Every now and again this traveler likes to head south and west in search of a change of scenery and milder climes. That’s how I ended up in the west-central part of Massachusetts in early November on a visit to Historic Deerfield set amid the beautiful valley of the Connecticut River.
Autumn in Maine was just a memory come Veterans Day weekend, but not far to our south in the Bay State the leafy colors were still there along with the oh so welcome mild temperatures. A pleasant time it was indeed to experience a place I’d never been before, to take a stroll through the wonderful history that is on display in beautiful old Deerfield, Massachusetts.
Historic Deerfield is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the heritage of Deerfield, where 22 houses built before 1776 remain. Another twenty-three houses and structures erected before 1850 survive on the lovely tree-lined main street of the village. Eleven of these buildings are maintained by the group as museums open to the public. Each are filled with period objects and furnishings made and used in Deerfield and neighboring valley communities in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.
For 8,000 years, Native Americans lived and farmed the land in and around Deerfield, known to them as Pocomtuck. The English began to settle the area in 1669, establishing a well-planned village in the meadows along the Deerfield River.
In 1962, the entire Deerfield village was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
My first stop in town was the Deerfield Inn, a beautiful white-columned structure that has been welcoming weary travelers like you and me since 1884, a cozy place where I would hole up in warmth and comfort for a couple of nights while I sauntered about this heart of colonial America.
Innkeepers Jane Howard and Karl Sabo have been keeping the home fires burning at the inn for 29 years and are the most pleasant hosts you can imagine. Once in the door you are sure to meet Jack, the mild-mannered black lab that’s likely to be managing a comfy spot on the rug somewhere, preferably not too far from the fireplace.
The Deerfield Inn, built by George A. Arms of nearby Greenfield, is one of only six original inns in New England that remain. History abounds right here in this one spot!
Twenty-four guest rooms are housed in the inn, 11 in the main sectionand 13 more in the annex. Champney’s Restaurant and Pub serve up fine selections of delicious food and drink, as I would soon discover.
“The rooms at the inn are named after people in the village’s history,” noted Jane. “Their ghosts are thought to hold séances in the night. Cora Carlisle is still heard to knock on doors, crying out: “Let me in!”
Guess what name appeared on the door of my room? Cora Carlisle!
The restaurant is named after James Champney, an artist and pioneer in photography, and “an outspoken abolitionist and supporter of women’s suffrage,” according to Howard.
The inn lies at an old crossroads between Boston and Albany and Hartford and points north, a fact that has made it a busy and popular place through time. There was once even a trolley that ran right down the main street connecting the town to parts near and far.
From Howard I also learned that Deerfield was “preserved due to the snobbery of the well-heeled residents,” and that extensive documentation exists which details “what is and should be where” in the preserved homes and structures of the village. Fascinating!
A good place to start your tour of Historic Deerfield is right across the street from the inn at the visitor center, which is housed in Hall Tavern. Your jaw may drop too when you duck inside and see the incredible wide pine boards that comprise the floor. Wow.
For some of the houses in Historic Deerfield you need to tag on to a scheduled tour; this can be quickly and easily arranged by the good folks at the visitor center. Other houses can be visited on your own, self-guided. A general admission ticket gains you entry to all structures owned and managed by Historic Deerfield.
Houses that can be visited by scheduled tour include: Ashley House, the home of Deerfield’s second minister; Williams House, which was modernized in 1817 by Anna and Hinsdale Williams; Frary Hose, home of historic preservationist C. Alice Baker; Wells-Thorn House, which is walk through time as the furnishings change from room-to-room, going from 1725 to 1850 (this was my favorite!); Allen House, the home of Historic Deerfield founders henry and Helen Flynt; Silver & Metalware Collection houses a gallery of antique silver and pewter; and Wright House Gallery, which reflects 150 years of furniture making in the region.
Houses that can be visited on a self-guided basis include: Stebbins House and its gallery of Federal period architecture and furnishings; Sheldon House, which was the home of a farming family 225 years ago; and Apprentices’ Workshop at Dwight House, where you can learn about woodworking, ceramics and weaving.
Most all of the wonderfully preserved historic structures are found on the mile-long stretch of the main street of the village. It makes for a terrific stroll, a scenic trundle through time, and not anything that can or should be hurried. You can, if you would, spend days here, not only in the town but exploring the surrounding countryside. But I digress…
In the center of the village are the town common and the site of the old stockade, which once protected the settlers from Indian attack. Here also is where you’ll find the campus of Deerfield Academy, the nationally-renowned college prep school founded in 1797. The school owns and maintains many of the historic structures in town.
A block to the south is a cannot-miss venue, the Flynt Center of Early New England Life, which houses one of the top collections of American decorative arts in the U.S. The collection includes “more than 27,000 objects made or used in America from 1650 to 1900, with special interest in the history, art, and culture of Deerfield and the Connecticut River Valley with significant collections of 18th and 19th-century American furniture; English and Chinese export ceramics; American silver; and American and English textiles and clothing,” according to the museum’s website.
I was fortunate to get a narrated tour of the Helen Geier Flynt Textile Gallery, a permanent exhibit dedicated to the display of objects from the collections of textiles, clothing and embroidery. In an hour with textile curator Ned Lazaro I learned more about wool, cotton, linen and silk than I ever thought possible.
I then met up with Bill Flynt, architectural conservator and grandson of the Historic Deerfield founders. As you might expect, Bill was a treasure trove of interesting information, and I learned ever more in the short hour about the life in early Deerfield.
Per Flynt, Historic Deerfield was begun in 1952 in an effort to carry on the work of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Flynt of Greenwich, Connecticut. In 1936, the family enrolled their son at Deerfield Academy, and with the encouragement of the academy’s headmaster, Frank Boyden, they began to purchase and restore the old houses along the main street of Deerfield, and started to painstakingly restore them.
In addition to fixing up the houses, the nonprofit began to collect objects to furnish the old dwellings, but this effort soon outgrew the space available. The museum had its beginnings in this effort to house the wealth of historic treasures. In 1965, Fabric Hall was opened, the first climate-controlled building in Franklin County. Most recently, in 2007, the Flynt Textile Gallery was opened.
On a walking tour of Deerfield Flynt described the architecture of the houses, and I came to understand with more certainty the different periods, from Georgian (1770-90), Federal (1790-1830), Greek Revival (1830-50), and a mix of different styles from 1850 on.
Harkening back to the comment about the well-heeled residents of old Deerfield made by Jane Howard, Flynt relayed that “early settlers here gained their wealth by growing feed corn for cattle and exporting it, then from broom corn, and later on, tobacco.” This was all made possible by the “extremely rich soils here in the river valley.”
There’s certainly a lot to see and do in and around Deerfield and the surrounding area in this part of the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts, from hiking, bicycling and river rafting in summer to downhill skiing (Berkshire East isn’t far) and cross-country skiing in winter and so much more.
I reluctantly left old Deerfield intent on some hiking just south in the Mt. Holyoke Range; I’ll report on that endeavor later.
Meantime, may I recommend a picturesque wintertime visit to the Deerfield Inn and a snowy walking tour of Historic Deerfield (Deerfield MA is just three hours from Portland), some good food and drink and a bit of pleasurable poking around, the kind that is often only possible when you get out and about a fair distance from home. Enjoy, and do let me know how it went, if you would please and thanks.
Historic Deerfield, (413) 774-5581.
Deerfield Inn, (413) 774-5587.
Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, (413) 773-5463.