Whitmore’s Pond Poachers

With daybreak near, the tall clock will soon strike six in accompaniment to freezing rain drumming on the kitchen roof. I just returned from there with a cup of black, unsweetened coffee in hand, now steaming on a desktop coaster to my left.

To me, early morning is the best time for introspection and creative thought, the perfect setting from which to set the imaginative wheels awhirl, be it on a secluded forest stand or at the desk where I now sit.

I awoke not long ago from a whimsical little dream, about which I remember little, except that it was me and a boyhood pal we called Count fishing a posted North Sunderland trout pond called Whitmore’s before the spring-morning fog had lifted. About all I can recall is him struggling in thick gray light to tie a blood-knot and asking me for help. I completed the chore for my appreciative friend and I opened my eyes for the new day, wishing I could ride it out a little longer. No such luck. Too late. The dream was over.

As daring teens, the Count and I infrequently snuck into that forbidden pond along the Connecticut River in the extreme northwest corner of Sunderland. Our goal was to be on the water’s edge before the birds sang, and home with a few big, beautiful, tasty Eastern brook trout before our South Deerfield neighbors had risen for breakfast.

Passersby know Whitmore’s Pond by its picturesque waterfall, which slips through a slim ledge gap and tumbles some 15 feet before underflowing Falls Road into the Connecticut below the old Whitmore Tavern. Long ago drained, this tidy impoundment had an east-west orientation with a swampy neck at the rear, curling south toward the feeder stream. We liked to fish at the point protruding from the inner elbow, casting into an open, C-shaped spring hole bordered by cattails on three sides. The cold-water outflow surging to the surface and attracting trout was only about 15 yards from shore, easily within range of our soft, snappy roll-casts.

Though it was not the type of sparkling water where you’d expect to find trout, we learned they were there to feed by hearing, then seeing, them rise for aquatic insects. When we first gave it a try with the treble-hooked Thomas buoyant lures that worked well on open water, they got snagged in submerged vegetation on every retrieve, telegraphing our presence. We thus opted for plan two – dry-fly fishing with the Count’s late father’s fly rods and flies – the flies contained and organized in fancy silver-colored boxes taken from his fishing vest hanging in the garage.

Like catching fish from a 10-foot-diameter barrel, its wide mouth inviting us in, we recognized this as an ideal training ground for a couple of veteran spincasters seeking to improve their fly-fishing skills. It worked to perfection.

Count was proud to say that his dad swore by the tiniest midges in his flybox for such endeavors, advice we found helpful despite simultaneously discovering that old standards like White Wulffs, Royal Coachmen, and Light Cahills and Hendricksons worked as well. We’d focus on the insects coming off the water and try to find flies duplicating their size and color in a process known as “matching the hatch,” which brings rewards.

To keep the delicate dry flies afloat we’d dress them in silicon, or whatever that floatation salve in his dad’s vest was, and we’d catch beautiful trout hand over fist. In the process, we perfected our casting, presentation and hook-setting skills, all of which were transferable to the stream fishing we both preferred.

It was great fun for impish teens willing to roll the dice on posted waters, and capable of daring escape when caught in the act.

Not long after we stopped fishing the place due to fear of the consequences, the dam broke, and now the pond has been drained for decades. I can’t say what the basin looks like today because I haven’t viewed it. Most likely all that remains is a thin spring-stream, slicing through a grassy basin-turned-meadow toward the waterfall.

I’m sure the impetus for my dream was a recent round of deed research that brought me back to Whitmore’s Pond and its early 18th-century beginnings. But there was also a symbolic aging theme involved, harkening back to the good old days of youth, when I walked without a limp, ran fast, hit the ball hard and could, using the thinnest tippets, tie all the difficult fishermen’s knots in the dimmest light without the aid of glasses.

Even though I long ago accepted that those days are far in my rearview, it does no harm to reminisce. No need for envy or a sense of depressing loss. Joie de vivre doesn’t end with youth.

As a teenaged Whitmore’s poacher on high alert for neighborhood enforcers, I knew nothing of its history as a millpond, or the place’s history as a mill village with a busy ferry between Deerfield and Sunderland. I only knew that the pond held some of the nicest “squaretails” in the valley. The bold, black posters only added to the allure for boys who had grown up reading about rascals like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Plus, the squaretails were worth the risk, comparable in every way to those chased far and wide by gentlemen of high status and haughty sporting tastes. Can it get any better and tastier than Eastern brookies and ruffed grouse? Not in my world.

What I have learned in adulthood is that the North Sunderland neighborhood surrounding the pond had acquired its own placename by 1800. On the North Sunderland site stood a cluster of fancy dwellings, a busy river tavern and associated ferry, and industry as well, with Slatestone or Mill Brook over time supporting two gristmills, a sawmill, and a fulling mill.

The first sawmill there was “erected (by Manoah Bodman, Daniel Russell and Nathaniel Gunn) and in operation in 1726,” according to John Montague Smith’s History of Sunderland, which credits brothers Joseph and Jonathan Field for building the first gristmill 12 years later.

John Oaks came to Sunderland from Petersham before 1750, buying and likely making improvements to the mills before dying in 1767 and leaving his properties to son Jonathan, who retained a one-third interest in the sawmill when he sold it to Elijah Billings of Montague a year later.

Billings moved to Conway, and in 1773 sold it to Daniel Whitmore from Middletown, Connecticut, retaining half-interest in the mills. Whitmore heirs still own the 50-acre parcel and the colonial dwelling, once a tavern, nestled up to the falls along the east side of the road.

The Oaks connection is what led me to my old Sunderland fishing haunt. Researching the mills at what would become “Mill Village at Stebbins Meadow” in Deerfield’s South Meadows, I found the 1770 sale of the mill site by Nathan Oaks of Deerfield to Capt. Jonas Locke of Shutesbury. The purchase price was 150 pounds, more than 10 times what Oaks had paid for it three years earlier. Hmmmm?

I knew of Locke, a millwright and housewright who in about 1790 built the old Fuller Homestead, now occupied by widowed Fuller descendant Mary Marsh. Known today as the Bars Farm, it’s abutted north by Melnik’s Barway Farm.

So, who was this dude, Nathan Oaks?

Well, as it turns out, Nathan was the younger brother of Sunderland miller Jonathan Oaks. Both men were carpenters, perhaps millwrights as well, and both were members of master-builder Locke’s Deerfield carpentry crew that built The Manse, the Joseph Stebbins house, and the church steeple in Deerfield before the Revolution. Short-lived Deerfield residents, the Oaks brothers likely had a hand in a lot of the building that took place in town between 1765 and 1775.

From a distinguished Lexington/Woburn family, Locke built the gristmill at Locke’s Pond (now Lake Wyola) in 1754, and probably contributed to other structures in the surrounding Locke’s Village on the Wendell/Shutesbury line. By 1770, he had been in Deerfield for about six years and was running the gristmill at Stebbins Meadow, likely also tuning up the buildings and apparatuses that provided the burgeoning community with meal and flour for the larder.

Locke’s crowning achievement, around 1790, was building the distinctive, Federal, hip-roofed Bars dwelling he called home, known today on the National Register of Historic Places as the “Locke-Fuller House.”

Who knows? Perhaps Locke the millwright helped old John Oaks and his boys bring their North Sunderland mills up to snuff. Back then – before Roadtown became Shutesbury in 1761, and before Leverett separated from Sunderland in 1774 – Oaks’ Mills would have been short piece from the Roadtown-Sunderland line.

Something else you can take to the bank is the fact that beautiful brook trout were there for the taking from the millpond that became Whitmore’s.

Wendell Lad Rides Rails to Fame & Fortune

I have happened upon another interesting historical character – one who passed through South Deerfield on his way to railroad immortality. His name was Jonas Brown Wilder II (1813-1906).

I discovered Wilder during Greenfield-newspaper research on my Arms family. Searching for information on Dennis Arms, credited as the founder of South Deerfield’s 19th-century pocketbook-manufacturing industry, I saw the byline “J. Wilder” appear atop an 1894 Gazette and Courier guest column titled “Ten Years in the South.”

The dateline read “Bristol, Tenn., and Va.” So, which was it? Was he from Virginia or Tennessee? Come to find out, the state line runs right down Main Street of these “Twin Cities,” with Bristol, Virginia on the east side and Bristol, Tennessee on the west. Though Wilder lived in Virginia, it’s not unlikely that his expansive landholdings crossed into Tennessee.

It was not easy to find J. Wilder’s first name. The search took me on fruitless genealogical journeys through Conway and Sunderland Wilders before finally discovering my man was from Millers River country.

Jonas Brown Wilder II was the youngest of his namesake father and Rebecca Leach’s four children, all sons born in Wendell. His father was a farmer who dabbled in shoemaking and coopering, the son of Nathaniel Wilder, who was born in 1751 in Princeton, grew up in Belchertown and settled as a young adult shoemaker in Ware, according to Wendell, Massachusetts: Settlers and Citizenry, 1752-1900 by Pamela A. Richardson. Before the Revolution, Nathaniel moved to Wendell, where he is buried.

The Jonas Wilder farm was located snuggled up to Shutesbury in the southwest corner of town, according to Jonas II, about a mile north of “Locks Pond” and “Locks Village.” Those two places show up on modern maps as Lake Wyola and Lockes Village. (Regarding the proper spelling of the surname Lock, well, flip a coin. There seems to be no consistency when reading through genealogical records, which use Lock and Locke for the same people, the latter presumably gaining traction in Wendell and Shutesbury in modern days.)

The elusive Jonas Wilder identification came by way of a Gazette and Courier column published some 10 years after the first one I first discovered. Wilder, quite proud of his accomplishments, seems to have been a prolific newspaper contributor. His 1904 column titled “A Typical Yankee Career: Former Wendell Boy Tells his Life History” was penned two years before his death. The long narrative ended with a boldfaced shirttail identifying the author as Jonas Wilder.

At the time of the column, Wilder was living out his final years with a son in Woodstock, Vermont. He hadn’t in fact submitted the piece to the newspaper. He sent it to the Wendell postmaster desperately seeking any information about potential survivors from his old Wendell/Shutesbury neighborhood. Impressed by the letter’s local-history content, the postmaster must have shared it with the Gazette and Courier editor, who in turn published it as a guest column.

So, nearly 120 years later, I had my man – a fascinating local subject worth sharing with readers.

Our Jonas Wilder story begins in South Deerfield, his first stop as a wage earner. The Deerfield village was known as Bloody Brook upon his arrival as a 13-year-old, trees budding and blooming in the spring of 1827. He wouldn’t turn 14 until leaves were wearing their fall colors on October 2.

