Bernard A. Drew: Spectacle Pond farm isn't there to exploit

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GREAT BARRINGTON >> We recently visited Spectacle Pond Farm in Sandisfield, part of Otis State Forest, as we would an old friend who has gone into rehab, wondering at its condition, worried for its prospects.

The energy giant Kinder Morgan is bullying townspeople, the courts, the commonwealth and a federal agency to get its way, to widen its pipeline swath through the state forest to create gas storage for utilities in Connecticut. While local, state, judicial and federal authorities have slowed the pace, the property remains under threat.

Spectacle Pond Farm is culturally, historically and naturally remarkable, deserving the respect of proper hearings and diligent procedures.

William H. Hawley in The Berkshire Gleaner in 1909 described how he had amassed the property he called Mill Brook Farms. "Nine farms surrounding the lower Spectacle pond had in the days of my grandfather 72 inhabitants," he said, "where now there are only six living to till them. They have been converted into one farm."

In the same family (which came to include Rowleys) for generations, that farm tells a forgotten but common story of New England's agricultural growth and decline.

But even more, between the Spectacle Ponds is an old Indian path that became a fur trade trail. It became a war road in October 1758 when British Gen. Jeffery Amherst's 200 Pioneers under the command of Maj. James Clephane (the equivalent of today's Army Corps of Engineers) hacked and shoveled, straightened and flattened the old track across Berkshire to accommodate four regiments marching to New York on their way north to attack Quebec City.

American Col. Henry Knox in January 1776 used the route to sled mortars, cohorns and cannons from Fort Ticonderoga to Dorchester Heights to assist George Washington's effort to menace the British out of Boston. Knox and the teamsters stopped at Henry Spring Jr.'s tavern, the foundation of which is at the north end of Spectacle Pond Farm.

This is the most historic road in Berkshire County, and it crosses Otis State Forest, and the pipeline.

In the modern era, Civilian Conservation Corps Company 109 encamped at Upper Spectacle Pond in 1933-35 and built the dam and made other recreational improvements.

Northeast Gas Transmission obtained a 30-foot right-of-way from the Rowley family in 1951 and installed a high-pressure pipeline. The 24-inch line ruptured during blasting for a second line in 1981 and forced an evacuation. The proposed new line will have 36-inch pipes.

The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) in July 2007 acquired 907.3-acre Spectacle Pond Farm, folding it into 3,799-acre Otis State Forest for management purposes.

The purchase came after skirmishing with a developer. Seven heirs of the last two farming brothers of the Rowley/Hawley family disagreed on the property's disposition. Developer Jeffrey Polidoro of Egremont wanted the entire parcel. Massachusetts Audubon in 2006 exercised an option and for $1.513 million purchased a half undivided interest in the property from heirs Nancy Rowley Loring, Thelma Kennedy, Frank H. Rowley and Irene M. Rowley. The other heirs, Margaret Hawley, Eugene and Robert Rowley and Evelyn Sellig, sold their half share to the developer, Spectacle Pond LLC, for $1.95 million. To avoid a Land Court struggle to divide the land, DCR negotiated a settlement. The developer got $3.5 million, Audubon $1.7 million.

Nancy Loring said her father William Rowley and her Uncle Marvin Rowley farmed until the mid-1980s. In summer, hay was raked into windrows then horses drew a tall loader to tumble the loose hay onto a wagon. In the barn, the hay was lifted with a fork connected to a rope and pulley and the wagon driven out, the hay then dumped in the appropriate mow.

"Toward the end, they broke down and bought a used hay bailer," Loring said.

In winter, the family cut ice on the pond. In spring, they tapped a sugar bush near the pond using wooden buckets and spiles. The Rowleys built rental cottages on the pond and hunting camps in the woods, Loring said.

They had a snack shack near the pond's outlet. "We called it 'The Store,'" she said. "They sold soda and hamburgers and hot dogs and rented rowboats in the summer."

Lower Spectacle Farm includes a 15-acre stand of old-growth eastern hemlock. The property was such an outstanding acquisition, the National Land Conservation Conference in 2010 brought attendees on a special trip to Spectacle Pond Farm. I interpreted 18th century industrial sites for the group. Others led excursions to the old-growth forest on a remote hillside.

Trees 200 and more years old straddle glacial boulders. Deadfall is alive with moss and lichen. The Clam River ripples below. The area has a rich smell, a chill temperature, a wonderful aura.

It deserves rigorous protection.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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