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Historic, but not traditional

Fossils and a funky arts scene share the spotlight in the tiny mill village of Turners Falls

Email|Print| Text size + By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / September 9, 2007

TURNERS FALLS - Geologist Steve Winters pointed to a rock slab extracted from near the Connecticut River and began telling a 200-million-year-old story.

On the bottom of the rock, a fossilized three-toed imprint of what was probably a meat-eating dinosaur was clear. Above it were three delicate prints of another dinosaur, probably a plant-eater, with the last print twisting sharply away from the bottom one.

"We could be seeing the very moment the [meat-eating dinosaur] is attacking the other," says Winters, a park interpreter for the Great Falls Discovery Center, as he peered at the slab that was recently donated to the center. "It's like a photograph of a summer day 200 million years ago."

Few places hold such prehistoric - and progressive - allure as tiny Turners Falls in the sprawling town of Montague, about a two-hour drive from Boston. The late-19th-century mill village, which in recent decades has undergone a revitalization, hosts jaw-dropping fossils, historic buildings, outdoor wonders, and more recently, an emerging arts community.

There is a new contemporary photography museum in the village. An upscale Italian restaurant called DiPaolo opened last year, and a hip neighborhood bar called The Rendezvous (rendezvoustfma .com) began serving last weekend.

There is a new bike path and a renovated park with a band shell. Turners Falls RiverCulture Project, which began two years ago to promote the rebirth of the village, has already created four public arts pieces, and efforts are underway to build a sculpture park.

I discovered the magic of Turners Falls several months ago and found myself immediately taken by it. So when out-of-town friends visited a few weeks later, I bypassed the sights of Boston to take them west to view fossils, hike, kayak, and wander the tiny village with its funky, eclectic feel. An example? Every December, the owner of Suzee's Third St. Laundry throws a fashion show highlighting the clothes customers have left behind.

"We're nontraditional," said Lisa Davol, cultural coordinator for the RiverCulture Project. "There isn't a sense that you are going to find the usual things here."

Perhaps the best way to explain - and visit - Turners Falls is chronologically. After you turn from Route 2 and head over the bridge, ancient layered banks of the Connecticut come into view. Some 200 million years ago, this was the muddy bottom of a rift in the supercontinent Pangea. Dinosaurs roamed, and their tracks, along with raindrops, fish imprints, and worm burrows were preserved as the mud sank and other material piled on top.

Unless you know what to look for, it can be hard to spot a dinosaur print at the riverbank, but stop in at the Great Falls Discovery Center at the entrance to the village. The state-owned center, which is partnered with the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, has enormous amounts of information about the Connecticut watershed. Better yet, it has people such as Winters who are happy to show off the geological wonders scattered throughout the village and museum.

Once you view the fossilized prints, stand at the foot of the bridge and look at the dam that sits atop a waterfall. The area, known as Peskeompskut, or "place of the split rock," was one of the oldest continuously settled areas in North America and served as a meeting and trading place for Native American tribes all over New England. In 1676, Captain William Turner, for whom the village is named, led a group of 150 men and boys who invaded the unguarded village and killed hundreds of women, children, and elders by shooting them or forcing them into the river where they drowned, according to Linda Hickman, who has written a walking tour of downtown. Turner was killed retreating. In 2004, selectmen in Montague held a reconciliation, acknowledging the massacre and signaling what they hope will be better relations with Native Americans.

Now, turn around and look down Avenue A - the village's wide main road - and imagine what industrialist Colonel Alvah Crocker envisioned in the 1860s: another Holyoke or Lowell filled with humming mills and thousands of workers. By the early 1900s, cotton, cutlery, and paper mills lined a canal off the river that bypassed the powerful falls. The village bustled with a grand hotel and the Colle Opera House, which seated 1,000. But by the 1940s, like so many other New England mill towns, the factories began closing. Turners Falls was preserved, somewhat raggedly, in time.

Today, it takes only about 10 minutes to walk the planned village, from First to Seventh streets. The downtown has been designated a National Historic District for its 19th century architecture, and you'll find stories about the village from the people you meet. In the past five years, the Crocker Bank Building, the opera house, and a historic row house were renovated through public and private efforts totaling close to $10 million, according to Frank Abbondanzio, Montague town administrator.

The Hallmark Museum of Contemporary Photography, showcasing professional photographs and the personal collection of founder George J. Rosa III, is on the first floor of the opera house. The museum, which opened last year, is expanding into the Crocker building and that new addition should be open early next year. Next door, check out the Shea Theater, the cultural nerve center of the village, where music, community theater, and dance are performed and classes taught.

If you stand long enough at the Shea, a local may start talking to you about the controversial Renaissance Community, at one time the largest commune in the eastern United States. The commune was founded in 1968 and underwent several incarnations. At one time it was a dominant presence here, owning the opera house and the Shea, which was used as a concert space and recording studio. Today, stories abound about the commune, and many people in town have some connection to it - some good, some bad, but always interesting.

While it's easy to spend time in this town, there is impressive natural beauty nearby. In the spring, when shad return to the Connecticut River, spectators gather at a fish ladder facility to watch migrating schools pass over the village dam.

If you go back over the bridge, there are nearby hiking, camping, cross-country skiing, and canoeing opportunities. FirstLight Power Resources, the current dam owner, continues a long tradition of public access to its properties. Two miles north of Route 2, Northfield Mountain has 26 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and cross-country skiing. There is also an interpretive riverboat cruise on the 60-seat Quinnetukut II. Even closer is Barton Cove on Route 2, which offers rustic camping and canoe and kayak rentals.

On an island in Barton Cove, a hidden camera documents the life of an eagle family. It's fascinating to watch at firstlightpower.com/eagles/live/default.asp. The camera will undergo repairs in the next month but should be up and running soon after.

The one thing missing in Turners Falls is a bed-and-breakfast or inn. Locals wistfully suggest that St. Anne's - a closed Roman Catholic church which is on the market - would make a gorgeous hotel. It would, but for now, the best lodging options are about a 10-minute drive away in Greenfield.

Don't let the lack of a downtown hotel deter you though. There are few other places in New England that deliver such an enormous dose of history, beauty, and pure quirkiness.

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