Here is a sneak peak of my new work, The Women Who Burned Mountains. This story profiles the life and legacy of a strong line of mountain women who came to inhabit the MacTom house of Savoy, Massachusetts. These women were fiercely independent, morally-complicated characters who subverted the dominant narrative of the roles of women in their time. It is a pleasure to share a snippet of my findings with you.
Hold mountains in your heart,
The sleepy hallow of Savoy nestles within the Berkshires of Massachusetts. It is shrouded from the world by steep foothills and an ancient forest landscape of hemlock, spruce, birch and maple trees.
Time moves slower here. Not much has changed since my mother was a girl skipping stones at Plainfield Pond. The good folk’s homes groan slightly to the side as if leaning on the mountain for support.
The harsh February wind buffets the warped windowpanes of the MacTom house. Built in 1780, the home seldom greets winter visitors. This day, three women tougher than the weather—my grandmother Margaret, aunt Amy and I–cheerily crowd around an ancient woodstove with steaming cups of coffee. Spring weather and planting season will not touch the rocky landscape for months yet.
Margaret, 70-years-old with soft, spotted skin and firm muscle tone has been awake since 2:30 a.m. Before the weak sun climbs the mountain to kiss her face, she makes quick work of running the hunting beagle Snowmo through the wild forest, shoveling snow, hauling wood for the fire and combing her feathery gray bangs into submission.
For her, life on the mountain is no real challenge at all.
She is the keeper of this land and of MacTom, the oldest house in Savoy whose centuries of spirits whisper from the attic and flash in the corners of one’s vision.
Coronal Bullock established Savoy Hallow in 1780 with a parcel of land received in lieu of wages for his military service in the Revolutionary War. The budding township required a minister so Bullock ordered this home built for Elder Nathan Haskins, the first minister of Savoy Hallow.
For a century the house sat, changing hands until my family came to haunt its halls.
Far from the mountain in the town of Williamstown, Abner and Amanda Towne married in 1841. The Salem witch trials of the late seventeenth century stained the reputation of the Towne family, which condemned Abner’s aunts Rebecca Nurse, Mary Estey and Sarah Cloyce to die five generations before. A proper English couple, by 1847 Abner and Amanda birthed a daughter named Isabelle Towne.
Looking to break away from the hustle and bustle of city life, Isabelle grew up to marry a man named William Kemp in 1866. William had a poet ancestor named Wilbur who lived on Savoy mountain as a recluse writing about the surrounding landscape. The married couple often traipsed up the mountain side to listen to Wilbur’s poetry about the beauty and hardship of mountain life.
“Tower up old Greylock toward the sky / and pierce its azure blue, climbed / to him who has your summit grand landscapes met his view. / You show us of the wondrous works / of a mighty nature God, / the structures of your giant walls / as we look up each rod,” wrote the hermit Wilbur as he climbed over the mountain towards Adams, Mass.
Within their first year of marriage Isabelle and William had a single daughter named Lilla Kemp. Lilla was a pale, thin and fragile girl who suffered frequent ailments in her childhood and struggled with heavy drinking in later life.
Lilla accompanied her parents on visits to the poet where she came to love and draw strength from the beauty of the old mountain. Her childhood curiosity for the naturalistic developed as she reached womanhood into a deeply rooted love for the Berkshire mountains.
It was unexpected then that a woman with mountains in her heart would come to love a man from the flat land of the Cape. But none would doubt the sincerity of Calvin Hosford’s love for Lilla with her beautiful light eyes and light hair. Lilla Kemp became Lilla Hosford in 1885.
The Hosfords lived near the Cape where Calvin was a carpenter who built many cranberry processing plants along the coast. If there were ever a threat of a thunderstorm he would rush from his job and abandon his workers to attend to stay at Lilla’s side. Booms of thunder rattled her fragile nerves.
The married couple continued to visit the recluse poet Wilber at his mountain home. Once, while they were up for a visit surrounded by the serene landscape, the couple took a ride around the mountainside.
“I believe my health would improve greatly if only I could breathe some of this good mountain air,” Lilla confided in her husband.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Calvin bought over 100 acres of Savoy property. Unfortunately for Lilla, two houses stood on this property.
