72-year-old Mohawk Trail business takes a new path
Native Views in Charlemont, formerly the Big Indian Shop, with Iona Miller and Eileen McCusker Rauch.
custmers check out a hat
Eileen McCcusker Rauch with books about Native Americans that actually lived in New England.
Revolutionary War hero and eventual turncoat Benedict Arnold rode the Mohawk Trail, traveling west to capture Fort Ticonderoga. Generations later, President Franklin Roosevelt motored the Deerfield River Valley route on the way to Campobello. According to one study, taking a yearly average, some 2,000 cars daily travel the full length of the route. On a busy holiday weekend, some 1,000 people visit the Mohawk Trail shop in Charlemont that’s located alongside a 28-foot-tall fiberglass Native American Indian.
In 2009, longtime owners Kim and Joan Estes sold the store to local stone mason Sonam Lama. Last September, Shelburne Falls resident Eileen McCusker Rauch became manager, renamed the business “Native Views” and has since undertaken a quiet revolution.
Gone are the “adult” novelties, the anatomical coffee mugs, the X-rated bumper stickers and, in Rauch’s opinion, derisive Native American tchotchkes. Although a great deterrent to shoplifters, also among the vanished was a seated, spooky Indian mannequin.
“It was nothing to do with who we are,” Rauch said during an interview earlier this month. “We decided we needed a mission.”
The first principle, she determined was “respect for Native Americans. That’s our number one goal. If we can’t do that, we shouldn’t be here.”
Last fall, Rauch invited several Native Americans from the region for a meeting, seeking their opinions on the direction the business should take. Among them was Rhonda Anderson, a member of Alaska’s Inupiaq Athabaskan tribe. A silversmith by trade, she is outspoken in her views, particularly regarding the fiberglass Indian. Although enthusiastic about Rauch’s ideas to display more Native American arts and crafts, she’d prefer that the structure would also vanish.
“We were appealing to the owner that this has set a tone for Native Americans living in New England, that the Mohawk Trail is a place you need to stay away from,” she said, speaking from her Colrain home. “It’s overdone in stereotypical racism.”
The idea of the statue, an ersatz rendering of a Plains Indian, originated with Kim Estes, who, with his wife Joan, owned the shop for 35 years. With no racism intended, he saw it as an attraction.
Estes told Yankee Magazine in the mid-1970s, “With this straight stretch of road ... I needed something people could see before their momentum carried (them) right by.”
Joan said that, at times, there was criticism of the structure.
“Oh yes,” she said, speaking from her Greenfield home, “(people said) that he didn’t look like anything. He’s more of a cartoon character, actually, when you think about it. Despite that, we did get a lot of free advertising because people would get their pictures taken in front of it.”
Rauch has placed a sign on the statue indicating that it’s a stereotypical rendering of a Plains Indian. A secondary school librarian, she sees the work as “a teaching tool” with its negative subcontext. Rauch intends to relocate the structure farther away from the entrance.
Anderson hasn’t been won over. “I’d really love to see that removed and something that’s less callous be put up.” She said that there is compelling Native American art that would be much more appropriate for the site.
The silversmith quoted a friend who’d written that “the (treatment of) the Native American Indian is the last vestige of racism without consequence.”
“That sort of stereotypical caricature of a Native American and the misrepresentation of Native American culture is not acceptable in the Native American community,” Anderson said. “Unfortunately, it’s a very difficult topic for people to understand.”
Conundrums along the Mohawk
It was a North Adams city engineer who proposed, in 1909, that a direct route between Charlemont and North Adams would spur both tourism and the economy. The name Mohawk Trail is a misnomer. When a Mohawk leader, Sahada, brought a peace offering to the Connecticut Valley Pocumtucks, he was slain. The reprisals against the Pocumtucks were severe.
Although the Pocumtucks had far more use of the trail, the Mohawks were the victors and white residents, apparently in the late 1800s, named the passage in their honor.
