For natives of Massachusetts' 'lost towns,' painful memories
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By STEPHANIE REITZ
Associated Press Writer
WARE, Mass. (AP) -- At 12:01 a.m. on April 28, 1938, four valley towns in western Massachusetts ceased to exist -- their main streets and family farms soon to become the silty bottom of the massive Quabbin reservoir.
Seventy years later, the Quabbin's importance as one of the nation's largest manmade water sources is unchallenged. Billions of gallons from the reservoir have sustained greater Boston's growth for decades as the watershed, now teeming with wildlife, has become an environmental treasure.
Yet for remaining natives of the four "lost towns," all now in their 70s or older, nostalgia blends with sorrow and occasional flashes of bitterness. They continue to gather at least once a month to reminisce, clinging tenaciously to the bonds their families forged in towns long since erased from the map.
Each native has a story: passing cemeteries as ancestors' bodies were moved, watching helplessly as grandparents cried in frustration, realizing the drinking water of strangers had been deemed more important than their families' roots.
"That was the only place we'd ever known," Bob Wilder, an Enfield native, said of the hardscrabble farming town his family left in 1938 when he was a boy. "I try not to get mad when I think about it anymore, but that was home. I can't really ever go home."
The Quabbin area, named for a Nipmuck Indian word that roughly translates to "the meeting place of many waters," had almost 2,700 residents at the turn of the 20th century when it caught the eye of state planners.
Many families, including Wilder's, had settled there before the Revolutionary War.
Its modest population, clean rivers and attractive topography -- all among the reasons many families had stayed for generations -- also led to its downfall as planners sought sites for a reservoir to meet Boston's growing demand.
The state's Metropolitan District Water Supply Commission and state lawmakers made it official in 1927, picking the valley and setting up funds for the reservoir.
Even the money that residents received under eminent domain -- an average of $108 per acre, about $1,600 in today's dollars -- was inadequate to many who tried to set up new farms, businesses and lives amid strangers in that Depression era.
By the time the towns of Enfield, Dana, Prescott and Greenwich were dissolved, many families already had given up the fight, buying new homes elsewhere with their payoffs or having their old post-and-beam homes taken apart and rebuilt in nearby towns.
"The houses came down. We were scattered," said 94-year-old Anne Bullock, whose family moved out of Enfield and who met her future husband when he worked on the reservoir project.
When the last residents were out of the towns, construction crews razed the remaining structures down to the stone foundations and empty cellar holes.
When the valley was cleared, the Swift River was unleashed. Within seven years, much of the four towns was under up to 150 feet of water.
Dana's former town common is an exception, a spot in the protected watershed where hikers follow crumbling bits of road past old foundations and stone walls as they follow streets that disappear at the water's edge.
Looking north from the Quabbin's visitor center in Ware, the valley that was once dotted with ancestral homes, family farms and quaint main streets is now a vast expanse of water covering 25,000 acres.
About 120,000 more acres are preserved as protected watershed land, including the former Dana commons. The remains of huge hills, once perfect for sledding and childhood exploration, are now islands and peninsulas covering almost 16,000 acres.
"It took me many, many years to reconcile myself to the fact that it's a really beautiful place now," Wilder, now living in Brookfield, said during a recent gathering of "lost town" natives at the visitor center.
Wilder was a schoolboy when he and his parents, grandparents and siblings left Enfield on the morning after the town's disincorporation, riding away in a friend's ice-hauling truck with their modest possessions and a few farm animals. The bodies of 13 of his ancestors already had been moved to a new cemetery, along with about 7,600 others who had lived and died in the area over the generations.
The forced move came at a time when families were less mobile than they are today. The area was linked to Athol and Springfield by rail, but many residents had never ventured out of the valley towns.
"You had what you needed there," said Enfield native Dorothy Bish, 74, whose father was the town's last barber before they packed up and moved to Amherst.
Her parents were among the hordes who crowded into Enfield Town Hall for the farewell dance to mark the waning hours of the four towns' existence. People who could not get tickets danced on the lawn, milled around the streets and waited for midnight.
Many valley families and the state of Connecticut, fearing its water supply would be affected, had tried unsuccessfully to block the project over the years.
But on that day in April 1938, with no other alternatives, the last residents packed and left. Many spent the rest of their lives looking backward.
"For the rest of his life after we left, my father said he could never go home," said Linda Smith, 73, who was a toddler when her family left Greenwich and her father closed his auto repair business in Dana.
Clifton Read, who heads education programs at the Quabbin visitor center, has grown close with several "lost town" natives over the years and said he still marvels over their families' sacrifices.
"People were promised that this project was being built to provide a very vital resource for a significant portion of the state's population, and we take that promise very seriously," he said.
Today, the Quabbin holds up to 412 billion gallons of water, picking up 1.6 billion gallons for every inch of precipitation. Fed by gravity to lower-lying greater Boston, planners say it's expected to serve the region's water needs for the foreseeable future.
The visitor center and Swift Valley Historical Society receive hundreds of visitors yearly looking for old vital records, journals, donated family mementos and other genealogical treasures.
Had the Quabbin towns survived, many people in the region think strip malls, subdivisions and fast-food joints would have replaced the family farms and modest shops immortalized in the black-and-white photos.
"I think what captures our imagination is that these towns are a snapshot in time. They didn't keep changing like other places," said Robert Clark, past president of the Friends of Quabbin volunteer group.
"What we remember is those towns at that moment in time, and then it was gone."