Rural Palimpsests; Or, the Changing Rural Landscape

February 3, 2012 § 9 Comments

Drawing of the Old Hawley Town Commons

About 18 months ago, I wrote this piece about the old Town Commons in Hawley, Massachusetts. I was struck by the history of what could no longer be seen in Hawley at the Town Commons where, in the mid-19th century, there was a vibrant townsite.  Hawley also stirred up my own memories of having lived in a ghost town as a teenager, on the old town site of Ioco, British Columbia, now a part of Port Moody, BC.  But Ioco, which will eventually become condos, I’m sure, was a (sub)urban townsite.  Hawley is a town a few miles west of the Middle of Nowhere.

In urban centres, we see the ruins of past civilisations all around us, whether they are palimpsests of old advertisements on the sides of buildings, or the ruins of buildings, still dotting the landscape.  Indeed, I wrote my doctoral dissertation and a book on a neighbourhood that was, at least when I started writing, a ruin: Griffintown, Montréal.  A decade ago, the landscape of Griffintown was an urban ruin, the foundations of the old Irish-Catholic Church, St. Ann’s, poking through the grass of Parc St. Ann/Griffintown; the rectory of the French Catholic Church, Ste-Hélène still stands, but the church is long gone, just a few corner stones and the remains of an iron fence are left.  But this is a city, and cities, we are constantly reminded by scholars, poets, novelists, film-makers, etc., are living organisms, built to be rebuilt, constantly evolving and changing. By definition, then, the rural landscape is unchanging and constant.

Don’t believe me? Spend a bit of time reading literature set in the countryside.  Or watch movies. Read poems.  The landscape of the country side is eternal and unchanging.  Entire nations have been built on the mythology of the countryside (I’m looking at you, Ireland!).  Here in Québec, Maria Chapdelaine, a major novel of the early 20th century nationalist school explicitly tied the virtue of the nation to the land. The anti-modernists of a century ago celebrated the unchanging “natural” landscape of the countryside as a tonic for the frayed nerves of modern man.  In Canada, the Group of Seven built their entire careers/legends on representing Ontario’s mid-North back to us as the nation.  Watch a Molson Canadian ad these days, and you’ll learn that Canada has more square miles of “awesomeness” than any other country on Earth.  And all that awesomeness is somewhere in the wheat fields of Saskatchewan. But the rural landscape DOES change and evolve, as the Old Hawley Town Commons will tell you.

This is where Robert Corrigan was fatally beaten on 17 October 1855

This was brought all the closer to me in late November, when I travelled out to Saint-Sylvestre, Québec, which is located about 70km south of Québec City, in the Appalachian foothills.  I was there because a long time ago, I wrote my MA thesis on the Corrigan Affair, which erupted in Saint-Sylvestre on 17 October 1855 when Robert Corrigan, an Irish-Protestant bully, was beaten to death by a gang of his Irish-Catholic neighbours.  The mid-1850s saw the height of sectarianism in Canada and a murder case involving the two groups of Irish proved to be too much for many Anglo-Protestant Canadians to take and a national crisis broke out.  By the time the Affair was over in 1858, not only had Corrigan’s murderers been acquitted of all charges, the McNab-Taché coalition government had fallen. All these years later, I had it in my mind that it was time to do something with the Corrigan Affair.  I had done my best to avoid it after I finished my MA, I did attempt to write an academic article, but it seemed to me to be too good a story to be wasted in a journal article that no one would ever read.  So I have decided to write a book that no one will ever read, but at least a book is a physical thing, something to offer tribute to this rather amazing story that erupted onto the front pages of newspapers across British North America from a rural backwater. So it was out to Saint-Sylvestre to meet Steve Cameron, a local man who has a deep interest in the Corrigan Affair and the history of the Saint-Sylvestre region in general.

Corrigan's homestead, Saint-Sylvestre, Québec

Hugh Russell's farm

Steve offered to give me the grand tour of the landscape, where the Corrigan Affair took place.  I don’t really know what I expected, but I certainly didn’t expect what I saw: the entire landscape of Saint-Sylvestre and the landscape of the Corrigan Affair is gone, completely changed in the 155 years since Corrigan’s death. He was beaten on the county fair grounds; the site where he was beaten is completely non-descript today, just a corner of a farmer’s field.  Corrigan’s homestead is covered with scrub and a random cross someone threw up sometime in the past century.  Where the farm of Corrigan’s friend, Hugh Russell was once located there is nothing but high tension electrical wires, forest, and a dirt road passing by in front.  There is no evidence of human habitation ever having stood there.  Where the Protestants had their burial ground here in the backwoods of Saint-Sylvestre/Saint-Gilles, there is nothing left but a stone wall, though the grave yard has been carefully and lovingly restored by Steve’s organisation, Coirneal Cealteach.

