Sunday, March 30, 2008

Quabbin History: Enfield's Last Town Meeting, April 8, 1938

The last town meeting was held in Enfield, Massachusetts, in the Enfield Town Hall, on April 8, 1938, 20 days before the end of the town's official existence. Chapter 240 of the Acts and Resolves of April 26, 1938, passed earlier by the Massachusetts General Court, and signed by Governor Charles F. Hurley, annexed the towns of Dana, Prescott, Greenwich and Enfield to surrounding towns in preparation for the flooding of the Swift River Valley and the filling of Quabbin Reservoir, effectively ending their existence on April 28, 1938 at 12:01 A.M.

Less than thirty Enfield residents attended the meeting, none of whom any longer owned land. Some attendees had already moved from town.

In comparison, the population of Enfield in 1925 was 749, with 278 registered voters.

Moderator of the meeting was Edwin C. Howe, Postmaster of Enfield for eleven years, beginning as temporary Postmaster on December 15, 1927, and appointed to the position permanently on March 27, 1928. Howe's father, Edwin H. Howe, had also served as Enfield's Postmaster, appointed on December 19, 1889, and holding the position for many years.

The elder Howe is also credited for introducing Enfield to the telephone in 1887, acting as agent and manager of the first telephone exchange in town.

The town's final hurrah was on the night of April 27, 1938, with the Enfield Fire Department hosting a Farewell Ball at the Town Hall. Enfield was reported to have been inundated with a crowd of three thousand people that evening, although one thousand was the maximum that could fit in the Hall. McEnelly's Orchestra performed, playing "Auld Lang Syne" at the stroke of midnight for the emotional, yet subdued residents of the four now-defunct towns. The cost to attend the affair was one dollar.

The Enfield Post Office would remain open for several months after the dis-incorporation of the town, stamping its last postmark on January 14, 1939.

Enfield began its existence in June, 1787, and was originally known as the South Parish of Greenwich. It officially became Enfield about three decades later, on February 18, 1816, ultimately being cobbled out of parts of Greenwich, Belchertown and Ware.

In an interesting aside, the results of the meeting of April 8, 1938, can be seen at the Quabbin Park Cemetery off Rte. 9 in Ware in the form of the Enfield Soldiers' Memorial, the funds with which to erect it ($1800) having been appropriated by approval of Article Five at that last meeting.

Quabbin Park Cemetery is where many of the 7,561 bodies disinterred from the Swift River Valley to make way for Quabbin were reburied and where most of the monuments, war memorials, etc. from the four lost towns were relocated. It's an interesting walk through history and now is a good time to visit, before the black flies and skeeters come out to play. Unfortunately, when the cemetery was created, the grave sites weren't set up according to original place of burial, or even town, for that matter, undoubtedly a genealogist's nightmare.

Today, the best view of where the town of Enfield used to be is from the Enfield Overlook in Quabbin Park off of Rte. 9 in Belchertown. Check out the Department of Conservation and Recreation's web site for more information on Quabbin and other State parks.

For more Swift River Valley history see EWM's The Quabbin Chronology.

As always, thanks for stopping by and take care.

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Pretty Litter Dropped in the Sky

Far be it from me to spoil anyone's fun, but littering is just downright wrong.

You guessed it, I'm talking about balloon releases, usually done to commemorate someone dying or dead or those who have been able to put it off.

Everyone, in other words.

Even more senseless is the "balloon race" where the winner is the contestant whose rubbish lands the furthest away from the launch point.

Oh boy.

What makes it acceptable, or even anything less than ridiculous, to launch hundreds of thousands, millions in fact, of balloons into the air each year with no regard to where they travel or how they affect the planet?

Sure, it's a pretty thing to watch, all those colorful, happy little orbs of delight sailing triumphantly toward the sun, fragile and defiant. Who can resist their innocence and appeal?

Or something like that.

If you've never witnessed the wholesale littering of the planet by well-intentioned, but momentarily ignorant people, then do a Google image search of "balloon release." When I did it, I came up with 6,460 results.

Lots of pretty pictures.

What is disturbing about the photographs is that, in many (if not most) of them, the balloons are being released with string or ribbon attached.

Why is that disturbing?

Because even if the organizers of the balloon release have followed balloon industry standards and use biodegradable 100% latex balloons (which are thought to naturally decompose within six months), the attachments may last much longer, years in fact, as litter hanging in tree branches, for instance, or as potential snares for unsuspecting critters.

You caught me. I like trees and animals. Shame on me.

In one article I read, a woman told of how she filled a balloon with a packet of flower seeds and set it aloft every year to commemorate her father's death. Wow, that's deep and beautiful. And irresponsible and probably illegal, propagating species and all.

If that idea caught on in the sixties, the nation would be blanketed with marijuana fields.

There are other ways to have fun. Other ways to commemorate.

Plant a tree. Plant a bush. Plant seeds. On your own lot.

Buy some books for the local library.

Sponsor a 'Memorial Clean-Up.' Lots of stuff to clean. Balloon parts and string, for instance.

