near the nests of large owls capable of devouring their broods. If hens leave a habitat, gobblers follow.

Thus far this year, my lone Meadows turkey sighting occurred at around 7 a.m. in corn stubble slightly more than a mile south of my home. There I caught two lonely hens scratching and feeding their way west toward Colrain Road. That’s it. Not another sight or sound of turkeys in a place where they have previously thrived. This at daybreak no less, prime time for gobbling – better still gobbling that carries great distances from high in a tree.

My neighborhood owlets disappeared from view about two weeks ago and are likely by now flying and helping to thin out the upper Meadows squirrel and rabbit population. I hope they eat young woodchucks, too. Woodchucks have menaced me and my neighbors in recent years.

As for the temporary scarcity of turkeys, well, I can’t say I’m concerned. They may not be in my backyard these days, but I don’t have to travel far to find them.


New Weir Information

I spoke too soon about ancient Indian weirs in the neighborhood. So, with new information in hand about the stone fishing structures, a follow-up’s in order.

My last column questioned the curious (to me) design, and thus the functionality, of two extant, manmade, downstream-pointed weirs on the lower Westfield and uppermost Chicopee rivers. Little did I know that recent research has been done to analyze fishing practices on a similar structure closer to my doorstep.

Reader Michael Bosworth alerted me to this fact in a March 30 email query wondering if “the Indian dam on the Ashuelot River in Swanzey, New Hampshire was another example?” Accompanying his question was a reference to Page 50 of Robert G. Goodby’s 2021 book, A Deep Presence: 13,000 Years of Native American History, which I had not previously heard of.

I immediately went online, learned that Goodby is a respected Franklin Pierce College anthropology professor and contract archaeologist, and ordered his book, which had not arrived in the mail before deadline. It’s based on more than 30 years of New England archaeological fieldwork – at least 10 of them (2002-12) on the Swanzey site. After an exchange of emails Goodby sent me his 2014 site report, co-authored by Sarah Tremblay and Edward Bouras: The Swanzey Fish Dam: A Large Precontact Native American Stone Structure in Southeastern New Hampshire.

This 19-page report and its three-page bibliography shed new light on Indian weirs and fishing practices of Eastern Woodlands people. Finally, important information that was at best elusive the last I explored the topic some 35 years ago. Back then, the most helpful source I could find was Hilary Stewart’s liberally illustrated Indian Fishing: Early Methods of the Northwest Coast. Although the Native people she featured lived on the other side of the continent and fished for different but related species, I presumed their practices couldn’t have differed greatly from their Northeastern kin, and still believe that to be true.

One significant difference on this side of the continent, however, seems to have been common use of downstream-pointed weirs to harvest upstream-migrating anadromous fish on their spring spawning runs back to their natal streams.

“Huh?” I pondered. “Upstream-swimming fish on spawning runs confronted first by an abrupt point rather than the inviting, wide-open mouth of a V guiding them into a narrow trap?”

It made no sense based on what I had previously learned about Indian weirs pointing in the same direction as fish migrations and sketched in Stewart’s book. So, I questioned late-19th-century historian and former Whately pastor J.H. Temple, who, in his comprehensive histories of North Brookfield and Palmer, described slightly different fishing practices on downstream-pointed weirs.

That is not to say Eastern Woodlands Native people never built the upstream-pointed weirs preferred by their West Coast cousins. Just that on Connecticut River tributaries and other streams up and down eastern North America on this side of the mighty Mississippi, upstream-pointing weirs or dams spanning the entire width of streams were widely used to harvest migrating fish. These stone structures built across streams forced fish toward narrow manmade shoreline channels in which they were easily harvested by net, spear and arrow.

The Swanzey Fish Dam was such a structure, as were the previously mentioned shore-to-shore weirs or dams on the lower Westfield and uppermost Chicopee rivers. Recent research accelerating during the final quarter of the 20th century has uncovered similar structures begging for additional study. The closest sites to us are in Connecticut, on the Housatonic River and the Bashan Lake outflow in East Haddam, while others are known to exist in Maine’s Kennebec River watershed.

