Kids’ Stuff: South Deerfield Memories

Looking for a hook to hang my hat on, so to speak, spun me into reminiscence leading up to my May 7 “Deerfield 350th Founders’ Day” talk.

The topic was the earliest settlement of Bloody Brook, or Muddy Brook – names that were interchangeable between the 1750s and 1840s for a village now called South Deerfield. My problem was that so very little is known about its groundbreaking days. I wanted to pull the audience in with something light before launching into a long-overdue look at the history of a place that has been ignored by historians in a town where history is important.

Rather than imagining what it was like to roam the mile-and-a-half-long path that connected the first handful of forgotten dwellings along what is today Main Street, I decided instead to start with the South Deerfield I knew. That is my childhood town, where spinster great-aunt Gladys annually flowered family graves in the village’s oldest burial ground, Sugarloaf Street Cemetery – that of the founders.

My talk would be delivered from the auditorium lectern at Frontier Regional School, which wasn’t my comfort zone. My legacy in that place was that I couldn’t pass senior English. Oh well. What does it mean a half-century later?

I would have been far more comfortable pointing out interesting features from the driver’s seat of a country drive, or attaching surnames to stone-clad cellar holes lining a wooded walk along some discontinued road, or leading a group up a tidy stone wall to a high, lonesome hardwood spine with oaks, beeches and royal shagbark hickories. I’d be out of my element in an academic auditorium, would try not to bore anyone.

It was worth mentioning that I would be standing on a site that once represented the center of my tiny universe. It was my childhood neighborhood and that of my ancestors dating back to the village’s birth.

In the days leading up to the event, with soft spring pastels stirring my imagination, reminiscence sometimes flowed like surging stormwater. I pondered the approaching presentation for Deerfield’s 350th birthday realizing that I, as an untamed 20-year-old, had attended the 1973 Tercentenary a half century ago. Better still, my ancestors had been there for the 100th and 200th celebrations as well. Many great-grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, cousins, and in-laws had attended the 1835 gala dedication ceremony for a new Bloody Brook Monument, and yes, kinfolk were also on hand in 1875 for the 200-year memorial remembrance of those slain during the infamous September 18, 1675 Indian ambush.

Nine of my great-grandparents and scores of relatives rest downtown in the village’s aforementioned oldest burial ground. I am proud that my DNA indelibly stains that hallowed ground and can never be taken from me. There seem to be few people left in the village with ancestors in that ancient graveyard.

I wanted to share swirling memories that sped back to my wayward youth, when South Deerfield was a rowdy, two-cop town – one by day, the other by night. We had three downtown barber shops, two service stations, a car dealership, five village markets, a bakery with hard-crusted Polish rye, two package stores, and four bars, including one called “Mucker’s.” We even had a cobbler, the village’s last, who fixed our shoes and resoled hardy Chippewa boots.

Oh my, what a cast of characters we had, starting with devilish pharmacist Billy Rotkiewicz. All town news and gossip rolled through his drugstore and soda jerk – first at Professional Pharmacy west of the common, then Frontier Pharmacy south of it. Teenage lover boys and even “liberated” hippie chicks with bold resolve would approach the counter to sheepishly purchase condoms.

“Nope,” Billy would snap like only he could, “Sold out. Spring fever. Try Boron’s Market.”

Stymied on their daring initial attempt, they’d trudge diagonally across Elm Street, where Evelyn Boron worked the till near the front door. When asked for condoms, she’d curl a wry grin and with a faint twinkle inquire, “Let me guess – Billy Rotkiewicz?”

South Deerfield was a hell-raising, fun-loving town back then, with Billy beating the drum to which many of us marched. Seems we were always up to something – cruising the streets after dark and creating all sorts of smalltown mischief, especially around Halloween, which for us started with the first hint of fall foliage. How could we possibly wait till the end of October?

On rare occasions when night cop Pistol Pete Kuchieski caught up with us, he’d wave a stern finger and, in the most intimidating voice he could muster, sternly say, “I know you’re good kids, but this is gonna be your last warning. Next time I’ll have to write you up.”

For most of us it never happened. He was bluffing. Only the most serious offenses would require legal action. Praise the heavens for Pistol Pete. He had a heart, recognized the difference between kids’ stuff and crime, and would tell us straight up that the last thing he wanted to do was to give any of us a record. We sat in the classroom with his own kids.

A colorful character named Robert “Hawk” Wilson was a common attraction on the downtown streets. A small, wiry man, The Hawk staggered around wearing a light-colored cowboy hat and bolo tie with a turquoise slider. He trudged a path between the bars and the drugstore all day, every day. Billy, his most merciless needler, harangued him day and night, and kept him nourished: on the house. Say what you will about Billy; he was, at his core, a big-hearted, mischievous man.

When Hawk approached us on the street, he’d stop to face us down in his best gunfighter pose, arms bowed out to the side like Gary Cooper or Alan Ladd in the old Westerns. We’d take the same posture and draw on him for our daily giggles. “Too late!” he’d bark with a faux snarl. It was great, lighthearted, smalltown fun. Poor Hawk. The end was not kind to him.

I asked the audience to bear with me for one more short digression. I wanted to describe an example of the type or harmless downtown mischief that occupied our time on sticky summer days. I chose a game we played with an elderly target we knew as Yakims. He spoke broken English and, if memory serves me, lived on the corner of Braeburn Road.

Most everyone smoked back then, and Yakims toured the busiest downtown sidewalks salvaging leftover tobacco from large, discarded cigarette butts. When he found a good candidate, he’d pick it up and, between thumb and forefinger, manipulate the tobacco out into a pocket-sized tin. It became the stash from which he rolled his own cigarettes – not the same kind we later rolled in the shadows.

Well, we used to humor ourselves with a playful little game at Yakim’s expense.

We’d lay out sidewalk bait by threading 2- or 4-pound-test monofilament fishing line through long, tempting cigarette butts and hiding around the corner or behind the telephone booth with the other end of the invisible line in hand. When Yakims stooped down to pluck our bait from the sidewalk, we’d give it a little tug and watch a profanity-laced chase ensue. He must have thought a soft summer breeze was depriving him of his treasure. Fun while it lasted – he soon got wise to us, and our downtown sportfishing ceased.

So, that was my intro, followed by brief acknowledgments of those who have helped me most, and a quick list of essential sources I’ve used to understand the mid-18th-century building trades. Then it was off to a 70-minute PowerPoint journey, up one side of North Main Street and down the other. I focused on nine early properties I had researched.

I think it went as well as could be expected, despite never looking at the nine-page, single-spaced narrative I had prepared after finishing the intro. I decided on the fly that it was more important to look at and interact with the folks in the audience. I hope it worked.

I viewed the 90-minute presentation as a starting place, a work in progress that’ll outlive me. I only scratched the surface and stirred up a little dust from the tangled web known as Bloody Brook history, which has thus far been largely ignored.

Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.
Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Mad Meg theme designed by BrokenCrust for WordPress © | Top