Hawks Tavern at North Mill River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of story.

Hinsdale Houses Tell a Story

Seeking brief respite from a tangled maze of early South Deerfield deeds, I scheduled a short trip to the Granite State last week. There, on a summerlike spring morning, we found warm, welcoming guide Sharron Holmes Smith awaiting our visit at the historic Col. Ebenezer Hinsdale House in Hinsdale, New Hampshire.

Friend and neighbor Richard Shortell wanted to join me, and drove. We share interests in local history and what he calls “old stuff.” Translated, that means Americana, some of which can break the budget of even conservative collectors with sophisticated tastes.

We were anxious to tour the noble, dual-center-chimney, Georgian Colonial dwelling, built in 1759 along the eastern bank of the Connecticut River by the founder of the New Hampshire-Massachusetts border town across from old Fort Dummer on the Vermont side. Col. Hinsdale, a Deerfield man who graduated from Harvard in 1727, was Fort Dummer’s chaplain – or “Indian missionary,” whatever that meant.

I learned of the house museum, purchased in 2009 by the Hinsdale Historical Society, while investigating a new discovery about the colonel’s younger brother, Samuel Hinsdale, the first occupant of the historic upper Greenfield Meadows tavern I call home.

Ebenezer and Samuel were born a year apart in 1706 and 1707, the sons of Deerfield’s firstborn white child, Lieutenant Mehuman Hinsdale (1673-1736). All three were prominent colonial Deerfield citizens, not to mention prolific landowners. Only Samuel lived to witness the Revolution. A Greenfield founding father and ardent patriot – a word I hesitate to use these days – Samuel died in 1786, outliving his “intemperate” brother Ebenezer by 23 years.

Maybe it’s not fair to mention Ebenezer’s intemperance. Wasn’t virtually everyone intemperate back then, when “hardened” cider, weak and strong, was a staple served even with breakfast? Because sweet cider quickly turns to vinegar in storage, colonial cider mills and distilleries produced cider wine and brandy, even potent applejack for special occasions, all of which stored well. Sweet cider was a treat served fresh.

My interest in the Hinsdale House began last fall when I stumbled across a couple of 18th-century deeds recording the sale of Samuel Hinsdale’s Greenfield farm, which stood at “the nook of the falls” on both sides of the “road from the fishing falls to Northfield.” My first impulse, based on a reference to Grass Hill, placed the property north of the High Street Cemetery, somewhere in the area of today’s Stop & Shop. It sounded like an apt name for the vegetation that the first colonial eyes would have found around the so-called Mackin sandbanks.

I was wrong about that, and about my assumed location of the so-called “nook,” which I assumed referred to the Connecticut River’s right-angle elbow at the Factory Hollow outflow.

As I delved into Deerfield’s 1736 “pitch lots” drawn by proprietors in a land division “east of the Green River and north of Cheapside,” I discovered that the “nook of the falls” actually referred to a three-mile stretch on the river in what is now Gill. According to Gill historian Ralph M. Stoughton, who lived there, the nook began at the sharp elbow across from the mouth of the Millers River and extended west, through Great Falls, to the mouth of the Fall River.

The 200-acre Hinsdale Farm sat on both sides of the road in what is now Gill Center, bordered north by Barnard Hill, which is not far south of Mount Hermon. In 1769, Samuel sold 117 acres, a house, and outbuildings to Benjamin Hosley for more than ₤213.

Eight years later, Hinsdale unloaded the rest of his acreage, selling 80 acres to George Loveland, who ponied up ₤24 for “land which lyeth on the Bald Hill, so called, in the nook of the falls and is the land on which the aforesaid Loveland now dwells.”

Interesting. It was a small world back then – one with a solemn honor system intact. Apparently, Hinsdale knew Loveland and trusted that he’d settle his debt years after building a farm for his family.

My next question was why Hinsdale, whose father was the No. 1 landowner in Deerfield by a wide margin, would have chosen to settle in the town’s isolated northeast corner. Though it’s uncertain precisely when he broke ground at “the nook of the falls,” it seems likely it would have been after 1748, when he was licensed to run a tavern at his late father’s Old Deerfield homestead following younger brother John Hinsdale’s unexpected 1746 death.

So, Samuel Hinsdale probably moved his family to their fertile “nook of the falls” Deerfield farm around 1750, three years before the establishment of Greenfield and 43 years before Gill would split off. Although the location seems a bit isolated to suit the desires of a man of means, it’s possible he chose it to be close to his enterprising older brother.

Ebenezer Hinsdale, who never gave up his Deerfield residency, accepted his Fort Dummer post in 1740 and in proceeding years helped build Fort Hinsdale across the river. Samuel would have been “in the neighborhood,” so to speak, less than 20 miles south.

Living in what is now Gill when brother Ebenezer broke ground for his Hinsdale estate in 1759, it is not a stretch to surmise that Samuel took part in the construction. Isn’t that what brothers did back then? Though difficult to pinpoint exactly what role he may have played, Hinsdale House tradition states that some of the building materials came from Deerfield. Although that seems far-fetched if referring to Old Deerfield village, not so if some materials were coming what became Gill. Even more likely is the potential that the structure was built by top Deerfield/Northfield joiners. The proud building wears all the marks, inside and out, of master colonial woodworkers.

The house is a refined statement to the best of mid-18th-century, upper-Connecticut Valley architecture crafted by human hands employing simple tools. It’s all there, from the decorative interior panels and molding to the fireplaces and brick oven to the wide, worn pine floors, fitted-stone foundation, and attic ridgepole.

Sparsely but tastefully furnished with early furniture, much of it donated by late Greenfield High School science teacher George Dyer of Ashfield, the house has the warm feel of a worn 1950s farmhouse. It’s the type of place I recall from cleaning out houses for auctioneer Bill Hubbard, or partying at friends’ old homes in our western hills.

The big tub sink set in a wooden kitchen counter stirred a phantom memory I didn’t know existed, all the way back to my grandmother’s Nova Scotia farmhouse I visited as a 5-year-old. Huh? Where did that come from? It’s surreal how the mind, when stimulated, can pull images from the deepest chambers of memory.

Six years after Col. Ebenezer Hinsdale died in 1763, brother Samuel set the wheels in motion for his move across town to the Meadows. Although that contradicts family tradition and my National Register of Historic Places narrative, deeds don’t lie. So, it must be changed if I get a chance to compose an addendum. Then again, maybe the next owner will take the ball and run with it.

The fact is that Samuel Hinsdale didn’t break ground in the Meadows until about 1770, when he was 63, his oldest namesake son 29 and younger son Ariel 20. The Hinsdale residence and a distillery were built across the road from my house, which in its earliest form was a smaller building run as a tavern on the road to East Colrain. The building evolved over three generations into a much larger structure sold in 1836 to Charlemont taverner Ebenezer Thayer.

The rest is history … now “on the record,” I suppose.

Springtime Flashback Hearkens Back to Youth

Choosing a column topic, a process I once faced twice a week, is a decision that can be influenced by many different factors and stimuli.

Maybe I’ve finished a provocative book, read an interesting magazine article, attended a gripping presentation, seen something on the boob tube, or engaged in impromptu conversation that initiates a strong reaction. Often nature-driven, the narrative may address something I’ve seen during a country ride, solitary hike or, back in the day, hunting an isolated hardwood ridge or thorny alder swamp.

Once in a while, as deadline pressure builds, a totally spontaneous subject is delivered like a gift from the heavens. Other times an idea unfolds during restless bedtime introspection, the wheels spinning to a sleep-interrupting scream. Then, with the topic already settled by still, gray, daybreak waking time, a few paragraphs may begin their development before lifting from the pillow.

This week, the topic arrived quite unexpectedly during an early-morning walk to the backyard, brookside dumping place carved out for weekly pailsful of woodstove ash and embers. As I embarked on this familiar path, I could plainly hear Hinsdale Brook’s jovial springtime rattle from the driveway in front of the carriage sheds, long before I turned north and followed the barn back to the soothing sound.