Who knows where else similar structures will turn up now that they are on archaeologists’ radar?

Let’s hope future research uncovers footprints of complementary, wooden, weir-associated apparatuses. Indians knew the value of durable, water-resistant woods like chestnut, cedar, and locust for companion pieces, and would have used them to build fences, lattices, and platforms to aid fish-gathering procedures. Because such woods have shown remarkable survival capabilities in submerged archaeological environments, the outline of such structures could likely still be mapped by field researchers.

Sadly, one important fact now out of reach is quantification of the various pre-colonial fish runs up and down the Connecticut River, and tributaries like the Ashuelot. There is just no way to attach accurate numbers to those prehistoric anadromous and catadromous fish runs. But take it to the bank: they dwarfed the largest modern runs on record. The volume of ancient runs matters in any assessments of pre-European Contact Period Native fishing practices and related structures.

The Swanzey Fish Dam is shaped like a checkmark. It rests approximately eight straight-line miles –perhaps 12 meandering river miles – from the Ashuelot River’s Hinsdale, New Hampshire mouth. Radiocarbon dating brings the structure back to the Terminal Archaic Period, some 4,000 B.P. (years before present). It was still in use by Squakheag or Sokoki Indians into the second half of the 17th-century – likely one of many fish-gathering constructions of various styles built along the Ashuelot’s 65-mile reach.

The most important fish migrations targeted by our indigenous fishers were the upstream anadromous spring runs of shad, salmon, lampreys, sturgeon, and herrings. Then came the downstream fall runs of valued catadromous American eels. The Indians would have known what type of adaptations were best for each species, and most of the adjustments would have involved wooden embellishments.

Although the Swanzey Fish Dam was known to colonial settlers at an early date and became local tradition, little effort was taken to understand the indigenous fishing operation. Goodby first showed interest in the site at the dawning of the 21st century. He ramped up his investigative efforts after the August 2010 removal of West Swanzey’s 1860s Homestead Woolen Mill dam. As had previously been the case during a 1950 dam-repair project that drew down the upstream impoundment, the Indian stonework was exposed, setting the wheels of discovery into motion.

The rest is history. Goodby’s site report appeared in 2014. Seven years later, A Deep Presence hit the street. Now, following local press coverage, scholarly articles in academic journals, a dissertation, and random book reviews, the Swanzey site is in the public eye… sort of.

Although there’s still plenty to learn about the social and economic activities at ancient indigenous fishing camps situated along large and small Connecticut Valley streams, at least new discovery is underway. New information will hopefully continue to surface, starting with radiocarbon dating of the other aforementioned New England sites.

As archaeologists continue poking and probing, they may yet open a clear window into what ancient indigenous fishing operations looked like in our fertile valley before the post-King Philip’s War (1775-76) diaspora took hold.

Buried in the floodplain meadows and river sediments are the answers we seek.

Indian Weir Dynamics: A New Twist

A long, winding path sat me in this bow-back Windsor chair this morning – seasoned-oak oozing warmth from the woodstove to stimulate thought about Indian weirs.

My introduction to these manmade fish-catching structures occurred more than 30 years ago. Deerfield artist/illustrator Al Dray had been following my columns on salmon, shad, and ancient spring fishing camps situated around the Great Falls between Turners Falls and Riverside, Gill, and wanted to take me on a little field trip.

He’d been poking around the Connecticut River’s eastern shore down by Rock Dam in Montague City and was convinced he’d found vestiges of a weir above the “fishing falls” there. We went to the site, he pointed out the open mouth of a V-shaped stone column facing us, and suggested it was the handiwork of Native fishermen. The object was to funnel migrating fish into a shoreline trap. Though I was looking at my first, his argument was convincing.

