Books

‘Footnotes to Northampton’s History’ by John S. Bowman; ‘An Island in Time’ by Sharon Dunn

Footnotes to Northampton’s
History
by John S. Bowman

Freelance writer and editor John Bowman of Northampton has written about a number of subjects over the years, from the history of baseball in the region to his experience producing comic operas while serving in the US Army in West Germany in the 1950s — part of a larger effort at that time by the US government to counter Soviet communism through cultural means.

In a new book, “Footnotes to Northampton History,” Bowman offers a collection of little-known or largely forgotten anecdotes about some significant historical figures — local names and well as national ones — who have ties to Northampton. And these are not, primarily, about usual suspects such as Jonathan Edwards and Calvin Coolidge.

Instead, Bowman taps some names you wouldn’t associate with Northampton — such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

In 1791, Jefferson was the secretary of state in George Washington’s first presidential administration, while Madison, a key architect of the US Constitution, was a member of Congress from Virginia. That spring, they made a trip to the Northeast in part, Bowman writes, because Jefferson, the farmer and naturalist, wanted to examine damage to wheat crops caused by an insect pest, the Hessian fly.

Their itinerary took the two Founding Fathers through parts of New York state and Vermont and then to western Massachusetts, including a June 7 stop in Northampton, where Jefferson and Madison stayed at an inn owned by a man named Asahel Pomeroy. And, Bowman notes, Jefferson had a rating system — good, middling and bad — in his travel diary, and he rated Pomeroy’s Inn “good.”

Probing another connection, Bowman writes that one of America’s greatest presidents — Franklin Delano Roosevelt — traced part of his lineage to one of the key founders of colonial Northampton, John Lyman, who with his brothers Following Richard and Robert came to the area in 1654. the ancestral path of John Lyman to FDR makes for an interesting journey.

Ever hear of Chauncey Wright? Most of us likely haven’t, but this Northampton native and 19th-century philosopher and mathematician was a significant figure in the American philosophical school known as pragmatism. He was also an American voice promoting Darwinism, and Bowman says an 1877 English journal described Wright as “one of the finest philosophical minds which America or any country has produced.”

Bowman touches on some more familiar names, such as pioneer aviator Amelia Earhart, who lived in town in 1919 and took a course on auto mechanics. Sylvester Graham also gets a mention, not for his promotion of vegetarianism and graham flour products but rather his possible connection to a pioneering though short-lived school in Northampton, the Round Hill School, in the 1820s and early 1830s.

Among a number of famous figures who spent time at Smith College, Bowman notes that Senda Berenson, born Senda Valvrojenski in Lithuania in 1868, came to the school in 1892 as a gymnastics instructor. But over the next several years, she also introduced Smithies to basketball, then designed the first official rules set for women’s basketball; today she’s in the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

Considering the anti-immigrant sentiment in the US at the time, notably against people from Eastern Europe and especially against Jewish immigrants—Berenson was from a Jewish family—her success was stunning, Bowman says. “Senda Berenson was simply too remarkable an individual, too accomplished, to be put down.”

An Island in Time by Sharon Dunn; The Rose Press

Since the 1990s, Leverett writer Sharon Dunn and her husband have spent many summers or parts of them on a sliver — about one square mile — of Cape Cod known as Bound Brook Island, in the northwest corner of the town of Wellfleet near the border with Truro.

It’s not really an island, though two small bodies of water run along part of its northern and eastern edges, while Cape Cod Bay forms its western boundary. Dunn notes that detailed maps from the 1770s show those water boundaries were once more substantial, meaning Bound Brook Island “was not misnamed.”

Regardless, Dunn notes that on the crowded Cape, the wooded terrain of Bound Brook, with just a handful of houses, still forms a quiet oasis, much like an island.

Her love for the land inspired Dunn to write “An Island in Time,” a history — a micro-history, really — of the area that’s also a chronicle of her personal exploration of Bound Brook, an analysis of its geological bones, and a profile of some former residents. She’s plumbed old maps, photographs, town records, county deeds and census data to pull together a compelling portrait of this distinct area.

Today Bound Brook Island is part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, but in centuries past it was home to the native Punonakanit people, Dunn notes, and after European colonists arrived it became a setting for saltworks, raising hay, and fishing, in the 1820s, Methodist camp meetings.

Because relatively few people have lived there — Dunn says the population probably peaked in 1850, with 26 households, about 150 people, and a schoolhouse — “An Island in Time” offers detailed profiles of some former residents. One was Lorenzo Dow Baker, born in 1840, who became a successful sea captain, then a businessman who was the first to import bananas from Jamaica to the US

Yet by 1910, Bound Brook Island was unoccupied, Dunn notes, and only a handful of abandoned houses stood on the windswept land, which had largely been deforested.

The increase in tourism in the 20th century brought some renewed life to the region, Dunn says, with newcomers repairing existing houses for summer homes or building new structures, though the inclusion of the land in the National Seashore has kept houses to a minimum. Forests have rebounded, and there’s only one paved road on the island (as well as sandy paths that go back centuries).

Ultimately, “An Island in Time” is Dunn’s love letter to this small corner of Cape Cod.

“I want the island to remain the haven I’ve found it to be, a quiet place where one can begin to apprehend what the old days felt like — no tarred roads, no noise from Route 6, no cell service, no store, and most houses hidden from view by vegetation gone wild.”

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

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