Standing along the high, southern bank, sandwiched between the kennel and cook-shed under a naked maple, I bore witness to the swollen stream’s audible and visual glee as its cleansing, whitecapped meltwater raced toward the Green River three-quarters of a mile away. Though frosty, spring was in the air, evoking pleasant thoughts and memories.

Not surprisingly, my mind first wandered back to a deep trout-fishing past, a springtime pursuit enjoyed by many. For me, spring fishing was a tradition dating back to childhood and extending well into adulthood, occasionally with wide-eyed sons in tow.

Having long ago learned to analyze trout-stream dynamics, I can still read the runs and riffles, the pools and eddies, from a fishing perspective. Looking down that morning, I visualized plunking a soft pendulum cast upstream from trout in their feeding lairs and dead-drifting my offering past them for an aggressive, predatory strike. Whether using live bait or artificials, success comes down to the angler’s abilities to read water, understand feeding patterns, and present bait in a natural manner without a hint of suspicious drag.

There is no better time than spring for trout fishing; well, then and during sticky summer rainstorms that color the water brown with silt and washed-in feed. But I didn’t dwell long on fishing thoughts that morning. My thoughts hopped like an ovipositing mayfly to baseball, a springtime game that in my world trumps all others – even fishing and turkey hunting.

I’m not certain why baseball memories moved in as I stood along that rollicking trout stream. It just happened, transporting me to a place I love to visit. I suppose the impetus could have been a surprise visit a day or two earlier by an old summer teammate who occasionally stops on his way home to Vermont. Many years ago, we used to play weekend Northern League doubleheaders in places like Bennington, Vermont and Half Moon, New York against good college-age ballplayers.

Then again, maybe the baseball reminiscence was driven by all the gloom-and-doom Red Sox chatter leading up to Opening Day at Fenway Park. Whatever the stimulus, memories raced back more than a half-century to my turbulent Frontier Regional School days, when the “privilege” of playing ball was always at risk if you had a beef with a vindictive teacher, coach, or principal.

I must say that liked my baseball coach. The late Tommy Valiton, a Buckland boy who loved to hunt and fish, was a spirited bundle of mischievous enthusiasm. We became good friends and hunting buddies long after our days at Frontier and before he left this world for the Happy Hunting Ground nearly two decades ago.

Tommy was the lesser of two valuable commodities Buckland gift-wrapped to Frontier. The other was his fellow Arms Academy alum Vi Goodnow, a legendary pioneer of girls’ athletics in the Pioneer Valley, if not the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Both coaches delivered state championships to the South Deerfield school. Not a bad contribution from a quaint little hilltown buried deep in our bucolic western hills.

I hope my memory’s clear, my story accurate. I’ll do my best. It was long ago.

I’d say it was 1969, my sophomore year, when Valiton returned to Frontier with a master’s degree after a one-year sabbatical at the University of Maine. Playing in cold, windy Down East springtime conditions, Tommy had carved out a nice little career for himself in the early ’60s as a speedy center fielder and leadoff man for Coach Jack Butterfield’s Black Bear baseball teams. As a Frontier teacher he returned to his old stomping grounds to secure the salary-boosting degree.

During this brief return to the Northcountry, Tommy couldn’t stay away from the baseball team and its indoor, preseason practices. That should come as no surprise. Hardball was in his blood. And there in the UMaine fieldhouse, he was introduced to an exciting new tool – indoor pitching machines enclosed in mesh batting cages. He immediately recognized what a huge advantage a cage would give his early-season high-school hitters forced to practice indoors.

A winner and fierce competitor, Tommy was always looking for an edge. He knew a batting cage would provide just that. The more he watched the Black Bear hitters honing their stroke in the cage, the more he realized he had to find a way to obtain one for Frontier.

Though I can’t remember every minute detail, it seems we embarked on an aggressive fundraising campaign to raise enough money for an “Iron Mike,” an over-the-top pitching machine, and the needed materials to construct a safe gymnasium batting cage. I think we sold raffle tickets or candy bars to raise the money as Tommy wheedled industrial-arts colleagues to build sturdy metal frames to support the netting. I believe he himself built the protective shield protecting those feeding the machine from dangerous comebackers.

And so, the spunky, little, crewcut devil and former US Marine from Buckland pulled it off. Because of him, Frontier was the first local beneficiary of a batting cage. If I’m not mistaken, that included even bigger Amherst and Greenfield. It gave us an edge, and put us in the Western Massachusetts Tournament when there was only one division for all.

With a good team and high hopes entering my senior year, our promising season was derailed by disciplinary action and ineligibility issues that whittled the roster down to a shadow of itself. Of course, I was right in the middle of the developments. It was sad. The promising team lost more games than it won.

We won our first two games, one of them a thrilling, low-scoring comeback against Mahar Regional School ace George Eastman. Then, a day or two later, I was ruled academically ineligible and our wins became forfeit losses.

I could have prevented the catastrophe had I not cut down my course load for my last two semesters of high school. Instead, having fulfilled my foreign-language requirement, I dropped Spanish and left myself without any academic wiggle room. Down to four classes as I played out the string, I had to pass them all to maintain athletic eligibility.

My problems began with a third-semester creative-writing class taught by an old battle axe named Alice Spindler, with whom I had “history.” The single assignment on which our grade was based was to write a short story. When I submitted my story about an Indian, Spindler accused me of plagiarism without a speck of evidence and flunked me.

She said that although she couldn’t cite the source, she knew I was incapable of crafting such a story.

Well, with my father a sitting school committee member and Coach Valiton eager to reverse the decision, it wasn’t over yet. Strings were pulled to arrange an emergency morning meeting with the principal, vice principal, guidance counselor, teacher, coach, my father, and me. Before going in I was advised that if I played my cards right, the teacher would likely pass me. I was urged to keep my cool, diplomatically defend myself, and offer a contrite apology for any perceived disrespect.

Meeting day arrived, and the teacher spoke first. She came at me with both guns a blazing, airing out a long list of grievances against me. Her presentation so enraged me that, when given the chance, I fired back with a satisfying counter-tirade. A contrite apology was not in play. Although I fought the law and the law won – in my mind I won the battle and lost the war. My baseball season was over.

I’m sure the teacher and administrators felt victorious. They likely believed they had taught an irascible student a valuable life lesson. They were right. What I learned was that it’s better to stand your ground and speak your mind than genuflect to empty, bullying authority.

I went home, put my Wilson A2000 baseball glove away for a while, fished trout streams until the summer American Legion Baseball season began, and never looked back.

I must admit to being humored when Tommy Valiton would introduce me to friends as a former ballplayer of his “who writes for the newspaper and couldn’t pass English.”

What else could I do but curl a sardonic grin?


The Monument Church Question Lingers

I finally bought and read a biography of John Brown (1800-1859) which has been on my radar for a few years.

Why the delay? Not due to a shortage of biographies about the radical Connecticut-born abolitionist who attacked the Harpers Ferry, Virginia armory and was hanged for insurrection leading up to the Civil War. In fact, many options became the problem. I wanted the “definitive” work – but how would I find it? Procrastination led to impasse, but nothing to lose sleep over.

Having chased many leads over time, I was reluctant to pull the trigger before a recent Amazon suggestion piqued my interest. Likely all about timing, it just caught me at the right moment. Further investigation convinced me I had finally found the right source. So, I bought a “very good” hardcover and dust jacket in a mylar cover.

The unmarked book came from the library of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Herbert Donald (1920-2009), the biographer of other Civil War-era figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Charles Sumner. That validated him for me. Plus, dig this: the book I bought, To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown, was authored in 1970 by a UMass history professor named Stephen B. Oates, who died at 85 a couple of years ago in Amherst.

Had I been interested in Old John Brown as a UMass undergraduate in the early 1970s, I’m sure Oates would have been offering a course. Isn’t that what college professors do – offer classes that explore their books? But the timing was wrong: I was young and more focused on nighttime rambles, hitting baseballs, and tracking fly balls deep into the right-center gap against low, blinding late-afternoon sun. I found my way to Oates’ Brown biography a half-century later.

