Whitmore’s Pond Poachers

With daybreak near, the tall clock will soon strike six in accompaniment to freezing rain drumming on the kitchen roof. I just returned from there with a cup of black, unsweetened coffee in hand, now steaming on a desktop coaster to my left.

To me, early morning is the best time for introspection and creative thought, the perfect setting from which to set the imaginative wheels awhirl, be it on a secluded forest stand or at the desk where I now sit.

I awoke not long ago from a whimsical little dream, about which I remember little, except that it was me and a boyhood pal we called Count fishing a posted North Sunderland trout pond called Whitmore’s before the spring-morning fog had lifted. About all I can recall is him struggling in thick gray light to tie a blood-knot and asking me for help. I completed the chore for my appreciative friend and I opened my eyes for the new day, wishing I could ride it out a little longer. No such luck. Too late. The dream was over.

As daring teens, the Count and I infrequently snuck into that forbidden pond along the Connecticut River in the extreme northwest corner of Sunderland. Our goal was to be on the water’s edge before the birds sang, and home with a few big, beautiful, tasty Eastern brook trout before our South Deerfield neighbors had risen for breakfast.

Passersby know Whitmore’s Pond by its picturesque waterfall, which slips through a slim ledge gap and tumbles some 15 feet before underflowing Falls Road into the Connecticut below the old Whitmore Tavern. Long ago drained, this tidy impoundment had an east-west orientation with a swampy neck at the rear, curling south toward the feeder stream. We liked to fish at the point protruding from the inner elbow, casting into an open, C-shaped spring hole bordered by cattails on three sides. The cold-water outflow surging to the surface and attracting trout was only about 15 yards from shore, easily within range of our soft, snappy roll-casts.

Though it was not the type of sparkling water where you’d expect to find trout, we learned they were there to feed by hearing, then seeing, them rise for aquatic insects. When we first gave it a try with the treble-hooked Thomas buoyant lures that worked well on open water, they got snagged in submerged vegetation on every retrieve, telegraphing our presence. We thus opted for plan two – dry-fly fishing with the Count’s late father’s fly rods and flies – the flies contained and organized in fancy silver-colored boxes taken from his fishing vest hanging in the garage.

Like catching fish from a 10-foot-diameter barrel, its wide mouth inviting us in, we recognized this as an ideal training ground for a couple of veteran spincasters seeking to improve their fly-fishing skills. It worked to perfection.

Count was proud to say that his dad swore by the tiniest midges in his flybox for such endeavors, advice we found helpful despite simultaneously discovering that old standards like White Wulffs, Royal Coachmen, and Light Cahills and Hendricksons worked as well. We’d focus on the insects coming off the water and try to find flies duplicating their size and color in a process known as “matching the hatch,” which brings rewards.

To keep the delicate dry flies afloat we’d dress them in silicon, or whatever that floatation salve in his dad’s vest was, and we’d catch beautiful trout hand over fist. In the process, we perfected our casting, presentation and hook-setting skills, all of which were transferable to the stream fishing we both preferred.

It was great fun for impish teens willing to roll the dice on posted waters, and capable of daring escape when caught in the act.

Not long after we stopped fishing the place due to fear of the consequences, the dam broke, and now the pond has been drained for decades. I can’t say what the basin looks like today because I haven’t viewed it. Most likely all that remains is a thin spring-stream, slicing through a grassy basin-turned-meadow toward the waterfall.

I’m sure the impetus for my dream was a recent round of deed research that brought me back to Whitmore’s Pond and its early 18th-century beginnings. But there was also a symbolic aging theme involved, harkening back to the good old days of youth, when I walked without a limp, ran fast, hit the ball hard and could, using the thinnest tippets, tie all the difficult fishermen’s knots in the dimmest light without the aid of glasses.

Even though I long ago accepted that those days are far in my rearview, it does no harm to reminisce. No need for envy or a sense of depressing loss. Joie de vivre doesn’t end with youth.

As a teenaged Whitmore’s poacher on high alert for neighborhood enforcers, I knew nothing of its history as a millpond, or the place’s history as a mill village with a busy ferry between Deerfield and Sunderland. I only knew that the pond held some of the nicest “squaretails” in the valley. The bold, black posters only added to the allure for boys who had grown up reading about rascals like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Plus, the squaretails were worth the risk, comparable in every way to those chased far and wide by gentlemen of high status and haughty sporting tastes. Can it get any better and tastier than Eastern brookies and ruffed grouse? Not in my world.

What I have learned in adulthood is that the North Sunderland neighborhood surrounding the pond had acquired its own placename by 1800. On the North Sunderland site stood a cluster of fancy dwellings, a busy river tavern and associated ferry, and industry as well, with Slatestone or Mill Brook over time supporting two gristmills, a sawmill, and a fulling mill.

The first sawmill there was “erected (by Manoah Bodman, Daniel Russell and Nathaniel Gunn) and in operation in 1726,” according to John Montague Smith’s History of Sunderland, which credits brothers Joseph and Jonathan Field for building the first gristmill 12 years later.

John Oaks came to Sunderland from Petersham before 1750, buying and likely making improvements to the mills before dying in 1767 and leaving his properties to son Jonathan, who retained a one-third interest in the sawmill when he sold it to Elijah Billings of Montague a year later.

Billings moved to Conway, and in 1773 sold it to Daniel Whitmore from Middletown, Connecticut, retaining half-interest in the mills. Whitmore heirs still own the 50-acre parcel and the colonial dwelling, once a tavern, nestled up to the falls along the east side of the road.

The Oaks connection is what led me to my old Sunderland fishing haunt. Researching the mills at what would become “Mill Village at Stebbins Meadow” in Deerfield’s South Meadows, I found the 1770 sale of the mill site by Nathan Oaks of Deerfield to Capt. Jonas Locke of Shutesbury. The purchase price was 150 pounds, more than 10 times what Oaks had paid for it three years earlier. Hmmmm?

I knew of Locke, a millwright and housewright who in about 1790 built the old Fuller Homestead, now occupied by widowed Fuller descendant Mary Marsh. Known today as the Bars Farm, it’s abutted north by Melnik’s Barway Farm.

So, who was this dude, Nathan Oaks?

Well, as it turns out, Nathan was the younger brother of Sunderland miller Jonathan Oaks. Both men were carpenters, perhaps millwrights as well, and both were members of master-builder Locke’s Deerfield carpentry crew that built The Manse, the Joseph Stebbins house, and the church steeple in Deerfield before the Revolution. Short-lived Deerfield residents, the Oaks brothers likely had a hand in a lot of the building that took place in town between 1765 and 1775.

From a distinguished Lexington/Woburn family, Locke built the gristmill at Locke’s Pond (now Lake Wyola) in 1754, and probably contributed to other structures in the surrounding Locke’s Village on the Wendell/Shutesbury line. By 1770, he had been in Deerfield for about six years and was running the gristmill at Stebbins Meadow, likely also tuning up the buildings and apparatuses that provided the burgeoning community with meal and flour for the larder.

Locke’s crowning achievement, around 1790, was building the distinctive, Federal, hip-roofed Bars dwelling he called home, known today on the National Register of Historic Places as the “Locke-Fuller House.”

Who knows? Perhaps Locke the millwright helped old John Oaks and his boys bring their North Sunderland mills up to snuff. Back then – before Roadtown became Shutesbury in 1761, and before Leverett separated from Sunderland in 1774 – Oaks’ Mills would have been short piece from the Roadtown-Sunderland line.

Something else you can take to the bank is the fact that beautiful brook trout were there for the taking from the millpond that became Whitmore’s.

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