A New England Odyssey

Friday, August 25, 1995

     Today we got up pretty early because we had a long day ahead of us. Pam and I went downstairs to eat blueberry waffles while George got ready. We then packed the car, checked out of the Old Court Bed and Breakfast, made a few final photo stops in Providence, and headed out north on route 146 towards Worcester.
     Just outside of Worcester, we got onto the Massachusetts Turnpike and turned west towards Springfield. A few miles east of Springfield we got off at the Palmer exit, paid our $1 toll, and drove south to Monson. Monson, by the way, is pronounced “Mun-sen,” just as “money” is pronounced “mun-ey,” not “mahn-ey.” Anyway, we stopped in the center of Monson, where three streets meet at a small green. The center of the green has a large statue, and what appear to be two churches, although we discovered that one of them is the library. The library seemed as good a place as any to check out a local legend that Lovecraft mentioned:
On another day I was taken to nearby Monson to see a dark, damp street in the shadow of a great hill, the houses on the hillward side of which are whispered about because of the number of their tenants who have gone mad or killed themselves.
     Well, the library turned out to be closed all but three days of the week, and Friday wasn’t one of the days it was open. Nonetheless, the librarian appeared at the door and came out to chat with us. She informed us that the current budget didn’t allow them enough employees to be open any more during the week, although she often caught up on work on other days. When we asked her about the legend, she said it was probably an example of a story being mistold. Apparently, many years back, a missionary brought back two Japanese orphans from overseas. He raised them as his own and they attended the local school. For reasons unknown to the librarian, they committed suicide together one evening. That’s it – end of story.
     We drove a little further south into Monson to a grocery where we stopped for some snacks. While we were in the area, I did notice that the hills in the area had the steep roundedness that Lovecraft comments on in “The Dunwich Horror.” However, a lot of New England has the same hills... After our stop at the grocery, we drove north again briefly and then turned west towards Wilbraham. In the Monson area, the road we were on is called the Wilbraham Road, but once it enters the Wilbraham area, it becomes the Monson Road. Make sense? A high school girl that I’d contacted on the ’net had told me that the Randolph Beebe (pronounced “bee-bee”) house, which Lovecraft had mentioned, was on the Monson Road:
I saw the ruinous, deserted old Randolph Beebe house where the whippoorwills cluster abnormally, and learned that these birds are feared by the rustics as evil psychopomps. It is whispered that they linger and flutter around houses where death is approaching, hoping to catch the soul of the departed as it leaves. If the soul eludes them, they disperse in a quiet disappointment; but sometimes they set up a chorused clamour of excited, triumphant chattering which makes the watchers turn pale and mutter – with that air of hushed, awestruck portentousness which only a backwoods Yankee can assume – “They got ’im!”
     Unfortunately, we didn’t find it, although we didn’t make much of an effort to do so. Nor did we, to our knowledge, spot or hear any whippoorwills. All the same, we did drive over Wilbraham Mountain, which Lovecraft mentions having walked around, and into the town of Wilbraham itself. Mrs. Edith Dowe Miniter, who Lovecraft stayed with in the area, is buried in Woodland Dell Cemetery on the west side of the mountain. A brief look through the cemetery didn’t locate her grave – I suspect it would have taken us some time to locate it in this relatively large local burying ground.
     We found the high school that my “informant” attends (Minnechaug Regional High School), and also stopped in briefly at the Wilbraham Public Library to get their address (I’ll be writing to them for more information on the area). Without much further delay, we headed back east towards Palmer, and turned north towards Belchertown (*BURP!*) and the Quabbin Reservoir. We drove along the west side of the reservoir, although we saw little of it, despite its size.
     The Quabbin Reservoir was planned back around the turn of the century to provide clean drinking water for Boston, which was rapidly growing. Where the reservoir is now used to be the Swift River Valley, which was occupied by 4 towns and at least 12 villages. The residents of the area were, understandably, opposed to the reservoir, but the needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few, and the reservoir went in. Entire towns were bulldozed and the graves of almost 8,000 people were moved. There are areas surrounding the reservoir where towns and villages used to be that the waters never covered. The planners of the reservoir didn’t want runoff water from any of the towns to dirty the new waters, so a large preserve was kept around the reservoir.