My interest in Brown wasn’t new, first sparked decades ago by Henry David Thoreau’s famous essay A Plea for Captain John Brown, written by the transcendentalist of Walden fame as the condemned man awaited execution in a Charlestown, Virginia jail cell. Thoreau differed with the mainstream press depiction of Brown as a dangerous madman, and wanted to correct the record in defense of a principled and defiant man willing to die for his belief that slavery was immoral and must end.

The Oates book taught me that Brown: 1) was a Mayflower descendant from a founding family of Windsor, Connecticut; 2) had many connections from a Torrington, Connecticut, upbringing to the town of my own Woodruff family’s New Hartford; 3) enrolled briefly in 1816 as a teen at Moses Hallock’s school in nearby Plainfield; and 4) became a radicalized abolitionist in the 1840s as a citizen of activist Springfield.

Situated along the Underground Railroad pipeline to Canada, Western Massachusetts’s largest city was then the home of aggressive antislavery organizations, with a strong following of rabid abolitionists who had free and open access to The Liberator, the antislavery newspaper published in Boston by William Lloyd Garrison.

I wanted to link this strong antislavery Connecticut Valley sentiment to contemporaneous “Free Soil Party” support in South Deerfield, some of it running through my Arms family lineage. So committed to the Free-Soil cause were some of these South Deerfield citizens who emigrated to Kansas Territory in the mid-1850s for the sole purpose of ruling the ballot box to establish a new slave-free state.

Off to the western frontier these local antislavery crusaders flocked by train, boat, and horse-drawn carriage. The move west was buoyed by funds from Worcester abolitionist Eli Thayer’s Emigrant Aid Societies – first of Massachusetts, then New England. Once there, these local folks and other political allies founded Lawrence, Kansas, today the liberal home of the University of Kansas.

These “northern rabblerousers” were not welcomed with open arms by slave owners and their militant allies from the bordering slave state of Missouri, many of whom rated progressive Massachusetts No. 1 on their enemy list.

From this collision of two strong-willed forces arose what has come to be known in American history as “Bleeding Kansas,” where the blood did indeed flow from both sides. There, on that slice of the Midwestern prairie, guerilla and open warfare broke out between Free-Staters and pro-slavery Border Ruffians on what is now recognized as the Civil War’s staging ground.

Although Old John Brown never lived in Lawrence, he wasn’t far away, settling in Osawatomie after his 1855 arrival from New York’s Adirondacks. It didn’t take long for him to build strong Lawrence alliances. He and his sons drank the antislavery Kool-Aid Lawrence was serving, and all were determined to defeat slavery in the new territory by any means possible, including violence.

Brown is most remembered in Kansas and Missouri for the vengeful, overnight, Pottawatomie Creek Massacre he led on May 24, 1856, a few days after a Missouri sheriff and his redneck vigilantes sacked Lawrence with fire and fury. Brown’s retaliatory raid left five pro-slavery farmers viciously hacked to death by anti-slavery sabers.

Nobody in Lawrence took a bigger hit during the 1856 annihilation than three Connecticut Valley brothers named Eldridge, all of them claiming strong mid-19th century ties to South Deerfield. As business partners, the Eldridge brothers Shalor W., Thomas B., and James M. built, owned, and operated the opulent Free-State Hotel – hailed as the finest hotel west of St. Louis, and hated by pro-slavery forces as a shining anti-slavery beacon.

All three Eldridge brothers had lived in South Deerfield at some point after 1845 and were well-known in Franklin County before moving to Kansas between 1854 and 1856. Their branch of the Eldridge family was from Southampton by way of West Springfield. Shalor was a railroad contractor, James married Mary Augusta Arms of South Deerfield, and Thomas owned a shoe and dry-goods store on East Main Street in Greenfield where the Garden Theater now stands.

Plus, sister Frances Ann Eldridge married “Augusta” Arms Eldridge’s stepbrother and cousin Leonard B. Arms, a US Deputy Marshal famously gunned down in 1860 by Free-Soiler John Ritchie in Topeka.

Something I have thus far been unable to confirm is my suspicion that political differences regarding the slavery issue, which came to the fore in the 1830s and lingered for two decades, were a factor involved in the contentious 1848 split in South Deerfield’s Congregational Church. A scholarly friend, who is far more interested in churches than I am and who has studied the church’s history, is not convinced. On the other hand, he admits that information concerning the dispute is vague, and likely intentionally so.

I was hoping Oates would help me track the pre-Civil War abolition movement and, more importantly, that of our slice of the Connecticut Valley. Though helpful, his information and that of South Deerfield church records leaves many unanswered questions that may never be resolved.

Slavery became a church issue throughout the North beginning in the 1830s, creating fissures and disagreement among parishioners. Few back then supported total freedom and citizenship for freed slaves. Some supported “colonization,” which meant freeing enslaved people and shipping them back to Africa, while others favored citizenship without the right to vote. Still others, even in Thoreau and Emerson’s progressive Massachusetts, were unapologetic white supremacists who preferred to ignore the slavery issue.

The hot moral issue of slavery clearly cast sparks that could, and did, according to Oates, split communities and churches – especially on the Western frontier of Ohio and Illinois, but also in New England and New York. This political undercurrent obviously existed in South Deerfield as well, and may have been a contributing factor that split its church.

Then again, maybe it was pure coincidence that outspoken abolitionist ministers Rev. Samuel Ware and Rev. Theophilus Packard, Jr. settled in the community. Ware (1781-1866) was approaching 60 and semi-retired when he came to town in 1837, plunking down a tidy $4,600 for the old, 90-acre Arms/Whitney farm on the east side of North Main Street, south of the Bloody Brook Monument. An avowed abolitionist, Ware was admitted to the church in 1838.

Maybe it was also a coincidence that in 1848 Ware sold to Shalor Eldridge the half-acre lot on which the Monument Church was built. Eldridge immediately flipped the lot for no profit to the Monument Church’s building committee.


According to the deeds, Eldridge was at the time residing in Northfield. So, he was out of sight, out of mind for the rapid-fire sales, and no stranger to Ware. Like Eldridge, the minister’s wife, Lucy Strong Parsons, grew up in Southampton, a small Hampshire County town where she would have known the Eldridges since childhood. Six years after conveying the Monument Church lot, Eldridge and family moved to the Kansas Territory for political reasons aimed directly at the emancipation of slaves.

I have to wonder if Monument Church pastor David A. Strong of Connecticut was also an abolitionist? Although I have thus far been unable to answer this question, it wouldn’t surprise me.

Eels and Stuff

The first day of March brought with it an inch of fresh overnight snow, a rarity here this winter, as East Palestine, Ohioans live in fear that each breath inhaled is shaving away hours of their lives.

The morning is gray and gloomy, dark, dreary and warming, a light patter of rain detectable even to old ears, which have no trouble hearing that familiar scraping, sliding sound of snow tobogganing off the slate roofs, followed by a rattling tremble.

I’ve settled into my winter work station, seated on a bow-back Windsor at an oval farm table with thick reeded legs nestled into a kitchen nook, my back to the windowed south wall. Seems like as good a day as any to come up with something for my looming biweekly column. Never too early to get a jump on it. Sometimes somber mornings like this can stimulate thoughts, get the wheels spinning, so to speak – especially when unsure of a topic.

Beware: the route can be circuitous.

I awoke at daybreak and was downstairs before the clock struck six to revive the woodstove and finish reading a poignant Rolling Stone tale about Alabama coal miners enduring a two-year strike that finally ended last week. I was about halfway through it the previous evening when my wife came into the room to watch the nightly news. Choosing not to battle TV distraction, I calmly marked my place in pencil and set the magazine aside till morning. It could wait. Plus, I was ready for the Celtics game before catching up on the Murdaugh trial or latest Trump sideshow.

A couple of minor chores were awaiting me upon completion of the RS article. A stack of outgoing mail resting on a chest of drawers had to go out to the mailbox along with bags of stickered trash and paper recyclables left overnight on the small inset porch. I hate it when critters tear up my trash bags and scatter the contents out by the road. So, I’ve learned to wait till morning to lug them out there.

