Cheapside Uplands and the Hoit Place

I took a recent walk around the Cheapside uplands with old buddy Billy Wardwell, a Bingville native I trusted would know all the little nooks and crannies.

You’d have to know affable “Wardy.” He grew up there. Highland Park was his playground.

We’ve known each other since high school, both from the Class of 1971: he from Greenfield, me South Deerfield. In youth we occasionally crossed paths on our nighttime rambles, and were even Sunday-morning street-hockey teammates, playing on the paved hilltop rink facing the Franklin County Courthouse parking lot and Greenfield YMCA.

Oh, to be young again. Back then I could run. Now battered knees can make walking a challenge.

That day, on a slippery morning track following two days of heavy rains, we parked at 7:30 on a Hope Street pull-over and scaled the power line to the first old road we met. From there, we headed south toward the Cheapside railroad underpass and the old ski jump before circling north, under the power line and toward Bears Den, Sachem Head, and the old Lupinwood mansion. It took over an hour to circle back to where we had first left the power line, at which point we descended to our vehicles.

Along the circuitous way we met several walkers, many with dogs. Some were leashed, others ran free as they’re meant to. On our brief off-trail diversions, through woody brush and over fallen trees, I knew enough to be cautious with each step. It’s easy to slip and break a leg wedged between slimy, prostrate tree trunks on greasy ground. Foot-free romps with wet leaves underfoot can be perilous even for a young whippersnapper, which I ain’t.

I contacted Wardwell after unexpectedly being nudged into Cheapside research by Jim Terapane, president and co-owner of Museum of Our Industrial Heritage, housed in the old Greenfield Steel Stamp building on Mead Street. The mixed brick-and-clapboard former industrial structure stands along the Green River at Greenfield’s historic first mill site, snugged up to the Mill Street bridge.

It was quite by chance that I had bumped into Terapane. On my way out of a bookbinder friend’s home shop in South Deerfield, I just happened to catch him raking his yard across the street. There we ventured into discussion about a boarded-up Greenfield building owned by someone he knew. The building stands on the west side of the Hope and Cheapside streets intersection along the Deerfield River.

That impromptu chat piqued my interest in the unoccupied building, which memory suggested was once a riverside tavern. Uncertain my kneejerk assessment was accurate, I looked into it at home, and was not surprised my memory had failed me. As far as I could learn, it was never a tavern, but rather an old riverside store.

Jonathan Hoit’s White Horse Tavern was around the corner on Deerfield Street. There in 1799 Hoit hung his sign, a white horse on black background, from his “mansion house” that now stands in Deerfield on 46 Old Main Street, Lot No. 25. Deerfield Academy recently purchased the center-chimney property from Fenwick, LLP for a tidy $1.75 million.

The first riverside store was built alongside a toll bridge and shipping dock just before the turn of the 19th century, when Cheapside was growing into an important commercial district. Such surnames as Williams, Wait, Hoit, Houghton, and Abercrombie were merchants there over the early years. The site remained profitable into the mid-19th century when the shipping paradigm went from river to rail.

Situated at an advantageous spot that represented the northern Connecticut River shipping terminus before 1798, when the Turners Falls Canal gave boats and barges access to Bellows Falls, Vermont, Cheapside remained profitable into the mid-19th century, when the shipping paradigm went from river to rail. Then it fell by the wayside as a viable mercantile district, forever changing the neighborhood’s character.

In the modern era, the old store building that once wore a long, extended streetside presence has been separated into two buildings. They stand today on opposite sides of the railroad underpass at the intersection of Hope and Cheapside streets.

Upon immersing myself in Cheapside deeds and families, my focus swiftly changed, moving from the store to the Hoit house, which I did not know was being sold, and the 210 acres on which it stood. Most of the land was originally owned by Hoit’s father-in-law, Samuel Childs.

My stumbling block was unfamiliarity with that upland terrain. It is far too busy these days to attract me in as a walker, and plus, I don’t believe any of the acreage is or ever has in my time been open to hunting, so that eliminates another potential activity that could have drawn me in.

That’s why I chased down Wardy. I knew he could in quick order introduce me to the prominent reference points mentioned in deeds – features like the Point of Rocks, Bears Den, and Sachem Head. I also was confident he’d have something to add about Greenfield’s first golf course, which once stood on the southern end of the parcel, surrounding the stately, hilltop multi-apartment house standing there today. In my earlier days, that building on the hill facing Cheapside Bridge was known as Hopecrest Manor.

Hoit was from Deerfield, the younger brother of wig-maker and tavernkeeper David Hoyt and the uncle of author Epaphras Hoyt, both of whom used what has become the accepted spelling of the surname. For some reason, Jonathan preferred the earlier spelling. So that’s what we’ll go with here: Hoit.

The Hoit “mansion house” on Deerfield Street came with a big barn and other outbuildings and stood elevated on a low terrace supported by a roadside concrete retaining wall across the street from Dave Samal’s old Mohawk Meadows Golf Course. The floodplain meadow, bordered south by the Deerfield River and west by the Green, was once a Native American artifact-collectors’ paradise, not to mention fertile tillage that produced for mid-19th-century owner David Reed Wait some of the finest tobacco money could buy.

By 1964, the dwelling had fallen into disrepair. So, Johnny-on-the-spot South Deerfield building contractor William Gass disassembled it rebuilt it in Old Deerfield. By November 1966 he had completed his very own interpretation, then known as the First Church of Deerfield’s parsonage.

Today the building, situated between Memorial and Wells streets, stands as a shining example of colonial architecture. It’s painted yellow with white trim that highlights fancy architectural embellishments. Old Deerfield is better for it, Cheapside worse for the loss of an important, historic building. Though, remember, Cheapside was part of Deerfield until 1896.

Had not Jim Terapane innocently nudged me into Cheapside research, I may have never discovered the story of the Hoit house. Moving it was a much-publicized project at the time, but the event seems to have faded from collective memory. I’m thankful for being led to it, and for other discoveries made along the way, starting with locating the exact location of the old 8,000-acre line that separated Greenfield and Deerfield until the 1896 annexation. Formerly led to believe the town line was much closer to the Meridian Street Bridge, I found that it was almost 700 feet north of that point.

Yet there’s still much to learn about Cheapside. You’ve got Col. William Moore’s seven-story, late-18th-century commercial building along the Green River, the neighboring Franklin Furnace, and William Wait and Benjamin Swan’s cooper shop down the road. Also worthy of additional study are the likes of Isaac Abercrombie, Moses Bascom, William Wilson, Samuel Pierce, Hezekiah Goff, David Wells, John Russell, and many others – all historical figures who contributed to Greenfield’s identity as an important commercial and industrial center.

So, stay tuned, and be patient. Expanding the historical record can and must be a slow, tedious process governed by the solemn commitment to avoid irresponsible, inaccurate information that’ll be repeated for decades.

Such information is inevitable and unfortunate, and only obscures the path to truth.

Wenner Book Stirs Memories

I really enjoy reading a book I connect to – one that, because it spins me into continuous reflection and reminiscence, I can’t put down.

Jann Wenner’s memoir, Like a Rolling Stone, is such a read, pulling me back to high school, college, and parts of five decades working for a small-town daily newspaper in a place I know.

In case Wenner doesn’t ring a bell, he is the founder of Rolling Stone magazine (RS), which began as a rock and roll journal and became much, much more – a New Journalism bible that gave creative voices like Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Joe Eszterhas, Tim Cahill, William Greider, Joan Didion, and many more a place to play.

Wenner’s 554-page tour de force chronicles RS’s evolution to a media empire valued in the hundreds of millions. It hit the street in September. By the time I purchased a copy online in November, it was in its third printing. The work of a fellow Baby Boomer seven years my senior, I found it to be a quick, captivating read. I suppose that goes without saying, considering that I came of age with the magazine in the mid-Sixties and Seventies and have not missed an issue as a lifetime subscriber since the early Eighties. Plus, we share the same political bedrock.

What I already knew about Wenner was that he sold RS five years ago, and that its print edition has been scaled back to make way for a 24-hour online feed that’s not covered by my lifetime subscription. That I deciphered from catching breaking, cable-TV news alerts attributed to RS that never found their way into the monthly print edition. Thus far, I have resisted the impulse to purchase a $4.99-per-month online subscription.

There were, however, a few things I didn’t know before opening the book. Not one to read supermarket exposé rags, People magazine, or metro newspaper gossip columns, or watch the likes of Inside Edition on TV, I was not aware that Wenner was gay. Nearing 50 in 1995, he finally “came out” by leaving his wife and three young children for a young boy-toy model, with whom he had three more children. I was also unaware that he had been at death’s door due to a heart attack five years ago.