The concept of fish weirs and traps fit snugly into my interests at the time. I was then passionately fishing for shad, studying waters I frequented, publishing weekly migration numbers during the upstream spring spawning migration, and taking the unpopular opinion that Connecticut River salmon-restoration was doomed.

With little helpful information about Indian fishing camps and practices available in the standard Connecticut Valley town histories, I hunted additional sources and found thin picking. Then came Hilary Stewart’s richly-illustrated Indian Fishing (1982 paperback), focusing on Washington State and British Columbia. Though the camps she sketched were faraway, I believed the tools and practices would differ little from those used by our own indigenous people. Subsequent research supported that opinion.

The rule of thumb linking all stream-fishing camps I reviewed was that upstream-pointing weirs were the rule for catching upstream-migrating fish.

Then, in recent weeks, I happened to read something in Rev. J.H. Temple’s History of Palmer (1889) that sang a different tune about Native fishing on the upper Chicopee River and its headwaters. Repeating an assertion made two years earlier in his History of North Brookfield (1887), Temple reported that Indians fishing the spring Atlantic salmon run there employed nets, spears, and arrows to catch ascending fish, and weirs to catch survivors returning to sea.

I knew nothing about the Chicopee River before exploring this topic, but have since learned that it starts at the confluence of the Ware, Quaboag, and Swift rivers in Palmer’s Three Rivers village and flows some 18 miles to the Connecticut River.

This was the first mention I ever found of fishing for spawning-run survivors returning to the sea. The new paradigm raised my interest after nearly 50 years of carefully tracking and extensively reporting our valley’s spring, anadromous-fish spawning runs of shad, salmon, striped bass, herring, alewife, and eels. Anadromous fish are born in freshwater, live as adults in saltwater, and return in their reproductive prime to spawn in natal streams.

Why, I pondered in print and then in email correspondence with a reader, would anyone exert time and energy catching an exhausted, depleted resource? Less than 10% of the annual Atlantic salmon run survives for out-migration, and those fish descend in weakened condition. Certainly not optimal specimens for human consumption.

Having witnessed as an angler the behavior of migrating fish on their upstream journey, I felt like I had insight and understanding about spawning-run dynamics. I learned to catch shad swimming in their preferred interior river channels, discovered how water flow and temperature governed runs’ ebbs and flows, and could easily identify their last dance in the sluggish shallows – a circling spawning ritual signaling the end of fishing season. About 50% of the shad run dies, leaving in its wake pungent, bloated reminders for scavengers.

Although I have never observed Atlantic salmon runs, they must have been similar to shad runs, despite fewer numbers and a higher mortality rate. Of course, if Temple can be believed – he offers no sources, and likely was not an outdoorsman – that was a moot point in the Chicopee River watershed above insurmountable Chicopee Falls. Only strong, agile salmon could clear that barrier, eliminating all other Connecticut River fish migrations above there.

I soon pushed to the backburner my impulsive inquiry into weirs designed to catch out-migrating salmon. The place was slightly out of my comfort zone. I could always revisit the topic if the spirit moved me.

That plan soon changed, however, when quite by chance a retired archaeologist friend reached out to me by email, then telephone, to discuss the ancient Indian fishing grounds bordering Montague’s Turners Falls village. Little did he know he was hitting on a hot topic.

His impetus was recent examination of a private, previously unknown, Riverside/Gill Indian artifact collection brought to his attention. When this find stirred his inquisitive juices, he dug out an archaeological “WMECo Site” report he wrote nearly 50 years ago about that Riverside excavation he led. He wanted to compare notes, so to speak.

We have often discussed Connecticut River anadromous fisheries over the years because he knows it’s in my wheelhouse and not his bailiwick. He just wanted to chat about run dynamics. Plus, he was eager to share maps and aerial photos he had found showing two extant Native weirs in the valley: one on the Westfield River, and the other on the – you guessed it! – Chicopee River in Palmer.