Bloody Brook was then known for its shoemakers and leather craftsmen, most notable among them Dennis Arms (1790-1854), who enjoyed a shoemaking partnership with older brother Erastus (1785-1930), my third great-grandfather. Because Erastus died young at 45, he is forgotten in history, but not in land records. From what I’ve seen, without exception Erastus is the first named on several joint deeds with Dennis, whose name would have appeared first if they were listed alphabetically.

Wilder chose the well-known and respected Arms shoe shop as the place to refine shoemaking skills he had picked up from his father. He names Dennis Arms as the shop owner, and never mentions the last name of another man working at the shop, which employed 15 journeymen cordwainers.

The shop didn’t offer apprenticeships, per se, but did take in Wilder as a 25-cents-per-day boarder and assigned him an instructor. His job – an early example of assembly-line shoemaking when most country shoemakers were likely still crafting entire shoes one at a time – was attaching leather soles to “ladies prunella shoes” made of strong silk or worsted fabric.

Interesting anecdotal information supplied by Wilder in his 1894 newspaper narrative speaks to what he believed to be alcoholic abuse by his fellow Bloody Brook workers. He could see that, minus drink, the workers would have been far more productive. Chalk it up an early life lesson that helped shape a successful, teetotaling businessman and likely temperance supporter. Politically, Wilder was an outspoken abolitionist and fervent Lincolnian Republican who was not bashful to express his views.

Wilder’s depiction of the Arms shoe shop employees as heavy drinkers begs the question of whether old Erastus Arms had a drinking problem, which might have contributed not only to his early death, but also to the financial difficulties revealed in his and brother-partner Dennis’s public record.

Jonas Wilder didn’t stick around South Deerfield long. His goal was to pay off his father’s debt of some $900 on the family’s 172-acre Wendell farm that extended into Shutesbury. After three years, at age 16, he decided that the shoemaking assembly line was harmful to his health and well-being. He remedied the problem by taking a job as a teenage peddler, starting on foot with a tin suitcase in each hand before working up to a team of horses and wagon that supplied merchants and his own four-man crew of foot-peddlers.

The traveling-salesman work generated enough income to pay off his father’s debt by his 21st birthday, at which time he took a job clerking at Ivory Howe’s store at Whitmore’s Mills in North Sunderland, almost halfway home to his family’s Wendell farm from South Deerfield.

Wilder had known Howe as a Wendell storekeeper, and ended up managing the store briefly while Howe was away. As a gratuity, Howe then set him up at a friend’s Athol store before Wilder moved on to clerkships at stores in Jaffrey, then New Ipswich, New Hampshire, where he again went into peddling before selling out in 1843. That’s when he embarked on a distinguished, 40-year railroad career, moving from dusty roads to the steel rails of a burgeoning transportation industry that promised riches.

Wilder built an impressive list of accomplishments while serving in many roles on many different rail lines. Perhaps most notable was his invention of the refrigerator car, designed for the “butter trains” transporting the best butter money could buy from northern New York State farms across Lake Champlain and on to the Boston market.

Unfortunately, Wilder never “cashed in” with a patent on his invention, or others noted by author Pamela Richardson for train buckboards and self-inking stamps. Apparently, he couldn’t be bothered to apply for patents – he had work to do. Instead, Western meat-packers such as the Swift Meat Co. became the impetus for the lucrative refrigerator-car patent secured in later years by W.A. Chandler of Union Star Lines.

The modest one-and-a-half-story farmhouse in the south of Wendell where Jonas and his father were born was still standing, minus the barn, when he wrote to the postmaster in 1904. According to Richardson, contacted by phone at her winter Florida residence, only the cellar hole survives today. When I told her I had discovered her book after completing the first draft of this piece, and feared that Jonas Wider might be old news in Wendell, she assured me that was not the case. She had only mentioned him in passing.

So, there you have bits and pieces of the story of Jonas Brown Wilder II, a Franklin County man worth memorializing. Newspapers at the time of his July 7, 1906 death, a couple months before his 93rd birthday, treated him with dignity and respect. His obituary graced the front page of the Gazette and Courier in Greenfield, the Daily Saratogian in Saratoga Springs, New York, the Bennington Banner in Vermont, and likely many other papers of the day. Although he didn’t make the front page of New York City papers, they spared no ink in lengthy obits for a great railroad man from the rolling hills of Wendell and Shutesbury.

Millers River Memories

That unfortunate, 6,000-gallon Athol diesel spill into a Millers River tributary named Mill Brook on Dec. 22 sent my wheels awhirl.

The tanker-truck rollover that required Jaws of Life driver extraction unleashed reminiscence about my earliest newspaper days at the Greenfield Recorder. That means it took me back to the early 1980s when a previously near-dead Millers River, fouled by industrial pollution, human waste, and years of neglect, was reborn for trout stocking after a two-decade hiatus. The recent catastrophe especially reminded me of affable old pal Peter Mallett, whose animated calls I answered many times on deadline when I didn’t have time to talk or the heart to tell him so.

Mallett, 70-year-old founder of the Millers River Fishermen’s Association and self-appointed watershed watchdog, has devoted many years into making the Millers River watershed better for everyone. He seems to know every spring hole, squaretail brook, fiddlehead patch, and big old Hen of the Woods oak in the watershed; that and deer runs, berry patches, pheasant and partridge coverts, and maybe, just maybe even hot spots for arrowhead hunters. Who knows? The man may have even bumped into a hidden marijuana patch or two while bushwhacking the terrain.

Mallett not only has a wealth of knowledge to share. He’s put his money where his mouth is – personally buying, raising, and releasing trout of all sizes into the watershed, while raising a ruckus when anyone dares to disrespect his favorite river system.

I never met Mallett during my coverage of the Miller River renaissance. We crossed paths well after restoration and restocking was underway. By the time we met through many phone calls, faraway anglers were once again traveling to fish a trout stream that had once attracted the likes of Red Sox Hall of Famer and noted flyfisher Ted Williams and cohort Curt Gowdy, longtime voice of the Red Sox and host of ABC TV’s The American Sportsman in the 1960s and ‘70s. If the likes of Williams and Gowdy were fishing the Millers River during the glory years of our Grand Ole Game, then it had to be special, and was.

My first professional foray into Millers River country resulted in my first front-page story, and over time led to a Hampshire-Franklin District Attorney’s office investigation. Enlightened by a streamside tip that I chased and confirmed, I had become embroiled in a spicy newspaper war with a group of Millers River trout-fishing advocates from Wendell, whom I dubbed “Wendellites” in my Thursday Greenfield Recorder outdoor column On the Trail. The continuing story spawned many columns, which in turn drew angry letters-to-the-editor retorts in an entertaining and very public spat.

The type of controversy columnists dream about, it all began when I broke the unwelcome news that human consumption of Millers River fish was unsafe due to sedimentary PCB and heavy-metal poisoning. With half-lives in the thousands of years, the hazardous chemicals weren’t going anywhere soon. In fact, if we continue to give global-warming deniers a seat at the public-policy conference table, these river carcinogens may just outlast humanity on this planet.

Obviously, the Millers River activists who had worked hardest to put their free-flowing stream back on the Massachusetts trout-fishing map were not happy when the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife was forced to post streamside public-health warnings cautioning anglers that eating fish from the river could be hazardous to their health. As a result, I became Public Enemy No. 1 to the political Wendellites. It was fun. I rode the public debate in glee for some time in bold, black print.

Although I have largely lost touch with the Millers in recent years, I presume streamside warnings are still prominently displayed along the “major” river, a status that ensures it receives the biggest and best trout MassWildlife hatcheries have to offer, and plenty of them.

When I recently mentioned to Mallett the media war I ignited back in the ‘80s, he didn’t seem to associate me with those familiar streamside warnings he most likely resents. Originally from Athol, he may not have read the Recorder back then. So, I gave him a brief overview, beginning with how the whole fiasco started with a surreptitious streamside tip delivered by an unimpeachable source at the festive first stocking of the river below the Farley Flats railroad trestle in Erving.

That day at the popular fishing hole produced a celebratory scene – with stocking-truck motors purring, netsful of trout being dumped into the river, TV crews from Boston, Worcester, Springfield and maybe even Hartford filming the event for the nightly news. Scribes were there interviewing sources and scribbling notes in pads, while politicians, fish and wildlife officials and local gawkers schmoosed in the small, gravel parking area off Route 2. Yes, it was a glorious day in eastern Franklin County. After decades as an open industrial and human sewer before the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 kicked in, the proud Millers River was back.

Or, was it?

As it turned out, unbeknownst to those in attendance, including me, what is known in newsroom parlance as a “scoop” was about to rear its ugly head and rain on the parade.

Though after 40 years I may not recall every minute detail from that day, it seems to me that my source, a distinguished, bespectacled man getting on in age, was wearing a tweed jacket and tie with a gentleman’s top hat. He had spotted me talking to sources, recognized me from my weekly column sig, and approached me furtively away from the action as things were winding down. We had never met, but I was familiar with his son and his landed estate near the confluence of the Millers and Connecticut rivers. Identifying himself as a former chemist for Erving Paper Mill, he had some information I might find interesting.

When we slithered away from the mass, he delivered his bombshell. Although the decision to again stock the river was in his opinion a good thing, it was, he opined, irresponsible. He had fished the Millers since youth and was happy it was being reborn, but there was an important problem that was being ignored – or maybe even, dare say it, covered up. According to him, the river was contaminated with PCBs. He was certain the state Department of Environmental Quality Engineering (DEQE) – now the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) – had records to prove it.

It was big news that had to be investigated, confirmed or denied – my new task.

Before the Internet and email era of news-gathering, I distinctly remember going home to South Deerfield, calling DEQE on the phone, and by dumb luck being connected to a spokesman whose Whately family I knew. Although I didn’t know the source himself, I did know his younger brother and sisters, and he knew who I was. He said he wasn’t familiar with any Millers River studies off the top of his head but would check into it. I gave him my phone number. He’d get back to me.

A day or two later, his call came. He said I was onto something and asked for my snail-mail address. He’d immediately send copies of records documenting Millers River PCB and heavy-metal pollution. These poisons were long-lasting, destined to remain in the sediment for millennia, contaminating all life feeding in the ecosystem. Though such pollution status does not preclude stocking or angling on a stream, state mandate demands that such waters be posted with warnings for anglers who may eat its fish.