Wenner’s book took me on an evocative ride through my own life journey, starting with my peach-fuzzed teen years. Just a 14-year-old Frontier Regional School freshman for RS’s inaugural October 17, 1967 issue, I can’t claim to have read or even known of its existence back then. Yeah, it’s possible there were a few college-town copies kicking around in Amherst/Northampton record stores – but, if so, I didn’t see them. My hunch is that it took a year or more for the old two-fold, biweekly tabloid to gain wide Happy Valley circulation.

Not so in the Flower-Power neighborhood of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, then the home of Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Grace Slick and Janis Joplin, to name but a handful of its musicians. RS was published and widely available in the Hippie Bay Area from the start.

Some 3,000 miles east, I had just entered my freshman year of high school, living a stone’s throw across Bloody Brook from the South Deerfield school. It was a transition year of sorts for me. Some of my friends and classmates had left public school for Deerfield Academy. Then a staid boys’ prep school of blue blazers, Oxford shirts, khakis, and wing-tips or shined penny loafers, it was no place for anyone agog with Sixties activism and cultural revolution.

A couple of years earlier, when I entered Frontier junior high in 1965, upperclassmen were scheming to challenge to the school’s draconian dress code. As I recall, males were prohibited from wearing their hair below the collar, sideburns past mid-ear, or beards and mustaches, while jeans, bellbottoms, T-shirts, and sandals were also taboo. The fairer sex was limited to skirts and dresses covering the knees, with slacks and shorts prohibited. There was no room for the chic miniskirt and earthy braless look of the day.

As winter faded to spring, hallway whispers of a protest were abuzz. The plan was to organize an en masse dress-code-violation day. When this day of defiance arrived and drew overwhelming support, the wheels of change were flicked into motion, and it wasn’t long before the school committee adopted a more liberal dress code.

That is not to suggest there wasn’t strong opposition from conservative, law-and-order types. No, in fact, full-throated disagreement was persistent from Goldwater men my father privately, in the comforts of home, called “John Birchers.” Of a reactionary, flag-waving, love-it-or-leave-it persuasion, these “patriots” wailed about inmates running the asylum.

Reading Wenner brought it all back to me in living color, deeply stirring my memory juices.

That right-wing clamor only got louder when, fueled by opposition to the Vietnam war, the drinking age was lowered from 21 to 18. The justification was that teens drafted for foreign wars should not have been deemed by law too young to buy spirituous liquor. Again, there were strong arguments on both sides of that issue, but liberals eventually prevailed and the drinking age was lowered.

This new freedom, coupled with release of a new, easily accessible birth-control pill, unleashed a raucous, Roaring Twenties-like scene that lasted about a decade on college campuses across the land. Then, with Vietnam far in the rearview, Reagan steering the ship of state, and college campuses running amuck, Mothers Against Drunk Driving banged the drinking-age drum back to 21.

With its trademark leftist lean, RS jumped into all those battles and many more. The biweekly rock and roll periodical became the voice of the young, taking courageous stands on civil rights, abortion, birth control, marijuana, LSD, and women’s lib, while covering the crushing 1968 assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King and condemning the National Guard murders of Kent State antiwar protesters.

RS also warned of dire consequences relating to the re-emergence of Richard M. Nixon, who welcomed George Wallace’s segregationist Dixiecrats into the GOP to narrowly defeat Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election. Yes, Martha, that was the genesis of our current Republican Party, now the voice of the South and white nationalism headquartered at Mar-a-Lago.

Though introduced to an occasional RS issue in the late Sixties, I didn’t become a devoted reader until my college years of the early Seventies. That’s when I had the good fortune of meeting UMass Professor Howard Ziff – the former Chicago Daily News night editor who grew up in Holyoke and graduated from Amherst College. Soon after we met, he told me he remembered playing football against my dad.

Ziff and I arrived at UMass in 1971. Holyoke friend David M. Bartley, then a state rep, had recruited him to establish a Journalism Department at UMass’ Amherst flagship. Talk about being at the right place, right time – I had a front-row seat.

Working his city newsroom on the periphery, Ziff had witnessed the ugly Chicago Democratic National Convention of 1968 and was deeply disturbed by what he viewed as misleading, whitewashed news coverage of the riotous police brutality that unfolded. Disillusioned with the mainstream media as a result, he ended his newspaper career and landed in Amherst, where I found him. Looking back, I find it disheartening that never in my travels did a meet another journalist worthy of the respect I hold for him. He was head and shoulders above the rest. I feel fortunate to have met him, and only wish I could have worked for such a man.

Ziff was a pre-24/7-cable-news and pre-Internet visionary who strongly believed the future of print news was New Journalism. He called it RS style and fed us a steady diet of Thompson, Wolfe, Eszterhas, Didion and many other “New News” pioneers. A Dickens and Orwell scholar, he also gave us a good dose of those iconic British writers considered by him to be the fathers of New Journalism, their creative non-fiction way ahead of its time.

He believed that “objective,” cream-of-wheat AP Style reporting was passé and already starting to chase away some newspaper readers. He believed modern, educated readers wanted more pizzazz from bold, creative voices willing to take positions on important issues with an entertaining voice. Conservative mainstream news editors stuck in their old ways didn’t buy it, and I got a good taste of such dandruff-specked, out-of-touch dinosaurs in my own newsroom.

There, pasted on the office wall of an editor and teacher through whose desk all local copy passed, was a bold, 84-point warning that read, “NO ADJECTIVES!” Imagine that. This from a man born within days of me and educated at another New England university. That boldface office sign condemning adjectives as enemies was a disqualifier in my world, and I craftily avoided the man for more than 30 years until it became impossible.

Before I retired, this man displayed his true socio-political colors during the daily editor’s meeting held in his office. There he told of his brother – I want to say older – who had retired to South Carolina to flee the Massholes flocking to his Granite State. Oh my! No wonder we had irreconcilable differences about news gathering and style.

Old habits die hard, even when the handwriting was on the wall and newspapers across the land, including ours, were hemorrhaging readers at an alarming rate to TV and Internet news. Tired of objective AP Style with many online options available, sophisticated readers peeling off in new directions. On their way out the door, they snickered aloud pondering when newspaper climate-change stories would stop auto-inserting the annoying caveat that some scientists do not believe in human culpability.

Wenner the innovator filled the niche and reaped riches. His memoir brought it all home to me, and then some, in one tidy package. I found validating his defense of RS style, and fascinating his reminiscence of difficult professional exchanges with Hunter Thompson – high priest of Gonzo Journalism and perhaps the all-time best chronicler of presidential campaigns. Read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 if you doubt me. It’s a classic: Essential HST.

Having read and remembered most of the landmark stories Wenner cites in his memoir gave me personal insight into the dynamics, as did working simultaneously for my entire full-time newspaper career in a smalltime newsroom not nearly as interesting or “with it” as his.

I highly recommend the book to anyone north of 60, and would encourage younger readers to give it an open-winded shot. RS and New Journalism was a product of the idealistic Sixties, and everyone, young, old and in between – even Reagan Revolutionaries – would be better off with a little nibble.

 

Lost Turkey Day Tradition

An empty, sun-splashed Veterans Memorial Field unleashed a flood of holiday memories in passing on Thanksgiving morning as I took a spin around Greenfield hunting for a bottle of cognac.

No, no, no, I didn’t need a snooty holiday eye-opener. I’m way past that. The impetus was a YouTube turkey-gravy recipe my wife wanted to try. It called for corn starch instead of flour, with a final splash of the flavorful French brandy into the steaming mix of roasting-pan drippings and boiled-potato water.

She showed me the video on her phone, knew we had no cognac, but didn’t seem concerned. To her, it was optional. We could live without it. But, with the turkey in the oven and nothing better to do at the moment, I was game for a quick search.

“I think package stores are open on Thanksgiving,” I offered, lifting my keychain from its hook on an overloaded panel of old keys attached to the side of a kitchen cabinet.

Not so.

My first stop was Ryan & Casey. Closed. Not a good sign.

Undaunted, I continued east on Main Street and took a left up Federal Street to check a hole-in-the-wall “packie” I thought may be open for holiday business. Nope.

That’s when I circled back to my Meadows neighborhood via Silver Street and Nash’s Mill Road and, not yet willing to throw up the white flag upon returning to Colrain Road, doubled back to Big Y. Uh-uh. Closed.

Oh well. We would have to settle for lesser gravy. Can’t say I didn’t try.

When I returned home empty-handed, my wife, curious, went to her phone for online clarification. Maybe package stores opened in the afternoon. That’s when we learned Thanksgiving is one of two Massachusetts holidays when “packies” are closed. The other is Christmas.

Oh well. Like they say in Chicopee Falls, nothing ventured, nothing gained. It goes to show how out of touch I am these days regarding matters of, uhm… imbibement. I must have been thinking of bars – I know they’re open on Turkey Day.

