The History of Big Alum Lake

Chapter 2

by Dr. Samuel Flagg Bemis

Samuel Flagg Bemis, PhD., 1890-1973, was an American historian, born in 1890 at Worcester, Mass. He received his PhD from Harvard in 1916 and taught history at various schools before becoming Farnum professor of diplomatic history at Yale in 1935. In 1945 he was appointed Sterling professor of history and international relations. Considered one of the nation’s leading diplomatic historians, he twice received the Pulitzer Prize. Dr. Bemis moved with his parents to the home of his grandfather, Samuel Flagg Bemis II where he lived from 1900 to 1905. The Bemis farm on Brookfield Rd. is the old, white, colonial, house on the right side of the road heading north just before the new housing development, Draper Woods, and the Massachusetts Turnpike. Before the turnpike and the new housing were there, the farm’s property ran all the way down to the lake and included all of what is now the Trail Road area.

Dr. Bemis wrote an article entitled “Alum Pond and Walden”. The article appeared in an Old Sturbridge Village publication, "The New England GALAXY", in the summer of 1968.  Dr. Bemis would have been seventy-seven years old at that time. Here is his story:

“Alum Pond and my boyhood years leave the most vivid and lasting impression of my lifetime, as Walden did with Henry Thoreau. Grandfather had a farm of 145 acres in the town of Sturbridge, Worcester County, Massachusetts. It was situated on the Indian Trail called the Old Bay Path between Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut River, along which the first colonists went out from Boston to Springfield and Longmeadow. It was very close to, or even a piece of the 1000 acres of land west and south of Alum Pond -also called Pookookapog Pond-given in the year 1655 to John Eliot, the ‘Apostle to the Indians’ of early colonial times, by two friendly Nipmuc sachems, Wattaloowekin and Nakin, and confirmed by the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1715.

Some 100 acres of pasture and second growth stretched between the farm and The Pond, as we always called it. There were three smaller pastures, a meadow, and perhaps twenty acres of arable land for raising corn and hay and fruit and vegetables. Farmhouse, barns, and connecting sheds, all strung together against the rigors of winter, shouldered the Brookfield road about a mile north of the mill village of Fiskdale.

The farm abutted for about a third of a mile on the southern shore of Alum. This beautiful body of water was then the unspoiled Walden. It was better than Walden but it had no Thoreau. The United States Geological Survey enables one to calculate Alum’s surface at approximately 225 acres. That is 3.6 times the size of Walden’s 62.5 acres. From our southern shore to the point where Thoreau built his ‘house’ on Walden’s wooded bank is 46.3 miles as the wild duck wings its way eastward toward the ocean marshes.
Whenever I read Walden, which I keep at my bedside, my memories go back to Alum Pond. Hills steeper than those by Walden cupped Alum round about with wood and pastureland. On the west was ‘Mount’ Dan-rising two hundred fifty feet above the Pond. On the then pastured eastern shore there was a fine sandy beach thrown up by the prevailing west wind. Deep springs fed the Pond, as they do Walden, with no substantial brook running into it. The water was clear as an unstained church window. One could see down into it from a boat, some twenty or thirty feet to the botton, to a lesser depth through clear ice, as Thoreau did at Walden.

A variety of pickerel seemed uniquely indigenous to the Pond, with golden scales quite distinct from those of the greenish denizens that dwelt in Long Pond below, and doubtless a little different from the ‘great gold and emerald’ fish that Thoreau watched at Walden. We caught them in the winter-before the Pond froze too thick to chisel tackle holes-but they did not give up their ‘watery ghosts’ so easily ‘with a few convulsive quirks,’ as did those that Thoreau knew; usually they froze stiff only to come to and flop about for some considerable time when they thawed out the kitchen on the way to the oven of the wood-burning stove. My father once had a basketful of them begin to stir and flop in the heated ‘steam cars’ all the way from Brookfield to Worcester.

The textile company at Fiskdale had secured rights to the water from Alum that flowed through a gatehouse in a brook for half a mile, down under the road to Long Pond. These waters in turn lead into the Quinabaug River that supplied power for the mills. Another smaller body of water called Little Alum, about two miles to the west in the town of Brimfield, also drains into the watershed of the Quinabaug. But don’t confuse Little Alum with Big Alum, our Alum.

