A Deer Story That Can Now Be Told

This is a tale that took place decades ago. I’ve told it many times in conversation but never written it. Now, with camouflaged bowhunters occupying local tree stands, why not, for posterity, put it in black and white?

I’d estimate that it unfolded in the mid to late 1980s, when I was a young man in my 30s. I owned my late grandfather’s home in South Deerfield and hunted with townie friends like Timmy Dash, Big Stosh, Fast Eddie, Hopper White, and the Young Count. We’d start the fall in the October swamps, overgrown fields and orchards, wing-shooting pheasant, grouse, woodcock and an occasional duck behind my black Lab, Sara. Then we’d close it out on December hardwood ridges during the shotgun and blackpowder deer seasons.

Which of my hunting buddies accompanied me on that Sunday-morning deer-scouting mission in the deep woods of the Williamsburg quadrangle I honestly don’t recall. My best guess would be Big Stosh, an old baseball teammate and friend since grammar school. It doesn’t matter. This story about the unlikeliest of discoveries can stand on its own.

To tell the truth, I can’t even remember the name of the Hatfield bowhunter I’m writing about. All I can say is that he killed a monster whitetail buck, one of a size most commonly associated with the Northwoods. The trophy buck tipped the scale at a smidge under 240 pounds, with an incredible antler mass and spread. I know the hunter had a Polish surname, one beginning with M and ending in ski. I think his first name was Rich. But don’t hold me to it. It was long ago. He may by now be dead. But I’d wager that the impressive wall mount is still on display somewhere in the valley.

Back then, as sports editor of the Greenfield Recorder, I was in the early years of cranking out a weekly Thursday outdoors column titled “On the Trail.” Come archery deer season each November, I’d dig out my detailed, annotated list of western Massachusetts deer-checking-station phone numbers and call every last one of them weekly looking for good copy about remarkable hunts. I’d publish a weekly 200-pound club report. That is, hunters who had taken bucks weighing a minimum of 200 pounds. Occasionally, I’d lower my standards and dip into the 190s when checking-station personnel raved about the animal.

Though I’d often learn by word of mouth about local hunters’ success, even then I’d get confirmation from the men and women who weighed and recorded deer kills at state fish hatcheries and private gun shops. I was on a first-name basis with many station attendants stretching from Worcester to Pittsfield. When they provided successful hunters’ names and town of residence, I could, in the days before cell phones, easily find their home phone numbers in the telephone book – a convenience unknown to modern scribes. In fact, I’d take a wild guess that there are many 30-somethings today who have never once opened a telephone book looking for a number.

If my memory serves me well, this particular monster buck was recorded at the long-ago shuttered Pioneer Valley Sporting Center on Damon Road in Northampton. But again, that’s superfluous information by now, not by any stretch critical after all these years.

What I do vividly recall is that the man who owned the sports shop and entered the kill into the books, himself a veteran deer hunter, was in total awe. He remarked that bucks like that are rare indeed in this neck of the woods.

After I had obtained all the facts I could gather from the man named Bill something-or-other, I phoned the Hatfield hunter to get his story. Still on cloud nine, he was more than willing to share how his hunt played out, recounting every minute detail: from the scrape line the buck had pawed into the forest floor, to the placement of his stand and buck lure, to the animal’s cautious approach, to the entry-point of the mortal arrow. He was proud, more than willing to recreate the total experience of taking a buck for the ages.

However, if there’s one question no hunter likes to answer, it’s stand location. Bowhunters are particularly secretive, extremely protective of their favorite tree stands. They view such information as strictly confidential, reserved only for family and dearest friends, if that. Anyone interviewing a successful hunter must respect this confidentiality code. If you can get an accurate town of kill, you’re doing well. But pinpointing the site? Good luck.

Still, the question must be asked, and it was. After a brief, tell-tale pause, his furtive answer was Chestnut Mountain, a well-known deer-hunting ridge straddling the North Hatfield-West Whately line between Route 5 & 10 and Northampton’s Mountain Street Reservoir. Many a big buck has been taken from those woods overlooking the so-called “Plantation” and West Brook. And believe you me, many a cagey hunter has over the years used Chestnut Mountain as clever cover for an actual kill site. It seems every town has a place like that, one that provides a convenient cover for the question hunters don’t want asked.

I reported what the man told me, knowing there was a good chance it was not true. What choice did I have? I would have preferred a humorous and evasive answer. You know, something like “under the old apple tree” or “in the white oaks” or “through the heart and lungs,” or even a simple “no comment.” Instead, I got the polite runaround, and printed it.

Well, little did I know that more reliable data would soon appear in the form of an incredible stroke of good fortune. We’re talking about dumb luck, the improbability of which was greater than getting struck by lightning. Still, unlikely as it may seem, it happened. Like they say all the time in Chicopee: You can’t make it up.

Within two or three weeks of my big-buck column hitting the street, my friend and I decided to scout our favorite sections of the expansive woods known on topo maps as the Williamsburg quadrangle. Even then it wasn’t as heavily hunted as it once had been, because modern hunters were starting to drift away from big woods in favor of small suburban woodlots with high deer densities. Known to state wildlife biologists as “The Four Corners,” because Whately, Williamsburg, Ashfield, and Conway meet there, I preferred to hunt the ridges traversed by Henhawk Trail, an old Indian footpath and discontinued road leading from the Whately-Williamsburg line to Cricket Hill in Conway.

I had known those woods since I was a teen wandering the old roads with a high-school sweetheart on warm spring days. Back then I even happened upon a small Sixties artist commune hidden there, the members of which summered in twine-bound lean-tos off Henhawk Road. These same folks also had a small, winter cabin named “The Eagle’s Nest” atop Dry Hill. Last time I checked, the Nest was still sturdy and standing amid outcroppings of ledge on the hardwood ridge.

At the base of the double-rutted road leading to the cabin was a private bridge crossing a small spring brook. Cresting the wooden frame defining the crossing was a carved sign sporting a coiled rattlesnake preceding a warning that read “Avril Wood: Don’t Tread on Me.” Apparently, the commune’s name was Avril Wood and the members didn’t enjoy trespassers. Nonetheless, I met the loin-clothed campers a few times and spoke with them. They were harmless hippies – friendly, in fact, once they understood they were not threatened.

Anyway, on a high terrace over the top of the ridgetop Eagle’s Nest there was an old overgrown apple orchard that produced plentiful fruit one year and virtually none the next. When apples were plentiful, deer frequently fed there. Thus, it was important to assess the apple crop before hunting season began.

Our pre-shotgun-deer-season scouting plan was to four-wheel my Jeep Cherokee up Henhawk to a spot between High Ridge and Dry Hill. Parking there, we’d scout High Ridge to a backdoor descent to the old Boy Scout camp, then hike up to the old orchard on Dry Hill’s gentle north slope. Interpreting deer sign along that circuitous journey, we’d be able to assess their feeding and bedding habits.

Having finished the High Ridge leg of the mission, we crossed Henhawk, passed my Jeep, and were following a stonewall up Dry Hill when I stumbled on what felt like a vine or maybe a strand of old metal fence buried in fresh leaf litter. When I tried unsuccessfully to pull right through the snag, I backed off, freed my boot, and spotted a shiny cord of some sort.


With my curiosity piqued, I reached down to inspect the cord, which looked relatively new. When I pulled up on it, I could see it was attached to a small, rectangular plastic box attached about three inches up the base of a small tree to my right. I then followed it about three feet to the left, where it was anchored to another tree base, creating a tripwire.

I fiddled with the plastic box and was able to slide it off a frame secured to the tree. What I had discovered quite by chance was a hunter’s trail-timer, placed along a well-used deer run to track movement into the nearby orchard. A passing deer would hit the tripwire like I had and stop the timer inside to record the time of passing. It was an early version of the trail cameras deer hunters use today for the same purpose, although now, even better, motion sensors trigger photos of passing critters.

Upon closer inspection, I found the owner’s name written on the inner panel. Difficult as it may seem to believe, that trail-timer belonged to none other than the Hatfield hunter I had featured in the big-buck column. I was dumbstruck. How was that possible?

From peak to peak, Dry Hill and Chestnut Mountain are separated by less than three miles – in the neighborhood, so to speak, but more than far enough apart for a hunter trying to conceal a favorite haunt.

To this day, I still can’t believe I found that device by total accident in such a timely fashion. Talk about a needle in a haystack, a random discovery like that, in deep woods no less, should never happen. The probability of hitting a Powerball jackpot is better, likely much better

So now the story has finally been told in black and white. The statute of limitations long ago passed. That was no Chestnut Hill buck. It was a Dry Hill-High Ridge racker, and an extraordinary one at that.

Deerfield’s North Meadows Sentry Passes

A proud, dignified Old Deerfield elder, tall and broad, taciturn to a fault, died peacefully with little notice in recent months, ironically during the planting and nesting season of birth and growth.

Though few knew his name, it was Ulmus Americana, more commonly American Elm – a dying breed that once lined our streets and neighborhoods as deciduous shade trees. That was before a post-World War II Asian invader known as Dutch Elm Disease – a fungal pathogen transmitted by the elm bark beetle – arrived to push our elms to the brink of extinction. Today, the few stragglers that remain stand as lonely reminders of our past.

Before we proceed in this sensitive Happy Valley, let me say I could have used either gender to describe this wise old sentry, standing straight as a preacher man in the fertile North Meadows. Elm trees have no gender. They’re monoecious or hermaphrodite, meaning their spring flowers contain both male and female parts, which produce small, flattened seeds surrounded by papery wings that soften their fall to earth. Who knew?

Word of the tree’s rapid demise came to me by phone from friend Dennis Dassatti, who gardens in the rich, fertile North Meadows. He and those intimately familiar with the stately tree were perplexed by its sudden death – green leaves one day, then brown, then soon on the ground below, leaving a tall, broad, naked skeleton standing more than 100 feet tall with a 19-foot circumference at the base and at least 10 muscular leaders reaching to the sun. Here today, gone tomorrow.

Dassatti had known the tree for at least a half-century. Standing along the bank of a small pond that some would call a mudhole this time of year, he used to sit camouflaged with his back against the large tree waiting for ducks to fly in over his decoys within range of his Belgian Browning Auto-5 fowling gun. The tree was the hunter’s friend and associate, offering cover.

In more recent years, Dassatti has tended a long, narrow garden strip maybe 200 yards southeast of the tree. So, there his old friend stood as he worked, blotting out some of the hills called Sunsick on the western horizon. He was sincerely moved by its passing, like losing an old teammate.

