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Another ‘last hurrah’ for sunken Quabbin towns

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  • Contributed by Glenn Woods of South Deerfield <br/><br/>A fisherman enjoys Quabbin Reservoir in autumn.

The interior of the brick town hall, decked out with patriotic bunting and black trimmings, was swarming with celebrants and mourners, many finely dressed for what was to be the final evening of the town hall and for the town itself.

About 1,000 people — many of them residents of the four towns that were to be unincorporated after midnight that April 27, 1938, turned out for the Enfield Fire Department’s “Farewell Ball” — along with former residents who’d returned for a last chance to see former neighbors, as well as politicians and engineers and officials of the Metropolitan District Commission.

It was the MDC Water Supply Commission that had announced in 1922 plans to take water from the Ware River and flood the four towns of the Swift River Valley — Enfield, Dana, Prescott and Greenwich — to create a reservoir to augment the water supply for eastern Massachusetts. The population had begun receding over those years, in anticipation of the waters that would begin rising to flood much of the area.

Today, reflects 88-year-old Earl Cooley of Barre — whose 10-member family was the last to leave Dana — “They never would have let it happen.”

His wife of nearly 64 years, Lois, who grew up in nearby Petersham, where the entire Cooley family moved, adds, “There were people who protested, but they were told, ‘This is how it’s going to be,’ so they accepted it.”

Cooley, who was 12 at the time and not old enough to attend the Farewell Ball eight miles away in Enfield, plans to attend the 75th anniversary Quabbin Remembrance Ball Saturday that the Friends of Quabbin are holding at the Ware Town Hall. His cousins were among the people who “listened to the music and danced on the lawn,” Mrs. Cooley says. “There wasn’t room for them to get in because all the Boston people came. I think a lot of people looked at that ball as a celebration, and they were not celebrating.”

One woman who did attend, Katherine Reed, told The Recorder in 1988, “For the younger people, it was a great big bash. For the older people, it wasn’t so funny.” Reed, who lived in Orange until her death in 2006 and had been a resident of North Dana, recalled at age 76, “People came from all over. Cars lined both sides of the street. Everyone was just one big, happy family.”

A newspaper account at the time portrayed what happened at the stroke of midnight, as a hush fell over the crowd.

“The last note of the clock’s bell had changed the town into a nameless waste, a name into nothing, and what was the most beautiful and prosperous town in the Quabbin Valley became merely a part of an area which was to form the 18-mile-long Quabbin Reservoir.

“Merrymakers had danced two hours in the Enfield Town Hall until midnight and then found themselves dancing in a building that was no longer a town hall and no longer in Enfield,” read the Springfield newspaper account.

Following a Grand March around the hall, the 24-piece McEnnelly’s Orchestra played tunes like “Put on Your Old Gray Bonnet” and “Til We Meet Again” as well as popular dance tunes, Quabbin historian J.R. Greene of Athol describes in his book, “The Day Four Quabbin Towns Died.” The evening also included an emotional rendition of “Auld Land Syne,” and the tolling of the bells at night caused a hush, according to one newspaper report of the event: “Muffled sounds of sobbing were heard, hardened men were not ashamed to take out their handkerchiefs, and even children, attending the ball with their parents, broke into tears.”

After a break, the orchestra resumed and played until 2 a.m., concluding the evening with “Home Sweet Home” in a town hall that was no longer, according to Greene, who now chairs the directors of Friends of Quabbin, which is sponsoring Saturday’s 7 p.m. event at which the Grand March will be led by some of the remaining survivors of the Quabbin towns. Cocktail music will date from the 1930s, followed by 1940s-era tunes for dancing.

The 1938 Farewell Ball was in part to help the Enfield Fire Department ensure that its coffers were depleted to prevent the MDC from gaining access to the money after midnight and a way for residents to say goodbye to their hometowns. The 75th anniversary ball “is kind of going to be a last hurrah for the people who lived around the valley,” Greene said. Unlike the 50th anniversary ball in 1988, at which Cooley was one of scores of valley survivors attending, the number of survivors who were adults or even older children at the time the Quabbin was cleared is now probably two or three dozen, he said.

“It’s probably the last time we’re going to have anything really formal with the former residents who are old enough to still remember anything about the towns and are still cogent to communicate it well. A good number of them were babies, and they didn’t remember anything.”

But Cooley, who was the third oldest of nine children, remembers plenty. And his family is part of an annual Dana contingent that has a picnic around the common where his family had their home. It’s the one town common where visitors can still inspect the cellar holes left by his family and their neighbors, along with Cotton’s Store, where he went to buy penny candy and to the post office in the back, and the cobblestone wall from which he and friends tried to remove cobblestones as souvenirs and were forced to return them.

It’s the same town common that figures prominently in Cooley’s scrapbook, “Dana – The Town I Loved So Well,” and where his 16-year-old granddaughter, Kayley Clark of Petersham, organized a Girl Scout Gold Award project to identify 10 buildings with wooden markers illustrated with photographs and historical descriptions of the buildings that once stood there.

“She thought this would be a way for people to know what was there, not just cellar holes,” said Mrs. Cooley. “These were not run-down buildings. These were beautiful buildings.”

In part because of the attention brought by her two-year project, Dana Common was nominated for the National Register of Historic Places.

Cooley, who has memories of seeing houses moved away from town, as well as houses burned or dismantled, said that while it bothered his parents — and especially his grandfather — to have to leave their hometown, “We were young enough that it really didn’t bother us. There just kept being less and less and less,” with just a handful of children attending the school in Dana through June 1938, after which he transferred to Petersham. “I’ve got over it now. For a while it was a lot better down there than it was in Petersham. “In wintertime, there was one hill and we’d go sliding and skiing on it and made a little ski jump. We’d go finish right there, in the Swift River.”

Because the Cooleys were the last to leave Dana at the end of September 1938, after the legendary hurricane he remembers that he, his father and older brother had to remove downed trees along the road to travel the two miles to leave town.

“We had to cut our way out to get down to 32A,” he said. “Of course, there was no one to help get through. We had a cross-cut saw, and we started cutting the trees. My father pulled away with the truck so we could get out.”

Each October, Cooley returns with family members to the “Indian Kitchen” natural cave off the road to Greenwich that he and other boys used to visit with a Scout leader who would cook hot dogs around a campfire. Back then, there was a jar with pencils and a paper on which visitors would log their names, the date and weather conditions.

Even at 88, he says, “I like going up to Indian Kitchen. I can sit there all day and just dream what was there.”

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