My brief Vet’s Field sighting during the fruitless journey through ghostly quiet Greenfield triggered a string of thought that wouldn’t quit. It brought me back to the sidelines, the newsroom, my 40 years on the Greenfield Recorder’s sports staff – the last 32 as sports editor. The sports-editor job called for hiring and supervising staff, coordinating coverage and photo assignments, choosing content, editing copy, and packaging it all in a daily three- to five-page sports section. My focus was always the local sports scene – especially the high school teams composed of local kids whose parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles, and neighbors subscribed to the paper. But the mundane community stuff was worth chasing, too.

My belief from the beginning was that local news sells. Wire stuff not so much, particularly after 24/7 cable news, Google, and cell phones joined the dynamic.

Thanksgiving week was one of our busiest times; that, and production of the spring and fall sports supplements – special 12-page sections which, truth be told, were nothing more than clever, revenue-building advertising schemes.

On Turkey Day the focus was placed squarely upon traditional holiday high school football rivalries between a pair of cross-river rivals – Greenfield vs. Turners Falls and Athol vs. Orange (now Mahar Regional School). Then, late in my tenure, two other “rivalries” were added to the holiday mix, which only complicated the coverage strategy and, in my opinion, cluttered the pre-game layout packages with superfluous baggage.

Who, sitting in my seat back then, would have in their wildest imagination predicted that one of those much-anticipated holiday games, the annual Greenfield-Turners Turkey Day clash, would fizzle and die? It seemed inconceivable. But that’s exactly where we sit today, and that’s why the sight of that vacant green gridiron in a silent town stirred my introspective juices.

As far back as I can remember, Thanksgiving began with the morning Greenfield-Turners game – first as a young boy with my father, who once played for Greenfield, then as a high school student from a neighboring school, and finally as a sportswriter working the sidelines before scrambling to write a story and get home for the holiday feast we always hosted.

At the Recorder, the week leading up to the game was always hectic, with coverage to coordinate, stories to write, copy to read, and graphics packages to build and/or update. The best thing about it was that I could see light at the end of the tunnel, with my annual vacation for deer season staring me in the face. I’d cover the game, write the story, and put the newsroom in my rearview: first for a couple of weeks, then three, and then, once I reached 20 years of employment, for a solid month of rest and relaxation.

I’d speed home and walk into a festive, aromatic holiday atmosphere – turkey and casseroles in the oven, pies and pastries on the counters, hot coffee in the carafe, and the Detroit Lions losing on the TV.

The Turkey Day football games were also festive affairs, an annual gathering place for townspeople, including former players and classmates home for the holiday from faraway places. The parking lot would be stuffed as fans streamed toward the crowded gate, creating a gameday buzz with evidence of whiskey-breath (and -voice) detectable in the cool fall air.

The roar of the fired-up teams exiting their locker rooms would signal that the game was near. Then came the playing of the bands, the sounds of the tuba and bass drum, the cheerleaders, the PA announcer, the players grunting and groaning in cadence through warm-ups leading up to the National Anthem and kickoff crescendo. Even when the game was boring and one-sided, as they often were, the pregame buzz, the atmosphere, and the conversations were worth the price of admission.

Greenfield was dead this year on my Turkey Day spin around town, and it was palpable. Remarkably so. Perhaps that’s what first jostled my wheels of reminiscence into motion, before the empty football field revved them up to a shrill scream.

So, who was the best player I ever watched play in the Greenfield-Turners games? That’s easy. Peter Bergeron, hands down. In fact, I’d rate him a better, more impactful high school football player than even Mark Chmura, the Frontier Regional School standout who starred at Boston College and won an NFL Super Bowl as a Green Bay Packers tight end.

Bergeron was a speedy, elusive quarterback who was, frankly, unstoppable. Even when he appeared to be hopelessly trapped behind the line of scrimmage, he had the uncanny ability to wiggle free for big gains. He was one incredible high-school football player and probably would have been a good college player as well if had had chosen that path.

Instead, Bergeron chose baseball and was, a few short years after high school graduation, patrolling center field and batting leadoff for the Montreal Expos. Five years and 308 games later, his run was over, proving once again the fleeting nature of extraordinary athletic accomplishments.

I recently spoke to Bergeron for the first time in some 25 years. He and his dad, who I knew before he was born, delivered a load of seasoned cordwood to the sliding woodshed door in my backyard barn alcove. It was good, dry cordwood that had been stacked for nearly a year, difficult to find these days unless you split and stack it yourself.

The kid, now a big-league scout, looked great. Fit and sharp. Now 45 years old, he lives in Greenfield, is married, has three children. It’s hard to imagine. Time flies. Seems like yesterday he was lurking around the bench and the guys during his dad’s Mohawk Men’s League softball games at Cricket Field.

It’s also hard to imagine that a simple holiday spin around town and past an empty football field stained by lost tradition could trigger such a rich string of retrospection. It got me thinking, probing, lamenting; allowing my wheels to scream.

No cognac, no game, no problem.

Memories carried me through it.

 

The Brooks Brook Conundrum

A new player recently entered my orbit, temporarily reorienting my focus about 10 miles north. Her name is Andrea Liebenow Varney, daughter of my late neighbor and friend, Sylvia Smead Gallagher.

Three years younger than me, Varney grew up and graduated from high school in Greenfield, and has lived for decades in Proctor, Vermont. She is particularly proud of her mother’s Smead lineage that links her to the original proprietors of Deerfield and its Green River district, now Greenfield. Which is precisely what led her to me – well, that and my newspaper ramblings, and my friendship with her mom.

Sylvia was a Greenfield Meadows native who grew up on a dairy farm that burned in 1957 and died with her parents. When we met as neighbors sometime in 1997, she was a retired Pioneer Valley Regional School English teacher. She often stopped to chat in passing on her daily walks with a friend through the Upper Meadows. It was at her encouragement that I joined her for two terms on the Greenfield historical commission.

Varney reached out to me around Labor Day, leaving telephone and email messages. She was scrambling to complete a book started by her mother about the Greenfield Smeads. Her mother, who died at 88 in 2015, had been determined to finish the crowning achievement about her family’s historic landholdings. Now Andrea is tunnel-visioned to complete the job.

She thought maybe I could help her with old deeds, especially obsolete place names and landscape features. More than anything else, she was seeking geographical orientation to help her place old Smead land. Having left Greenfield 40 years ago, her intimacy with the Franklin County landscape was not sharp.

Little did she know that, by dumb luck, she had tapped the right vein. Having been immersed in old land records myself since the COVID crisis broke, I understood many issues she was battling. Some of the same hurdles had confronted me when researching old deeds from Deerfield, Greenfield and East Whately.

Plus, I harbor a personal interest in the upper Greenfield Meadows, where I own a historic home on property first owned by important Deerfield proprietor Mehuman Hinsdale (1673-1736), followed by his son Samuel (1708-1786) and his namesake son and grandson. The moniker “Samuel Hinsdale place” has thus been permanently attached to my property.

The Hinsdales were prolific early Deerfield landowners. Mehuman, Deerfield’s first-born English child, owned more land at the time of his death – 5,600 acres – than anyone in his community. The Smeads were also among the top handful of Deerfield landowners. Plus they were connected to the Upper Meadows Hinsdales by marriage and abutting properties. So, of course, I was game to Ms. Varney’s endeavor.

In fact, not long before we met on the phone, I had already tinkered with some old Green River deeds centered on East Main Street and my own neighborhood. Cursory research led to Hinsdale, Brooks, Stockwell, Denio, Allen, Wells, and Willard genealogical refreshers as well.

Ms. Varney’s plea for help awakened this latent research, and ultimately helped me untangle a vexing snag I had put on temporary hold. Preoccupied by South Deerfield and East Whately, I hadn’t wanted to get distracted elsewhere, and when an interesting Green River puzzle arose, I had flicked it aside till winter.

Well, it didn’t quite play out that way. Thanks to Ms. Varney’s dogged determination, we’ve already untangled that key snag – one focused on a four-century-old dividing line between the upper and lower Green River meadow lands.

The tangle goes back to Deerfield pioneers Quintin Stockwell and William Brooks – two important 17th-century Meadows landowners with land about a mile down the road from me – and to Meadows deed references to “Brooks Brook” and “Brooks Plain,” names stricken from the local vernacular centuries ago. Stockwell died in 1714, some 30 years after moving to Connecticut where he is buried. Brooks died in 1688, but some of his children stuck around for the long haul. Greenfield split off from Deerfield in 1753.

Late 19th– and early 20th-century local historians and friends George Sheldon (History of Deerfield, 1895) and Francis McGee Thompson (History of Greenfield, 1904) agree that Stockwell owned the northernmost Lower Meadows lot, and that it was abutted north by Brooks, owner of the southernmost Upper Meadows lot. That establishes where the Lower Meadows ended and the Upper Meadows began. Between their two 20-acre parcels ran a then-unnamed brook first known as Brooks Brook.