I can’t say I was shocked. The Millers River had been my personal poster child for local polluted rivers, worse even than the Connecticut, into which as a teen I wouldn’t have dipped my pinky under the Sunderland Bridge. Younger folks today have no perception of this, but I do, because I lived it, as did Mallett.

As an Athol boy, Mallett says he saw raw sewage flowing through town in the ‘60s. Downstream, below Erving Paper Mill, the river’s color signaled to Route 2 travelers the color of toilet paper being producing on any given day. Mallett recalls the time when big suckers around the Starrett Tool Company dam were “committing mass suicide” by jumping out of the river to escape dreadful industrial chemicals dumped into the water.

So, no, I can’t say I was shocked to get confirmation of PCB contamination from my DEQE source, and likely neither were the people living in the Millers River valley. That doesn’t mean the news was welcome. Uh-uh. They didn’t want to hear it. At least not my Wendellite foes who had worked hardest to bring trout fishing back to their neighborhood for selfish reasons. That is, they wanted their own major river to fish, eliminating travel to the Deerfield River. It only got worse as I continued piecemealing out additional news and barbs they objected to, at time vociferously.

The Wendellites responded with hateful personal attacks in letters to the editor, and the entertaining battle went on for months, if not years. Every chance I got, I’d poke them, and they’d poke right back. Finally, though, they took the argument a step too far. Or at least that was the opinion of then-Recorder publisher Alexander Hutchison.

What stirred Hutchison’s ire and brought in the DA’s office was a terrorist note that arrived at my Recorder desk. As I recall, my name and Recorder address was typed onto the envelope’s face, and the threatening note inside was composed of bold letters cut and pasted from magazine headlines. Though I can’t quote the message verbatim, it was a warning from the sender that he knew my work schedule and where I lived and was tired of my Millers River columns. The pasted-on signature read “Abu Nidal,” whom I recognized as the Palestinian terrorist of the day.

To be honest, I was humored, not scared, by the letter and showed it around the newsroom with a chuckle. My Wendellite friends were all wound up, and I thought it was hilarious.

Not so with “Hutch,” by far the best of six publishers for whom I worked. When he caught wind of the threatening note, he marched it straight to the DA. Apparently, the DA’s office didn’t pursue it, because I was never aware of it being pursued.

All I can now say, decades later, is that I’m still kickin’ and Millers River sediment still holds PCBs and heavy metals. All it took to stir those contaminants back into the flow of my column was the unfortunate Dec. 22 oil spill, one that will likely have long-term effects on a proud and defenseless trout stream.

Frankly, the Millers River can’t seem to catch a break. The classic old trout stream bordering the ancient Mohawk Trail deserves better.

Old Roads Have Stories To Tell

One never knows where a road will lead them. Especially an old road. So, let’s talk about roads. Old roads. Ones that began as indigenous paths or, before that, game trails carved into Mother Earth’s skin by migrating herds. The discovery potential in such ancient trails is nearly limitless for those who maintain an open mind and harbor a curious spirit.

I learned that roads could tell fascinating stories during my brief days as a young surveyor still searching for my identity. That was back in the late Sixties and early Seventies, when I rose in status to transitman before moving on to other adventures. It all began with summer jobs as a high school and college student, when I learned the skills of a rodman, a job description that may well have changed today with all the new technology. I don’t think surveyors still use plumb bobs and 200-foot chains, standard tools of the trade in my day.

Back then, a good rodman was a valuable commodity. He was a man who knew the woods and understood terrain features valued by mapmakers. Though I didn’t know of any female rodmen when I was cutting line and giving backsights, I’m sure there are many today.

In those days of turning angles on circular Gurley transit scales, the rodman was a laborer who carried a sharp machete to cut sight lanes for the transitman, lugging and pounding in hubs and stakes to identify traverse stations along the perimeter. During detail work with a boldly calibrated 16½-foot rod in hand, the rodman would record contours along with natural and manmade features.

Among the natural features were brooks, springs, swamps, outcroppings of ledge, and distinctive trees. The manmade items include roads, stone walls, cellar holes, old wells, and buildings. All of this information was recorded in field notes and submitted to office draftsmen who drew maps and plans of the surveyed acreage.

Although many of the roads we marked through forested hilltown terrain had been long ago discontinued or abandoned, they needed to be recorded nonetheless. These roads passed through and bordered expansive old New England farms that had been worked by the same families for several generations and were about to go on the market. Remarkably, many of those roads were then and likely still are today fit for travel by four-wheel-drive trucks and recreational vehicles, not to mention navigable by dirt- and mountain-bikers, hikers, hunters and snowmobilers.

Unfortunately, many of the old four-wheel-drive roads I explored as a teen and young man are now sealed off by sturdy, locked metal gates erected to eliminate all but “official” motorized travel by forest stewards and departments.

I guess it was inevitable once recreational rough-riders came onto the scene. They loved to rev their muscle trucks and spin their big, knobby, mud-splattering tires through boggy depressions while displaying total disrespect for private property. The problem was only exacerbated by inconsiderate gangs of four-wheeler enthusiasts who cut fences and new forest trails. Some even disassembled narrow openings in stone walls for their recreational vehicles to pass through. This raised the ire of landowners, and resulted in many road closings.

Carving Deep History

I can’t say I was aware as a young surveyor that some of the old roads I marked on detail duty – even discontinued portions of old county roads that had been rerouted over the years – had originally been Native paths.

I suppose it’s possible that some astute party chief introduced me to the deep-history context of some roads. If so, the memory escapes me. But it most likely never happened. Too esoteric for the average modern surveyor. No, it seems to me that I employed my own idiosyncratic, autodidactic methods to arrive at that profound and exciting discovery that puts a different spin on old roads.

There is now a sophisticated cult of true believers who promote the idea that some stone walls and mysterious stone structures hidden on landscapes predate 16th-century European emigration by a long shot. Although it’s possible some were indeed Indigenous creations, I’ll reserve judgment for now. I need to know more, must see unimpeachable evidence that isn’t based on bare speculation and hypothesis. As old Muskie used to say in the Saturday morning cartoons, “It’s possible,” an assessment that applies to many mysteries.

What brought me to this topic of old roads and antiquities is my recent, perhaps pandemic-driven, probe into the history and settlement of South Deerfield and north Whately. This sliver of the Connecticut Valley is my place and that of my father’s family. We have been here since the colonial beginning – a short time on the deep-history scale – and were led here by 17th-century Indigenous trails, including the so-called Pocumtuck Path.

This local trail, which connected Old Deerfield to Umpanchala’s Fort on the edge of Hatfield, was already thousands of years old when found by my European ancestors. It ran through Hatfield and Whately as we now know them on Straits and Long Plain roads, then traveled right through the heart of South Deerfield on Main Street, and on to Mill Village Road and Old Deerfield through the Bars and South Meadows.

So important was this meandering north-south Native path – on which the Bloody Brook Massacre unfolded on September 18, 1675 – that it was established as the dividing line between the eastern and western layout of the May 20, 1688 Long Hill Division. This land division allotted parcels in the south end of town to 48 Deerfield proprietors. Then, some 70 years later, after years of passing through, the nascent village of Muddy Brook, now South Deerfield, was born.

Underneath it all to this very day, up and down Main Street, is that same Pocumtuck Path, buried under layers of gravel and asphalt.

Furthermore, that main artery was just one tiny segment of a well-defined network of Native trails that served as the foundation of Whately, Conway, Ashfield, and all settlement of Franklin County townships. Though there is little mention of such trails in the public record, they were here when colonials first entered the valley, and they were followed far and wide into the wild, ultimately determining the settlement pattern of our county. I know that was the case near my Greenfield Meadows home, and the same was true of the home I sold in South Deerfield. The dynamic exists throughout the surrounding hills and dales, ridges, and swamps I got to know as an observant and curious hunter passing cellar holes, old mill sites, and abandoned orchards along fading roads buried deep in the forest.

Up Into the Hills

One of my favorite haunts, with or without a gun, has for more than 50 years been the forested acres surrounding Conway State Forest and Henhawk Trail. It’s a broad swath of upland landscape that touches Williamsburg, Whately, and Conway and Ashfield not far away. This mixed forest of splendid hardwood ridges and foreboding hemlock swamps is traversed by many double-rutted roads, barely discernible today.

The best time to find such old roads, often with a small, indiscrete cellar hole or two along them, is after a fresh, shallow snow that reveals their outline. Thus, I most often discovered such roads with gun in hand during deer season. The ones that don’t appear on early maps must have been private roads to secluded upland farms, abandoned long ago for the more fertile Ohio Valley and beyond.

To learn about this local landscape, I used to study pre-1940 topographical maps, which showed the old orchards, pastures, and farms. There and in town histories published at the turn of the 20th century I’d gather information and build a new level of understanding.

In the process, I learned that Henhawk had been an ancient Indian trail leading to Ashfield, the upper Deerfield River Valley, and beyond. During colonial days it had evolved to a cart path, and eventually became a main road for motor cars between Whately, Williamsburg, and Conway that was used into the World War II era.

It made sense. Our hunter-gatherer Native people, before and after they became farmers of corn, beans and squashes, would have carved paths through their sheltered, upland, winter refuges. There they maintained sugar orchards, nut groves, and berry patches which served two important purposes: producing wild food and attracting important game that also valued it as a food source. This network of well-defined upland trails also led colonials to food, water and observation points, and were thus followed by scouts and adventurers who eventually built their first dwellings on home sites requiring minimal clearing.

Under the Pavement

The same was true in early Muddy Brook, now South Deerfield, and likewise in settlements along the periphery. We’re talking about Mill River, along West Mountain, and Pine Nook along the Connecticut River, places also located along well-established Native paths that soon became roads.

The same can be said for East Whately, Whately Center, West Whately, and Indian Hill, where the first roads were all former Native paths – roads like Mount Esther, Grass Hill, Dry Hill, Poplar Hill, Chestnut Plain, and Whately Glen, where Leicester miller Adonijah Taylor was, according to Deerfield town records, working on the road to Conway from his Indian Hill grist and sawmills soon after settling there in 1760s. Take it to the bank that the road he was opening followed the same Native path that had led him to his new home and business.

Deeds seem to indicate that South Deerfield’s Pleasant Street – which today passes the elementary school, and wasn’t connected to North Main Street by a bridge over Bloody Brook until the 1830s – was a Native path, forking west just north of the bridge where Bloody Brook Monument now stands. It also seems more than likely that Elm and Sugarloaf streets had a history as at the very least secondary Native paths from the Connecticut River to the uplands.