Stan Brown, a member of the Florida Historical Committee, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the route. His father established Brown’s Garage in 1920 and Stan continued its operation, a few hundred yards from Dead Man’s Curve, until 2003.
The trail is no longer the honeymoon magnet of past generations and the retail landscape has changed dramatically. Brown can recall when there were eight souvenir shops in Florida alone and dozens more to either side of the roadway between North Adams and Greenfield.
When the trail from Charlemont to North Adams was completed in 1914, it was originally gravel and seasonally closed by winter snows.
“It started out as an adventurous destination,” Brown said, speaking from his home. “When it was initiated, it was considered quite a feat to travel over the trail. If you’ve seen autos of that day, it would have been a real accomplishment.”
Cars at that time, easily disassembled with a screwdriver and an adjustable wrench, were prone to engine and brake overheating. When serious accidents occurred, Brown noted, time worked against the rescuers.
“Dead Man’s Curve was notorious,” he said. “You didn’t have the ability to get to injured people quickly or get help in a hurry. You didn’t have the ambulances ... the radios or many phones.”
People in Florida relied upon horses in the winter months, or they hand-shoveled narrow passages through snows often higher than their cars.
In a magazine interview 25 years ago, Dr. John Mullin, director of the Center for Economic Development at University of Massachusetts-Amherst noted that, as the Mohawk Trail developed, “the rubber tomahawk shops would be the first to go.” Today some half-dozen remain.
Native Views is the newest incarnation of The Maple Sugar Shop begun in 1940 by Estes’ aunt, Mary Simmons. When the Mohawk Trail was redesigned in the mid-1950s, a new stretch of the straightened highway would have sent speeding motorists directly through the shop, adding a new, adventurous dimension to retailing. The building was razed and a new store was constructed a few hundred feet to the north. Known as the Mohawk Tepee, it was later rechristened as the Big Indian Shop.
As to why it endured, as others closed, Joan Estes noted that “a lot of stores carried ‘high-end’ goods which families couldn’t afford. I think it was poor management.” She also remembers when other souvenir shops hired Native Americans as a tourist lure through the 1950s.
When Cambridge consultant Arthur Krim undertook a study of the trail for the state’s historical commission in 2001, he enthused over the remaining “mom-and-pop” souvenir shops. “(T)hey’re still in business ... Why?” he asked during a phone interview. “Because they offer children’s entertainment in a family vacation. They can offer a little children’s theme park, just like Burger King or McDonald’s.”
Rauch and her five employees, however, are attempting something far more educational and sophisticated than fast-food thrills. Last fall, Nipmuc Indian Larry Spotted Crow Mann visited the shop and read from his book “Tales From the Whispering Basket” (166 pages; CreateSpaceIPP; $15). The Webster resident’s book follows the history of the central Massachusetts tribe from King Philip’s War of 1675 to the present day.
In the shop, there are shelves of books relevant to the Native American culture, ranging from the Cheyenne Wars to Dee Brown’s definitive, eye-opening historical work “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”
Genuine crafts range from elegant Navajo and Ute pottery and MicMaq baskets to drums created by the Cherokees of North Carolina. Qualifying as a registered Native American artist with the Bureau of Indian Affairs requires a tribal and enrollment number. An individual must be at least one-quarter Native American, otherwise their crafts are considered “Native American inspired.”Among the inspired are Jack Kuehl’s canoe miniatures and dreamcatchers created by Silver Hawk and Little Eagle.
Outside the shop is the North River Snack Bar, operated by Jeff Buchiane and seasonally attractive to motorists for its variety, ranging from lobster rolls, clam chowder and seafood combos to pulled pork and the American mainstays of hot dogs and hamburgers.
Rauch is intending to coordinate an outdoor construction project with school students and a Wampanoag Indian to build a cold weather “long house” and an open-air summer “wetu.” The buildings, of ancient design, would be near the shop and visible to motorists.
“That’s part of the vision,” Rauch said. “We’re not sure how to get there. It’s a hope and a dream.”
For more information contact:
Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261 Ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.
Don Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Plainfield. He has written for The Recorder since 1994.