“I want to look out all my windows and not see a single neighbor,” Lilla said.
The young woman strolled into each house to inspect what it had to offer. What was to become our family home sat higher on the hill. The second home sat across the dirt street. Lilla pondered her options before settling on the home higher on the mountain.
She then ordered Calvin to immediately set the unwanted home ablaze.
Calvin loved Lilla so he obliged and made quick work of torching the second home. The little house burned all day and all night, leaping and crackling with wicked orange flames that licked away anything that could burn. The sunken cellar mars the countryside to this day, a testament to Calvin’s all-consuming love for his wife.
Lilla admired the torched black earth, pleased.
Due to Lilla’s frailty and perhaps the alcoholism, she had only one child, a daughter named Marion Emiline Hosford born 1887. If Lilla was the mountain’s queen, Marion was its princess. She lived her life traveling between their first home near Calvin’s work on the Cape and their mountain property where the family would stay on weekends.
Wilbur’s poetry and writings found a home in the attic where they remain to this day.
Lilla encouraged her daughter to spend her days reading and resting. Marion was often found lounging in a hammock between two trees, dark curls gently lifting in the breeze as her square jaw was all but hidden by the pages. Marion gave herself the name Robin for this freedom and because she had been born in the Spring.
The mountain spirit invigorated Marion as books filled her intelligent mind. She loved to take long periods of rest to learn about the world that lay beyond her imagination. Always a scholar, she had little interest in the traditional womanly pursuit of wife duties and housework.
As a teenager, Marion manned two stores. She would dash between the two buildings as customers came to call. A sepia-tinted photograph, warped at the edges shows a stern woman in a dark dress gazing at the camera with her chin lifted, flanked on either side by wooden buildings.
Marion’s life changed irrevocably when she married Rev. Lawrence Free MacDonald in 1909.
Lawrence was from Pennsylvania Dutch Company where he had seven brothers and sisters. He came from a family of farmers who oversaw the wide expanses of flat, fertile Pennsylvania soil. He pursued Marion for some time, wanting a partner to travel out West. Everyone was surprised when Marion agreed.
Marion brought Lawrence to Savoy to visit her family’s home where she had pleasant memories of her quiet childhood. Lawrence had absolutely no interest in the property. He considered the hilly, rocky terrain worthless for farming and thereby worthless to live upon. He was a stern religious man who was untouched by the wild beauty of the land.
“The only use I could see this land being a part of is that it holds the rest of the world together,” Lawrence said.
On the couple’s honeymoon, Marion wore a black wool bathing dress that covered her knees and dark black stockings pulled to her knees to cover her legs. One of her stockings caught on a nail and unraveled the threads to create a run. A staunch Christian man, Lawrence said it disgraceful that Marion would allow herself to be seen with a run in her stockings.
Although Marion always loved Savoy she would not live there again until Lawrence’s death.
Lawrence maintained a property on the cape where the land was suitably flat for farming while he administered a church. Poor Marion, who as a young woman had been told to rest on her mountain hammock suddenly had to cook large meals for the farm hands. Meat, potato, vegetables and pie constituted the breakfast menu alone.
“She hated it. She was a terrible cook with no interest in housekeeping. She would sneak a book out to the berry patch when she pretended to pick berries and she would sneak a book in with her mending when she pretended to address her other chores,” Margaret reminisced of her grandmother she loved so well.
Like a good Christian woman, Marion produced three children within the first four years of marriage. Their names were Miriam, John and Malcolm. The fourth, Agnes, followed in 1917.
Marion was terribly bored with her domestic life. She never took to being a wife, a mother, or a housekeeper. She touched upon this in letters to her grandparents Isabelle and William, whom she had a special bond with.
April 6, 1916
Dearest, Darlingest, and Best Grandpa and Grandma,
Have wanted to write to you for a long time. Did I write and thank you for the birthday gifts? I meant to – even if I had no strength to write more. I haven’t thanked two or three people for Christmas gifts. What do you think of that?
