Book Bag: ‘Who knew’ mines region’s rich past; ‘World’s End’ tours a Frederick Law Olmsted classic

Staff Writer
Thursday, August 19, 2021

Who Knew? Roadside Revelations
in Western Massachusetts

By Robert E. Weir, Levellers Press

Freelance journalist Robert E. Weir had another job for almost four decades: teaching history at high schools and colleges across the Valley, including the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges.

Now Weir, who lives in Northampton, has combined his interest in history and journalism to produce an unusual and lively tour guide, “Who Knew? Roadside Revelations in Western Massachusetts,” a look at buildings, monuments, places and people in the region that might be known by sight, but whose stories are anything but.

Ranging across the Valley and out to Berkshire County, Weir also teases out pieces of history likely unknown to all but a few devotees or local historians. In “Who Knew?” published by Levellers Press of Amherst, the author also places these chapters of local history within the context of larger social and political developments in the U.S.

For instance, the 1888 novel “Looking Backward,” by Edward Bellamy, became one of the best-selling novels of its time and a touchstone for socialist organizations the world over. It’s a time-traveling story that Weir calls “the single-most-important utopian vision” in our nation’s history, one that, among other things, imagined an alternative to cutthroat capitalism and anticipated developments such as “radio, credit cards, shopping malls, and e-commerce.”

Yet how many of us know that Bellamy was born in Chicopee in 1850? Or that he drew inspiration for “Looking Backward” from the increasing labor-management strife and the gap between the haves and have-nots of that era, both in the greater Springfield area and other parts of the U.S.? (He worked as a journalist in New York for a stretch.)

Today, Weir notes, Bellamy’s childhood home, after passing into private ownership for decades, is maintained by a preservation group with limited means, such that the house is only open for private appointments. He writes that when he’s told that story to people he’s met from Europe, Australia and other places, many of whom revere Bellamy for his vision of a more equitable society, they’re astonished that the homestead of someone they consider “one of the most famous people of all time” isn’t better preserved.

Want the backstory to some better-known local oddities and landmarks? Weir investigates the giant concrete milk bottle (more that 6,800 lbs.) in the center of Whately. It was created in 1925 by Clara and Fred Wells, the owners of Quonquont Farm, one of three dairies in town at the time, and the couple positioned it on Route 5 to lure growing numbers of motorists to their roadside stand, which sold ice cream, pies and sandwiches.

The bottle stayed on Route 5 until 1943, after which it had a long and roundabout journey to other parts of Whately, fell into disrepair and was almost destroyed, then was rescued and restored by a number of groups and individuals and positioned just outside the town’s former elementary school in the 1990s.

“What school doesn’t need a giant milk bottle?” Weir writes.

Ever wondered why tiny Conway has such an elegant stone library, with its soaring dome and beneath that a rotunda that boasts a marble floor and muscular Ionic columns? It came courtesy of Marshall Field, the fabulously wealthy 19th-century businessman who created a leading department store chain and a natural history museum in Chicago, among other enterprises.

Field was born in Conway in 1834 and grew up on his family’s farm before heading west for better financial opportunities. Like many Gilded Age business barons, writes Weir, Field adamantly opposed labor unions but was also a philanthropist, and one of his gifts was this hometown library named for him; it opened in 1901.

“Who Knew?” explores many other nooks and crannies in this part of the state: a historic house in Cummington that housed Jewish refugees during World War II; the connection between Mount Greylock and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”; and South Hadley’s Skinner Museum, “a place so gloriously behind the times,” Weir writes, “that it nearly doubles back on itself to become cutting edge!”

“The bottom line,” he adds in the book’s introduction, “is that Western Mass. eccentricities, quirks, and social history make [the region] unique.” Indeed.


World’s End: A Panoramic Tour of a Frederick Law Olmsted Classic

By Mark Roessler, Levellers Press


Another new release from Levellers Press takes a look at a different kind of history: a property south of Boston that the famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted created for a proposed Victorian housing development that never came to pass. Today it’s preserved as a park named World’s End and maintained by the Massachusetts conservation group The Trustees of Reservations.

The 400-acre property, on a narrow peninsula in Hingham, features old carriage roads and trails that range over gentle hills, through woods, and across fields before bringing visitors down to salt marshes and rocky sections of shoreline on the Atlantic Ocean. Views extend in places to Boston and the town of Hull, among others.

In his coffee-table style book, “World’s End,” Valley photographer, writer, and graphic designer Mark Roessler offers a rich photographic tour of the property, with many panoramic images that span two pages. Roessler has also photographed in all four seasons, and in some cases he offers views of the same landscapes, such as a point called Planter’s Hill, in winter and summer.

Aside from capturing this unusual pastoral setting so close to Boston, Roessler’s book includes maps and background information on Olmsted’s work, including his design of World’s End, and the designer’s own photographic record of his creations. “It is clear to me that Frederick Law Olmsted thought in three hundred sixty degrees,” he writes. “I’d like to think my efforts here are an extension of that work.”

Roessler also notes that World’s End was once considered as a possible home for the United Nations building — and in 1967 as a site for a nuclear power plant. Thankfully, he notes, the property was preserved, and unlike many of Olmsted’s landscape projects, this one remains mostly unchanged from its initial design.

“Its beauty is resilient,” he writes. “Olmsted recognized that. His master stroke was only enhancing what was there.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.