With no marshy shores of shallow water except for the sandy beach, Alum was not a pond for ducks. But one autumn afternoon, alone and looking down from Mount Dan-I was then about twelve years old-I saw a wondrous sight. A flock of ducks came planing down from the north across the slanting rays of the lowering sun. Then another flock, and another, and another, hundreds and hundreds, thousands came wheeling in battalions circling to the placid surface for their night’s stopover on the way south for the winter. Soon they covered all the northern half of the Pond. The sight almost smothered me as breathless I looked on, and I alone witnessed it, as far as I know. I never beheld so many wild ducks, not even in Canada later, until years afterward I saw thousands wintering in open water by Mount Vernon downstream from the frozen Potomac.

Not unique like the Great Flock of Ducks were the seasonal overflights of geese north and south: incessantly honking in metallic dissonance and a rapid alternating current of hoarsely clanking gabble until out of hearing. They flew in steady formation, about two hundred yards high, seventy to a hundred in a squadron. I suppose their harsh aerial noise keeps them from losing touch with one another at night or in foul weather. They have no radar, you know. Anyone who has seen or heard wild geese passing over by day or night will never forget the sight nor the sure sound they make. I hear the honkers now occasionally in season in New Haven, usually when lying wakeful at night. It so excites me that I used to call to my wife to listen. I like to imagine that the geese have passed over Alum Pond less than an hour ago or will be going over there in a little while.  Why is it that wild ducks in flight don’t keep themselves grouped safely in incessant quacking? Perhaps it is because they don’t fly in the dark and make only short flights by day. They can’t quack very loud, anyway.

At one stretch our shore sloped to the Pond through a lovely grove of young white pines. A carriage trace wound in and out, slalom-like, among the tree trunks, down to the shore. So thick was the carpet of pine needles, and so resilient, that one could scarcely have followed the way wheeled vehicles were it not for horse droppings. The soft brown groundcover was slick enough to slide on skis from the pasture gate at the top or the grove to the pebble slip where we tied our boats between two boulders. Only we had no skis. I did not know then what skis were. Nobody in our region used them in those days; when the snow was too deep to walk unaided we took to the utilitarian bear-foot snowshoe to get in and out of the woods. In the United States skis are mostly a twentieth-century import. Snowshoes have mostly gone into the New England Attics.

When first I saw the Pond, as a child of five or six years, perhaps the year 1896 or 1897, before my parents moved out from Worcester to the farm to take care of my ailing grandfather, there were two little plain-board shacks in the midst of the grove, one room each for sleeping and nothing more: neither cabin big enough to serve even a Thoreau. Down by the shore was a cookhouse, with a screened-in porch, furnished with vertical, board-back benches each side of a long dining table. If one were out in the middle of the Pond one could not see any habitation at all-unless it were a bit of the cookhouse in the grove, and the distant Arnold farmstead (long since burned down) on top of the eastern hill. But there was one other little building, a log cabin hidden back in another wood half a mile away on the western shore. It belonged to the ‘Spencer Boys’. They seem to have been the first to discover the idyllic vacation possibilities of Alum Pond. Years later I learned that one of them was Leroy Allston Ames, who became a professor at Clark University, in whose class in American literature I first came to know Thoreau. In after years we talked about Alum Pond. Professor Ames is still living, nearly a hundred years old, in the town of Spencer, as I write these lines. He too remembers Alum as a Walden.

It was near the turn of the century that Grandpa Sam built his first real cottage at the Pond-the Dam Cottage, he called it, because it was close to the dam and gatehouse through which the Pond emptied. There was a little beach at this spot. Grandpa let the Baptists use it for their fresh water immersions. He himself was an Adventist, but Grandma was a Baptist.

To the cabins in the grove and the Dam Cottage, Grandpa Sam later added the Middle Cottage and the East Cottage, a hundred yards or more apart, for the purpose of renting them out to summer campers who were beginning to venture into the hinterland by horse and buggy from Southbridge, or even from Worcester and Springfield by the railroad to Brookfield. About the same time a neighboring farmer who owned an equal or perhaps larger tract north of us, on the west side of the Pond, began to build cottages and rent them out. This was the beginning of a sequence of summer dwellings that now ring the pond almost side to side on plots little bigger than city house lots. As soon as this phenomenon set in, the cottagers resurrected the old Indian name from early colonial maps and called it Lake Pookookapog. But we continue to call it Alum Pond, and so it appears on the United States Geological Survey Maps of 1946 and 1954. What the origin of this name is I do not know. Maybe Alum?

