Classic film focuses on towns, controversy nearly forgotten

  • Warren “Bun” Doubleday of New Salem rows a boat on the Quabbin Reservoir with, from left, Buddy Squires, Roger Sherman and Northampton filmmaker Larry Hott during the filming of the 1981 documentary “The Old Quabbin Valley.” Doubleday speaks about the flooded town that lies below the boat, Enfield, where he used to live. Contributed photo

  • Northampton filmmaker Larry Hott works behind the camera. Hott started his career by filming the half-hour documentary, “The Old Quabbin Valley,” and is now completing work on his final film, “The Warrior Tradition,” about Native Americans in the military. Contributed photo

  • Northampton filmmaker Larry Hott and his wife, film editor Diane Garey, pose for a photo at the Quabbin Reservoir. Contributed photo

  • Warren “Bun” Doubleday of New Salem rows a boat on the Quabbin Reservoir in the documentary, “The Old Quabbin Valley.” Doubleday speaks about the flooded town that lies below the boat, Enfield, where he used to live. Contributed image

  • Filmmaker Larry Hott Staff File Photo/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Documentary filmmaker Larry Hott speaks during a class for aspiring filmmakers. Staff File Photo/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 2/8/2019 4:17:47 PM

Dressed in quintessential old-Yankee garb, an orange overshirt and drab green cap, Warren “Bun” Doubleday of New Salem begins his slow monologue out in a rowboat with rolling, forested hillsides as a backdrop.

“We’re now right over where the town of Enfield was, about 150 feet down. And I was an engineer on the Quabbin job, and my wife and I, when we were married in 1934, we set up housekeeping here in the village of Enfield, just about under where the boat is now.”

It’s a disorienting, emotional opening shot at the beginning of the half-hour documentary, “The Old Quabbin Valley,” which marked the beginning of the career for Larry Hott, a Northampton filmmaker who’s now completing work on his final film.

The 1981 documentary, on which Hott’s Florentine Films associate Ken Burns contributed, also marked the beginning of the end of the state’s Northfield diversion project, an attempt in the 1970s and early 1980s to divert Connecticut River water to augment the Quabbin Reservoir.

The project, which would have siphoned up Connecticut River water at Northfield Mountain and created a 10-mile tunnel to divert it to the Quabbin and then metropolitan Boston communities, was halted after intensive lobbying by western Massachusetts residents.

The Old Quabbin Valley” also helped launch Hott’s career in making environmental documentaries, which have won an Emmy, two Academy Award nominations, an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award, a Peabody Award, five American Film Festival Blue Ribbons and more.

Although he joined Burns and other young documentary filmmakers Buddy Squires and Roger Sherman to create Florentine Films, Hott caught the film bug almost by accident after attending Western New England Law School. After hanging out with Hampshire College film students, he began sitting in on Hampshire classes while studying law.

Hott was originally inspired to get a law degree as a way to be politically active and went to work in 1976 for Oregon Legal Services, where he started a film division making four educational films, like “Five Easy Leases.” He was stirred back into documentary work when he saw Green Mountain Post Films’ anti-nuclear documentary, “Lovejoy’s Nuclear War.”

“It was so energizing,” remembers Hott, who had been doing legal work to defend anti-nuclear protesters when Burns asked him to move back to western Massachusetts to become part of the Hampshire team’s production company, Florentine Films. “I thought, ‘I’m doing film, I’m doing law. Which is more fun, which is more effective?’”

‘Simply heartbroken’

Balanced between vintage black-and-white images of life in the four towns flooded nearly 50 years earlier, set to “Endearing Young Charms” played on a wobbly-sounding piano, are arguments for and against the diversion that was being considered.

“The film is really about the Northfield river diversion,” Hott said. “The Quabbin is the emotional side of it.”

“The battles over the Northfield diversion and over the Quabbin and its memory are all about perception. Like if you’re talking about Trump and ‘the wall,’ it’s really not about the wall,” said Hott, who began making the film in 1978 with a $27,000 Massachusetts Foundation for Humanities and Public Policy grant, with another $15,000 in public and private matching money. “The average person didn’t know squat about the Connecticut River. What they knew is they didn’t like Boston, and it was a home-rule issue.”

Sensing the diversion controversy was a proxy battle for east-west tensions when he approached the Humanities Council proposing either a film about the Quabbin or Northampton State Hospital’s looming closure, the novice filmmaker set out to do as much research as he has for any film since. The Metropolitan District Commission, which had built the reservoir and controlled it until 1985, provided him with newsreel-style archival film from the 1930s and 1940s, glass-plate photo negatives and keys to access the reservoir whenever he wanted.

“This was my first professional film, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t realize I didn’t have to do all that work,” Hott said.

After six months of editing, he sought a reaction from Burns, who’d recently finished his first documentary, “Brooklyn Bridge.” Burns and his then-wife, Amy Steckler, said what Hott had thought was close to complete might suffice as a rough cut, but lacked continuity and was a long way from being done.

Steckler edited the film, pointing out a key lesson: emotion trumps everything. There were too few old-timers lamenting how they missed their homes in the lost towns of Dana, Prescott, Enfield and Greenwich.