Like their long-abandoned upland tributaries traversing hilltown forests, the narrow Native footpaths pressed into the largely wet, fertile bottomlands had been here for thousands of years by the time they were first trekked by colonials. Over time, these paths were widened for horses and horse carts. Later still for motor cars.

So, when passing through downtown South Deerfield today, be aware that those ancient Native paths are underfoot. It’s a deep-history perspective that can take you to places exciting to visit.

We must never forget that from these paths governed by the lay of the land was born a town, a county, a state, a region and, two centuries later, the United States of America – a deep-history perspective that’s easy to get your head around.

It’s too bad the proud, dignified people whose moccasins laid the groundwork were denied a seat in council reinventing their defiled place.

Writer’s-Block Ramble

Daybreak Friday. Light creeping in over the horizon, sneaking through the tall white pines across the street.

Waiting for the coffee-maker to gurgle its last breath, I’ve already been to Springfield and back. Deer hunters are just now entering the woods, trying to be quiet, hoping this will be the day. Tomorrow will be even better. Saturdays bring more hunters into the woods, which tends to move deer from their beds. Honestly, I can’t say I miss deer hunting. I’ve turned the page. Don’t need it. Been there, done that. Enjoyed it while it lasted. Love the woods, the solitude, the critters. Maybe too much to kill them.

I also love the slow, quiet transition from night to day on the way into a morning stand. Daybreak is the best time of day in my book. And not only for hunting. Mind sharp, body rested, it’s ideal for writing, too. One never knows where the inner consciousness will dance off to at the crack-of-dawn keyboard.

In fact, that’s the problem confronting me this very moment as I sit here trying to settle on a column topic. It happens from time to time, deadline looming, procrastination calling the shots. I’ve been here before, even on a much tighter deadline, pondering where my swirling thoughts will ramble off to. The seat I’m now occupying is couched in uncertainty. Better than being lost in the woods with nightfall near. That’s for sure. Been there, too.

There’s no time for delay. A three-cord load of primo cordwood, seasoned oak and rock maple, will be dropped in front of my sliding woodshed door tomorrow morning. After that, with rain forecast Monday, my first priority will be to get the load under cover. Thus, I must get something written today, anything, a first draft to be revisited at my convenience before Monday’s deadline. That’s my writing routine: blow out the first draft, akin to a black-and-white sketch, then pick away, adding a dab of color here, a dab there during rewrites, all the while tweaking the narrative. Fortunately, it’s not my first trip down this road.

 

It’s not like I don’t have anything to write about. I’ve been on overload in recent weeks unraveling the settlement of Muddy Brook, a mid-18th-century Deerfield village that became Bloody Brook and is now known as South Deerfield, or in the eastern European dialect that arrived at the turn of the 20th century, “Sowdeerfeel.”

Closing in on a year of intense deed research, I still have more questions than answers. Truthfully, it sometimes feels like a losing battle – like the more I learn, the less I know. Have you ever been there, looking for the next pebble to overturn, the next hintful thread to pull and see what unravels?

Along the way, I’ve learned of many new people, folks I’d never heard of who were big Muddy Muddy and Bloody Brook players. What makes it even more interesting to me is that some are my ancient grandfathers, and many others are related, from peripheral tendrils growing off my root ball. But I’m not ready to write about them quite yet. Maybe never will be, if I can’t pin down their occupations, their trades, their places of worship and political leanings during the Revolution and Shays’ Rebellion. Little details to build an accurate profile.

I’m talking about members of the families named Arms, Frary, Barnard, Cooley, Russell, Dickinson, Dwelley, and Billings, to name some, also Parkers and Shattucks, Hardings and Andersons, and, yes, even my own Sandersons – all of them fascinating hometown pioneers. To me, researching these people, their place and mine, is addictive, an unquenchable thirst that intensifies with each forward step.

Take for example placenames that have been lost over time, hometown locations through which I have certainly traveled and never heard of. That would include Indian Plain, Sugarloaf Gore and Willis Hill, to name the first three that come to mind. I want to pin these places down. Get it right. So, give me time. It’s a laborious process.

I’ll get there, though, and will, with historian friend Peter Thomas, lay out the so-called Long Hill Division of 1688. That land allotment divvied up among 48 early Deerfield proprietors a large chunk of land that became South Deerfield, including the outlying neighborhoods of Mill River, Pine Nook, and Sugarloaf.

Nothing against newspapers, but I don’t believe a column with space constraints like this could ever do justice to what I’ve learned thus far, never mind what’s yet to come. The story of South Deerfield, largely ignored by haughty Old Deerfield-centric George Sheldon, is too comprehensive – of book-, not newspaper-length. Maybe I could piecemeal it out once I understand the whole picture. But can I do so in a paper that doesn’t serve Deerfield? It doesn’t seem to fit.

Still, a South Deerfield addendum to Sheldon’s tired old History of Deerfield should be published. And what better time to do so than in conjunction with the town’s upcoming 350th birthday celebration in 2023? It needs to be done for posterity, and we’re on our way.

But enough of that. I just couldn’t resist providing a little nibble into my current preoccupation, and the fact that I am at this very moment infected with writer’s block, which, I suppose, is better than the Omicron variant.

 

Too bad I can’t get out of this doldrum by going full Hunter S. Thompson on our current state of affairs in Washington DC. Isn’t the time ripe for a full-frontal Gonzo attack on the Supreme Court, the Trump Crime Family, Fox News and the racist Southern foundation of the Republican Party, otherwise known these days as the Trump base? Formerly the George Wallace, Southern wing, which was not insignificant, it seems to be gaining steam these days – even in places where one wouldn’t expect it to catch hold. Yes, even here.

The late Hunter Thompson was on to it way back in 1968, teargas in the air. That’s when Nixon pulled Wallace’s loyal Dixiecrats into the Republican fold to defeat Humphrey in a razor-tight race. Now Thompson is dead, hostile right-wingers rule the GOP, and many respectable, dyed-in-the-wool, New England Republicans with both oars in the water are still onboard. Yes, even after witnessing the Capitol insurrection in vivid hi-def, with the Stars and Bars flapping in the breeze like they did at Gettysburg and Bull Run.

You must be kidding me? Is this unlikely GOP support blind partisanship? Can these loyal partisans not see that the party of Lincoln is now ruled by the secessionists who went to war against him? Are they not aware that home-grown fascism and right-wing thuggery is in the air? Oh my! Where will it end?

It’s crazy-making. Where’s Dr. Gonzo when you need him?

The problem as I see it is that Hunter S. Thompson is the only person who could get away with telling it like it is, in his spicey, unedited diatribes. We need the story told in a style free from heavy-handed, self-appointed arbiters of good taste and bad words sitting in staid editors’ chairs. When HST spoke, people listened, and it resulted in millions of dollars in profit. Yet now an industry on life-support won’t print new voices with Gonzo mojo and moxie. Go figure.

As the timid print-media establishment gasps for air, social media wingnuts and Fox News execs are raking in the millions for quite intentionally poisoning the well. Why does the “objective” print media insist upon keeping it clean while the other side muddies the water with raw sewage from the likes of Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, to name a couple? Has the word objective come to mean afraid to tell the truth?

It now looks like Mitch McConnell’s Supreme Court is going to reverse Roe vs. Wade. Really? Is McConnell Joe Q. Average American these days? The polls indicate otherwise. So how can this be happening in a country that elects its leaders? No clue. You tell me.

All I can say is that I grew up in the ’60s and early ’70s, and never in my wildest dreams thought this could happen here. I thought Joe McCarthy, the Nixon Administration, and J. Edgar Hoover were dead and buried, never again to be heard from. Well, guess what? They’re back, and the tribe is growing like COVID.

Which reminds me, has anyone else had their fill of “balanced” reporting about global warming and climate change? Could you live without the annoying auto-insert disclaimer that reads, “some scientists question whether global warming is caused by human beings.” The obvious question to that cautionary garbage is: who signs these “experts’” checks? It’s beyond ridiculous. There is no denying that humans are destroying our planet on many levels, including global warming.

What we don’t need now is a GOP takeover of Congress in 2022 and a second Trump term in 2024. If that comes to fruition, some may decide it’s time to flee the country or, heaven forbid, even go so far as re-enacting HST’s final act that unfolded on Feb. 20, 2005 at his secluded Owl Farm refuge in Aspen, Colo. There, the high priest of Gonzo journalism treated the media to a front-page story with one thunderous roar of his .357 magnum.

In a flash, the life of a visionary New Journalist was over. Sad and sudden. A great loss to many who gobbled his prose, wanted more. He must’ve had his fill and sensed what was coming down the pike. He didn’t want to stick around for fascist takeover.

Enough! I don’t want to get carried away.

But first, please, just one more little digression – a recommendation for those who enjoy classical country music. So, if it’s pickin’ and grinnin’ at its finest that you seek, go to YouTube on your Smart TV, crank up the volume as loud as you can stand it, and take a listen to Norman Blake and the Rising Fawn String Ensemble in concert at Ohio University. Taped in 1980, it never gets old.

 

 

 

Fall And My Pheasant-Hunting Days Are Fading Fast

As bright, colorful leaves drop to the ground in visible, audible rain out the window, and fall creeps toward winter, I’m thinking about transitions.

Seated at my desk in the southwest-parlor study, I’m peering through gray morning air toward Colrain Road, which, some 714 feet west, becomes Brook Road leading to eastern Shelburne and Colrain. In stagecoach and tavern days, and even after the railroad came through, it was known as the Post Road to Bennington.

I hear water from the roof dribbling through the downspout outside to my left, and the occasional purr and splashes of passing vehicles. Finally, the Japanese maples are shedding their leaves, depositing a scarlet carpet underneath. Though the annual shedding seems a little late this year, I don’t record such annual events, and can’t say for sure. It just seems late to me.

The brilliant carpet enveloping the tree base looks like a reflection when leaves of an identical bright hue are still clinging to the two tall, ornamental trees above. Soon I will mulch them into the lawn with the mower, once again going right down to the wire for the scheduled winter swap-over from mower deck to snowblower.

My last yardwork of fall is always chopping up those red Japanese maple leaves and blowing the tiny, pink burning-bush leaves out of sight as winter insulation under the overhanging branches. Over time, those leaves, too, decompose into fertilizer, a natural process.