Though Sheldon doesn’t try to explicitly define the brook between those two early properties, Thompson does. He claims it’s the stream we know as Hinsdale Brook. That is an unfortunate mistake that has survived and been repeated through the modern day.

In fact, judging from several clear references to the stream flowing between the Stockwell and Brooks lots, Brooks Brook is now known as Allen Brook. Hinsdale Brook forms the northern boundary of my own Upper Meadows property three-quarters of a mile up the road, where there’s not a whiff of evidence that Brooks or Stockwell ever lived or owned property.

There is, however, a caveat that helps to justify Thompson’s error. An 1843 flood he cites significantly rerouted Hinsdale Brook to today’s straight channel from within sight of my home to the Green River. Let me explain:

Hinsdale Brook flows some four miles from the western hills of East Shelburne and East Colrain to the Green River, pulling in several sparkling upland springs along the way. Before 1843, the stream passed my house at the base of Smead Hill and took a sharp southern turn maybe 200 yards downstream. From there it followed Colrain Road south, hugging the eastern perimeter of the North Meadows Cemetery before leaning gently east for less than a mile to its old confluence with Green River. Near the end, Allen Brook joined it for a short final run to the Green River.

The 1843 flood overwhelmed a sharp southern elbow downstream from my home and cut a new channel straight to the Green River. Today, just before passing under the Plain Road bridge at the Brookside Animal Hospital, Hinsdale Brook pulls in tiny Punch Brook, a spring stream whose wide, deep channel it seized for a final, short run to the Green River. The confluence is a half-mile upstream from the old one.

The old course of the Meadows’ dominant Green River tributary is shown clearly on the 1871 Beers Atlas map of Greenfield, as well as topo and wall maps that used the same pre-1843 prototype which remained the standard for at least 50 years. Newer maps, of course, reflect the change.

Varney’s collective neighborhood memory told her that the Upper Meadows began around Allen Brook, and that was also my understanding. Thus the confusion surrounding Thompson’s Brooks Brook miscue, which wouldn’t have fit even following its historic, old course.

Interpreting old land records can be a difficult chore, and Thompson got burned by it, or unwisely accepted information he should have pondered. In his defense, Brooks and Hinsdale brooks would not have been named when the Brooks and Stockwell properties were granted. The names came later, and complicating matters even more, Brooks Brook became Allen Brook long before Sheldon or Thompson were born. Nonetheless, Thompson has no excuse. He lived for many decades in the neighborhood where his wife was born. He should have known better.

When I first stumbled upon the Thompson error, I accepted it without further investigation. I figured he’d know. That was my mistake. Yet I knew something was out of whack and suspected it had to be related to Hinsdale Brook’s 1843 change of course. But, being focused on other people and places at the time, I didn’t view it as an urgent matter. I created a file for future reference. It could wait till winter.

Varney was of a different opinion. To her, resolving that snag was of the highest-priority. She needed an immediate determination before she could accurately plot adjacent Smead landholdings. After an intense round of research, her victorious, late-night email to me proclaimed with bold certainty that the border stream in question had to be Allen Brook. Her bold claim set off a string of emails that ended with us in total agreement.

I have since then read the Deerfield town record granting Stockwell 20 acres of his choosing from Green River meadow lands. The grant settled a debt for boarding Deerfield’s first minister, Reverend Samuel Mather, who was here for the infamous 1675 Bloody Brook ambush and gone by 1680.

Sheldon says the Stockwell lot was granted in 1684, which doesn’t jive with the 1694 document published by Thompson. That’s irrelevant. What matters most is that the town record locates the lot’s northern boundary lying “upon the Hill on the north side of the Brook that comes out of the great Ash swamp.”

That headwater swamp still exists off Route 2, up the hill near Kenburne Orchards and a moccasin store. The hill named as the northern boundary also survives, supporting the long-abandoned Gorge Road to Shelburne across Colrain Road from Dennis Menard’s farm. The glaring difference is that Hinsdale Brook no longer passes anywhere near that neighborhood.

By the time of Brooks’s 1688 death, he had purchased Stockwell’s lot, giving him 40 contiguous acres straddling the yet-unnamed Allen Brook. Although there’s no deed recording that transaction, it is noted in the 1740 deed conveying the property from Brooks’s sons, Ebenezer and Nathaniel, to Thomas Bardwell. Thus, the names “Brooks Brook” and “Brooks Plain,” which appear to have been obsolete before 1900.

My final assessment is this: The stream recognized as a border between the Upper and Lower Meadows is today named Allen Brook, not Hinsdale. The stream wouldn’t have been named until after Ebenezer Wells, Jr., bought the old Brooks lot in 1748 and established residence. At about the same time, Amos Allen bought and established residence on the old, south-abutting Stockwell lot.

The historic Allen and Wells dwellings still stand proudly on the west side of Colrain Road. There they are associated with the Allen and Wells families, not the Stockwells or Brookses. The southern property was best known in the 20th century as Holland Farm.

So, there you have it – setting the record straight about a confusing streamside rats’ nest that needed focused teamwork to unravel.

 

Colonial Roots Are Shallow Indeed

What does it mean to be connected to a place, to have a sense of a place… and how does it change over time?

I pondered that question during a recent daybreak walk along the shoulder of a lonely, gray, Upper Meadows road in Greenfield. Since then the thought has reappeared, darting through my consciousness like one of those gray squirrels, tail raised high, that darts out in front of your car, comes to sudden halt, and scoots back in the nick of time to live another day.

The impetus for that initial thought may have been the frosty air entering my nostrils. It cooled my throat, expanded my lungs, revved my gait, and got my wheels spinning.

Down the road a piece, the fluid thought train only intensified. Running a bit late as I turned west for the homestretch, I was greeted by flaming orange maples illuminated along the western ridge by the first rays of sun peeking over the eastern horizon. Ten or 15 minutes makes a huge difference at that time of day.

What a glorious sight. Right place, right time. It so moved me that the thought lingered all the way home and reappeared throughout the morning and sporadically over ensuing days.

I suppose at the root of it all was the deed research in which I’ve been hopelessly immersed for the past three years, ever since the COVID scare began. Piecing together the genesis of South Deerfield, my path has also meandered through East Whately, Greenfield, and Montague, all connected by the same founding families, from some of which – Arms, Allen, Allis, Catlin, Hawks, and Williams – I descend. What better way to occupy a retired man’s time and energy than exploring land records dating back to the beginning of Franklin County’s colonial settlement?

Thanks to 21st-century digitization, these records can now be reviewed in the comforts of home. What a grand luxury. A far cry better than passing through courthouse metal detectors to page through large, cumbersome volumes in the Registry of Deeds library.

But be forewarned: home deed research can become an obsession. The problem is that one search leads to another, all of them with dangling threads of inquiry to pull and see what unravels. And that’s just the half of it, leaving out entirely all the unexpected “peripherals” leading down into enticing rabbit holes.

Newbies will struggle to lean how to navigate through the online database, but once that’s accomplished, it’s all downhill and captivating.

I suppose diligent researchers who pursue all leads could be in danger of learning far more than they need to know. But, really, is that possible? Can one ever learn too much about anything?

Late, esteemed English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead would say no. He favored focused, specialized learning over a liberal education that bombards students with a little bit of everything. In his classic essay The Aims of Education, he dropped a critical hammer on modern education by opining that “a merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth.”

Those who favor the modern standard of a well-rounded liberal education and standardized testing will likely take issue with Whitehead’s assessment, but the line has stuck with me since reading it five decades ago as a student under UMass journalism professor Howard Ziff. Or maybe it was philosophy prof Robert Paul Wolff. Not certain. One or the other.

It’s not that Whitehead couldn’t tolerate an introductory liberal education for elementary students. He just believed that specialization must be the goal, and that it can’t come too soon. That’s where he bucked modern educational trends.

Which circles us back to the sense-of-place narrative: that is, choosing a place to inhabit – and learning everything there is to know about it.

I remember well my days on the road as a professional fundraiser, living briefly in strange places I did not know. Having grown up isolated in small-town South Deerfield and gone to college in nearby Amherst, I was ready to explore new places. Life on the road was exciting at first, but then became disorienting. It was six weeks here and six weeks there, with interesting stops in Colorado, Wyoming, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Delaware, New Jersey, and all over southern New England.

Those were wild times for a young, single man speeding the interstates to new places and living out of a suitcase in Sheratons, Holiday Inns and worse. I ate in restaurants, drank in bars, and felt like an outsider. I spoke a slightly different dialect than the locals and most often felt like a rudderless ship navigating swirling, unfamiliar waters. I eventually tired of the destructive lifestyle and returned home, marrying my current spouse in 1979.

Before I tied the knot, I quit the fundraising game and took a temporary job as a laborer for the Montague DPW. Then I got a break when my Uncle Ralph called me from his second home in Charlemont. He knew I had studied journalism and wondered if I wanted to get my foot in the door at the Greenfield Recorder – a classic who-you-know, not-what-you-know job opportunity.

