North Quabbin Trails group continues mission with Calvin Swan homestead

  • Bob Curley and Joanne McGee investigate the Calvin Swan Historic Site wellhead at the Brush Mountain Conservation Area off Gulf Road in Northfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • McGee, of the Open Space Committee and Stewardship Advisory Committee for Northfield, and Bob Curley, president of the North Quabbin Trail Association, check out one of the cellar holes at the Calvin Swan Historic Site. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • The Brush Mountain Conservation Area off of Gulf Road in Northfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Joanne McGee and Bob Curley at the Calvin Swan Historic Site cellar hole at the Brush Mountain Conservation Area off of Gulf Road. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Bob Curley and Joanne McGee investigate the Calvin Swan Historic Site cellar hole at the Brush Mountain Conservation Area off of Gulf Road. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZPAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 8/7/2020 5:20:51 PM
Modified: 8/7/2020 5:20:39 PM

NORTHFIELD — The North Quabbin Trails Association is continuing to expand its stewardship with the conservation of a historic 46-acre property containing a homestead was once owned by a freeborn African American carpenter and sawmill owner.

Calvin Swan, who lived from 1779 to 1875, was once a member of the community in the mountainous area.

According to Bobby Curley, North Quabbin Trails Association president, and Joanne McGee, a member of the North Quabbin Trails Association and Northfield Historical Society, the site was abandoned in the late 1900s. However, two cellar holes and the original well from Swan’s property remain intact today.

“It’s interesting to wonder what all this was,” Curley said, standing next to one cellar late last week.

Curley constructed a replica cover for the well, which continues to produce water from its rock enclosure. The main cellar hole measures roughly 24 by 28 feet. Attached to the hole is a rock outline for another structure, which Curley said is assumed to have been a lean-to or shed. Another cellar hole, measuring about 10 by 30 feet, is located nearby.

According to McGee, the parcel of land containing the homestead was up for sale a number of years ago.

“But I realized we would lose this trailhead,” McGee said as she walked along the property.

To prevent this, she worked with Mount Grace Land Conversation Trust, which purchased the parcel on a holding basis until Northfield could buy the parcel.

The North Quabbin Trails Association has since cleared and constructed paths that lead to the home site from the Brush Mountain Conservation Area parking area. The homestead is located on the early level portion of the Brush Mountain Trail. The flush-cut paths wrap around the cellar structures, allowing for patrons to get a good look at the archeology of the historical site without disturbing the grounds. Two benches and trail signs built by the Northfield Boy Scout Troop 9 are also located at the site.

Betty Congdon, a member of the Northfield Historical Society, has verified the original Swan deed for the property is the exact acreage of the proposed conservation land. In 2004, Congdon presented a research paper on Swan at Boston University’s Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife. The paper is set to be published by Boston University this fall.

According to her research, Swan’s abandoned neighborhood is barely mentioned in town histories and he left no diary. His story is revealed in primary sources: the account books of the Northfield builder who trained him in carpentry, wills, deeds, obituaries, records of organizations, day books of a neighbor, and Northfield’s town resources such as school and tax records.

A 9-foot-tall monument to the Calvin T. Swan family rises above nearby graves at Center Cemetery in Northfield, but Congdon said its inscriptions give no hint of the Swans’ lives as freeborn African Americans in the state’s least populated county. According to Congdon’s research, Swan was active in local and regional anti-slavery organizations, serving as secretary of the mountain chapter of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and as a member of the county anti-slavery group in Greenfield.

“There were 98 people of color in Franklin County in 1850,” reads Congdon’s research paper. “For much of the 1800s, however, the Swans were the only family of African descent in Northfield and their mountaintop neighborhood. Swan was a leader in this community at a time when African Americans generally did not receive the acceptance and respect he was accorded. His career was remarkable for what he achieved as a craftsman and landowner, and the business ventures he dared to try. The attitudes of his community also played a significant role in what he and his family could accomplish.”

McGee said the Northfield Historical Society is interested in potential use of the site for archeological exploration and historical interpretation. The parcel of land provides an opportunity to study the relationship of a 19th-century farm to the mountainous landscape in this part of Northfield. Both McGee and Curley said they were interested in conducting archeological work at the site, but this would require funds approved through a future Annual Town Meeting.

Local residents regularly use the portion of the Metacoment-Monadnock Trail (M&M Trail) between Gulf and South Mountain roads, where the Calvin Swan Homestead is located, and it is cited as the most frequently used local hiking resource in the town’s Open Space Plan. The Franklin Regional Council of Governments, along with the National Park Service, conducted a study that led to the M&M being recognized as a National Scenic Trail.

Aug. 30: Winchendon walk

Curley said the message of Swan’s story is one that is relevant to today’s social climate and lasting Black Lives Matter movements. This project has inspired a new social justice initiative of the North Quabbin Trails Association, he said, to conduct focused outreach to engage with people of color. To this end, the trails association has organized a walk Aug. 30 at Winchendon Community Park to encourage people of color to use the trails and enjoy the area’s natural resources.

“I’ve always just assumed and welcomed people, but I have to go beyond that in this case,” Curley said.

More information can be found online at nqta.org/partners.


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