Once that final fall chore’s behind me, I’m pretty much buttoned down for winter, awaiting snow and ice and its quaking fall off slate roofs that shakes my home’s skeleton to a tremble after big storms. My cats used to get sketchy whenever the sun came out and the roof began to drip. At the first hint of dropping snow, beginning with small chunks, they’d disappear under a bed or closet shelf to ride out the thunderous, vibrating roar of falling, window-rattling snow. Me? Well, that familiar sound signals that it’s time to throw on a light jacket and remove the thin, 40-foot-long snow pile blocking the vehicles parked in the carriage-shed garage.

The last leaves that must be cleaned up annually are those dropped from my northern neighbor’s Norwegian maple in the backyard. Another neighbor and friend who grew up here remembers when it was planted in the 1950s. The town was giving them away and the people then living there planted a pair between my house and theirs. One was dying and had to be removed many years ago during my residence here, and the lonely survivor appears to be not long for this world.

I suppose it’s inevitable. Norwegian maples don’t belong here. They’re from another continent. No wonder they seem confused, dropping their leaves so long after our native marsh maples, early harbingers of fall, and the bright-orange sugar maples that light the landscape during the peak a month later.

As a working man, Thanksgiving was a day I looked forward to annually. With the upland-bird-hunting season near the end and my flush-and-retrieve springer spaniels in optimal form, Turkey Day represented the start of a monthlong vacation. I used to take the time off in one long chunk to hunt deer, relax, and putter around at home.

The break provided much-needed relief from daily deadline pressure and the stress of running a sports department. Toward the end, the daily stress was compounded by shrinking circulation and ad revenues, poor management decisions, and my own irreconcilable differences with the people calling the shots.

“When the folks sitting at Adam’s Donuts and Brad’s Place know about than the local newspaper about Lunt Silversmith’s demise,” I used to say to anyone who’d listen, “you have a fatal public-perception problem.”

Well, let’s just say the brass didn’t welcome such statements, even went so far as to deem them “nasty” when shared in email or during meetings. OK. Fair enough. I guess nothing cuts deeper than the truth, and there was no denying that the paper was hemorrhaging readers at an alarming rate, with no end in sight.

But let’s not go there. I just couldn’t resist a brief digression.

Anyway, I stopped deer hunting long before retiring in June 2018. The end came after my older son’s death 11 years ago and, honestly, I can’t say I miss it. Yes, I love waking with the forest and blending into the habitat. But, likewise, I love and respect deer, and enjoy observing them in my travels, be it along the road or bumping into them on walks through wild lands. So graceful and alert. So beautiful to observe. If hungry, I could still kill and process one for the freezer. But I’ve cut way back on the amount of meat I eat, and I still do get a taste of venison here and there and from friends. That’s enough for a man whose wife won’t touch wild meat, is almost nauseated by the smell of it cooking in bacon fat in an iron skillet.

Well, guess what? Now, I’m phasing out bird-hunting, my last outdoor game – one I genuinely loved for the robust exercise, the wing-shot challenge and dog work, and clung to longer than baseball and softball, fishing and turkey hunting, and golf. I clung to the activity with a white-knuckle grip for as long as my deteriorating legs cooperated, which frankly is no longer.

Oh well. I’ve been through transitions before. I stopped golfing in my teens, when I was forced to set my priorities. Baseball was No. 1 in the warmer months, then trout-fishing and, later, turkey-hunting. I could live just fine, thank you, without country clubs and well-dressed warriors in a gentleman’s game. Golfers were good boys who followed dress codes and golf etiquette. Not for me. Give me an early-morning or rainy-day trout stream any day of the week. That was an easy decision.

Adult softball was a different story. Honestly, when playing baseball into my mid- to late 20s, I never anticipated playing in men’s softball leagues. It was a game for fat old men still trying to prove they were “ballplayers” even though they never could hit the fastball, forget the 12-to-6 curve. I tried to continue after blowing out my left knee in 1976, but by the time I got married in 1979, my baseball days were behind me. My wheels were gone and I was done playing physically compromised, unable to go into the power alleys to make the play or take the extra base.

When my grandfather died soon after my wedding, I bought his South Deerfield home, and that of his father and mine, where I grew up as a boy. Back in town as a married man, my youth-baseball buddies approached me about joining their men’s-softball teams. Reluctantly, I took the bait, figured I’d give it a shot, and ultimately settled on the modified-pitch game in which I lingered through age 41. By that time, I was a pudgy catcher/designated hitter limping around the bases with a knee brace.

Hey! Whatever it takes, I thought, catching my last chance to stay in the game. It was fun. I got to analyze the hitters and give targets that I reasoned they’d have trouble hitting squarely. I loved working with the pitchers, hitting in key situations, the dugout and bench camaraderie that had been part of me since boyhood. I hung on far too long and, frankly, thought I’d miss it when I quit. Well, I was wrong. Dead wrong. I soon discovered there were other activities to keep me busy and fully engaged. Baseball’s for young men. I was not young. Time to move on.

Which brings us to my current situation. In my second year without my own gundog, I’m in the process of phasing out pheasant hunting, even though I have a world-class springer available when needed. I hunted that dog as a pup last fall while his owner was making a living as a painter. A near flawless flush-and-retrieve gundog of royal pedigree, he’s fun to watch, and the exercise is great. But now my 20-year, 78-year-old hunting companion has lost sight in his left eye and is reluctant to brave the dense tangles for fear of injuring his good eye. Can you blame him? I understand completely. One tumble in the swamp or stray, snapping twig could blind the man.

So, what should I do? Try to find another trusty, new hunting buddy at 68? No. I think not. It’s time to move on.

My knees are shot from athletic injuries, surgeries, and years of wear and tear. Plus, I ruptured my Achilles tendon last year hunting a dense, thorny swamp for young men, and, hampered by an unsteady base, I don’t shoot like I used to. So why humble myself like I did on the softball diamond? I have other activities that stimulate my energies – things like reading, researching local history and prehistory, tugging at exciting new threads connected to my own genealogy and place to see what unravels, and, of course, writing about it.

On Veterans Day, my trusted old hunting buddy with the bad eye joined me for our first hunt of the season. A packed parking place at our favorite covert forced us to an adjacent field t’other side of the stream, along the northern periphery. We know it well, it has been part of our routine for more than 20 years, and mine for more than twice as long.

Less than two hours later, after three flushes, one wild shot and no hits, we were traveling our familiar route home immersed in conversation. I interjected that, after all our years and good times together, I was losing my interest in hunting like I had previously lost interest in baseball and softball and fishing and turkey-hunting.

He seemed perplexed.

“For Christ sakes, why?” he responded, “You’re only 68 and still have many good years ahead of you.”

He must’ve misunderstood me. I didn’t tell him I was terminal, ready to curl up and die; just that I was turning the page to a new chapter. Maybe my last. Maybe not.

Once stubborn to a fault, I’ve learned how to transition with age. Those thorny tangles I once enthusiastically attacked and conquered are now punishing me, and gentle cover is not my cup of tea.

Outdoor Writing Ain’t What It Used To Be

The road to Jay Peak Resort in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom leans north and west from Interstate 91’s Exit 6 in Barton – the final, 32-mile leg of a 3½-hour, 200-mile trip from my Greenfield home.

I was there to attend the Outdoor Writers Association of America’s Vermont 2021 Annual Conference, a first for me though I have been an active OWAA member since 1984. The resort sits a mere five miles south of the Canadian border. Check-in for the three-day, October 4 to 6 event at the Hotel Jay was on a Sunday afternoon, with a Wednesday noontime check-out.

These professional gatherings meander yearly from state to state, region to region, attracting young and old for a jam-packed assortment of meetings, workshops, sight-seeing trips, meals, cocktail hours, and other social events. Some folks even brought fishing equipment and gun dogs. Not me. Attending my first such conference since the 1980s, when I routinely participated in the New England Outdoor Writers Association’s annual meeting, I was there to get a feel for how outdoor writers, not to mention the outdoor-writing paradigm, has changed since I was a young man. Back then, Field and Stream and Outdoor Life hook-and-bullet tales were boilerplate fare, while more creative Gray’s Sporting Journal served professorial readers.

Times have changed. Hook-and-bullet yarns no longer sell. The average modern reader doesn’t care to read about well-placed shots through vital organs and the resulting blood trails to the carcass. I lived the transition during 40 years as a newspaper columnist, could feel it happening at about the midpoint of my career and tried to tell my clueless last editor that modern readers no longer had the stomach for the hunting tales of his father and grandfather. Readers of outdoor columns and narrative were more interested in nature and natural history, fish migration and wildlife restorations that slipped into local history and prehistory. That fact was blatantly apparent at this Vermont conference.

About 150 miles into my drive up the northern Connecticut Valley, above St. Johnsbury, I entered the brilliant world of peak fall foliage. The problem was that there I also ran into foggy rain that got heavier as I proceeded north, limiting visibility and eliminating any chance of helpful distant landscapes, such as ski slopes carved into tall mountains. Though no stranger to the Northeast Kingdom, I had never been in the neighborhood of Vermont’s northernmost ski area, but was able to get there with the help of a couple gas-station inquiries.

Wet, gray, foggy skies enveloped the resort upon my arrival. Checking in at the front desk, I learned I would occupy Room 535, penthouse quarters with a king-sized bed and large-screen, hi-def TV. The fall colors would have been incredible from that top-floor perch had the skies been clear, but I never saw a sliver of the sun before placing my final travel bag in the truck for my Wednesday-morning departure.

On the previous day, before noon, finally, I was for the first time able to see the ski slope behind the motel and the brilliant surrounding landscape. It was worth the wait.

I was surprised to see the getaway-morning sun far to my right as I loaded luggage into the car. In a strange place with no sun to guide me the previous three days, the view through my windows felt south. Wrong. All the while I was facing northeast, toward central Lake Memphremagog in Canada. Any woodsman is well aware that such disorientation can easily occur in an unfamiliar, stormy place with no sun or compass to guide you.

Oh well. Such is life. No big deal. A transitory guest, it is doubtful I’ll ever again step foot anywhere near Jay Peak.

Which brings me to a writing assignment I took on during an uninspiring Tuesday workshop titled Narrative Nonfiction: Nature, Ecology and the Outdoor. Condescending for a retired outdoor writer, I got through it much like I had during distant school daze a half-century ago.

The one-hour assignment was to find a quiet place in which to melt and, for the first 10 minutes, absorb the sensuous stimuli. That done, we were to describe the sights, sounds, and smells we encountered and articulate what we were feeling in a narrative describing a sequence of events and perceptions. It brought me back to deadline writing at work, Creative Writing 101 in college, and literally hundreds of columns I had written over the years after being touched deeply by something encountered on a walk, hike, hunt, or drive – or just plain creative ramblings from an introspective place. It’s what writers do.