Adopt a highway.

Adopt a kid.

Say a prayer.

Release butterflies.

Release bees.


After releasing the bees.

But please: Don't litter.

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Building the Future: The Machines of the Westfield Bridge Project

Hydraulic oil coursing through veins of high-pressure hose. Joints that twist and turn and lift and scrape. Motor humming idle revving to action. Each piece of equipment has its own personality. Man and machine in harmony build magic. (March 23, 2008)

A shoehorn squeeze beneath the viaduct, truckers have but one choice of road to travel t'will avoid certain peril. (October 16, 2007)

Dreams build machines and bridges. First, they must appear in the mind. (March 23, 2008)

Hungering for more. (October 6, 2007)

Backhoe lumbers: For the machine, progress forever a scoop full of dirt away. The future approaches slowly those waiting. Is gone and past, a sneaking ghost to eyes always fixed on the horizon. (October 30, 2007)

King of the hill. (October 30, 2007)

An audience of barrels. (March 2, 2008)

As always, thanks for stopping by and take care.

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Friday, March 28, 2008

Springfield's Court Square Theatre

This artist's rendering of the Court Square Theatre Building appeared in the Summer, 1900, issue of The American Missionary quarterly, accompanying an announcement that the 54th Annual Meeting of the American Missionary Association would be taking place at the theater in the fall. "A great gathering...anticipated," it is noted in the article that the theater, which seated about 1800, boasts "the largest auditorium in the city."

On October 23, 1900, missionaries from all over the country descended upon Court Square for the 2:30 p.m. opening of the meeting under the gavel of Association President F. A. Noble. Some may have been a bit late, however, if they were looking for the building per the magazine illustration, as the artist had taken the liberty of adding an extra block of structure six windows wide to the far left of the true facade. Last anyone looked, the three story, brick-built 3-7 Elm Street still stands where the artist placed this embellishment, as it has since 1835, 57 years before the Court Square Theatre was built.

A more accurate depiction of the Court Square Theatre Building at the time of the missionary's convention can be seen in this Library of Congress photograph, taken between 1900 and 1910. The building at 3-7 Elm is seen to the left, where the artist of the previous illustration had imagined his six-story addition.

Not that the Frederick S. Newman-designed structure hasn't had a couple of major additions and subtractions over the years, the most prominent enhancement taking place early in the building's history. Only 8 years old (built in 1892), the five-story building was topped off in 1900 with a sixth-floor and connected to the newly constructed Court Square Hotel, which effectively gave the structure a footprint spanning a city block, stretching between Elm and State streets. Perhaps the first illustration is a rendering of how the owner of the building, Dwight O. Gilmore, would have liked to expand, had he been able to creep eastward into the stalwart 3-7 Elm Street's lot.

In March of 1957, a large chunk of the south side of the Court Square Theatre Building was razed to make way for parking, the bulk of the demolition destroying the main part of the theater itself. In the December, 2007, photograph above, one notices open sky to the left of the east wall of the building, above neighboring 3-7 Elm Street, while the postcard below tells a different story.

After the expansion, but before the razing, this old postcard shows the Court Square Theatre Building as it was in the early 1900s. The red brick segment on the east side of the building, to the left of the Court Square Theatre sign, housed the theater itself, gone for more than half a century now.

The original construction, including the Court Square Theatre and Office Block, set Mr. Gilmore back close to $250,000. The dedication of the building was held on September 5, 1892, with performances of "If I Were You," a comedy by William Young, and "Diana," burlesque by Sydney Rosenfeld, as given by the Manola-Mason Company. The Governor of Massachusetts, William E. Russell, then serving his first year in office, attended the grand event and even took the stage and spoke a few words of congratulations. Russell died four years later, at the age of 39, and still holds the distinction of having been the youngest person elected Governor of Massachusetts, in 1891, at the age of 34.

The addition of the Court Square Hotel in 1900 brought the southern face of the building to the edge of State Street, as seen in this December, 2007, photograph. The building has been dormant and deteriorating for years, with solid plans for its revitalization always seeming to be lurking just around the corner. Recent activity by the city and developers gives champions of the building renewed hope, as plans for the structure's refurbishment continue to move along with all deliberate speed.

From the book 'Springfield Present and Prospective,' this Clifton Johnson photograph was taken sometime after the 1900 expansion but before 1905, the year the book was published. It's not easy to find photographs of the original facade of the Court Square Theatre Building, but local historian Ralph Slate shares a fine example of the structure as it stood in its earliest days in a March 4, 2008, article posted on his web site,

In 1905, there were four playhouses in the city: The New Gilmore, the Nelson, the Poli, and, of course, Court Square Theatre. As to this circumstance, it is remarked dryly in the aforementioned book: "Enough theatrical entertainment is now given in a week to last the Springfield of ten years ago for an entire season, and people who would have then attended a performance perhaps once in a fortnight now seem to go almost daily. Yet the enormous development of the cheap theatres seems not to have hurt the patronage of the best plays, though the city could no doubt support more of the first-rate productions but for this diversion."