The photos showed two manmade, stonewall-like structures spanning the entire width of the streambeds. Both knee-high structures point downstream. The Westfield River example is a wide V. The one in Palmer is a shallow arc. Both of them point downstream and would have held back water under normal flows, forming a pool and presenting a clearable obstacle.

I told my friend I was not familiar with that type of weir. The ones I was familiar with from sketches and photos pointed upstream with mouths inviting fish into tight enclosures and traps for easy harvest with nets, spears, arrows. His downstream-pointing examples made no sense to me as weirs targeting upstream swimmers. Maybe Temple was right.

My friend suggested that such weirs extending across a river and pointed downstream could have forced upstream travelers toward narrow, manmade shoreline channels at both ends, where they could be easily harvested from shore. Other local historians have surmised that Indian fishers stood atop the weirs to take fish with dip-nets, spears and arrows. Perhaps, but smaller, tighter weirs would have been more efficient with higher yields.


Time to search for answers.

The first source I pulled from my bookcase was Stewart’s aforementioned Indian Fishing, which displayed a variety of stonewall-like, V-shaped, stream-fishing obstacles, some equipped with wooden cages, pens, fence posts and lattices positioned beyond the apex to delay fish. I could decipher none pointing downstream.

Next stop was Frank Speck’s classic Penobscot Man, about the lifeways of Maine Indians. There I found information about an important fall American eel fishery that relied on downstream-pointing weirs and traps to intercept out-migration to Bermuda Triangle spawning grounds and death.

Other than that, Harral Ayres’ The Great New England Trail mentioned springtime lamprey-eel fishing by eastern Massachusetts Natives. Then Gordon Day’s classic In Search of New England’s Native Past confirmed the importance of fall eel fishing but didn’t go into detail.

I believe it’s safe to assume that migrating spring lampreys and fall American eels were sought after by indigenous Connecticut Valley inhabitants – even after Three-Sisters, corn-squash-bean farming was adopted around 1,000 AD.

So, what to make of all this confusing information? Was the downstream-pointed weir on the Westfield River constructed to harvest fall, out-migrating American eels? How about the Palmer weir? It couldn’t have been built for fall eels, because Chicopee Falls blocked their way.

Questions remain. Food for thought. More grist for the thought mill.

The Penalty-Box Home Run

March daybreak. Frosty. Spring in the air.

Calm and clear. Brooks rattling – one a soothing roar, the other a gurgling whisper. Endless dawn sky blushing to a soft, warm blue. Soon the glitter of frosted lawns would vanish under the first rays of sun peeking over the eastern horizon.

The perfect setting for an introspective walk around the neighborhood.

I’m not sure what it was near the midpoint of that daily ramble that triggered thoughts of baseball. Probably the season. Maybe sweet, sharp cardinal chirps near and far. Perhaps the invigorating cool air filling my lungs, the exercise revving my heartbeat and circulation. Reminds me of a doctor’s advice in recent years. Discussing my mangled knees, he told me “motion is lotion.” I was living it.

Alone with fleeting thoughts, I flittered back a half-century to my short, undistinguished UMass baseball career, derailed before it blossomed due to misbehavior when it was mostly cool. Walking a quick pace, I went back to places I love to revisit. From indoor Curry Hicks Cage practice and its dim batting cage, to our weeklong spring-training trip to Miami Beach, to Sunshine State incidents that greased my exit skids, and most of all to a dramatic home run that ultimately, if you can imagine, sealed my demise.

The year was 1974, my 21st birthday a few months away. I was fit and fast, strong, sturdy and perilously untamed. Sometimes I wonder how I survived. But here I sit, undaunted and unashamed.

Wild times were in the air in ’74. The Massachusetts drinking age had been lowered to 18 the previous year. Infirmary lines of young college women awaiting birth-control-pill prescriptions were long. Booze and drugs flowed a raging torrent every night of the week. Temptation lurked in every shady campus corner. Young and frisky, I just got caught up in it. My fault. No regrets.