I walked back to the motel, took the elevator to the fifth floor, opened floor-to-ceiling curtains for the panoramic view over a small porch with two chairs, sat down and studied the colorful mountain landscape. Here’s what I read to the small class an hour later, without a hint of insecurity or fear:

Overcast. Gray and cool. Visibility fair. Air damp. No day for outdoor assignments without warm clothing. I know the value of comfort in such conditions, and it is hanging in my closet 200 miles south.

I’m seated on a flexible metal chair with a cushioned seat, looking south through large, floor-to-ceiling windows. The curtains are pulled wide open to the right, opening a colorful, sunless fall scene over a small, fifth-floor porch. I see a mountain landscape dominated by red and orange, defiled by a slim, vertical powerline of the same colors, muted.

The nearest ridge wears a gentle slope that slowly ascends to the left before meeting an abrupt, conifer-capped, gumdrop ridge that must offer hard, rough ledge underfoot. That I cannot say for sure, situated here in a place I do not and will never know. It is someone else’s place. I am a brief visitor. A passer-through.

In the place I call home and was born, I could name the faraway peaks and identify the unseen rivers running through distant ravines deeply eroded over many millennia. I could likely point out those crevices still holding remnants of ancient Native weirs and fish-traps, and streams where sophisticated surface collectors can still pick up precious artifacts dating back to Clovis hunters some 13,000 years ago. It’s hard to say where these artifacts come from. Freshets just keep tumbling them downstream like golden nuggets of prospectors’ dreams, deep-history clues for trained modern eyes to interpret.

From my perspective, the beauty of this place created by the recreation industry as a money-maker stops at the gravel parking lot, the surrounding development and the monstrous motel where I’m staying. Hypocrisy from someone enjoying the amenities? Perhaps. But I know my thoughts and moods would be far purer and more meaningful if absorbed into the forest, fishing a brook for speckled trout or sitting still and silent in a deer stand as a hidden, temporary habitat resident.

Looking through the large, modern windows at the lush mountain forest below, I do not know the trails and roads I have not traveled and am having difficulty connecting to the scene as the metal register behind me exhales a warm, sensual whisper.

To appreciate this place like I love my own, I’d have to learn the alder and spruce swamps, the beech and oak groves, the sugarbush, the shagbark hickories, if they’re here. I’d have to trek the ancient footpaths and game trails worn deeply into ridgetop spines. Those who, for eternity, created these ancient indentations on the forest floor were wise and just. They created paths of least resistance to important destinations, be they hunting-and-gathering sites or ceremonial landscapes on which they celebrated solstices and bountiful harvests with song, dance and theatrical oral tales that taught important cultural and spiritual lessons and could last for days.

Many of those ancient paths are still today traveled as paved and altered roads created to accommodate wheeled vehicles in the 19th century. Such cart and bridle paths could not stay with the ancient footpaths through muddy, lowland depressions, which proved at times impassable for wheeled vehicles. Thus, the road-builders cut new paths on higher ground more difficult afoot but easier for horse and carriage and, later, automobiles like those parked below me in a place where moose, cougars and black bears once ruled.

Tell me: is this now a better place because of its ski slopes, water parks, golf course and giant motel? Well, that’s not for me to answer.

To each his own.

Given more time to gather and shape my thoughts, I could have improved the narrative through many rewrites and tweaks. I could have introduced an historic Rogers’ Rangers angle. That is, which of his fleeing bands from the infamous 1759 massacre of Native Americans at St. Francis would have ventured closest to Jay Peak? That could have added a little flavor, I suppose.

I could have also explained that, having seen not so much as a ray of sun since arriving, I had no clue which direction I was pointed when looking through those motel windows. That may have established my disorientation while trying to describe a new place. Plus, I could have spared myself the indignity of a mistake in bold black print. Then again, did it really matter what direction I was looking?

Overall, I’m satisfied with my tight-deadline response about an unfamiliar place. It reminded me in many ways of the many Friday-night football stories I cranked out with the clock ticking and no turning back. Focus is always the key. I know that from experience.

I don’t know or care what others in the workshop thought of my conservationist/preservationist perspective. Maybe they thought me a dinosaur in the world of modern outdoor writing, which seems determined to promote resorts and development that produces outdoor activities like skiing, biking, hiking, kayaking, orienteering, geocaching, tennis, and golf to name some.

I see no need to mire myself in such trivial matters. Asked to bare my soul, I did so, and am more than comfortable in skin wrinkling with age.

 

Who Was U.S. Deputy Marshal Leonard Arms?

South Deerfield left its mark on the Wild West, including the death of Deputy U.S. Marshal Leonard Arms, gunned down in the line of duty on April 20, 1860 in Topeka, Kansas Territory.

The shooting occurred less than a year before the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor, SC, and four years into a border war between Missouri and Kansas Territory over the slavery issue. The South Deerfield lawman was trying to serve what anti-slavery Free-Staters viewed as an invalid Missouri arrest warrant on John Ritchie at his Topeka home.

When Ritchie objected, explaining that the charges had been long-ago forgiven, he told Arms to get lost and went inside. The deputy followed, imploring Ritchie to surrender before the combatants raised their revolvers. When Arms ignored Ritchie’s warning to come no further, Ritchie killed him instantly with a shot to the throat.

Ritchie, a devoted abolitionist and supporter of radical John Brown – yes, that John Brown, from his Bloody Kansas days – was a pillar of the infant Topeka community. Knowing all the town officials as friends and neighbors, he had little worry of severe consequence on the western frontier. He promptly surrendered, and was the next day acquitted on a murder charge by a friendly justice of the peace. The frontier judge ruled the shooting as justifiable homicide, and Ritchie walked away a free man.

Don’t forget we are talking here about Wild West justice. Didn’t a man have a God-given right to defend himself inside his own home when pursued by an armed invader?

Arms left a widow, Frances A. (Eldridge), and three daughters. His family lived in Wyandotte, Kansas Territory, where he managed a frontier hotel, the Eldridge House, owned by his brothers-in-law the Eldridge Brothers, a triumvirate of Shalor W. (1816-1899), Thomas B. (1825-1882), and Edwin S. Eldridge (1832-1907).

Second son Shalor was the best-known of six Eldridge boys born to Lyman and Phebe (Winchell) Eldridge of West Springfield and Southampton. The other three thus far unnamed were Lyman Jr. (1814-1905), James M. (1819-1857), and Joseph L., who was born in 1823 and living in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1863, but seems to have left no death or gravesite record.

There were also two Eldridge sisters, Mary E. and Leonard Arm’s aforementioned widow, Frances A. According to a story in Lawrence, Kansas’ Jeffersonian Gazette, Lyman Eldridge Sr., his wife and all eight of his children were among the early residents of Kansas Territory. According to Kansas Historical Society data, wife and mother Phebe was helping son Shalor run the American House hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1855. She died in 1856 in Southampton, and is buried in Holyoke.

 

Westward Emigres

The Lyman Eldridge family was in Southampton, where the children attended school, by the mid-1820s. At age 20 Shalor started a prosperous, 11- or 12-year career as a railroad contractor, beginning with the Connecticut River Railroad and moving on to other New England and New York lines. That was likely what brought him to South Deerfield for the births of daughters Mary Jan. 5, 1842 and Josephine Phoebe (Jan. 26, 1846).

Also residing in South Deerfield at the time was his brother James Monroe Eldridge. There is no evidence that either Shalor or James owned property in Deerfield, but they clearly did live there in the 1840s and early 1850s.

In 1841, J.M. Eldridge took Naomi Sprague as his first wife in South Deerfield, where she died three years later. Though there is no birth recorded in the Deerfield Vital Statistics, a son named James was born to them in 1843.

J.M as a widower then married Mary Augusta Arms of that town in 1846. Their lone child, son Edwin C. Eldridge, was, according to the Greenfield newspaper, born in 1853 in the home still a stone’s-throw north of the Bloody Brook Monument.

Still a teen working as a store clerk, young James Eldridge was murdered during Quantrill’s Raid, a bloody daybreak attack unleashed upon Lawrence, Kansas, on August 21, 1863. On that fateful day, the victim’s father had been dead six years and his widowed stepmother and 10-year-old half-brother, the aforementioned Edwin C., were visiting their Arms family back in South Deerfield.

 

The Leonard Mystery

But enough on the Eldridges. Back to their brother-in-law, Leonard Arms – a mystery man of sorts.

Arms is said by many sources to be from South Deerfield, where, according to the Greenfield newspaper, he was “widely known.” Nonetheless, his lineage and birth have not to this day been pinned down.

Here’s what we do know about the fallen sheriff:

  • On September 19, 1842, according to a Greenfield Gazette and Courier notice, he was living in South Deerfield when he married Frances A. “Fannie” Eldridge in Vernon, Vermont;
  • In September 1844, he was listed among Deerfield supporters of Democrat James K. Polk, in the presidential election against Whig candidate Henry Clay;
  • In 1845, his daughter Frances was born in Deerfield;
  • In 1848, he was listed as a member of the Adams militia;
  • In the 1850 Census, he shows up as a shoemaker living in Adams with a wife and two young daughters.

Inaccurate information posted on Find A Grave and other online genealogical sources claim that Leonard Arms was the son of Erastus and Mary (Graham) Arms of South Deerfield. That would make him the brother of the aforementioned Mary Augusta Arms, wife of J.M. Eldridge, which would make sense given their contemporaneous western migrations to Kansas with the New England Emigrant Aid Company.

But the fact is that were not biological siblings.

I know this because Erastus and Mary (Graham) Arms are my very own third-great-grandparents, and we grew up in the same South Deerfield neighborhood during different times. In my possession are old, detailed, family genealogical records typed by my great-grandmother, Fannie (Woodruff) Sanderson, Erastus and Mary’s granddaughter. Although grandfather Erastus died long before my great-grandmother was born in 1865, she would have known her own grandmother well. They were neighbors until Mary Arms died at 93, when Fannie was 22 years old. There is no hint of Leonard Arms anywhere in Fannie’s personal family register, which most likely was assembled with the help of neighborhood relatives.

 

An Earlier Sleuth

Is it possible that Erastus and Mary took in Leonard as extended family – perhaps the young son of a brother or brother’s wife who died? This was not unusual at the time. But none of Erastus’ brothers seem to line up, and none show the recorded birth of a son Leonard around 1820, when he is suspected to have been born.

