Keepers of the valley
75 years ago, the place 2,500 people called home began to fill up with drinking water for Boston
Elizabeth Peirce with a 3D rendering of the Swift River Valley before it was flooded and and aerial photogrpah of the Quabbin once full.
Dana fire engine from 1929 at Swift River Valley Historical Society
Directional Marker at the Swift River Valley Historical Society
Kitchen at the Swift River Valley Historical Society
Quilts at the Swift River Valley Historical Society
The Swift River Valley Historical Society buildings in New Salem
Dresses at the Swift River Valley Hiostorical Society in New Salem
When state authorities rolled into the towns south of Orange and Athol and forced 2,500 residents out of their homes, the people of the Swift River Valley left behind many of their artifacts, their memorabilia, their signs and appliances, their photographs … and their memories of how life had been in the four towns that were flooded to create the Quabbin Reservoir.
It’s been 75 years since Dana, Greenwich, Enfield and Prescott were disincorporated, their townspeople displaced, their houses moved or burned down, their trees chopped down, their graves disinterred, all leaving a 40-square-mile area of what had been the Swift River Valley to become part of the drinking-water supply for metropolitan Boston.
Today, the Quabbin Reservoir is a 145,000-acre preserved wilderness, including a 25,000-acre expanse of water, with nearly 16,000 acres of islands and peninsulas that were once hills where valley residents roamed and explored, and children like Earl Cooley played.
“Everybody had a buggy, and when people would leave, they’d have no use for a buggy,” recalls Cooley, now 88, of his boyhood days in Dana. “We’d get one and take the shafts off and put a rope on it so you could steer it. We’d push people around town, and there was one hill off the common — in them days, we thought it was a steep one. And you’d go downhill and make a left turn and end up in back of the Congregational church, then we’d go back up for another ride around. Everybody took a turn driving. And if we got sick of that one we’d push it over the bank and get another one.”
Many of the memories and memorabilia from those towns survive at the Swift River Valley Historical Society museum in North New Salem. It opens to the public this Sunday and will stay open Wednesdays and Sundays, from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m., through Sept. 29. The thousands of artifacts displayed in three buildings are a treasure trove from towns that are no longer.
“We’re totally unique,” says Betty Sue Pratt, president of the 400-member organization, which was created in 1936 and houses its collection at the 1818 Whitaker-Clary House museum. “Nobody in the world is keeping track of four dead towns, 7,500 bodies, and twice that number of stories, anywhere in the United States, that I know of.”
The stories from that Depression era are almost the stuff of legend, now that many of the valley’s exiles have passed on. Cooley, who now lives in Rutland, remembers picking up the brass ball from atop the Dana Common flagpole, after it had blown over in the September, 1938 hurricane. He was 12.
“I picked it up and brought it home,” recalls Cooley, whose family was the last to leave the town. “I showed it to my father, He said, ‘You take that back!’ He wouldn’t let me keep it.” Like many former residents he has harbored strong resentment for being forced to leave their home and he still regrets that he wasn’t able to take that souvenir.
For this 75 “year of remembrance” there is no admission charge to the museum, which consists of the 1818 home packed with photos, antiques and more; a shed that houses the 1929 Dana fire engine; a reconstructed one-room school and more; and the 1837 Prescott church, where a special collection of 26 handmade quilts from around the Swift River Valley is displayed through the end of this month.
The 75th anniversary, marking the 1938 death knell for the four towns, will also be marked by series of special events, such as a July 14 Dana Vespers concert at the Prescott Church Museum, and 75 specially tagged exhibit items, like the giant cider-making stone discovered in the Quabbin in 1981.
“There’s a lot to know about what’s here,” says curator-educator Elizabeth Peirce, who’s volunteered for at the museum 20 years, as she takes a visitor through the collection, pointing out some of the quirky items, like the sleigh painted red for one valley resident to take his girlfriend on a ride, with their initials and a heart painted on the underside.
“I love to tell this story,” says Peirce, referring to the bittersweet history of the four displaced towns that included Prescott, where her late husband, Clifford, was born.
The pain of those displaced residents, who accepted the state’s actions with a stoic resignation that would be hard to imagine today, was all the more poignant for the fact that it took place during the Great Depression.
“It had a big effect on the whole thing,” says Peirce. “People didn’t have very much to begin with. The state made offers for their property knowing they were more or less desperate. They mostly lived hand to mouth and the state paid as little as possible. They told them, ‘If you don’t accept our offer, we can take it by eminent domain.”
Old stuff, new ways
“Announcement:” reads one poster, from 1909, tucked away in one corner of an upstairs room in the house museum.
“An auction in Enfield on Saturday next,
The goods to sell are hereunto annexed,
At one o’clock sharp the sale will commence,
So eat quick your dinner and then travel thence.
I’m selling my goods because I must move,
Here my children were born; Here’s the home that I love.
But kind feeling for friends will not furnish me bread,
Let my children be clothed and when hungry be fed.”
