On The Trail: Thought splash
This early 20th century photo shows two new trolley cars out in front of the Greenfield Street Railway car barns and offices that currently serve as the Franklin Regional Transit Authority garage on the west side of Deerfield Street. When a spur was put in behind the building in the fall of 1916, construction workers uncovered Indian skeletons, bringing Smith College Professor Harris Hawthorne Wilder to the scene. There he ultimately found no less than 13 burials before he was done searching in May of 1917.
Photo courtesy of Peter S. Miller
This is described by Greenfield historian Peter S. Miller as a trolley freight car that's likely parked on the spur behind the Deerfield Street car barns and offices of the Greenfield Street Railway at Cheapside. It was under that spur where construction workers uncovered the skeleton from an ancient Indian burial, which brought Smith College professor Harris Hawthorne Wilder to the scene in the fall of 1916. By the time he was done excavating the sandy terrace overlooking The Meadows Golf Course and the Greenfield Sewage Treatment Plant in May of 1917, he haduncovered no fewer than 13 burials.
Photo courtesy of Peter S. Miller.
Yeah, yeah, I know. We’ve all cleaned up from one storm, with another looming large, so the early-week slate’s been wiped clean, the stage reset, so to speak. Yet still, sometimes a man who does what I do has to capture the moment, which for me occurred before the storm, on Tuesday morning, when, following a brilliant-white overnight dusting illuminated by bright morning sunlight, a lonely cold drop of snowmelt from the tip of a lofty oak limb hit my cheek and set my cranial wheels awhirl, stirring my imagination like a hand-crank eggbeater, thoughts liberated like steam from a whistling teapot.
Yes, that innocent little drip of sun-inspired rain ticketed for the double-rutted farm road I was walking down into Sunken Meadow, quite by chance, struck me an inch from my nose, angled down toward my mouth, caught the edge of my mustache and disappeared into my gray goatee. My impulse was to blame that soft little impetus from the heavens on what happened next. But that would be dishonest. I was carrying around much that needed review and introspection. That tingling little splash just set the process in motion as I put one foot in front of the other, watching Lily and Chubby, frisky as my frolicking thoughts, sprinting toward every new scent that crossed their paths, loving every second of the chase. It felt like spring, the calm before the storm: trees dripping, the snow blinding, us enjoying every second, three loyal walking pals.
An hour later, following a refreshing shower, my thoughts were still swirling and jumping and tumbling like dry leaves on a blustery fall day, and a riptide pulled me straight to a familiar station in the southwest corner of home, perhaps the most comfortable place in my world, which, by the way, seems to get only smaller as I continue to learn more about this place I’ve called home for most of my 60 years. Yes, it’s true that I left briefly to explore other places. But I returned because this is my home and that of my father’s ancestors. I wanted to stay where their mischievous spirits lurk and guide me to forgotten haunts.
Back to that cool drop of wisdom that found my face that sunny Tuesday morning, I can’t say it was expected. No, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, I guess, as I sometimes am. And off I went into flittering, fluttering introspection I so welcome when it appears, probing this and that, all of it relevant to scattered topics that are fresh — subjects like that ancient Whately Oxbow I wrote about last week and will revisit, pre-contact Cheapside burials unearthed in 1916 and 1917, an old Greenfield account book that surfaced locally, and an informational pubic meeting I attended Friday afternoon in South Deerfield about controversial Massachusetts House Bill No. 744. Those are my salient topics today, all of them honed to a fine, sharp edge with the help of library archives and conversation about new discoveries with open-minded folks who are either traveling with me or met for the first time at the repositories. I’ve learned that if you travel with the right people, the path to the truth becomes much shorter and less cluttered. I seem to have acquired a feel for finding the right people with proper perspectives, though admittedly not necessarily the most popular. Knee-jerk responses laced with conventional wisdom — most often a strong dose of bold, arrogant ignorance — always plays better in the public square. I’d rather poke around the periphery. What else is new?
With me these days, I guess it all starts and ends with local prehistory, so alluring and mysterious. Like I told the scholar during lunchtime conversation at a Portland, Maine, archaeology conference in November, “I guess if you study the history of a place long enough, it’s inevitable that you’ll find your way to prehistory,” which is precisely where I’m at today. What most attracts me is the unknown, and there is much of that pertaining to the tales of our long-ago displaced Pocumtuck tribe of stout, proud River Indian stock, a valley kin network stitched with thread of the unknown and inaccessible. I suppose there are many reasons for this information blackout, not the least of which comes down to important people in high places with hidden agendas working hard to keep such information under wraps to avoid potential pitfalls in the greed-propelled world of economic development. Some call it “pro-growth.” I call it business. But let’s come back to that. First something that dropped square onto my lap Monday morning, when an aging and ubiquitous local historian called to inform me that he had a Greenfield Meadows account book I may want to peruse. Even though I was focused on unrelated topics and prefer always to stay on task, I figured a brief little diversion into my historic neighborhood wouldn’t hurt anything, so I promptly drove to my source’s home and picked up the book of records kept by farmer/surveyor Lathrop T. Smith during the 1830s and 1840s.
The information contained among the man’s records in many ways chronicles life in the Upper Meadows I now call home, or any early 19th century New England farm community for that mater. The fella who called figured it would be meaningful to me, given that I live in an old tavern and farm formerly owned by Smith’s brother Elijah. I must say I found the Smith transactions informative, just one more quick peek into a Greenfield farmer of that era trying to eke out a living by pasturing and butchering neighbors’ livestock, selling goods like cider, vinegar, apples and hides, hoeing vegetable gardens, selling boards, shingles and clapboards, and transporting this and that here and there. I wouldn’t say the book is worth a lot of money, but that’s irrelevant. Value isn’t always computed in dollars and cents. The value of Smith’s little, well-preserved account book is historical, and it really should be at the historical society or a research library, where historians and genealogists can glean helpful information from it. I quickly read through it Monday, shared it with a friend who’s lived in my neighborhood much longer than I, and returned it to its owner Tuesday morning, hoping to get a look at an old photo of the Greenfield Street Railway buildings and tracks that once sat off Deerfield Street. Bingo! He had what I was looking for. As to the source of my interest in that old street railway yard, well, that’s coming.
