March 25, 2012

The Witch Caves

Do you ever wonder what happened to the survivors of the Salem witch trials? Where did they, and the family members of those executed in Salem, go after the trial ended?

They went to Framingham, Massachusetts.

In 1693 the families of Rebecca Nurse, Sara Cloyes, Mary Esty and others got the hell out of Salem. Following an old Indian trail they relocated to Framingham, where they founded a small settlement called Salem's End. The trail still exists today as Salem End Road.

According to local legend, when the refugees first arrived in Framingham they had to shelter in caves before they built their houses. What remains of these caves is now located in Ashland Town Forest. (Ashland did not become an independent town until the 1840s).

Tony and I recently took a trip out to Ashland to visit the caves. The Town Forest, which was also once inhabited by the Magunkook Indians, is about 500 acres in size, and we had to walk for a mile from where we parked the car on Salem End Road.

The forest clearly has been used for many different things over the centuries. It was criss-crossed with lots of old stone walls, indicating it had once been farmland. In the 20th century it was used as a hunting ground by some of the local riding clubs.

We found this old Bel Air, which looked like it was from the 1950s. The park abuts a very upscale neighborhood, so I thought it was interesting the town has left it there. Maybe like us the parks commission thinks it is kind of cool.

The forest is full of huge granite boulders deposited by glaciers, and the caves are located in a large ridge near a water tower.

Me, shortly before I skinned my shin looking for the cave. Adventure has a price I guess!

Those caves have to be here somewhere!

We had read that the caves have collapsed, or at least partially collapsed. However I've seen fairly recent photos of the caves so we weren't sure what to believe. We climbed around the boulders for quite a while looking for the caves. I have to admit we weren't really equipped for climbing giant rocks, and the ground was really slippery from all the dead leaves which were a couple feet deep in some places.

Just as we were about to leave I decided to check out part of the ridge that is very close to someone's backyard. (But I didn't trespass!) And yes, we actually found a cave. I think it's kind of funny that we walked for a mile and climbed up and down the boulders, but the cave is basically next to someone's house. If I lived there I would spend every day hanging out at the Witch Caves!

The cave we found looked pretty small, but I think centuries of oak leaves have probably reduced its original size. It seems to have multiple small chambers, and I can imagine desperate refugees crawling in there to shelter from rain or snow. If you were fleeing from people who wanted to execute you for witchcraft you'd probably be pretty desperate.

However, Tony and I didn't crawl into the cave for a couple reasons. One, we didn't know if the oak leaves were covering solid stone or hiding a pit, and we really didn't want to find out. Two, since the other caves have collapsed we didn't feel too secure about this one. Those are some big boulders in the photos!

If you go to the cave I don't recommend crawling into it. It's probably not safe. And after all, you're not being chased by villagers carrying torches and pitchforks.

March 18, 2012

The Devil's Bride

Here's a great story that happened in Salisbury, New Hampshire. It was supposedly recorded in the diary of one Asa Reddington, a soldier in the Revolutionary War.

The story goes something like this. One evening a farmer in Salisbury was inspecting his farm after a thunderstorm when he saw tall man slip out of the barn and walk into the thickening gloom. The farmer went inside to investigate, where he found a local elderly woman of sitting on the barn floor. She was known to be the town drunk, and indeed next to her was a large empty liquor jug.

The woman said, "You have to help me! I came into this barn to take escape the storm, and the Devil crept in here after me. He made me promise to marry him, and in six days he's coming to take me away on our honeymoon!"

The farmer was skeptical of her story since he could clearly see she was inebriated. However, word of her plight spread around town and Parson Seales, the local minister, agreed to help her battle Satan.

The day arrived when the Devil was supposed to take his bride. Parson Seales and twelve ministers from nearby towns brought the woman to an apple orchard, where they tied her securely to a chair. The ministers formed a circle around her, and began to pray. Devout members of the church formed a second circle around the ministers.

As they ministers prayed, a strong wind arose, shaking the apple trees. A large black cat leapt down from one of the trees, spitting and hissing. Was it the Unholy One himself? Strange things happened - the woman's chair rocked back and forth violently, and one of the ministers felt himself punched by an invisible hand. The dress of one church member was even lifted over her head by the wind -  or by some unseen demon.

Undeterred, the ministers continued praying until  the violent wind and supernatural shenanigans stopped. The black cat had long since disappeared, and the weather became calm and peaceful.

"We have been successful!" Parson Seales said. "The Devil has been denied his bride!"

The old woman became a faithful churchgoer after this and always praised Parson Seales for his great faith and courage. One Sunday morning, however, the congregation noticed that she was not present for the service. A search party was formed, and the woman's body was located at the bottom of a nearby well.

Some people in Salisbury felt the Devil had finally taken his bride. Others, more skeptical, pointed out that an empty liquor jug had been found next to the well.


