Mount Toby Visit Stirs Memories

These days, I find myself wandering back and forth between local history and prehistory, and although my current focus leans strongly toward the former, the latter is always within reach.

I get a good dose of cutting-edge discovery about ancient human-proboscidean (mastodon and wooly mammoth) interactions from archaeologist friend Mike Gramly, who in recent years has uncovered ground-breaking (no pun intended) evidence of 14,000-year-old ritualistic offerings at kill sites in New York and Kentucky. That alone is enough to keep North American anthropology on a front burner. Plus, I always keep my finger to the wind about local activity related to Native American studies.

So, it should come as no surprise that a recent email invitation from Northampton book dealer Betsy Frederick piqued my interest. With a fascination in all things local and indigenous, she reached out after reading my recent column about a manmade stone structure I found about a decade ago, buried high and deep in the forest. An expert who studied photos of the feature said it was a Native American prayer seat, which led to my own speculation that the ridgetop enclosure could have been used for vision- or spirit-questing.

Frederick was eager to show me a similar feature she thought could have served the same deep-history function in the woods above her Sunderland home, nestled into Mount Toby’s western skirt.

We met on a Sunday morning at her home overlooking Route 47 from a forested knoll. From there, we drove a short distance to a woods trail that took us to within quick walking distance of the dark-gray stone feature. And, there it sat, a large, sturdy, squared U-shaped stone enclosure poking out from knoll near the edge of a three-story-high cliff. Facing south and east, it appeared to be a natural formation that could, I suppose, have been tweaked at some point by human hands.

Someone with more expertise than I would have to make that call, especially these days when Native American stone-structure fanatics identify every stone wall as a serpent, every game and old logging trail as an ancient path, and every pointed irregularity on forest boulders as raptors’ beaks. I listen, but it’s getting ridiculous.

Frederick isn’t one of them. She came to the Connecticut Valley as a Gloucester college student, liked what she found, and settled in. Her suspicion that the hidden feature could have Native American significance is grounded in reality. She’s sat in this sturdy stone seat for winter-solstice sunrises, the first rays of which stare her in the face.

Frederick knew me from my near-40-year Greenfield Recorder columns. We met many years ago when, similar to this latest rendezvous, she wanted to introduce me to the incredible ledges in the woods enveloping her home. She believed that several overhangs along the base of the tall ledges showed great promise as ancient rock shelters that could have been inhabited during the peopling of our valley during early or even pre-Clovis epic. Who knew? She could be onto something. These shelf caves would have been conveniently located along the shoreline of proglacial Lake Hitchcock, which drained some 13,500 years ago.


Though I thought of it more than once on my recent ride to meet her, I never mentioned the poignancy of our first, unforgettable meeting. It occurred at about 11 on the morning of April 6, 2014 at her home. I had stayed up the previous night to watch Coach John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats advance to the NCAA men’s basketball championship game with a win over Wisconsin. Several times during the game, I had called son Ryan’s Northfield apartment to chat, and all my calls went curiously unanswered. I knew he’d be watching. He was a big “Coach Cal” fan dating back to the rags-to-riches days when he put UMass Hoops on national center stage. I was sure “Rynie” would be eager to discuss the game.

My wife was concerned. I told her to relax. Maybe he was visiting a friend or entertaining a girlfriend.

Next morning, still worried, she called his apartment first thing. Still no answer. Sensing something had gone amiss, she showered, dressed, and drove to Northfield to check on him. He was still in recovery from open-heart surgery seven months earlier to repair an aortic dissection that could have killed him.

She called me moments before I left for Frederick’s house. Bad news. She found Rynie unresponsive in his recliner. It was very serious. He was alive, en route by ambulance to the Greenfield hospital. She was on her way. It looked like sepsis. No reason to cancel my appointment. There was nothing I could do at the moment. We could talk later.

Soon I was knocking on Frederick’s door. She asked me in and we exchanged pleasantries. I told her of my son’s dire situation. He may not make it. I don’t recall her reaction. Probably that maybe we should cancel and reschedule. I stayed.

My host threw on a jacket and we took a short drive in my truck, parked, and walked to the base of a series of impressive tall ledges. Following them north, with a sandy-bedded spring brook snaking its way through marsh to our left, we stopped to examine several shallow caves that would have been more than capable of sheltering several people under large, sturdy overhangs.

I returned home to learn that Rynie was indeed septic, and “critical.” An ambulance was transporting him to Springfield’s Baystate Medical Center. It was touch and go. Nine days later, on the day before his 29th birthday, he was dead.


The impetus for that 2014 walk with Frederick was columns I had written about the 12,400-year-old Paleo “Sugarloaf Site,” and the indigenous “Great Beaver” origin tale of Mount Sugarloaf and its Pocumtuck Range. The Sugarloaf Site – a Clovis archaeological treasure trove straddling the Deerfield-Whately line across the river from Frederick’s home – was a multi-occupation, seasonal place of repeat encampments, visited for decades by nomadic bands of Paleoindian caribou hunters.

There some of our valley’s earliest human inhabitants left many fascinating traces of their Clovis culture buried on a sandy outwash plain that was once lake bottom. Now the raised terrace is cropland, bordering fertile river meadows between it and the river. Gramly believes it’s one of North American’s largest, most important, Paleoindian sites.

Although Gramly’s 1995 and 2013 excavations uncovered many important artifacts there, he believes his limited research only scratched the surface. There is much more to be gleaned from the site. Nonetheless, it has been largely ignored due to strict state oversight and secrecy.

After my first tour of the Toby rock shelters, I reported to Gramly what I had seen. Months later, I explored similar cliffs and rock shelters behind the Ward Cemetery along the eastern base of North Sugarloaf, just around the corner from the Sugarloaf Site. Since then, Gramly has himself visited some of the ledges along Toby’s western skirt as well as a secluded waterfall in the same area. He was impressed with what he saw, and in awe of what that landscape may someday reveal about the peopling of our valley.

What is it, he wonders, that has kept UMass archaeologists away? Are they shamefully unaware? Have they not a hint of intellectual curiosity? How can they call themselves scientists, he asks?

Gramly can only imagine what would come to light if someone – even an untrained hobbyist with limited knowledge of what to look for – started probing the old Lake Hitchcock shoreline on both sides of our valley. All it would take to scratch up important discoveries around rock shelters, forgotten springs, and waterfalls is a little energy, intellectual curiosity, and the type of hand-held, five-finger claws found in most garden sheds.

Gramly, a Harvard PhD archaeologist with beaucoup field experience, scoffs at the notion that such surface investigation would be invasive, irresponsible and destructive. He calls that opinion a red herring disseminated by cultural-resource-management devotees. In fact, he believes a little “poking around” would be no threat to future professional exploration.

In his mind, someone ought to get the ball rolling toward further research. He himself tried twice, yet today the archaeological hot spot known in the field as the Ulrich Locus languishes under a 15-foot mound of dirt I sarcastically named Mount Dincauze years ago in dishonor of late, respected UMass scholar Dena F. Dincauze (1934-2016). It was she who ordered heavy-equipment operators excavating the site to cover it with a protective mound before convincing the state to buy private land and prevent future archaeological digs.


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