By the time 1938 rolled around, the year the advertisements above appeared in the Springfield Daily News, Hollywood's celluloid magic had captivated America's interest and movie theaters had begun to spring up like mushrooms. The Court Square was leased to E. M. Loew's chain of theaters in 1936, but had trouble competing with the newer, larger theaters, like 1926's Paramount at 1705 Main Street. The still-operating Paramount (now the Hippodrome), was the city's highest-capacity theater at the time it was built, seating 3,755, more than double the souls the Court Square Theatre could hold. Loew's lease didn't last long, and by 1941 the group, The Playgoers of Springfield, were the stewards of the theater, acting as such until 1953. The final curtain dropped for the Court Square Theatre on April 22, 1956.

As always, thanks for stopping by and take care.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Comparison Shopping: "Cabbie, Take Me To Westfield, 1938"

It's hard not to find oneself longing for the "good old days" now and again. Just about everyone is capable of missing something from way back when: A favorite television show, the perfect summer day, the smell of an old car in the sun. Or, for that matter, someone: A family member passed, a best friend out of touch, a first love. Most of us miss what we wish to have again. No one wishes for polio to make a comeback, or the Red Scare to sweep over the country again. How about that bulky 8-Track tape? Or Betamax? You see what I'm driving at. The glasses we wear grow rosier with time's passage and that's okay.

At the same time, some comparisons of today versus the not so distant past give us a jaw-dropping look at the sheer obscene ridiculousness of the difference between then and now, especially when it comes to food and fuel prices. So much for a 21st century of ample leisure and the wonder of automation and efficiency driving prices down. Today, folks making $16 an hour have to work around two 40 hour weeks just to fill their 250 gallon heating oil tank. Yikes.

I decided to do a little comparison shopping using these January 28, 1938, Westfield Advertiser ads for three different markets, all located in the city. I picked 12 items from each shop and found the same or similar products online at a local family-owned grocery chain's web site. The prices on the web site and here cited reflect prices at one of the chain's Springfield stores, but, eh, close enough. Well, actually, the prices aren't even close. Not even on the same planet. See for yourself what seven decades of difference can do...

Shopping List - - - - - - - - - - - 1938 - - - - - 2008

Butter (1 lb.) ------------------------ .33 -------- 4.19
Sugar (10 lbs.) ---------------------- .49 -------- 5.13
Hamburger (2 lbs.) ---------------- .25 -------- 7.38 (80% Lean)
Maxwell House Coffee (1 lb.) ---- .27 -------- 5.44 (3.89/11.5 oz.)
Eggs (1 doz.) ------------------------- .23 ------- 2.69
Sliced Bacon (1 lb.) ----------------- .19 -------- 4.69
Catsup (14 oz.) ---------------------- .10 -------- 1.70
Grape Juice (1 qt.) ----------------- .29 --------- 1.65 (3.29/64 oz.)
Saltines (2 lbs.) --------------------- .17 --------- 4.86
Marshmallow Fluff (lg. can) ----- .18 ---------- 1.99
Bananas (4 lbs.) --------------------- .19 --------- 3.16
Ivory Soap (10 bars) --------------- .49 --------- 5.14 (6.17/12 bars)

Totals ------------------------------ $3.18 ----- $48.02

Shopping List - - - - - - - - - - - - - 1938 - - - - - 2008

Butter (2 lbs.) ------------------------- .78 -------- 8.38
Eggs (1 doz.) --------------------------- .37 ---------2.69
Fresh Turkey (25 lbs.) ------------ 10.00 -------- 39.75
Green String Beans (1 lb.) ------------ .17 --------- 1.99
Iceberg Lettuce (2 heads) ------------ .19 --------- 3.98
Fresh Spinach (3 lbs.) ---------------- .25 --------- 8.19
Chuck Roast (3 lbs.) ------------------ .84 --------- 14.37
Tapioca (7 oz.) ------------------------ .09 --------- 3.22 (3.69/8 oz.)
Ginger Snaps Cookies (1 lb.) --------- .15 --------- 2.69
Canned Tomatoes (3/20 oz.) ------- .25 ---------- 2.94 (.71/14.5 oz.)
Split Green Peas (1 lb.) --------------- .07 ---------- .73
Evaporated/Dried Prunes (4 lbs.) -- .25 -------- 14.72 (5.49/24 oz.)