On my way back to the house, walking empty-handed over wet, sticky snow, a bird was singing a happy tune from its hidden burning-bush perch. I could not identify the song, but knew it wasn’t a cardinal, robin, or blue jay. Probably some sort of drab-colored sparrow, warbler, or wren invisibly perched and foraging the dense ornamental bush’s red berries.

Though able to identify few birds by sight and even fewer by sound, I could decipher the mood, and it was joyous. I had to wonder why it was so happy on this damp morning? There didn’t seem to be much to sing a happy tune about. Could not that innocent feathered creature detect the air- and rain-borne poison in the air from the faraway, black, toxic cloud of smoke we all saw billowing out of that train wreck along the Ohio/Pennsylvania border? Did it not know that, in the name of greed and profit, humanity is destroying most everything dear to it?

Ooops. There I go again, spouting blasphemy. Or is it heresy? I’m not supposed to say such things. You must be aware that some scientists paid handsomely by the captains of industry still claim humanity shares no responsibility for global warming. I’d hate to be outed as Woke by that new flavor of the month, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, and his band of hypocritical holy warriors. If they can shut down Dr. Seuss and Harper Lee, no one is immune.

But enough of that. I’d hate to rile folks of a different political stripe with my opinions born of the Sixties. That kind of talk doesn’t play well at St. Kaz and K Street? Maybe even some at the Voo will object. Heaven forbid ruffling “conservative” feathers.

Which, for some strange reason, brings me to the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission meeting I attended on a whim at the Conte Lab in Turners Falls on February 17. Having lost track of CRASC’s mission after five years of retirement, I wanted to see what it was up to with salmon-restoration in the rearview.

I suppose I could have devoted this entire column to that meeting, but in all honesty there wasn’t that much there. Just a routine morning meeting with Zoom participation, chaired by two familiar old characters from my past – Ken Sprankle and Andy Fisk.

I first knew Sprankle as the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Connecticut River Coordinator. Today his title has changed to Project Leader of Connecticut River Fish and Wildlife Conservation. Same job, different title.

Fisk has followed a similar path from executive director of the Connecticut River Watershed Council, which had morphed into the Connecticut River Conservancy before he left in October for greener pastures. He is now employed by the State of Connecticut, for which he is Bureau Chief for Natural Resources at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

I must say I was surprised to learn of an ambitious American-eel restoration project, known as the CRASC Connecticut River American Eel Management Plan, aimed at protecting habitat and encouraging population growth. Google it for further details.

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know that what I call brown river eels were migratory, and likewise had no idea there was a viable sport and even, I think, a small commercial fishery for them.

Yep, that was news to me.

The only person I ever knew who valued river eels as table fare was a late Polish man from my younger days. This man, a notorious game bandit, swore that these eels were the best-eating fish from local waters. I also learned from research that the slimy river critters were highly regarded as a Native American food source. Still, I didn’t in my wildest imagination believe there to be a significant eel fishery of any kind.

I guess I’m wrong. A post-meeting report emailed to attendees by Sprankle shows a proud fisherman holding up a gargantuan eel caught in the Bellows Falls, Vermont neighborhood.

My only personal experience with these eels occurred quite by accident during an overnight fishing journey to one of my favorite trout streams. I went to this Deerfield River tributary with a friend, two young women, tents, lanterns, food and drink, fishing and cooking equipment – the whole nine yards – in search of trophy brown trout summering in a gorge’s deep, dark, cold, underwater stone chambers.

I had learned of these huge browns from another friend who had bought a house in the neighborhood and checked out the gorge with scuba gear and an underwater light after I told him of the many nice trout I had caught there during summer rainstorms. Curious, he hiked into the secluded gorge and discovered huge browns in the five-pound class. He saw them with his eyes and touched them with his hands, hidden and comfortable in small, dark, underwater overhangs.

Because I had fished there many times and never caught such a fish, I figured they must be nocturnal feeders, and planned an ambitious overnight adventure, which failed miserably. This failure was driven by voracious eels, a foot and less in length, that aggressively competed for every nightcrawler we plunked into the deep pool. Their commotion created an unnatural disturbance that telegraphed our presence and prevented us from hooking into any big browns – akin to flushing partridge unknowingly warning deer that a hunter is passing through.

One must wonder if those Deerfield River browns in their cold, deep, summer refuge get so plump by eating eel progeny. They eat mice, frogs, and small snakes, so why not eels in the six- to eight-inch category? There are plenty of them there for the taking.

All I can say for certain is that my creative plan went bust in a hurry, and the steep, uphill, morning trek back to our Toyota Land Cruiser was strenuous indeed, and no fun at all.

Whew! So, there you have it: another winter-doldrums column in the rearview. I have written many over the years. The trick is to absorb the moment, and let the spirit move you.

A Friend’s Passing

The day before Valentine’s Day was funeral day for old friend Michael Pasiecnik.

The evening service was held in my native town, hosted by a mortician I have known for years. Michael grew up a couple of miles down the road in East Whately, where his family farmed rich river meadows first tilled by Indigenous people and dominated by Sugarloaf. Diagnosed with an aggressive, unforgiving cancer in late August, my friend didn’t survive six months.

I knew his parents, his siblings, and even his grandmother, from the old country. Her name was Mary. We called her Thunder. Elderly when I met her in the late 1960s, she worked the vegetable patches with us, often reminding us to handle the first tomatoes of the season with care. Bruises were a mark against them at the daybreak Springfield market.

It’s strange how some things unfold. In August, I had bumped into Michael quite by chance at the South Deerfield Post Office. I was happy to see him for the first time in many years. He looked great, clear-eyed and trim, and I told him so. He said he was getting his ducks in order for imminent retirement.

Our quick chat provided me the opportunity to offer condolences for the passing of his younger brother some eight months earlier. He told me he had fought hard and outlived doctors’ predictions. They gave him two years. He lived three. I now wonder if Mike’s terminal-stomach-cancer diagnosis had already been delivered. If so, he gave no hint. Same kind blue eyes. Same warm smile.

We met as junior-high-school lads budding into young men. Soon I was working on his family’s produce farm where, unlike the tobacco farms on which I had toiled for slave wages, there existed a certain level of dignity. Working on that farm for those humble servants of the land, I always felt appreciated, not exploited, and they paid cash. No abusive supervisors glowing with authority and barking orders to their young workforce. Straw bosses, they were called. Some of them schoolteachers earning supplemental summer-vacation income. They were not my cup of tea in or out of the classroom.

It must have been the destination that spun me into reflection on the drive to the funeral. I exited Interstate 91 within sight of the Whately BP Diner and doubled back toward the funeral home. My intended route would take me past Brookside Cemetery, where my ashes will someday lie in my family plot.

As I crossed the Route 116 railroad overpass to Long Plain Road and the cemetery, I thought back to the roads as they were configured when I was a boy on a bicycle. Back then the Route 5 & 10 bypass around town was still fairly new, and 116 still ran right through the center of town. South Main Street, previously 5 & 10, forked at the northwest corner of the cemetery. The right leg led over a now-barricaded railroad crossing to a swimming hole we called “Manmade Lake.” The left leg followed the tracks on the so-called road to the Straits in East Whately.

My late friend would have known that old fork in the road. I suppose that’s why it came to mind; that, and the realization that those who remember it are getting older and fewer with each passing week. Soon no one will remember South Deerfield before the rerouting of 5 & 10 around town, the arrival of Interstate 91, and the Route 116 bypass to Sunderland Bridge built when I was in high school.

Michael and I were there for the temporary service road around the railroad-overpass-construction mound. We both knew the teen from nearby Porter Street who lost a kidney to a nighttime car crash on the sharp temporary curve circling the construction site.

It’s interesting how that funeral ride stirred memories. Part of the mourning process, I suppose. And it didn’t end there.

My reflections continued as I drove past the Thayer Street homes of childhood classmates, teammates and friends – people like E-Nart, Duboy, and the Hosleys on the right, Pete Kuchieski and J.P. Walker on the left. Behind the homes on the north side of the street was the Pickle Shop, it too gone and largely forgotten today.