Old Anglican grave yard in the backwoods of Saint-Sylvestre

In short, the rural landscape is just as dynamic of that of the city. In Saint-Sylvestre, the mostly Irish-Catholic farmers were settled on poor farming land in a harsh and unforgiving landscape; their descendants left.  And in their stead, nature reclaimed its place. When I first began studying Griffintown a decade ago, Talking Heads’ song “Nothing But Flowers” kept creeping into my head as I pondered the ruins of the churches, the trees growing in vacant lots and the vegetation in the cracks of the concrete.  But “Nothing But Flowers” applies just as much to Hawley or Saint-Sylvestre or countless other rural landscapes once settled by humans who have long since moved on.


January 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

Ah, what the hell, this is my blog, if I can’t flog my media appearances and other publications and whatnot here, where can I?  I’ve been rather silent around here for the past 8 months or so, though that will change in the coming weeks.

First, I have submitted the manuscript for my book, The House of the Irish: History, Memory & Diaspora in Griffintown, Montreal, to the publisher.  It is out for review now, and with any luck, it will appear on bookshelves and on-line stores around this time next year. Academic publishing moves rather slow at times.  As long as The House of the Irish appears before 2014, we’re good.   I published an article on the Montreal Shamrocks Hockey Club at the turn of the last century in a book edited by John Chi-Kit Wong of Washington State University, entitled Coast to Coast: Hockey in Canada to the Second World War. I wrote the article in 2005-6, it was published in 2009.

I have a raft of ideas for the next projects, but two I am pursuing, or will be once I get the chance later this semester are:
1) I wrote my MA thesis on the Corrigan Affair, which involved the fatal beating of a neighbourhood bully, Robert Corrigan, by a gang of his neighbours in Saint-Sylvestre, Québec, in October 1855.  Corrigan was an Irish Protestant, and his attackers, Irish Catholics. What’s more, the Orange Order and an Irish Catholic secret society, the Ribbonmen, got involved. This led Corrigan’s death to become a cause célèbre in the era of heavy sectarian tensions in 1850s Canada.  Right now, this looks like it will become a book.

2) Boston as the cultural centre of the Irish diaspora. I am fascinated by the Irishification of Boston in recent years in pop culture. Sure, Boston’s always been a major centre of the Irish diaspora, but as the city itself has become less and less Irish over the years, it has become more and more green in pop culture.  Aside from the obvious, a basketball team called the Celtics, you’ve also got the Affleck brothers who play up that Southie culture in film, the novels of Dennis Lehane, and, of course, the music of the Dropkick Murphys.  I’m not sure how this will proceed, whether as an article, a book, or a documentary film, but time will tell.

In the meantime, last month’s controversy surrounding the Habs and the firing of Jacques Martin and his replacement by a unilingually Anglo coach in Randy Cunneyworth found me doing a bit of punditry in the national media here in the Great White North.  First, an article that appeared on and then I was on Global National news later that week. And way back in September, I welcomed the Winnipeg Jets back to the NHL on the National Council on Public History’s Off the Wall blog.

At any rate, as I move forward with these projects and begin to think about history, memory, and the public in coming months, there will be a lot more here. As they say, “Watch this space!”

Old Hawley Town Commons Redux

April 24, 2011 § 2 Comments

Last October, I wrote a piece on the Old Hawley Town Commons in Massachusetts.  Hawley is a tiny and sparsely populated township in the hills of Western Massachusetts. There isn’t more than 350 people in Hawley and there is no actual centre to the town, residents rely on neighbouring Charlemont for services.

The hills of Western Massachusetts are fascinating from an historical perspective, the landscape is dotted with abandoned homes and farmsteads. Up the hill from our home there, there is an ancient stone fence, designed to demarcate one farm from the next. Surrounding this fence is nothing but trees, there is no clearance, no evidence of there ever having been any agricultural, or for that matter, any human, activity there. At the bottom of our hill, there is an abandoned farmhouse, said to be haunted by the ghost of an old farmwife who lost her mind.