There is no shame or foolishness in feeling such affection for a tree. In fact, many indigenous cultures do or once did identify plants, animals and some remarkable inanimate objects as beings with a soul and a spirit. It’s a worldview Western Civilization has trouble getting its heads around, yet one that’s gained much traction in alternative chambers of Western thought. Then, of course, there is Native American, hunter-gatherer spirituality, which follows the same wholistic pattern, granting equality to virtually everything in their universe. Plants, animals, mountains, springs and even some stones have spirits that must be included in cosmological council.

Heath forester Bill Lattrell, a man of aristocratic Native American roots, understands such belief systems. Of Eastern Algonquian and Cherokee roots, he’s a proud descendant of Grey Lock, the famous, displaced Woronoco (Westfield) warrior who, during the first third of the 18th century, wreaked havoc on what is now called the Pioneer Valley from his Lake Champlain Abenaki village. The man deeply resented the foreign interlopers who drove him and his people from their place.

I contacted Lattrell when lingering questions about the tree, its cause of death and age kept surfacing during telephone conversations. I needed expert consultation and, though I had never met the man, felt like I knew him from email correspondence concerning past columns I have written. I finally reached out by Facebook Messenger, and he agreed to visit the site and age the big elm on one of his trips through Greenfield. We finally connected last week, when we in front of the Deerfield Inn. Dassatti joined us on our way to the site, all of us arriving in separate vehicles in compliance with social-distancing recommendations.

I was in the lead as Dassatti joined us in-route down Broughams Pond Road and into the North Meadows. When we arrived at the T a quarter-mile away, I took a left onto Little Meadow Road and allowed Dassatti to take the lead the rest of the way. The tree and grassy lane leading to it were on private property, and he was friends with the landowners. We traveled a short distance, took a quick right before a barn and followed the lane along a barb-wired pasture holding cattle, parking 50 yards north of the tree.

When we exited our pickups and before introductions, Lattrell, looking directly at the tree, gave us a knee-jerk estimate, given what he could see from where we stood.

“Looks like about 175 years old,” he said.

We climbed under the fence and walked to the edge of the pond basin in which it stood. Able to see the entire tree from that vantagepoint 15 feet away, its massive base sitting eight feet downslope, he knew his initial age estimate was low.

“Wow,” he said, in awe of its girth. “What a magnificent tree. It’s older than I thought.”

Standing and chatting a short distance from the dead elm as Dassatti circled us taking photos, our private discussion entered into trees, nature and worldview. It was then that he shared valuable advice his Abenaki grandfather had once imparted while observing him as a 5-year-old whipping a tree with a long stick for no particular reason. Though his grandfather knew it was harmless kid’s play, he was uncomfortable with it. He calmly intervened, telling his grandson that was no way to treat a tree, that trees were living beings who should be treated with affection, the same as you’d treat an uncle, a cousin or grandparent. Trees bled, breathed, drank water and provided important resources. We should be thankful for trees, he was told, and at all times treat them with kindness and respect.

Lattrell remembers thinking, “Huh? What is he talking about?” But he never forgot the sage advice and, over time, evolved into a like-minded forester.

We were still chatting when Dassatti returned from his photo-shoot. We walked down to the base of the tree, where I pinned the end of a 200-foot tape measure 4½ feet up the massive trunk (called “breast-height) as Lattrell walked it down and around the tree. Measured at 17.2 feet around, the forester dug out his calculator, converted the circumference to 206.4 inches and plugged it into a complex formula involving Pi and the tree’s growth factor to arrive at an estimated age of 276 years, give or take.

In summation, Lattrell doesn’t believe the giant elm fell victim to a pathogen or poison. The life-expectancy of an American elm is about 300 years, and he thinks it had simply run its course in fertile isolation and died of old age.

We can now only ponder the historic events this grand old tree witnessed. The computed age of 276 years brings us back to 1744, 19 years before the end of the final French & Indian War. So, the elm definitely heard gunfire from the South Meadows’ Bars Fight below on Aug. 25, 1746. Who knows? It’s not out of the question that the tree had even sprouted in time to witness the infamous Feb. 29, 1704 Indian attack of Deerfield. Yes, unlikely, but not impossible.

Now the wise old sentry is dead, his reign ended without progeny to bear future witness. All that’s left is a conspicuous skeleton standing as a temporary gravestone. Maybe it’ll soon be a stump whose rings will reveal its exact age, whose cordwood will provide warmth for many winters.

Yes indeed, old Ulmus Americana had a good life in a great place, no richer soil anywhere on the planet.

Kids’ Stuff

Never too late to share a good story, this one occurred on a hot, humid July morning, before noon. Long ago, yes, but still relevant.

It had been a typical morning. I had walked a couple of miles at daybreak, eaten a light breakfast, read, caught up on TV news, gone through emails, responding to a few, maybe even chatted on the phone, though that I do not recall. On some mornings, yes, a phone call is part of my routine. I place some, answer others. If the discussion is dynamic, let it roam. If not, move on.

I’ve squeezed in a lot of reading and local-history probes since spring, all the while maintaining a yard, harvesting my rhubarb, berries and meaty Romas, tidying the barn, observing wildlife – particularly neighborhood deer at the crack of dawn, when they’re still out – and chatting with neighbors on my daily rounds. All this under a dark, ominous COVID-19 cloud, which complicates social interaction. Maybe this uninvited demon will disappear by summer. I hope so. What a freakin’ fiasco, misinformation swirling like a meandering cyclone.

Personal-distancing measures and fear of infection were palpable and rampant the day I met my new neighbor named Gilead, a 7-year-old boy whose parents bought a home down the street. I out by the barn picking raspberries when I initiated our first interaction with some playful remark to his friend, Erin, a young girl whose parents live next door. The two kids were busy playing near the brook, some 15 yards away, when greeted them. I don’t recall what I said. Something lighthearted. Erin is used to it. I often engage her in light conversation when we pass. I enjoy kids’ curiosity and enthusiasm.

Whatever I said drew the kids’ attention. Sure enough, they had soon joined me, eating berries as fast as they picked them from the opposite edge of a narrow patch split by a slim stonewall. The backyard brook was trickling its soothing summer song as I introduced myself and learned his name. He said I could call him Gil. He lived in a home I pass in my daily rambles. His previous address was Montague Center.

I told him I liked his name, that my late son Gary wrote a song named Gilead. It’s about a road near the Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont, where his college friend lives.

“So, maybe I’ll use your full name,” I said. “Fair enough?”


My chore that day was filling a wooden, quart fruit box with berries I force myself to pick daily when in season. I freeze them in flat, layered Ziplock bags, which provide sweet, succulent, off-season breakfasts when mixed in cold cereal, steaming oatmeal and, every now and then, tasty muffins baked in cast-iron pans. The cool-weather treats justify my sweaty summer chore.

As we picked facing each other some six or eight feet apart, I saw Gilead eat a red berry I knew wasn’t quite ripe, thus likely just a tad bitter. Displaying one between my thumb and forefinger, I encouraged him to select only the soft, purple berries, promising he’d be mighty happy with the results. He listened, immediately picked one, remarked how easily it pulled from the stem, put it in his mouth and savored the delicate sweetness. His expression said it all. A satisfied smile. He had learned something worth knowing.

Over time, the kid undoubtedly would have figured out my little lesson on his own. Still, why not expediate the discovery process? Adult intervention doesn’t detract from learning, just speeds the process with a nudge forward. Nothing wrong with that.

After picking the most accessible berries, young Gilead was presented with the same problem that has confronted berry-picking hunter-gatherers since their ancient beginnings. The kid wanted to penetrate the patch of prickly canes to pick the ripe interior berries, but was discouraged not only by thorns but also pesky nettles, which in childhood I knew as seven-minute itch.

“I wish there were paths to the ripe berries I can’t reach,” he said. “I don’t want to touch the nettles.”

“Can’t say I blame you,” I answered. “I don’t like nettles either. I remove them on my side, wearing gloves to uproot them.

“I’ll bet you didn’t know that Indians made rope and string from nettles. The cordage of various widths was used for fishing nets and fishing line as well as baskets, sacks and strong, braided rope?”

Eye to eye, I could sense something wasn’t hunky-dory. Then, peering up innocently through the drooping, tangled canes, the boy dropped the hammer, saying, “You’re supposed to call them indigenous people.”

I should have known better, given his previous place of residence – that UMass bedroom community known to sarcastic Trump supporters as The Peoples’ Republic of Montague Center. In that riverside hamlet, Native American debate is ripe as my purple raspberries. So, of course, the boy didn’t hesitate to object to my insensitive word choice. Indian is no longer acceptable in some circles, where Native American or my friend’s term are preferred.

Ooooops! Sorry, Kid. Old habits die hard.

So, now we are even. I gave him a lesson in berry-picking; he schooled me in 21st-century political-correctness. Hmmmmm? They call that reciprocity, don’t they?

Sixty years younger, Gilead had reminded me that you’re never too old to learn, too young to teach.

Good thing the boy was unaware of my interest in words and language. Had he known, he may have asked whether indigenous is upper or lower case? Whew! The answer to that inquiry could gone a half a day. There seems to be no short answer these days.

Great Beaver Tale Evolves

The ancient, indigenous Great Beaver Tale about the origin of Deerfield’s Pocumtuck Range has changed dramatically since 1890, when East Charlemont antiquarian Phinehas Field’s 105-word, 1871 description was published in Volume 1 of History and Proceedings of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (1870-79).

Soon after that bare-bones account by a white Christian man of deep Puritan persuasion appeared in print as the ninth of 12 Stories, Anecdotes and Legends Collected and Written Down by Deacon Phinehas Field, two rapid-fire embellishments of his Algonquian earthshaping creation tale were published. The first hit the street in 1895, crafted by venerable Deerfield historian George Sheldon. Then a slightly different version was presented in 1915 by Montague historian Edward Pressey. Sheldon, who apparently was not familiar with the landscape tale before Field brought it to light, increased the word-count to 120 and introduced a few new elements. Pressey upped it to 156 words, adding his own unique spin.

And there you have it in its entirety: a white man’s tale; that of Sugarloaf’s Great Beaver, which stood till the dawning of our 21st century.

In recent years, new life has been pumped into this deep-history oral tale by scholarly, professional, Abenaki storytellers, Marge Bruchac and Lisa Brooks, among other Native contributors who continue to come forward with their own little tweaks and twerks to an alluring tale. They’ve added vivid color and detail to a foundational sketch.

It’s appropriate that Native storytellers have revived this ancient earthshaping tale and molded it into a modern narrative that fits contemporary norms. Even thousands of years ago, Pocumtuck storytellers would have had the liberty to employ poetic license by shaping a deep-history tale to the times – say, for instance, folding it into narrative about natural disaster, such as a flood or drought, perhaps a devastating human epidemic, maybe blight or insect infestation of important plant foods. In the Native American cosmos, natural phenomena, good and bad, happened for a reason. Natural occurrences were seldom if ever viewed as simple coincidence, and could always be related to familiar, ancient tales known for millennia and told around cozy winter fires capable of stirring creative juices of storyteller and listener alike.