It just so happened that the Recorder editor of the day spent a lot of time at my uncle’s Berkshire East ski chalet, and was looking for a part-time sportswriter. My uncle promised he could plug me into the job if I wanted it. The rest is history. I worked in that newsroom for 40 years until retirement, working my way up the ladder as far as I dared.

The pay was meager, the hours chaotic, the holidays few. My first full-time sportswriter paycheck was 185 bucks a week – less than I made as a DPW laborer, and a lot less than I made on a good day as a fundraiser. No lie. But at least I was home in a place that I knew and wanted to know better. That was important to me, and that’s why I stayed, bought two homes, and raised a family here. I didn’t want to bounce around from paper to paper, city to city for more money. Been there, done that. Place was important to me.

By the time I rose to sports editor in 1986, a position I held until my 2018 retirement, I was probably best known for my weekly column, On The Trail, which appeared each Thursday. Its backbone was hunting and fishing, but its soul was local history and place. Think of it: how do you separate place and local history from topics like flora and fauna, woods and waters, fish and wildlife restorations, hunting harvests, stocking reports and fish migrations, cellar holes and decaying maple-sugar camps on abandoned roads? Truth is, it can’t be done. Not if it’s done right.

So here I sit, retired and still writing about the same stuff, now for a weekly paper in the same general community. Over the years I’ve read thinkers like Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and many others who believe in place-based living and narrative. They all advocate setting roots in a place, and spending a lifetime learning about it. That means wading its rivers, braving its swamps, walking its faded trails, following its stone walls, walking its ridgelines – and always paying heed to the whispering winds.

Deed research has only deepened my understanding of this place, while strengthening my personal connections through my father’s gene pool. His ancestors and mine were here in the Connecticut Valley for the first wave of colonial settlement. Of that, I have been proud for decades, and less so about my maternal grandmother’s ancient Acadian roots in Nova Scotia, which, to me, is still foreign ground.

Now, a sobering fact – one that speaks to the temporal insignificance of colonial settlement here. Franklin County deeds only date back some 350 years. That’s at least 12,000 years after Native Americans arrived here.

No matter how you slice it, that’s a harsh reality. On those terms, I am reduced to a mere squatter – a clueless brother from another mother who will never understand this place like they did.

Hunter’s Moon Daybreak Buck

Born a Cancer moon child on the last day of June, I am deeply influenced by full moons.

How many times have I, on my way home from an eventful night – be they good, bad or just, plain peculiar – noticed a bright full moon illuminating the after-midnight sky and thought, “Why, of course, I should have known…”?

This narrative is based on one of those, spawned of lunar influence even though our most recent full moon was, at time of the occurrence, hidden deep behind cloud cover. It was a totally appropriate sighting driven by the Hunter’s Moon. A powerful force minus somber moonlight and the long, soft shadows it casts.

There was nothing remarkable about that morning’s start. After lying there awhile in dark silence, thinking, listening, I heard a car from the western hills pass from Brook Road. It told me the downstairs tall clock would soon strike six.

It gets light late these days – too late for early risers. Frankly, Daylight Savings can’t come soon enough for me. Not complaining. Just saying. Daybreak walkers like me are vulnerable hoofing dark roadways.

On my way to the fan-stairs leading down through a closed stair closet to the front door, I peered out a south window to the dark front yard, which appeared to wear a frosty glaze. Hmmm? Our first autumn frost?

I’d know the answer as soon as I got out there for my daily two-mile walk around the sleeping neighborhood. A robust pace completes the task in half an hour. Not bad, I guess, for a battered old warhorse with many dings and dents. At this point, not far off from a demolition-derby rig or glue horse.

My agenda before exiting the house includes a few essential chores, mostly directed at the woodstove. First, I open its damper and door on my way to the kitchen for two anti-inflammatory Ibuprofens. Then, properly medicated in modern American tradition, it is back to the stove to remove spent ash and build the first hot fire of the day – one that removes any potential overnight creosote buildup.

By the time I return from my brisk walk, the fire will be booming to a temperature above 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Then I’ll add a couple of bigger chunks and allow them to fully ignite before closing the damper to a controlled, soapstone burn I manage throughout the day.

Maintaining a good, efficient wood fire has become a lost art – one I still take great pride in.

By the time I stepped outside to walk, it was just after 6 and still dark under overcast skies. A barred owl was hooting from the western woods. Another answered from the north. Not unusual: Owl hooting is common where I live. Those familiar with barred owls know their cadence well: “Who cooks the stew, who cooks for you awwlllllll.” Gotta love it. As a turkey hunter, I huffed that identical call from a hollow, wooden owl-hooter to start toms gobbling from the roost.

Outside, I discovered that dull glaze on the lawn was, indeed, our first frost. Not a hard, crunchy killer-frost, but surely hard and crunchy enough in some pockets to kill uncovered tomatoes and peppers. Even at that point, I cannot say I was aware of a full moon. Had it been there, it would have been embedded as a first and lasting impression. I never miss a full moon. Clouds must have rolled in overnight.

It was still dark as I crossed the bridge over Hinsdale Brook and leaned a hard right with Green River Road, barred owls still saluting the new day. I soon passed three dying soft maples with notices posted on their trunks. I had seen the signs the previous day, but couldn’t read them from the road. This time, curious, I walked right up to the third one and could read “Tree Removal Hearing” in big, bold, black 60-point letters.

Interesting, I thought – maybe the town’s going to remove them. Seems whenever I need a tree work I pay through the teeth. I must be doing something wrong… and getting taxed to death in a town known for its high residential rates…

On my daybreak walks, I often bump into wildlife. In recent weeks I have encountered a doe and her two fawns several times, crossing the road through people’s yards along Punch Brook. It’s all about timing. The first time I saw them it was too dark to tell what they were, but I suspected deer from the movement. Since then, I’ve seen them four or five times at the same crossing, clearly the same three deer heading to beds in the wooded wetland base of Smead Hill. A big doe and two little skippers. Likely the same deer I saw in a field behind the old Schmidt farmhouse on Plain Road. Neighborhood deer learn to live on the edge and skirt people.

Walking that same half-mile stretch of road daily, many other daybreak critters have crossed my path. Thus far, I’ve seen raccoons, woodchucks, foxes, a skunk, and a bobcat. Maybe even a fisher, its dark, sinister profile moving too fast to positively identify. No bears, yet – which doesn’t mean they haven’t seen me. Many neighbors have seen bears. I usually bump into one somewhere along the way, but thus far, not this year.

Approaching a modern home on the corner of Nichols Drive, sold last spring by an old Recorder colleague of mine cashing in on the hot real-estate market, something drew my attention. I must have detected motion, but it happened so fast that it didn’t register; it was still pretty dark. Perhaps 30 yards in front of me, a big, antlered buck bound across Green River Road. He was right there in my face one moment, then gone, vanishing like a ghost between two homes on the north side of the road.

Alone and likely establishing territory for the upcoming rut, he must have been feeding on fallen, protein-rich acorns from the twin red oak under which he was standing. His tall, wide antlers and long tines were visible in the dimmest of morning light, as was his extraordinary body mass, grace and agility. He was what is known in hunting parlance as a “racker” – the kind of buck many hunters never get a good look at.

I checked to see if he had stopped to look back, as fleeing deer often do, but I never caught another trace.

I do believe that buck cleared Green River Road in one powerful bound. What’s that? Twenty feet? Thirty? No challenge for such a beast. At least three years old, he’s survived previous deer seasons, and will likely make it through another.

With the scent of hunters in the woods and the sound of their shots echoing off distant ridges, smart bucks go nocturnal, finding safe daytime refuge in dense swamps and shallow pockets of brushy woods bordering rivers and neighborhoods. Yeah, sometimes they do make fatal mistakes, especially when hot on the trail of a receptive doe. But you gotta be there: a simple right-place, right-time formula.

I have seen similar bucks in my travels, including hunting scenarios with gun in hand. But I’m no threat now. My hunting days have passed. For the first time in more than 50 years, I didn’t even buy a license, and don’t intend to – not even for pheasant season, which opened Saturday. Not interested. Hard to imagine, yet true. I’ve moved on. Not unlike my exit from the baseball, then softball diamonds to which I clung far too long.

My strong, primal hunter-gatherer instinct lives, but now I hunt information or the right word – pursuits I find equally rewarding. Yeah, I will miss the exercise, the handling of enthusiastic gun dogs chasing scent through crisp air and wet, thorny tangles. I’ll miss the cackling flushes, the difficult, twisting wing-shots, and hunting camaraderie with wing-shooting pals.

But why kill if I’m not hungry? I guess that’s where aging has led me.

