Tuesday, July 24, 2012

APHGA Researchers Patricia Whipple and Kate Corbett Pollack Journey to Buckland, Massachusetts, to Visit the Spaulding House and Search for Pomeroys!

By Kate Corbett Pollack

Spaulding House

On a beautiful summer day, Pat and I headed out to Buckland, Mass., starting our trip on Saturday, the morning of June 23rd. The total travel time from Syracuse is about four hours, and it is a very nice drive. The weather remained pleasant for most of the weekend. Upon our arrival in the picturesque Connecticut River Valley where Buckland is located, we were met by our gracious host, Ed Purinton, and his wife Valerie, owners and caretakers of the house where Reverend Spaulding and his family lived.  The house originally belonged to Ed’s parents, and he grew up in it-in Josiah Spaulding Jr.’s bedroom![i]

The Spaulding house was built in 1794, about the year that Reverend Spaulding arrived with his family in Buckland to be the town’s first permanent minister. He was provided with the house to live in for the duration of his time with the First Congregational Church of Buckland (now Mary Lyon Church), a position he held until his death in 1823. The house was as I had imagined it; a white Federal style with black shutters, the type common in New England at this time. Ed and his family showed us inside and we were pleased to find that not much has changed since the house was first built, other than an updated kitchen and bathrooms! The large kitchen hearth is still there, complete with a Dutch oven and old tools. Of course I pictured the Spaulding sisters and their mother working at the hearth, toiling away over the fire as women did in the days before modern appliances or even iron stoves. The walls and floors still had their original wooden planks-the widest I have ever seen. Some looked to be close to two feet.

The staircase to the second floor was very narrow and small. By this time, our group had been joined by former Boston Globe/ New York times writer Eric Goldscheider and his mother. Eric wrote an article for the Boston Globe about Josiah Spaulding in 1999, called A Long Ago Tragedy Gets A Second Look.[ii]

Young Josiah's Room
Pat and I brought in our suitcases, as Ed and his adorable granddaughter accompanied us. Before I knew it, there I was in Josiah’s room! It was small, with the same wide plank walls that we saw in the hallway, and an ancient brick fireplace that was original to the room. (Ed and his family did restoration work to uncover some of the fireplaces in the house). Ed showed us the grooves on the floor where Josiah had been chained up prior to being put in a cage. The grooves in the floor really made the story hit home for me. They were wide and deep, and looked very much like they had been worn away over time by a person, and not caused by dragging furniture or other damage. They were close enough (but not too close) to the fireplace to picture Josiah sitting there, trying to stay warm. Ed told us that the room gets very cold in the winter. In letters, the sisters mention the importance of keeping their caged brother in a “warm room”. Before I saw these grooves, I was not sure if Josiah had actually been chained to the floor, but it sure does look like he was. There were also unexplained deep nail marks and other surface grooves in the corner of the room, and dents in the floor around the fireplace.

Chain Grooves in Floor
I had read accounts that Josiah was chained to the floor by his father, and remained that way for a year until he broke free and tried to escape down the back staircase, which Ed showed us. The door to the back staircase was very close to Josiah’s room, and one could see how he could make a break for it and dash to the stairwell, which led to the kitchen and out the back door. I pictured Josiah bolting from his bedroom after breaking free of the chains (his door did not have a lock on it, but a latch, and all the hardware is original to the house), and running down those steps to the kitchen, where he would have been able to immediately dash out the back door to the outside and make a run towards the barn to grab a horse, as local legend says he did. The barn was very near the kitchen side of the house. Ed Purinton knows the story of Josiah’s escape attempt, and showed us the stairwell, which is enclosed and very much hidden. You would not know it was there otherwise. Neil Perry’s 1966 article ‘Raving Maniac’ of Buckland Spent 57 Years in a Cage for the Springfield Union describes how a strong neighbor heard the commotion and ran over to assist Reverend Spaulding in subduing Josiah during his escape attempt. Indeed, there was a house of the same era next to the Spaulding house, situated very near where the barn would have been, and it was easy to imagine a neighbor running up to grab Josiah.

The Spaulding house was laid out in a way that the stories about Josiah I initially wasn't too sure about began to make a lot of sense. Many aspects of the story are impossible to prove, but there is truth to oral histories, and listening to the elderly townspeople over the years is how these histories were preserved and passed down. Buckland is a small town where many families go back generations to the time of the Spauldings, including Ed Purinton’s family, who have lived in the area for 200 years. Oral histories are considered viable sources of information for historians. One thing that we do know is that Josiah was put in a cage, indicating he was ultimately unable to escape from the house and his chains, and needed something stronger to hold him, as he had proven he could break free. 

