WEST BROOKFIELD -- Around New England, history always seems to be underfoot. When we headed out for an easy winter hike and a festive meal at the turn of the new year, we also got a beguiling peek at the past in this central Massachusetts community.
To work up an appetite before dinner at the Salem Cross Inn, we decided to explore the Rock House Reservation, a little gem of a nature area under the stewardship of the Trustees of Reservations.
About three miles west of the village green on Route 9, this lightly visited preserve is littered with massive hunks of granite deposited eons ago by the receding glacial ice sheet. The formation that gives the reservation its name is a cluster of 20- to 30-foot-high boulders that define a rock tepee of sorts beneath their overhangs.
Archaeologists surmise that Native Americans used the cave-like structure as a winter camp as long ago as 6000 BC and as recently as the 17th century. Even the late afternoon sun streaming in the southeast opening warmed the little room. It was easy to imagine that, with a small fire in the center of the cavity and a few skins to block the northwest exit, the cleft could have provided snug shelter from the elements.
The Rock House sits a short distance from the intersection of a Native American footpath that connected the sites where Springfield and Boston now stand and another footpath that led north to modern-day Lancaster. The gentle walking trails on the property (best with snowshoes rather than skis if there is deep snow) don't actually parallel those historic paths, but they do give a feel for what it was like to traverse this hilly country before the advent of roads.
English colonists settled the village in 1665, and prevailed in King Philip's War (1675-76), effectively driving out the Nipmuck and Quaboag tribes after costly bloodshed on both sides. Just a few years later, the farmhouse that would evolve into the Salem Cross Inn was built about two miles closer to town.
Since 1961 the Salem family has operated a country inn restaurant in the farmhouse-barn complex in the section of West Brookfield known since Native American times as West Podunk.
The Salems emphasize their property's venerable history. As guests await dinner in the main dining room or participate in one of the 17th-century-style winter Fireplace Feasts, they are free to roam the buildings to peruse the antique furniture and farm implements for a view of pioneer life.
A couple of prized gadgets figure prominently in the feast, which is prepared at a massive fieldstone fireplace on the ground level of the barn. We joined more than 100 other feasters in the broad room crossed by hand-hewn beams and flanked with rough stone walls.
Across from the hearth, Barbara Pilch used an apple corer from the mid- to late 1800s to quickly peel and core Ida Red apples for deep-dish apple pie. The Rube Goldberg-like device makes quick work of an apple, but takes some effort to crank. "I only have muscles on one side," she said of her long-term use . Nonetheless, many guests wondered where they might find such a labor-saving tool. Quickly switching eras, Pilch sighed: "Try
The most prized contraption by far is a clockwork roasting jack that slowly turns huge slabs of beef in front of the massive fireplace. "My father bought it many years ago," Bo Salem told us. "He found it somewhere in Maine. It was probably made in the late 1600s to early 1700s," he said as he kept a close eye on the meat and periodically poked at the flaming logs. "It's a great device and the only one that we're aware of in the US that still works."
The shallow fireplace threw a wall of heat from its wild cherry logs, enabling Salem to roast a half dozen 20-pound rib roasts in less than three hours.
While the meat slowly turned, guests took rides around the 600-acre working farm behind a brace of sturdy Norwegian Fjord horses, Thunder and Lightning. Since there was no snow on the ground -- it takes six inches to support a heavy sleigh -- we rode an open wagon through fields glistening under the pale light of a half moon and millions of pinpoint stars.
The heat of the open hearth was a welcome blast after the brisk night air. When the rib roasts were done, Salem hung a cast iron cauldron from a hook in the fireplace and enlisted volunteers to stir as he assembled a batch of clam and fish chowder. After rendering a mass of salt pork, he poured in clam stock, then added bay leaves, parsley, and a half bushel of quahogs that had been put through a meat grinder.
"They're very flavorful, but tough," Salem said. He then dropped in a half dozen fillets of pollock. Volunteers added Worcestershire sauce and an entire small bottle of Tabasco sauce.
"This is extreme campfire cooking," said Heather Brissett of Athol after she dutifully put in 10 shakes of Worcestershire as the crowd around the fireplace kept count. "I do a lot of open fire cooking. I'm impressed by their coals. It's scalding hot."
Within minutes, Salem removed the cauldron from the fire, dramatically poured in a bucket of cream, and sent the group upstairs to dine by candlelight at long tables in the old hay barn. On one side we had a beef-loving family who pronounced the prime rib the best they had ever eaten.
After the chowder, muffins, and side dishes of spinach pie and mashed squash, only the father was able to take seconds on the meat. After all, we had to save room for the apple pie and a mountain of whipped cream.
The two couples on our other side had come as much to see the antiques as to participate in the feast. As we dug into our pie, they enthused about the old tools hanging on the walls, the beautiful timbers of the beams, and the rare workmanship of the triangular log staircase that led up to the former hayloft.
For a moment, we could almost forget the asphalt ribbon of Route 9 just outside and sink into a satisfied reverie on the days when West Podunk was still the frontier.
Contact Patricia Harris and David Lyon, freelance writers in Cambridge, at firstname.lastname@example.org.