Spring has arrived and you will soon be going to Williamstown to work, and you will soon be having your golden wedding. Last fall I hoped you would come to visit us right after the wedding, but if you are going to work for Mrs. Kellogg again I suffer you won’t want to. Won’t you please to come after her work closes in the fall? Don’t forget. I can’t take no for an answer.
Have I told you that I am giving music lessons – I get the huge sum of a quarter a lesson.
I suppose mother told you how they caught me with a terribly dirty house and without even a piece of bread in the cupboard. I cooked up for them two Saturdays before they came.
Am sorry mother has had the grippe. She seems surprised that I would last so long, but the youth’s companion said sometimes it takes a year to get over it. I am just beginning to feel better from the attack I had in February but that is all I feel like charging those I love.
When you write to the folks tell them we are all well – for I may not be able to write to them for several days.
With much love from,
Agnes MacDonald inherited the mountain spirit of her mother Marion. Like her mother’s special bond with her own grandmother Isabelle, Agnes loved her grandmother Lilla fiercely.
Agnes ran to her grandmother Lilla when her brothers John and Malcolm picked on her. Lilla scooped up the child and fed her chocolates to soothe her distress.
“Any time those naughty boys are mean to you Agnes, you come to me. You’re my favorite,” Lilla would say to Agnes.
They had a special bond with each other.
Agnes also had a special bond with the Savoy property, where she went to shoot targets with her rifle and ride horses. Lawrence was adamant his daughter attend college and teach for a year before she married. In those days, work was reserved for single women and men. Married women did not hold jobs.
Agnes worked for a year as a physical education teacher before she met her husband Lester in Plainville, Connecticut on a blind date. Agnes enchanted Lester. On their first date, Agnes described Savoy to him. She told him that she would come up here with her rifle and target practice. Lester was bowled over by the ferocity of her spirit and quickly came to love her and her mountain.
The two were married June 1941. On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, catapulting the nation into war.
The newlyweds sat in a Connecticut diner when they heard this news.
Lester soon left for the Navy. At 28-years-old, he was at least a decade senior to the other men aboard ship, although his sickly stature suggested a younger man. His low weight barred his entry a decade prior in his first attempt to join.
Lester Thompson truly did not believe he would survive the war.
Agnes, on the other hand, enjoyed the war. She was free to return to work with the men absent and moved in with a fellow teacher named Gertrude James for the duration of the conflict.
Firm in her belief that women are just as strong as men, the young physical education teacher put together a team of girls in Plainville, Conn. called the Blue Angels. This was a revolutionary move in the world of women’s sports.
She was an independent, free-thinker who loved the structure and rigor of hard work. The energetic woman rode her bicycle to work every morning as driving cars was frowned upon due to strict gas rations.
“She was the sort of woman that, if dinner was at 5:25 p.m. and you sat down at 5:40 p.m., you weren’t eating that night,” said her daughter Margaret.
In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Lester toiled in the bowels of a ship. His job was to tend to the refrigeration equipment. He met a friend interested in carpentry aboard ship. During these long voyages waiting for the action to begin, he would talk to his friend about Savoy.
Memories of the mountain, of Agnes shooting targets with her rifle, kept his mind off the horrors of the war and the real chance he would never see his wife again.
Instead of dwelling on his impending death, he made plans about how he could restore the Savoy home. He planned how to wire electricity, re-build the chimney and get running water to the house.
Thinking about what he would do after the war was what made him believe he could survive, and he did. He returned to Connecticut where he worked with Coca Cola for a time to earn money. After work on Friday he and Agnes made the long drive to Savoy where the pair would put in long hours of labor.
Before her death in 1943, Lilla asked her daughter Marion what they should do with the Savoy property. Marion told her mother that ownership should be passed on to Agnes and her husband Lester who had grown to love the mountain so well. Calvin passed on by 1945, heartbroken by the loss of his wife, whom he loved more than his mountain.
Agnes and Lester breathed life back into the hills and rebuilt the home which had begun to rot into the cellar. Lester used Coca-Cola signs as plywood under the floorboards and other salvaged materials to fit within their limited construction budget.
As Lester stood on the roof fixing the shingles, the ancient poet Wilbur Kemp stood in the grass, shouting poetry at him while he worked.