     If you’re wondering how this relates to Lovecraft, recall the plot of “The Colour Out of Space,” where a drinking water reservoir is planned for the city of Arkham. Also, the four main towns that were flooded by the Quabbin were Prescott, Enfield, Dana, and Greenwich. Some Lovecraftians believe that the names Dana and Greenwich were combined by Lovecraft into the name of the fictional town of Dunwich, although no direct evidence exists to support this. The Quabbin region also has a town to the west named Whately and another to the east named Oakham, the implications of which should be fairly obvious.
     In the small town of North New Salem is the Swift River Valley Historical Society, an organization that exists to keep the memories of the lost towns of the Quabbin alive. We managed to find it after a wrong turn or two – I should have stayed on the main highway and ignored a sign pointing to North New Salem. I had called a month before and made arrangements with Elizabeth Peirce (the president of the society) to allow us to visit their buildings, since they would be closed on the day we arrived. She told me that the custodian should be there, and he was.
     Bill O’Brien is the elderly gentleman who tends to the upkeep of the society’s buildings and is also on their board. He was born in the town of Enfield, now erased from the map for over 70 years. He showed us into the main building of the society and told us that Elizabeth would probably be there shortly. I was able to reach her on the phone, and she echoed the fact that she’d be there soon. In her absence, Bill showed off the topographical model of the Swift River Valley that was built back in the early ’60s, and pointed out the previous locations of the drowned towns.
     When Elizabeth arrived, she took over for Bill, who went back to painting one of the back doors for the building. She led us through the house, pointing out its significant architectural details. Each of the vanished towns is represented by a room in the house, while other rooms have collections of artifacts from the other villages. These items include photographs, paintings, furniture, signs, clothing, books, town records, lodge accoutrements, and personal belongings. There’s a very peculiar air about everything in the building and I was particularly fascinated by the photographs which showed towns that not only no longer existed, but now rested dozens of feet below the surface of the reservoir.
     After the main building, Elizabeth took us to the second building, a church which held even more artifacts. The downstairs of the church was a small meeting hall where the members of the society occasionally have get- togethers. One of the artifacts in the hall was a stuffed parrot, who sat in the same cage he used when living. Elizabeth pointed out to us that he was owned by some rather unsavory characters who taught the parrot the phrase, “Go to hell quick!” This soon became an oft-repeated phrase amongst George, Pam, and myself.
     The last building at the site is a garage in which are housed yet more artifacts from the lost towns. These are of a less domestic nature and included road and railway signs, washing “machines,” and various farm implements. Also, a smaller, walled-off portion was made to look like a classroom, complete with small desks and a pre-reservoir map of Massachusetts. But the crowning glory of this collection was the Enfield Fire Engine. A two-seater Ford, Bill proudly pointed out that the vehicle still ran. A photograph on the wall showed Bill at the wheel in his younger days, but still long after the end of Enfield.
     We thanked Elizabeth and Bill for the tour, and promised to send postcards when we returned to Phoenix. We were all hungry by now, so we asked Elizabeth where we might eat, and she suggested a local place called Hot Fudgies, just up the road past the overpass to state highway 2. Without a single missed turn, we found it easily. The food was simple but good; Pam had fish and chips, I had a chili dog, and George had clam strips. After our quick meal, we were back on the road for our next adventure.
     We headed down route 122 along the east side of the Quabbin, and then further south on route 32A. All the roads into the Quabbin Preserve are gated and numbered, allowing access on foot and bicycle, but not via motor vehicles. We found Gate 40, parked the car, and headed in on foot. George had bought a book on hiking in the Quabbin region, and called out points of interest along the way. These consisted mostly of cellar holes – areas that were once underground beneath buildings but are now exposed to the sky and easily accessed. The only buildings that we came across were small shacks that were probably used by those working on the reservoir over 60 years ago. Occasional birdhouses also indicated that man was once here. At one point, we came across a porcupine sitting in the low branches of a tree quietly munching on leaves. Although we got close enough for pictures, we were careful not to disturb it (partly because we thought it was a skunk at first!).
