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Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Old Coot of Greylock: The Legend in Full

The following is a full account of the Legend of the Old Coot, as told over a campfire last summer by Mount Greylock State Reservation Park Interpreter Michael Whalen, one of the Shire's grand storytellers.  This transcription has attempted to adhere as close to word-for-word as possible to Mike's colorful telling of the story:



"...Whatever direction you may travel, Greylock looms large... physically, mentally, spiritually, geographically.  And there is something about these hills around here that have borne so many colorful characters.

To tell this tale, we need to go back before the Civil War...

Needless to say, the war effort drew in many different people, into this major bloody event... one of our local citizens, one Bill Saunders... he probably had one of the biggest sheep farms in Adams in the middle 1850s.  His farm was located at a very interesting nexus in the town of Adams, Bob's Hill.  

It was on this very folkloric, legendary hill, that Saunders had his farm.  He had about 300 sheep pasturing on the hilltop, and a most beautiful farmhouse.  He had a young wife, and was just beginning to raise a family, when the call came for more able bodied soldiers to fight on the side of the north in the Civil War.

So sadly, Bill Saunders had to pack up and leave his farm on Bob's Hill, and travel far away, deep into the south, to  many battles throughout the war.

Meanwhile, his wife and young children were left behind at the farm, to fend for themselves.  And it wasn't a very easy life... now I have to believe that his wife, Emma was her name, was made of tough raw nails, like a good Yankee farm wife would have to be.  She did the best she could, but it was very difficult on her own, and she often had to hire local men to help on the farm in place of her husband.

And so the war wore on, and Bill Saunders, he was wounded a number of times. Finally, in one of the last battles of the Civil War, he was wounded very badly in a canon blast, and he almost died from it. 

He was laid up in a hospital, first in Richmond, Virginia, and then he was moved to Washington for a number of months.  He was in and out of death during those many months, struggling to live. But the thought of his farm, and his young wife and children back in Adams is really what kept him alive.

So Bill Saunders ultimately did survive the war... but for many months following the war, he was in a sort of state of amnesia.  He couldn't remember exactly where his home was, he just knew tnat he had a farm and a family somewhere back north.  It took a while for him to regain his complete memories.  He had worked at odd jobs around Washington DC, and thereabouts.

Finally, his memory is jogged, and he recalls exactly where his farm and his family were, and decides that it is time to return home.

This was two years following the war, so a lot of time had passed, and he was more or less considered missing in action... which was almost like being considered dead, lost in battle.   Which is essentially how word had come back to his wife, who now considered herself a widow.

This was no time in history for a young woman with no husband and young children to raise, to be trying to run a farm with 300 sheep.  So sadly, she decides it was really necessary for her to find a new husband.

So ultimately, she does.  She had hired various handyman to help on the farm, in the absence of Bill Saunders, and one of these handymen she hits it off with.  She enjoys his company and his sense of humor, and what's more, he's a sturdy man, he's reliable.  And to find a sturdy reliable man, in the aftermath of that great war, on a New England farm, was rare indeed.

So they married, and he becomes her new husband and father to her children.  The children grow up, and have just a very faint memory of their father.

Eventually, Bill Saunders finds his way back home.  He takes a train back to Springfield, still a bit hazy on the exact whereabouts of his former home.  Then he takes another train, and eventually arrives in Adams.

When he does, he almost feels like a stranger, because the town has changed a great deal, it's grown a lot in the mean time.  And he is barely recognizable, for though he is still a young man, perhaps in his early 30s, he's taken on a kind of grizzled, elderly look about him.  He has aged prematurely, grayed and become unkempt, due to his ordeal. So he goes to a barber, before he goes anywhere else, to have his hair and beard trimmed.

Still, he takes advantage of his changed appearance, not sure at first that he is quite ready to be recognized.  He is thus able to travel around his hometown anonymously, without being recognized.  It gives him an opportunity to look around the town a bit, and size it up, before he makes his true identity known.  

He begins making inquiries about his wife, and his farm... and it is then that he learns the unfortunate news, that she has taken a new husband, and that his children, now somewhat older, recognize the new man as their father.  

Bill's a tough Yankee, though, and he can deal with that.  It's sad news for him, but he can cope with it.  

'The worst thing that I can do is make an appearance there, and disrupt her new life,' he decides.  He cared enough about her and her happiness not to disturb that.  In the great tradition of stoic New Englanders, he decides to make a new life.

He takes various odd jobs, because he is very skilled, so he works as a blacksmith, and he works as a cooper, making barrels in the local shop.  He works in the growing Adams cotton mill for a time.  Occasionally, he would hire out to local farms as a hired hand.

Legend has it, that on more than one occasion, Bill Saunders actually hired on to his old farm, and was working for his wife and her new husband.  But she never recognized him, so dramatically had he changed in the intervening years.  A number of times, he had actually sat down and eaten at their dinner table.  In that way, he was actually able to reconnect with his lost family and his former life.  

From this, he attained a certain peace with his new life, and after the first few times, never worked on that farm again.