Recently, during my ongoing research into local archaeological treasure buried from public view for decades, I stumbled upon a turn-of-the-20th-century scholar named Harris Hawthorne Wilder, who taught at Smith College and aggressively placed newspaper advertisements throughout New England seeking Native American burial sites to study. I first read his report on a 1905 excavation of a Connecticut River-side Indian cemetery located at a North Hadley site I was very familiar with from pheasant hunting. Then, in a subsequent conversation, I learned that Wilder had been in Greenfield, too, many years ago on a similar Native-burial recovery mission along a newly constructed trolley spur extending from Cheapside Bridge to somewhere behind today’s Franklin Regional Transit Authority garage on Deerfield Street. Well, I have now read Wilder’s hand-written field reports from the site, viewed all the accompanying photos, sketches and newspaper accounts and, yes, he and his trusted associate, Amherst College professor Ralph Wheaton Whipple, did indeed visit Greenfield, where they unearthed the remains of no fewer than 13 Pocumtuck burials on a sandy Cheapside bluff we often pass without notice or knowledge. It is almost certain that many other burials went ignored or undetected during the adjacent Greenfield Sewage Treatment Plant construction in 1938-39, and quite possibly even more were inconspicuously destroyed during a recent expansion around 1994.
This new discovery reminds me of a visit paid last year by local history buff Neal Graves, a Bingville native who stopped at my home to tell of another Cheapside Indian burial, this a young boy discovered around 1969 along the base of the railroad trestle a cellar hole for Walt’s Bakery (formerly The Trading Post) was being dug. Although I did promptly sit down for a cursory microfilm investigation that bore no fruit, that’s not to say news reports aren’t there somewhere. It’s just that those microfilm machines give me a throbbing headache, so I’d like to narrow the date down a bit. Contacted Wednesday afternoon, Graves said the skeleton was on display at Memorial Hall in Deerfield for many years but has since been returned to some Indian tribe for reburial. He remembers it lying on its side surrounded by dirt in a glass-topped wooden box. It makes you wonder how many other Cheapside burials were discovered over the years? My guess is that there are many. Not only that, but how many are still there, yet undetected? Also, likely many.
As for the Whately Oxbow, well, let’s begin with a little correction, then some additional information gleaned after deadline last week. The correction pertains to my description of the Hatfield Oxbow — a few miles south of Whately’s — which I claimed was shown intact on the earliest 18th century maps of Hatfield. Wrong! Yes, the old oxbow was easy to decipher back then, when maps showed two large, extended ponds along the western and northern borders of the ancient horseshoe. But the fact is that the full oxbow loop had been disconnected from the Connecticut River before the first Hatfield settlers arrived in 1659. And, yes, as stated last week, the old Hatfield Oxbow is still occasionally filled by flooding and is not difficult to trace from a western overlook terrace.
The additional information about Whately’s oxbow came from Sophie (Wyszynski Sadoski) Collins, 90, whose father owned the old Elijah Sanderson farm now owned by the Chang family. Unfortunately, the old blue 1805 Sanderson homestead, which last housed immigrant laborers, was condemned last year and demolished in September, which didn’t sit right with Ms. Collins. “What a shame they let that building go,” she lamented. “It was a beautiful place when we lived there. I can’t believe they tore it down (before at least salvaging architectural components). The fireplace, open staircase and many other (architectural elements) were worth saving.”
The question I most wanted Collins to answer was if she ever recalled the raised terrace west of her home being referred to as “The Island,” as my ancestors had called it? I speculated last week that “The Island” designation must have come from Indian oral history, because they were the only people who knew an old water-filled oxbow there. Although she herself did not know it by that name, her younger sister did, responding, “Yes, that pond out back in the woods where I used to skate was on “The Island.” She’s right. You can still see the remnants of a pond where Hopewell Brook bubbles out of the swamp. According to Marjorie M. Holland — the Ole Miss biology professor who helped discover the Whately Oxbox in the 1970s, wrote her 1980 doctoral dissertation on it, and still revisits the site annually: “I know someone had an irrigation system drawing water out of that swamp when I began studying it. I’d guess that’s where the pond went.”
Finally, let’s end with House Bill No. 744, the proposed legislation that private archaeologists fear, if passed, will shut down future Pioneer Valley exploration by private companies on private land. Not so, according to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Peter Kocot, D-Northampton, who said it pertains only to public lands. Kocot also explained that the bill, which has been in the works for about a decade, was spawned in conversation with his social friend Robert Paynter, a UMass archaeologist who felt strongly that more oversight of valley archaeology was needed.
During the two-hour Friday forum in my old grammar-school cafeteria, Kocot admitted he’d heard the State Archaeologist’s Office characterized as inaccessible, unresponsive and uncooperative in public testimony, and said he didn’t understand how reports funded by taxpayers could be kept from public view. He also expressed his own personal goal of finding a way to facilitate a Cultural Resource Center built to display Indian artifacts and educate the public about the Connecticut Valley’s rich prehistory.
Stay tuned. It’ll be interesting to see where all this stuff goes. And you can bet someone’s going to scream bloody murder about me shedding light on ancient Indian burials off Deerfield Street. That kind of information is seldom welcome in town halls.
To the victors go the spoils, and the right to record history.
Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a longtime member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.