The roster of items to be auctioned that Nov. 19 by C.B. Adkins comprise the verses that follow. “One horse, a good worker, if not very fast … The eggs selling quick, 60 cents for a dozen ...”
Like Peirce, Pratt wasn’t raised in the towns that were flooded, although she moved at age 10 from Florida to North New Salem, just down Elm Street from where the museum has been located since 1960s. (The church, which had been relocated from Prescott to Orange, joined the rest of the museum here in 1985.)
“I can remember standing over watching the smoke from fires in the Quabbin,” says the 81-year-old president of the organization. “People said, ‘Oh yeah, they’re burning the brush down there.’ It was very matter of fact,” even though the burning by state crews meant the valley was nearly ready to be flooded to make way for the reservoir. “The damage was all done and they were cleaning it out.”
Because of the hours and hours she’s spent poring over the museum’s collection, Pratt says, “When I go down (Route) 122, I have greater sense of history, because I look up and see the mountain laurel and think of the girls and women who used to go out and pick that to make laurel roping at Christmas time or for decorations for weddings and parties.”
Although the museum has a unique historical collection from communities that were eradicated, it’s seldom visited by school groups these days. The generation that was displaced to make way for Quabbin’s waters has been dying off. That’s leaving historical society members, many of whom are descendants of the flooded towns, to look to new ways of sharing the Swift River Valley’s legacy.
“We so many have pictures, and so many of them are unidentified, that tell stories of how they kept the roads, how they plowed, how they farmed and what they did for entertainment,” says Pratt. “We’ve got treasure after treasure of pictures from every town, and each one is unique.”
Plenty of people have called the museum “the best kept secret in the world,” but she says, “I don’t want it to be a secret anymore. “I want the world to know the story of the four towns.”
Even locally, she says, “people are woefully ignorant of the stories, because nothing’s being done to teach children local history, which is a crime! You mention ‘Quabbin’ to kids here in Athol and they’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, my dad goes fishing there.’ And that’s the extent of it.”
Because of today’s focus on preparing for standardized testing and because of cutbacks in budgets, she said, most schools don’t have time or money for field trips. And the historical society has a dearth of volunteers who can deal with a bus-load of visiting school children, even if they came.
“We have been, until this year, an all-volunteer organization,” says Pratt. “We outgrew ourselves.”
So the organization recently hired Sheila Damkoehler, who has worked with the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, “to lead them into the future” by improving how materials are stored, organized and presented and how the historical society and its programs are marketed.
“A lot’s about audience,” says Damkoehler, who is updating the museum’s website and who notes that the museum’s Facebook page and new brochures will be a way of letting businesses like bed-and-breakfast operations throughout the region know what’s on display at the museum.
She sees the need, for example, to incorporate the recorded oral history of the displaced residents and of other approaches to augment the static exhibits.
“The board is working on a strategic plan,” she says. “There just aren’t a lot of volunteers out there anymore for organizations. People don’t have time anymore and, in this case, there’s a whole other generation removed (from the one forced to leave the Swift River Valley.) The children of that generation are elderly now. And they’re dispersed around the country.”
And yet, says Damkohler, there’s a compelling story to be told, especially to new audiences that may find it hard to believe that residents there acquiesced to being shut out of their home towns.
“I want to find new ways to present this story,” she said. “For many years, there was a local audience that knew it. It’s time to figure out how to tell the story to a wider audience.”
Pratt stresses the urgency, 75 years after Dana, Prescott, Enfield and Greenwich began being flooded, for people to be reminded what took place at Quabbin.
“We need to get out into world, to be part of future, not just to memorialize these people, but because it’s your history and you need to know. People say now it could never happen again, but I’m not too sure but that it couldn’t if the government wanted to do it.”
Beneath the surface
Just as the wooden signs inside the museum’s Peirce Memorial Shed point the way to Dana and North Dana, and to Millington and other villages around the Swift River Valley, the large white box-like marker out front points to the left toward North New Salem, Orange, Wendell Depot and Millers Falls, and to the left toward Greenwich, Enfield, Prescott and Cooleyville.
Among the many echoes of those four former towns is a tiny, folded dance card hanging from a poster announcing the Enfield Fire Department’s “Farewell Ball.” The ball drew more than 1,000 people, both young revelers and more somber elders, on April 27, 1938, to the center of the town that would, after that midnight, legally cease to exist. Written on the back of the dance card were signatures of a dozen of the bearer’s dance partners, now forgotten.
There are plenty of historical museums around, many of them with photos and textiles, bottles and paraphernalia similar to what’s on display here.
But, as Pratt says, “We also have four towns with a tremendous history that no longer exist. And people have got to know why, they’ve got to know what happened. They’ve got to look at more than just the surface of the water and say, ‘What a beautiful picture.’ They’ve got to look underneath the water and say, ‘How sad, but how beautiful.’”
On the Web: swiftrivervalleyhistoricalsociety.org
Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at The Recorder more than 30 years. He can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.
Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261 Ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.