The 1830 Census offers a faint clue, showing Erastus Arms as head of family with an unnamed male dependent between the age of 10 and 14. Could that be stepson Leonard, thus mistaken identity as a son in later Midwestern records? It’s possible, and also a potentiality that stepsister Mary Augusta, some six years younger, called him brother in Kansas.

What’s interesting is that I’m not the first person who’s tried to figure out Leonard Arms’ lineage. Greenfield historian Lucy Cutler Kellogg, author of the History of Bernardston (1902), was still trying to solve the vexing riddle 35 years after her book was published. Why not? Arms was an interesting figure with local roots, he being the victim of a famous Wild West killing. Kellogg must have stumbled across his story while compiling the genealogies for her Bernardston book, and she was still furiously trying to document his lineage on September 7, 1937, when she posted this classified ad in the Greenfield Recorder-Gazette:

“PAYMENT OFFERED for exact date of birth about 1820 and place of same (probably Bernardston or South Deerfield) of LEONARD ARMS, son of Lucius and wife Melitta (Squires) Arms. Mrs. Lucy Cutler Kellogg, 34 Highland Ave., Greenfield.”

I shared this ad with professional genealogist friend Dereka Smith of Hatfield, who set her investigative wheels in motion, confirming the Bernardston birth cited by Kellogg. There was a problem, though: That particular Leonard Arms survived less than three years.

The Kellogg citation did, however, introduce a new element that could contribute to solving our mystery. The Melitta Squires identified by Kellogg was from the same Bernardston family that produced Abigail Squires, the second wife of Josiah Arms, married between 1828 and 1830. And get this: Leonard Arms named his first daughter, born in 1844, Melita. So, it’s obvious what stirred Kellogg’s curiosity.

 

Revisiting Family

Josiah Arms was the youngest brother and next-door neighbor of the Erastus Arms family. His lone child with Abigail Squires was Obed Squires Arms, a future downtown Postmaster and boot and shoe dealer.

O.S. Arms’ post office and store stood in the Putnam Block (also known as Pierce Block) on the northeast corner of South Main Street. Behind his place of business stood his home, somewhere between where Wolfie’s Restaurant and the South Deerfield Polish American Citizen’s Club stand today. It may have been the 19th-century house I recall being demolished to extend the Polish Club’s parking lot.

Because the Squires family was a “late-comer” to Bernardston, arriving from Connecticut with stage driver and blacksmith Medad Squires (1774-1819) in the late 18th century, Kellogg’s genealogies don’t follow it. Online data on the family is also sketchy.

So, just one more dead-end in the Leonard Arms mystery. Data on Abigail Squires, second wife of Josiah Arms, is likewise sparse at best, and insufficient for definitively connecting the dots.

What we do know, however, is that, according to Greenfield newspaper reports, when Leonard Arms’ daughter, Elizabeth Augusta (born 1855 in North Adams), and her husband, Dr. Charles N. Hart, were passing through the Connecticut Valley in the spring of 1897 in search of a boarding school for their daughter, they stayed with Obed S. Arms for a few days.

Why would they have chosen as their host Postmaster Obed S., and not one of at least three Erastus Arms siblings in the same neighborhood? Hmmm. Could it have had anything to do with the Squires link? Or maybe a link to Josiah Arms – or his first wife Loana (Graham) Arms, the younger sister of brother Erastus’ wife Mary?

Who knows? It’s still a mystery, despite today’s Internet-driven genealogy craze. All you can do is keep pulling loose threads to see what unravels. Sooner or later, some obscure reference may solve the puzzle. Then again, maybe not.

 

Windblown Tip From An Old Newshound

I crack open my left eye to the twinkle of dawn penetrating the east window behind my upstairs bed. Silence. Not so much as a bird-chirp.

I don’t linger in bed. An interesting book awaits me downstairs on the table next to my recliner. Mind fresh, day young, light low, quiet, there is no better time to read or write than early morning. At least, not in my world.

In semi-darkness, I lift my blue bathrobe from its overnight resting place on an old, wooden quilt rack near the door. I slip it over my shoulders, tie it around my waist, make the bed and step into the dark, narrow hallway – one door to the left, three to the right – pointing west toward the steep back stairs, where the wing joins the house’s main block.

On the other side of the closed staircase, a heavy, iron, squirrel doorstop holds the ballroom door open, gray light filtering through seven double-hung, 12-light windows, extending my view all the way to the wide back door leading into the carriage-shed attic. It’s about a 75-foot run down the hallway and through wing to the back ballroom door, where many years ago the angled back wall of a small, enclosed fiddler’s box drove sound over the heads of revelers in the vaulted-ceiling, spring-floor dancehall.

The long interior perspective is a beautiful way to start the day during the warm months, when air-conditioning is not needed and windows and doors can be left open to promote air flow. It speaks to the building’s spiritual antiquity.

At the base of the stairs – dining room left, taproom right – I turn left. My clothes are hanging on a birdcage Windsor chair at the tail of an old mahoganized-cherry harvest table, its drop leaves down. It’s always darker and cooler downstairs in the summer, and darker inside than out.

I take off my bathrobe, temporarily lay it across a burgundy leather wing chair, and dress before going into the kitchen to push on the coffee-maker. Then I backtrack through the dining room and narrow staircase base to the taproom and bathroom, where I hang my robe on the back of the door and tidy up at the sink for the new day.

In the west parlor, I flick on the TV to catch up on overnight scores and the latest Donald Trump outrage, and rise to pour a cup of coffee after hearing the machine gurgle its last breath. I don’t know what’s worse, that coffee-maker’s last gasp or the screeching rooster across the street.

Coffee in hand, I head for the study, walking through the dining room, the parlor, and a small, enclosed hallway behind the Federal fanlight front door. I want to quickly go through my email, and maybe glance at a few local and historical/genealogical Facebook sites I often peruse before opening that book awaiting me near the TV, which I’ll turn off.

In the study I notice two printed sheets of paper on the Oriental carpet, and another folded piece of white scribbled-upon notepad paper resting on the corner of a large gold couch to the left of my desk. Hmmmm? Overnight winds must have stirred things up through the open window behind my desk.

I pick up the two printout sheets on the floor and place them back on the pile they came from on my desk, then retrieve the folded notepad page that must have been buried underneath. It had been torn from one of those narrow reporter’s notebooks that fit in your pocket. Being a lefty, and thus needing to awkwardly curl my wrist to write on such pads, I never had much use for them, preferring something wider pinned to a clipboard. But that’s just me. Right-handers seem to prefer the pocket-sized variety.

I open the wrinkled scrap paper to inspect the scribblings and discover a note written in ink, and pencil jottings of web addresses, telephone numbers, and little reminders about this and that. I must have first used it as a bookmark to keep it handy, then removed it from the book and dropped it on my desk, soon to be forgotten.

The initial note probably dated back to 2018, my last year at the Greenfield Recorder. It was a news tip about winter moose mortality from a former newsroom colleague who’d retired from the Springfield Union News and picked up a part-time job at the Recorder. News-gathering was in the man’s blood. He just couldn’t stay away.

I must have originally saved the note as a reminder to further explore the topic, then added my own random jottings. But why, after recently retrieving the useless notes from the sofa, I didn’t drop them in the wastebasket, well, you tell me. Still to this day, it sits on my desk.

 

Now, fast-forward a few days, and the story gets intense. A few days later, about 7 p.m., the TV’s on and my wife and I are sitting in the parlor after supper. I’m looking through papers I’ve printed about Quantrill’s infamous Civil War attack on Lawrence, Kansas as she fiddles around with her smart phone, making the rounds through texts and email and Facebook and obits and whatever else tickles her fancy.

On a whim, I rise from my seat and move to the charging laptop on my desk. Sitting there checking email, Googling additional information to augment what I’ve just read or whatever, my wife calls out to me from her parlor chair.

“Hey, Honey, did you know Ralph Gordon died?”

Honestly, I didn’t even know she knew I knew the man.

“Nope,” I answer, “can’t say I did. When?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Recently.”

“Well, wait till you hear what I’m about the tell you,” I respond as I rise from my chair. “It borders on bizarre.”

Before I go any further, let me say that I didn’t really know Gordon all that well. I had met him in passing over the years on the street or at Greenfield High School football games I was covering when he was still working for Springfield Newspapers. By the time he came to the Recorder, circulation and revenues were in freefall, the hair-triggered circular firing squad had formed, insecure blame was being directed every which way, and, well, let’s just say the newsroom was toxic. No, definitely not the friendly, light-hearted place I had known for most of my tenure. Even folks coming in off the street with news tips were made to feel uncomfortable, like unwanted trespassers. No way to run a news-gathering operation.

Anyway – not to digress any further – that narrow, folded sheet of scribbled-upon notepad paper deposited by a rogue overnight wind onto the corner of my gold sofa had been penned by none other than the Ralph Gordon who had died. He wanted to share the alarming news report he had read about New England winter moose mortality caused by tick infestation and hair loss.

By now, most people have seen a story or two about this tick-borne moose plague causing much suffering and death. But back then it was fresh and Ralph, an old news hound, deemed it worth sharing with an outdoor columnist. Written in cursive, his tip was short and sweet, reading verbatim:

Gary

I thought you might be interested in some moose problems in Me., Vt., & N.H. & maybe Mass. – & other items I have earmarked.

Ralph

He must have attached an Associated Press clipping. I can’t recall. I will, however, never forget the message delivered by that rogue wind or some other spiritual power riding the dark night air to a peculiar resting place in plain sight. It was at least a 100-to-1 shot that any wind-blown piece of paper would land where Ralph’s note did. Not only that, but why did that devilish wind decide to disturb only three of many stacked sheets, the third of which was his note in bold, blue ink?

Surreal? Yes. Simple coincidence? No. I don’t buy it. I think it was meant to be – a sign that Ralph’s smirking, wind-blown spirit had passed through. He had left me another tip, his last, one hinting his passing.

Why do such things occur if not to remind us there’s a power out there that’s beyond our comprehension? It arrives in many ways from sundry sources, including dark night winds, rattling rivers, trickling springs, and somber morning mists wafting through thorny wetland tangles.

Some of us try to remain alert and receptive to such signs, inviting mysterious messages – always looking and listening, seeking clues and hidden hints. Others flock to the chapel to drop their weekly contribution into long-handled baskets in the name of their God, and only theirs.

Well, count me among the former, the lookers and listeners and humble interceptors of spiritual unknowns.

