Before the arrival of my ancestors to the hills of East Wallingford, Connecticut, a meandering river kept company with the land. It flowed through the flat acres at the bottom of the hill and continued on through Northford. The earliest deeds to the farm refer to it as Muddy River. When the land was settled and the farms built, the moist banks made rich pastureland for cows and entertaining playgrounds for children.
The river connected the two significant farms in my life. It flowed not only through the Hall farm – the farm of my mother – but also through the Newton farm in Northford, Connecticut – the farm of my father’s aunt and uncle. Until recently I hadn’t thought of the two “Muddy Rivers” of my childhood as one continuous waterway. The Newtons and the Crumps gathered at the Newton farm beside the cool stream to picnic near the little summer house and swing on the hammocks. We paddled in the shallow rocky water, caught lamprey eels, pulled leeches off our legs, and refused to enter the spider-filled outhouse. In Northford the river was still a river.
But in Wallingford, by the time I was born, the part of the river at the foot of Whirlwind Hill was gone. In 1943 the town dug a hole and flooded the land to create the MacKenzie Reservoir. I never knew the Muddy River of my mother and grandfather and his father before him. I’ve searched for photos of the way it used to look, but have found only this one of my grandmother Agnes in 1921 with her three children and some of the neighbors. In the background is the farm that belonged at that time to Grace and Walter Ives. The children and my grandmother dressed for a party and brought toy boats to float along the bank of Muddy River.
In 2009 the town of Wallingford drained the reservoir so it could be dredged and cleaned. For the first time I saw the path of the river, the stumps of trees that had grown next to the Muddy River School, and the footprint of the old road where, it is said, George Washington rode on his way from New Haven to Boston in 1775 and 1789. At the far south end of the reservoir an old stone wall emerged from the water. It ran through one of our fields and must have once ended at the river. My brother and I kept meaning to walk out and explore it, but time passed and before we could go the reservoir was filled, and all traces of the past were again out of sight.
It must have been peaceful and beautiful along the river, but the reservoir is my own personal history, and I love it. I fished there, watched birds there, and found peace sitting on the front steps of the house and looking over its quiet water.
On Monday: Decoration Day