‘The best-kept secret around’

  • Walter Reynolds mans the carriage house at the Swift River Valley Historical Society on Elm Street in New Salem. Behind him is a still running fire engine from the town of Dana. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • A school classroom setting at the Swift River Valley Historical Society. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Artifacts are stored in the former Prescott Church, a carriage house, at rear, and an old farm house. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • An old sign post that used to direct travelers in the town of New Salem now resides at the Swift River Valley Historical Society on Elm Street in New Salem. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • J. R. Greene of Athol has a vast knowledge of the former towns flooded for the Quabbin Reservoir, seen here in the map room at historical society. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • At the New Salem historical society, each town has a room full of artifacts rescued from the flood. This is the Greenwich Room. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Exploring the Quabbin on a recent tour with the Swift River Valley Historical Society. For the Recorder/Richie Davis

  • Photos from recent a Quabbin tour with the Swift River Historical Society. For the Recorder/Richie Davis—

For the Recorder
Published: 7/27/2019 7:13:47 AM

They have nearly all passed on now: the women who fashioned these needlepoint samplers and these dresses, the men who worked these rakes and scythes. Gone, too, are almost all the children who played with these dolls, these games.

Thousands of artifacts that fill the Swift River Valley Historical Society’s museum point not only to that vanished valley’s 2,500 inhabitants, who otherwise would have been forgotten to time if not for the exhibited collection. This particular treasure trove of memories — photographs, signs and milk bottles, sleds and furniture and much more — all evoke a place that is also gone.

These four towns were swallowed up 80 years ago by the state to create Quabbin Reservoir. 

The signpost outside the museum in north New Salem, a town that was also partially flooded in the 1930s to provide drinking water for metropolitan Boston, points to Prescott, Greenwich, Enfield, Dana. Those Swift River Valley towns, along with New Salem village of Cooleyville, are part of a 40-square-mile preserved wilderness, including a 25,000-acre expanse of water, with nearly 16,000 acres of islands and peninsulas that were once hills where residents lived.

The museum, open to the public by donation Wednesday and Sunday afternoons only through late September, is staffed by a handful of volunteers from the tiny organization that works to keep alive memories of communities, parts of which are now under 412 billion gallons of water.

In exhibits housed in the 203-year old Whitaker Cleary House, where rooms are designated for each of the towns, photo albums, personal correspondence and newspaper clippings describe Boston’s plan dating from the 1890s to impound three branches of the Swift River to flood the valley. The state Legislature and governor approved the project in 1926, and as it began buying land and homes, the exodus began, followed by removal of buildings, clearing of trees and disinterment of graves.

One “Announcement” poster  in a corner of the upstairs Enfield room almost sings: “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 auction would include, it continued,  “One horse, a good worker, if not very fast … The eggs selling quick, 60 cents for a dozen.”

Among the displayed correspondence is a card mailed from Enfield stamped on the last day of cancellation, Jan. 14, 1939 at 10 a.m. Its hand-scrawled inscription says, “Dear Rufus, Here is the last message from good old Enfield. But while she will soon be under water, her spirit of friendliness will live on forever. Love from Will.”

The museum was merged in the 1960s from the New Salem Historical Society and what had begun in 1932 as the Prescott Historical Society, housed in an 1837 church that was moved to Orange in 1948 and to New Salem in 1985. Along with the neighboring Whitaker-Cleary House, the museum also includes a large barn that houses a 1929 Dana fire engine among an array of objects and a reconstructed one-room school.

“It’s like coming back home,” 90-year-old Katherine O’Brien Reed of Orange told this reporter during a 2002 visit to the museum. 

Reed, who died in 2006, found a small photograph of herself as a 4-year-old seated on the grass with her siblings and dog, Fido, in front of their North Dana home. “People didn’t think anything of it,” said the white-haired woman, who was forced to leave Dana in 1926. “We thought, ‘They can’t do it.’”

But as workers began cutting brush and felling trees, “We realized it was going to be a reality. People started selling their homes to the Metropolitan District Commission. The older folks were really upset.  They had to leave their homes and everything they saved for all their lives. It didn’t do any good to be angry about it. They were going to take it away.”

The donated furniture, clocks, quilts, clothing and houseware items from those homes now fill the museum, telling stories of refugees from the valley, which began flooding Aug. 14, 1939 and filled with water over the next seven years.

The furnishings and memorabilia still trickle in, says Dorothy Frye, part-time administrative assistant of the organization, whose membership has fallen below 200 and operates on a shoestring budget to keep the museum open from June through Sept. 22. 

“People will be cleaning out a barn, and they’ll find this barrel here,” she says in the organization’s office in the church basement, pointing to the item donated recently from South Hadley, with its original shipping label from Shelburne to Dana.