Fighting a Loyal Salmon Crusade

This all began with an email from a local environmentalist gadfly. He wanted to share a recent guest column he had written for the Northampton newspaper. What followed was a string of email correspondence between me and him and another writer still beating the dead horse called Connecticut River Atlantic salmon. The lively discussion stirred dormant memories from decades back, when I was a lonely critical voice in the toxic wilderness of Connecticut River Atlantic salmon restoration.

The memories hark back to my first years at the Greenfield Recorder, where I spent 40 years in the newsroom, 32 as sports editor and 37 writing a weekly outdoor column – On the Trail – that focused on hunting, fishing and nature wrapped in local history, and random musings. My Recorder years (1979 to 2018) bore witness to my marriage, the birth of two sons and grandsons, and the tragic death of my sons before the age of 30. A wild ride any way you slice it.

The Recorder was an afternoon paper when I started, with a Saturday-morning edition necessitating a Friday split shift with a barebones night production crew. The basement press rumbled and rolled daily at 11 a.m. Monday through Friday, and again at the stroke of midnight Saturday.

The departing Friday day shift and the incoming night crew exchanged pleasantries while passing in opposite directions through the doorway. At midnight Saturday, our skeleton crew would hear the press squeak and groan to a thunderous roar before grabbing a paper fresh off the press, sent upstairs on a hand elevator from the bowels of the plant. We’d quickly check for potential embarrassing headline errors, put the newsroom to bed, and scoot to the local bar for last call – a great way to wind down before heading home after another furious deadline crescendo.

During my early years in the 1980s and early ‘90s, I was still playing in men’s softball leagues from May through mid-October, fishing rivers and upland streams, hunting turkeys and deer, and wing-shooting pheasants, grouse, woodcock and even an occasional duck bursting from a swampy brook before the steel-shot mandate took hold. That’s why I wrote an outdoor column. I was plugged into the scene, always curious and trying to gain an edge against prey; wanting to know its history, its habits, and the habitats it preferred. Plus, I’d track annual hunting harvests and fish migrations, fish and wildlife restoration projects, and local personal-interest hunting stories.

As a columnist, I was there for remarkably successful New England wild-turkey and black-bear restorations, and was later recognized and often criticized as a believer in cougar sightings, regardless of what the experts said. Then, of course, there was the Atlantic salmon restoration project, an expensive, high-priority state and federal boondoggle that never caught a break.

Some visionary fisheries biologists warned from the start that it was too late to bring salmon back to the Connecticut River. Sadly, they opined, that ship had sailed. But their opposition was ignored by gung-ho, altruistic colleagues they pejoratively referred to as “true believers.” Even worse, such opposing viewpoints were greeted with anger, and their voices of reason were kept under wraps. Plain and simple, their humble view was that salmon restoration here was doomed from the start, due to environmental and climatic factors beyond scientists’ control.

 

In the Field

Having grown up in this slice of the Connecticut Valley, where my DNA stains many a fertile floodplain, I was in the right place at the right time, so to speak, as an outdoor writer working for the newspaper of my parents, my grandparents, and their great-grandparents. Plus, I had vested interest in shad because I was learning to catch them with shiny objects attached to large, sharp hooks.

I was likewise interested in salmon, which would be the grandest of all freshwater gamefish in my place, if the restoration program succeeded. If salmon returned, the best places to fish for them would be major tributaries like the lower Deerfield River, which I knew intimately after years of crafting my trout-fishing skills there with live bait and artificials, spinning and fly tackle.

I knew all the hidden, double-rutted cart roads accessing the river’s secluded stretches, and I knew the deer runs snaking their way down vertical banks to the water. Those were the days before whitewater yahoos took over the lower Deerfield with their loud, obnoxious presence. Before them, the fishing was nirvanic, the atmosphere tranquil; after them, chaotic for anyone accustomed to the old ways.

During my first decade or so at the Recorder, I was a young man, working nights, with boundless energy. May and June daybreaks below the mouth of the South River were downright heavenly. I’d rise well before dawn, pack fishing gear into my Jeep Cherokee, and arrive at stream’s edge before the birds sang – a very special, reflective time of day. On the return home with my catch a few hours later, my South Deerfield neighbors were pouring their first cups of coffee.

My catch-and-release days came later, after my grandmother died. She loved trout, especially little brookies she’d batter and fry with home-fries, bacon and eggs in a black iron skillet. As for larger big-river trout, she’d bake them wrapped in aluminum foil or give them to her neighbor. Trout must have been in her East Colrain DNA, I suppose. Never asked. Didn’t think in those terms back then.

It was on the Deerfield River, fishing for trout in riffles racing toward deep pools, that I began to understand shad migration. Wearing polarized glasses, I’d catch their passing silver flashes heading upstream between me and the morning sun peeking over the steep eastern horizon. By accidentally hooking into a few on colorful streamers, I discovered they were fun to catch – on the average bigger, heavier, and stronger than trout.

Soon I was hooked, and found my way to the most popular shad-fishing place in New England below the Holyoke Dam. I started on the South Hadley Falls side, where I learned it was safer to leave an unoccupied vehicle, and soon discovered the backdoor into the sparsely populated east bank of the tailrace pulling migratory fish into the Barrett Fish Lift, which transports them over the dam.

I’d cross the river shallows between the Holyoke Bridge and the dam, picking my way to an island and crossing it to “the other side” of the tailrace, which I’d have virtually to myself. Facing me from the opposite shore was a maddening, elbow-to-elbow crowd spending more time untangling crossed lines than fishing. Not for me. Same reason I stopped fishing the Willoughby River steelhead run in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom each spring.

I met commercial fly-tier Indian Al Niemiec there, and he showed me the way, telling me I could ignore the danger signs. We met by chance in the dirt parking lot not far from a riverside youth-baseball field and became fast friends. A veteran angler and Amherst College man from Chicopee, he showed me the secrets of catching shad with silver, willow-leaf, metal blades soldered to large hooks and fished with sink-tip flyline. In my experience, willow-leaf blades more than double the catch of those using ubiquitous shad darts.

 

Numbers Game

Curious about these anadromous fish streaming past me all day in schools and pods, I soon became even more interested in salmon. Wouldn’t it be great if they were running upriver in similar numbers? That’s when I started asking questions of the federal officials I routinely spoke to each spring when tracking weekly migration numbers and comparing them to previous years in my column.

The goal of the salmon-restoration project from the start was to re-establish a large enough annual run to justify sportfishing. The obvious question was, what kind of numbers were we shooting for? Better still, how many salmon would have migrated up the Connecticut River annually before dams built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries blocked their path?

When the experts couldn’t answer that deep-history question, it seemed odd to me, perhaps even evasive. If we couldn’t quantify what used to be, how then could we set a reasonable modern-day goal? It made no sense.

As I kept gently pressing folks like Dr. Henry Booke at the Cronin National Fish Lab in Turners Falls and Micky Novak at the Sunderland National Salmon Station, it became clear to me that they had no answer and were insecure about it. It wasn’t their fault. There were no records, just fanciful tales that almost never lead to future successes. No, Martha, you couldn’t walk across tight river channels on the backs of salmon, no matter what the tales say.

When pinned down, Booke, whom I had met while he was still a UMass professor, tried to deflect my constant line of questioning by taking issue with my focus on raw numbers. The numbers didn’t matter, he scolded. We’d get there if we were patient and supportive. Cynicism, criticism and pessimism did no good. We needed to be positive, optimistic. The fish would come in time. We had to give the restoration program time to work.

Huh? Something was adding up. I was supposed to believe numbers don’t matter in a scientific experiment? Preposterous. How could any scribe with a sliver of pride or good sense accept that perspective, even between quotation marks? The problem was that most if not all did. So did I, likely more than once, before I saw the light.

The only way to protect my integrity and credibility was to investigate what I could find about historic and prehistoric shad and salmon runs. I began searching for data in town histories, 18th and 19th-century newspapers, and sparse records here and there in dusty old volumes. That way, I could get a handle on the status of historic salmon migration and thus figure out for myself realistic future goals in a modern, polluted world.

The journey for information led me through local-history rooms in many Connecticut Valley libraries, where, notebook in hand, I went through indexes of town histories written primarily between 1850 and 1910 to get a feel for the anadromous-fish scene. It was immediately clear to me that, although there were indeed spring salmon passing through our valley in colonial days and into the Federal Period, their numbers had been greatly exaggerated. Shad always outnumbered salmon by a wide margin on their annual upriver migration, and were thus the dominant spring fish.

Even Native Americans here before white Europeans arrived caught far more shad than salmon, viewing the latter as a welcome bonus when caught in weirs, traps, and nets situated along the river each spring.

 

Pie in the Sky

Eventually, as I continued researching and piecemealing out what I found in my column – much of which was contrary to what salmon-restoration officials wanted to hear – a few timid sources came forward, off the record, to admit I was on the right path. Then, one day in downtown Greenfield, a woman I didn’t know but would soon join on the Greenfield Historical Commission approached me with a bombshell. UMass anthropologist/archaeologist Catherine Carlson had written a 1992 doctoral dissertation that supported what I had been reporting. Based on examination of biological data gathered from more than 70 known Northeastern prehistoric fishing sites, she found little evidence of salmon. Very little.

The woman promptly snail-mailed me a copy of Carlson’s academic journal article excerpting her dissertation. Salmon-restoration proponents knew of the report and were furiously working behind the scenes to discredit it and keep it from public view. It was the last thing they needed while trying to defend disappointing salmon returns in the news each spring. But word got out, and the damage was done.

OK, yes, it is indeed possible that Native American cosmology reserved a special place for salmon and disposed of their remains honorably, perhaps discarding them back into the rivers from which they were taken. Thus, the absence of remains in riverside refuse pits. It’s not out of the question. Such special treatment was the custom for bear remains left off the ground in trees. Why not salmon, king of the annual run?

Still, there is no tangible evidence that salmon runs ever approached the much larger shad runs in our Connecticut River, or in the Hudson River for that matter. That’s undisputable fact. The rest is history.

Twenty years after Carlson’s dissertation was published, and some 25 years after I started picking away at the topic the best I could – with abysmal annual salmon counts staggering into the 21st century’s second decade – the plug was mercifully pulled on restoration in 2012.

This year two salmon returned to a large tributary in Connecticut. Last year there were none. Not a one. Zero. Which is precisely what one can soon expect annually.

Some fisheries biologists knew it was a Hail Mary from the start. Few listened, and those who did were ostracized, criticized, and ridiculed as naysayers. But the true believers finally had to throw in the towel, raise the white flag, and retreat. They put up a good fight, and never got to sample that pie in the sky they savored.

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