The Recorder – And then what happened? : Nancy Garvin kept her eyes on the right page of history


Oh, I’m fascinated by origins.

Recognizing the direct and personal connection to layers of history and our ancestors was what tied me to New Orleans moments after landing on its land in 1981. When I arrived in Ashfield 25 years later, stories linking Ashfield to his days before the American Revolution staked my soul here too.

I live in a 200-year-old house, and the ancestors whose spirits I disturbed with my arrival suitcase amuse me with their stories from the past, daily. (No wait, that’s not the actual story, it’s Crazytown, but my late-night readings of Frederick G Howes’ History of Ashfield tell me I know what they’re saying.)

And then I write. My columns often contain stories from the past, such as that of Dr. Charles Knowlton, a resident of Ashfield in the early 19th century and the man who introduced the concept of birth control to American women. (True story!)

In one column, I detailed the 1857 move of Ashfield’s first Congregational Church to Norton Hill Road, where it landed in its new role as a large city. In a later article about Stuart Harris, Ashfield’s structural restorer of all things older than him, I wondered how many oxen it had taken to keep that 100-foot building on a slow roll, instead of letting the free-falling gravity having her descend the steep slope to Main Street.

In my telling of history, it must be said that I am a storyteller – not a liar, certainly, but I like to imbue my historical accounts with reflections on what might have surrounded the moment being written about. That’s what makes the story real and immediate for me. What were these people thinking and how did it all work out?

So I write my columns for the Recorder, the Ashfield News or whatever, and then, a few days later, I get an email:

Nah, I liked your article in the Recorder. However, I have a correction, which should be noted in your next article. The First Congregational Church building was moved from its original location, in what is now the front part of Hill Cemetery, in 1857 to its present location on Main Street. However, it continued to be used as a church until its remaining members reunited with members of the Second Congregational Church. They sold the building in December 1870 to the municipality to make the town hall. See FG Howes story, page 259. – Nancy

So what:

Nah, that was a wonderful article on Stuart! The only thing I would add is that there was only one pair of oxen involved in the move. And the device used to move the building was a capstan. I have included the articles on this subject in the material which I have copied for you.

These emails were from Nancy Garvin, secretary of the Ashfield Historical Society. On the AHS website, Nancy is listed as: “Secretary. Also, indexing, newsletter, research, correspondence, family history project, genealogy. Nancy Gray Garvin always corrected anyone who called her a historian by explaining that she was not a historian, but a researcher. But indeed, her level of research might put certified historians to shame, for her attention to detail and truth has drawn many writers to town to research their early American subjects, including a surprising number started life in the tiny, remote town of Ashfield, Massachusetts.

Depending on my level of misrepresentation, I might be summoned to Nancy’s house to visit and then review my account of the story. Dr. Knowlton’s play prompted an invitation where I arrived to find my column sitting on the dining room table, with passages highlighted in yellow. Over tea, we reviewed the play, with word-by-word improvements.

You’d think I deliberately wrote misinformation just to be rewarded for these visits and I swear I didn’t even though the story was never so delicious as when it was brought back precision with Nancy Garvin.

On February 28, I learned that Nancy had suddenly left to join the Originals, the ones she’s written about all these years; suddenly robbed by a lymphoma she had only discovered a month earlier.

In my own way, I imagine him walking into the heavenly iteration of Elmer’s Store, where everyone from the original owners of Ashfield in 1739 to those who passed by last month looked up and jumped, applauding Nancy for keeping their stories true and verifiable.

And I’m now expecting an email any day telling me there were only 332 people cheering, and some were from Conway.

Thank you, Nancy, from all of us still here, for keeping us honest. I really don’t know how we’re gonna do this without you. And however we do it, it won’t be as fun or as accurate without you here, responsibly directing us to the right page of history.

Nan Parati lives and works in Ashfield, where she found her home and community after Hurricane Katrina. She can be contacted at [email protected]


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