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  • In the early to mid-1800s, the Amherst Common was filled with weeds and trash and livestock, according to historian Amherst historian Polly Longsworth. Current town planners don’t think it makes sense to develop long-term design plans around a tree — the iconic Merry Maple, above — that’s in decline. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Merry Maple on the Amherst Common, Dec. 3, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Merry Maple on the Amherst Common, Dec. 3, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Merry Maple on the Amherst Common, Dec. 3, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS



For the Gazette
Friday, December 07, 2018

As this newspaper recently announced, the iconic Merry Maple tree on the Amherst Town Common is likely to have enjoyed its final seasonal celebration this year. The mature tree may be a casualty of the major remodeling planned for the north end of the Common. According to Amherst Tree Warden Alan Snow, the tree is showing “early signs of deterioration.” Town planners don’t think it makes sense to develop long-term design plans around a tree that’s in decline. According to the Gazette, town officials have described multiple trees on the Common as “invasive and unhealthy.”

The news prompted me to look into the history of the Town Common and its trees. As I discovered, the latest plan to spiff up the Common, at the cost of approximately $600,000, is just the latest of many attempts to improve the appearance of Amherst’s downtown since the town’s founding in 1759.

In a wonderful essay titled “Civic Consciousness,” Amherst historian Polly Longsworth writes about the evolution of the Town Common in the 19th century. In the early to mid-19th century, the Common reached from what is now College Street on the south up to what is now Spring St. The land sloped dramatically from its higher southwest corner to the northeast corner, creating a muddy, marshy area where “geese and frogs and peepers held sway.” The Common held the town’s hay scales, an important but unsightly commercial fixture. The area was filled with weeds and trash and livestock.

In the second half of the 19th century, town leaders, motivated by civic pride, decided to clean up the Common. In 1853, the Ornamental Tree Association was formed with the object of “laying out and ornamenting the common, improving and adorning of public walks by grading, graveling and lining with trees, and doing anything to render public grounds and ways of the village more attractive and beautiful.” In 1857, the town granted the OTA control over the Common.

The following year, OTA members, including Emily Dickinson’s brother, Austin, and Amherst College professor William S. Clark (who became president of Massachusetts Agricultural College in 1867) transplanted young trees from the surrounding countryside to the Common.

The next step in the taming of the Common was the decision in 1859 to move the annual two-day Cattle Show from the Common, where it had been held since 1846. Sponsored by the Hampshire Agricultural Society, this event brought hundreds of animals to the Common, along with several thousand people and booths selling food and other goods. The OTA was concerned that the event caused too much wear and tear on the Common and threatened its newly planted trees; the Cattle Show was forced to move to a new location the east side of town. (This episode calls to my mind the annual marijuana festival, known as “Extravaganja,” that was held on the Common from around 1992 to 2016, when the town decided it had outgrown the space and needed to find more appropriate quarters elsewhere.)

The efforts of the OTA languished between 1860 and 1873. In 1867, the editor of the Amherst newspaper, the Hampshire Express, complained about “neglected roads and sidewalks, and the common growing up to weeds, many places dirty and uncared for.”

According to Longsworth, a newly invigorated village beautification effort commenced in 1873. After a contentious debate, Amherst town meeting granted the OTA the right to extend the Common northward to its present boundary at Main St. and to extend Spring St. westward across the Common. The local business community had opposed these changes, arguing that new fences and roads would harm their businesses.

In 1875, Austin Dickinson hired Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park, to draw up a plan for the Common. The Olmsted plans were destroyed in a fire in 1888, but contemporaneous accounts indicate that the plan called for new traffic patterns and sidewalks and specific tree plantings. In 1887, inspired by the Olmsted plans, the OTA changed its name to the Village Improvement Society. Its focus stretched beyond the Common, encouraging townspeople to plant flowers and tear down picket fences that gave the town a disorderly appearance.

When Mabel Loomis Todd came to Amherst in 1881 with her husband, Amherst College professor David Todd, she described the Common: “There is a sort of park or green running through the principal street, full of elms and nicely kept grass. It makes the whole town lovely. It is much more than an average pleasant country village.” (Polly Longsworth’s highly acclaimed book, Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair and Love Letters of Austin Dickinson, tells the story of Mabel and Austin’s infamous love affair.

The 20th century saw renewed efforts at town improvement, guided in large part by the Garden Club of Amherst, which was established in 1915. According to the club’s official history, its original purpose was to help its members improve their own gardens, but it soon took on a broader mission of civic engagement. In 1921, the club called on the town’s homeowners to clean up their properties; it divided the town into several sections and appointed club members to monitor them. In launching this effort, the club also lamented the “unsightly appearance of the Common.”

In 1964, the GCA brought about the creation of the Village Improvement Association, whose purpose was to “improve and beautify the downtown area of Amherst.” Its membership included the town manager, the conservation committee and three members of the club. In 1984, the GCA purchased several concrete planters for the west side of the Common and filled them with spring bulbs, summer flowers, fall chrysanthemums and winter greens. Ten years later, when the planters had deteriorated, the GCA replaced them with smaller ones. In 2015, the Amherst Business Improvement District took over responsibility for the planters.

The newest plan for the Common has generated its share of controversy, some of it concerning the reduction of spaces in the Main St. parking lot. I’m not sure what Austin Dickinson and William S. Clark would have to say about the removal of the Merry Maple. As they say in France, “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.”

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the Get Growing column since 2016.

 Upcoming Garden EventsWinter farmers’ markets are back

We are so fortunate to live in an area where local farmers and craftspeople provide us with fresh produce and locally made foods and household items year round. Enjoy the fruits of their labors at the winter farmers’ markets in Northampton and Amherst.

The Northampton Farmers’ Market is open every Sat. from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Northampton Senior Center, 67 Conz St. The weekly market will continue until April 20, offering handmade edible goodies including bread, cheese and fresh vegetables as well as handmade items. Enjoy live music while you stock your larder and take care of holiday shopping.

The Amherst Farmers’ Market kicked off its winter season on Dec. 1, at the Hampshire Mall, next to Target. The market will run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and will offer the same tempting range of foods and handmade goods. Support our hardworking farmers and keep things local.