A tale like that of the Sugarloaf beaver could last an hour or two, extend through the night, or even go on for more than a day, depending on audience receptivity. The longer versions would have been great theater, the full Monty, so to speak, introducing song and dance, the heartbeat of drums and chants, flashy costume and hushed drama – suspense that could strike fear or rapture into an entranced gathering.

Fidgety children likely heard the short version of such stories around the spring fires of Peskeompskut (now Turners Falls) fishing camps, or in association with a Green Corn Moon festival. The full performance could have been reserved for promontories on the eastern or western horizon from which the Pocumtuck Range’s beaver profile could be clearly deciphered; maybe even from atop Mount Sugarloaf itself – the beaver’s head, its eyes, its brain. What better place to perform ritualistic theater?

Tales that introduced dark, dangerous, underworld spirits – maybe snakes, giant snapping turtles, horned serpents, underwater panthers or even revered black bears – were reserved for winter, when such dangerous creatures were hibernating or unresponsive under dense ice, where they couldn’t hear and thus wouldn’t retaliate. If, however, such powerful forces were alert to the telling and insulted or disrespected, they could and very likely would strike back at disrespectful gatherings.

Eastern Woodland villagers had great respect for everything in their three-layered cosmos consisting of Grandmother Earth floating between the Sky and Under worlds. Theirs was a holistic universe, where plants and animals, springs and swamps, rivers and streams, mountains and valleys, caves and remarkable stones were all community members at council fire. Most everything had a spirit – even inanimate objects like the Pocumtuck Range, which local indigenous people believed had once been a troublesome giant beaver bludgeoned to death by the giant culture-hero Hobomock for flaunting rude, uncooperative behavior, in its case, hoarding and greed. Selfishness was not tolerated by Native Americans, who valued community sharing and charity.

In Algonquian culture, Hobomock was a creator, a transformer, and a mischievous, humorous trickster known by many spellings and names, including but not limited to Koluskap, Gluscape, Glooscap, and Maushop along the Northeastern coast, as well as Odziozo, Nenabozho, Nanabozho, and Nanabush to inland Natives extending through the Great Lakes. Many indigenous tales recounted classic battles between this culture hero and Pleistocene megafauna like the giant beaver, comparable in size to today’s black bear.

Algonquian legend credited Hobomock with reducing the giant beaver and squirrel to today’s more-manageable, less dangerous and destructive size. In the case of the Sugarloaf beaver, the culture hero punished an unruly, antisocial beast and left for eternity a petrified landmark in the form of its carcass.

Today, this abrupt, twisted landform we know as Sugarloaf – for millennia a visual reference for travelers and an observation point for residents – continues to challenge storytellers to conform the Beaver Tale to the times. Bruchac and Brooks have done just that, using the tale as the centerpiece around which to build their very own Western Abenaki narrative about our middle Connecticut Valley. It has become the peg they hang their hat on, an enticing tale that draws listeners.

In the process, place names of geographical features recorded in the extinct Pocumtuck language on our first deeds are being converted to Abenaki words, while distinctions between the ancient New England neighbors are blurred. The truth is that the Pocumtuck and Western Abenaki people occupied different territories, practiced somewhat different lifeways based on climate, and spoke barely mutually intelligible dialects of the base Eastern Algonquian language.

Because of a shorter North Country growing season, Native communities situated there clung more to their “Old Ways” of hunting and gathering than their southern, agriculturist cousins, who adopted Three Sisters farming of corn, beans and squash as their foundational food source. Yes, sure, these people often intermarried, congregated, traded, and united as allies in times of conflict. But, no, they were not one people before Europeans arrived in our valley – though the Sokoki had, by the turn of the 17th century, established their southernmost physical presence in new villages on the northern periphery of Pocumtuck territory. Those villages existed in an area now occupied by Northfield, Hinsdale, New Hampshire., and Vernon, Vermont.

By the late 17th century, the diaspora of southern New England Natives brought them west to the Berkshires and upper Hudson Valley, north to the upper reaches of Lake Champlain, and as far west as the Upper Great Plains, where they assimilated into the dominant societies. Not only did many displaced, homeless Pocumtuck, Nonotuck, Agawam, and Woronoco villagers ultimately wind up living in Western Abenaki villages along the northern shores of Lake Champlain. By 1750, and probably a generation earlier, they had, according to late, great anthropologist Gordon Day, adopted the language of their Sokoki hosts, many of whom had previously lived around Northfield. Simply put, the Sokokis comprised the largest slice of their Champlain villages’ ethnic pie, so their version of the language ruled.

Bruchac and Brooks have many tendrils reaching into those upper-Champlain Native communities, and thus understand the melting-pot dynamics dating back hundreds of years. Though Bruchac, 66, is almost a generation older than Brooks, they both began their college careers in the 1990s. Actually, the younger Brooks, 49, completed each step of her degree path a little earlier than Bruchac, earning her BA from Goddard College in 1993, her MA from Boston College in 1998, and her PhD at Cornell in 2004. Bruchac completed her undergraduate BA at Smith College in 1999, before earning her MA (2003) and PhD (2007) at UMass-Amherst. Brooks is now a professor of English and American Studies at Amherst College, and Bruchac, assistant professor of Anthropology, is Coordinator of Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

So, both women are highly capable, articulate scholars and storytellers working at prestigious colleges. Their insights into Northeastern indigenous cultures and their understanding of the Native cosmos are top-shelf, yet not entirely unimpeachable in my eyes. Why? Because, although their interpretation of oral history, such as Sugarloaf’s Great Beaver Tale, is framed in scholarly wisdom, interpretation is not and never will be fact, no matter how cleverly nuanced.

Unfortunately, there is no 19th-century, wax-cylinder, Native-tongue recording of the Great Beaver Tale collecting Smithsonian Institution dust. Thus, the deep-history tale told thousands of years before what late historian Francis Jennings calls the European invasion will never be known. End of story. Period. Instead, we must rely on clever and creative storytellers to give us their best recreations, shaping the narrative to fit their own perspectives.

Bruchac launched the Beaver-Tale resurgence with her own evolving oral presentations in Old Deerfield and elsewhere during the last decade of the 20th century, not unlike Sheldon crafting his pre-History of Deerfield narrative in the Greenfield Gazette and Courier. Hailing from a Greenfield, New York storytelling family that includes older brother Joseph Bruchac and his sons, James and Jesse, Marge Bruchac was the perfect Beaver Tale-rebirth vehicle. She had it in her blood, so to speak. Brother Joseph is a card-carrying creative writer and performer, with many books about Native and colonial folklore to his credit.

Another creative contribution was made by North-Country Western Abenaki poet Cheryl Savageau, who dedicated her poem about the beaver, At Sugarloaf, 1996, to Marge Bruchac, suggesting to me the likelihood that Bruchac had introduced her to the tale. The two writers are close in age, travel in the same circles, and are from the same bolt of cloth.

Bruchac’s first publication of the Sugarloaf tale was in the essay “Earthshapers and Placemakers: Algonkian Indian Stories and the Landscape,” which appeared in the 2005 compilation Indigenous Archaeologies: Decolonizing Theory and Practice. Describing the evolution and function of indigenous landscape tales, she stuck to the documented Pocumtuck-language place names for Mount Sugarloaf (Wequomps on a 1672 deed; now more commonly Wequamps, which she translates as “the place where a hill drops off”), the Pocumtuck Range (Pemawatchuwatunck), and the Connecticut and Deerfield rivers, as they appeared in the earliest deeds.

Eleven years later, in her 2016 PVMA online essay “The Geology and Cultural History of the Beaver Hill Story,” she still used the documented Pocumtuck names for landscape features and locations.

Then along came the articulate, younger Brooks, who threw her creative hat into the ring to assist in the reshaping of a pre-Columbian oral tale. Brooks chose to hike a separate path in her excellent, acclaimed The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast, which hit the market in 2008. This historical work of literary non-fiction views our slice of the Connecticut Valley, homeland of the Pocumtuck, through a Wabenaki lens, adopting the same Wabenaki place name Savageau had introduced for Sugarloaf in her poem. That name, Ktsi Amiskw, means “The Great Beaver,” territory encompassing not only the Pocumtuck Range but also the fertile shelf it sits on. Never has the Pocumtuck name for this Great Beaver ever surfaced, so it will be forever unknown. Ktsi Amiskw apparently extends south from the foot of Mount Sugarloaf to the Holyoke Range, which is split by the Connecticut River (Kwiniteku) narrows exiting Northampton Meadows.

Now, as we enter the fourth decade of the new Great Beaver Tale paradigm, additional disciples have appeared from the Nipmuc and Narragansett nations, and local newspapers are singing praise of the refreshing new narrative employing Western Abenaki place names. The reporters say it’s long overdue, about time, for local schoolchildren to learn of their valley’s ancient, indigenous past. How better than by introduction to the indigenous tales of the land? Think of it: How better to arrive at an accurate sense of place than through a Native lens? Simply put, there is no better way.

Even so, it remains true that the new paradigm should never be accepted as the one told 2,000 years BC. At this point, we can only try to accurately re-create an extinct oral tale and the lessons its landscape carcass display.

Sadly, Pocumtuck DNA is scattered far, wide and thin, their language is extinct, and the creation tale of their homeland has faded to a ghost of what it was. We can now only rely on scholarly interpretation and literary intervention, which is fun and captivating indeed, but not the real deal. Sad but true, there is no other way to spin that stark reality.

Sugarloaf Beaver Tale All Began In 1871 With Phinehas Field And The PVMA

A venerable, solemn Phinehas Field is displayed in the formal, sketched portrait accompanying his online Find A Grave profile.

A man who volunteered for Civil War service after his 60th birthday, Field had, by the time of this formal portrait, served many years as deacon of the Charlemont Congregational Church and lived a distinguished, pious life. Phinehas Field had much to be proud of.

Born 1799 and raised in Northfield, he died at 85 in Charlemont in 1884. Undoubtedly an outspoken Lincolnian Republican, Field’s tall, mushroom-capped gravestone stands in East Charlemont’s Leavitt Cemetery, situated along the Mohawk Trail on the western skirt of Charlemont Academy. It’s a fitting final resting place for the man who, in 1831, married Chloe Maxwell Leavitt, granddaughter of Charlemont’s conservative minister Rev. Jonathan Leavitt, whose palatial, Georgian-colonial home – The Manse – still stands along a discontinued dirt road 1.5 miles north of Field’s grave. (Rumor has it that Charlemont’s Revolutionary patriots were so determined to be rid of their pacifist minister that they made sure his property was set off with Heath in 1785. And there it stands today, along the border, in Heath.)