As I noted in October, when we think historically about the landscape, we tend to think of cities, of the archaeology of settlement and industry in urban centres. But the Old Hawley Town Commons reminds us that the wilderness also has stories to tell us. I am revisiting the Old Hawley Town Commons because of a comment I received on the October post from John Sears, the historian of the site. You can visit the website here, and you can take a virtual tour.

John also reports in his comment that:

Recently, the Sons & Daughters of Hawley received a new grant from MassHumanities to carry out an archeological dig at the site of the Sanford Tavern at Hawley’s Old Town Common in collaboration with Mohawk Trail Regional High School. Students from the school will participate in the dig under the supervision of an archeologist and a teacher. We hope to learn something new about life in Hawley 180 years ago!

Metropolitan Statistic Areas

October 16, 2010 § 3 Comments

As an addendum to Wednesday’s post on the old Town Commons of Hawley:

Usually, I study cities and the palimpsests of history upon them, the ways in which their histories are used by their publics and their powers that be, and historians as well.  Hawley is about as rural a place you can get.  But, Hawley (and all the tiny towns around it, none of which have much more than 1000 people in them) is included in something called the Springfield Census Metropolitan Statistical Area.  The Springfield CMSA is home to over 680,000 people.  Sounds impressive, no?  But this is an artificial “Metropolitan” area, as are all such beasts.  To wit, Springfield is actually home to about 155,000 people.  Certainly, there are cities within the Springfield CMSA beyond Springfield, like West Springfield and Holyoke.  But Hawley isn’t a city.  And it’s not exactly near Springfield.  It’s about 45 miles away, in fact.

Thus, the Springfield CMSA is an artificial catchment area.  Officially, the US Office of Management and Budget and the US Census Bureau make use of CMSAs for policy making and the like.  The basic idea behind the CMSA is an urban “cluster”, a region with a relatively high population density.  The outlying areas are included if they have strong ties to the central urban centre.  And this is where the Springfield CMSA doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Hawley and the towns around it are not all that closely connected culturally or economically with Springfield.  Instead, Greenfield in the Pioneer Valley and Pittsfield, in the Berkshires, are the urban centres that are tied to these towns.  Northampton could also make a claim.  It is to these places that the residents of Hawley, Charlemont, Plainfield, Ashfield, etc., commute if they commute.  Rarely is it Springfield.

But this might also explain their inclusion in the Springfield CMSA, as both Greenfield and Northampton lie within it.  And so the catchment area of Springfield just keeps spreading.  Pittsfield is its own CMSA.  But, still, it remains that deeply rural communities are artificially included in a statistical area that has little if any connection to them.  Life in Hawley and life in Springfield are not even remotely related.  Springfield, despite being a small city, is a downtrodden and gritty one.  Hawley is a rural community nestled into the hills of Western Massachusetts.

Either way, while I can see the argument here, I do not see the statistical value of including Hawley with Springfield.  They are 45 minutes and worlds apart from each other. 

And it also speaks to the danger of trying to compare urban populations.  For example, it is often said that Boston has a population over 5 million.  That’s just not correct.  The City of Boston has 650,000 people in it.  Boston is the centre of Suffolk Co., which has a population of about 760,000.  If you factor in the immediate suburbs of Boston, its population grows to about 1.5 million.  But Boston’s Census Metropolitan Area is home to something close to 4.5 million people.  However, Boston’s CMSA extends from New Hampshire in the north to include most of eastern Massachusetts, as well as ALL of Rhode Island, which itself includes the CMSA of Providence, the largest city in Rhode Island.

In other words, the Boston CMSA covers some 366 square kilometres, and includes regions that, like Hawley, are about as far from urban as you can get.  In short, CMSAs are wildly inaccurate when it comes to measuring and comparing urban populations, especially when definitions of what constitutes a CMSA in the US is not all that consistent across the board, or when other nations use different defintions of what constitutes an urban area.  

For example, in Canada, the equivalent is a Census Metropolitan Area, which is a statistical unit centred around a “large” city, of at least 100,o00 people.  Montréal’s CMA is a much more sensible defintion of such a statistical area, as it includes the core city and the Île-de-Montréal, as well as the neighbouring Île-de-Jésu, which includes Laval, and the south shore, which includes suburbs such as Longeuil.  And then it includes the expanded ring of suburbs that surround the Laval-Montréal-Longeuil nexus.  And while there are rural areas included in this territory, especiallty to the north-west of the Île-de-Montréal, they lie between and betwixt bedroom communities and other regions that are clearly centred on Montréal. 