View from Josiah's Bedroom
I made sure to look out the window of the bedroom, as lonely Josiah must have done many times. The view looked out over a large field and extended to one of the many rounded hills of the Berkshire Mountains. No houses were visible. It is a peaceful view, but for someone who was trapped, it must have been even more isolating. There was no one around to see or hear him. The Spauldings did have neighbors on either side of the house, but they were supportive of the Reverend, as we have seen, and so was almost everyone in the town. In those days, a father’s authority was unquestioned, and Reverend Spaulding was a highly respected community member. Also, mental illness was just not understood, if indeed Josiah was mentally ill. People in this era (circa 1812) and region believed that God caused illness to happen, and that it was a test for the Reverend which was between him and God. It was not something for them to interfere with.

Mary Lyon Church
After touring the Spaulding house, we all journeyed up the hill to Mary Lyon Church, where Rev. Spaulding preached. It is so named because in 1822, Mary Lyon, founder of Mt. Holyoke College, was baptized there, presumably by Rev. Spaulding himself. There are still services at the church. The Spaulding family and many Pomeroys are buried in the churchyard cemetery. Buckland Historical Society director Tina Peters gave us a wonderful tour of the building, which is quite beautiful and has stained glass windows honoring past preachers, as well as one for Mary Lyon. Tina is a member of the congregation, and was able to give us a comprehensive tour. Of course I imagined Reverend Spaulding in the pulpit, and stood where he would have, facing the pews, and tried to experience his view of the congregation. I also sat in the pews myself, and they are kind of small! I thought of Mary, Nancy, Lydia and Deborah sitting in them, listening to their father preach. I wondered where they might have sat, and imagined Deborah Pomeroy Trowbridge stopping by the pew after services to say hello and deliver all the latest gossip. When Mary Spaulding married Isaac Pomeroy and moved to Southampton, Deborah, Isaac’s sister, would get the latest from Mary’s sisters in that very church and then write a long letter telling Mary all the Buckland news.

After the lovely church tour, Tina Peters showed everyone across the street to the Buckland Historical Society Museum, which she opened up just for us. It used to be a schoolhouse, and is full of many important artifacts local to the area, and has two floors full of very interesting and unique items! I saw a photograph of Reverend Spaulding in an old book, which I had seen before on his Find A Grave page[iii], but did not know if it was correct. I was happy to see that it was really Reverend Spaulding, and had his signature under the photo.

After our Buckland tour that day, Pat and I set out to find a place to eat dinner. We drove around the Buckland area a little, and went to Charlemont, a pretty little village where the Spaulding family had friends and relatives, including John Coleman, who died there after many years of alcoholism. We saw the sign in the direction of Heath, where Thankful Coleman, his daughter, worked to support herself and wrote lonely letters back home to her mother, Nancy Spaulding. We saw Ashfield, where Reverend Spaulding was president of Sanderson Academy, and Plainfield, where Josiah Spaulding taught for a brief period.

Pat and I decided on dinner in nearby Shelburne Falls, where Nancy Spaulding lived for a while. It was just beautiful, and I would recommend it as a great place to tour and visit. There are glacial potholes right downtown, a waterfall, the beautiful bridge of flowers and many interesting art shops, antique stores and bookstores (which I made sure not to stop in, lest I spend the remainder of the trip perusing books). It is a lovely area and everything is old, beautiful and historic, and surrounded by the Berkshire Mountains. In fact, Ed told us that Bill Cosby has a house there. Everyone was very friendly and hospitable.

After dinner, I was exhausted. We returned to the Spaulding house, where some of Ed’s relatives were also staying in the downstairs bedroom, and there was a group relaxing in the living room. I was secretly relieved that there were more people there, as I planned on sleeping in Josiah’s bedroom, which made me a little nervous! Pat joined the group and brought the Netbook with our database on it, so she could get a few genealogy facts from Ed and his family, as we have been working on the Buckland genealogy for a while and seeing how the Pomeroys fit in. There were many Pomeroys in Buckland, and they were among the first settlers of the area. Ed told us that his cousin Arnold lives in Enos Pomeroy’s 18th century farmhouse, and we planned to visit it the next day. Pat and I are very familiar with Enos and his family from our research, and he is mentioned in the Spaulding letters.

