History in the Brookfields

The past is present in Quaboag Valley towns, thanks to local volunteers

Email|Print| Text size + By Jan Shepherd
Globe Correspondent / December 18, 2005

BROOKFIELD -- Poking around small-town New England inevitably yields engaging stories from the past. These relics of history often are overlooked in textbooks or overshadowed by more famous and populous cities and towns. The keepers of the records and local lore are the volunteer historical societies and commissions who struggle to preserve and share the history with their townsfolk, travelers, and future generations.

That's certainly the case in the Brookfields, a cluster of four rural towns in the Quaboag (KWAY-bog) Valley's rolling uplands about 65 miles west of Boston. With Route 9 the main byway through the region, travelers give a wave and keep going to destinations east, west, and south of here, such as Worcester, Sturbridge, Amherst, Northampton, or the Berkshires.

But spending a day in the area recently proved there is more there than meets the eye thanks to the guidance of Ron Couture, chairman of Brookfield's Historical Commission, and Dick Rossman, his counterpart in West Brookfield, who love talking about their corner of the world.

The towns stage several joint community events, including a Holiday Open House on the first Saturday and White Christmas & Tree Lighting on the first Sunday of December, Maple Days in March in the Brookfields, Daffodil Day in May, the Asparagus & Flower Heritage Festival in West Brookfield, summer concerts at the Helen Shackley Bandstand, a July 3 bonfire and concert on West Brookfield Common, and an Apple Country Fair on Brookfield Common on Columbus Day weekend.

In any season, it's fun exploring Routes 9, 148, 67, and their side roads. Rock House Reservation offers hikes, walks around historic towns and cemeteries, and recreation at area ponds and lakes. In spring, the Quaboag Historical Society plans to open a museum in a restored railroad station in West Brookfield to provide another stop for history buffs. The rural landscapes -- 10,000 acres here belong to the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife -- inspire artists, among them Couture, who paints outdoors and shows his work and that of other regional artists at Riverbend Gallery in Brookfield.

The ancient past is represented at sites such as the Rock House and the Flats that belonged to Algonquin tribes, among them Nipmuc and Quaboag. The Trustees of Reservations Rock House is named for a geological formation used for winter shelter by Native Americans, while the Flats, also known as the Plains of Podunk, were summer grounds.

The European story begins in 1660, 40 years after the Pilgrims landed in the New World, when four English settlers in Ipswich secured a land deed from the Quaboags. They established Quaboag Plantation in 1665 on Foster Hill, and it became Brookfield in 1673. Two years later, it was wiped out in raids by local Indians during King Philip's War. By 1683, new settlers had come and thrived as one Brookfield for 183 years. As populations grew, they formed other Brookfields: North was first in 1812, West in 1848, East in 1920.

Couture cited some important names of old. Native son Jedediah Foster helped write the state constitution in 1778-79. President Washington dined at the Hitchcock Tavern, now Ye Olde Tavern, though he slept in nearby Spencer. John and Abigail Adams mention Brookfield in letters to each other. General Henry Knox passed through here when Fort Ticonderoga cannon were moved to Boston in the winter of 1775-76. Lucy Stone, the 19th-century suffragette and first woman in the state to receive a college degree, was born in West Brookfield.

Today, highway signs bookmark history. Some sections of the first Boston Post Road (the state had three) bear reproductions of milestones that Benjamin Franklin, assistant US postmaster general in 1763, required in order to determine postage rates. In spring, Brookfield's Historical Commission plans to install handsome signs at Miles 64, 65, and 66 on the Post Road. About a half-mile of the road is unpaved, and the commission wants to keep it that way.

Foster Hill, on West Brookfield/Foster Hill Road, is the site of the first English settlement and still has a 360-degree vista over the valley. At the Jedediah Foster property, destroyed by fire in 1901, the Daughters of the American Revolution plaque salutes the patriot and judge who died in 1779. Although John Adams gets full credit for the document that became a model for the US Constitution, state Senator Stephen M. Brewer (D-Barre) said Foster was one of four men who worked on it.

''The original draft shows that 70 percent is Foster's handwriting, but he died three weeks before it was finalized and presented to the Legislature," Brewer said in a telephone interview. ''Timing is everything."

Foster is buried in the Old Indian Cemetery in West Brookfield. Brewer cited another important favorite figure buried here: Diedrick Leetouwer, the Dutch consul to Massachusetts and New Hampshire, planted the New World's first asparagus here in 1795, an agricultural milestone celebrated at the annual Asparagus Festival.

Elm Hill Farm, famous in the 1940s as the home of ''Elsie the Cow," is another step back in time. Owned by the same Blanchard family since the 1700s, the farm's last occupant, Mrs. Louise Means, established the Blanchard Means Foundation and donated 1,000 of the property's original 1,500 acres to the Massachusetts Audubon Society to preserve it. Today, the foundation oversees a program for people with special needs and the restoration of the buildings and barns.

Brookfield's National Historic District in and around the common lends itself to a stroll to see vintage homes and buildings, among them the 1886 Merrick Library, St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church with original beams from the first meetinghouse on Foster Hill, and the beautifully restored Congregational Church. The nearby Brookfield Cemetery is one of the country's oldest with graves from the 1700s to the present. It was added recently to the National Register of Historic Places, and the Historical Commission is in the midst of a preservation fund drive.

West Brookfield's National Historic Districts have more than 227 properties with 47 more due to be added. The common is considered one of the state's most beautiful, with the 1886 Rice Memorial Fountain in the center. About five years ago, the Historical Commission restored the Great Hall; Worcester County prisoners re-created stencils to duplicate the originals that required 14 colors of paint.

On Main Street, Ye Olde Tavern is thought to be the oldest continuing establishment of its kind in the United States.

About two miles west of town, the Salem Cross Inn on a 600-acre farm that dates to 1705 is a must stop for lunch or dinner in a Colonial-era setting. When the Salem family purchased the property in 1950, they discovered an original hex mark meant to keep away witches. Today, owners of the inn raise their own beef cattle and serve traditional and contemporary fare specializing in 18th-century-style dinners.

Contact Jan Shepherd, a freelance writer in Boston, at jshep@earthlink.net.

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