But, either way, one cannot compare the Boston CMSA to the Montréal CMA because they are not similar birds.  In fact, they might not be birds at all.  To equate Montréal’s with Boston’s, one would have to include Sherbrooke, or Québec, or Ottawa within the Montréal CMA, much like Providence, RI, and Manchester, NH, are included within Boston’s.

Old Hawley Town Commons

October 13, 2010 § 11 Comments

Driving through the hills of Western Massachusetts this past long weekend, we came across the old Town Commons of Hawley.  Hawley today is a town that is home to fewer than 400 people and has no real centre to it.  Aside from a Highways Department, there’s not much evidence of an infrastructure in Hawley, though there is also a Town Hall.  There is no post office or schools in Hawley, nor is there, to my knowledge a church.  There is one corner store, though, but no gas stations.  For services, the people of Hawley tend to travel to neighbouring towns, in particular, Charlemont.

Hawley Town hall

But Hawley has a history.  Pioneers from nearby Hatfield made their way up the mountains and into Hawley.  It was incorporated as a town in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1792.  From then until the mid-19th century, Hawley was a centre of the forestry industry, as well as several smaller businesses, like the usual: blacksmiths, taverns, etc.  There was once an old town commons on what is today called East Hawley Road.

Today, the old Town Commons is the parking lot for a series of trails that explores the bog and lakes around the area.  There is also an information kiosk about the old town commons, including a plan of what used to be there.

Now, it’s not like North America is a place without history, though sometimes it’s as though Europeans seem to think it is.  The aboriginals have been here for thousands of years, and there are remnants and ruins of their cultures littered across the continent.  The Spanish have been in Mexico since the early 16th century.  The French have been in Canada since the early 17th century, around the same time the Dutch and the English landed in what is now the United States.  And those European colonies conquered, colonised, and displaced the aboriginal populations as they expanded across the continent.  So none of this is news, but my point is that there is evidence of earlier settlements and cultures across the continent.

Out west, there are ghost towns.  These places were once booming frontier towns whose time has come and gone.  The most recent spate of ghost towns date from the 80s and 90s, as frontier industry dried up and hit hard times.  Sometimes, the ghost towns aren’t on the frontiers.  As a teenager, I lived in Port Moody, BC, which itself had annexed and old Imperial Oil Company town, cleverly called Ioco (get it, Imperial Oil Co.?).  By the time I lived there in the early 90s, the town had long since been abandoned, the oil refinery on its last legs (it’s since been closed).

Lawn Bowling in Ioco, c. 1920

In the eastern part of the continent, ghost towns are rarer, but if you find yourself in the countryside, there are abandoned farmhouses and homesteads.  In the swamps of Eastern Ontario between Kingston and Ottawa, near the Rideau Canal, one sees countless abandoned homesteads from the windows of the train.  This was marginal land, settled in the 19th century and then abandoned and farm kids moved into the industrial towns and cities that dot the landscape of eastern Ontario.  In Western Massachusetts, the area around Hawley is littered with decaying stone fences that once marked of homesteads from each other.  Now they appear as seemingly random markers in the woods.

But to see visual evidence of a settlement that no longer exists is something else.  I found it slightly strange to be standing on a site that 150 years ago was home to taverns, churches, shops, and the like.  More people lived in Hawley in those days, of course, and travel to the neighbouring towns wasn’t as easy as it is today.  The roads of Western Mass are narrow and windy as they go up and down the hills, around corners, avoiding private property, mountains, hills, lakes, creeks, and rivers.

Drawing of Old Town Commons, Hawley, MA

But once there were people in Hawley, and there was a common.  And that’s where they conducted their business, got married, had their children baptised, got drunk, fought, and came together as a community.  It was rather eery to stand in that same place on a sunny Sunday 150 years later, contemplating whether or not the bog would be a good place to walk the dog, and pondering the Volkswagen, Subaru, and Volvo station wagons that brought the yuppies from Boston, New York, Northampton (and, of course, Montréal) to the trails that lead out from the Old Town Common of Hawley.  The land today is owned by the 5 Colleges of the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts.  And they’re the ones who’ve put the effort into at least re-creating the plan of the Old Commons and they take care of the bog and the trails.