Fireplace in Josiah's Room
Sleeping in Josiah’s room was interesting. The Connecticut River Valley is just so peaceful and beautiful that it is hard to feel afraid or nervous for long about anything. It seemed a very different environment that I expected, due to the grim nature of the Spaulding family letters. It is somewhat ironic that the devastation they experienced (much of it due to epidemic disease) took place amidst such a serene backdrop. I did not feel very much in Josiah’s room other than a sort of heavy, lived-in feeling. I do not think his ghost haunts that room (as many want to know!), but there was a definite feeling that struck me as sort of oppressive. Like the ceiling was slightly pushing down on me. I slept with the lamp on! I must admit that I woke up at about 2 or 3 am and felt very nervous, but I am sure it was my imagination.

Enos Pomeroy House
The next day Ed Purinton joined Pat and I for breakfast in Shelburne, and we walked around a little bit once more. Ed was such a gracious host and an excellent tour guide, and he certainly knows the history of the area, an appreciation for which was instilled in him by his mother, who researched the Spaulding family when Ed was growing up.

After breakfast, Ed took us to his cousin Arnold’s house, which was the former residence of Enos Pomeroy (b. 1761), a Buckland clothier who ran a successful business and was well-known and liked. He married Lucy Smith circa 1786, and the couple had eleven children. Enos and Lucy are also remembered for being able to successfully see that all eleven children were educated and did well. 

Enos Pomeroy Barn
 Enos is mentioned in the Spaulding letters collection, and there is a very detailed one from Deborah Pomeroy Trowbridge describing Enos’ tragic fall in the barn, which ended his life. The barn is still on the property, and Arnold has kept it up. The letter describing Enos’ death was one of the harder letters I had to transcribe. He fell from the beams in his barn and fractured his skull, living 26 hours until his death (as it even says on his tombstone). His wife stayed by his side, calmly caring for him the entire time, and, as Deborah wrote, said she was thankful that they had so many good years together and was remarkably composed. All Lucy had to soothe Enos was some Camphor on a rag. Deborah wrote, “his every breath was a groan”.

Enos Pomeroy’s house was just beautiful, and almost completely unchanged and original. It was kind of small, however, and I could not imagine eleven children there! The hearths and wooden floors were similar to the ones in the Spaulding home, although I have to say I think that the beams in the floor at the Enos Pomeroy house were even wider! I was shocked to see them.  Arnold was a very kind host and allowed us to photograph the house. He was accompanied by his adorable dogs, including a large but very friendly German Shepherd, who seems to have some kind of rivalry going on with two local birds, who kept trying to dive bomb the poor thing. The grounds were also stunning, and I am sure not much different at all from when Enos and Lucy settled the area and built the house. It is surrounded by woods and hills.

Kate in Front of the Pomeroy Milk Shed
To view the photo essays of our trip, follow the link to the APHGA Facebook page!

Here are links to my articles about the Spaulding family on the APHGA blog:

The story of the Spaulding sisters: Nancy, Deborah, Lydia and Mary:

Reverend Spaulding, Josiah, and the Cage:

The Spaulding family’s religious beliefs and experience with epidemic disease:

Parts One and Two of ‘The Descendents of Lydia Spaulding: A Legacy of Mental Health Activism’. There is much more on this story that Pat and I have uncovered and I am expanding it now, but this is an introduction:

[i] For those followers of the Spaulding/Pomeroy families of Buckland on the APHGA blog, the story of Reverend Spaulding and his family is already familiar. If anyone would like to get acquainted with this amazing story, links to previous blog posts will be provided at the end of the article. To quickly recap, the APHGA was lent and allowed to scan a collection of 144 letters sent to us by one of our members. The letters were written by Pomeroys and Spauldings over 200 years ago. The families intermarried and lived in Western Massachusetts in the early 1800s. Pat Whipple and I, along with our other APHGA researchers, have been researching these families for almost a year now, and I have transcribed the letters and written about them. The letters reveal an incredible story of the Spaulding family of Buckland, headed by patriarch Reverend Josiah Spaulding and his wife, Mary Williams. They had four daughters and one son- Josiah Jr., who was thought to be insane and kept in a cage in the family home. The letters were mostly written by the four Spaulding sisters; Mary (who married Isaac Pomeroy of Southampton), Lydia, Nancy and Deborah. Mary’s sister-in-law, Deborah Pomeroy Trowbridge, was also a very prolific letter-writer and involved member of the family. She lived in Buckland.

[ii] http://www.eric-goldscheider.com/id74.html
[iii] http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=59554737