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Friday, September 7, 2007

Historical Roadside Markers - Western Mass.

A certain breed of tourist reads every historical marker, no matter which side of the highway it’s on or how fast the car is moving. If the rest of the family is patient, mileposts in time as well as distance are reached, but in western Massachusetts, getting there from here can become more ominous with each sign.

One stretch of road in Deerfield is a preserved slice of the Colonial frontier that reminds us what miserable times the colonists had, according to the road signs.

This sign notes a bloody Indian attack in 1675. That sign over there tells of a 1704 attack. That other sign says you can’t park here. Clearly, the settlers had a lot to contend with.

There are more signs, carved monuments and historical marker verbiage on that one lonely stretch of street than in many more miles of rambling Bay State roadside, and that is saying something because Massachusetts is well marked. Most of the signs are not historical markers so much as they seem to be warnings of what can happen to you if you stand in the wrong place.

On a silent, absolutely empty country road in North New Salem there is a chunk of rock on which is carved “Oct. 25th 1777. 1000 Hessians Who Surrendered At Saratoga Passed Here.” There is no other explanation, no name of some long dead historical commission who might have put the stone here. It is almost as if one of the even longer-dead Hessians, bored and mischievous, carved the message himself, like “Kilroy Was Here.”
A completely different scene awaits in Springfield. Another marker to the Revolution stands in tribute to General Henry Knox on a steep knoll by the former Springfield Armory, and a bus stop. In this urban downtown, there is of course no parking allowed in front of the curb where the marker stands. It is a challenge to those compelled by some force unknown to read everything. Risk a ten-car pileup by trying to park illegally, or just hang Junior out the window with the camera as you drive by and read the picture of the monument later? Tough choice.

Luckily, for those fans of the Knox Trail (which probably do not include any of those weary, mud-soaked band who had to drag cannon from Fort Ticonderoga in New York overland across the Bay State to where the bays actually are and thus remove the British from Boston) there is another marker further eastward on the Knox Trail on the West Brookfield/Warren town line. There is no risk of city traffic here, only of being spotted by the Neighborhood Watch.

In Westfield, the town common is graced by a brownstone mile marker from about 1800. It bears the legend: “IX Miles to Springfield Court House.”

Unfortunately, this is not where the marker originally stood. It had been in another part of Westfield at one time and was moved to the common, perhaps so all the monuments could keep each other company. The courthouse in Springfield has also been moved, many times. So, the marker really marks nothing. This one is nothing but a brownstone lie.

These markers would seem to illustrate that old New England joke about telling a traveler “you can’t get there from here.” Sometimes you really can’t, not without imminent danger of being lost because the mile marker is wrong, or kidnapped by enemies of the King, or flattened by some DAR road crew with more historical markers and fresh cement.

For lack of a good frontier war, some Massachusetts towns take to marking sites of famous weather incidents. A typical sign is a reminder of the epic Hurricane of 1938 which greets the traveler over Muddy Brook in the town of Ware. It shows you how deep underwater you would be if you were stupid enough to stand there on September 22, 1938.

Perhaps the ultimate in weather markers stands on Route 47 in the Connecticut River Valley town of Hadley. Here, the water levels of several floods are labeled like a kind of meteorological totem pole. About waist high a sign on this pole marks a 1984 flood, around your shoulders is a sign that marks the November 1927 flood. Above your head the next sign marks the Hurricane of 1938 level, and above that, a sign that must explain how tired the people living here are of hearing the same questions: “No, stopped one inch from first floor. Yes, 5½ feet deep in my living room.” On the very top, perhaps some ten feet above you is the last sign, it marks the March 1936 flood. After reading all these, you almost feel as if you are drowning yourself.

But some fanatical historical marker readers will inevitably admire the totem pole, take a picture, and have another one taken of themselves standing next to it. And then drive on to look for more.

Been there? Done that? Bought the T-shirt? Let us know.

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