Readings highlight history of Petersham

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 02-22-2023 4:14 PM

PETERSHAM – Residents gathered at the Country Store Saturday afternoon to share readings that provided a taste of the community’s past, along with a bit of its present.

The event, “Petersham Written Works: Poetry, Prose, and Letters,” was sponsored by the town’s Historical Society and featured readings of selected writings of past and present-day authors.

Dressed in top hat, bow tie, vest and overcoat, Historical Society Vice President Bob Bellefeuille led the afternoon’s proceedings.

“I dress up as James Wilson Brooks, who was the wealthiest man in town,” said Bellefeuille. “He was responsible for a lot of the change and actually a lot of the beauty that Petersham is, based upon a lot of the stuff he did. I’ve been impersonating him for about 15 years now.”

Bellefeuille explained that the program was set up by local historian Larry Buell, who was unable to attend the event. “Basically, it was to illustrate the diversity of Petersham over the years, and the fact that some important things have happened here that we don’t want to have forgotten,” he said.

Asked what sets Petersham apart from other small towns in central and western Massachusetts, Bellefeuille replied, “Well, I think it has a beautiful common, and the library. I happen to be president of the Trustees of the Library; you have to do a lot of things in a small town. We have the Harvard School of Forestry here in town, affiliated with Harvard University.

“In fact, Mr. Brooks implored his friend, who was president of Harvard at the time, to establish a school of forestry since Yale already had theirs. Of course, we know the rivalry between Harvard and Yale, so he was able to convince him to come in, which was a good idea because the state was looking at the site, which has several hundred acres, as the possible site for a prison. So, we were able to forestall that, otherwise the town would certainly be quite different today.”

Most of those in attendance Saturday tended to be middle aged or seniors. What, Bellefeuille was asked, can be done to interest younger people in the history of the communities in which they live?

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“I think by making history palatable,” he said. “By showing them the fact that history isn’t dead. It’s not necessarily just the past, it’s the present and the future as well. But it is a quiet town that has some history to it.”

Bellefeuille then went on to explain how Daniel Shays and his followers were routed on Petersham Common by a militia led by former Revolutionary War General Benjamin Lincoln. Shay’s Rebellion (1786-87) began in response to the state’s efforts to collect taxes – particularly from the state’s farmers – and served to highlight the weakness of the Articles of Confederation, which were ultimately jettisoned in favor or a national Constitution.

Those who read pieces written in Petersham’s early years included, “19th Century Abolitionist Poetry by Emily & Sextus Goddard,” Rev. Geoffrey Smith; “Witness Tree: Seasons of Change with a Century Old Oak,” Lynda Maples; “Wish I Were in the Woods,” Bob Bellefeuille; “The Petersham Years,” Karen Bellefeuille and “The Road Through Private Valley,” David Locksmith.

More contemporary offerings included: “The Accidental Wilderness,” Tom Conuel, author; “The Hill Writings & Jared Bonenfant words on Nichewaug,” Paul Williams; “A Patty Day Album: Art, Writing, and Memories,” Ken Levine; “The Petersham Arts Center,” Pam Chavelier; “Voices from the Hilltop,” Kay Berry/Bill Berry, Jr.; “Framing While Black,” Ann Lewis and “The Swift River Valley & Poems of Place,” Lynda Mapes.

Other readings on the agenda included: “Vision for the Babbitt Sanctuary, Corrine Babbit” and “Memoir of Elizabeth Hapgood.”

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com.

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