Totals ------------------------------ $13.41 ----- $103.65

Shopping List - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 1938 - - - - - 2008

Sugar (10 lbs.) -------------------------- .49 -------- 5.13
Lard (1 lb.) ------------------------------ .10 --------- .99
Eggs (2 doz.) ---------------------------- .65 ------- 5.38
Cream Cheese (2/3 oz. pkgs.) --------- .15 ------- 1.50 (1.99/8 oz.)
Lamb Leg (3 lbs.) ----------------------- .63 ------ 14.97
Pork Shoulder (3 lbs.) ------------------ .42 ------- 4.77
Del Monte Peaches (2/20 oz. cans) --- .25 ------- 2.80 (1.99/29 oz)
Hershey's Chocolate Syrup (can) ----- .08 ------- 1.49 (16 oz. can)
Baby Food (3 cans/jars) ---------------- .23 ------- 1.47
Canned String Beans (3/20 oz.) ------ .20 ------- 3.00 (1.39/28 oz.)
Mild Cheese (1 lb.) ----------------------- .25 ------- 4.13
Scott Toilet Tissue (4 rolls) ------------ .25 ------- 3.96

Totals -------------------------------- $3.70 ------ $49.59

As always, thanks for stopping by and take care.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Photos: Littleville Lake and Spillway

3.1 mile-long Littleville Lake, in Huntington, Massachusetts, is the result of an Army Corps of Engineers constructed earth and stone dam that restricts the flow of the middle branch of the Westfield river as a method of flood control. Dedicated on October 5, 1965, the nearly quarter-mile long dam was put to the test in the Spring of 1987, when snow melt and April showers brought not only flowers, but 53 feet of flood waters lashing against the unmoving earthen wall of man, the fate of many inextricably tied to the quality of human engineering skills. Those skills proved their value indeed, as the lake reached a harrowing 90% of total capacity before peaking and receding, leaving lots of folks downriver between Huntington and West Springfield to breathe easier.

Here are some photographs of Littleville Lake and spillway, snapped this past Easter Sunday morning.

A long-cold ice fisherman's fire amplifies the quiet desolation of the frozen lake, a poignant reminder of man's lonesome battle for survival: A stark and basic truth unable to be pushed to the back of the mind absent the comfort of manufactured forgetfulness.

The ice was groaning and popping, the lake anxious to break through its Winter shell and greet the newly turned season despite temperatures below 20f and a wind howling steady and strong. These orange booms at the southern end of the lake signal the border between the water's public area and the restricted area closer to the dam. Boats are allowed with a maximum motor size of 10 hp and can be launched from the ramp located off Goss Hill Road. Canoes can be launched from the Dayville section of the middle branch, at the northern tip of Littleville Lake. Both areas offer ample parking.

The northern face of Littleville Dam stretches across the valley, joining hilltops, a bulwark against the watery doom that 'twould be certain in its absence. Two 4' X 8' gates control the flow of water allowed to continue beyond the earthen sentry to join the west and east branches of the trio that becomes the main branch of the Westfield river, which flows through Huntington, Russell, Woronoco, Westfield and West Springfield, merging near Springfield with the steady waters of the Connecticut river on its incessant hurry southward, destined for Long Island Sound.

The south side of the dam from the small parking area at the end of Littleville Road, off Route 112 in Huntington. Beyond the grassy hill, in the cut of land below the bridge, Littleville Lake spillway cascades o'er granite between stone walls forever reshaped by the swirls and pools and eddies of the turbulent stream. I saw a robin hunting worms on my walk over to the spillway: Could Spring truly be upon us?

The roaring cold presence of the rushing river drowns out shouted words as though they were whispers cast careless to the wind. One must be careful on the slippery stones alongside the spillway: Though the deep upper pools with their promise of trout are a powerful lure, a fall into the icy water is a scenario more likely to end in tragedy than in triumph.

The river flows on, testing its sodden banks' limits in an annual rite of Spring. Although no swimming is allowed in Littleville spillway or lake, they are great spots to wet a line, and a draw for local trout fishermen year 'round. Hiking trails on both sides of the lake allow visitors access to many miles of shoreline. For more information, hours and directions, check out the Army Corps of Engineers Littleville web site, and don't forget nearby Knightville Dam on the east branch, another integral part of the Westfield River Valley flood control project. For some photographs of the Knightville area, take a look at the EWM post 'Photos: The Westfield River's East Branch.'

As always, thanks for stopping by and take care.

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Postcards: Four Springfield Landmarks

The city of Springfield is home to some of the finest architecture in Western Massachusetts. From the Maple street mansions to the Municipal Group, the copper-crowned Sacred Heart church, to the facade of the Federal Armory, Springfield is host to an eclectic collection of expressive edifices, both public and private.

Here are some postcards of city buildings, from the Robbins family collection, kindly shared with EWM to share with you.

A compilation of the postcards below, buyers would get four for the price of one when purchasing this postcard. Although they are undated, the fact that the postcards are printed on woven linen 'paper' places them in the 1930-1945 era. They were published by the Springfield News Company and produced by Technor Brothers, of Boston, whose company slogan boasted "Technor Quality Views."

Symphony Hall, the Campanile and City Hall form the triad of the Municipal Group. Noticeably absent are the tall buildings that make up Springfield's current skyline, now dwarfing these civic structures and taking up the space of the serene sky captured in this postcard.

