Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Sixteen Acres: What’s in a Name?

Dig my new tattoo, man. Bitchin’, huh? What better way to show my pride in the neighborhood I grew up in, right? It didn’t hurt that much, and the only nuisance was shaving some leg hair.

Just kidding. That’s not my leg. The tattoo belongs to Mike Lowe, who hosted large parties, complete with punk and thrash bands, on his lawn in Orlando, Fla. His property consisted of sixteen acres, and that’s what he called his “concert venue.” He was finally forced to shut down his weekly Woodstock act—the city even shut off his electricity so bands couldn’t plug in—but Sixteen Acres lives on—on his leg, and, probably unbeknownst to him, 1,200 miles north in the great city of Springfield, Mass.

Photo: the horse named Sixteen Acres.

It’s curious what you come up with when you Google “Sixteen Acres”—many Springfield real estate listings, of course, along with the name of a world champion show horse (you can purchase his semen for breeding and they’ll ship it to you). Sixteen Acres is also the title a book about the rebuilding of the World Trade Center in New York (the site, a large haunted hole, is composed of sixteen acres). So the name of my old neighborhood is in some good company: an unofficial hardcore music/kegger party pit, an ad for horse cum, and ground zero for the worst terrorist attack in history.

Sixteen Acres: it’s a pretty weird moniker for a section of a city. Where did it come from? The eastern outskirts of Springfield have been known as Sixteen Acres since 1652. But why Sixteen Acres? There is the distinct possibility that in the 17th century, 16 acres represented a unit of land measure at the time, one that is now extinct, like the now obsolete “rood, or pole, or perch,” according to the Early History of Sixteen Acres, a 1964 publication by the Sixteen Acres Garden Club.

I looked into this theory even further, and it checked out: in olde England, according to this geeky website, four acres made up one “homestead,” and four homesteads equaled one “shareland,” which consisted of 16 acres.

In 1652, a 16-acre plot of land, slightly southwest of the modern day Sixteen Acres center, was granted to explorer Rowland Thomas and three other people. Four years later, Thomas (for whom Mt. Tom is named) received an additional grant of “meadow on Mill River above the falls which are above the sixteen acres,” according to historical records. In 1667, Sixteen Acres had definitely become a place-name, with what is now Wilbraham Road referred to as “the way to the sixteen acres.”

The Early History of Sixteen Acres also reveals the origin of the names of three ponds. I had always assumed that Bass Pond was named after the type of fish, but it was originally known as Bask Pond. In Elizabethan times, neighbors gathered there for a ritualized dip in the spring to clean off their winter stink, and then they dried off by basking in the sun. Venture Pond’s real name was Venturer’s Pond, and Mill Pond was named after a sawmill at the waterfall off Parker Street at what is now South Branch Park.

Sixteen Acres is certainly a desirable neighborhood to live in today, but in the 18th century the land was considered nearly worthless. In 1789, George Washington called Sixteen Acres “eight miles of almost uninhabited pine plain mixed with sand.” A map at the time designates the area as “pine barrens mixed with unimprovable swamps.” This was due to the Native American practice of constantly torching the land’s undergrowth to keep it open for hunting—it was burned enough to consume most of the organic matter in the soil, leaving just the glacial sand.

Nonetheless, it became a farming community in the 19th century, but was still somewhat isolated, being two miles from the Indian Orchard station on the railroad. It wasn’t until the rest of the city became congested that land in the area was in demand, and much of the housing was built after World War II. It’s difficult to imagine two dirt paths at the today’s congested intersection of Wilbraham Road and Parker Street, or the neighborhood consisting of “not more than a dozen houses clustered together,” according to an 1871 article in the Springfield Republican.

Well, there’s your history lesson for today. The funny thing is that many in the area calls their neighborhood “the Acres”—“Sixteen” doesn’t even come into use. But it’s interesting to read about what could be the real source of the name. Isn’t this compelling stuff? You’ve read this far, so it couldn’t be too boring, right?

In The Circle, a 1970 book about Sixteen Acres’ notorious Circle Gang, author James A. Coleman touches on the source of the neighborhood’s name. The gang’s leader, Mike Moran, repeats the often-told story that the name of the neighborhood originates from the exact size of Mill Pond. This is a theory that I had always heard as a kid. “But no one knows for sure,” says Moran. “And I couldn’t care less.”

Maybe you’re with Moran on this one. If that’s the case, you just wasted five minutes of your valuable time, you ignoramus.

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