I found two contradictory versions of this story. The version in Eva Speare's New Hampshire Folk Tales, which is older,  makes it pretty clear the whole situation was concocted by the drunk woman, and doesn't mention that she dies in a well. The other version I found, in Lewis Taft's Profile of Old New England, plays up the supernatural aspects and includes the final shocking death. Taft also says the story took place in Salisbury, Massachusetts, which I think is incorrect. Richard Dorson's Jonathan Draws the Long Bow mentions a rock formation in Salisbury, NH called the Devil's Chair. I wonder if it is related somehow to this story?

March 13, 2012

Brown Bread, or Rye and Indian

I love the taste combination of cornmeal and molasses. I can't get enough of it, which is why I love Indian pudding and Anadama bread. It's also why I love Boston brown bread.

Some people leave off the "Boston" and just call it brown bread, but no matter what you call it this loaf is quintessentially New England. These days it's usually served with baked beans or during clambakes, but for centuries it was a common everyday bread.

Brown bread has an interesting history. When the Puritans first settled in this area their preferred grain for baking was wheat, but they soon learned that corn (maize) grew much better in the New England soil. According to historians, the average farm produced 100 bushels of corn to 18 bushels of wheat. This ratio only got worse after a wheat fungus evocatively called "the blast" arrived. Ultimately, New Englanders needed to import wheat from other parts of the country, which made it quite expensive.

My brown bread is indeed very brown!

Although wheat didn't grow well here, a less popular European grain did - rye. Along with cornmeal, rye flour became the main ingredient for the bread baked by common people, and also gave it it's name, Rye and Indian. This name later became condensed to one word, Ryaninjun. The term Indian here refers to Indian corn, or maize.

The Puritans made Ryaninjun by mixing the two flours with some leavening and liquid, and forming them into dome shaped loaves (similar to modern soda bread). Ryaninjun loaves were baked on oak leaves or cabbage leaves, which imparted an interesting flavor. In the autumn small children were sent out to gather oak leaves specifically for baking bread.

In the 1820s, Ryaninjun also began to be called brown bread, and the two terms became interchangeable. At this time recipes began to include molasses, and called for steaming the bread in cylindrical molds rather than baking.

In the earliest twenty-first century the name Ryaninjun has disappeared, but many recipes still call for steaming the bread, often in coffee cans. I baked mine in a loaf pan, using a recipe I found in a Mark Bittman cookbook. The recipe didn't call for lining the pan with oak leaves, but I think I'll try that in the fall!

I got this information from Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald's wonderful book America's Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking.

March 04, 2012

The Specter Moose of Maine

At least 29,000 live in Maine, according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. That's a lot of moose! Most of those moose are colored black or brown, but over the last hundred years a gigantic, white moose has been seen lurking in those piney northern forests.

Because of its ghostly color it's been dubbed... the specter moose of Maine! Well, and also because of the weird stories associated with it.

The specter moose was first seen in 1891 outside of Bangor by a hunting guide named Clarence Duffy. Duffy, no stranger to moose, was horrified by the encounter. Not only was the animal an unusual color, but it stood 13 feet tall and had antlers that were more than ten feet across. It was a moose of almost prehistoric proportions!

Another man named George Kneeland was so frightened by the giant white moose in 1900 that he abandoned his newfangled bicycle and climbed up a tree for safety. After investigating the bicycle, the moose vanished into the forest.

The specter moose appeared sporadically throughout the 20th century and became an established piece of Maine folklore. But where did it come from, and why is it such an unusual color?

There are of course a few possible scientific explanations. The specter moose could simply be an albino moose, although that doesn't account for it's gigantic size. It could also be infested with winter ticks (yuck!), which are known to cause lightening of an animal's coat.

However, science can't account for some of the wilder stories about the specter moose. For example, what would a scientist say about this story? A group of hunters near the Molunkus stream in Maine killed a large white moose, slit its throat, and hung it from a tree overnight so they could skin and dress it the next day. They were surprised in the morning to see that the moose had vanished, but were even more surprised that evening when the giant moose walked into their camp - with its throat still cut. The hunters shot it dead (again) with their rifles, but the moose calmly got up and walked off into the dark forest. Wisely, they didn't pursue.

That's pretty freaky, but things got even freakier. The giant white moose, its throat slit open, was seen soon after by one Burt Peggins near Ashland, Maine. Peggins shot at the moose to no effect, and then dropped his rifle and ran into his house. From inside, he watched the moose pick up the rifle with its teeth, fire it, and then amble away.

An undead moose that can shoot a gun is kind of scary, but the specter moose has his happier side as well. A man named Harry Porter claimed that he became stranded out in the woods with his girlfriend after their horse died. Happily, a giant white moose appeared and carried them back to town. Specter moose to the rescue!

One of the later stories about the specter moose also shows its supernatural side. According to some people in Franklin, the moose appears when bad things are about to happen, and it reportedly appeared shortly before the town's restaurant burned down in 2002.

Your average, mundane moose is pretty scary, but a giant supernatural white one is just disturbing. I can thank the following for adding a new monster to my nightmares: Michelle Souliere's book Strange Maine, and the BioForetan Review's article "King Moose." Michelle Souliere also writes the Strange Maine Blog, which is full of unusual stuff from the north.