Walking tour travels back in time
Local historian Edwin Finch tells the history of the once-expansive Northfield Inn, built in 1888 and closed in 1977. Behind him, one of the inn's front steps stands upright at the site of the former hotel.
This 1893 Queen Ann house on Highland Avenue is more colorful today than when it was built for George A. Long. The five-bedroom home was the last on a walking tour during Northfield Days of History Saturday and Sunday.
The Northfield Chateau, built from 1900 to 1902 for New York City diamond merchant William Schell, no longer stands, but its story lived on through Edwin Finch's account during Northfield Days of History Saturday and Sunday.
NORTHFIELD — Two local history buffs led walks down memory lane Saturday and Sunday, as part of Northfield Days of History.
Memory lane may be better known as Highland Avenue, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone that knows the street better than Joel Fowler and Edwin Finch.
The two led walking tours down the avenue that was developed in the 1880s, during the heyday of local evangelist Dwight L. Moody’s summer conferences, attended by people from the world over.
“People who came to Northfield all the time (for Moody’s conferences) started to buy these lots,” said Fowler.
Fowler was handy with the facts — who built each house, when and for whom, and which were moved to the street from other locations — while Finch was quick with stories of the people that once populated them. In his 85 years in town, Finch has lived in a few of those houses himself. Passing by the former house of the Northfield Mount Hermon School’s head builder, Fred Holton, used to give Finch chills.
“After his wife died, he lived here by himself, and always sat out on the porch,” said Finch. “We were wary of him as kids. We thought he’d chase after us.”
He was rife with tales of Highland’s houses. Here lived a blind barber, over there was a housewife with a drinking problem and down the street lived a family with a boy who could barely walk due to a birth defect, but was sharp as a tack. He died in college due to iodine fumes, and the family sold their Depression-era house because the memories were too painful, Finch said.
Some of the houses were custom-made by Samuel Holton, a prolific local builder, while others were a product of the times.
“This house was built from a Sears and Roebuck kit in 1889, and so was the one across from it,” said Fowler, pointing to 55 and 56 Highland Ave.
Their parts were unloaded from a boxcar, taken to the lot, and assembled as per included instructions. Down the street at No. 36 stands another Sears and Roebuck residence. If it weren’t for the color of their paint, and the odd addition, the pre-fabricated houses would be indistinguishable from each other.
Most of the houses on Highland, however, are more unique.
A pink-and-teale Queen Ann style home, at the end of Highland, is hard to miss. Built for George A. Long in 1893, it was first his family’s home, then belonged to NMH and housed faculty, and is now home to Jeffrey and Susan Denny.
Jeffrey Denny said he can’t take credit for the color scheme; it was there when he bought the place in 1993. The family has, however, taken care of it, and he said they’re forever painting the scalloped siding.
Finch remembered going to a party in the house, held by the hotel’s assistant manager.
“He invited his friends from New York City,” he said. “We decided to have some fun, and dressed in period costumes.”
Finch donned his army uniform, his wife wore an accordion skirt, and a friend and his wife dressed as farmers.
“We started arguing about whether manure was sold by the bushel or peck and our guests were trying so hard not to laugh,” he recalled. The New Yorkers eventually excused themselves to the kitchen, where they let loose with laughter. Afterward, Finch and friends dropped the act, and stopped messing with the city folk.
Before the homes on Highland were built in the late 1800s, the lots were mostly fields, extending all the way to the farmhouses that lined Main Street. Back then, Highland was a dirt road, and actually extended beyond Hotel Road, where it now ends.
At the end of Highland, surrounded by the Northfield Golf Club, are the grounds where the Northfield Inn once stood. Construction began in 1888, and was done in sections, the last addition built in the 1950s, said Finch. In 1977, after decades of running in the red, the hotel was torn down. A single stone step, now planted upright in the ground, marks the spot where the hotel once stood.
A little farther still, the site of the old Northfield Chateau, built for New York City diamond merchant Francis Schell.
Not wanting people driving by his mansion as it was being built, Schell had the road cut off, said Finch. Schell enlisted the help of Ambert Moody, who went to the town fathers, and asked them to discontinue the road in exchange for $5,000 from Schell.
Begun in 1900 and finished in 1903, the 99-room castle was demolished in 1963. All that remains is a gravel horseshoe driveway.
After Schell died, his widow, Mary, gave the castle to the Northfield Hotel, which rented rooms in the manse, though it proved impractical as an annex to the hotel.
“She moved into the hotel, but she asked that she never be given a room that faced the Chateau,” said Finch.
Her husband had kept the castle’s construction a secret from her.
“She hated it,” said Finch. “She thought she was getting a nice, quaint, clapboard-sided country home.”
Finch said Mary Schell wanted a place to relax, and the lavish Chateau was clearly built for entertaining.
It was also built to last. Though much of the interior was in disrepair by the time it was torn down, the exterior was stronger than expected.
“When they swung the wrecking ball at it, it bounced right off,” Finch remembered. “They had to bring in a crane with a clamshell bucket, and take it apart piece by piece.”
This was much to the demolition company’s chagrin. They’d already agreed on a price of $14,500, not knowing that the castle was reinforced with iron girders all throughout.
The ruins were supposed to be plowed into the foundation and buried, but that proved impossible due to the construction. Instead, said Finch, the girders were piled to one side, the wood piled elsewhere and burned, and the rest was buried near the Connecticut River. On top of them now sits the home of Town Clerk Gail Zukowski, Finch said.
Finch has been working on multiple books on Northfield history. Hearing his stories Saturday, those on the tour urged him to please hurry.