Not only was Chloe Maxwell Leavitt Field’s grandfather a minister. Her uncle was prestigious Greenfield lawyer, judge and state senator Jonathan Leavitt, whose sprawling Federal home still stands in downtown Greenfield. There it has for decades served as the Greenfield Public Library. Two of Jonathan Jr.’s brothers were also prominent Greenfield residents.

Though it could be said that Phinehas Field married well, that is not to suggest that he married up. No, he surely would have begged to differ with any such claim. Field came from his own proud New England heritage. Of royal Connecticut Valley cloth, the Fields have since the beginning been scattered up and down the fertile river basin.

Progenitor Zachariah Field is found among the 161 names cut in stone on the Hartford Founders Monument. An early arrival to Boston in 1629, he settled in Dorchester before joining Rev. Thomas Hooker’s famous 1636 overland migration to Hartford, where he became an original proprietor (1639) after fighting in the Pequot War (1637). By 1659, the restless Field had removed to nascent Northampton. Then, in 1662, he moved a few miles north to infant Hatfield, where he died four years later.

According to genealogist Timothy Lester Jacobs of the Society of the Descendants of the Founders of Hartford, “Zachery” Field was engaged as a Northampton and Hatfield resident “in mercantile business, and had a large trade with the Indians.” A pioneer in the true sense of the word, he didn’t live long enough to see Hatfield split off from Hadley and gain township in 1670.

The pioneer flame burned just as brightly among Zachery Field’s descendants, many of them Indian fighters and ground-breakers for early towns like Deerfield, Northfield and Sunderland. Zachariah’s son, Sgt. Samuel Field, survived the Falls Fight of May 19, 1676 only to be slain and scalped by Indians while working on his Hatfield farm 21 years later, on June 24, 1697.

Samuel represented the first of many Fields or Field spouses to be either killed or captured by Indians, including many during the famous February 29, 1704 French and Indian sacking of Deerfield. It didn’t stop there. Members of the Field family were still involved in the fight right up through February 1763, when the long string of French and Indian Wars finally ended with the Treaty of Paris signing.

Phinehas Field was no stranger to colonial family valor. In fact, he wore it on his sleeve. When introduced to the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association by founder and president George Sheldon at the group’s second annual meeting in 1871, Field stood to introduce himself by highlighting his ancestors’ military acumen. He could go on and on.

His father, also Phinehas, was a Revolutionary soldier; grandfather Moses had fought in the French and Indian War; great-grandfather Ebenezer had been mistaken for an Indian, shot and killed by a Northfield sentry; and his previously mentioned second great-grandfather Samuel was a King Philip’s War vet.

He failed to mention progenitor Zachariah Field’s Pequot War service and, curiously, his own direct and peripheral family connections to Deerfield’s infamous 1704 attack. You’d think his family’s Deerfield misfortunes would have been front and center around PVMA gatherings.

So, why, you ask, should we be interested in Phinehas Field? What was his claim to fame?

Well, it just so happens that Mr. Field is the man who brought to light the Native American Great Beaver Tale explaining the origin of Deerfield’s Pocumtuck Range. President Sheldon had in the early days of his organization implored his “antiquarian” colleagues to record important local history by writing it down for posterity before it vanished in thin air, never again to see the light of day. That was how the ancient, indigenous Beaver Tale was brought into white Connecticut Valley culture. Field introduced it in 1871, and 19 years later it was published in the PVMA’s first volume of its History and Proceedings.

Here it is in full, as published by PVMA in 1890:


“The Great Beaver,

Whose pond flowed over the whole basin north of Mt. Tom, made havoc among the fish and when these failed he would come ashore and devour Indians. A pow-wow was held and Hobomock raised, who came to their relief. With a great stake in hand, he waded the river until he found the beaver, and so hotly chased him that he sought to escape by digging into the ground. Hobomock saw his plan and his whereabouts, and with his great stake jammed the beaver’s head off. The earth over the beaver’s head we call Sugarloaf, the body lies just north of it.”


So, there you have it, short and sweet as beaver-tail delicacy, and sorely lacking much important detail – such as the composition of the landform beaver’s body. Field identifies the head and nothing else, leaving the rest of the beaver’s anatomy to the imagination, and, yes, there have been inconsistencies about the beaver’s makeup ever since.

Though I have not seen it, Field’s tale likely found its way into the Greenfield Gazette and Courier before it made its way into History and Proceedings. Why? Because PVMA founder George Sheldon was a prolific contributor to the Greenfield paper and also the smaller Turners Falls Reporter. In those local papers he tested out the narrative of what would become his acclaimed History of Deerfield in the years leading up to its 1895 publication.

It should come as no surprise that Sheldon had embellished Field’s vague beaver tale by the time it was published in his History of Deerfield. Field’s skeletal tale needed a little meat on its bones.

So, the Deerfield antiquarian wrote that “Hobomok was offended” by the beaver’s “depredations” and was “determined to kill it,” not with a great stake but rather an “enormous oak” employed as a club. Dispatched by a blow to the neck, the giant beaver sank to the bottom of [Lake Hitchcock] and “turned to stone.”

Sheldon was also more precise in describing the beaver carcass left on the landscape for all to see. He wrote that the view from West Mountain displayed: “Wequamps the head, north of which the bent neck shows where fell the fatal stroke; North Sugarloaf the shoulders, rising to Pocumtuck Rock the back, whence it tapers off to the tail at Cheapside.”

Not to be outdone, along came Montague historian Edward P. Pressey, who, 15 years later, with a different spelling for the transformer character, took his own stab at Field’s and Sheldon’s beaver tale in his History of Montague, published in 1910.

According to Pressey, the Great Beaver preyed upon fish and, when food became scarce, took to eating men of the river villages. “Hobmock, a benevolent spirit giant,” was called upon to “relieve the stressed people, and that he did by chasing the troublesome beast “into the immense lake… and flinging great handfuls of dirt and rock” at it. Finally, the beast, overburdened with what had been throw upon it, sank in the middle of the lake, where “Hobmock dispatched the monster by a blow with his club on the back” of its neck, and “there he lies to this day. The upturned head covered with dirt is the sandstone cliff of Wequamps (Mt. Sugar Loaf) and the body is the northward range.”

Notice how, unlike Sheldon, Pressey is vague in defining the mountainous beaver carcass – a wise move on his part. After Field’s original story left the carcass totally open to the imagination, Sheldon exercised poetic license to provide an anatomically incorrect description. A beaver profile has but three components: a head, a body, and a flat tail. Sheldon’s model is composed of four segments – a head, shoulders, body and tail, not right no matter how you twist it.

Pressey did, however, exercise poetic license of his own by introducing the concept of Hobomock bombarding the beaver with “handfuls of dirt and rock.” That novel concept was most likely borowed from a Nova Scotia beaver myth published in Charles Godfrey Leland’s Algonquin Legends of New England (1884). Godfrey;s tale relied mostly on the then unpublished manuscript of Baptist missionary Silas Tertius Rand (1810-1889), who lived with and studied the Micmacs for 40 years and whose Legends of the Micmac was posthumously published in 1893.

A major problem with all three early historians’ tales is that beavers are herbivores, and thus do not eat meat. None. Zippo. Not men or mammals, fish or frogs, snakes or salamanders, ducks or geese. Nothing of the like. Beavers eat inner bark and twigs, leaves and roots. Plant food, not meat – a fact Native Americans would obviously have known. Still, there are other Native American myths that involve the killing of vicious or unruly beavers, so the man-eating twist was probably a colonial misinterpretation.

Something important to remember is that Field was not an anthropologist or ethnologist. He was a devout Christian, and very like a man who subscribed to the late 19th century, racist sentiment opining that “the only good Indian was a dead Indian.” So, he wasn’t recording the indigenous tale he heard in childhood out of cultural respect. Quite the contrary, he likely thought the whole concept was ridiculous, an silly tale from primitive, Stone Age people.

Oh my, how times change. Now Native American Literature – the study of oral history captured on wax cylinders – is under a finely-tuned scholarly microscope.

Field, Sheldon, and Pressey were from another time and mindset, and their published work stood as the accepted Sugarloaf Beaver Myth until the turn of the 21st century. These days, a pair of scholars with Abenaki roots have come forward to put their own spin on what they call The Great Beaver. Finally, the tale viewed through an indigenous lens is being explored and developed.

In my next column, we’ll take a look at how the Sugarloaf Beaver Myth has evolved since Marge Bruchac and Lisa Brooks have taken control of it. Now, they own it… and go to great lengths to protect it.

Stay tuned.


Mishebeshu In Montague?

An underwater panther in Montague? Well, bear with me. An adventure, indeed.

Credit Acton kayaker Al Peirce with the interesting May 20 discovery, made while killing time awaiting takeout following his maiden Deerfield River paddle.

Launching from Montague, across from the Deerfield’s dangerous Connecticut River confluence located between the General Pierce and bicycle-path bridges, Peirce had maneuvered more than a mile upriver when obstructed by shallow water requiring walking. He briefly pondered towing his craft upstream through the riffles, but it was getting late. Instead, he called it a day. Why not return for another voyage under favorable flows?

Reappearing at the mouth of the Deerfield, hugging the East Deerfield shore, after riding the downstream flow – Bingville to the left, East Deerfield right – Peirce looked across and noticed a couple of men standing on the Montague side near where he had put in. With evening approaching, they were exercising their dog by tossing a ball into the river for retrieval.

Reluctant to engage in conversation during the height of state’s COVID-19 distancing measures, Peirce decided to paddle a short distance down the Connecticut on a temporary reconnaissance mission. That’s when he came upon his exciting discovery, not far upstream from an island and across from an agricultural shelf known in Deerfield annals as Sheldon’s Field. The plot forms the town’s northeast point overlooking the mouth of its namesake river. Just downstream, clinging to the Connecticut’s East Deerfield shoreline, lies exposed, red-sandstone bedrock known historically as Sheldon’s Rocks.

Timing was everything concerning the sighting.

“Had the western sun not been at a perfect angle to illuminate it through a gap in the foliage, I would have never noticed it,” recalled Peirce, who, curious about what looked like a manmade squiggle on an obscured standing stone, turned his kayak around and paddled upstream to investigate.

