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Mohawk Trail: 100 years

Last 100 years have been quite a journey for the Mohawk Trail

  • Rt 2, The Mohawk Trail, descends into Greenfield.  Recorder/Paul Franz
  • Dafodils bloom along Rt 2, the Mohawk Trail, on Thursday in Charlemont where the road follows the Deerfield River.  Recorder/Paul Franz

Already, travelers have begun heading to the hills for this three-day holiday weekend, the official kickoff of the summer tourist season that for Franklin County continues beyond Labor Day, to peak with the fall foliage a month later.

Odds are that most of those travelers will come on one of two highways — Route 2 or Interstate 91 — both of which have significant anniversaries this year. While I-91, which has had a dramatic effect on how the region has developed, was being built through Greenfield 50 years ago, the Mohawk Trail turns 100 this year

The Mohawk Trail, one of the nation’s original scenic touring highways, will mark its centennial with big celebrations being planned for October, but already, businesses along the highway have begun looking back at how much has changed.

Stanley Brown, whose father opened Brown’s Garage six years after the highway opened, in the Florida village of Drury, recalls carrying containers of water there as a boy for cars whose radiators had overheated climbing up the mountain from North Adams. Model Ts, lacking oil pumps, especially would burn out and have to replace their connecting rods.

Brown, now 80, played the role of water boy, filling and hauling water jugs to service overheated radiators of cars that were backed up for miles climbing Hoosac Mountain from North Adams. And after he bought the gas station years later, in 1972, “Saturdays and Sundays during foliage season, I’d run out of gas. So many people would be lined up at the pump.”

Brown’s father also had to tend to many of the accidents along the curvy road, which caught many motorists at the time off guard, particularly with simple braking systems.

Although the Mohawk Trail’s origins have been traced back thousands of years to Native American footpaths used for trading, hunting and fishing, it changed dramatically over the years, with the Fifth Massachusetts Turnpike — part of a network of toll roads instituted at the end of the 18th century — going only as far west as “downtown” Greenfield. An extension, built in 1802, went only as far west as Shelburne Center, and old maps showed a gap in the network between there and Charlemont, where the Second Massachusetts Turnpike continued, along a set of backwoods roads along the Deerfield River.

Built at a cost of $368,000 and opened on Oct. 27, 1914, the roughly 15-mile dirt-road highway initiated in 1909 by Hoosac Tunnel engineer Franklin B. Locke — by then Northampton’s City Engineer — took on the recently coined moniker “Mohawk Trail” because of a fascination with Native Americans at the turn of the 20th century. The name, in turn, gave way to the theme of many of the souvenir shops that sprang up along what was originated to serve the public’s other fascination at the time, the new automobile.

“Early on, when the Trail first opened, there were many places — overnight cabins that were popular — so many that aren’t there anymore,” said Brown, whose aunt and uncle set up the Havasnak Kitchen — complete with hand-carved totem poles and a hand-carved wooden hot dog — that specialized in “Frankforts” and at one point offered a turkey dinner for 75 cents.

The “Indian”-theme souvenir stands got a hand from the Canedy family, who in addition to operating a gift shop at Whitcomb summit, even manufactured bows and arrows, and tom-toms made from 1-gallon cans with birch bark and inner tubes.

On the other end of the Trail, in Greenfield, the Mohawk Trail had its souvenir attractions as well, including the Longview Gift Shop, built with its tower in 1922.

When Jim and Anita Wall bought the Pioneer Valley Gift Shop, in 1941, the existing shop had cages of raccoons, bobcats and a museum with a rock collection, arrowheads and even dinosaur footprints.

“Sometimes, you needed everything to survive,” recalls Ms. Wall, who hired a Native American, “Howling Wolf,” to stand out front and pose with tourists.

“He’d stand out there and wave at cars going by,” said her son, co-owner Larry Wall. “The cars didn’t travel that fast back then.”

Within a few years, though, the Walls changed their merchandise at The Outpost to sheepskin-lined moccasins and gloves, to match the changing clientele.

Larry Wall said with so many other stores selling native American merchandise — Longview and another store, now gone, to the east, and two or three more to the west in Shelburne — it made more sense to switch to higher-priced items that could bring in more money per customer, especially after the number of tour buses and auto tourists began to taper off after gasoline prices skyrocketed in 1973.

Customers have returned after years, asking if the store still sells maple candies and incense, Wall said, and someone came up last year with her 95-year-old mother who recalled riding in the go-carts that were also raced in an area next to the store years ago.

At Mohawk Trading Post in Shelburne, owner Laurie York remembers visiting as a girl of 7 or 8 and seeing the live bears that then-owner Leonard Wakefield — “the P.T. Barnum of the Mohawk Trail” — kept in cages, as well as the “baby rattlers” sign that he used to lure curious passers-by like her, only to find a pink and a blue baby rattle beyond a turnstile.

“We’re getting all kinds of visitors here now,” said York, who bought the business in 1985 and emphasized higher-priced, authentic merchandise, which she said sells especially well to Harley Davidson bikers who pass by. “You’ve got rafters and zip-liners, and grandparents who remember when they were brought in by their grandparents, and now they’re bringing their grandchildren. Everything goes in cycles.”

Most retailers and organizers along the Trail say they’re beginning to plan for centennial events later in the year, but that special events like the Shelburne Falls RiverFest the weekend of June 7, will begin to incorporate the anniversary as well.

On the Web: www.mohawktrail.com You can reach Richie Davis at: rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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