Thinking of that Pickle Shop brought back memories of my late son, then in junior high, being charged with vandalism for writing his initials and “NIRVANA” on a wooden vat. He did it while cutting cross-lots to a friend’s home after a half-day of school. For many years I had known the police chief who brought charges. He was two or three years behind me in school and I thought his intervention was harsh as small-town policing went. It would not have happened when I was young and cops knew the difference between kids’ stuff and crime.

At Sugarloaf Street I headed south toward my old Little League and men’s-softball diamonds, pulling into the funeral-home parking lot as it was filling up. Inside, I saw the director sitting at his desk in the room to the left of the door. We exchanged pleasantries as I walked his way. I wanted to inquire how the recovery of his younger brother and partner was going. An early COVID victim, I had heard he was having a tough slog, then got confirmation from an insider. Sad news. The guy got sucker-punched when the pandemic was new and remedies were few.

I passed through the room, took a right into the hallway, passed the staircase, and signed the guestbook before crossing the threshold into the somber funeral parlor. There was no casket, just family and friends standing and seated around a small altar and urn positioned as the last station before reaching the immediate family.

I arrived early and recognized some but not many of the attendees, few of whom recognized me. There’s no denying that appearances change over 50 years and more. I did my best to learn their identities on my way through, and was familiar with most.

I remembered some of the women seated in the gallery from their days as basketball players on legendary Frontier Regional School coach Vi Goodnow’s teams. The Goodnow legend has by now faded, even in South Deerfield, but I will never forget the proud coach from Buckland. She was the only coach who allowed me and my grammar-school friends to shoot around on side baskets during practice. Growing up on family property abutting the school, I knew Goodnow since her first year at the school, and as an adult I supervised coverage of her teams as sports editor of the local newspaper.

Goodnow learned how to plug strong farm girls into her rosters – dependable athletes who tossed around 50-pound bags of storage potatoes on the farm like cotton candy. Goodnow made good use of her local stock. Some of them, including Mike’s older sisters, were at the service. It was more than 60 years ago when I watched them play basketball under the old rules, with six to a team, only three of whom could cross into the offensive side of half-court. (Check it out if you doubt me – I saw it with my own eyes.)

I won’t get into the days when Mike and I were young carousers, hunting deer with his father on Chestnut Mountain, digging potatoes on The Island west of Herlihy Park and Field’s Farm in Montague, bagging winter storage spuds, attending a raucous politicians’ stag party in Holyoke, and bar-hopping around town. He and wife Debbie sponsored “Spuds ‘n’ Buds, “ the men’s softball team I played for.

I learned flush-and-retrieve pheasant hunting behind his dog, Smokey, a spirited bitch who loved to chase pheasants and was good at it after living many years on a farm stocked weekly during the fall season. “Take her anytime you want,” Mike and his father implored. “She loves to hunt, is easy to handle, and retrieves birds to us all the time after catching them.”

I took them up on the offer, got the bug, and in 1980 bought my own Lab, Sugarloaf Saro Jane, from Bill Gokey – then of Leverett, now of Conway. When I was training Sara, Mike helped by calling with detailed reports about how many birds had been stocked around his farm and where. I used to hunt his family’s miserable Hopewell Swamp all the way from Christian Lane to the foot of Sugarloaf – a young man’s game that produced wild partridge and woodcock as well as stocked pheasants.

Even though we grew apart in adulthood and I saw him only rarely. We occasionally communicated by email when I was working. I will miss Mike. He was a good man with a good, caring heart. His mischievous twinkle sparkled whenever our eyes met.

When in youth I worked on my friend’s tillage and hunted his wetlands, I didn’t know how deeply stained the acreage was with my own DNA. He lived on the old Allis farm where my fourth-great grandmother was born, and owned the terraced cropland to the immediate north owned, farmed, and lived on by six generations of my direct Sanderson ancestors.

Learning of those genealogical links created in me a much deeper relationship to my pal’s family farm – introducing a spiritual dimension. Unbeknownst to me when I worked the land was that the acreage was part of my being, my blood, my soul. I believe that stuff happens for a reason and cannot be dismissed as random coincidence. Something pulled me back to the land of my forebears and inspired me to dig in and figure out my genealogical connection.

Sadly, I never got the chance to fully define for him my deep roots in his place. Too late now.


Compuphobia Strikes Again

The first time I sat down to a computer was the day I started working as a part-time Greenfield Recorder sportswriter in the spring of 1979. I was 25, soon to be married, still sowing my wild oats.

I think it was a Hendrix machine; or maybe that was the name of the publishing software installed in the Recorder’s first computerized newsroom. Does the name really matter? The point is, if I wanted to work there or for any newspaper, I had to learn computers. End of story. Me – a friggin’ two-finger typist who’d never taken a typing class or used a typewriter, never mind a computer. I had submitted college essays longhand.

Those were the days before 24/7 cable TV. Hard to imagine. That means no CNN, no MSNBC, ESPN in the incubator.

Cell phones? Are you kidding me? When old friend Chip Ainsworth and I did a local sports talk show between 1980 and ’85 on Greenfield’s 15,000-watt radio station WPOE AM-1520, irked Yankee fans used to pull off the interstate to challenge our Pinstripe barbs from rainy, wind-blown, roadside phone booths. So, yeah, I guess I’m a technological dinosaur.

Which is not to say I can’t get by on computers, and in cyberspace. Though by no means a computer whiz, I have indeed mastered enough computer skills to be functional in the modern world, and did indeed tackle the world of pagination. In fact, as a deadline editor with the last pages sent down to the press room each night, my supervisors ranked me second to none, whether rewriting last-minute game stories or building pages for production, the clock always ticking like a time bomb.

With the final half-hour or so all mine and the news pages already down in the pressroom, I’d battle to the final millisecond to get the last west coast score and updated standings on the Scoreboard page before the press started with a grumble and rolled to a vibrating scream. Still, I can’t say I ever developed intuitive computer skills, like those from the two generations below me.

Today retired, I watch in admiration when my grandchildren pick up any device on God’s green earth and effortlessly navigate their way to intuitive solutions by simple trial and error. Not a whiff of fear or hesitation, totally aware there’s always a way out of any misstep. I don’t have that confidence, didn’t grow up with computers and smart phones. But that’s OK. They’ll never understand the woods, the streams, the swamps and their critters like I do. Not only that but, despite being wired for words, I can do math in my head. It never ceased to amaze me when scribes a generation younger than me were as lost without a calculator as a woodsman in a deep, foggy swamp without a compass.

What brings me to this discussion is a couple of projects steaming to a rapid boil on my front burner. First, I must build my first PowerPoint presentation, to be delivered for Deerfield’s 350th birthday celebration. Then it’s about time I made an honest effort to learn the Samsung Galaxy Tab my wife brought home for me with her new phone from Verizon. I’d like to figure it out as a handy, useful secondary computer. I have been told not to worry, it’s easy. To which I say, easier said than done.

Remember, I’m a self-admitted dinosaur. When I was young and in school, computers were sci-fi tools of the future, housed in their own rooms at high-security sites like the Pentagon, NASA, and MIT. Not for students like me, more interested in integrating happy hours and frat parties with driving overhand curveballs and three-quarters sliders over the right-center-field fence.

I sat down recently with a friend, an accomplished scholar and PhD, who made a house call to teach me PowerPoint. He and I have worked together on many projects focused on history and prehistory of Deerfield and its neighboring towns. We work well together, have complementary skills and knowledge, and share many interests. Unlike me, he carries a smart phone, and clearly has a better handle on modern technology. I attribute this to his ability to carefully read instruction manuals and tinker around until he has this function and that mastered.

I admire such folks, but learn much better with someone looking over my shoulder, which became an obstacle at the Recorder whenever the parent company decided to upgrade its publishing software.

When it came to the software, I was resistant to change because I was always on a deadline auto-pilot routine with the old system, hitting all the repetitious commands in a furious rhythm down the stretch. A new system forced me to learn new commands and disrupted my rhythm, slowing me down in a game where speed was essential. Plus, new systems always presented slightly different language and new drop-menu symbols I had to learn.

