Where in world...?

An old friend phoned the other day. He never phones. But this time he just had to know: "What are you doing living in Florence?"
He thought I was in Florence, Italy. I told him it was Florence, Massachusetts.
Here are some answers -- my occasional wanderings through Florence, MA and the surrounding Pioneer Valley.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Pottery Shards on the Mill River

A few days ago we went for a walk along the Mill River in Leeds, just under two miles from where I live in Florence. There is a converted trolley track going through the woods with a beautiful view of the river below. At various points in the walk we were able to go down to the water. Joey was especially excited, as we could tell when we got down to the little beach. He raced around excitedly as if to say, "Hey, it's a beach! It's just great here! Awesome!" Because it was such a cold day, none of us encouraged him to try wading into the water. But as we stood there on the little beach, I noticed the pebbles were a little unusual. Joey's dad pointed out that they weren't ordinary pebbles at all but shattered pieces of pottery and porcelain from the days when factories lined the Mill River. Factories made textiles as well as pottery, buttons, and bricks.

Pieces of pottery and porcelain found on the beach. Center is a
piece of brick worn away by the water. Two of the pieces are also below.

Top:you can still see the petal pattern from a plate.
Bottom: milky glass. 
In May 1874, the Hampshire Reservoir north of Leeds collapsed, rapidly flooding Williamsburg and Leeds. Before this disaster hit, Leeds had been a thriving little village. A number of the buildings still show where the businesses used to be, and a Catholic church still stands, though no longer holding services. It is possible to see some of the photographs taken of the flood's devastation, housed at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. When you drop a mug or a dinner plate on the floor, think of all the pieces that come out of that mess. Multiply that by a couple hundred, and that's what we have along the Mill River, where it is still possible to pick up a brick lying in the water after all these years.

Leeds has never quite been the same since the big flood, which is described by Jim Parsons for the Leeds Civic Association in more detail, including the way it was once divided up into different sections according to ethnicity or named for a natural landmark, such as "Crow Hill." Because this village and its residents were primarily working-class people, the notion of memorializing this history came a bit later to Leeds, but you can find it today if you look. Historian Elizabeth M. Sharpe has written about this event and its context In the Shadow of the Dam: The Aftermath of the Mill River Flood of 1874 (2007), and you can also see a monument dedicated to the 51 Leeds residents who were caught in the floodwaters.

A bonus factoid dug up by Jim Parsons in his mini-history says that the first man to play Charlie Chan in the movies, Werner Oland, lived across the street from what is now the ChartPak factory in Leeds. However, Wikipedia does not mention Leeds, naming Southborough, MA as his primary residence at his time of death. The Charlie Chan Family Home website shows this tombstone, and gives fleeting hints about Leeds. If anyone can show me proof of his residence, I'll be very willing to post it on this blog in the future. Let me know!

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