The Doubleday rowboat sequence, with three young film crew members joining him, was a “natural scene” that had jumped out at Hott as soon as he first started thinking about making the film.

But for another key emotional tug, he turned to Robbie Leppzer, now a Wendell filmmaker, who’d done radio interviews with Quabbin survivors for a 13-part “Rural Lives” series on WFCR.

The voice-overs, he said, provide “some of the most poignant moments,” set against a simple piano rendition of “To a Wild Rose” and footage of the old cellar holes and stone walls that survive like ghosts around the outskirts of the reservoir.

“I’ve been asked if people were angry about losing their property in the takeover,” Sally Parker, formerly of Greenwich, tells the camera. “They weren’t angry. They weren’t angry people. They were simply heartbroken.”

Another lesson for Hott was that there wasn’t enough beautiful imagery of the Quabbin’s “accidental wilderness.”

“I couldn’t pay anybody to do any more shooting,” he recalled. “We worked really hard to find every frame we could, to let it breathe, to have people just look at those images.”

The combination of editing and bringing in filmmakers with more experience, Hott said, “really made the film sing. If you look at it now, it’s kind of dated, but it holds up as a point in time politically, and as a memoir.”

It’s a memoir as much about the tenor of the time, before organized environmentalism and a “you can’t fight City Hall attitude,” Hott said, as it is about the four lost communities displaced by Boston’s need for water.

“In those days,” Doubleday tells the filmmakers, “everyone in the valley was dead set against it. We had no environmental societies or anything like that to help us protest it. So while there was just as much feeling against the project in those days, there was not the action against it that you would probably find today.”

“All we were told was how bad they needed it,” New Salem resident Herman Hanson says in a voice-over. “They would all have dust on their tonsils in a year or two if they didn’t get our water. Well, we weren’t so miserable a class of people that we were going to deprive anybody of their drinking water.”

“At the time, there was the will of the society, and just a couple of conservation societies,” Hott added. “It was all small and ad hoc. It could be a combination of all those kinds of things why they didn’t fight it more: a lack of sophistication, the economy and they just didn’t have any power.”

It was a simpler time, too, when Hott went to WGBH in Boston to ask about screening the documentary and was told they could get it shown nationally on public television stations. Hott toured Massachusetts and Connecticut to discuss and screen the film, which was shown for years at the Quabbin Visitor Center in Belchertown.

“It really took off,” he said. “I had two screenings at The Boston Globe, where I showed it to the editorial staff. They called me back and said, ‘Other people want to see it.’” Six months later, a Globe editorial about the east-west split in the state backed the principle of home rule.

That, together with mounting citizen opposition and coordinated action with environmental organizations and watershed groups around the state, spelled the end of the diversion proposal.

‘Two beauties’

“(‘The Old Quabbin Valley’) launched my career,” said Hott, who was approached along with Sherman by the Nature Conservancy to make another half-hour film, “The Garden of Eden,” which was nominated for an Oscar. Hott also won a grant to make a film on Niagara Falls as a wilderness symbol, and a film on the Adirondacks.

That led to a two-part series, “The Wilderness Experience” for PBS’ The American Experience and another Oscar nomination.

“All of it came out of the Quabbin,” said Hott, who learned from that experience the need to appeal to the eye by “getting as much beautiful footage as I could. Also, when I moved on from the Quabbin, I became conscious of making films that are more timeless, wanting my films to have a longer shelf life.”

That meant exploring environmental history through “The Wilderness Idea” and “Wild by Law,” which Hott said he considers his favorite films, along with the Quabbin documentary, in part because they’ve had the greatest impact on conservation.

Hott, whose most popular work is the Emmy and Peabody-winning “Divided Highways,” about the development of the interstates, has been editing what he said is his last documentary: “The Warrior Tradition,” about Native Americans in the military.

That documentary, due to be shown late this year on PBS, grew out of two earlier films about deaf history and identity and then “Rising Voices,” about preserving the Lakota language.

As for “The Old Quabbin Valley,” Hott looks back at what he might have done differently if he made it today. Hott thinks he might have made his early film an hour long, so that television stations would be more apt to run it. He also might have mentioned other large reservoirs built around the country, although he knows that might have diverted the focus from the Quabbin story.

Although the film — hearkening back poetically to the emotion-packed idea that “you can’t go home again” — is something of a period piece about a controversy that’s 35 years behind us, Hott said, “It is timeless, and it resonates today because of the issue of sacrifice. And that never goes away.”

“I’d just like to go back to the old place and walk around,” says Belchertown resident Eleanor Griswold Schmidt against the backdrop of overgrown, almost-forgotten Quabbin stone walls and steps. “It’s got trees 40-feet tall in my front yard, in my back yard. But the steps down to the place mother hung clothes, the wall stones, the foundation is bulldozed in.

“So many people, if you didn’t go into the history of the people who had to move, you’d stand out there and say, ‘What a beautiful spot,’” she continues. “You’d look at the water and the trees and think it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful to the eye. But I know what was there. So I’ve got two beauties: one to remember … and one to look at.”

“The Old Quabbin Valley” is available by contacting the distributor, Direct Cinema Limited, at ‭800-525-0000, or online at bit.ly/2HgjGia.

Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at the Greenfield Recorder for 42 years. He can be reached at rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.


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