Lauren R. Stevens: A good writer and a great eccentric
WILLIAMSTOWN — Grace Greylock Niles' book, "The Hoosac Valley: Its Legends and History" (Putnam's, 1912), is a regional history that doesn't seem to differentiate between the legends, mostly about Indians, and the history. Yet it is fascinating, especially when paired with biographical information about Niles, provided by Pam Weatherbee. After all, according to the Bennington Banner obituary, June 15, 1943, "Miss Niles, a woman in her late seventies, was doubtless, from a literary standpoint, the most talented person native to this small Vermont town" of Pownal.
Born in Pownal in 1864 as Grace Stoddard Niles, she attended Pownal schools and later a private school probably in Herkimer, New York. She returned to teach in Pownal and then began her writing career. She never married. She published "The Origin of Plant Names" in 1902, adopting Greylock as her middle name. In 1904 she displayed even more talent for botany in her book, "Bog Trotting for Orchids" (Putnam's), for which she drew the illustrations "from nature."
The same year she wrote on the "Mission of the White Oaks Chapel," founded by Williams College Professor Albert Hopkins in the section of Williamstown adjacent to Pownal. The article, published in the Christian Register, provides information on the runaway slave community in that part of town, which Hopkins' chapel served.
She continued to publish articles on flowers. She moved to New York City around 1910, to serve as a private nurse, but stuck to her geographical and name base, writing "The Greylock Park Reservation" in 1911 about the Massachusetts park just south of Pownal. The following year she published "The Hoosac Valley," followed by "The North American Cypripediums" (orchids). While she had been returning to Pownal summers, she moved back full time in 1918, at the age of 54.
She settled on family land, which now belongs to The Trustees of Reservations and is called Mountain Meadow Preserve. Although a cellar hole near the road is tempting, it's not clear where on the property her house stood.
She began harassing neighbors, especially those who were setting out apple trees beginning in 1921 for what became the Kalarama Orchard. A distant, younger relative who saw to her, the late Henry Montgomery, wrote: "She worked so hard she went to dope," a phrase of which the general meaning at least is clear. He added: "I was the only one she let in ... She carried a rifle all the time. The house was full of paintings and books. She was in terrible condition no clothes or food or heat."
Perhaps she agreed. She burned down her house, while she "sat under her grapevine eating grapes," Montgomery reported.
Two days after neighbors took her in she ran away. Montgomery found her in the rain "in a swamp" near the Sand Springs Hotel. He called the sheriff, who drove her to the Brattleboro Retreat, a mental health center in Vermont. There she died in 1943, to be buried back in Pownal, at Oak Hill Cemetery.
If suspect on her Indian history, she is significant for accounts of settlement in her valley. She certainly was a writer, artist and above all botanist of note. Anyway, that's how it looks from the White Oaks, near where she hung out.
A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.