“We get maps brought to us, cradles — anything you can think of that would have been in homes,” says Frye. She lives down the road from the museum and has no direct connection to Quabbin but has become fascinated as she’s “learned so much over the years.”

Every clipping or photograph that comes in is inspected carefully by 95-year-old curator Elizabeth Peirce for familiar names and faces, as it’s added to archives that also includes an oral history collection.

Although the schedule for the museum — mostly housed in buildings that lack heat in colder months — doesn’t allow for visits for many school groups — it does attract visitors who come largely by word of mouth, Frye says.

“Descendants will come in and say, ‘My grandfather was a child when they started the Quabbin.’ Some will have family stories from the Quabbin to share.”

Tours and more

As impressive as this well-kept-secret of a museum is, it’s just one facet of the Swift River Valley Historical Society, which will display a small part of its collection at the Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield in September.

The annual Dana Vespers Concert will be held at 3:30 p.m. Sunday (July 28) in the museum’s Prescott Church. The concert, after which cake and lemonade is served, is a memorial to members of the First Universalist Parish of North Dana.

Reservations for society’s Oct. 6 annual bus tour of the restricted-access Prescott Peninsula are already filling up, says Frye. The organization’s periodic guided hikes into the Quabbin, as well as bus tours exploring abandoned cellar holes and other sites, highlight the group’s calendar each year.

One of the roughly 40 passengers on its June bus tour of Dana and other portions of the reservoir watershed, Susan Cooley Mackin of Athol said, “I’ve been here hundreds, thousands of times,” but is always eager to join tours to reconnect with the places and stories her family grew up with. When the tour stops for lunch on Dana Common, where town hall, post office and Civil War monument sites remain to stir anyone’s imagination, she shows a visitor where her father, grandfather and great-grandfather lived, a few hundred feet off the common. “There were seven kids in my family and we couldn’t afford to go anywhere, so this is where we’d come and walk around this area.” 

She points to the giant “mating tree” where couples “would meet up,” to the cellar hole of the barn and the stone wall on the homestead.

The bus tour, with guides pointing out cellar holes, the bed of the Rabbit Run railroad that once connected Athol with Springfield and the path of the Sixth Massachusetts Turnpike between Amherst and Worcester, ended with a short hike over a baffle dam into Greenwich. It serves to filter the Quabbin’s water from the inferior Wachusett Reservoir water that’s piped in.

Guide Jonathan Melick, a Dorchester resident who’s been leading tours into the reservoir for more than 10 years, said that having grown up in Newton and first visited the Quabbin in 1963, “I became fascinated that an entire valley was flooded for my drinking water. I’ve never forgotten it. In the mid-’70s, I discovered maps and pictures and I was hooked.”

Now the 66-year-old guide said he enjoys taking scout groups and other groups to Quabbin.

“The kids learn that water’s something that doesn’t just come out of the ground like magic, that there’s a human cost to their drinking water. A lot of people sacrificed, a lot of people suffered, because they didn’t always get a fair price for their property. A lot of people were sadly mistreated,” Melick said.

Martin Howe of West Springfield, who also joined the tour, said his father had told him stories about their family growing up in Enfield. He recalled looking at a photo of his great-grandfather’s house and then visiting the reservoir. 

“It didn’t make sense to me. I got interested … It feels like a place frozen in time. It’s sad that it’s gone, but probably we wouldn’t even notice it if was still here. It would be just another town,” he said.

Back at the North New Salem museum, which a Warwick Elementary School class visited in June, a Mount Holyoke College group plans to visit in August and senior groups are periodically shown around by a corps of 11 volunteers, Frye shows a visitor a piano in the Prescott Church that was donated by a former Dana family.

She describes the organization’s search for young members, volunteers and board members to take the place of aging members and to shoulder the work, which now includes raising money to repair the church roof and cupola.

Quoting Peirce, she calls the unique historical society, “the best-kept secret around.”

“It’s amazing the number of people here who know very little about the Quabbin,” said Frye. “They come here and they’re amazed. I think they think it was just a big body of water that was there. They don’t know what went into placing it there.”

More information can be found at swiftrivervalleyhistoricalsociety.org. 

Sidebar: The late Audrey Duckert, a University of Massachusetts linguistic professor and local history aficionado, spent 14 years in the 1960s and '70s collecting oral histories of former Swift River residents. The collection of 53 recorded oral histories she conducted for the Swift River Historical Society are housed at the UMass archives and can be heard here: http://scua.library.umass.edu/ead/mums756.html.

Recently retired, Richie Davis was a writer and editor for more than 40 years at the Greenfield Recorder. His website is richiedavis.net.




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