I was sitting in the dentist’s chair in February of 1982 when I received news that would hurt me more than any dentist’s drill. “Springfield is minus one pond now,” said the voice on WSPR. “The dam at the pond known as Putnam’s Puddle was breached yesterday, and all the pond’s water rushed downstream, knocking down several trees. Fortunately, officials say, it happened late at night—apparently no one was injured at one of the city’s most popular ice skating areas.”
“Good thing we weren’t down there,” I mumbled in gibberish as the dentist cleaned my teeth.
Although this happened when I was home during my holiday break in my freshman year at college, it wasn’t farfetched that we would have been hanging around at the pond that night. Granted, I was a little too old—and it was a little too cold—for boozing in the woods. But hell, the drinking age in Massachusetts was 20, I was 19, I didn’t have a fake ID to get into a bar, and this pond was conveniently located several houses away from my home on Maebeth Street. My friends and I, who called ourselves the Maebeth Womblies, had done plenty of partying over the years at our two big gathering spots there: The Pothole and The Dam, and now the latter was gone.
Rich Davis (not his real name) and I grabbed a couple of beers from my fridge and we walked down the ravine that day to see the devastation: the thick layer of ice had collapsed in huge sheets throughout the pond. “DO NOT CROSS” police tape surrounded The Dam area. At first glance the structure looked intact, but upon closer inspection we could see that there was a gaping hole in the foundation.
“Damn,” said Rich.
“Not any more,” I replied
“Good one,” he said.
“Let’s go to The Pothole.”
We trudged up the path and downed our beer at The Pothole, where we hadn’t been since the fall. The Womblies usually didn’t party there much during the winter, although we did build a fire in the woods once in a while if there was nowhere else to go. But Rich and I felt we had to have a drink in tribute to Putnam’s Puddle. We caught our first fish there when we were kids, and the 50 acres of woods that surrounded the pond had an “OK Corral” kind of wildness about it when we were growing up: no adults there to monitor our every move, to tell us to stop blowing stuff up with M-80s or to stop throwing crab apples at cars speeding by on Sunrise Terrace. We lived a Lord of the Flies existence. When we encountered neighborhood bullies at the pond, or when my friend Rick Riccardi stepped on a wasp’s nest and was stung about 30 times, we were on our own.
There were two kinds of kids at Putnam’s Puddle: us and the “kids on the other side of the pond.” With a body of polluted water separating us, there were the inevitable screaming matches and threats, usually prompted by either side lobbing rocks or shooting bottle rockets across the pond when the other gang was fishing. These missiles created huge splashes and scared the fish away.
“Who threw that? We’re coming over there! We’re gonna kick your ass!”
“WE'RE gonna kick YOUR ass! We’re heading down to The Dam RIGHT NOW!”
“Good! We’ll see you at The Dam, motherfucker!”
Of course, neither group would go to The Dam (pictured again below from our side) to engage in mortal combat. At least we didn’t.
The Pothole was the ideal hangout: we had dug a foundation and we had grandiose plans to build the ultimate party palace with scrap wood. That plan was abandoned due to laziness, but we did affix a large plywood sheet atop one side of the hole, which gave us shelter when it rained.
Putnam’s Puddle was a man-made pond, hand-dug by the Works Progress Administration laborers during the Depression and named after Roger L. Putnam, mayor of Springfield from 1938 to 1943. It was once a popular swimming hole, but it was polluted with sewage runoff by the time the Womblies started going down there. The pond was overrun with algae and leeches, but it wasn’t a bad fishing spot, where you could catch lots of pumpkinseed, smallmouth bass, and the occasional perch.
In the 1980s and 1990s the city had plans to fix The Dam and refill the pond. After all, for 45 years the structure had prevented sedimentation downstream. But ever since the concrete behemoth broke, Breckwood Pond, which Putnam’s Puddle emptied into, was filling with more and more silt every year. In 1992 nearly half a million dollars was set aside from a Parks Department account to repair the dams at Putnam’s Puddle and Mill Pond in Sixteen Acres Center, but nothing ever came of the projects. Four years later, Springfield was supposed to receive state money from an open space bond to restore Putnam’s Puddle and dredge the rapidly shrinking Breckwood Pond. But nothing happened. Now Breckwood is half the size it was a quarter-century ago, and Putnam’s Puddle is now a piddling stream.
Where did the money go? You got me. The Putnam’s Puddle area, choked with brush, reeds, and other vegetation, is now practically bone dry. The ravine is in its pre-Depression primeval state, with The Dam a Stonehenge-like reminder of another time, when it was a prime recreation area in Sixteen Acres—and the hangout of the Maebeth Womblies.