Vessel beached, Peirce walked to the stone, parted the wide green leaves covering most of its face, and was amazed by what he saw. It was more than a little squiggle. Much more. Staring him in the face was a well-executed petroglyph of a strange creature he thought could be a resting deer with a snake or eel beneath it. Wanting to share images, he took several digital photos with his Canon Point-and-Shoot camera before paddling back to his launching site, which, to his relief, was vacant, the path to his vehicle clear. Yup, time to return to his riverside campsite off Meadow Road in Montague. There he would spend the night alone in a tent, his wheels of curiosity humming.

Questions swirled. How old was this carving? Who made it? What did it mean? Could it possibly be unknown to locals? Could it have been recently unveiled by flood erosion? All were questions capable of keeping a thinking man awake nights, tossing and turning in possibilities. Yes, he had work to do – the kind he loves.


Joining the Chase

Now, fast-forward six days, to the morning of Tuesday, May 26, noontime approaching. I was sitting at my desk crafting the opening paragraphs of a column, when a sudden distraction flashed in the lower right-hand corner of my laptop screen. Outlook was alerting me to Peirce’s email. He’d found an online column of mine expressing confidence about the existence of ancient petroglyphs and pictographs still to be discovered in our slice of the Connecticut Valley. He wondered if I was familiar with his Montague find.

“It looks like a Native American petroglyph,” he wrote. “Though partially hidden by vegetation, it’s hard to believe someone wouldn’t have previously seen it at some point. I’ve attached photos.”

I studied the series of shots and was intrigued by the carving, which I immediately recognized as the mythical underwater panther – Mishebeshu is one of many spellings – of Native American cosmological lore. The horns and long tail were dead giveaways.

Wow! Talk about a show-stopper. The column I was writing became temporarily irrelevant. My focus broken, there was a bigger fish to fry.

My initial reaction was that the image looked too good, maybe a bit too crisp and clean to be hundreds of years old. But what did I know? No petroglyph expert, it was time to reach out. I forwarded the photos to two trusted friends and experts, Peter A. Thomas and R. Michael Gramly, a pair of sage, PhD archaeologist/anthropologists with decades of field experience and knowledge. What were their thoughts?

The first to respond was Gramly. His email arrived that evening from Tennessee, where he was overseeing the follow-up archaeological excavation of a 13,000-year-old mastodon site.

“Yes,” he wrote. “It appears to be a Piasa or underwater panther – equivalent to the Chinese dragon. Such animals lurk near deep holes and water vortexes.”

I immediately Googled “underwater panther,” and struck gold. There is much online information on this mythical beast, most commonly associated with Ojibwa and other Great Lakes tribes.

Thomas, catching up on yard work at his northern Vermont home, didn’t respond immediately. But he did chime in a day or two later on the phone. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, he moved straight to the point.

“Where did you come up with that petroglyph?”

“A kayaker found it on the Connecticut River.”

“Interesting. Usually, when I’m shown something like this, my reaction is, ‘Ehhhhh?’ Not so with this. I’d like to see it.”

Having studied the photos carefully, Thomas cited a couple of potential problems with the execution. First, the glyph’s straight edges and depth suggested metal tools to him. Second, such carvings are not typically found on standing stones, but rather on river, lake, and bayside ledge. Yet he still believed it could be an important discovery dating back to the Colonial Contact Period, maybe even a smidge earlier. Metal trade goods had surely found their way to our slice of the Connecticut Valley decades before the Agawam Plantation (Springfield) was founded in 1636; and even if it had been carved for spiritual posterity by some post-King Philip’s War indigenous straggler, perhaps a shaman, it would still be a remarkable discovery.


A Dark Portal

Gramly’s most authenticating observation was the underwater panther’s association with water vortexes, better known in laymen’s terms as whirlpools. A short distance upstream from the carving, there is just such a deadly feature. In fact, not only is it a dangerous whirlpool, it may well be the most dangerous whirlpool in the 400-mile-long Connecticut Valley. Although I know of no way to confirm that, I do know this hazardous site has claimed many lives in my lifetime. The swirling vortex is created by the collision at an odd angle of two powerful natural forces – the Deerfield and Connecticut rivers – capable during high-water events of swallowing a canoe and spitting it out.

Such dangerous whirlpools were viewed as portals to the underworld in worldwide hunter-gatherer cultures, including those of North America’s Eastern Woodlands. So, no doubt this one would have been known to our earliest indigenous paddlers, who recognized it as a perilous place of high spirit inhabited by dark underworld and water spirits. The underwater panther was the lord of the underworld, known to reside in oceans, lakes, whirlpools, deep pools, treacherous rapids and caves. In a foul mood, this lurking creature was known to emerge from the depths to pull swimmers and boaters to drowning death. Thus, the carving had context, always important in such matters.

Something that gave the panther even more context at this site was the fact that it also stood near a documented Connecticut River ford, or footpath crossing, at adjacent Sheldon’s Rocks. The Native attackers of the infamous Sept. 19, 1677 Ashpelon Raid on Hatfield and Deerfield used this very crossing on their retreat home, up the Connecticut Valley to Canada with colonial captives. So, not only did this warning sign stand a short distance below a treacherous whirlpool; it also stood near the crossroads of two major travel arteries, one by land, the other by water. Yes, an appropriate site to post a warning. But how old was it? That was the salient question – one that only a field trip could reconcile.


Warning Flags

First, a little more on the underwater panther itself. The Peirce images in the hands of Gramly, Thomas and myself spurred independent research by all of us, with communication flying back and forth. Plus, without revealing the precise location, Thomas and Gramly both sent the images to rock-art scholars for additional feedback, among them University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Megan Kassabaum and former Maine State Archaeologist Bruce Bourque. Thomas had discovered an informative video by Kassabaum about the underwater panther and queried her, while Gramly thought it wise to run it past Bourque, a longtime friend and colleague who’s seen many Maine petroglyphs. Everyone agreed the carving was worthy of professional, on-site evaluation.

I watched Kassabaum’s video with interest, and it led me to my study to see what I could find in my bookshelves. Poring through sources I owned, they were helpful in identifying additional sources to probe. My search started with Michael Angel’s Preserving the Sacred: Historical Perspectives of the Ojibwa Midewiwin, then moved to Brian Swann’s trilogy on Native American Literature.

Then I purchased two compilations of scholarly essays online – Ancient Objects and Sacred Reals: Interpretations of Mississippian Iconography and Icons of Power: Feline Symbolism in the Americas. A third source, Theresa S. Smith’s The Island of the Anishnaabeg: Thunderers and Water Monsters in the Traditional Ojibwe Life-World goes into great detail, plus provides the best explanation of the underwater panther’s link to the Midewiwin.

Out of the focused reading arose growing suspicions in my mind about the source of the Montague petroglyph. Though the horned, long-tailed image fit the mold, it became clear to me that it was essentially of Central Algonquian iconographic form, especially that of Great Lakes tribes, not our own Eastern Algonquians.

In New England, the lord of the underworld was the related Great Horned Serpent. Despite their different appearance – one with legs, the other without – they were the same beast playing the same cosmological role: in perpetual warfare with thunderbirds, lords of the Sky World in the indigenous Eastern Woodlands realm.

Although the regional preferences didn’t necessarily rule out the possibility that the Montague carving had been executed by an indigenous carver of Connecticut Valley heritage, it did raise warning flags.

According to indigenous creation lore, many Central Algonquian people were ancient migrants from the Great Salt Water of Dawnland. Thus, the people most associated with underwater-panther imagery had their deepest roots on the East Coast and may indeed have left such an image hidden somewhere in New England before migrating west. Still, I could find no New England examples of an underwater panther, just serpents.


Closer Inspection

In the process of trying to set up a field trip with Thomas, Peirce and myself at the very least, I fired off a cautionary email to Thomas on the morning of June 7 indicating that I wanted to eliminate one last potential source who could know something about the carving. This person is a Native American woman who ran a hilltown summer camp to which I had sent my grammar-school sons. Despite long ago hearing through the grapevine that she now lives in the same neighborhood as the petroglyph, I never dug deeper. I was, however, quite sure she was not originally from New England.

So, I had to rule her out before spending another second trying to arrange a field trip.

Well – Bingo! – as it turned out, the local underwater panther graces this very woman’s private, secluded Connecticut River “beach.” The descendant of 19th-century Miami chief Little Turtle (Michikinikwa in her native tongue), she grew up in Chicago and used to visit the Alton, Illinois piasa image adorning cliffs overlooking the upper Mississippi River.

Her brother, Long Arm, carved the image in 1990. He was living with her at the time after retiring from the US Marine Corps. He brought the stone to her property from Northfield, carved the panther on its face, and buried it upright on her small, sandy beach.

She was a gracious hostess to me and Thomas during a two-hour, June 12 visit to her home. We enjoyed a warm chat with the property owner in her cozy library before walking to the beach to see the panther. Close inspection of the stone revealed drill holes indicative of modern quarrying. Plus, Long Arm carved a discrete, tell-tale Marine anchor on the back to mark it as a modern creation.

So goes the tale of Montague’s mysterious underwater panther.

Looking back, my ears still ring with Gramly’s exasperated telephone scolding that occurred early during our many discussions. When, for the umpteenth time, I repeated an “if it’s real” disclaimer to preface a question about the petroglyph, Gramly would have none of it.

“Why do you keep doubting it’s real?” he barked. “Trust me. No white man carved that panther.”

Once again, my scholarly friend was right on the mark. Indeed, the panther did have a Native American creator, despite being executed much later than we had hoped.

Yes, the image was crafted by an upper-Midwest Miami warrior of aristocratic Great Lakes heritage – a man who placed it on his sister’s private beach in an appropriate location. Whether he was aware of the whirlpool and ancient ford is irrelevant. It is what it is – just another uncanny example of Native intuition.


Where Was Canterbury of Early Hatfield/Whately?

Canterbury came into existence as a place between places in early Hatfield-Deerfield lore, a perilous no-man’s land where only the brave dared linger, even then on high alert. Thus the confusion about the specifics of this place, named in the early days of Hatfield, that ultimately became the northeast corner of Whately.

No one is certain precisely why or when it was so named, or who named it. So, at this point, we’ll just have to live with the mystery at a time when only a few local historians are familiar with the obsolete name that went out of use long ago.

Fact is surveyors have never defined Canterbury, per se, by metes and bounds. No, it was just a name used by residents to identify a small section of town. Perhaps the acreage of this place grew over time as houses and outbuildings were added, trees and brush were cleared, and swamps were drained to create fertile farmsteads. In fact, that seems most likely.

The prominent landscape feature looming over Canterbury is distinctive Mount Sugarloaf, poking abruptly from the northern perimeter of the river meadows like a cathedral off the Connecticut’s west bank. First written as two words, Sugar Loaf, in Colonial documents, it was a common European name for mountains that looked from afar like the molded, conical lumps of sugar people bought in the marketplace.

