Pip Strongren originally serialized the legends of the museum and its ghosts for the children’s section of the Hampshire Gazettein 2013. She incorporated the stories of her friend, Doris Abramson, and the founder of the museum, James Lincoln Huntington, into this account. Those of any age interested in learning more about the house, its story, and its history are encouraged to come for a tour. Reprinted with permission of the Daily Hampshire Gazette. All rights reserved.
The story of Forty Acres begins in 1752 when Moses Porter began building a house, usingtimber cut from his own land. The ghost stories about this house started about a century later.
Moses was born and grew up in Hadley, Massachusetts, in a house that still stands on the Common on West Street. Moses’ great-grandfather, Samuel Porter, was among a group of pioneers who, in 1659, moved up river from Windsor, Connecticut, to settle on the fertile, flat land on the east bank of the Connecticut River across from Northampton. They laid out a broad street 16 rods wide, with houses set back on either side. A wide strip of grass was left in the center for cows to graze on.
Samuel Porter’s oldest son, Samuel Porter II, was the first male child born in Hadley. His son, Samuel Porter III, and his wife had seven children. Moses, born in 1722, was their second son. Many families back then followed the tradition of naming a first-born son after his father and the oldest girl after her mother.
In 1742, Moses married Elizabeth Pitkin of East Hartford, Connecticut. Elizabeth’s family were wealthy landowners and she brought a large dowry to her marriage. Her wedding dress alone was an indication of her family’s prosperity. Most wedding dresses at the time were made of practical fabrics like linen or wool so they could be re-worn on other occasions. Elizabeth’s was made of a fine silk brocade with flowers in rose, blue, yellow and green woven into the pattern. Expensive dresses like this were often mentioned in people’s wills along with furniture and livestock, to be passed down to the next generation.
No one can remember when it was first said that the house called Forty Acres was haunted. But from the late 1800s on, the family who lived there, and their guests, had strange experiences that couldn’t easily be explained.
Light footsteps were often heard on the stairs leading up to the garret (attic) late at night after everyone was in bed and accounted for. On many of these occasions, the door at the bottom of the stairs was open the next morning, even though it had been firmly closed and latched the evening before.
A young male relative sleeping in the attic bedroom heard the footsteps coming up the stairs two nights in a row. When it happened again on the third night, he was so scared that he got out of bed and ran down the stairs, passing on the way what he later insisted was “someone or something the height of a child.“ He spent the rest of the night on a sofa downstairs and refused to ever sleep in the attic again.
Others have watched, on a moonlit night, as a door latch has lifted and the door has opened silently all on its own. The whirring sound of a spinning wheel has been heard coming from the attic or kitchen even though there was no spinning wheel in there. A rocking chair has rocked all by itself in an empty room.
Some people recall seeing a woman in a long, old-fashioned dress gliding down the main stairway that leads up to the second floor. She has been known to smile as she passes the person standing in the downstairs hallway but vanishes after she turns the corner into the dining room. And guests new to the house, sitting with the family in the Long Room (sitting room), have had the definite impression of someone hurrying past the door although no one could explain who it might have been.
One day in the late 1800s, the cover on the bed in the downstairs northeast parlor bedroom showed the imprint of a stretched-out body. The pillow, too, was indented as though a head had rested on it.
No one was sleeping in the bedroom, but the mysterious marks kept coming back, again and again, even though the cover and pillowcase were smoothed out in between times. Then, after a few days, the marks disappeared and didn’t return.
Maybe there is a rational explanation for all these strange occurrences. But in a house that has stood on the same spot for over 250 years and been lived in by six generations of the same family, perhaps there are those whose spirits linger on in the home they loved?
One thing is certain, if there are indeed ghosts at Forty Acres, they are friendly ones who have never been known to harm anyone.
The site Moses chose to build his house was two miles north of the center of Hadley, overlooking the Connecticut River. It was the first house to be built outside the town, which was originally surrounded by a 10-foot high palisade as a prevention against surprise attacks by the Norwottuck Indians.
By the mid-1700s, however, the Norwottucks had been driven further north toward Deerfield. Moses must have felt the area was now safe enough to move his family further out into the countryside.
Moses named his house Forty Acres after the 40 acres of rich meadowlands that sloped below it to the banks of the river. The two-story house with its peaked roof was the first in Hadley to have two chimneys, with back-to-back fireplaces to heat all four downstairs rooms. In older Hadley homes, rooms were built around a central chimney and led into one another so there wasn’t much privacy.