Complicating matters, the paper didn’t want to pay for the weeklong, on-site classes offered by the publishing-software company, opting instead for an hourlong classroom led by software-company reps in the upstairs “Pine Room,” and additional training for a select few editors to serve in a newsroom-tutor role. It was a recipe for disaster, placing incredible pressure on the staff teachers, who were themselves learning the new system and thus defensive and frazzled by questions they could not answer under severe deadline pressure.

I acquired special insight into the dynamics of one such transition because, as it turned out, the three reps who came to town to install and teach the software stayed two nights at my Bed & Breakfast. There, in the wee hours after deadline, we’d wind down with Wild Turkey on the rocks and conversation by the dining-room woodstove. In those comfortable pre-bedtime discussions, I learned the Recorder was rolling the dice by deciding to trim proposed training sessions way back to save money.

As they departed on the last morning, they wished me luck. Never, they said, had they left a newspaper staff less prepared to put out a paper.

“Good luck,” the leader chuckled, rolling his eyes on the way out the door. “It’s gonna be a shit-show. You get what you pay.”

Well, though difficult, we got through it. A month or so later, through trials and tribulations, I had mastered the new software and developed a new deadline rhythm. But that experience and others with bare-bones, inadequate training like it left me with “attitude” about learning new computers and gadgets. I resent new terminology and symbols for familiar old functions, and always wonder: Why isn’t there just one transferable language, and one set of drop-menu symbols, for all Windows programs?

So here I sit, procrastinating, fuming, venting, revisiting all the craziness that contributed to my stubborn, self-styled compuphobia. Akin to being launched into a raging river with no paddles or helmet, I have always come out alive and well on the other side, though not unscathed.

That said, mark these words: I will soon have a PowerPoint presentation or two, maybe even three, copied onto a portable thumb drive that can be plugged into any auditorium projector, and that Samsung Galaxy Tab will soon be satisfying my secondary-computer needs.

It’s the learning process I object to. Too much like work. I’m retired.

Cheapside Uplands and the Hoit Place

I took a recent walk around the Cheapside uplands with old buddy Billy Wardwell, a Bingville native I trusted would know all the little nooks and crannies.

You’d have to know affable “Wardy.” He grew up there. Highland Park was his playground.

We’ve known each other since high school, both from the Class of 1971: he from Greenfield, me South Deerfield. In youth we occasionally crossed paths on our nighttime rambles, and were even Sunday-morning street-hockey teammates, playing on the paved hilltop rink facing the Franklin County Courthouse parking lot and Greenfield YMCA.

Oh, to be young again. Back then I could run. Now battered knees can make walking a challenge.

That day, on a slippery morning track following two days of heavy rains, we parked at 7:30 on a Hope Street pull-over and scaled the power line to the first old road we met. From there, we headed south toward the Cheapside railroad underpass and the old ski jump before circling north, under the power line and toward Bears Den, Sachem Head, and the old Lupinwood mansion. It took over an hour to circle back to where we had first left the power line, at which point we descended to our vehicles.

Along the circuitous way we met several walkers, many with dogs. Some were leashed, others ran free as they’re meant to. On our brief off-trail diversions, through woody brush and over fallen trees, I knew enough to be cautious with each step. It’s easy to slip and break a leg wedged between slimy, prostrate tree trunks on greasy ground. Foot-free romps with wet leaves underfoot can be perilous even for a young whippersnapper, which I ain’t.

I contacted Wardwell after unexpectedly being nudged into Cheapside research by Jim Terapane, president and co-owner of Museum of Our Industrial Heritage, housed in the old Greenfield Steel Stamp building on Mead Street. The mixed brick-and-clapboard former industrial structure stands along the Green River at Greenfield’s historic first mill site, snugged up to the Mill Street bridge.

It was quite by chance that I had bumped into Terapane. On my way out of a bookbinder friend’s home shop in South Deerfield, I just happened to catch him raking his yard across the street. There we ventured into discussion about a boarded-up Greenfield building owned by someone he knew. The building stands on the west side of the Hope and Cheapside streets intersection along the Deerfield River.

That impromptu chat piqued my interest in the unoccupied building, which memory suggested was once a riverside tavern. Uncertain my kneejerk assessment was accurate, I looked into it at home, and was not surprised my memory had failed me. As far as I could learn, it was never a tavern, but rather an old riverside store.

Jonathan Hoit’s White Horse Tavern was around the corner on Deerfield Street. There in 1799 Hoit hung his sign, a white horse on black background, from his “mansion house” that now stands in Deerfield on 46 Old Main Street, Lot No. 25. Deerfield Academy recently purchased the center-chimney property from Fenwick, LLP for a tidy $1.75 million.

The first riverside store was built alongside a toll bridge and shipping dock just before the turn of the 19th century, when Cheapside was growing into an important commercial district. Such surnames as Williams, Wait, Hoit, Houghton, and Abercrombie were merchants there over the early years. The site remained profitable into the mid-19th century when the shipping paradigm went from river to rail.

Situated at an advantageous spot that represented the northern Connecticut River shipping terminus before 1798, when the Turners Falls Canal gave boats and barges access to Bellows Falls, Vermont, Cheapside remained profitable into the mid-19th century, when the shipping paradigm went from river to rail. Then it fell by the wayside as a viable mercantile district, forever changing the neighborhood’s character.

In the modern era, the old store building that once wore a long, extended streetside presence has been separated into two buildings. They stand today on opposite sides of the railroad underpass at the intersection of Hope and Cheapside streets.

Upon immersing myself in Cheapside deeds and families, my focus swiftly changed, moving from the store to the Hoit house, which I did not know was being sold, and the 210 acres on which it stood. Most of the land was originally owned by Hoit’s father-in-law, Samuel Childs.

My stumbling block was unfamiliarity with that upland terrain. It is far too busy these days to attract me in as a walker, and plus, I don’t believe any of the acreage is or ever has in my time been open to hunting, so that eliminates another potential activity that could have drawn me in.

That’s why I chased down Wardy. I knew he could in quick order introduce me to the prominent reference points mentioned in deeds – features like the Point of Rocks, Bears Den, and Sachem Head. I also was confident he’d have something to add about Greenfield’s first golf course, which once stood on the southern end of the parcel, surrounding the stately, hilltop multi-apartment house standing there today. In my earlier days, that building on the hill facing Cheapside Bridge was known as Hopecrest Manor.

Hoit was from Deerfield, the younger brother of wig-maker and tavernkeeper David Hoyt and the uncle of author Epaphras Hoyt, both of whom used what has become the accepted spelling of the surname. For some reason, Jonathan preferred the earlier spelling. So that’s what we’ll go with here: Hoit.

The Hoit “mansion house” on Deerfield Street came with a big barn and other outbuildings and stood elevated on a low terrace supported by a roadside concrete retaining wall across the street from Dave Samal’s old Mohawk Meadows Golf Course. The floodplain meadow, bordered south by the Deerfield River and west by the Green, was once a Native American artifact-collectors’ paradise, not to mention fertile tillage that produced for mid-19th-century owner David Reed Wait some of the finest tobacco money could buy.

By 1964, the dwelling had fallen into disrepair. So, Johnny-on-the-spot South Deerfield building contractor William Gass disassembled it rebuilt it in Old Deerfield. By November 1966 he had completed his very own interpretation, then known as the First Church of Deerfield’s parsonage.

Today the building, situated between Memorial and Wells streets, stands as a shining example of colonial architecture. It’s painted yellow with white trim that highlights fancy architectural embellishments. Old Deerfield is better for it, Cheapside worse for the loss of an important, historic building. Though, remember, Cheapside was part of Deerfield until 1896.

Had not Jim Terapane innocently nudged me into Cheapside research, I may have never discovered the story of the Hoit house. Moving it was a much-publicized project at the time, but the event seems to have faded from collective memory. I’m thankful for being led to it, and for other discoveries made along the way, starting with locating the exact location of the old 8,000-acre line that separated Greenfield and Deerfield until the 1896 annexation. Formerly led to believe the town line was much closer to the Meridian Street Bridge, I found that it was almost 700 feet north of that point.