Count me among many voluntary victims of Sixties and Seventies excesses, when barhopping and partying were not only tolerated, but encouraged. So was challenging authority. Now I’m pretty much done with all of it. Except, well, I still tend to buck authority when the situation calls for it.

Though I have for many decades been a storyteller, the tale I’m about to tell has never been told in print. There’s a simple reason. We were sworn to secrecy by our coach, Franklin County’s own Richard “Dick” Bergquist from Orange. He demanded that what had unfolded on our curfew-free final night on South Beach should stay on South Beach. No reason to air our dirty laundry at home.

Till now I have honored his request. But he’s been dead five years and the story can finally be told. Nonetheless, why name my old friends and teammates? Unnecessary.

Our vow to secrecy concerned an unfortunate late-night incident at a strip joint a block or two up Collins Avenue from our beachfront Nautilus Hotel – home to many spunky Big Apple widows living the life with bling and bravado to spare.

On an after-midnight walk back toward the hotel after our final night on the town, my Vietnam-vet teammate and I spotted blinking blue lights and commotion within sight of our hotel. We crossed the street to discover two of our scholarship pitchers – one a senior, the other a freshman – handcuffed and getting loaded into the caged back seat of a cruiser. They were under arrest, on their way to the slammer, and would need bail for release. The charge was drunk and disorderly conduct for vulgar exchanges with a stripper.

A few of our teammates had, like us, found their way to the scene, and we decided to join other teammates in an adjacent bar to ponder strategy. Maybe we could pool what little money we had left to spring our teammates from jail before the coach caught wind of their arrest.

No such luck.

We hadn’t even begun pooling our money before our coach walked through the door with the trainer and a captain. They were rounding up players to escort back to the hotel. I had never seen the coach so angry.

After taking a call from police, he had gone looking for the captains and found one of them passed out on the white, sandy beach beside a cooler, a pile of empties, and two equally inebriated spring-break college coeds. It was a scene straight out of the movie Animal House or Hunter S. Thompson Fear and Loathing debauchery, spiking his ire.

Uh-oh. Crisis mode. The wheels had flown off the wagon.

The first mistake I made was to spend much of the short walk back to our hotel chatting with the coach as only a foolhardy drunk would. Though I don’t remember the conversation, I’m sure it was typical drunken babble that only irritated him. Have you ever been a sober listener to a drunk? I have, and I shudder to think of it.

When we arrived at the hotel, we were ordered to our rooms. The party was over. Coach was ashamed of us. He scheduled an early-morning, pre-sendoff, conference-room meeting before our departure to Miami International Airport. Eight o’clock sharp. “And don’t be a second late!” he barked, before driving one of our rented three-seater station wagons to negotiate the release of his two jailed pitchers.

Coach’s anger hadn’t subsided for our morning meeting. We should be thankful, he warned us, that he didn’t have time to reassemble a roster. Never had he been a party to such unacceptable spring-trip conduct.

I think we returned to Bradley International Airport and Amherst on a Sunday. We had five days of typical cold, windy conditions to prepare for our Saturday home opener against Springfield College at Earl Lorden Field. The Springfield and Northampton newspapers previewing the game and season published a starting lineup for the opener. I was batting fifth and playing right field.

It was to be my first regular-season game in Amherst, delayed a couple of years by injury and other issues too complicated to quickly explain. The wait had been long. I was so psyched that I even went to bed early the night before the game – a rare event.

On the day of the game, I put on uniform No. 12 in the Boyden Gym locker room and walked through the tunnel and on to distant Lorden Field for batting practice and warmups. There the starting lineup was posted on the dugout bat rack, where I discovered my name stricken from the five hole and replaced by a teammate.

My blood boiled. I approached the coach for an explanation. He told me Springfield was going with a righty, so he opted for a left-handed hitter. I couldn’t conceal my anger.

