A Page from North Quabbin History: George Washington Hatchet Hunt

Published: 2/23/2021 2:51:50 PM
Modified: 2/23/2021 2:51:49 PM

A cherished Athol tradition will continue, with a slight delay, for its 99th year despite the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s George Washington Hatchet Hunt will be held on March 27 at the New England Equestrian Center on New Sherborn Road in Athol.

The George Washington Hatchet Hunt, open to children from pre-school to age 14, began in 1922, when Johnnie Johnstone, director of the YMCA, came up with the concept of the first George Washington Hatchet Hunt. The idea was to get children outside and having fun while also highlighting the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree and his ideal of not telling a lie. At that first hunt, a hatchet was hidden in the woods and a local tradition was born.

Johnstone ran the hunt for many years until Lt. Rob Shepardson of the Athol Fire Department took it over and ran it for another 30-plus years.

“I started working on the Hatchet Hunt when I was 11, with several other Scouts, assisting Shepardson who in 1989 was the Assistant Scout Master of Troop 72 Boy Scouts at the St. Francis Church,” according to Jason Robinson who with his wife Laura currently run the Hatchet Hunt. “At that point we were hiding laminated 3x5 cards covered in tinfoil. Two of these cards were for the hatchets, a George Washington Hatchet and a Johnnie Johnstone Hatchet, as well as 50 other tickets which could be redeemed for prizes.”

In 2012, a third hatchet was added to the hunt, according to Lt. Robert Shepardson, AFD (Athol Fire department). That year, there was also a one-year-only commemorative Athol Bicentennial Hatchet hidden.

Among those who have found a hatchet in the past is Darlene Nutter-Truehart, who in 1974 was the first girl to find the Hatchet. Nutter-Truehart said, “I found it in a log that I had to dig the snow out from. It was a big deal for a girl. Back in 1972, it was quite an accomplishment.”

The hatchet hunt has changed from its beginnings in some ways, according to Jason Robinson. He said, “Obviously, hatchets are no longer hidden. The kids still get a hatchet but it is dulled down and mounted to a plaque so it cannot be used.” The start of the Hatchet Hunt used to be marked by the 9 a.m. fire whistle, he continued, and now that it’s no longer sounded, the event is usually begun with a siren from the fire truck. “The charm of it hasn’t changed a lot,” he continued, adding they often hear from parents at the event who have said they went as children and are now bringing their children.

The event can attract 200 to 300 children per year. “We have had years when the numbers have gone way up if there is perfect weather. One year, we only had about 30 kids because the weather was like 10 below,” said Robinson.

“During the pandemic, it is even more critical to offer outlets for the youth of the community. There are so many struggling with mental health and remote learning. There has been such a lack of social interaction. We felt it was just important to keep the tradition of the Hatchet Hunt and offer something other than sitting at home in front of the computer, which they have been relegated to since the pandemic. Anything we can do to bring a sense of normalcy during the pandemic we are doing, said current director of the Athol YMCA, Jennifer Gordon.

Those running the Hatchet Hunt worked with the Board of Health to develop COVID restrictions that would allow the event to happen. “It will look really different than in past years,” Jason Robinson said.

This year, participants must pre-register in groups of 20 or less, and will be allowed to hunt in pre-determined areas, exiting the search area after 25 minutes. There will be a 15 to 20 minute break between groups to clear the air and for people to exit the parking area. There will be no co-mingling of groups, masks are required and monitors will be at the hunt to ensure all rules are followed. Registration information, when available, will be found at the George Washington Hatchet Hunt Facebook page.

Other changes to the event include gift cards in laminated plastic with the ticket on the outside being hunted for instead of actual prizes being presented at the prize table. “We avoided having a prize table to limit interactions and avoid lines. We have eliminated all areas where people could potentially gather.”

Another change this year is that hot chocolate and hot dogs, usually provided by Hannaford, Lions Club and other local organizations, will not be served at the event due to COVID restrictions. According to Jeanette Robichaud, former YMCA Director, the tradition of hot dogs at the event may have begun when Boy Scouts brought their own sticks to roast hot dogs over a fire.

This is not the first time the hunt has been delayed, according to Robichaud. In 1945 and 1948, it was cancelled due to deep snow. The hatchet, however, was awarded in 1945 by children guessing the number of beans in a jar. The Hatchet Hunt was postponed in 1950 as well.

The Hatchet Hunt is seeking donations of gift cards to be used as prizes or cash to purchase such cards. Gift certificates to local businesses, which Laura Robinson said would also help the businesses, are also welcome, adding that residents donating can also request that their gift be in memory or honor of someone. She added it is hoped that prizes will encourage physical and intellectual activities for children. Donations will be accepted through March 24 at both the Athol Fire Station and the Athol YMCA.

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