“Tower up Old Greylock toward the sky, queen of the green mountain chain!” the wizened Kemp shouted up to Lester hoarsely.
Agnes and Lester renamed the house (previously Haskins-Blanchard) to MacTom, a combination of their last names. In time, the couple had four children together: William who died at birth, Margaret, Elizabeth and Robert.
Free to live how she pleased after Lawrence’s death, Marion came to stay with the Thompsons.
Margaret used to sit at the window watching her grandmother Marion stroll through the yard in the frosty mornings.
“My grandmother said the reason she lived to her nineties was because she was not expected to do much as a young woman. She remembers being up in Savoy in a hammock just resting and reading,” Margaret said, “She said she didn’t believe she wore herself out early like a lot of people do.
Her grandmother never used the bathroom inside the house. When Lester put in indoor plumbing, the only space to fit the pipes was in a pantry off the kitchen. Marion, with her great sense of dignity and propriety thought no one should ever be seen walking into a bathroom.
Margaret would watch Marion stroll through the mist, her hands behind her back and her chin raised. Marion would pause, glance to see if anybody was watching before taking a hard right to dash into the outhouse.
In the early mornings, whether by trick of the light or something more, Margaret’s daughter Amy says she can almost make out a willowy figure strolling through the mist.
As an early teenager my mother Elizabeth, Amy’s sister, arose early one summer morning and walked outside while her family slept.
“I saw a woman, long tendrils of fabric billowing behind her loosely, floating through the early morning. I felt like I accidentally stumbled upon her by getting up so early, like I was intruding on her space,” Elizabeth said.
Years later, I remember struggling to sleep in an ancient wrought iron bed shoved in the attic among a Civil War saddle, Wilbur’s poetry, dusty books and other artifacts precious in the daytime but spooky at night to a young girl. The hair on my neck stood on end as I felt eyes on me in the dark.
“I know who you are,” I said aloud, “And we both know Margaret. She will come for you if you tried to scare me so you better not try anything spooky.”
The spirits do not scare Margaret as they scare other visitors. She says she feels welcomed by them.
“My mother taught me how to treat the ghosts. I say to them, you’re perfectly welcome to stay so long as I don’t have to see you,” said Margaret.
While Margaret seldom is affected by the paranormal reminders of the property’s past, she feels the weight of history upon the land. As she drove up the mountain one day, she noticed the smoldering remains of the Lemuel-Hathaway house, the second-oldest home in Savoy.
“My mother hated that house,” Margaret said, “She contested any claim that the Hathaway house was older than MacTom. With that house gone, MacTom is the oldest by far.”
“What happened?” I asked, my steaming cup of coffee long since cooled and forgotten beside the ancient woodstove. My aunt Amy, cross-legged on the floor, leans in to hear her answer.
“The official story is lightning, but we really don’t know the truth,” said Margaret, “A freak of nature in broad daylight.”
“What do you think happened?” I half whisper, heart beating fast in my chest.
“I think my mother sent a lightning bolt from heaven to burn that house, like her grandmother burnt the house across the street,” Margaret said.
In their tie to the land, groundings in tradition, and love for the Berkshires, the women of MacTom in Savoy, Massachusetts possess a ferocity of spirit and bonds with each other strong enough to burn mountains.
Ames, E., Goodell, A. C., Clifford, J. H., Wheeler, A. S., Williamson, W. C., & Bigelow, M. M (1869). The acts and resolves, public and private, of the province of the Massachusetts bay: to which are prefixed the charters of the province. With historical and explanatory notes, and an appendix. Boston: Wright & Potter, printers to the State.
Genealogy Report: Descendants of John Towne. (n.d.). Retrieved April 29, 2017, from http://www.genealogy.com/ftm/b/a/r/Tami-K-Barton/GENE4-0002.html
M. M. (1916, April 6). Dearest, Darlingest, and Best Grandpa and Grandma [Letter to William Kemp]. Bromfield, Maine.
Phinney, J. B. (1997). Taking the high road: a two hundred year history of a hilltown. Place of publication not identified: Northern Berkshire Cultural Council.