Seething in the dugout for the first pitch, I removed myself from potential conflict by going to the batting cage along the left-field line. I wanted to cool down and take out my frustrations on baseballs delivered by a teammate feeding the JUGS pitching machine. When done tuning my stroke, I returned to the dugout sullen and ready to explode. I felt like I had been done dirty and was hoping for an opportunity to swing the bat.

My chance finally came in the bottom of the seventh inning. Trailing 5-1 with two outs, two runners on base and a lefty reliever on the mound, Bergquist called my name from the third-base coaching box he occupied. He wanted me to hit for the player who’d taken my spot in the original lineup.

Totally focused, I took my stance in the batter’s box, worked the count in my favor, and smoked a waist-high fastball, away, up the right-field power alley. I knew I hit it sweet but wasn’t sure it had enough lift to clear the green, eight-foot, wooden fence. So, thinking triple as I burst out of the batter’s box, I rounded second base at full speed.

Facing Bergquist, he was signaling home run by circling his hand above his head. Time to slow down. It had cleared the fence over the 375-foot sign. As I rounded third base, Bergquist offered me his congratulatory right hand, which I whacked with all my might on my way to teammates awaiting me at the plate.

For all intents and purposes, that glorious moment was the end of my promising UMass career. I was immediately removed from the lineup and handed a seven-game suspension for my defiant “hand-shake.” I had showed him up on center stage, he charged. I finished the season on the roster, but was used sparingly, and could never get comfortable in that unfamiliar role.

I guess it just wasn’t meant to be. School and baseball never mixed well for me.

Season over, I dropped out and took a job as a land surveyor. A year later, I went on the road as a professional fundraiser traveling the land. I returned to college a couple of times, lastly in UMass’ progressive University Without Walls program.

It worked for me.


Punch Brook Revisited

One never knows what peripheral treasures will appear during deed research. This one focuses on new information about a brook I wrote about less than two years ago.

First, a preface.

The brook reference jumped off a deed last week while I was trying to figure out a fascinating Revolutionary War powder horn owned by a friend. This map horn was carried some 250 years ago by a clever Greenfield Meadows soldier and blacksmith. Upon its face is carved a record of the man’s 1777-78 military travels through the Lake George/Lake Champlain corridor along with symbols of war, patriotism, God, Indians and country.

By tugging at many loose threads of inquiry in an effort to understand the carvings from the “Northern Campaign” that won the war for American patriots, I was led straight to a famous Greenfield character with whom I was already quite familiar. Not the owner of the horn, his name was Captain Agrippa Wells (1738-1809) – son of Deerfield’s Dr. Thomas and Sarah Hawks Wells, older brother of Whately’s first minister, Rev. Rufus Wells, and the leader of a Greenfield militia unit that included men from Bernardston and Shelburne.

Capt. Wells was a swashbuckling downtown Greenfield blacksmith. He began his storied military career as a teenaged member of the elite Rogers Rangers of French and Indian War fame. Captured by Native warriors in June 1757 near Lake George, he lived to tell of running the gauntlet with his typical bold, confident spirit.

Almost a generation later, he led local patriots to the 1775 Lexington Alarm. Then, two years later, he took many of the same fighting men to the Lake George/Champlain corridor, where they participated in the battles of Fort Ticonderoga, Bennington, and Saratoga. His fighting spirit still burning hot as he approached 50, Wells then earned a bold star of dishonor in government circles for marching with anti-government insurgents in Shays’ Rebellion.

“Capt. Grip” settled in Leyden – then the Fall Town or Bernardston Gore – after the Revolution and is said to have moved back to Greenfield in 1793, dying there in 1809. His and wife Mehitable Smead’s (1742-1801) gravesite remains unknown, as obviously planned by the rugged individual. Meanwhile, deeds offer no evidence of him buying a Greenfield home for his final years. Perhaps he moved in with a son, a daughter or a friend after selling his Leyden Glen farm.

