Deerfield, Mass. — To stand along Deerfield's main street and to look up is to have the sensation of being inside an exquisitely painted antique bowl. Gracious, shadowed hills rim a town that is little more than this wide, elm-lined street of vintage houses that appear to be patiently waiting for their Colonial occupants to reappear.
There are no neon signs. There are no drugstores, supermarkets, or fast-food places. There are, thanks to Lady Bird Johnson's beautification program, which put them underground, not even any telephone poles and wires.
On the bright, blue morning I rounded the corner past the stately brick Wright House onto the north end of the street, there wasn't any traffic, either. The shadow of the picket fence running down the left side of the street remained peacefully unbroken. It was only when I rolled down the car window to get a better look at a pleasing timber frame house that the still-life scene showed itself to be real.
An elderly woman who had been placidly sitting on a small bench, as much a part of the painting effect as the street itself, ambled up to the window.
"I know all about these places and about the families who lived in them, too, " she said, gesturing toward the houses up and down the street. "And well I should -- I'm descended from the first white child born in Deerfield over 300 years ago!"
She then told me that she was descended from the Sheldon family, whose house I was just admiring, and that she had seen a good bit of the town's history herself. "On my 90th birthday last July, the church bells here rang 90 times," she said proudly.
I would glady have heard more from this knowledgeable inhabitant, but her bus -- the only vehicle I had been thus far -- came just then.
So, like most visitors to Deerfield, I proceeded down the street to the information center to learn about the homes in the conventional manner. Twelve of them along the street (it is officially known as "The Street") are open for public tour, the rest being private homes or buildings of Deerfield Academy, the prestigious prep school occupying the town's midsection.
The 12 houses, including fabric and silver museums and a gift shop in a restored tavern, constitute what is known as Historic Deerfield Inc. On an easy and scenic two-hour drive west from Boston, visitors to Historic Deerfield can also see the town's other historical attractions, such as the Memorial Hall Museum and the Museum of Architectural Fragments. The gracious Deerfield Inn, at a central location along the main street, is a popular place for meals and overnight accommodations.
Although much less frequented than the nearby, better-known Sturbridge Village, Deerfield has been a prime tourist attraction for over 200 years. In the early days this was primarily because the town had been the site of the famous Deerfield Massacre of 1704 and the Bloody Brook Massacre of 1675. Settled in 1669, Deerfield, the northern and western outpost of the New England frontier, twice fell siege to Indians, who killed and kidnapped scores of settlers during the two incidents.
Early tourists made the journey to see the Old Indian House, so called because the front door bore the scar of an Indian hatchet from the 1704 massacre. Although the house no longer stands, the door remains in the Memorial Hall Museum, where it still viewed by curious tourists and is thought to be the only door in America to have its own board of trustees.
Today the town's serene beauty makes it difficult to imagine the violence of its early years. With the intent of preserving the town's other notable distinctions -- its outstanding architecture and furniture -- Helen and Henry N. Flynt founded Historic Deerfield in 1952. As a result of their labors in collecting artifacts and furnishings from the town's past and preserving the most historic homes as period museums, tourists and scholars can get a good idea of how well-to-do rural Americans lived during the 18th and 19th centuries.
To try to see all of Historic Deerfield in only one day is not feasible, and so, like most other visitors, I took a selective tour of four houses representing a range of periods and life styles. Admission prices range from $1 to $2.50 per house, with combination tickets to three houses available for $3.50 in the summer. Tours are usually given to groups no larger than six.
The guide for my group, Mrs. Wilby, ushered us first to the Wells-Thorn House , among the most popular of the homes if for no other reason than that it comes close to being two houses in one. The front of the structure is a refined, butter-colored, mid-18th century house joined at the back by a cruder, unpainted house built nearly 50 years earlier. This back section, built not long after the 1704 massacre, is not unlike a fortress; a small second-floor window can be completely covered by a wooden flap.
Looking at the flap, I imagined frightened settlers closing it down tight each evening to ward off arrows from hostile Indians. "It was chiefly designed to keep out the cold," said Mrs. Wilby, breaking into my reverie. "Don't ever make the mistake of referring to it as an Indian shutter -- those are something else entirely."
The Wells-Thorn House is a house of light and dark, crude Pilgrim charm, and Federal- style elegance. Through the back door we entered the world of the 17 th-century settlers: draped with flame-stitch embroidery, narrow, diamond-paned windows, and massive fireplaces that served as kitchen, heat source, and gathering point.
But just through the doorway into the sun-filled parlors of the front section is a scene of great refinement: Oriental rugs worn and mellowed to pastel hues; richly burnished Chippendale and Federal-style furniture covered in gold brocade; window seats; white wainscoting; fine moldings; here and there a delicate dried arrangement.
Deerfield is actually in the midst of what once was a glacial lake -- hence the impression of being at the bottom of a bowl. The street consists of 43 lots -- it was laid out by an English architect in the late 7th century, making it and early forerunner of the subdivision -- and has flood plains at either end. The midportion of the street is owned by Deerfield Academy, the buildings of which harmonize architecturally with the rest of the scene even though most of them were built in the 1920s.
After passing the academy, we came to the Frary Huse, the social and political center of deerfield before and during the Revolution, playing host to Benedict Arnold, among others. The Windsor chairs and tavern tables of the north and south parlors are still set up with their pewter place settings. Toward the back of the house is an area popular with younger visitors -- a "touch it" room where children can get a feel for the process of weaving linen, lighting a fire with a flint box, and spinning wool.The house is also worth seeing for its elegant ballroom, with a charming fiddlers' gallery perched above.
Our next stop was to the home of the once-richest man in town, Asa Stebbins, who built his imposing brick house at the turn of the 19th century when the dignified elegance of the Federal period was in bloom. It is by far the fanciest of Historic Deerfield's houses, the interior is covered with French wallpapers -- exotic scenes of Captain Cook with South Seas natives greet one on the first floor.
From there we went to the Sheldon-Hawks House, the unpainted exterior of which has had nearly 237 years to mellow to its present dark brown tone. Built as a farmhouse for the Sheldon family, it stands as a remarkable example of how the twice-devastated frontier town would evolve architecturally by the mid-1700 s.
If Sheldon-Hawks is perhaps the most authentically preserved of Deerfield's houses, it is because descendants of the first owner lived there until 1946. All were farmers except the last owner, Susan Hawks, who was an antique dealer with an enviable source of knowledge.
Finding that four houses were all that should be visited in a single day, we headed over to the Helen Geier Flynt Fabric Hall to admire the impresive collection of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century costumes, needlework, and textiles. For another visit, I left the Parker and Russell Silver Shop, with its extensive display of antique American and English silver; the gift shop, selling Colonial reproductions that range from a hearth broom at $12 to a cherry chest at $1,950; and the rest of the houses.
At I looked back on The Street, I couldn't help but concur with the words I'd read by a much earlier traveler: "There is no more beautiful or peaceful street in New England than the main street of old Deerfield." Particulars
Historic Deerfield is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmans, Christmas Eve, and New Year's Day. On Monday through Saturday houses are open from 9:30 to 4:30; on Sunday, 1 to 4:30. For information on group tours call ( 413) 774-5218.