Springfield City Library and adjacent Merrick Park, sternly watched over by the constant bronze gaze of city forefather Deacon Samuel Chapin (1595-1675), immortalized in a statue by artist Augustus St. Gaudens. Or was he? Commissioned and presented as a gift to the city by the Deacon's descendant, Congressman and railroad tycoon, Chester W. Chapin (1798-1893), the sculpture is actually said to be " portrait of any Chapin, but a composite in the sculptor's mind of the family type, and fitly given the ideal name, 'The Puritan.'" (Springfield Present and Prospective, 1905). The library was opened in January, 1912, replacing the former building, erected in 1871. A large donation by Andrew Carnegie and the many contributions by the citizens of Springfield were instrumental in the fruition of the expanded State street quarters.

Fronting Dwight street and bordered on its south by Taylor and north by Lyman streets, the former United States Post Office takes up its own city block. Still used as office space, the building was replaced as the city's main postal branch by the much less impressive current structure on Liberty street. In the years between 1775, when Moses Church was postmaster, and 1829, when Albert Morgan was appointed to the position, the post office changed locations six times, each time a new postmaster took over. Springfield's first 'permanent' post office wasn't opened until 1891, on the corner of Main and Worthington streets.

Springfield became even more of a major traffic hub for the region in the mid-19th century, when rail travel became the quickest and preferred method of transportation. Positioned at the crossroads of rivers, roads and rails, the city enjoyed a prominent place in the development of Western Massachusetts, connecting Boston and Albany, Athol and New Haven, the horizon to points beyond. One could travel south, north, east or west from Union Station in Springfield, and hundreds of thousands of folks did, some merely stopping off between trains to enjoy the hospitality of the Massasoit House or to see a race at Hampden Park; others, city residents traveling off and away to seek their fortunes and destinies, in war and in peace. Abandoned in the 1970s and awaiting redevelopment, Union Station was built in 1926, replacing the former train station by the same name, which was opened in 1889. Amtrak's offices and ticket counters are currently located at 66 Lyman street. Today, train travel has ceded its place to the automobile in the western part of the Commonwealth, with 112,314 passengers boarding or disembarking from trains in Springfield in fiscal year 2007, compared to the 1,154,178 who did so at Boston's South Station. Perhaps with fuel prices rising and no end in sight, those figures will change...

As always, thanks for stopping by and take care.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Trestles and Tributaries: Seasons on the Westfield River

A patient sculptor, the Westfield river flows through the seasons beneath bent bough and rusted trestle, caressing with clear cold water the stones beneath her ever-changing surface to soft smoothness on her way to the sea. Affectionately and simply known as "the River" to local folks, the Westfield has come a long way from the days not so long ago when one could tell what shade of paper the upstream mills were making by the color of the water rolling by. Today, the Westfield river is designated a National Wild & Scenic River, the first in Massachusetts, a distinction made possible by the dedicated efforts of folks like the members of the Westfield River Watershed Association (WRWA), who have been loyal and true stewards of the river for five and a half decades now, marking their 55th year of organization this annum. The WRWA is always on the lookout for new members or donations, which, along with grants, the non-profit depends upon to keep its good work going. One cool way to check out the way the WRWA is making a difference in the lives of everyone living within the vast Westfield river watershed area, and maybe make up your mind whether you want to hop in and make a difference too, is to check out the upcoming 2008 Westfield River Symposium, a free event open to the public, sponsored by the Westfield River Watershed Association, the Westfield River Environmental Center at Westfield State College and Westfield State College (WSC).

Here are the details, from the WRWA web site:
14th Westfield River Symposium: Our annual symposium, with a keynote address this year by Commissioner of the MA Dept. of Conservation and Recreation Richard Sullivan, will take place in the Scanlon Banquet Hall at Westfield State College on Saturday, April 5. Registration (it's FREE!) begins at 8:15, with a free continental breakfast. A variety of talks will be given throughout the morning, and about two dozen exhibits will be available for viewing. An afternoon performance of "The Watershed Waltz", and a field trip are also part of the program. Check the symposium program for the most up-to-date information.
There are lots of other WRWA-sponsored events and ways to get involved in helping the river stay healthy throughout the year. Make sure you check out the WRWA web site for their calendar of upcoming events!

Here are some photographs of the old and unused New Haven railroad trestle spanning the Westfield river just west of the Great River bridge. Man's work rusts and crumbles in an indifferent current, time the great equalizer. And too, the seasons hold sway.

April, 2007

July, 2007

November, 2007

December, 2007

As always, thanks for stopping by and take care.

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Federal Writers' Project: Sammy Spring, Otis, Massachusetts

A recent article in the New York Times 'Escapes' section (In the Berkshires, Turning Back the Clock, March 7, 2008) featuring Otis, Massachusetts as a great place for second home-buyers to find "country quiet year round" can't help but set one to wondering how long that country quiet may last once the cat's out of the bag. Not that cats in bags are quiet.

By the way, cats aren't allowed in movie theaters, even if the movie is Lion King.

While hunting around the Library of Congress's web site looking for maple-sugaring photographs from Western Massachusetts, I stumbled across this 1939 Works Progress Administration (WPA) commissioned interview with irascible 56 year-old Otis resident Sammy Spring. The WPA hired unemployed writers as part of the Federal Writers' Project to put them to work recording the life histories of anytown Americans as the nation tried to pull itself out of the dark depths of the Great Depression. In the interview, Sammy uses some hurtful terminology to describe a local African-American, I've substituted asterisks. Other than that corrections are minor and few and the account is lively and humorous.

