Historic Deerfield, New England's colonial time warp

Remember the musical ``Brigadoon''? It described a small village that came to life once every 100 years. There is a real Brigadoon, here in western Massachusetts. It's alive every day, but when you step in you get the feeling that you just discovered it as it comes out of a long, long sleep.

Deerfield, it's called, and you will find it a great incongruity - colonial graciousness just a short way from modernity.

Passing just outside the village is Interstate I-91, which runs from New Haven, Conn., all the way to the Canadian border. It's roaring every second of the day - trucks, cars, buses, trailers, motorcycles, each with its own noise. Add it all up, and you have the 20th century.

But then turn into Old Deerfield. You won't even know the 20th century is around. Stand on the main street, and you lose several hundred years.

Three entities exist here - Historic Deerfield, which consists of a dozen houses open to visitors; a number of private homes that are not; and the Deerfield Academy.

The historic part is the main attraction. You come off Routes 5 and 10 and turn into a street that suddenly strips away the present. It's called simply The Street.

Oh sure, there are electric streetlamps, and there are some cars and TV aerials. But if you switch your imagination to ``colonial,'' you will overlook these intrusions. This is a village that has preserved all that was best of 17th- and early 18th-century life.

Deerfield occupies an honorable page in early American history. Originally settled in 1660, it was the last outpost in the New England ``frontier.'' Beyond it was wilderness, full of Indians resentful of the encroachment on their land. Joined by the French, they raided Deerfield twice - in 1675 and 1704, killing settlers and burning houses.

In the Memorial Hall is a chilling reminder of the attack of Feb. 29, 1704. The hall is on the site of what was once the home of John Sheldon. The home was demolished in the attack, but one door was saved, and you can see it here, including gashes made by tomahawks. It is cracked and dry and splintered, but it tells its grisly story.

The rest of the town is cheerful. As you walk up The Street, you may be joined by a Deerfield character, Hannah. She is a black mutt of uncertain ancestry, about a foot high and two feet long, with a very active tail. She will adopt you, follow you to the end of the village, escort you back, and keep watch over you. She is a local pooch known for her hospitable ways to visitors.

All along The Street visitors find houses with historical associations. Each is a virtual museum, in that it has furniture, china, silver, pewter, paintings, quilts, and so on from the period.

But - unless you want to, of course - it isn't necessary to visit every one. At the information center just opposite the Post Office you can get a map showing the location of all the houses. More important, the brochure describes what is in each one, so you can choose those that most interest you. The ones that stand out are the Allen House, the Dwight-Barnard House, the Sheldon-Hawks House, the Helen Geier Flynt Textile Museum, and the Frary House.

The outsides of many of them have a stark, dark-brown autumnal look, while others have the gracious lines that only old New England houses have. Some doorways have pediments that turn a plain old entryway into a work of art. This applies to the houses of Historic Deerfield as well as to the private homes along The Street.

The other segment of Deerfield that will interest visitors is the Academy. This is one of the most prestigious prep schools in the nation, in what could be called a Little Ivy League, along with Choate, Phillips Andover, Exeter, and a few others.

Take a leisurely walk through the academy's grounds. You will likely agree that there are few lovelier spots in which to get an education.

The academic buildings have a venerable, ivied air. They also have a great deal of ground around them. The roads and paths that separate them are lined with huge trees and expanses of lawn.

Several of the homes nearby have been taken over as dormitories. Many of the boys ride their bikes to and from classes. In an adjoining field some young men might be tossing a Frisbee, a football, or a baseball. On a porch, one young man will be lost in a book. In a window, another is writing energetically, another sitting back with earphones.

You may be impressed with one thing: As the boys - most of them in their mid-teens - walk on the campus from classes, they all have ties and jackets on. Asked about this, one young man said: ``Yes, sir, it's a school rule. We all wear jackets and ties in class.''

And you may hear a teen-ager say ``sir'' or ``ma'am.'' Politeness is also emphasized here.

Overall, Deerfield is one of the joys of New England. You may come away wishing your work, your income, and your spouse would allow you to live here.

One final note: Two women were talking in the lobby of the Deerfield Inn. One was telling the other that a few days earlier a full-grown moose had wandered in off the hills and sauntered down the middle of The Street.

This part of the state may not be true wilderness now, but it is nice to know that not far out of town there are moose. It's another plus in this lovely village made up of nothing but pluses.

Practical information

Historic Deerfield Inc., Deerfield, Mass. 01342; (413) 774-5581. Most of the historic houses are open from 9 or 10 a.m. to late afternoon, with the exceptions of Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day.

Each charges an entry fee, ranging from $1.50 to $3. Combination tickets for any three homes cost $4.50; for all 12 houses, $15.

There are also special rates for groups. Call or write ahead for the map that gives all details.

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