From no perspective does Sugarloaf fit that profile better than from the meadows stretching out a mile south from its base. Anyone who’s traveled River Road from Hatfield to Whately knows the spectacle. And the same can be said for anyone familiar with the more twisted shape from the second and third western terraces, the latter known as Hopewell Plain, traversed by Long Plain Road, first known to colonials as the Pocumtuck Path – that is the road from Hatfield to Pocumtuck, later Deerfield.

The name “Canterbury” is written on the first maps of Whately. Likewise, it’s mentioned by 19th-century town historians Josiah Howard Temple (1815-1893) and James Monroe Crafts (1817-1903), whose published town histories appeared in 1872 and 1899. Though much of what Crafts wrote about the town’s earliest history dating back to its Hatfield days parroted Temple, he did make an important contribution with comprehensive genealogies of the town’s first families. For that, Connecticut Valley researchers are sincerely grateful.

Crafts set the groundwork, so to speak, which makes perfect sense given that he himself was from the earliest bolt of colonial Connecticut Valley cloth. Whately was his hometown. He was born and bred there, which cannot be said of the Framingham native Temple. Better educated than Crafts, Temple came to Whately as a Congregational minister, which doesn’t diminish his historical acumen one iota. Always thorough, careful, and accurate, Temple was the more astute antiquarian.

Contemporaneous historian George Sheldon (1818-1916), a prolific writer about all things Deerfield, never mentions Canterbury by name in his two-volume History of Deerfield (1896). He instead refers to the earliest settlers on both sides of the town line along Sugarloaf’s southern skirt as “Sugarloaf people.” He uses the description to identify residents petitioning for relief from Deerfield church and school taxes because their families attended both across the river in Sunderland.

In his extensive genealogies, Sheldon labels as Sugarloaf that Deerfield village hugging the Whately line between the mountain and the Connecticut River. Today lower River Road, Sheldon wanted to differentiate between it and the Bloody Brook and Mill River villages on the mountain’s west side. Perhaps the locative Canterbury had gone out of use by 1890s, or had always been an in-town location used only by folks in Hatfield and Whately. For whatever reason, Sheldon never mentions it.

Purely in-town vernacular usage would explain why another respected 19th-century valley historian, Sylvester Judd (1789-1860), follows suit. Judd – author of the History of Hadley (1863) and compiler of the 56-volume Judd Manuscripts housed at Northampton’s Forbes Library – never mentions Canterbury, even though it would have been within Hadley’s earliest borders. It’s not surprising. Hatfield split off from Hadley in 1670, after which it would have been only of peripheral interest to a Hadley historian. Plus, Canterbury likely hadn’t even been named by that early date, three years before Deerfield came into existence as Pocumtuck. So, it didn’t take long for not only Canterbury but the entire west side of the river to become irrelevant to Judd.

The same cannot be said for Reuben Field Wells (born 1888), esteemed Hatfield historian who shared authorship of the History of Hatfield (1910) with his father, Deacon Daniel White Wells (born 1842). Their publication has much to say about the Denison and Bradstreet Grants and the settlement of the original northeast corner of town without ever once mentioning the name Canterbury. Although that name is indeed more of a Whately phenomenon, it was settled between 1749 and 1770, when still part of Hatfield. Whately separated from Hatfield in 1771. Nonetheless, not so much as a word about it from Wells and Wells, and also not a word about its pioneer settlers.

When and why Canterbury was named may be out of reach as we approach Whately’s 250th birthday celebration next year. The problem is that a definitive answer may be more elusive now than it was for Temple and Crafts 148 and 101 years ago. Presumably, nuanced speculation will have to suffice now as it did then. But maybe, just maybe, we can attach a new spin that sings true and inspires further investigation.

Temple never took a shot at defining Canterbury’s boundaries or exploring the place name’s origin. He just listed Canterbury among 15 localities he believed to have been named “since the earliest settlement of the territory.” That includes Hopewell, which overlaps Canterbury and he believed received its name in 1679. He doesn’t say why.

Hopewell Plain overlooks River Road from the west, and is referred to as “Hopewell Hill” in early records. Hopewell Swamp hugs the base of the plain’s undulating western lip for approximately 3½ miles south, to within view of Hatfield Pond’s northern reach.

Another landscape feature named Hopewell is a brook bubbling from a spring-hole on the north end of Hopewell Swamp, just a stone’s throw from Sugarloaf’s southwestern skirt. The clear, mucky-bedded spring brook runs south approximately 1.3 miles, crossing under Christian Lane and River Road before joining the Connecticut River about 1,000 feet northeast of today’s Straits Road-River Road intersection.

Crafts was a little more daring than Temple about Canterbury, writing that it “was so called as early as 1718 and probably earlier,” without sourcing that information. He states unapologetically that he could “give no reason for its name.” He then attempted to define the area with: “It is now spoken of as including the S.W. Allis place to the Deerfield line.” Today, that description seems to have been conveniently extended some 200 feet south to Christian Lane by someone. So, if that’s the prevailing wisdom, then Canterbury consumes the final mile and a half of terraced meadows on both sides of River Road between the East Whately Burial Ground and the Deerfield line.

But wait a minute. Let’s take a closer look at the picture Temple and Crafts painted. Neither of them placed the Allis Farm, now owned by the Pasiecniks, in Canterbury, associating it instead with the old Bradstreet Grant, the northern boundary of which fell some 4,800 feet shy of the Deerfield line. That said, it seems logical to me that the Canterbury plot, as first known, was that very slice of rich, terraced farmland wedged between the Connecticut River and Hopewell Plain, north of the old Bradstreet Grant and south of the Deerfield line. Looming large in the background is the Sugarloaf cathedral, a tall, proud sentry guarding the farmland below.

The earliest settlers had to understand the spiritual significance Indians placed on the mountain. That’s why it wasn’t settled until the late date of 1749, by outsider Abraham Parker of Groton. It was still dangerous territory not far from frontier villages dating back more than 75 years.

Settlement had been a long time coming for fertile croplands purchased in 1672. When a border dispute immediately arose over the parcel that became Canterbury, between the Deerfield and northern Bradstreet Grant lines, the town line was fixed east and west from the point where Sugarloaf Brook crossed the Indian trail. In compensation for what was viewed as lost acreage, Deerfield was granted compensatory acreage north of the Deerfield River.

The Deerfield-Hatfield town line was finally marked 24 years later, in 1696. Two men from each town were chosen to blaze trees with the letters “H” on the south and “D” on the north. They started at a little walnut tree on the Connecticut River bank and continued two miles west to Mill Swamp. The previously established northern extension of Deerfield had been settled for years, running a mile east and a mile west from the mouth of the Green River, and three-quarters of a mile north.

Though valuable, fertile, and desirable, the disputed strip of Hatfield land below Sugarloaf remained unsettled for 77 years after purchase and 53 years after the town line was officially marked. Why? Because, according to Craft, settlers were fearful of marauding Indians, who continued to use Hopewell Swamp at the foot of Sugarloaf for refuge and concealment when passing through. Then along came Abraham Parker of Groton and Fort No. 4 (Charlestown, NH), and Canterbury settlement had begun. That was 14 years before the end of the final French and Indian War, and the neighborhood was perilous through the 1750s.

According to Temple and Crafts, two fellow Groton townsmen soon joined Parker in Canterbury. They were brother-in-law Joseph Sanderson and Nathaniel Sartwell (often spelled Sawtell). Philip Smith was another Canterbury pioneer. He descended from a founding family of Hatfield and had grown up a mile or so away on the Straits. Smith’s was the northernmost Canterbury farm, bordered south by the old Bradstreet Grant. Those four farms likely comprised all of Canterbury before Whately was established in 1771. As the years passed, extended-family members carved out additional farms and sold small parcels to new neighbors. Log cabins were replaced by farmhouses, most of which have burned to the ground, or were torn down long ago.

Today, the places name Hopewell and Canterbury have faded to vestiges of the past.

Looming Celebrations Stir Memories

Saturday, 6 a.m. Backyard brook rattling. Sparse, wispy-white clouds creeping eastward in the soothing, pale-blue sky. Perfect for pondering, allowing your mind to run free.

Heavy overnight winds and rains have passed, leaving in their wake an ebullient-green yard, the rich, verdant base only enhancing ornamental trees and bushes to their happiest springtime splendor. There is nothing quite like a bright spring morning to stimulate your senses, stir memories.

Returned from a meandering meadow walk, my saturated, worn Gore-Tex hiking boots facing the sun on the flagstone terrace hauled many years ago by oxcart from Charlemont. I’m sitting in a leather recliner, legs outstretched, head and back upright. Facing south toward the closed glen road passing my upper Greenfield Meadows home, wheels spinning, I can detect any passersby over my laptop screen.

I’m moving into a meditative space I have often visited over the past 41 years, one I always welcome and from which I have produced thousands of columns created by whatever spirit moves me. One never knows where fertile curiosity and mischievous imagination will lead on such an inspiring morning, especially following a freewheeling, freethinking ramble that stimulates introspective thoughts, riffs, and melodies worth capturing and sharing.

Never do such unfettered thoughts flow freer than on brisk, solitary walks, one foot in front of the other, heart thumping, blood circulating, sweat dripping, thoughts swirling into a dust storm of stimuli, the topics darting from here to there and back again. When the time and place is right, such a process can sweep you away from a starting point to a magical place you’re not expecting, one worth exploring.

Saturday’s was such a walk. It stimulated my imagination, stirred memories, and propelled me not ahead but back 50 years and more, to younger days relevant to the present.

Actually, for weeks I have been thinking ahead to a couple of looming birthday celebrations local towns will celebrate. The first is Whately’s 250th next year, then my hometown of Deerfield’s 350th in 2023. Preparations already underway for both, with local historians of many stripes swapping insights to be worked into a public narrative and unveiled down the road.

Plus, there’s Hatfield’s 350th this year, which has already been reduced to a disappointing virtual celebration due to COVID-19 demons, likely to be present virtually anywhere, but especially in dense gatherings. Sad indeed. Hatfield is a proud Yankee town that helped seed the Connecticut Valley with families that still populate our hills and dales. We’re talking about familiar surnames like Allis and Arms, Bardwell and Belden, Dickinson, Hinsdale, Jennings, Marsh, Nash, Porter, Waite, Wells, and many more.

Just one more nagging reminder that I’m getting old is the realization that this will be my second rodeo. Because, yes, I was there 50 years ago for the same towns’ last birthday galas, celebrated in villages where as a kid I played baseball, fished, farmed and foraged … and unapologetically raised hell. So, go figure. That’s precisely where my Saturday-morning walk took me: a half-century back in time. I had no intention of going there when my legs started moving. It just happened. Perhaps the result of a wandering, walking mind. Oh my! How times have changed since then.

