Hawks Tavern at North Mill River

I have in recent years often wondered: Why is so little known about the old Hawks Tavern in South Deerfield’s North Mill River District?

Now, after finding two previously unidentified shots of the building among a collection of digitized Howes Brothers photos in friend Peter Thomas’ Deerfield’s 350th archive, the question looms even larger. The photos do not depict some backwoods watering hole. No, instead it was a classic, sprawling public house, ballroom and all, supported by neighbors and wayward travelers alike.

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words. Well, this one has even greater value. I took one look at the first black and white photo of a large, worn building, felt a gush of joyful excitement and thought, “Wow! What a building.” Then another B&W appeared. They’re both local treasures. Praise the heavens for the Howes Brothers. Though still a work in progress, the story must be told.

Hawks Tavern stood along the lower eastern Conway line where the old county road parted into two county roads. Both legs headed west-northwest from the crotch to Ashfield and beyond. One ascended Fields Hill and dropped down through Pumpkin Hollow, once Conway’s center with a long common. The other, north of it, crossed the South and Bear rivers before heading to Ashfield and Buckland.

Nestled into a comfortable setting east of that old fork, the tavern had a long presence that likely evolved over three generations of Hawks ownership. An expansive ell doesn’t show in the frontal shots.

The building appears to have been the brainchild of Asa Hawks (1732-1801), who bought some 250 acres in 1788 and opened for business in the 1790s. Son Asa, Jr. and his brother Zeeb entered the picture after their father’s death, and Asa, Jr.’s son Jonathan (1794-1853) and some siblings rode it into the mid-19th century. By then, Hawks dwellings occupied both sides of the road, and the evidence suggests there may have been a third nearby.

Tavernkeeper Jonathan Hawks’ 1853 death signaled the end of family ownership, initiating a series of land transactions concluded by Conway farmer Collister S. May’s 1854 purchase of the tavern stand and 59 acres. He maintained the building’s tradition in reduced form with May’s Tavern – also called May’s Hotel and Mill River Hotel – until his 1886 death. Like other roadside public houses from the tavern-and-turnpike days, the proud old business faded to oblivion with the arrival of the railroad, which transitioned the mode of transit and travel to the steel rail.

Son William May (1869-1944), known to friends and neighbors as Wil, took over the property after his father’s death and shared the home with two sisters in a post-tavern, extended-family arrangement. Older, grocer-meat dealer brother George (1859-1930) was not far away, living on North Main Street, where noises from his slaughterhouse drew his neighbors’ ire.

May heirs started selling off land in 1945, and finally sold the last tavern-associated parcel in 1987.

Few people today seem to be aware that the historic tavern still stands, separated into two neighboring homes along the Mathews Road intersection with Conway Road (Route 116). One half is the dwelling at 300 Conway Road in its original setting, the other a tidy home up the road at 312 Conway Road. The latter was moved in 1911 by Wil May to create an income-generating, two-apartment “tenement,” according to a May 19, 1926 Greenfield Recorder story about a fire that destroyed the upper story. The brief newspaper article reports that the building had once housed the old, upstairs Hawks Tavern “Dance Hall,” or ballroom.

It’s quite possible, if not probable, that the ballroom had a springfloor, if the carriage-shed wing housing it was added after 1830. Such tavern buildings typically evolved over time as profits grew and new generations wanted to add their thumbprint. Documentation of such Hawks Tavern “improvements” seems, unfortunately, to be out of reach today. Very little was ever recorded about the old tavern despite its existence in a history-conscious community with a rich local-history repository.

Surprisingly, preeminent Deerfield historian George Sheldon says nothing about the tavern in his History of Deerfield. The omission makes no sense. Maybe he had a falling out with the Hawks. Sheldon not only lived in Deerfield during the establishment’s heyday, his genealogies profile every associated Hawks without one word about their tavern.

Curious indeed. It’s not like the building was out of sight, out of mind. Located on a busy road to booming Conway and just a hop, skip and a jump from Old Deerfield, the tavern stood on hallowed ground. Across the road, Deerfield’s first mill was built on the Mill River as early as 1689 and in was full operation as a gristmill in the 1690s. Another important historical site rests a half-mile or less up the hill. There Cyrus Rice built Conway’s first dwelling in 1762. Plus, a booming sawmill was in full operation there for most if not all of Sheldon’s life.

Chalk it up as one more glaring example of Sheldon’s snooty Old Deerfield-centric ways, which are blatantly obvious to anyone researching the town’s surrounding villages.

Though I myself was born of South Deerfield roots that reach as deep as Anglo roots there lie, and though I fished through the old mill site many times as a boy, it’s unlikely I would have known of the tavern had not venerable Conway historian and friend Deane Lee told me about it. I used to visit his stately Cricket Hill home, with a beautiful view of Mount Monadnock, to discuss history, genealogy and the surrounding forest.

Because Mr. Lee descended from the North Mill River Lee family (thus Lee Road), he knew of the tavern and, during an impromptu country ride on which he accompanied me, pointed out the two adjacent buildings that were once joined. “It was a busy place in its day,” he said with an engaging twinkle, and I didn’t for a millisecond doubt it.

Many years later, retired Franklin County Engineer and former Greenfield selectman Bill Allen was at the wheel of his full-sized SUV showing me the old Conway-Ashfield county-road layouts. When we passed the Hawks Tavern site he, too, mentioned the two buildings that had once been joined as a single large tavern. “An ideal tavern site because of its location at the fork of two country roads,” he said. “You can bet it was a roaring establishment.”

Despite pointing it out to me, I don’t recall either man using the name Hawks when identifying the tavern site. Thus, I didn’t associate that surname with it. I only knew there had been a public house there.

Then came my recent investigation of ancient South Deerfield deeds, which brought me through the Mill River District, settled in the 1760s and maybe a tad earlier. Months ago, I took Thomas on a little field trip to the old mill site of my trout-fishing days and discovered much had changed. A waterfall I remembered well from fishing its plunge pool was gone, and so was the narrow millpond above. Both features were swept away by a 21st-century flood.

Prior to that, while examining Mill River deeds in my still-unresolved search for the Elijah Arms’ Tavern site in early 19th-century Bloody Brook, I largely ignored several Hawks Tavern references. My focus at the time was elsewhere. Then, after a circuitous route back to Hawks Tavern through a round of Jewett-family research, everything fell into place. I then realized Hawks Tavern was the one Lee and Allen had showed me.

Wanting to investigate further, I revisited the deeds and made contact with a lifelong North Mill River neighbor now living across the road. Octogenarian John Pekarski told me his father knew Wil May and that he himself remembered the old man’s descendants that succeeded him on the property. In fact, Pekarski’s parents had once been tenants of the “Old Dance Hall” apartments.

Then came the Howes Brothers photos. So, fancy that. Hawks Tavern mystery in the rearview.

In the meantime, family-history researchers chasing Hawks leads have queried Historic Deerfield’s Facebook page for information about the tavern, and are told it no longer exists. Long gone, they say.

If you doubt me, look for yourself. The misinformation is there for all to read.

Let’s correct the record. Shout from the Sugarloaf summit that Hawks Tavern is alive and well, hidden in plain sight in two pieces in the only neighborhood it has known.

End of story.

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