'It's time for me to go off and live on my own, on my own terms,' Saunders decided, a life somewhat outside the circle of culture and civilization.

Now, he had a little bit of pay left over from his years in army service.  In fact, he'd been so frugal in saving that pay, because he'd intended to return home with that pay and improve his farm, that now he was able to purchase a tiny piece of land on the Greylock mountainside, upon which he'd looked up his whole life.

So he went up the mountainside, and cobbled together a small log cabin, and that's where he lived the rest of his life.

A few more years went on, and Bill occasionally would go down into the valley at various times a year, particularly in the winter months, and he would find odd work in town.  But he would always tire of that work, and eventually wander back to his cabin on the Greylock mountainside. 

 One winter, it was so bad that, meteorologists and the Old Farmer's Almanac today, have claimed that this was perhaps the worst winter on the slopes of Mount Greylock since the "the Year Without A Summer," back in 1816. One one of the coldest nights of the year, of this winter, one of the coldest winters of the century, the temperatures fell so low that they couldn't even record them.

Saunders had made sure he had plenty of firewood in his cabin that night, and he built himself a roaring fire, the most roaring, hottest, baddest fire he had ever made, which he figured would take him through the night and into the next day.  He made himself a cup of coffee in a tin cup, drank it, and went to bed, leaving one candle lit. Bill went to sleep in this lonely little cabin, no living soul in miles.

But unfortunately, the door of the cabin, which he had believed secure, blew wide open in a ferocious, roaring wind.  That wind blew out the fire... but didn't blow out the candle... at least not at first.

Bill Saunders froze to death that night, unable to survive that coldest, baddest night in one of the worst winters on the slopes of mount Greylock.  

So there he was... no one even knows how long, perhaps days, or weeks. One day, later that winter, a couple of hunters wandered up up the mountain to one of their favorite hunting grounds.  They recalled that there was an old hermit living up there, and though they rarely ever went that way, this particular night, for some reason, they decide to head by there and check to see how the old man was doing.

So they climbed the slope, and came into view of the old cabin.  All they could see was a little glow, through a partly open door.  They approached the cabin, unsure if he was actually home, because the place looked abandoned.  It felt abandoned.  There was something just very uninhabited about this old cabin.

As they got to the door, they could see a single candle, flickering on the bedside table.  As they pushed the door the rest of the way open, they heard a little crackle... and coming from a branch of an outside tree, quite suddenly, came the hoot of a large owl.  
'This is too eerie,' they said to themselves.  'What's going on here?'

As they pushed through the snow covered door, the owl hoots once more, loudly, as though in warning... and then they see a still, motionless figure on the bed.

They come closer, the only light coming from the flickering candle, and as they approach, they realize that the man is indeed lifeless... the man is dead.  Going over to touch him, they find his body frozen solid.  They recognize him as the hermit, that 'Old Coot' that lived these many years alone up on the side of Greylock.

There he was, frozen, perhaps for weeks.  At first they are not sure what to do.  They look around for a few minutes at the sparsely furnished cabin, finally deciding that they need to go and tell someone.  

As they begin walking back to the door, to go down to notify the local constable... suddenly the door slams shut... and the candle blows out.

Before they can open the door and run out... they see this misty figure rising up from the frozen, lifeless body of Bill Saunders.

Slowly the shadow rises up... then suddenly, there's a rush of wind and the door blows open again.  

The two hunters go running out frantically, down the mountain.  Just behind them, the misty figure follows.  They keep looking over their shoulders as the run, the figure right behind them... until abruptly it vanishes.   

Well, they're beside themselves with horror.  This is the most terrifying thing which they have ever seen.  They make a dash down the valley at record pace.

They reached the Gould farm, and were taken by wagon down into town to tell the constable. The constable, a bit skeptically, heads back up the mountain with the men in daylight, to the old cabin.  

Once again, they notice a candle barely lit, and there it is sitting once more on the table.  The hunters lead the way, edging the door open.  Once inside, the candle illuminates a surprising sight- an empty bed.  

The two hunters were not about to stay around to investigate; no, they went running once again down the mountainside, shrieking the whole way.

In fact, they shrieked so loud, that a lot of people at the mill were letting out for lunch, because they thought it was the lunch whistle. and the train men down at the station, they were letting up the flag to warn of a train's approach, even though there was no train for miles.  That's the kind of screaming they were letting out.

The hunters had disappeared, leaving the Constable staring at an empty bed and mulling a half-known story.  Later, once back to town, he got ahold of them and got as much of the story from these two frightened and unsettled hunters as he could.

But as he was walking back down the mountain, off at the entrance of the Bellows Pipe trail, he thought he could see a flicker, like a spectre, moving across the gap of the mountain reaches.  

Suddenly, it transformed, into a raven, and flew off into the woods.  And that was the last of Bill Saunders.

To this day, at about that same time of the year, if one were to hike up that same side of Greylock, one is bound to see, at some point, the grizzled apparition of Bill Saunders, the Old Coot, wandering about his haven in the mountains... perhaps finally finding peace in his ghostly wanderings, that he never knew in life."   

1 comment:

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