So here I sit, sharing introspection inspired by that majestic buck that crossed my path under a hidden, full Hunter’s Moon, the influence of which spun my wheels into a pensive place of reflection.

 

Gass Family Built a Local Legacy

Unexpected diversions and distractions can sometimes strike historical gold… like the one I stumbled across last week.

Most often these unexpected discoveries come to light as what I refer to as “peripherals” – that is, random findings unveiled entirely by dumb luck while reading, researching, or engaged in informal conversation. Nowhere do such bits of helpful information appear more regularly than newspaper archives. That’s where you find an interesting obituary accompanying one you’re seeking, front-page stories next to the one you’re chasing, or even gossipy little blurbs from a town adjacent to the one you’re exploring.

Because such surprise discoveries are fleeting and often elusive, they can be difficult to recover if you don’t immediately capture them. I have learned the hard way to jot down notes by any means necessary or risk losing unexpected data. Trying a few days later to retrace the path back to such peripherals is rarely easy, and at best time-consuming.

My latest such finding occurred during a recent early-morning telephone conversation with Paul Olszewski of South Deerfield. Five years younger than me, Paul grew up in the same neighborhood as me, and we have known each other in passing for decades. In recent months, we have had many discussions about the history of his North Main Street property. Our conversations have ventured back to founding Muddy Brook families like Barnard, Cooley, Wright, and Anderson, and later immigrant families like Gorey, Yazwinsk, Milewski, Bartos, and his very own.

Our latest chat was focused on a 1909 deed his wife had recently studied. The land record transferred less than an acre of North Main Street frontage from William Gorey to his son Robert. The lot on the other side of Bloody Brook from his father’s antique farmhouse provided more than enough space for Robert’s two-story dwelling, currently owned and occupied by Olszewski.

Being familiar with the document, I filled in additional details about the property reaching back to the original 1688, so-called Long Hill Division East lot, “bounded west by the Country road leading from Deerfield to Hatfield.”

During the meandering discussion that ensued, most of it focused on North Main Street, Olszewski shared an interesting fact. He revealed that his two-bay garage was built as an add-on by the well-known South Deerfield building contractor Bill Gass – the man credited with restoring Historic Deerfield houses to the colonial museums they are today. Off we traipsed into a spontaneous discussion about the colonial-restoration guru.

I soon learned that Olszewski was a valuable source of Gass information. He was able to identify South Deerfield structures built by Gass and, even better, some signature design elements that were immediately familiar to me. His insight came from deep collective memory, having been captive audience to many holiday family conversations involving his Uncle Francis (Olszewski).

I knew his uncle a wee bit from my teenage years myself – when I met him, he was teaching carpentry to his students at Smith Voke in Northampton – but had no clue that as a young man he had learned his carpentry skills from master builder Gass himself.

I already knew a little about Gass’s historic-restoration expertise, and less about his signature architectural design details. Recently I learned that he was also a house mover. An example was his move of Old Deerfield’s Ashley House back to its original location. Another similar project was his move of South Deerfield’s old Frary Tavern to Old Deerfield, where it now stands as the Bloody Brook Tavern Museum.

Gass also had a hand in moving the Hall Tavern from East Charlemont to Old Deerfield, and salvaging many antique Swift River Valley buildings doomed by the Quabbin Reservoir project of 1938. Thanks to Gass and other joiners of his ilk, many of those old, condemned homesteads from the submerged ghost towns of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott are proudly standing today in surrounding communities. Plus, many architectural elements – such as doors, floorboards, staircases, mantles, raised paneling, and chestnut-framing timbers – were saved, stored, and recycled into buildings new and old.

How do you beat that for authenticity?

The historical bombshell dropped by Paul Olszewski was that Gass was also known for sprucing up tired old house exteriors with an outer coating of preservative stucco. Apparently, another trademark of his are the distinctive cobblestone porches I’ve known since childhood without a hint about Gass origin.

Upon learning of these two signature design details, I could immediately name examples from my old hometown. During a brief visit a day or two later, on a quick loop around the downtown area, I passed a few that had escaped my memory. I will surely recognize more in my future travels.

I couldn’t have learned of Gass’s stucco background at a more appropriate time. In recent weeks my attention had turned to the house on North Main Street I knew as “the Dana Jewett place,” with its narrow swath of pine woods running west to the railroad tracks along the northern border of the Frontier Regional School athletic fields.

I was recently perplexed when a dependable nonagenarian source told me that when she was young, this palatial home was brick. Familiar with the building since as far back as my memory reaches, I knew it only as stucco. When I contacted the current owner, the fact that it was a brick building was also news to her.

Researching the property further, I found that Henry D. Packard had the home built in 1912 and moved into it with his wife Jeannie C. in 1913. The Packards died within a week of each other thirty-five years later, in early December 1947 – the same year my nonagenarian source graduated Deerfield High School. Two months later, Jewett bought the place.

I suspected it was Jewett who had hired a local contractor to spruce up his new digs with a fresh sheet of white stucco, remarkably similar to that of a home a half-mile up the street. Maybe, I speculated, the two homes had been treated by the same hand.

Although it made perfect sense that a man of Jewett’s social status would have used a master such as Gass for home-improvement projects, I never thought of Gass as a potential stucco contractor. I knew of him only as a skilled finish carpenter, not a mason or plasterer. Once I learned that he was associated with stucco restoration, I surmised it most likely that he would have hired masons for that chore. Who these masons were is anyone’s guess, and might in my estimation be difficult to ascertain before the Gass clue.

So I did a little more poking around and, sure enough, Gass’s younger brother Samuel was a mason who liberally advertised many services in his newspaper ads, including plastering. Although I can’t say for sure that Samuel worked for his older brother, it’s a safe assumption. The brothers lived their entire lives in South Deerfield, and as adults owned downtown homes within shouting distance. So, yes indeed, it’s likely that many stucco coverings and cobblestone porches in town were the handiwork of Samuel, of whom I have no recollection. He died in 1962, when I was 9. I do remember his wife and their disabled, adopted son.

I also have vague memories of Bill Gass, a downtown regular who died in 1986. I can still visualize his trademark bow tie and, if memory serves me, suspenders. I was more familiar with his sons, Ed and Billy, who were of my father’s vintage, and knew his grandchildren, Paul and Karen, better.

I never realized how little I really knew about the Bill Gass family before my recent research. Online data unveils a prolific Irish family of local building contractors beginning with William Gass, Sr. (1878-1952), whose obituary says he was born in Newburgh, New York and had lived in South Deerfield for 58 years, which brings us back to 1894.

That information doesn’t square with his father’s FindAGrave profile, which claims that Samuel Gass was born in Ireland in 1845 and died in 1885 in South Deerfield, where he is buried. So, it would appear that the family touched down in South Deerfield long before 1894. Sons Thomas J. (born 1877) and William E. (born 1878), both future Franklin County contractors, would have both been 7 at the time of their father’s death, Thomas soon to be 8.

William E. Gass, Sr., married Bridget Toomey from Whately in 1901. In 1908, he was awarded the contract to build the downtown Redmen’s Block, which opened in early June 1909 on the corner of South Main and Elm streets. On the second floor was the spacious Redman’s Hall, which hosted meetings, gala dances, weddings and other gatherings, and basketball games. The tall building met the wrecking ball in 1978 and was replaced by the modern Deerfield Spirit Shoppe building on the lot today.

Sons and grandsons of William and Thomas carried on the prolific Gass tradition for many years, establishing sterling reputations as building contractors in Deerfield, Greenfield, and Amherst. Old Deerfield contractor William E. Gass, Jr., “employed about 60 full-time employees” according to a profile in Harry Andrew Wright’s four-volume The Story of Western Massachusetts, published in 1949. Examples of the Gass dynasty’s work can be found in many Franklin and Hampshire County communities.

From humble beginnings, the Gass boys worked hard, and left a legacy that will outlive us all.

Take Heed of Looming Climate-Chaos Signs

It was a peculiar summer to say the least.

A harbinger? Who knows? Time will tell.

On a recent daybreak walk over the bridge spanning Hinsdale Brook behind my home, finally an audible flow. Ah! Sweet music. Hadn’t heard it for some time.

About a quarter mile up Green River Road, I stopped to listen for Punch Brook where it flows under Green River Road. Not so much as a muted trickle or muffled gurgle, not a slim glint of flow through dense green cover. Heavy overnight rain had produced no discernable effect.

Hmmm? Troubling. Many strong springs feed it.

The dawn silence and walking motion set my wheels astir. I started pondering what a summer drought like the one we just endured means to our threatened Eastern brook trout populations. At least, to what’s left of them. How many die under such stressful conditions? They need cold water. If their brooks are not connected to a large, deep impoundment for summer refuge, what are their options?