Timely enough, Sammy describes that old Western Massachusetts favorite, sugar on snow, which, if you haven't tried it yet, is something that you should. Sap is running, sugar's a'simmering: Find a shack and indulge...

* * *

American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

A Berkshire Borner Sammy Spring - Dirt Farmer and Old Time Fiddler

STATE: Massachusetts

NAME OF WORKER: Edward Welch

ADDRESS: Pittsfield, Massachusetts

DATE: January 17, 1939

SUBJECT: Living Lore


ADDRESS: Otis, Massachusetts

Sammy Spring, dirt farmer and old time fiddler is fifty-six years old, a slim little man, not much over five feet tall, grey haired and grey eyed. Around his Otis farm, Sammy is unassuming and unpretentious - on the podium of a dance hall he is king of all he surveys. Folks dancing to his music must dance correctly. Let the uninitiated set fail to follow his calls and Sammy is down on the dance floor. Tapping the erring couples with his fiddle bow, he suggests they watch a more experienced set and listen carefully to his instructions as he calls out the intricacies of each number. No matter how many or how few dances, the program calls for, Sammy decides on a certain number of rounds and square sets for an evenings entertainment and plays and calls them, ignoring the program completely.

Sammy is of pure Yankee stock. His ancestors fought in the Revolution and settled in the nearby town of Sandisfield where the family always lived until Sammy came north a few miles, to Otis to live. Sammy's forefathers were as Sammy says, "dirt farmers like me." Sammy's work day garb consists of a well washed and well patched pair of blue denim overalls, a grey flannel shirt, old grey faded suit coat, large (brogans?) and an oversize battered cap, that sets loosely on his grey head. bending his ears forward so as to give him a elfish look.

Sammy Spring was in the little wooden shack workshop at the rear of his Otis home, "fixing" his patient wife's washing machine. Being well acquainted with the temper of our Berkshire Yankees, we discussed washing machines in general, and the Spring washing machine in particular, for some time before we introduced the subject of fiddling and launched a question.

"So you want to know how I came to take up fiddlin". Well of course, I started in as a lad going to kitchin dances. In those days a fiddler was considered to be, or at least to me seemed to be, an important man, and there were several pretty good ones in this part of the country -- a Heath feller from Monterey, an Irishman from Becket and a **** from over Tyringham way. Of course I was too young to do much dancing, but not too young to like the way these fellers fiddled and called. I used to go to the dances with my folks when I was a kid and I'd sit and listen to the fiddlers callin "out the sets all evenin'. When I got the most of them down good I bought a fiddle from the **** from Tyringham with some money I earned and started in to learn for myself. I took a couple of lessons from Heath over in Monterey and after awhile got so I could play pretty good.

"It wasn't long before I was playing for dances -- mebbe a couple of years or so. Of course, I got most of the work in Sandisfield and Otis. I got so good that some of the other fellers got kinda jealous. Some one of them sent me a letter telling me I'd better quit or there'd be some trouble; but I kept right on and nothin' ever come of it.

"Well, about then I married Ella May and a few years later my first baby came along; Martin Van Buren, named after my father. We had an old organ at the house and when he was only a little tyke Martin learned to play chords on it. When he was old enough, I'd take him on the handle bars of my bicycle to the dances and have him play for me. Soon after, we began to get jobs over in Tolland and down Colebrook way. Then Bill Hall from over in Tolland joined up with us. Bill played banjo. The three of us ran dances in the Otis Town Hall. We didn't make much at first, but we had a whale of a lot of fun.

"You know in those old days," specially over at the East Otis Tavern, we used to play for chicken pie suppers. That is, it was a combination affair, that cost a dollar apiece, fifty cents for the supper and fifty cents for the dance. Well at those suppers you could have all you wanted to eat. Course, chicken pie was the main dish, but that wasn't all. They would have home-made pies and cakes, home-made butter, pickles, cheese, cookies, well jest about every kind of home-made food you could imagine. Tea, coffee and home-made doughnuts, but no hard stuff. These dances used to last all night long. We even played at one that ran three nights in a row. Those used to be darn good times. No rough stuff nor anything wrong either. Whole families would attend, out for a good time and they sure had it.

"That's what I call living. Folks don't know how to live today. They won't go out like they used to, 'cept to go to the movies, most of 'em, or stay at home and listen to the radio. Those old chicken pie suppers and things like that used to make them more neighborly. It's too bad. When you look at the way folks used to live and see how they git along today. They ain't no more of that ole spirit of corporation. Just dog eat dog today.

"Well back about '29 I got a job for my orchestry playing in the Bloomfield Grange. Our program was broadcast over Station WTIC Hartford. I had Bill Hall on the banjo, Martin an pianer, a feller from Winsted on the drums and young Elwin Tacy, an Otis boys, as singer, then. Well for awhile we went great guns. Got bids to play all over Connecticut, Eastern New York, and down in the east part of the state. Guess this broadcasting was 'sponsible for me gitting the job at Stowe Village at the Eastern State Exposition in Springfield.

