Oh, I am fascinated by origins.
Recognizing the direct and personal link to layers of history and our forebears was what attached me to New Orleans moments after I landed on its terrain in 1981.When I arrived in Ashfield 25 years later, stories tying Ashfield to its days before the American Revolution staked my soul here, as well.
I live in a 200 year-old house, and the ancestors whose spirits I disturbed with my suitcase of arrival entertain me with their stories of the past, daily. (No, wait, that’s not actual history, that’s Crazytown, but my late-night readings from Frederick G Howes’ History of Ashfield tell me I know what they’re saying.)
And then, I write. Frequently my columns entail stories of the past, like that of Dr. Charles Knowlton, early 19th century Ashfield resident and the man who introduced the concept of birth control to the women of America. (True story!)
In one column I detailed the 1857 moving of Ashfield’s First Congregational Church down Norton Hill Road, where it landed in its new role as our town tall. In a subsequent piece about Stuart Harris, Ashfield’s structural-restorer of all things older than he is, I wondered how many oxen it must have taken to hold that 100-foot building to a slow roll, instead of letting free-falling gravity have its way with it down the steep slope to Main Street.
In my relating of history, it must be said that I am a storyteller — not a liar, certainly, but I do love infusing my historical narratives with thoughts of what might have surrounded the moment being written about. It’s what makes history real and immediate to me. What were those people thinking about, and how did it all work?
So I write my columns for the Recorder, the Ashfield News or elsewhere, and then, a few days later I get an email:
Nan, I enjoyed your article in the Recorder. However, I do have one correction, which should be noted in your next article. The First Congregational Church building was moved from its original location, at what is now the front part of Hill Cemetery, in 1857 to its present location on Main Street. However, it continued to be used as a church until its remaining members reunited with the Second Congregational Church members. They sold the building in December 1870 to the town to be used as the town hall. See F.G. Howes history, page 259. – Nancy
Nan, it was a wonderful article about Stuart! The only thing I would add is that there was only one pair of oxen involved in the move. And the apparatus used to move the building was a capstan. I have included the articles about this in the material I have copied for you.
These emails came from Nancy Garvin, secretary for the Ashfield Historical Society. On the AHS website Nancy is listed as: “Secretary. Also, Indexing, Newsletter, Research, Correspondence, Family History Project, Genealogy.” Nancy Gray Garvin always corrected anyone who called her an historian with the explanation that she was not an historian, she was a researcher. But indeed, her level of research could put certified historians to shame as, her knife-paring attention to truth and detail drew numerous writers to town to research their early-American subjects, a surprising number of whom started life in the tiny and remote town of Ashfield, Massachusetts.
Depending on my level of misrepresentation, I might be summoned to Nancy’s house to visit, and then, to re-visit my telling of the story. The Dr. Knowlton piece garnered an invitation where I arrived to find my column sitting on the dining room table, with passages highlighted in yellow. Over tea we examined the piece, with word-by-word improvements.
One might think I deliberately wrote misinformation just to be rewarded with these visits and I swear I did not, though history was never more delightful than when being herded back into precision with Nancy Garvin.
On Feb. 28, I learned that Nancy had suddenly gone to join the Originals, the ones she’s written about all these years; suddenly stolen from us by lymphoma that she’d only discovered a month earlier.
I, in my way, imagine her entering the heavenly iteration of Elmer’s Store, where everyone, from Ashfield’s original proprietors of 1739, to those who passed just last month looked up and leapt, cheering to their feet, applauding Nancy for keeping their stories true and verifiable.
And I now expect an email any day, telling me that there were only 332 people cheering, and that some were from Conway.
Thank you, Nancy, from all of us still here, for keeping us honest. I truly don’t know how we’re going to do this without you. And any way we do it, it won’t be nearly as much fun or as accurate without you here, directing us responsibly to the right page in history.
Nan Parati lives and works in Ashfield, where she found home and community following Hurricane Katrina. She can be reached at NanParati@aol.com.