My shaded backyard brook is fed by prolific upland springs from the western hills of East Shelburne and East Colrain. It’s hard to imagine many trout surviving in that stream this summer. Where could they go? To the warm, shallow Green River? The larger, deeper Deerfield? The Connecticut? Well, maybe some could find a gushing spring-hole or deep, dark pool cold enough to ensure survival. But any way you cut it, their choices were few, mortality high.

Honestly, it’s been decades since I last explored the old brook-trout streams I knew as a boy – the ones where I learned to bait a hook and present the offering in a natural dead-drift to feeding trout. Those shaded, buggy mountain streams held reproductive populations of sparkling, speckled, steel-blue, five- to seven-inch native trout we called squaretails.

We’d fish early and return home with creelsful of fingerling trout, packed with streamside moss and ferns, for tasty breakfasts. Battered in a scrambled-egg/flour/breadcrumb mix, we’d fry the trout in sizzling bacon fat in a Griswold skillet. Homefries and eggs or pancakes were prepared on an adjacent cast-iron griddle. Now that’s an old New England breakfast for you – one I haven’t prepared since my boys were young.

Now the question is, how many of those dear mountain streams still hold brookies? Then, even more important, how many? Last I heard they were endangered by acid rain. That was at least 40 years ago. Now the planet is warming, the icecaps melting. Surely the peril hasn’t abated.

It was hard not to notice the brown lawns we all passed this summer in our fertile valley. They were the rule, not the exception. All I can say is that I have mowed lawns here for nearly 60 years and have never experienced anything like it. My mowing routine for more than a month was limited to a few passes along the edges and under shade trees. The rest of my lawn, cut high at just under four inches, was brown and noticeably crunchy underfoot, the soil underneath parched hard and displaying cracks on sunbaked openings. It was surreal. Right out of Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl.

One must wonder how long it’ll be before we’re living in terror of wildfires, without the security of fire insurance denied to homeowners in high-risk areas. Do you really think it can’t happen here? Don’t be so sure. Insurance companies don’t flourish by rolling the dice. Ask Californians, now victims of circumstance and unwilling canaries in the coal mine. We’re cooking the planet and practicing cash-crop forestry that robs the forests of large, old-growth carbon sequesters. To make matters worse, loggers leave behind messy tops that in dry conditions create tinderboxes on the forest floor. It’s a recipe for disaster – one that’s on display in flame and fury out west.

Don’t think it can’t happen here. The stage is set.

Yes, it’s true that Eastern forest dynamics are different than those out west. But how long can we count on that temporary reality as our climate gets hotter and drier and our snowfall diminishes? It’s not too early to start thinking about this stuff. In fact, many doomsayers with impressive academic credentials believe it’s already too late.

Equally frightening is a looming worldwide drinking-water crisis. Experts have for decades been warning us that water is going to become a scarce, valuable commodity worth fighting for. Those who doubt it and believe that, like climate change, it’s nothing but sensational hooey propagated by tree-hugging alarmists and Antifa ecoterrorists, should change their outlook. The day of reckoning is approaching and, for those willing to believe what they see, accelerating toward climate Armageddon.

Here in the Happy Valley, we take good drinking water for granted. Don’t be deceived by that comfort zone. Have you seen the massive Western reservoirs now reduced to puddles, exposing stolen cars and the skeletal remains of murder victims? How long before we’re facing annual summer water restrictions as our own reservoirs shrink and our population grows?

What’ll we do when there’s not enough water to go around? Drink “purified” water from the industrial and wastewater dump known as the Connecticut River? Yuck! Can you imagine? Reduced to that, we’d all die of horrible cancers.

If you want to know where we’re headed, take heed of the mournful blues being sung by our Eastern brook trout. The message is clear: there’s trouble on the horizon.

 

Beaver Stone, Billings Place

Under the microscope today is a peculiar carved stone and a forgotten colonial home that met the wrecking ball many years ago, both from Deerfield.

First, the stone. Round in form and about the size of a human hand, it surfaced recently in parched Fuller Swamp Brook, where it was picked up by a curious woman walking the Wapping field behind the old Samuel Childs Farm. News of the discovery came to me by Saturday-night phone call, breaking early-evening silence as I closed in on answers about the aforementioned historic South Deerfield home to which we’ll return.

Not recognizing the caller-ID name, I didn’t answer. But when the Smart TV revealed that a message had been left, I went right to it. Messages are usually a good sign.

The caller was Brent Pitcher, a fit, quiet man I know from the Nolumbeka Project, a local Native American advocacy group honoring Northeastern tribal heritage. He wanted to share digital photos of the interesting stone, texted to him by the discoverer. She was convinced it was the work of human hands, maybe Native American, depicting a beaver face with two buck teeth.

Having been immersed for the past two or three years in South Deerfield deed research that had more than once meandered through Wapping and the Bars, I knew there was an early placename “Beaver Dam” and a small stream named “Beaver Dam Brook” right there in the South Meadows, where the stone was found. So, of course, I was interested. Plus, how could I ignore a find that could be related to the deep-time Beaver Myth of Sugarloaf and the Pocumtuck Range? In my mind, this beaver stone could have had legs to interesting places.

My immediate reaction upon hanging up was, “Hmmm. Why does this stuff happen to me?”

Little did Pitcher know that I had spent much time in recent months reading about ancient, ritualistic, stone, bone, and ivory portable-art objects recovered from Paleoindian mastodon bone-fields. These talismans have been recently identified by archaeologist friend Dr. Richard Michael Gramly. Inspired by an initial discovery during an excavation he led in 2015 at Middletown, New York, Gramly and ancient-religion guru Dr. James B. Harrod have together examined and identified many previously unidentified primitive art objects stagnating in curated collections.

This year, Gramly published a groundbreaking compendium of essays, Human and Proboscidean Interactions in North America, to which Harrod made many important contributions. Much of their discussion focuses on North American portable zoomorphic art objects with deep connections, imagery and symbolism linking them to the Old-World Gravettian culture dating back 33,000 years, and ancient Eurasian and northeast Asian people who eventually crossed the Bering Strait to North America.

The first such portable-art specimen recognized in North America was a piece of ivory shaped like a mastodon in profile. Gramly noticed it when recording materials unearthed during his Bowser Road dig north and west of New York City.  He and Harrod then closely re-examined the curated Hiscock Collection at the Buffalo (New York) Museum of Science – a well-known assemblage of skeletal mastodon remains and artifacts – to confirm their suspicion that other examples would appear in existing collections. Then, yes, the Hiscock Collection did indeed contain previously unidentified portable art, some of it from the earliest sled burial known to man.

And get this: the Clovis sled runners were crafted from mastodon tusks, split lengthwise in half.

Since then, a fascinating, well-executed, zoomorphic sculpture of a mastodon in profile, carved in bone, has come to light in an Ohio museum collection. And the search goes on. Next stop is the Blue Licks Battlefield site in Kentucky, where an old collection of mastodon bones and who knows what else is awaiting examination. Gramly recently returned from his maiden voyage at Blue Licks, a two-week dig on land owned by a friend that bore intriguing fruit and promises to produce much, much more.

The minute Pitcher emailed me photos of the mystery beaver stone, I forwarded a frontal shot to Gramly. Who better to evaluate such a find? He studied the photo, and immediately said he doubted a Native American origin but would like to examine it in hand.

“I’ve never seen anything like it, which immediately raises doubt,” he said. “I’m not ready to say it’s Native American. It could be old. Maybe colonial. But it looks like white-guy work to me – an imaginative, even humorous characterization of a beaver.”

So, the jury’s still out. Stay tuned.

Now, let us return to the vexing historical snag I was trying to unravel when Pitcher’s phone call broke my investigative spell, exploring a long-ago demolished and now forgotten historic South Deerfield home. When the phone rang, I was hot on the trail of a demolition date for the North Main Street building that burned beyond repair when I was a kid. My memory of the building is vague at best. All I recall is a glum, unoccupied, boarded-up building across the street from the Karas and Manson homes and Yazwinski Farm. Nothing else.

I could easily follow the building’s history into the early 20th century, but was having difficulty tracking it in deeds after 1930 – documents that would offer names helpful for keyword searching newspaper archives. Many foreign families settled in South Deerfield between 1880 and 1920, and they held no connection to the village’s founding families, and little interest in the provenance of old homes they had purchased.

The house on which we’re focusing was built by Samuel Dwelley around 1770, maybe earlier, and was recognized in 19th-century South Deerfield as the Timothy and Charles W. Billings residence. Timothy Billings (1770-1860) was its second owner. He married Dwelley’s daughter, Amy, in 1795 and lived with his in-laws before buying the landed estate in 1801. When his oldest son Francis (1797-1861) came of age, he built south of his father. The ninth of Timothy and Amy’s 12 children, Charles W. Billings (1815-1901), stayed put, eventually inheriting his father and grandfather’s home, where he died.