"You know we were one of the featured attractions at the fair; playing there night and day the full week. You'd be s'prised the number of friends we make down there. Why I git so many bids now I can't take care of them all. We've played at some high and mighty places too; let me tell you.

"Couple years ago we went down to the County Fair Carnival down at that rich Yacht Club in Madison, Conn. Now those folks didn't want to dance right at all. They asked to come down jest to make a monkey of us small town folks. I wasn't ask to play until about eleven o'clock.

By that time they all were pretty much liquored up. Couldn't dance right if they wanted to. Well I tried to get them going right, but I guess they had too much to drink and they felt kinda coltish. So I warned then once fer all. Told them if they wa'n't going to dance the proper way I would pack up and go home. Well they didn't lissen to reasons so I told them all what I thought of them, and got out. Ain't no sense a-foolin' round with folks like that. Nobody is a goin' to monkey like that with me. If they want to dance the sets proper I'll play all night. But if they want to monkey-shine around they'd better git an organ-grinder. My o'chestry ain't no monkeys fer anybody I don't care how high and mighty they be....

"They was a time I was playing down in Connecticut pretty regular one night a week. The manager of the place got some high falutin' notions in his head. Wouldn't let the folks dance unless they wore a coat. Well, business began to drop off. Mind you most of these folks that went to this place were people that followed me wherever I played publicly. They'd come to me and tell me if they couldn't dance with their coats off they wouldn't come any more. Well I went to the manager and tried to tell him in a nice way but he wouldn't listen to me. Well I didn't say nothin more to him but got right back up on the platform and told them folks to go ahead and take off their coats and if anyone said they couldn't dance that way, I would pack up and git home.

"Well I guess that fixed things once and fer all. Now what harm is they to dancing with your coat off. They's more crime committed by men wearing coats than there is by men with coats off, I reckon. You take on a warm summer night and dance a couple of sets with your coat on and you get pretty well warmed up. Well, if you want to go outside and cool off you're bound to ketch a cold. On the other hand if you take your coat off and dance awhile and want to cool off, you can go outside and put your coat on and you won't ketch cold.

"Reminds me of the time that the state trooper came into the dance hall up in Otis Center. The folks were dancin' without coats and these cops came in and told everyone they either put on their coats or they would be no dancin'. Well that got me riled. I told off those cops and don't you fergit it. And they got out too. Nobody's goin' to tell me how to run my dances. I run them and they ain't nobody runnin' Sammy Spring.

"I've played fer some of the nicest folks in the country. We went over to Mrs. Anne Hyde Choates over in Springfield, New York once and played fer the best of New York's s'ciety, real 'ristcorats. We were treated like the rest of the guests. Had butlers and maids waitin' on us hand and foot. They even invited us to stay at their house all night. Now them is real folks, ain't they?

"Most every year I go down to Bostin to play at the Girl Scouts Convention at Hotel Statler. Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt has been there several times. She's a real nice person, friendly and real neighborly. Nothin high and mighty about her. So long as these Roosevelts stay in the White House, I guess the country is safe enough and in the hands of the right kind of folks.

" 'Bout once a week now I go down to the Westchester County Work Shop to play. We all have a real good time down there, too. These folks are right smart interested in real old time square dancing. I don't think they're making much money; but we always get paid. And it won't be long before we'll be crowdin' them in because they's a lot of newcomers every night we go down.

"You know I've played at the Dance-Internationale at the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center in New York. That was an affair where folks from all nations put on their native dances. Jest Martin and me played at that one and I guess we kind of stole the show. We played at the Hotel Pennsylvania the same time and made a hit there.

"Now at places like that we find the folks are really interested in the old-fashioned square dance. They don't monkey around like the folks did at that Yacht Club. They do as I tell them, and dance right.

"I honestly think that old time dancing is coming back. For instance there are several groups that are learning these square sets. Take in Springfield for instance. They have a group of youngsters down there, Girl Scouts that can do all the squares like real old timers. We went down there just once and took a set from Otis to show them how to dance and they caught right on to it. You know they's some sense to square dancin'. Why I rather see younguns dance that way then to try to do that crazy jitterbug stuff. Ain't no sense to it at all. Jumpin round like crazy loons or monkeys trying to climb a tree, that ain't dancin'. They aint no sense to it.

"Well, I guess I'd better be gittin this washing machine fixed up, or Ella May will be wantin' to know what's holdin' me up. It took a lot of head work to figger this machine out. Oh I don't mean me. I mean the feller that made this up.

"I see fiddling hasn't prevented you from being mechanically-minded, Sammy".

"Good land, you don't think I'm just a fiddler, do you. That's only my side-line. I'm really a plain dirt farmer and an old-time saw mill man. Up to the last few years I used to do farming on a big scale, that is big for this part of the country. Then when the sawmills began to do a good business I got a job with one outfit as a fireman and later became an engineer. Course I worked at saw mills off and an all my life. My father had one and I worked with him as a boy so I know a leetle about it.

