SAGAS OF THE SHIRE, by Joe Durwin
While living in Arizona, I became enchanted with the many abandoned and semi-abandoned towns that dot the desert landscape of the southwest. There, these sites range from the dry and eerily still streets of former mining booms most closely resembling the ghost towns of popular imagination, to the frozen-in-time preserved bastions of “wild west” tourist traps.
New England’s ghost towns are of a somewhat different character than their more westerly counterparts. For one thing, most are older, owing to the obviously longer construction history of the region; those villages and hamlets which fit that description generally fell into disuse well before their western cousins were settled. In addition to age, differences in weather and vegetation have taken far more toll on the empty structures of once-occupied places than has been the case in dryer environments.
According to a listing of place names maintained by the office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, there are 105 “extinct” settlements in Massachusetts. Most of these were never true towns in any official sense, but tiny former communities that were or are now within the larger geographical boundaries of accepted towns and cities. Only four of these were once legally incorporated towns – Dana, Enfield, Greenwich and Prescott- disincorporated in 1938 so that they could be flooded to create the Quabbin Reservoir.
How these twin communities acquired their names is a mystery no one seems to be able to answer. Longtime Berkshire newsman and local historian Richard V. Happel repeatedly questioned the origin of these unsavory place names, but appears to have been unable to find a satisfactory explanation.
“The religious pioneers had little truck with such infamous places,” pointed out Happel in 1949, in one of his columns for the Berkshire Evening Eagle.
In 1957, he was still wondering, tossing the question out to any local readers who might know “from whence came the bizarre names of these two vanished villages… local history books shy away from the subject…”
Hartford Courant reporter Kenton Robinson had no greater success, when he went on a mission to find out about the origin of North Canaan’s “Sodom” village in 1994. Longtime residents and local historians had all come up short in the search, he found, knowledge of the name origin seemingly lost for several generations.
Other, more well established towns in Berkshire County have at one time or another declined so drastically in population, typically due to shifts or losses in their primary industries, that they have teetered on the verge of becoming ghost towns, or have even taken on some aspects of a ghost town. Once booming industrial sections of places such as Monterey, Tyringham, West Stockbridge, Lenox Dale or Glendale have all dried up at different times, leaving whole village areas in deserted ruins to be swept away by reforestation.
Sandisfield, once known as New Boston, is a telling example; once the fourth largest municipality in Berkshire County, it’s population peaked at some 2,000 residents at a time when it was known as the financial center of the county. By World War II, that population had dipped below 400, a significant portion of which were summer residents only.
Savoy is also worth examining in this context. Like Sandisfield, it saw its population peak during the 19th century and then rapidly shrink, leaving a territory more filled with overgrown cellar holes than residences, graveyard-speckled forest spread across most of land once covered in farms and buildings.
In particular, the ‘New State’ portion of north Savoy stands out as an exception to the tales of industry death at play in other local ghost towns, the story of a community forged out of an excess of religious revivalism and perished in plagues of locusts.
“They tended to be more emotional in their patterns of worship, and were at tension with the church at Savoy Hollow,” according to historian David Newell, of those who settled in the higher hills of this district. “Over three-fourths of these ‘New Light’ settlers were linked (by birth or marriage) to three large interrelated families – the Cornells, the Lewises and the Shermans.”
In 1810, these New State residents became enthralled with a new preacher from Vermont named Joseph Smith. Despite erroneous statements by some local historians, this Smith is not to be confused with the more famous founder of Mormonism, who at the time was only five years old. Some confusion on this point is likely due to a passing historical similarity, as soon after Smith married Savoy resident Hepsibah Lewis, it emerged that the leader of the recently formed New Light Baptist Church already had one wife.
Smith was forced to depart amidst the ensuing controversy, and the newly reconstituted Baptist church under the guidance of the church in Savoy Hollow persevered awkwardly for a couple of years, before the visit of another wave of revivalists in 1815. These “Reformed Methodists,” another New Light sect formed in Vermont the previous year, converted most of the 150 persons who had by then settled in New State, and throughout the following year proceeded a series of passionate revivals involving faith healings, speaking in tongues, and bodily agitations.
By late that year word of these revivals had reached Elder Calvin Green, at the New Lebanon headquarters of the rapidly growing Shaker movement, who dispatched missionaries to the region at once. These efforts proved successful, spawning some of the most impassioned revivals yet seen in these parts. Among other incidents, Shaker records from the period refer to a curious “happening” in which mysterious floating lights descended upon the new converts. and were also seen around one of their residences shortly after.
These Shakers held ownership of about 1500 acres of land by 1818 and had constructed a profitable grist mill on Gulf Brook, and a former tavern and dance hall was converted into a meetinghouse. Considerable building took place on the Sherman farm, intended to be the center of the burgeoning new community, and several fine stone walls and cellar holes remain there today, scattered throughout the woods.
While the Shakers of New State endured and thrived for a time despite considerable persecution from Savoy residents of other denominations, including one or two angry mob scenes, environmental conditions would ultimately prove to be the undoing of the small community. In 1820, severe drought struck the area, and a subsequent plague of locusts devastated their crops. A second profusion of locusts repeated this phenomenon the following year, and by the end of 1821, about eighty of the converts had dispersed to other Shaker communities in New York state. A majority remained in the sect until their deaths, though about two dozen returned over the years and resettled in homes back in Savoy.
These are some of the most interesting examples of village extinctions in the Berkshires, though not a truly comprehensive history of the “ghosts” of former settlements whose fading traces can be found throughout the largely forested hills of the region. Varying confluences of circumstances have conspired to empty out many previously inhabited tracts of land, not all of them economic in nature. While the abandonment and reclamation of such places by nature may seem like an occurrence confined to an earlier era, this conclusion may be premature.
Given recent findings that a county population already dropping these past decades is expected to decline even more rapidly soon, projecting a loss of nearly a third of its current volume over the next 50 years, it may be that the days of withering roads and neighborhoods full of empty houses are part of the future as well as the past.