The Shoe on the Other Foot

August 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

Being Canadian, it sometimes feels like we’re the ones on the short end of the stick in global affairs.  We’re the ones the Americans invaded during the War of Independence and again in 1812.  During World War I, the British used our troops as cannon fodder in battles like the Somme.  We have been colonies of the French and the British.  Economically, we’re largely dependent upon the Americans.  Our peoples are descendent from the colonised of the world (ok, so is the rest of the Western world).  In short, I think Canadians like to see themselves as victims, or at least feel like victims far too often.  This is why winning double gold medals in hockey over the Americans at the Olympics is such a big deal.  For that moment, we’re the winners.

The once-great Vancouver band, Spirit of the West, wrote a song back in the early 90s called “Far Too Canadian.”  It’s a lament for our status as hewers of wood and drawers of water, amongst other things.  The lyrics:

I’m so content, to stand in line
Wait and see, pass the time
Talk a streak, fall alseep, wake up late, whine and weep
I kiss the hand that slaps me senseless
I’m so accepting, so defenseless
I am far too Canadian
Far  too  Canadian

I am the face of my country
Experssionless and small
Weak at the knees, shaking badly
Can’t straighten up at all
I watch the spine of my country bend and break
I’m a sorry state.

A sobering thought, that song. And all the cheesy, stupid, lame-brained Molson Canadian ads in the world (apparently has more square feet of “awesomeness per person” than any other nation on Earth) can’t change it.

That being said, we do have our moments, our victories, and our glories.  But we tend to play those down, too (except when they involve gold medals, hockey, and the Olympics).  We’re a modest people, I suppose.

So all of this being said, I’m always surprised to find Canadians on the other side, at least historically-speaking.  Not far from Charlemont, Massachusetts, is the town of Deerfield.  On 29 February 1704, during the War of Spanish Succession, a joint force of 47 French and Canadian soldiers and 200 Mohawk warriors (including the Pocumtuck, who had lived in what is now the Pioneer Valley before the English settlers arrived) raided Deerfield before dawn.  The raid was partly in revenge for the settlers’ violent and callous treatment of the Pocumtuck, which culminated in a massacre  in what is now nearby Montague Township in 1676.

The combined French-Canadian-aboriginal force caught the settlers unaware before dawn and massacred 56 people.  109 people survived the raid, they were captured and made to march 500km north to Québec, in harsh winter conditions.  21 of them either died or were killed during the trek.  Most of those who made it to Québec were eventually ransomed and made their way back to Deerfield.  A few, most notably the pastor’s daughter, Eunice Williams, chose to remain.  Williams spent the rest of her life at Kahanwake, a Mohawk settlement near Montréal, marring a Mohawk man and having a family with him.

The Deerfield Raid was no doubt a traumatic event for the people of the small settlement.  And it has lived on for the past 300 years, it is a foundational story in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts.  At times, listening to people describe it, reading newspaper stories about the raid, and seeing how it is represented in the pop culture of the Valley, I even get the sense that the trauma of the raid lives on.  Certainly, it is strange for a Canadian to realise the Americans were victims of the colonial era.  It is even more bizarre to realise that one’s ancestors were the ones who caused the trauma.  We are usucally the victims, not the aggressors of historical trauma.

The fact that the 1704 raid lives on in Deerfield, and is largely forgotten in Québec (as France lost that war), is significant.  No doubt it lives on in part because Deerfield’s raison d’être today is as a tourist site.  Historic Deerfield is a national historic site, and the town’s economy centres around the historical experience there, and the 1704 raid factors heavily into it.  It is no doubt the most significant event to have occurred in Deerfield in its 337 year history.  And, as a result of the historicisation of Deerfield, the 1704 raid gets played out, reinterpreted, and re-assessed almost daily by the town’s residents, the historical educators, and the tourists who come to visit.

But for me, a Canadian, the first time I visited Deerfield, on a warm, sunny day in late May 2006, I was stunned to find a place that was traumatised by Canadians, at least a place that was not an aboriginal settlement/reserve.  And as I took in the colonial American scene in front of me that day, I couldn’t help but feel a shudder of fear imagining that 247-man strong force crawling across the plain along the Deerfield River, coming out of the mist and the snow and laying siege to a small frontier settlement.  And every time since that I have driven past, or been into Historic Deerfield, I cannot shake that feeling of terror that the colonist there must’ve felt that cold February morning 306 1/2 years ago.

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