Yet there’s still much to learn about Cheapside. You’ve got Col. William Moore’s seven-story, late-18th-century commercial building along the Green River, the neighboring Franklin Furnace, and William Wait and Benjamin Swan’s cooper shop down the road. Also worthy of additional study are the likes of Isaac Abercrombie, Moses Bascom, William Wilson, Samuel Pierce, Hezekiah Goff, David Wells, John Russell, and many others – all historical figures who contributed to Greenfield’s identity as an important commercial and industrial center.

So, stay tuned, and be patient. Expanding the historical record can and must be a slow, tedious process governed by the solemn commitment to avoid irresponsible, inaccurate information that’ll be repeated for decades.

Such information is inevitable and unfortunate, and only obscures the path to truth.

Wenner Book Stirs Memories

I really enjoy reading a book I connect to – one that, because it spins me into continuous reflection and reminiscence, I can’t put down.

Jann Wenner’s memoir, Like a Rolling Stone, is such a read, pulling me back to high school, college, and parts of five decades working for a small-town daily newspaper in a place I know.

In case Wenner doesn’t ring a bell, he is the founder of Rolling Stone magazine (RS), which began as a rock and roll journal and became much, much more – a New Journalism bible that gave creative voices like Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Joe Eszterhas, Tim Cahill, William Greider, Joan Didion, and many more a place to play.

Wenner’s 554-page tour de force chronicles RS’s evolution to a media empire valued in the hundreds of millions. It hit the street in September. By the time I purchased a copy online in November, it was in its third printing. The work of a fellow Baby Boomer seven years my senior, I found it to be a quick, captivating read. I suppose that goes without saying, considering that I came of age with the magazine in the mid-Sixties and Seventies and have not missed an issue as a lifetime subscriber since the early Eighties. Plus, we share the same political bedrock.

What I already knew about Wenner was that he sold RS five years ago, and that its print edition has been scaled back to make way for a 24-hour online feed that’s not covered by my lifetime subscription. That I deciphered from catching breaking, cable-TV news alerts attributed to RS that never found their way into the monthly print edition. Thus far, I have resisted the impulse to purchase a $4.99-per-month online subscription.

There were, however, a few things I didn’t know before opening the book. Not one to read supermarket exposé rags, People magazine, or metro newspaper gossip columns, or watch the likes of Inside Edition on TV, I was not aware that Wenner was gay. Nearing 50 in 1995, he finally “came out” by leaving his wife and three young children for a young boy-toy model, with whom he had three more children. I was also unaware that he had been at death’s door due to a heart attack five years ago.

Wenner’s book took me on an evocative ride through my own life journey, starting with my peach-fuzzed teen years. Just a 14-year-old Frontier Regional School freshman for RS’s inaugural October 17, 1967 issue, I can’t claim to have read or even known of its existence back then. Yeah, it’s possible there were a few college-town copies kicking around in Amherst/Northampton record stores – but, if so, I didn’t see them. My hunch is that it took a year or more for the old two-fold, biweekly tabloid to gain wide Happy Valley circulation.

Not so in the Flower-Power neighborhood of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, then the home of Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Grace Slick and Janis Joplin, to name but a handful of its musicians. RS was published and widely available in the Hippie Bay Area from the start.

Some 3,000 miles east, I had just entered my freshman year of high school, living a stone’s throw across Bloody Brook from the South Deerfield school. It was a transition year of sorts for me. Some of my friends and classmates had left public school for Deerfield Academy. Then a staid boys’ prep school of blue blazers, Oxford shirts, khakis, and wing-tips or shined penny loafers, it was no place for anyone agog with Sixties activism and cultural revolution.

A couple of years earlier, when I entered Frontier junior high in 1965, upperclassmen were scheming to challenge to the school’s draconian dress code. As I recall, males were prohibited from wearing their hair below the collar, sideburns past mid-ear, or beards and mustaches, while jeans, bellbottoms, T-shirts, and sandals were also taboo. The fairer sex was limited to skirts and dresses covering the knees, with slacks and shorts prohibited. There was no room for the chic miniskirt and earthy braless look of the day.

As winter faded to spring, hallway whispers of a protest were abuzz. The plan was to organize an en masse dress-code-violation day. When this day of defiance arrived and drew overwhelming support, the wheels of change were flicked into motion, and it wasn’t long before the school committee adopted a more liberal dress code.

That is not to suggest there wasn’t strong opposition from conservative, law-and-order types. No, in fact, full-throated disagreement was persistent from Goldwater men my father privately, in the comforts of home, called “John Birchers.” Of a reactionary, flag-waving, love-it-or-leave-it persuasion, these “patriots” wailed about inmates running the asylum.

Reading Wenner brought it all back to me in living color, deeply stirring my memory juices.

That right-wing clamor only got louder when, fueled by opposition to the Vietnam war, the drinking age was lowered from 21 to 18. The justification was that teens drafted for foreign wars should not have been deemed by law too young to buy spirituous liquor. Again, there were strong arguments on both sides of that issue, but liberals eventually prevailed and the drinking age was lowered.

This new freedom, coupled with release of a new, easily accessible birth-control pill, unleashed a raucous, Roaring Twenties-like scene that lasted about a decade on college campuses across the land. Then, with Vietnam far in the rearview, Reagan steering the ship of state, and college campuses running amuck, Mothers Against Drunk Driving banged the drinking-age drum back to 21.

With its trademark leftist lean, RS jumped into all those battles and many more. The biweekly rock and roll periodical became the voice of the young, taking courageous stands on civil rights, abortion, birth control, marijuana, LSD, and women’s lib, while covering the crushing 1968 assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King and condemning the National Guard murders of Kent State antiwar protesters.

RS also warned of dire consequences relating to the re-emergence of Richard M. Nixon, who welcomed George Wallace’s segregationist Dixiecrats into the GOP to narrowly defeat Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election. Yes, Martha, that was the genesis of our current Republican Party, now the voice of the South and white nationalism headquartered at Mar-a-Lago.

Though introduced to an occasional RS issue in the late Sixties, I didn’t become a devoted reader until my college years of the early Seventies. That’s when I had the good fortune of meeting UMass Professor Howard Ziff – the former Chicago Daily News night editor who grew up in Holyoke and graduated from Amherst College. Soon after we met, he told me he remembered playing football against my dad.

Ziff and I arrived at UMass in 1971. Holyoke friend David M. Bartley, then a state rep, had recruited him to establish a Journalism Department at UMass’ Amherst flagship. Talk about being at the right place, right time – I had a front-row seat.

Working his city newsroom on the periphery, Ziff had witnessed the ugly Chicago Democratic National Convention of 1968 and was deeply disturbed by what he viewed as misleading, whitewashed news coverage of the riotous police brutality that unfolded. Disillusioned with the mainstream media as a result, he ended his newspaper career and landed in Amherst, where I found him. Looking back, I find it disheartening that never in my travels did a meet another journalist worthy of the respect I hold for him. He was head and shoulders above the rest. I feel fortunate to have met him, and only wish I could have worked for such a man.

Ziff was a pre-24/7-cable-news and pre-Internet visionary who strongly believed the future of print news was New Journalism. He called it RS style and fed us a steady diet of Thompson, Wolfe, Eszterhas, Didion and many other “New News” pioneers. A Dickens and Orwell scholar, he also gave us a good dose of those iconic British writers considered by him to be the fathers of New Journalism, their creative non-fiction way ahead of its time.

He believed that “objective,” cream-of-wheat AP Style reporting was passé and already starting to chase away some newspaper readers. He believed modern, educated readers wanted more pizzazz from bold, creative voices willing to take positions on important issues with an entertaining voice. Conservative mainstream news editors stuck in their old ways didn’t buy it, and I got a good taste of such dandruff-specked, out-of-touch dinosaurs in my own newsroom.

There, pasted on the office wall of an editor and teacher through whose desk all local copy passed, was a bold, 84-point warning that read, “NO ADJECTIVES!” Imagine that. This from a man born within days of me and educated at another New England university. That boldface office sign condemning adjectives as enemies was a disqualifier in my world, and I craftily avoided the man for more than 30 years until it became impossible.