I knew the old Dwelley/Billings place was still standing in 1930, and gone by 1970. But was it burned, or torn down? Hints, but no answers. The missing link was the name of the house’s final occupant – the search a tangled maze.

Finally, in an act of desperation, I posted a nighttime query on the “Deerfield Now” Facebook page, which gets a lot of traffic and can be a good resource for 20th-century memories. My post describing the building and inquiring what had become of it was launched after I had questioned two nonagenarian women who passed it in youth. Both remembered the building as the “Miller place,” and neither knew much about either the owner, John W. Miller, or anything about the building’s demise.

Bingo! The answer came within minutes. The first respondent was Paul Olszewski, four or five years younger than me, who grew up within view of the decaying historic homestead and “messaged” me. It burned, he said, was owned by the Legac family and eventually purchased by the abutting Hosley Brothers auto dealership.

Former selectman David Wolfram, with a long family history in the volunteer fire department, soon confirmed Olszewski’s information. The place, owned by the Legacs, burned, was boarded up, and eventually torn down. By the next morning, many others had chimed in, including some Legac family and friends.

Deeds and news accounts bore them out. The Legac family of four was dining in Florence at 6:15 p.m. on Thursday, February 20, 1964 when neighbor Albert “Babe” Manson noticed the fire from his home across the street. Manson immediately called the fire department and – according to Facebook respondent and his daughter, Diana Tardiff – raced across the street, kicking in the door to save the frantic family dog, Sambo.

The building’s interior was destroyed. The Legacs boarded up their home and vacated to New York. The town condemned the building as a public health hazard more than three years later, and on September 20, 1967 gave the owners 30 days to remove it or the town would do so at their expense. Less than a year later, on August 20, 1968, the vacant lot was sold to Hosley Brothers, Inc., which wanted more space for roadside display.

Although the fire, family fundraisers, and town wranglings over the building were covered by the newspaper, the stories were typically buried, and I could find not one solitary word about the historic significance of what would have been one of the village’s oldest standing buildings. No mention of Dwelley or Billings families, or what they had meant to South Deerfield.

No wonder so many historic South Deerfield buildings with charm, character, and important tales to tell have met the wrecking ball since – all in the name of progress. That, I find sad. Sad indeed.

 

1951 Plane Crash Shakes South Deerfield

It occurred two years before I was born: a Saturday-morning plane crash that exploded on impact in bucolic Mason, New Hampshire, instantly killing four prominent South Deerfield townsmen and shaking the village to its core.

The date was July 28, 1951, the time about 9:30 a.m., visibility poor in foggy rain.

The crash made the national news wires. Photos of the twisted wreckage appeared on the front page of newspapers throughout the land, especially in the Northeast. Today, it has faded from the collective memory, even in South Deerfield – except for a few 80- and 90-somethings like Patricia McNerney Kelleher, then a young woman living in town. She remembers it well.

“The town seemed to stand still,” she said. “We were numb.”

The victims, closer in age to my grandfather than my father, had departed for Boston from the Turners Falls Airport the previous afternoon in pilot Delmer M. Jewett, Jr.’s private, four-passenger, Ryan Navion, single-engine plane. Their destination was Fenway Park, for a Friday night Red Sox game vs. the Cleveland Indians, won by the visitors, 3-2, on a ninth-inning run.

Although they planned to return home that night, stormy weather moved in soon after Indians righthander Bob Lemmon closed out his complete-game win, and Jewett didn’t want chance night flight. He called home to report they’d spend the night in Boston and return in the morning. That’s the last anyone heard from them. About halfway home the pilot got disoriented in a cloud bank and crashed into a mix of trees and fields some 15 miles north of Fitchburg.

Accompanying Jewett, 43, who had owned the plane for about three years, was his 79-year-old father, Delmer, Sr., 52-year-old South Deerfield postmaster and former police chief Edward J. Redmond, and downtown pharmacist Hollis D. Billings, 50. The victims’ ages varied in breaking-news accounts, but are reported here according to birth dates published in obituaries.

The Jewetts owned what was known around town as the “Pickle Shop” – that is, D.M. Jewett Corporation and Oxford Pickle Works, the official name prominently displayed on the plane. The company was founded as Sugarloaf Pickles in 1896 by Delmer Sr.’s father, Alvord Austin Jewett (1838-1905), a decorated Civil War veteran buried in the Brookside Cemetery.

The Jewett family came to Bloody Brook, now South Deerfield, from Templeton in the mid-1780s, and by the turn of the 19th century had established a large “downtown” presence on both sides of the county road from Deerfield to Hatfield, now South Main Street. Patriarch Enoch Jewett (1739-1813) and his son Reuben first appear as Deerfield taxpayers in 1786, when development was burgeoning on the south end of town, between Elm Street and the Whately line.

By the 1850s, the Jewett family had split into branches from Reuben – one associated with the Pickle Shop, another with the first Mount Sugarloaf summit house and a large North Mill River farm. The summit-house family was headed by Dwight Jewett (1812-1909), and his son-in-law, Granville Wardwell, built the first Sugarloaf structure during the Civil War.

Delmer M. Jewett, Sr., was the semi-retired pickle company president at the time of the crash, and had lost his wife about a year earlier. He left a son Dana in South Deerfield, a daughter in Houston, Texas, and six grandchildren.

The pilot, Delmer, Jr., was the company vice president, manager, and treasurer. He left a wife and two daughters. Delmer, Jr., was born and raised in South Deerfield, where he had been a selectman and president of the Rotary Club before moving to Northfield, where he owned a large cucumber farm. He had been a licensed pilot for 10 years, and bought the plane in 1948 for travel to a sister pickle plant in Paris, Maine.

Hollis Billings, the pharmacist, was born in Northfield to a family with deep Connecticut Valley roots in Sunderland, Hatfield, Conway, and South Deerfield. He left a wife, son, and daughter – not to mention another gaping hole in the downtown business scene. Just four months before the crash that claimed his life, downtown South Deerfield had lost its centerpiece when the stately Bloody Brook Inn, diagonally across the common from the drugstore, was destroyed by fire.

The Redmond family was relatively new in town. World War I veteran Edward Redmond, born and educated in Westfield and previously a patrolman on the Palmer police force, came to town as the newly appointed police chief in 1928. In 1943, he left that job to become South Deerfield’s postmaster. A member of St. James Catholic Church, Redmond brought a large Irish family to town. He left a wife and six children, the two youngest of whom, son Richard and daughter Jane, are alive today.

“I remember that day like it happened yesterday,” said 83-year-old Richard Redmond. “I was only 12 when I lost my dad.”

As it played out, Redmond’s father and Billings were the victims of a simple twist of fate. They had accepted last-minute invitations to the Red Sox game after police chief James Rosenthal and auto dealer Guy Hosley, Sr., declined due to previous commitments.

The crash was witnessed by many Mason, New Hampshire residents who reported hearing the plane circling in distress before emerging from a 100-foot ceiling on a fatal downward trajectory that could not be corrected. Others heard a loud, distant explosion. A woman said she thought the plane was going to land on her home as it passed close overhead, shearing off treetops before crashing to earth and exploding.

The New Hampshire Aeronautics Commission attributed the tragedy to pilot error. An inexperienced instrument pilot, Jewett, Jr. got disoriented in a dense cloud bank, took a steep dive, and perished. No one was sure whether he had been aiming for the airport in Keene, New Hampshire or Turners Falls.

Friends who had flown with Jewett praised him as a careful and conscientious pilot, and his plane did have instrument-flying technology for blind flying without sight lines to the horizon. But his instrument-flying experience was limited and, without visual reference to the ground, he succumbed to the fates.

An experienced local pilot who today owns a small plane provided insight to me about the dangers of blind, instrument-flight through cloud banks, which he admitted avoiding at all costs. Faced with such perilous conditions, he said he opts to go around cloud banks, even if he must travel 100 miles out of his way.

“To get through cloud banks, you have to totally trust your instruments,” he said. “You don’t want to get disoriented and experience vertigo.”

He said he has been in the cockpit with sophisticated pilots who won’t even look out the windshield when navigating through cloud banks, focusing exclusively on the instrument panel. He compared it to trusting a compass to get out of the woods. The golden rule is to never to doubt a compass or instrument panel.

Jewett must have seen a favorable weather report before taking off that morning from Boston’s Logan International Airport. Investigators speculated that when he encountered the cloud bank, he incorrectly interpreted it as a small, localized patch and immediately got in over his head.

The pilot was identified by officials who went to the crash site. The other three victims were later identified by Francis Redmond and Dana Jewett, who traveled to the scene from South Deerfield.

Activity in South Deerfield came to a complete standstill for the funerals on Tuesday, July 31, 1951. Town offices, stores, and other businesses were closed to allow friends and neighbors to pay their final respects to four community leaders. The tragic victims were literally here today, gone tomorrow – leaving their grief-stricken Deerfield village in a state of shock.

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