Take, for instance, 1970 – the year Hatfield celebrated its 300th birthday. Though I undoubtedly passed through, I have little or no recollection of the event. And even what I think I do recall may well be a combination of many similar celebrations I attended in my younger, wilder days. So, fearful that I’ll meld many into one, why bother trying to piece together my Hatfield memories? Facts matter. Especially in print.

What I now know but didn’t back then is that Hatfield actually goes back more than 350 years. From 1659 to 1670, the infant Hadley was, like Northfield, a town split by the Connecticut River. Finally, after years of grievance and requests, the Hatfield folks were allowed to split off into their own town. A century later, in 1771, Hatfield was split in two, the northern half becoming Whately, today the member of a different county no less.

I had just completed my junior year in high school for Hatfield’s last birthday party, a time when Hunter S. Thompson’s “Gonzo” journalism was born. Richard M. Nixon was president, and America was enflamed in protest opposing the Vietnam War and supporting the civil-rights movement. Segregationist Southern governors George Wallace and Lester Maddox still had strong national voices, and were supported by local townspeople my father privately referred to as John Birchers in the pejorative.

A couple of proud, hard-right characters I recall were Deerfield selectmen, another owned a Sunderland business, and still another flipped eggs and burgers at his greasy-spoon in, of all places, the People’s Republic of Montague Center. Imagine that! In an eatery facing the town common, a large Confederate flag hanging horizontally and menacingly above the grill, the proprietor more than willing to share his reactionary views on race and “long-haired, hippie commies.”

There’s no need to mention names. What would that accomplish in these Trumpish times? The men are dead and buried. RIP, fellas.

The year 1970 also produced Kent State, which unfolded on May 4 and likely means nothing to most high-school students today. On that Ohio college campus, an anti-war demonstration blew up into chaos when National Guardsmen shot four protestors dead and wounded nine others to set off a contentious national debate. On one side of the battle line was Nixon’s law-and-order gang, on the other raged the “new left.”

The debate quickly spilled into my junior English class, where a bespectacled, flat-topped English teacher who had been hired after many years as a Greenfield Recorder reporter assigned an essay expressing our thoughts on whether the soldiers were justified.

As I recall, that was our second assignment of the final semester. I don’t remember the topic of the first, only that my grade was an A, and – horrors – the teacher read my paper aloud to the class. How embarrassing for an adolescent lad of my persuasion.

Well, that all changed quickly with my reaction to Kent State. I thought heads should roll for unjustified killings of peaceful protestors exercising their right of peaceful assembly under the First Amendment. That position, penned by the same hand, was met with bright red insults from a love-it-or-leave-it teacher, who gave me a D and unfairly evaluated the rest of my assignments that semester.

Some may call that a lesson learned. Not me. I call it censorship, unwelcome and unjustified in any fair, freethinking, open and honest classroom. Live and learn, I did. Education’s not always everything it’s made out to be. I had met my first bad editor.

I can’t claim salient memories from Whately’s 1971 Bicentennial Celebration, but I definitely passed through. Seems to me there was something happening at the old youth-baseball field off Christian Lane, before the days of Herlihy Park. Maybe a chicken barbecue? Can’t recall.

What I do remember is Ena M. Cane’s update of Temple’s and Crafts’ Whately histories and genealogies with a bicentennial book of her own. Plus, I still occasionally bump into the stoneware jugs sold in facsimile remembrance of Whately’s 19th-century Thomas Crafts pottery.

This time around, Whately Historical Commissioner Dereka Smith is working up a revision of Temple, Crafts and Cane’s town histories and genealogies with a book of her own, while Northfield master-potter Tom White will produce hand-thrown stoneware pottery in the style of historic Whately potters.

As for the 1973 Deerfield Tercentenary, yes, my memories are clearer. That’s a no-brainer. It was held on my stomping grounds. Dwyer Lot, the site of the beef barbecue and Rotary Club Beer Fest, was right across Pleasant Street from the home my parents shared with my grandfather for my first 12 years of boyhood.

Back then, the elementary school was on the other side of Bloody Brook, where there was also a circular, concrete wading pool with a central fountain circulating water in summer. On the open Dwyer Lot stood a roofed pavilion that hosted many a public cookout. Before pavilion construction, the field served as an agricultural plot where silage corn was grown in my youth, even occasional potatoes if I’m not mistaken.

The reason I suggest uncertainty is that I know memory doesn’t always serve one well, especially on familiar turf, where one story can easily run into another over time.

A case in point occurred during the writing of this piece, relating to what I believed I recalled of Deerfield’s Tercentenary. It seemed to me that it was for this very special occasion that a well-known South Deerfield character had taken it upon himself to spice up the party a bit. What he did was hire a pilot friend from Northampton to enhance the Saturday-night fireworks scheduled to be launched from Mt. Sugarloaf.

Apparently concerned that town officials would sell townspeople short, this proud, inventive Deerfield man decided to command a flyover dynamite-bombing mission. Before midnight, he and a friend or two proceeded to toss eight sticks of dynamite out the plane window while flying over Sugarloaf and its northern brother, shaking houses on Mountain Road, Eastern Avenue, and Graves Street, and even breaking a few windows. A police spokesman told the Greenfield Recorder he was confident he knew who was responsible, which was likely true, because it was no secret around town. Nonetheless, no one was ever prosecuted, and the explosive event soon faded into the ether.

So, there you have it. Although I had the story right, the date and event were wrong. The flyover bombing occurred not during the July 7, 1973 Tercentenary, but during the town’s national bicentennial celebration three years later, on the night of July 3, 1976. Thankfully, at the last minute, I fact-checked the incident, which was a cumbersome task. But I finally tracked it down and avoided disseminating inaccurate information in black and white.

That said, you gotta hand it to good old South Deerfield: back then a hard-drinking, hard-working, hell-raising prankster town. Not unlike the Wild West, I’m glad I grew up where I did.

Can you imagine what would become of similar pranksters today? Tossing dynamite from a Piper-Cub window? Are you kidding? Gitmo would be too good for them!


Family Mattters

As Main Street merchants, vendors, restaurateurs and bar owners count their losses and struggle to stay afloat, the online genealogy companies must be riding high. A right-place, right-time scenario, they are the beneficiaries of a captive audience, housebound and bored silly, that’s searching for anything to break the tedium of COVID-19 quarantine.

Count me among those using the unanticipated isolation for genealogical research. Not new to me, it never gets old, and now many of the most essential information is available at the tip of your fingers in cyberspace, necessitating fewer trips to the library.

I’ve been playing this game since 1989, starting in the weeks after my spinster great-aunt Gladys Sanderson died overnight during the summer of 1989. She was home when I left for a men’s softball game in Buckland, and dead at the hospital before I returned home. Just like that, a generation had evaporated. I then owned the South Deerfield home where this woman we called “Antie” and her brother Waldo, my grandfather, were born. The last survivor of four siblings born at the dawning of the 20th century, she came with the purchase of my home after my grandfather’s sudden 1980 death. She was the unofficial historian of my family’s substantial South Deerfield branch. Tucked away in drawers, folders, envelopes, and metal boxes, and stacked on closet shelves, were documents, correspondence, and photographs that she stewarded as precious records to be protected for posterity. Quite an assemblage of family data, the material opened a window into my Woodruff and Sanderson ancestors, plus many peripherals relating to South Deerfield and Whately.

The impetus for what has become my a 30-year genealogical chase was a 19th-century King James Bible stored atop miscellaneous papers in a large, covered Tupperware box. It was the Woodruff Bible, which displayed on one of its first pages a family register filled out in ink, most likely by my great-grandmother, Fannie Woodruff Sanderson (1865-1947), who died six years before I was born. She recorded birth, death and marriage dates for the family members under her Pleasant Street roof, beginning with her father Asa Franklin Woodruff (1817-1891) and his wife Eliza Arms (1824-1898). No, not a comprehensive, multi-generational lineage, yet more than enough to stir my curiosity. Yes, that partial family record ignited genealogical research that continues to this day.

Really, my most focused research occurred during the early 1990s, before the chasing was good – back in the pre-Google days of library visits, laptop transcriptions into Family Tree Maker files, and CompuServe Genealogy Forum queries. Few folks today have likely ever heard of CompuServe, an early search engine that appeared in the 1980s and was gone by the mid-1990s, never mind its Genealogy Forum. As for libraries, well, my favorites were located in Old Deerfield, Springfield, and Northampton, though I did occasional travel to Connecticut and eventually even Boston. When I ran into a particularly vexing snag, I’d compose a concise query in the CompuServe forum and typically receive a prompt and professional answer with a greeting of “Hi Cuz” or “Hello Cuzzin.”

Oh, how times have changed. No, I’m not saying such online forums no longer exist. They do. In fact, they’ve multiplied tenfold – with one major difference. That is, there’s now a price attached for access to interactive cybernetworks that annually generates hundreds of millions of dollars. Praise the joys of capitalism. Want family info? Pony up, fella.

Which brings us to my most recent genealogical adventure – one sparked by the eBay purchase of a 19th-century leather wallet made by relatives and their South Deerfield neighbors at the old Arms Manufacturing Co. I’m not sure where this dynamic pursuit will lead me, but it’s already brought me back to my Sanderson family’s Whately tannery and leather-working business, as well as the later leather-working industry founded and managed by my branch of the Arms family.

Now I’ve even discovered that another great-grandfather, William Fredrick Bardwell (1806-1885), was a pocketbook manufacturer, according to Whately historian James M. Crafts. Despite being left with more questions than answers at this early juncture, I’m making good progress and am confident many more answers will surface before this probe is finished. I’m sure that the many small, pre-Industrial Revolution, family tanneries and leather and shoemaking shops evolved into assembly-line, factory production.

New and helpful in this recent hunt for information was my inevitable acceptance of a frequently offered, free, two-week trial of Ancestry.com. In need of immediate gratification with libraries closed for the pandemic, I finally succumbed to an offer that seems to appear every other day online. The lords of cyberspace knew my interests well, pitched me for the umpteenth time and, finally, I accepted to gain quick, temporary access to needed census and vital records.

Once I learned to navigating around the program, I was able to glean much new information about South Deerfield ancestors and relatives long ago entered into my Family Tree Maker program. However, with that project ongoing and far from finished, why bother piecemealing it out so early in the process, and chancing errors? I’d rather continue piecing together the puzzle for a future narrative. So, bear with me, please, and allow me to switch gears to a related diversion – one that came to me in timely fashion by email from old friend Dereka Smith. A Whately Historical Commissioner and professional genealogist, she’s working on a book about old Whately homes and families and, out of the clear, blue sky a few weeks ago, decided to pick my brain about the Elijah Sanderson farmstead on the southern foot of Mt. Sugarloaf.

