Saturday, February 1, 2014

Click below to listen to Ted Belsky talk about the South Hadley Canal

Historic South Hadley canal model gets exhibit upgrade

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


South Hadley is a small town that has left a big mark on the history of travel by water in the United States.

Specifically, the first navigable canal went into use more than 200 years ago in South Hadley, highlighted by a novel system of raising boats for safe passage through the waterway.

The canal and attendant historical items will be in the spotlight beginning on Saturday when the town's Old Firehouse Museum opens its doors for the 2009 season.

The aptly named Canal Village Potpourri will serve as the backdrop for the unveiling of the Connecticut River/South Hadley Canal Room, the newest permanent display at the museum. The renovated room houses "lots of memorabilia," according to Ted Belsky, who served as a longtime Canal Park Committee co-chairman, and items related to the canal and the community that sprang up around it.

Models of boats from that era on the Connecticut River, maps of the canal area, and many other items are on display, along with a model of an innovational mode of transport for vessels on the river.

The canal began operations in 1795, predating such wonders as the Erie Canal in New York by several decades. It was constructed over a three-year span and was intended to allow vessels to bypass the Great Falls, which dropped 53 feet. To send the boats safely past the falls, the canal builders constructed the "inclined plane."

The first-of-its-kind invention raised boats attached to a large cart over a huge stone ramp, then lowered the vessels safely over the falls to continue their trip. The designer of the inclined plane is lost to history, though its construction was overseen by Benjamin Prescott, a local resident.

The inclined plane was in operation for about 10 years before it was replaced by the more common lock system, which was used by the canal until it ceased operations in 1862.

"People came for hundreds of miles to see the canal and inclined plane," said Belsky. "It was an amazing achievement."

Now patrons will have the chance to view all of the museum's materials relating to the canal's history in a permanent home. Since the museum closed for the season last September, historical society members Brian Duncan and Gerry Lacasse were instrumental in renovating the room, applying fresh paint and new rugs to the space, which had previously housed a children's exhibit.

Sure to be the most eye-catching exhibit-within-the-exhibit is the working replica of the inclined plane. The expansive model, which duplicates the trip a boat took over the falls, was built about a dozen years ago and has taken up residence in schools and the second floor of the museum before finding its permanent niche.

The seasonal exhibit at the museum, which changes each year, also reflects a canal theme. It represents day-to-day life in South Hadley when the canal was functioning. Period clothing, furniture and items found around a typical home of the era will be highlighted. Paper mills, other factories, businesses and homes sprouted up in the area that was known as Canal Village.

The Museum will be one of several organizations participating in the 30th annual Potpourri tag sale, to run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, concurrent with the Museum's opening.

The Old Firehouse Museum is located at 11 North Main St. and is open May through September on Sundays, adding Wednesdays in July and August, from 1:30 to 4 p.m. each day. Admission is free; donations are welcome. Judy Van Handle is a member of the South Hadley Historical Society.

© 2009 The Republican Company. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Click here for our new website

Please visit the newly redesigned web site for the South Hadley Historical Society.

Thanks much,

Robert Salthouse
South Hadley Historical Society

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Beechwood was post-war jumpin' joint

Beechwood was post-war jumpin' joint

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

It was the late 1940s, and the joints were jumpin'.

Post-World War II America had much to celebrate after the troops came home, and for many, a night on the town meant dining and dancing to a live band in a club chock-a-block with other partiers.

And little South Hadley was home to one of the biggest and most popular clubs in Western Massachusetts.

For nearly a quarter-century - continuing well after the post-World War II glow had faded - the Beechwood and its successor, Conti's Beechwood, was not only an epicenter of area nightlife but also a popular destination for more sedate events such as wedding receptions, testimonials and banquets.

Today, the only evidence that the Beechwood used to border one side of the Beechgrounds on Main Street is a lone pillar, which stands next to the driveway of the apartment building built on the club's former site.

But, before it was demolished some 40 years ago, the hulking two-story edifice was such a trendy place to be that, in the words of former manager Frank Conti, "Some Friday and Saturday nights there would be 1,000 people upstairs and downstairs."

That was something no one could have foreseen when the spanking-new emporium opened its doors in the early 1920s. It was constructed to serve as a "Red Men's Hall," the local headquarters for a now-largely defunct fraternal organization that had headquarters in many U.S. cities (among them Holyoke, Northampton and Springfield).

The building was sold in the mid-1930s to Emile Lariviere, a South Hadley resident. He renamed it the Beechwood and transformed it into a collection of small businesses, including lunch rooms, bars, a cigar shop and even a bowling alley.

But, by 1943, new owner Jimmy Downing had other ideas for the Beechwood. A South Hadley real estate investor who lived less than a mile from the club, Downing also was the leader of the popular Jimmy Downing Orchestra.

Downing's dual interests meshed perfectly. His band had a permanent place to play, and it didn't take long for Downing's "new" Beechwood to catch on, starting with the men in uniform.

"The Westover GIs during World War II kept coming for the nightlife and then all through the years," said Conti.

The Beechwood was buzzing. In its heyday, it wasn't unusual to see lines of would-be patrons snaking down the sidewalk while waiting for admittance; inside, radio stations WACE and WHYN each broadcast live programs on Saturday nights A boxing exhibition with Willie Pep, the featherweight world champion from Hartford, was staged in the 1950s.

Even the more mundane was larger than life at the Beechwood. It hosted 25 consecutive policemen's balls, and it wasn't uncommon for the club to host five wedding receptions going on at once, according to Conti, who says the Beechwood was the site of South Hadley's first television set.

Other acts to play at the Beechwood included Bob Ezold's dance band (a member of the long-time Holyoke musical family and owner of the Pizzitola Music Studio, Ezold also was married to Downing's system, Helen) and Larry Chesky's polka orchestra.

In 1953, the Downings leased the club to Frank and Doris Conti, whose family owned several South Hadley restaurants. But as entertainment tastes changed, the club's business slowly dwindled and the facility closed its doors in 1968 when the Contis' lease expired.

Downing's plans to convert the vacant Beechwood into apartments didn't pan out, leading to its demolition. A new apartment building, the Parkview, instead was built in the early 1970s.

But even as it sat vacant, awaiting its demise, the Beechwood still had some music left in it. Jimmy Downing's son, James III, and his rock band Bear Mountain used the old building as a practice venue. Judy Van Handle is a member of the South Hadley Historical Society. To learn more about the society, go online to

Sunday, May 23, 2010

1936 flood

This is one of the fine photos of the 1936 flood donated by Ken McKenna to the Historical Society in May, 2010.  The caption on the back of this photo is, Flood 1936 Main St., looking up Glasgow Hill - National Guardsman Gerald A. Judge in center."  I presume that World War 1 veterans were made "National Guardsmen" during the flood.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

World War II museum in Natick - not South Hadley, but worth a visit

I recently visited the terrific musuem in Natick MA described at

The musuem is as good as the story suggests.  I encourage anyone with an interest in World War II to visit it.