Water Closet for June 12, 2015
[pullquote]”It was in this area, then called “The Farms” of Salem, where our town began, and Friday we started and ended our walk. “[/pullquote]2015 AD. For almost 400 years English has been spoken here by the self proclaimed owners of the land. Puritans, and otherwise, came in numbers in the 1620s and ‘30s to Naumkeag and Agawam territories to be called soon after arrival Salem and Ipswich. Fishermen had visited summers starting a century before to catch and salt cod for Old World markets. In the 1610s some brought diseases to which the natives had little or no resistance. In the later part of that terrible decade, “time of the great death”, most died. Their fire-cultivation cleared land along the coast was left to the newcomers. In ten years of weekly Water Closet essays this story has been repeated differently many times. It looms too close behind us, won’t go away. Some old Stream Teamers and Closeteers try hard to imagine the lay of the land before and after English livestock and roads. The Indians had foot paths, the Colonists somewhat wider paths for horse and ox drawn carts. The latter marked out bounds and claimed the land within. Their prolific hoofed animals kept much of the land cleared and patches even bare thus vulnerable to erosion from over grazing. As the voices of humans here quickly changed from Algonquian to English; the land changed too.
While walking around town, wandering off paved roads and wondering about years gone by we conjure up different places, far quieter without engines. And if we go back a little further one hears no oinks, moos, baas, and whinnies of hogs, cattle, sheep and horses. We don’t know how loudly the Indians yelled, sang or drummed. Accounts have the men at times noisily excited while gambling.1
Last Friday, a lovely June morning, Council on Aging/Conservation Commission hikers left center Middleton on our oldest English roads, the first cart paths. On Old South Main we walked past William and Sarah George’s 300 year old house and then on by the town’s first cemetery where such notables as farmer-miller-slave owner Timothy Fuller and the Reverend Andrew Peters have long rested. Their graves are only two rods2 apart; neither got much rest when alive, or so the story goes, while thinking about each other. Our baker’s dozen of hikers turned northeast around the pine shaded knoll with ancient graves on to quiet Mt. Vernon Street graced by a few old oaks. We were in the Middleton Brook watershed en route to the Ipswich River. In getting there we’d descend 50 ft. from the start without realizing it. A 50 ft. descent in a mile and climb on return must seem easy even for old timers. However, some walkers claimed the three mile loop, our usual distance, felt different in the legs this time. The water in the nearby brook that responds to gravity realizes the drop. Timothy Fuller had known too when he built a big dam for a sawmill pond 60 rods or so just down brook from Mt. Vernon Street. A century later Dr. Silas Merriam also appreciated the power of falling water when he built a grist mill upstream below Estey’s Tavern. Those long gone dams and millponds slowed the flow. Danvers Water Department’s large dam, a quarter mile above the site of Merriam’s mill and the Flint Library, now tames the once fast running brook bringing water down from North Reading and western Middleton. The remains of Fuller’s dam can still be clearly seen. Twice yearly we visit the site on this roundabout-loop to the river and back. Friday we couldn’t cross the brook’s wet flanks to it. Earlier in the week Middleton had received 3.7” of badly needed rain. The brook was up several inches; the river, our destination, two feet.
So we crossed over Middleton Brook passing below us in a culvert and turned east on to a very friendly young family’s lawn. All five were in front of the house as if they were heading off somewhere. The parents and three kids who had seen us pass in previous years seemed curious about our outings. Their house and barn are very old. Beside the barn is their chicken yard. The buildings and residents, both people and birds, fit nicely with our theme of days when the land was farmed. The father kindly told us where to cross their land to Richardson Farm fields. After passing through a small wood along an old stone wall the path was blocked by boulders meant to keep out vehicles. We had no trouble sliding over and on to the edge of a fine field of timothy hay that blended in the distance with a much greater acreage of corn, a tame annual grass covering most of the farm’s cultivated land to the river. Around the edges of timothy and corn are lots of what most farmers dub weeds; naturalists call them flowers. On the best land in the brook and river bottoms we knew the Indians had also planted corn. Theirs was probably head-high at maturity in September with beans and squash climbing up and around the stalks. The ankle high “cow corn” grown for silage we admired Friday may reach 12 feet by harvest.
Below the pleasantly sloping fields we visited where Middleton Brook converges with the Ipswich River through a culvert under a gravel access road to a stone quarry. The beautiful floodplain of the river is now dominated for two miles by a lush crop of reed-canary grass. A decade ago purple loosestrife ruled. It is gone except for a few isolated clumps. West of the road is a rich swamp extending up the brook without a channel. En route the water slows in a widening swamp below the farm fields, pasture to the west and corn to the east. You can see both when passing from South Main Street (Route 114). An even better view is from the heights of the east end of Oakdale cemetery. As TV car salesman Ernie Boch would say with a little modification, “Come on up!” We might add, “You needn’t stay for awhile yet.”
We reluctantly left the juncture of the river and contributing brook and walked north along the river’s edge to a fine oak wood that led us up slope to Middleton’s graveyard, well kept by the town. We read the names of people remembered while slowly walking under great oaks out to Maple Street. There we continued west to ancient King Street and then back to the center. In doing so we walked up through the planned common bordered by King, Mt. Vernon, and old South Main streets. The soon to be Henry Tragert3 Town Common is a pretty mix of playing field with bandstand, mature grove of handsome sugar maples on land sloping to Boston Brook’s wetlands, and King Street beyond lined huge shagbark hickories. On the northwest corner of the playground, in the one time Center Grammar School, is our town hall. It was in this area, then called “The Farms” of Salem, where our town began, and Friday we started and ended our walk. We had seen no Indians or English farmers yet we spoke the latter’s language in ways we doubt they’d understand.
1. See chapter 14 on Indian games in William Wood’s one of kind 1634 book entitled New England Prospect. In the opinion of one old Closeteer all Yankee households should have a copy of this candid and often delightful eyewitness account of our area’s weather, land, native peoples, plants and animals, by an Englishman with few Puritan hang ups. His open mind, sharp eyes and ears were here 1629 to 1633.
2. A rod is a linear unit of measurement 16.5 ft. long. It was a common surveyors’ unit of measurement. A football field is 18 rods goal to goal. Our hero Henry David Thoreau who did surveying on the side used rods. Many of our old street layouts are 2 rod wide roads.
3. Henry Tragert recently stepped down after 19 years as the Historical Society’s president. He served on several town boards including selectman and was for a long time our very able town meeting moderator.
WATER RESOURCE AND CONSERVATION INFORMATION
FOR MIDDLETON, BOXFORD AND TOPSFIELD`
|Precipitation Data* for Month of:||March||April||May||June|
|30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches||4.65||4.53||4.06||3.95|
|2015 Central Watershed Actual||3.62||2.38||0.94||2.5 as of 6/12**|
Ipswich R. Flow Rate (S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):
For June 12, 2015 Normal . . . 33 CFS Current Rate . . . 46 CFS
*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data thru April.
**Middleton Stream Team is source of actual precipitation data for June.
Normals data is from the National Climatic Data Center.
THE WATER CLOSET is provided by the Middleton Stream Team: www.middletonstreamteam.org or <MSTMiddletonMA@gmail.com> or (978) 777-4584