Razed in the summer of 2013, this Whately building represented the last standing of four consecutive Sanderson homes on the west side of the River Roadconsuming more than a half-mile of frontage on the 1871 Beers Atlas map. All that’s left of that family compound today is a decaying old leather and shoe shop that’ll likely soon be reduced to a pile of rubble. The worn, grey building stands diagonally across the road from Paciecnik’s Creamee.

Although Smith’s query opened a vein that loves to be bled, it forced me to double-check many details pulled from memory, first going to Crafts’ History of Whately, then cross-referencing with Ancestry.com files and local newspaper reports gleaned from a cumbersome online archive without search capabilities. If you know the date, you’re OK. If not, well, it could take a while.

Surprisingly, the cooperative sources confirmed much of the information I had stored away in grey matter and, yes, brought in many interesting new twists. The bottom line is that there’s still a lot more to learn. It’ll take weeks, maybe months, of research to connect all the loose ends for an accurate reconstruction picture. So, why rush it here and now and risk nagging corrections?

Now, bear with me. I’ll conclude with an interesting little peripheral outtake: the tragic death of Rudolphus Sanderson, struck in his buggy and killed by a Connecticut River Railroad “express train.” He was at the old North Main Street crossing now spanned by the “Dry Bridge” in South Deerfield. The accident occurred on the evening of Wednesday, December 4, 1867, and is titled “Fatal Accident” in the December 9 Greenfield Gazette. The sensational story got big play in a newspaper full of short local-news blurbs. I guess, messy accidents have always sold newspapers, huh?

Anyway, Mr. Sanderson, married with an adopted daughter, was at the time sharing the original Sanderson homestead (built ca. 1765) with nephew Thomas Sanderson’s family of eight. The home was owned by Rudolphus’ brother and Thomas’ father, John Chapman Sanderson (my third great-grandfather), who had followed his father and grandfather into the tannery/shoemaker trade, and had built a home just north of his childhood home before 1860 to accommodate a growing extended family with two adjacent farmhouses. It was a way of life. I have in my many searches discovered many similar extended 19th-century families existing under one roof. My family was no exception.

The Gazette story reported that Sanderson had traveled from Whately to Meadow Mills for a “grist” and was killed on the return trip. The rest of the story (with minor editing) read like this:

“Although the train whistled at all crossings, Mr. Sanderson for some reason evidently did not hear the whistle. The engine struck his buggy and threw Mr. Sanderson several feet to the side of the railbed. The first the engineer saw of Mr. Sanderson or his buggy, was Mr. Sanderson’s body thrown up several feet in the air. The train was immediately stopped and backed down to the crossing and Mr. Sanderson was carried into Mr. Billings’ [home]. He was insensible and had a bad cut on his chin. He lived about an hour and a half.

“The horse, released from the buggy, was uninjured. The buggy body was cleared from the running part, and all the wheels, springs and shafts were broken. A buffalo robe was found on the top of the engine’s flagstaff and one bag of meal on the cow catcher. Two of the cow-catcher bars were broken by the collision. About 60 years old, Mr. Sanderson was a much-respected farmer. Deacon D.W. Childs of Deerfield insured his life a short time since for $1,000.”

Hmmm? Interesting. Was there double-indemnity back then? Could it have been suicide? Homicide by horse? Drunk driving? Let’s not go there. Long ago.

Here today, gone tomorrow, Rudolphus Sanderson was my third great-granduncle. For those unfamiliar with old railroad jargon, “cow catchers” were iron grills sturdily installed on the front of trains to protect the engine, clear obstructions and prevent derailments. Apparently, roaming cows were a constant concern. Thus, the name.

Buffalo robe? Yes, totally appropriate for the day. Warm, too. Likely a retail product straight from the Sanderson leather and shoe shop in East Whately by way of the Great Plains.

Leather-Working Mecca

An old cliché tells us familiarity breeds contempt. So, how about ignorance? Does not familiarity breed that, too? Well, in my case, the answer is an unapologetic yes. Let me explain, focusing on boyhood South Deerfield.

At the southwest corner of Pleasant and North Main, a short distance up the road from my earliest home and the home of my father and grandfather as well, stood a worn, two-story, clapboarded industrial building painted a dull, flaky red and showing its age. Situated on the east bank of Bloody Brook just above the Pleasant Street bridge, the late 19th-century building’s gabled ends faced east and west, with a parking lot off Main Street on the south side. My friends and I called it the plastic shop because it was indeed operating as such then. My father, grandfather and spinster great aunt all knew it as the Arms’ pocketbook shop, which closed in 1950, three years before my birth.

In the morning shadow of this tired old building I learned to skate and fish. We’d clear the snow with shovels to skate. Then, come summer, we’d dunk worms below red and white bobbers, catching suckers and bullheads from a launching pad near a giant weeping willow standing tall and wide on the west bank. Across from that large, messy tree, raw, rust-colored, factory effluent oozed from a six- or eight-inch pipe, keeping open a small, D-shaped patch of water we carefully avoided no matter how cold it got. I can only imagine in horror the carcinogenic toxicity of that disgusting liquid waste flowing straight from factory to brook back in those days of unchecked industrial air and water pollution. Yes, those were the days when a smart man would not dip so much as his little toe into the river below Sunderland Bridge.

The reason I mention the boyhood building on the corner of Main and Pleasant, it long ago demolished and replaced by a modern, one-story Cowan’s Auto Parts store, is a recent eBay purchase. How better to occupy time during this tedious COVID-19 shutdown than taking daily spins around the online auction site in search of local treasure? From near and far, it shows up week after week. A steady flow keeps on keepin’ on.

What I was excited to find a few weeks back was a 19th-century, three-fold, leather wallet in remarkably good condition. What was its significance. Well, stamped across an inner face was a rectangular impression reading “Made by Chas Arms, South Deerfield, Mass.” Wow! That caught my attention. Though I immediately knew what it was, it was, in all my years living in the factory neighborhood, not to mention many old Arms homes and those of the workforce, never, not once, had I lain eyes on one of its products. I soon discovered that the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association’s Memorial Hall Museum had a worn wallet and a pouch of another style among its collections. But that didn’t matter. The museum pieces had escaped me before I went looking. 

How could I resist jumping into the auction? Nope. Not a chance. In fact, I aggressively pursued my interest by making an offer and – cha-ching – a week and $61.13 later, the carefully packaged wallet arrived in my mailbox from the southcentral Wisconsin town of Reedsburg. Owner Sarah Riedel of the downtown store Antiques on Main had rescued it at an estate sale, found mixed among military papers in a dusty old dresser drawer. It’s pretty typical of the way such items come to light and return to the communities where they were created as collectors’ items. Fact is that the timing of this discovery couldn’t have been better. Deerfield’s 350th birthday celebration is a short three years away. Maybe I’ll loan it to the Historical Commission for some sort of a South Deerfield pocketbook-factory display.

Talk about igniting a fascinating adventure down South Deerfield’s memory lane, the wallet did just that, while also stirring my ever-ready genealogical-research juices. Arms Family roots stretch as deep as any in South Deerfield annals, beginning with progenitor William Arms, who came to the Connecticut Valley in 1676 as a soldier under Capt. William Turner of “Falls Fight” fame. Later, the Arms family was among the first to settle the Deerfield village first known as Bloody Brook during the second half of the 18th century. Even better, the wallet discovery and purchase pulled me back into my family roots in the local leather-working trade, tanner and shoemaker families that evolved into Industrial Revolution cogs at the Arms Manufacturing Co. factory. The South Deerfield manufactory was a big deal in its day, in a class with John Russell’s Green River Works (cutlery) as a Franklin County industry, according to online data published by Greenfield’s Museum of Our Industrial History.

The Arms factory was on center stage a short distance from downtown South Deerfield, where it cranked out fine leather pocketbooks, bill books, letter books and card cases. The products were shipped to New York and sold nationally. Before the railroad, Arms products were shipped by oxcart to Hartford, where they picked up a barge to New York City for distribution. Production and shipping dramatically increased once the Connecticut River Railroad went through town. The freights would stop at loading docks between the Conway and Elm Street crossings, alongside today’s Leader Home Centers hardware store and lumber yard.

Although it’s impossible to piece together the entire picture at a time when Old Deerfield’s Memorial Libraries are closed for the pandemic, there is enough online information available to get a general picture. Perhaps, were I an Ancestry.com subscriber, I could from home assemble some of the pocketbook factory’s workforce from online census records. But without that luxury at my fingertips, I must wait for library access once COVID-19 passes.

In the meantime, I must rely on what I already knew and what I have recently discovered by reading and discussion with knowledgeable sources. It’s not like I came into this discovery mission totally uninformed. I entered the journey with a general understanding of the pre-industrial leather-working trade due to genealogical research into my Sanderson, Arms, Graham and Woodruff families, all of which display strong veins of tanners and shoemakers working their trade in Whately, Deerfield and Sunderland.

It gets even closer. Each morning at daybreak, I crack open my eyes looking at two Victorian Woodruff sisters – great-grandmother Fannie, born 1865, and older Marriette, born 1849 – peering down at me from their framed perches on my upstairs bedroom’s north wall. Plus, several times a day on my way to the study, I pass two earlier photo portraits of their parents – Asa Franklin Woodruff and Eliza Arms – framed on each side of the fan-lit front door. Asa, a New Hartford, Conn., shoemaker, married into Eliza’s South Deerfield shoemaking family in 1842 and settled in town. They would have been South Deerfield neighbors of Dennis Arms, the pocketbook shop’s founder, and Eliza’s grandfather. Dennis Arms’ son Charles, Eliza’s first cousin, bought out brothers William S. and James C. in 1861 and put Arms Manufacturing on the map.

Is it possible that Asa Wooodruff, buried under a tall, obelisk in the downtown Sugarloaf Cemetery, worked for the Arms pocketbook factory? Can’t say at this point. A work in progress. Although more information is needed, I wouldn’t bet against it. That’ll have to wait for now. There’s time. I’ll wait to dig when the diggin’s better. No great rush. Deerfield’s 350th isn’t until 2023. Who knows what great stuff will emerge by then?

Which reminds me of a sobering thought. I was a 20-year-old celebrant of he town’s 300th birthday. Now this. No denying I’m getting old.

Interesting how this latest research mission began with a simple eBay keyword search in the comforts of home, a search I’ve executed many times over the past 20 years. Never a waste of time, this particular foray just happened to produce exceptional fruit. It happens. That’s why I keep going back for more. It’s fun. Sometimes rewarding.

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