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

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Wilbraham Mysteries

A Dead Body; An Elusive Butterfly

Here is what’s left of the old Oaks Farm off Stony Hill Road in Wilbraham. In the distance is the expanding Cedar Ridge community of houses and condos, which could someday cover a lot of this open space. I’ve bombed all over these woods on my mountain bike—the area is massive, basically extending, with few interruptions, all the way from Boston Road to Faculty Street (Wilbraham-Monson Academy). 

The beauty of this land is that as much as I like to think I know it like the back of my hand, and am still discovering new trails.

At the above vantage point a few years ago I turned to the left and saw this nondistinct pathway:

It leads to the foundation ruins of an old structure.

Yep, people party at this foundation.

The road side of the property still has a few remnants of the old farm, including the front wall, a couple of old houses, and the barn in back, which I heard will probably be torn town because it’s past the point of being restorable. The acorn sign, however, is gone now. 

The barn

Here is the original farm stand in an old photo.

Here is a video of its remnants:

I thought little of the foundation I had stumbled upon, except that I love old ruins, and it’s one of the only reminders of the interior of the old farm left, aside from a few stone walls.

Then I heard about a mystery surrounding the structure. At one time it housed field workers, but was abandoned in the latter half of the 20th century. On October 26, 1966 a woman who lived on Duffy Lane in Sixteen Acres was discovered dead in the shack.

I know Duffy Lane is technically across the North Branch of the Mill River, so technically it’s in Pine Point. There, in red, is the neighborhood dividing line:

But bear with me: I’m calling it Sixteen Acres. I’m annexing Duffy Lane to our neighborhood! Besides, I know someone who lived on the adjacent Duggan Circle who always considered her street in Sixteen acres. So there! The official border is wrong! We must do something about this immediately! Immediately! Immediately! Harrumph! Harrumph! Harrumph!

Anyway, a bird hunter found the body, and people in Wilbraham were talking. What was a 49-year-old Springfield woman doing in a dilapidated cabin nearly a mile from the road? She was reported missing two days earlier. There was more talk: according to the coroner’s report, she died of exposure and apparent toxic poisoning. Was it suicide? Her mother had died a year earlier. Was she still depressed over this? We’ll probably never know.

Maybe it’s a bit gruesome for me to muse over this, but I can’t stop thinking about it when I stop at the foundation for a water break. I figured I’d write something about it, hoping not to upset relatives, because, after all, it’s been half a century, and she and her husband had no kids. I figure her siblings are long gone from this world, but who knows?

Oaks Farm supplied food for The Oaks Steak and Rib House on Boston Road (which became Jack August, Beefsteak Charlie’s, and then Olive Garden) and the much older (1899) The Oaks Inn on State Street (two buildings that were eventually joined together. 

After The Oaks Inn closed and was demolished in the mid-1970s, it resided briefly at 315 Cottage Street (now Cottage Hill Church)…

…before moving to the Hotel Kimball on Chestnut Avenue, where Oaks Farm continued to supply the restaurant and ballroom with food until the early 1980s.

But I digress. The shack foundation is an offshoot of The Oaks trail (middle of map) next to McDonald’s Nature Preserve:

At one point I realized that the Cedar Ridge complex wanted to expand into that area by buying town land there. The developer’s plans, below, would have resulted in the destruction of not only the foundation (marked with an arrow), but also a lot of other good hiking and biking land near it.

In April of 2013, Wilbraham’s Board of Selectmen put an article on the Annual Town Meeting warrant to authorize the town to put this “surplus” property for sale. The parcel, known as 68V-C, is 20 acres of hardwood forest that had been dismissed as “underutilized” land even though it is often used by hikers, runners, dog-walkers, cross country skiers, horseback riders, snowshoers—and, of course, mountain bikers!

Horses in the McDonald Nature Preserve parking lot

The white arrow points to the location of the foundation ruins in the threatened purple 68V-C land. The Oaks trails are in green. 