The Pond would have maintained a fairly constant level in dry times as well as in wet seasons, thanks to its everlasting deep and undiscovered springs, but the takings of water to keep the village mills in steady power would sometimes lower the level abruptly. It was a shame to see Alum shrink even a rod from high-water mark. In winter the lowering and rising of the water would strain the frozen surface so as to create great cracks that would shoot quickly here and there, sometimes all across the Pond, the heavy ice rumbling loudly with the torture. One could hear these great groans reverberating like thunder half a mile away at the farmhouse. We boys knew what the noise was all right but sometimes at night it combined with the frosty creaking of the house itself to make us pull the bedclothes over our heads.

Thoreau mentions the booming of winter ice, but his Walden did not groan as loud and mournfully as our suffering Alum; there were no mills in Concord to draw the water off so dreadfully. He explains the booming of Walden ice in terms of changing atmospheric conditions, which doubtless affected Alum Pond too. He also mentions cracks wrought in Walden’s frozen shore! I never saw any small earthly fissures by our Pond such as the hermit philosopher observed near his cabin during these winter travails. What would Henry Thoreau have thought of today’s sonic booms?

We used to do a bit of fishing through the ice. Good bait was rather hard to get at the farm in the middle of winter. We used native shiners when we could buy them, otherwise ‘mumechugs’. One winter during our life there some city fishermen rented one of our cottages for a few days and set out their lines. They had a great quantity of lively shiners, which they kept in a gunnysack hung with its contents in the water below the ice. After breakfast the second morning one of them went out to cut the ice from the hole to bring up enough shiners for the day’s operations. Rather careless with an ax, he severed the rope. That unsteady stroke ended the fishing for this group. They told their sad story to us as they went home. Next day my father went up to the cottage, chopped the hole open, took a long pole and hooked up the sack. The shiners were perfectly lively. He carried them home in a big milk can and put them in the cows’ watering trough. We had good live bait all winter.

In later time, after I went to college, I used to go back to Alum Pond fishing in the winter. I remember one such occasion, with college chums. In the bitter cold the holes froze over faster than we could stir the water to keep them open. But we were catching fairly well. A party of men had set up tackle down the Pond not too far from ours, near a cottage which they had rented. They were spending most of their time merrily inside, but every once in a while they would delegate someone who had lost a round of cards and who was still sober enough not to fall down and freeze to death, to go out and inspect the lines. He was expected to bring in a fish or pay a fine. But the holes were frozen up so much that it was hopeless. These delegates would make their way over to us boys and buy one of our pickerel. We were in real business before the day was over. Our competitors had something to brag about when they got back to the city, and we were glad to gather in the shekels, with some of our own fish - the biggest - to spare.

Alum Pond was so strongly stamped on my mind that through several years of early adult life I had a recurring dream about it. I would go back to visit it only to find the water very low, the Pond almost dried up, the bare and muddy bottom strewn with rocks and boulders, stagnant pools in earthly hollows disclosed by the vanished waters. Perhaps it meant that this happy environment had passed forever out of my life. At any rate the nightly illusion recurred less frequently when I began to spend summers by mountain, forest, and lake - one of them on our honeymoon in a wild canyon hard by Pike’s Peak. By the time we bought a grove and log-cabin of our own on a lovely lake in New Hampshire - now also circled by summer cottages - the dream had disappeared altogether. I had forgotten about it until I began these pages.

Imagine the shock recently when, motoring by the farm, I came upon a fantastic new phenomenon: the Massachusetts Turnpike had been slapped right across our former pasture between the Pond and the farmstead, above the Brookfield Road, surmounting Long Pond on stilts, and over the hills and far away hell-and-gone to the West. Spoiled forever are the unity and charm of the Old Place. The whirring scream of incessant motor traffic can now be heard where once only the farm wagons creaked, before them the echoes of William Pynchon’s Puritan pioneers halooing their way through the wilderness toward Connecticut’s gleaming water, and long before them the silent pad of Indian moccasins treading the Old Bay Path.

Boyhood years are gone but the memory of Alum Pond lingers on. How good to have had in the nineteenth century - that happiest century in the history of mankind - a peaceful Walden or a tranquil Alum behind the tensions of life in this our tumultuous twentieth century!”

Dr. Bemis wrote two other articles for the Old Sturbridge Village GALAXY but they were stories mainly about the farm and other activities. I would like to quote one paragraph from the Winter 1969 issue in which he wrote: “ I became a sort of delivery boy on foot, for milk and vegetables to cottagers at Alum Pond, later by wagon with ice to cool their homemade refrigerator boxes buried in the ground. I remember running fast as I could up to the Pond one fatal day in September 1901 to tell the campers that President McKinley had been shot.”

Introduction, Chapters:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17