Published April 2013 Issue of Southwoods Magazine
By Gene Theroux
President, Friends of Quabbin, Inc.
75 years ago, in 1933, the towns of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich and Prescott Massachusetts were lost to the Quabbin Reservoir. The anniversary on April 28th of the disincorporation of the 4 lost valley towns brings a lot of memories to the former residents of the Swift River Valley, though there are few left to tell their stories.
One former resident, Robert “Bob” Wilder was born in Enfield and grew up in Smith Village (Enfield). He has a very interesting story of life in the valley from early childhood through his exodus from Enfield and after. The Wilder’s, like many other families in the Swift River Valley, were very poor. The country was in the midst of the great Depression during his youth. Young Robert Wilder’s consciousness of our disappearing heritage was dramatically set in 1938 as he watched the rising waters of the nascent Quabbin Reservoir forever obscure the home farm in his native Enfield, Massachusetts. Those indelibly etched images of the conflict between past and progress help to explain the dual lines of interest and involvement that continue to characterize his life to this day.
Bob explains in his story that although they were poor, they were very happy living on a farm. They had an association with their farm animals: a horse, a cow, some pigs and chickens. They did not go hungry; they grew and raised their food (“plenty of vegetables and milk – no sweets”). Bob says they never had to leave town for anything they needed whether for necessities or entertainment; it was all there in Enfield. Bob has freely and frequently shared his story through the many years since his retirement in 1985 from Titeflex as a Quality Engineer.
My first meeting with Bob Wilder was at a Tuesday Tea just over a year and a half ago. Each time we have met since then and I have had an opportunity to talk with Bob, I walk away with more knowledge, understanding and appreciation of not only history in the former valley but other areas of early American
History. A particular personal note is that his family has been in America since 1635; I have ancestors that arrived here in 1620.
With fellow Friends of Quabbin board member, John Zebb, I visited Bob Wilder and his lovely wife Nancy at their home in Brookfield last December. We were at the Wilder home for hours listening to Bob’s stories, admiring his craftsmanship and enjoying his life experiences. Bob represents the “American Dream” in that through hard work, reading and research he overcame poverty, made something of his life, and gave back to society. His grandmother got him on-track by emphasizing reading at a young age. Bob listened to her. He graduated from high school as valedictorian of his class. When he discovered that higher education was beyond his financial capabilities in the times of the Korean War, Bob joined the Marine Corps. He served in combat in Korea and lost several childhood friends in that war. He gained practical experience as a combat engineer and attended Marine Corps school in Quantico, VA to earn a degree in engineering. It was fascinating to learn of other notable Americans that he served with in the Marine Corps such
as Corporal Lee Trevino and USMC Captain Theodore Samuel “Ted” Williams, ”The Splendid Splinter.” Bob served with Ted for about six months. Bob is proud and appreciative of what the Marine Corps taught him; skills and knowledge that helped him through both combat and life. In the 55 plus years since his Marine Corps service, he continues to live by the Marine Corps Rifleman Creed.
Marine field experience and the engineering degree enabled him to work for an aerospace firm, advancing from production foreman to chief inspector. He toured the U.S. troubleshooting problems with the development of air-frames, rocket engines and life-support systems for outer space and the race to the moon.
But he never lost his fascination with his heritage. Upon retiring from the service, he became a notable expert on the Boston Post Roads. He mapped historic sites in the seven-town Quabbin region. He is a frequent consultant and interpreter for Old Sturbridge Village. He directed me to the Brookfield Public Library where there are 55 large color maps of all the historic things that happened in Central Massachusetts from the first settlement through the Civil War period. These maps include 8 large maps with overlays showing the change in New England from Pangeae to the area being covered with 1000 feet of water before the ice caps formed to the glaciers advance and retreat. Others show the points of historical interest through time. He has a vast knowledge of the King Phillips War and central Massachusetts history.
Robert Wilder has citations received from the Massachusetts Senate, the Massachusetts House of Representative for his contributions on American History to the surrounding towns of Brookfield and Bob was designated the “Citizen of the Year” for the Town of Brookfield in 2010.
Bob welcomes visitors to his home and he is both eager and delighted to share his experiences of life of the Swift River Valley and growing up on a farm in Smith Village (Enfield), Massachusetts. If you can’t make it to Brookfield to visit Bob, you may visit the Quabbin Visitor’s Center and arrange to view the DVD, Robert Wilder “Exodus from Enfield” produced by the Quabbin Visitor’s Center staff.
Sometime in the near future, my personal goal is to make a movie from the edited audio captured that day in December, adding images provided by Bob, of some of his life works. This linking of oral history with historic images available in various archives or in the hands of living residents or their descendants is a way of creating a real sense of the way people lived.
This 75th Year of Remembrance of the Swift River Valley/Quabbin region underscores the importance of capturing as much of this information as possible and assembling it in enjoyable and educational ways that keep these personal histories alive for future generations. The Friends of Quabbin welcome any contributions you might be able to make to this effort.
You have an opportunity to visit with Bob and other former residents of the Swift River Valley at the 75th Swift River Valley/Quabbin Remembrance Ball on April 27, 2013 at the Ware Town Hall. For more info visit www.foquabbin.org
The Friends of Quabbin, Inc., was formed in 1984 as a non-profit volunteer organization dedicated to increasing public awareness and appreciation of the unique natural and historical resources of the Quabbin Reservoir and Reservation.
The Swift River Valley Historical Society is the leading resource in preserving the artifacts, stories, and records of the lost towns of the Quabbin Valley. Visit swiftrivervalleyhistoricalsociety.org for more info.