If you look hard enough, you’ll find that the world is still a mysterious place, with lots of hidden gems that can be discovered with a little bit of perseverance. Back when my mom and me used to road trip together, in the days when people read newspapers and cut things out of them that were interesting, she would get her scissors out and I’d get the keys to my car ready. We would go looking for oddities that journalists would write about, sometimes driving for hundreds of miles, even on overnight trips. An Eskimo boy in the Great North Woods of New Hampshire, ghost towns in the American West, a celebration of Marilyn Monroe’s life at her gravesite in Westwood, California. Occasionally, after Mom passed in 2004, I’d still come across something interesting online and would seek it out, but it wasn’t quite the same without her.
About a month ago, I decided to go on a wild goose chase for the grave of a six year old boy named Wendell Farnsworth. Little is known about Wendell, but the story of how he was forgotten deep in the woods is better documented.
Quabbin Reservoir, the largest body of water in Massachusetts, is a man made wonder in the center of the state and with an incredible history. In the 1930s, four towns were destroyed to create the reservoir, which would satisfy the demands for water in Boston. Any map from the era will show the hamlets of Dana, Prescott, Enfield, and Greenwich. Contrary to popular belief, the “lost” towns are not all “underwater.” Quabbin is my second home, and with COVID19 changing the way we all had to do business, I spent more time than ever this summer exploring the old roads and cellar holes and mysteries of the disincorporated towns.
One mystery I never solved was the discovery of Wendell’s grave, though I’ve known about it for years. The story goes that when the towns were flooded, close to 7,500 graves had to be relocated to Quabbin Park Cemetery in Belchertown, Massachusetts. A lone grave was left behind, high on a ridge behind a farmhouse that is no longer a farmhouse. The forgotten grave was not discovered until several decades later, by a hiker who alerted local historians, most of whom didn’t believe the tale.
It isn’t easy to get information about Wendell. In fact, I had two different maps that told me he was in two different places, as well as three different GPS coordinates that were miles apart. Leave it to me to pick the wrong one to follow on my first serious foray into locating the legendary grave!
So there I was on Tampling Road, with a map and coordinates provided by a fellow hiker, who published a blog about finding Wendell. I’ve been to this area of Quabbin a million times and was titillated to find out that Tampling Road held something interesting, as I had hiked it before and had seen a whole lot of absolutely nothing! The hiker’s advice, which I was following closely, led me to a nondescript area of what used to be a town road in the defunct Dana, Massachusetts. Other descriptions I’d found said that the grave was two miles from the entrance gate. According to my map, I needed to go about a half mile from what used to be the center of Dana, on Tampling Road, and head into the woods before the only sharp turn of the road. The coordinates soon had me bushwhacking in thick blown down trees from the last major storm we had here, the tail end of hurricane Isaias. Dropping “pins” here, there, and everywhere, my phone battery was taking a hit, too. As I searched, I had the worst crash I’ve had in a while, my foot getting stuck between branches. Down I went, pitching forward, as I tried to navigate on my phone, which flew out of my hand as my skin tore! Really rather comical when you think about it (and visualize it!) but not so great when you have to walk around all bloody for a week and have people staring at you like you did yourself in on purpose!
After a couple hours more of frustrating searching, my interactive map told me that I was right in front of the grave. But I wasn’t right in front of it. In fact, the grave wasn’t anywhere to be seen, and I was convinced that maybe I needed to suspend my search until fall, when there was less vegetation to deal with. The biggest stumper was the “high ridge” the grave was supposed to be on. No high ridge was to be found on Tampling Road. I dragged back to my car after putting on nine miles, mostly walking in circles.
As someone who has spent her life finding things, I hate NOT finding things.
The following day I reviewed all the information available, looked at dates that the articles or blogs were posted. The most recent visit to the grave was made by the guy whose map of Tampling Road I had used. I saw on his blog that someone had just written to him about Wendell’s grave a few days before. Doubting that the man would get back to me, I left a message for him anyway, disappointment making my craw ache. It was really my only hope of finding what I was calling “the needle in the haystack.”
Sunday morning, the day after my “epic fail,” as I referred to it on social media. Visiting with my sisters and telling them the story of Wendell Farnsworth. I decided to check to see if the blogger answered my inquiry…And he did! With apologies for posting the wrong map and succinct directions to the grave. The fighting spirit rose inside of me. I had to get back there!
I couldn’t return that day, but I carved some time on Monday afternoon before it got dark. As I walked at a vigorous pace, knowing precisely what area I was going to, I envisioned how exciting it would be to find the needle in the haystack. Several friends on social media cheered me on, waiting patiently for a victory post. “After Dana Common, follow Dana Road to the ponds, and take the first right into the woods.” That was the easy part. The tough part was finding what the blogger described as an “area where there would have been a barn on the right and a house on the left.” He had given an approximate length of measurement to get there, but it turned out to be further. Frustration was setting in again, especially since it was already late afternoon and time was of the essence. My phone was fully charged this time, and I started dropping pins again. The coordinates showed that I was on to something.
Massachusetts probably doesn’t sound like a place you would go if you want to find yourself in the middle of nowhere, but I’ve been there many times in my home state. It’s not the same kind of “nowhere” as, say, the Mojave Desert, but close enough. And I was there now. Just me and a wayward porcupine. To my left I definitely saw some crude trails that basically went nowhere, and a hill that maybe could be called a “ridge.” But there was no way I could picture this place where the pins started to make sense as the former site of a house with a barn on the other side of the road.
Yet the pins were right on. So I started making circles again in thick ferns on those animal trails. They just ended in more ferns. I abandoned the trails and started climbing hills. I was getting further away. I went back to the road a couple of times. Back to the original plan. The taste of another defeat rose again in my throat as a lump. Soon I would have to go to get back to my car before dark. One more try.
Hit the animal trail. Wait, is that another one not noticed before, heading up the hill, between wilting ferns? Maybe. Up I went. Yes, it was a trail. It was taking me somewhere. Up to a clearing. Up to a ridge. Up to…
The curve of a narrow stone that my eyes had been keening to see for three weary days, that I had been wondering about for years…
I started to tear up, feeling like I knew this little fellow by now.
Wendell. On a ridge, the stone facing away from what used to be the home built by his parents, John and Sarah. I was incredulous to be there, though sad that I had so little time left to spend with Wendell on that lonely but peace-filled ridge. Like many graves I’ve found, Wendell’s resting place was respectfully honored with gifts from the few people who were tenacious enough to seek it. I sat and pondered my discovery as long as I could, pushing the boundaries of daylight. This was not where I wanted to be in the dark, alone!
As of today, I have not been back, but foliage time is nearly here, and now that I know where I’m going, I’ll soon return to spend more time with Wendell!
Meanwhile, I’m looking for my next challenge!