     Two miles down the still paved road we came to the center of what was once the town of Dana. Several roads meet there, and a large green at the center is still ringed by the paved roadways. Cellar holes surround the green; the town hall, the school, and the hotel being significant. Grey stone posts showed the boundaries of the cemetery, now emptied of its previous occupants. The sidewalk that once led up to the town hall can still be found amongst the grass. From the center of the green it’s hard to tell a town was ever there, but investigation in just about every direction proves otherwise.
     By this time it was nearing sundown, and I was satisfied at having seen the remains of the town. Pam, on the other hand, wanted to see the Quabbin itself, which we had only caught the briefest glimpses of between the trees. The map indicated that another two mile hike would bring us to the edge of a large arm of the reservoir, so off we went. For a while, the road became unpaved, and then paved again, as if it had been paved from two different directions, which never met up. The road finally ended at the water’s edge; or, more correctly, it disappeared beneath the waters.
     We had arrived at Graves’ Landing, named after one of the workers on the Quabbin Reservoir. Although there was a considerable amount of water there, we were only on one of the arms of the reservoir, with much larger areas miles to the south. We rested on a peninsula out into the water, and watched the sun set. When we’d gathered up our strength, we began on the now four mile hike back. Although we were quickly losing the light, the road stood out well in the darkness as a patch of lighter grey area.
     When we reached Dana again, we were startled by a shimmering glow ahead. Puzzled (and a bit unsettled) by it, we stood motionless for a few moments, until we finally heard the sound of an engine. Then, a small truck blew through the center of the town, heading towards Gate 40. We wondered if it was driven by some preserve official, or by some law-breaker. Either way, seeing it in this wilderness unnerved us somewhat, especially in the ever-increasing darkness. The walk back to the car became more unsettling as the sounds of the night began. At one point, what we believed was an owl called out, giving us all quite a start. Unsure as to whether the sound was actually an animal or a human, we quickened our pace and finally arrived back at the car – at 9:23 p.m.
     With still a considerable distance to go to Brattleboro, we headed back north to state highway 2 and followed it west across the Connecticut River to Greenfield. From there, we drove north on Interstate 91 into Vermont and arrived in Brattleboro. A brief drive took us to the Latchis Hotel, in the downtown area. It’s one of only two art deco buildings in all of Vermont, and is very unassuming from outside. However, this isn’t to imply that it is assuming from the inside. Although the interior style is unusual, it’s not terribly impressive. The floors are made of terrazzo-like cement, and echo badly in the uncarpeted hallways. The art deco influence is minimal, and the furnishings are very simple. We agreed that the old-fashioned two-doored elevator was the most interesting aspect of the hotel. Though, the view from our room across the Connecticut River to Wantastiquet Mountain was quite attractive.
     Once again in search for food, we headed out at 11 p.m. to drive the streets of Brattleboro. Most everything (not just restaurants) was closed, and our choices looked to be limited to Subway and Friendly’s, but the latter turned out to be closed. Not wanting to eat somewhere as common as Subway, I continued driving and we came across a restaurant called Mama and Papa Z’s. Even though they had technically closed at 10, they were still serving and the proprietor, Papa Z himself, insisted we come in.
     Papa Z was a very amiable middle-aged gentleman from Greece who was once a commercial pilot. As you might guess, the “Z” stood for some incredibly long, unpronounceable Greek name. He and his wife run their small restaurant which specializes in Italian food, particularly calzones. That’s exactly what George ordered, and since Pam and I couldn’t decide, we ordered calzones as well. Papa Z waited on us hand and foot, and even allowed more patrons to trickle in as the hour grew later. When our calzones arrived, George drove us nuts going on about how good they were, although I considered them just above average.
     About this time Papa Z put on some instrumental music that caught George’s fancy. He asked about the music, and Papa Z explained that it was Greek music by a musician that lives in New York. Since the chances of George finding the tape was about zero, Papa Z suggested we stop back tomorrow with a tape and he’d make George a copy. George was tickled to death, and we all had to admit that Papa Z was an incredibly nice man who was very entertaining and treated his customers well. We left him a sizable tip and our promise to return with a tape tomorrow.
     Back to the hotel we went to find that we had easily the hardest beds we’d ever slept in. Oh, how we longed to return to our Spring Air BackGuard III mattresses at the Old Court in Providence... Oh, well, only one more night here in Brattleboro and it’s back home we go!