It’s cold but not very. A good day for the last mowing. Why can we never get to this until mid-November? We managed to start both the mower and the whacker, loaded them up, made our way here, and like a yard maintenance crew popped out of the truck when we arrived, installed the ramps, rolled the mower down, adjusted hearing protectors on our heads and got going with a minimum of fuss. We’d already decided who‘d start with which machine and how we’d tackle the job.
We both hate weed whacking. The carpenter was wiling to relinquish first dibs on the mower and I spent the first hour clearing paths in the thorny prickles that have overgrown the entire place since we last worked here two years ago. Having established a trail, I went round and round, widening my swath, intent on nothing but keeping the mower upright and myself as well. Progress was steady and visible, a condition greatly desired but seldom achieved.
When I saw the carpenter walking around with empty hands I knew my turn at mindlessly following the mower had come to an end. I showed him my swath and picked up the whacker. It started on the first pull. Not bad.
All of which led me to my current goal of taking out prickles, beech saplings, and teeny white pines around the stumps in the clearing, stumps we’ve never removed because we expected them to be be taken out when we’d excavate for the foundation. I briefly wonder why I am doing this. We have a house now, and it is taking everything we have to give to turn it from a dump into a dacha. It is, however, not here, not on this lovely piece of property in the very center of Plainfield.
Am I just routinely tracing the path of a dream that started some twenty years ago but has never come to fruition, at least not in the format it had been conceived? Is this the final clean-up before I sell this land to someone else who can dream to live here at the end of a dirt road in the lee of West Mountain where the worst of the winter winds swoosh high overhead and the Spotted Spring Salamander thrives?
Trying not to get maudlin, I look for the exact spot on which we got married. We have done a lot of clearing since then and it isn’t that easy to pinpoint the remembered location amidst the ring of white pine trunk chunks we later moved out of the way to ease our annual mowing. It was right on the edge of where the land starts to drop off. At least it was in my memory. But then it was twenty degrees that day, and I was vain enough to be coatless and a little busy.
This is the direction of maudlin. Clearing the brambles out of the depression Dave made with his excavator when he was digging holes for the percolation test for the septic system, I start to think about the advertisement for the land when I do put it up for sale, maybe next year. For some reason that hole never quite got quite filled in. Messy. I’ll definitely mention that it perced beautifully a decade and a half ago, even if it doesn’t have a current test.
But that doesn’t say anything about how special it is here, on this protected and quiet southern slope, with enough acreage to spare to cut yourself a pretty view. “Mila Stetson’s place“ it was called on a 1938 deed, with a half-cellar hole I am now clearing of saplings. Left of the house is the foundation with chimney base, a pile of chimney bricks, and the closed-up well we found just exactly where you’d expect it, 10 feet off the rear corner of the house. Surrounded by day lilies and the old apple orchard across the maple-lined driveway. All of which would be pretty neat if someone got it who has the wherewithal to bring back the sense of the old place so you can enjoy it by looking and feeling, instead of just knowing it’s there and seeing it in your mind’s eye.
Levi Stetson was born in 1803. Levi, Senior (who was known as Levi Stetson, Junior) and his family moved to Plainfield in 1807, along with the rest of poor to middling Abington, MA, it seems. The Abington crowd thought they had a good idea by the tail. All that water tumbling down, plenty of wood, roads being built. Better access to the West than perhaps more southerly and northerly.
In 1824, with his eye on the main chance, “our” Levi, got married. I don’t know exactly when he bought and built his farm, but he chose well. It is on a South-facing slope, suitable for grazing sheep, near a small, fast-flowing stream suitable for damming for a mill, right on the stage road that leads across Savoy Mountain to Albany. Or did then. He may have expected to do well with his new wife, Sarah.
Unfortunately, it was not to be, as the bottom fell out of the New England wool market soon after they settled, the railroads went elsewhere, and small water-powered mills became a thing of the past over the course of the nineteenth century. There are some signs of mill works on the brook but very few. When Levi died in 1879 he left behind 75 acres and a house of which the cellar hole had never been finished, suggesting that he had not been particularly successful, in a town that had been losing population since he came of age. Levi’s second wife of only six years lived on his farm for another fifteen, and her name became attached to the “home farm.”
The Stetson kids sold it all to cousin Sarah Stetson as soon as Mila moved to Northampton in 1895, where she died in 1899, perhaps at the State Hospital. Sarah’s son Alvah, a life long bachelor, moved in and in due time he came to own the farm.
Land is expensive to own, especially if you can’t make it produce, and the Depression was a hard hit. In 1938 Alvah Stetson deeded his homestead and other land to Reginald Burbank, a New York physician who made his money with the then-new ‘gold cure” for rheumatism. By that time, all the grand ideas were past and he relinquished title for back taxes (conjecture) and the right to live out his life on the place, cut wood, have boarders after seeking permission, and fish the new pond. Deeded to the doctor who wanted a small kingdom to fish in and bought up hundreds upon hundreds of acres in Plainfield, taking down a number of houses so as to lower his own tax burden
Since all things must pass so did his fortune as Burbank and his second wife Kathryn Poole reportedly huddled in their unheated Fifth Avenue Mansion, taking options on their kingdom in Plainfield to make a buck, not delivering in the main, except to the man who forced them to sell some hundreds of acres just west of here. And his daughter after him was so just the same as she stuck me with a bill for back taxes when I bought twenty years ago.
But what all of those shenanigans brought us is land that wasn’t touched for a long time, land with majestic pines that swoosh in the wind coming off the mountain. A babbling brook that, one way or another, provided the Pixley neighbors with water for their mill just down the street. Thousands of acres of Audubon land just up the road, just one neighbor away in any direction. No cars coming by.
Land where two of my dogs lie, land crossed by a private road lined with maples. And where, when I still the infernal whacker saved from having to do more by a gentle rain, it is so quiet I resolve to eat dry bread rather than to let it go, this land that fueled my dreams of building a house and making my future in Plainfield. Having settled elsewhere in town, I still have some dreaming in me, and should it come to pass that I can, would I not want to build a little place to work here? Better get cracking on making that money to build my little kingdom…
These photos were taken on lot 23. The first five may be ordered as “your pick” cards though the shop.