Before I retired, this man displayed his true socio-political colors during the daily editor’s meeting held in his office. There he told of his brother – I want to say older – who had retired to South Carolina to flee the Massholes flocking to his Granite State. Oh my! No wonder we had irreconcilable differences about news gathering and style.

Old habits die hard, even when the handwriting was on the wall and newspapers across the land, including ours, were hemorrhaging readers at an alarming rate to TV and Internet news. Tired of objective AP Style with many online options available, sophisticated readers peeling off in new directions. On their way out the door, they snickered aloud pondering when newspaper climate-change stories would stop auto-inserting the annoying caveat that some scientists do not believe in human culpability.

Wenner the innovator filled the niche and reaped riches. His memoir brought it all home to me, and then some, in one tidy package. I found validating his defense of RS style, and fascinating his reminiscence of difficult professional exchanges with Hunter Thompson – high priest of Gonzo Journalism and perhaps the all-time best chronicler of presidential campaigns. Read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 if you doubt me. It’s a classic: Essential HST.

Having read and remembered most of the landmark stories Wenner cites in his memoir gave me personal insight into the dynamics, as did working simultaneously for my entire full-time newspaper career in a smalltime newsroom not nearly as interesting or “with it” as his.

I highly recommend the book to anyone north of 60, and would encourage younger readers to give it an open-winded shot. RS and New Journalism was a product of the idealistic Sixties, and everyone, young, old and in between – even Reagan Revolutionaries – would be better off with a little nibble.


Lost Turkey Day Tradition

An empty, sun-splashed Veterans Memorial Field unleashed a flood of holiday memories in passing on Thanksgiving morning as I took a spin around Greenfield hunting for a bottle of cognac.

No, no, no, I didn’t need a snooty holiday eye-opener. I’m way past that. The impetus was a YouTube turkey-gravy recipe my wife wanted to try. It called for corn starch instead of flour, with a final splash of the flavorful French brandy into the steaming mix of roasting-pan drippings and boiled-potato water.

She showed me the video on her phone, knew we had no cognac, but didn’t seem concerned. To her, it was optional. We could live without it. But, with the turkey in the oven and nothing better to do at the moment, I was game for a quick search.

“I think package stores are open on Thanksgiving,” I offered, lifting my keychain from its hook on an overloaded panel of old keys attached to the side of a kitchen cabinet.

Not so.

My first stop was Ryan & Casey. Closed. Not a good sign.

Undaunted, I continued east on Main Street and took a left up Federal Street to check a hole-in-the-wall “packie” I thought may be open for holiday business. Nope.

That’s when I circled back to my Meadows neighborhood via Silver Street and Nash’s Mill Road and, not yet willing to throw up the white flag upon returning to Colrain Road, doubled back to Big Y. Uh-uh. Closed.

Oh well. We would have to settle for lesser gravy. Can’t say I didn’t try.

When I returned home empty-handed, my wife, curious, went to her phone for online clarification. Maybe package stores opened in the afternoon. That’s when we learned Thanksgiving is one of two Massachusetts holidays when “packies” are closed. The other is Christmas.

Oh well. Like they say in Chicopee Falls, nothing ventured, nothing gained. It goes to show how out of touch I am these days regarding matters of, uhm… imbibement. I must have been thinking of bars – I know they’re open on Turkey Day.

My brief Vet’s Field sighting during the fruitless journey through ghostly quiet Greenfield triggered a string of thought that wouldn’t quit. It brought me back to the sidelines, the newsroom, my 40 years on the Greenfield Recorder’s sports staff – the last 32 as sports editor. The sports-editor job called for hiring and supervising staff, coordinating coverage and photo assignments, choosing content, editing copy, and packaging it all in a daily three- to five-page sports section. My focus was always the local sports scene – especially the high school teams composed of local kids whose parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles, and neighbors subscribed to the paper. But the mundane community stuff was worth chasing, too.

My belief from the beginning was that local news sells. Wire stuff not so much, particularly after 24/7 cable news, Google, and cell phones joined the dynamic.

Thanksgiving week was one of our busiest times; that, and production of the spring and fall sports supplements – special 12-page sections which, truth be told, were nothing more than clever, revenue-building advertising schemes.

On Turkey Day the focus was placed squarely upon traditional holiday high school football rivalries between a pair of cross-river rivals – Greenfield vs. Turners Falls and Athol vs. Orange (now Mahar Regional School). Then, late in my tenure, two other “rivalries” were added to the holiday mix, which only complicated the coverage strategy and, in my opinion, cluttered the pre-game layout packages with superfluous baggage.

Who, sitting in my seat back then, would have in their wildest imagination predicted that one of those much-anticipated holiday games, the annual Greenfield-Turners Turkey Day clash, would fizzle and die? It seemed inconceivable. But that’s exactly where we sit today, and that’s why the sight of that vacant green gridiron in a silent town stirred my introspective juices.

As far back as I can remember, Thanksgiving began with the morning Greenfield-Turners game – first as a young boy with my father, who once played for Greenfield, then as a high school student from a neighboring school, and finally as a sportswriter working the sidelines before scrambling to write a story and get home for the holiday feast we always hosted.

At the Recorder, the week leading up to the game was always hectic, with coverage to coordinate, stories to write, copy to read, and graphics packages to build and/or update. The best thing about it was that I could see light at the end of the tunnel, with my annual vacation for deer season staring me in the face. I’d cover the game, write the story, and put the newsroom in my rearview: first for a couple of weeks, then three, and then, once I reached 20 years of employment, for a solid month of rest and relaxation.

I’d speed home and walk into a festive, aromatic holiday atmosphere – turkey and casseroles in the oven, pies and pastries on the counters, hot coffee in the carafe, and the Detroit Lions losing on the TV.

The Turkey Day football games were also festive affairs, an annual gathering place for townspeople, including former players and classmates home for the holiday from faraway places. The parking lot would be stuffed as fans streamed toward the crowded gate, creating a gameday buzz with evidence of whiskey-breath (and -voice) detectable in the cool fall air.

The roar of the fired-up teams exiting their locker rooms would signal that the game was near. Then came the playing of the bands, the sounds of the tuba and bass drum, the cheerleaders, the PA announcer, the players grunting and groaning in cadence through warm-ups leading up to the National Anthem and kickoff crescendo. Even when the game was boring and one-sided, as they often were, the pregame buzz, the atmosphere, and the conversations were worth the price of admission.

Greenfield was dead this year on my Turkey Day spin around town, and it was palpable. Remarkably so. Perhaps that’s what first jostled my wheels of reminiscence into motion, before the empty football field revved them up to a shrill scream.

So, who was the best player I ever watched play in the Greenfield-Turners games? That’s easy. Peter Bergeron, hands down. In fact, I’d rate him a better, more impactful high school football player than even Mark Chmura, the Frontier Regional School standout who starred at Boston College and won an NFL Super Bowl as a Green Bay Packers tight end.

Bergeron was a speedy, elusive quarterback who was, frankly, unstoppable. Even when he appeared to be hopelessly trapped behind the line of scrimmage, he had the uncanny ability to wiggle free for big gains. He was one incredible high-school football player and probably would have been a good college player as well if had had chosen that path.

Instead, Bergeron chose baseball and was, a few short years after high school graduation, patrolling center field and batting leadoff for the Montreal Expos. Five years and 308 games later, his run was over, proving once again the fleeting nature of extraordinary athletic accomplishments.

I recently spoke to Bergeron for the first time in some 25 years. He and his dad, who I knew before he was born, delivered a load of seasoned cordwood to the sliding woodshed door in my backyard barn alcove. It was good, dry cordwood that had been stacked for nearly a year, difficult to find these days unless you split and stack it yourself.

The kid, now a big-league scout, looked great. Fit and sharp. Now 45 years old, he lives in Greenfield, is married, has three children. It’s hard to imagine. Time flies. Seems like yesterday he was lurking around the bench and the guys during his dad’s Mohawk Men’s League softball games at Cricket Field.

It’s also hard to imagine that a simple holiday spin around town and past an empty football field stained by lost tradition could trigger such a rich string of retrospection. It got me thinking, probing, lamenting; allowing my wheels to scream.

No cognac, no game, no problem.

Memories carried me through it.


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