Enough said about the pugnacious Captain, though. His is an often-told tale. And the time is not yet right to share what I have learned about the fascinating, travelogue powder horn carved and carried by one of his townsman troopers – one who was a generation younger and eventually opposed him during Shays Rebellion. That discussion will have to wait until further discovery is exhausted.

So, let’s move to the brook reference. I stumbled across it in an 18th-century deed conveying a small parcel of upper Greenfield Meadows land from Agrippa Wells to abutter Samuel Stebbins. Written on April 1, 1786 and recorded nearly 20 years later, Stebbins piggybacked onto his Meadows farm a 6 2/3 -acre parcel that “layeth by a brook known by the name of Punch Brook.”

Aha! Finally a clue.

Punch Brook rises from prolific Smead Hill springs just above Greenfield’s northwest corner and runs through a deep ravine to a wetland meadow once owned by the people who built and owned my Upper Meadows home. Once known by anglers as a splendid little trout stream with a never-ending supply of tasty native brook trout, it passes under Green River Road and curls south and east toward its confluence with Hinsdale Brook, across Plain Road from Brookside Animal Hospital.

Because I pass this little stream at two sites along my daily morning walk, I had no trouble understanding the deed. It describes a strip of land across from Martin’s Farm, bordered west by the brook that passes through the Mary Potter Lane/Plumb Tree Lane neighborhood.

Punch Brook has been an interest of mine for most of my 26-year Meadows residence, and was the subject of a June 2022 column cited above. I suppose its most alluring attraction was historians’ speculation that the 1704 Deerfield captives marched to Canada by their Native American captors camped overnight where the stream crossed the old Indian trail east of my home.

It was also a source of personal interest because I was familiar with its upland spring hole from hunting, and am always interested in old squaretail streams. However, one vexing mystery continued to stir my inquisitive juices: When was it named Punch Brook and, better still, why?

I found no answer in histories of Greenfield by Thompson and Willard, or in Sheldon’s History of Deerfield. Nope. Not a hint. Undaunted, I queried neighbors with deeper Meadows roots than mine. Still, nada.

After probing my go-to neighborhood source to no avail, I caught a pleasant couple from across the brook walking past my home one morning. They live in the home the woman grew up in, built about 1950 for her father on the old Poor House lot. As we got to chatting about this and that, I asked her what she knew about Punch Brook, which crosses the road a short distance from her home.

She said she and her sisters played there as kids, and that their late father often mentioned it as a remarkable rivulet that never froze. Bingo! That little speck of information set my wheels awhirl. Was the brook that never froze a neighborhood tradition? Could it have been the impetus for the name Punch Brook, because, like rum punch, it didn’t freeze even in bone-chilling cold?

I went back to my top neighborhood source, who had nothing to add, then questioned a woman whose childhood home bordered the stream and, likewise, nothing new. Neither of them had heard a whisper about the brook that didn’t freeze.

Maybe my original source’s father would have known something, but he’s been in his grave for many years, would be over 100 today. It’s possible that members of old Meadows families who still occupied historic family homes carried the fading tradition well into the 20th century before it vanished. Very possible, yet difficult to substantiate.

Then appeared that Agrippa Wells deed reference concerning family land originally granted to his Deerfield-proprietor father. Yes, there it was, Book 19, Page 381, 1786: Punch Brook. The name was obviously well-known by then, which suggests a much earlier origin that dated back at least to Dr. Thomas Wells (1693-1743).

That brings us back to pre-settlement Upper Meadows days. Who knows? Perhaps even back to the 1704 Deerfield attack and the overnight stay by the captives, who remembered savoring its water in frigid winter darkness. Those captives who survived the perilous northern trek to return may have pointed out the campsite many times in their travels, and told of the spring that flowed freely across the frozen Indian trail. Maybe they said it flowed like rum punch on cold winter nights. Thus, the name Punch Brook that’s recorded on 19th-century maps, and on the 18th-century Wells-Stebbins deed.

Although I cannot be certain, it makes a lot of sense to me.

I wonder what the Indians called it?

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 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, 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 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, 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.


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