Getting it right

  • Nan Parati

Published: 6/16/2019 10:16:44 PM

One of the nicest aspects of writing this column is the response I get from alert readers. Gary Schaefer and Barbara Fingold, former owners of Barts and Snow’s Ice Cream wrote in to correct my story about ice cream at Ashfield Hardware. I had said Nancy and Laura sold Barts Ice Cream there. Gary gently corrected me that in fact, those cones are filled with Snow’s Ice Cream. Same company, different brand. Still worth coming in for.

Two columns ago I talked about how people in small town New England never live in their own houses, but are known by the company their house used to keep, before they came along. Reader Danielle Mulvey wrote to say that back in 1999 when she and her husband bought the wooded lot in Conway upon which to build their house, Sid St. Peters who was on the Board of Health in those days told them that those woods sat “on land that had been a damn good blueberry patch, formally a cow pasture.”

See? Not even the woods can have their own identities. The woods used to be a blueberry patch.

Dang blueberry patch used to be a cow pasture. The Mulveys’ house will remain known as the blueberry patch until they sell the house. Then it’ll be the Mulvey House for the next people who come down the real estate path. But not until then. I’ve been thinking about all of those very New England distinctions, comparing them with southern ways. And since I only know New England through the portal of Western Massachusetts, I’ll talk about them.

People in Western Massachusetts like history, they like tradition and they like veracity. A Southerner will tell you any tale that pops up in his head if it’s a good one, just to make it fun, and no one will correct them, as a good story is the most interesting part of life. In Western Mass. you’ve got to tell the truth or Brian Dickinson will come up behind you saying, “Ohhh, she don’t know nothin’. I’ll tell ya what really happened.”

I spend a lot of time at the Ashfield Historical Society, as I find the history of this whole area absolutely fascinating. And my theory is that the penchant for archival accuracy and tradition comes from the very history that settled the area. The town of Ashfield was created in 1735, forty-five years after a particularly awful battle in King William’s War when it was brought to the government’s attention that the soldiers involved in that battle of 1690 had never actually been paid for their fight, in any form. Oh. Forty-five years later the government figured they ought to do something to thank them for their service.

Many of the soldiers were already dead and gone. Those in 1735 Weymouth responsible for making those amends realized that what was really needed in the growing state was an expanded western front to help shield the Boston area from the on-going threat of attack. So, the sons, the grandsons, the friends of the original soldiers, and, even random people who had had nothing to do with the battle, but just seemed like they would make good pioneers, were given the chance to draw literal lots out in Western Massachusetts, creating a town that would, at first be called Huntstown, after Ephraim Hunt, commander of the original unit. The town wasn’t incorporated into Ashfield until 1765 and was then named, either for the ash trees, the fields that looked like ash, or for Lord Ashfield in England. No one seems to know for certain. I’m sure that every family remembers the story differently.

People out here on the early Massachusetts frontier worked hard to create these new towns. The non-snowing season was rarely long enough for a family to actually build a whole house, grow a crop, feed themselves and defend their turf from potential threats. Winters frequently snowed upon houses only partially completed, sporting blankets and anything else the home builders could hurriedly find to hang up as third and fourth walls until it stopped snowing again.

Food was oft times just maple sugar and the buds and leaves of basswood trees, which doesn’t create a lot of energy for much activity beyond the necessities of life. Sometimes the threat from native individuals who had not been consulted on the new settlements got so overwhelming that entire communities had to be abandoned for a season while everyone hunkered down in Deerfield, the town with a fort and fortification.

When things calmed down and felt safe enough, the settlers trudged back up into the hills, picked up where they left off (if everything was still there) and carried forth. Western Massachusetts was built house by house, neighbor by neighbor, rule by necessary rule and very many of the names you find around towns today are the same ones from the original rosters. And their own stories carry all the way back to the tales of their forefathers.

So knowing who you are, who your neighbors are, who your neighbors were, and tracing it all back to the character of the Originals is important in Western Massachusetts, as important here as the stories of the griots in West Africa are. It’s why the truth is important. Without that you have no background. It’s who people are and where they came from.

Me, I’m a chronicler here, watching from the outside, writing about it all through the eyes of the foreign reporter. I try to check all my facts before I send my columns in and I try to get it all right before it goes to print. And sometimes, y’all (see, I’m speaking to you in my native language now,) send in new stories to prop up the ones I’ve told. I love them all. Keep on writing! I’ll keep on answering!

Nan Parati lives and works in Ashfield, where she found home and community following Hurricane Katrina. She can be reached at

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