Opponents to the proposal to sell the land pointed out that the White Cedar Swamp, which borders 68V-C, is a rare floating cedar bog that would be severely impacted by any housing development next to it— leaching of materials onto the property would permanent damage the area. The swamp is home to the Spotted Turtle, a vulnerable species, and the Eastern Spadefoot Toad, listed as “threatened” by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. It also has the state’s largest populations of the Bristly Buttercup flower (listed as a “species of special concern”) and Eastern Worm Snake. Other species of special concern in the swamp: the Jefferson Salamander, the Blue Spotted Salamander, and the Climbing Fern.

They also pointed out that each year, butterfly lovers make a pilgrimage to the swamp to seek the rare “Hessel’s Hairstreak,” pictured below. The state documented this rare butterfly species in the White Cedar Swamp in 1960, but it hasn't been spotted here since then. Several were captured there in 1982, but the documentation is unofficial because the Yale Peabody Museum, where they were allegedly deposited, has no record of them in its online catalogue. http://mailman.yale.edu/pipermail/ctleps-l/2011-May/001120.html 

The catalogue does, however, list Hessel’s Hairstreaks from eastern and southeastern Massachusetts locations. What happened to the Wilbraham specimens? Did they reanimate and fly out of the museum? Or were they mislabeled? I say they were! We must do something about this immediately! Immediately! Immediately! Harrumph! Harrumph! Harrumph! Hey, I didn’t get a “harrumph” out of you, reader.

The Hessel’s is intimately associated with the Atlantic White Cedar tree, this butterfly's only larval food plant. But this tree is threatened by land clearing for development, according to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. Increased housing means not only felled White Cedars, but also more storm and fertilizer runoff and siltation, which contributes to nutrient enrichment in the soil. This is good for hardwoods, but deadly to the remaining White Cedars. There are certainly more Oaks and other hardwoods than White Cedars on 68V-C, but White Cedars are there.

The possible sale of 68V-C would have required a two-thirds majority vote by the townspeople, but on May 13, 2013, they voted NO!

Moreover, in 2015, citizens at the Annual Town Meeting voted to change the designation of 68V-C from “municipal” to “open space,” which doesn’t totally prevent development on the land, but adds a layer of protection: in the future, if the town wants to sell the parcel to a private developer, it would require another vote at the town meeting to revert it back to “municipal” land.

So my precious cellar foundation was saved, and so was the butterfly.

And look, since I last visited, someone cleaned up the trash next to the bullet-riddled barrel in the foundation.

Will miracles never cease? Maybe another one will take place: a sighting of the Hessel’s Hairstreak in the White Cedar Swamp!

I took a picture of this one and thought it might be the Hessel’s. But it wasn’t even close. 


bill herman said...

I worked at Oaks Farm when I was aged 10 to 15. This was in the late 60's. Weeding vegetables, paid one dollar per row. Came out to WAY less than a dollar an hour, but I enjoyed it. One nitpick, regarding meat and cream being produced there in the 80's. Unpossible, no animals were being raised there by the 60's.

bill herman said...

I worked at Oaks Farm as a kid in the late 60's, weeding vegetables at about 50 cents an hour. By that time there were definitely no animals (chickens or beef) being raised. In fact until I saw this post, didn't realize that was ever part of the operation. I guess they had already downsized by then.

Hell's Acres said...

Hey Bill,

My bad. I'll make the correction. Do you remember the two shacks? (Possibly there were more?) The foundations are in the woods and pretty close to the east and west, respectively, sides of the power lines? When you worked there, was there any talk about the dead woman found in one of them?

bill herman said...

Sorry that I can't shed any light on the dead woman. My memories are of the two families that ran the place. Nice people.

sandi said...

I do have to mention that the original Oaks Inn was not quite at the same location as Beefsteak charlies. I remember the original had a fire & it was a bit to the right of the land. Not far from there behind was the old Joyland Beach if you remember it.. it looked like root beer after a while, the water was terrible but we hung around there anyways. I remember walking or riding bikes by the Oak Land Farm too

Hell's Acres said...

Hey sandi,

You are undoubtedly right. My memory fades. I don't exactly remember Loon Pond water being brown, but I definitely remember calling Nine Mile Pond "root beer pond" -- tannic acid from rotting leaves.