"It was when the World War came along that the sawmills really got revived here in Otis. Why school boys used to earn thirty-five dollars a week during vacation time on the mills. They worked as swapers, markers and did about everything but the actual sawing. That was a man's job.

"There are still some mighty good sawyers still in town. Take Frank Werden for instance, and then there's Amos Witter. Two of the best sawyers in the country. They know the game from A to Izzard.

"Otis was a prosperous town in war days. The young lads were dressed as well as any city chap too. Why they used to think that young Ruben Cowell over in East Otis was a regular dude. He owned more silk shirts and suits than anyone. Spent all his earnings on clothes. Most all the boys owned cars and used to drive around the county like [helions?]. People had so much money they didn't know enough to put some in the banks. Mebbe it's just as well.

"I don't do as much farmin' as I used to. I've only five cows seventeen pigs and of course I raise enough vegetables for the family. I also got a fine sugar bush.

"A sugar bush!"

"Didn't you never hear what a sugar bush is?" Well it's a nice stand of sugar maples. When the sap begins to run in the early spring we go out and tap the trees and take the sap to boil down to syrup and sugar. Most everybody in this part of the country owns their own sugar house.

"Did you ever go to a sugar eat? Well now, that's too bad. You certainly missed something. Well we usually hold the sugar eat at the church. We take enough sap that's just about right to make wax. The wax is a sort of gummy stuff that rises to the top when you're boilin' sugar. That is just before it hardens into the sugar. Folks get a plate full of snow and then the wax is ladled out of the bi'lers on to the snow and when it hardens a might, you eat it.

"Sure you might get sugar sick, but 'twon't hurt you none. You might feel bad for a day or two, but 'twon't kill you. Never heard of anyone dying from it. Better get back to this machine.

"All your jobs must keep you pretty busy, Sammy."

"We-ll, they do and they don't. I got them figgered out so they ain't so bad. I always worked on my farm during the daytime and fiddled at night. The days I worked in the sawmills, I worked from five o'clock in the morning 'til dusk at night. Then I'd go home, wash up, have my supper, milk ten or twelve cows, feed the stock, fill up the wood box and take Martin on the handle bars of my bicycle and ride off to a kitchen dance to play until about four in the morning. Course that wouldn't be every night in the week. But 'twould be two or three nights a week. Folks used to be pretty much put out when I wouldn't get to these affairs until about ten o'clock. But once I got to fiddlin' and a-callin' they'd soon forget all about it.

"I've worked hard, played hard and had a darned good time in my life. I ain't made much money and I'm still a young man -- goin' on fifty-six. I like to see folks a dancin' the old square sets. Something wholesome about it. You know you tell a lot about folks watchin' them dance. Folks that like to dance the good old dances you'll find are pretty apt to be reliable. I hate like the dickens to see those nice youngsters of today trying to ape monkeys. It jest don't seem right somehow. Here is how I figger it all out. You'll always find real folk a'doing the real things worthwhile, and the artificial folks takin' to artificial things and that's all there is to that".

The quick tones of Ella May inquiring as to the state of the washing machine ended our conversation for the day.

More stories from the Federal Writers' Project on EWM.

Source: Library of Congress, American Memory Collection, American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940, A Berkshire Fiddler and Dirt Farmer

List of Sugar Houses, Courtesy of the Mass. Maple Producers Association:

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Saturday, March 1, 2008

Under the Snow

Outside, the snow falls, a thin pane of glass separating comfort from cold, damp from dry. I shuffle through the memory box in my mind, trying to remember if I felt the chill as a child, sliding and skating, packing snow with mittened hands, fashioning three-tiered beings whose smiles of broken sticks were nearly more fleeting than one could imagine youth would be. Portends of time: melting away. Today, would I dare throw myself on my back in the snow, thrashing out horizontal jumping jacks to create a frozen angel? No. As if there were a maximum height limit on living free.

There is an old photograph of me sitting on a snow bank, a bundled-up child of 5 or 6. My parents kept the sun at their backs when they took snaps, better for the photo. My face is scrunched up, my head a bit tilted. I can't tell if I am squinting or crying, yet, despite the answer (the thousand words lost for all time), my memory box tells me I loved winter as a boy. And I will let it.

Now, winter for me is a time to long for spring, spring a time to long for youth, a time for a different dream. There is something sticky about placing the beginning of the new year in the dead of the frozen season, something odd. Surely the time of rebirth and reawakening can't take place under the snow, trapped in the deep frost. 'Tis the sun's healing light we need.

Or a shuffle through the memory box.

Make a wish, Dominic!

"Now that I have everyone's attention..."

Cat on an old dead log.

Waiting for the water nymphs...

A whole field full of invisible cows!

Fences and boundary lines, like winter and spring, delineate and detail our lives.

As always, thanks for stopping by and take care.

(Bottom two photos courtesy of Romola Alamed)

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