Mysteries From The Morgue: A forest that Hansel and Gretel would adore

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SAVOY — Bent and twisted trees are not an unusual site in Berkshire County, thanks to Natalie Jeremijenko's "Tree Logic" at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

The art installation's iconic upside down maple trees, which hang in the court yard outside the museum's main entrance, twist and contort their branches as they reach toward the sun above. But these were not the first twisted trees in the Berkshires to capture the public's attention.

During the summer of 1936, Pittsfield photographer Arthur Palme made his way up into Savoy State Forest, where he would find and photograph a grove of twisted white pine trees that would appear in the pages of Life magazine in March 1, 1937.

"Roaming around in the wild and rarely visited places high up in the mountains of Savoy County in the Berkshire Hills last summer, I came across a very strange sight. A large grove of white pine trees appeared like a stage setting for Hansel and Gretel. Some 300 trees with the most fantastically bent tree trunks made me think for a moment that I had drunk one too many," Palme said in the letter printed alongside the photograph.

But how had a grove of trees, often described as grotesque and covering a quarter acre, go unnoticed for so long? And where did it come from?

One explanation, provided by Palme on the pages of Life magazine, put the blame on Mother Nature.

He wrote: "I finally located the man who planted these trees. He informed me that those trees, when only six years old, were buried in the unprecedentedly severe winter of 1921 with a mass of snow and ice, 14 feet deep in most places. For six months the enormous load rested on the trees, before a late spring sun melted it gradually away. By that time, most of the trees were bent over completely and their trunks had taken on what he calls a 'permanent set.' But soon nature asserted itself again and started a straightening-out process ..." (Palme included the photo in his book, "The Berkshires, through the camera of Arthur Palme.")

The origin of the Crooked Forest, as the grove of trees came to be known, was never settled. Photographer Fred Timoney, who first brought North Adams Transcript photographer Randy Trabold to the forest in 1939, said he believed the white pine trees were planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps. in 1931. The trees, he said, were later damaged by heavy snows and ice.

Timoney, who was credited by Trabold as the discoverer of the Crooked Forest on numerous occasions in The Transcript, was most likely wrong about their origin or at least the age of the trees. According to massmoments.org, the first enrollees of the Massachusetts CCC didn't arrive at Fort Devens until April 13, 1933, two years after they supposedly planted the trees. The Massachusetts CCC, sometimes referred to as "Roosevelt's Tree Army," did plant some 12 million trees on land that had been over cut for timber and abandoned farmland — lands were incorporated into state forests. Savoy State Forest was maintained by the CCC, where roads were improved and trees were planted. They laid out picnic and camp grounds, constructed fireplaces and dams and put up bathhouses and cabins.

In August 1947, The Transcript published one of its first stories on the Crooked Forest, claiming only a few persons had ever seen the trees "twisted into nightmare shapes of uniform deformity like the illustrations for a horror tale."

Supposedly, the inhabitants of the Savoy Hollow section of the town and in the village center, just a mile away, the article claimed, knew nothing of this phenomenon years after Timoney and friend Paul Wilson, had stumbled upon it. (The article states the pair discovered the forest some 15 years earlier, putting the discovery in 1932. If the author's timeline is correct, then Timoney found the forest around the time the CCC was in the process of being authorized by Congress.)

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A few days later, in a Letter to the Editor, Mrs. C. A. Urbanek, of Adams, supported the theory the trees were damaged by a storm, while refuting the reporter's claim that the forest was unknown to Savoy residents.

"I believe a lot of people have observed them but didn't bother to mention them, as that part of the mountain is frequented for berries and mushrooms. Our family has watched the growth of those trees for many years, as we once lived but two miles to the west of them. When the CCC boys took care of the farm roads, one could ride right up to the very trees. At that time, we took pictures of them and showed them to Arthur Palme of Pittsfield. he in turn went to sse them and took pictures of them. His pictures appeared in Life magazine, also Nature magazine," she wrote.

A few years later, in 1953, the Mohawk Trail Association considered putting the Crooked Forest on a list of "must see" attractions on its sight-seeing circuit list. Also to be included would be North Pond, Tannery Falls, Balance Rock and several of the nearby burying grounds with markers dating back a century or more.

But a washed out road hindered the group from including it on their sight-seeing tour and despite having made up signs pointing tourists to the location, state park officials never used them, fearing the unpaved roads leading up to the site would be problematic for visitors.

But even without the signs and directions, the Crooked Forest would remain an enigma that many hikers would visit over the next decade.

In 1957, Berkshire Eagle columnist Arthur Myers wrote of the forest's trees: "A few are shaped like lyres without the strings. There is one interesting little stump that's a dead ringer for a baby elephant ... one like a camel, if you use your imagination. Another looks vaguely like the Loch Ness Monster."

By 1967, the forest's residents had decreased by half, with only some 200 of the original 300 to 400 trees reportedly remaining. In May 1971, Trabold published a photo essay titled "Obituary for Crooked Forest," which claimed all of its trees had died off. At the time, Robert J. Mogul, the state's assistant regional supervisor of forests and parks, "blamed overcrowding and lack of nutrition for the deaths of hundreds of trees in the forest."

But the obituary was a few decades premature. Trabold, who had visited the forest and found the familiar trees missing assumed they had finally all died off. Apparently, he failed to look up. Had he done so, he would have seen the fabled forest was still there.

In fact, the last remnants of the Crooked Forest were seen in 2007, by the late Berkshire Eagle reporter Derek Gentile and photographer Caroline Bonniver Snyder, who sought out and found them. The trees, they reported, were now 25 to 30 feet high.

"All the crooked trees have a sort of kink or knob about two-thirds of the way up. And then, at the kink, the tree grows somewhat sideways. Most lean to the north. More than half are dead," Gentile wrote, noting all but two of the half-dozen remaining trees were dead.

The Crooked Forest most likely met its demise in the next few years, as of 2015, no trees could be found by hikers seeking them out. The forest, sadly has faded from existence, its true origin still speculation, but its legend lives on in photographs of this Berkshire oddity.


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