Downstairs at Forty Acres, each room had a door opening onto a large central hall. A stairway on one side led up to the second floor. Upstairs, each bedroom also had its own door. This meant the house had more doors than was customary, as the tax on a house was based on the number of doors it had.
On December 5, 1752, Moses and Elizabeth moved into their new home, together with Elizabeth’s mother and their five-year-old daughter Elizabeth, nicknamed Betsey. As it is still at Forty Acres, we know Elizabeth brought with her a large brass kettle that was a family heirloom.
Some of the furniture came from Moses’ family, including the four-poster bed that is still in one of the upstairs rooms at Forty Acres. It is believed to be the bed that Moses and Elizabeth shared in the low-ceilinged attic bedroom in his parents’ home when they were first married. It wasn’t unusual for young couples to move in with family for a time. Several generations often lived together in the same house.
America was still a British colony when Moses and Elizabeth moved into Forty Acres, and Moses was captain of the local military company. Less than three years after building his house, he had to leave his wife and child to go fight in the French and Indian War, Great Britain‘s successful attempt to evict France from North America.
On the morning Moses went away, Betsey asked to be lifted up into her father’s arms so she could give him a kiss on his cheek. “When will you be back, Papa?” she asked. Moses said he didn’t know. Setting her back down next to Elizabeth, he told Betsey to be a good girl and to help and obey her mother while he was gone.
As Moses rode off on his horse, Betsey thought how smart he looked in his uniform - the scarlet coat, leather breeches and stockings, and the black shoes with the shiny brass buckles her mother had polished just that morning. Hanging from the belt around Moses’ waist was his long sword in its scabbard. Waving their handkerchiefs, Betsey and her mother stood watching until he disappeared around a bend in the road.
On the morning of September 5, 1755, Moses was with a scouting mission that was ambushed by Iroquois Indians fighting on France’s side, near the southern tip of Lake George in New York State. Caught by surprise, Moses’ troops fought back but were overcome. Many of them were killed.
It must have been a lonely time for Elizabeth and Betsey while Moses was off fighting. Elizabeth’s mother had died just one year after the family moved into Forty Acres. There were no houses or neighbors between Forty Acres and the center of Hadley two miles away.
It is hard for us to imagine nowadays what living in Hadley was like back then. River Drive (Route 47) was a rough dirt cart way with nothing but woods and fields on either side. The Porters owned one of only two carriages in the whole of Hampshire County. Most people walked, often for many miles, or rode a horse.
At night, moonlight or a candle lantern helped find the way home. In the winter and early spring months of snow, ice and mud, the road must have been at times almost impassable.
All summer long Elizabeth and Betsey waited for news, wondering where Moses was and what was happening. In the 18th century, letters were carried by someone on horseback or on foot who happened to be heading in the right direction. Only a few letters from Moses made it back home.
To make matters worse, men who had deserted from the British army were roaming the area looking for a place to sleep, and for food and other goods to steal. On August 9, 1755, Elizabeth wrote to her husband that, “I have terrible frites (frights) with men that deserted from the army, as we suppose, trying to break into the house at night.”
In another letter dated August 29, Elizabeth added “The men I spake (spoke) of in a former letter are yet very troublesome to us. They milk our cows, devour our corn, destroy our garden and are often about the house in the night.”
It wasn’t until six nights after the ambush that news of the fight between the Iroquois and the British troops reached Forty Acres. Elizabeth was putting Betsey to bed in the downstairs northeast parlor bedroom when she heard a tapping sound on the outside of the window.
Calling out “Who’s there?” Elizabeth slid back the heavy wooden shutter. Standing in the shadows outside the window was her husband‘s Indian guide. Little is known about this man except that he was presumably from the Native American tribe called Mohawks, who were loyal to the British. Without saying a word, he pushed Moses’ sword through the opening into Elizabeth’s hands and disappeared into the darkness.
She knew immediately what the return of her husband’s sword meant. Moses would not be coming home.
A widow at age 39, Elizabeth never fully recovered from the shock of losing her husband. She suffered from ill health for the rest of her life and became addicted to a pain-killing drug called laudanum. Elizabeth, died in 1798. Some say it is her ghost that has been seen gliding down the staircase and across the hall ever since.
Eight-year-old Betsey must also have grieved deeply. But despite the loss of her father, she eventually became a capable young woman.
Moses’ sword, blackened by age and missing its scabbard and hilt, still rests on the window sill in the downstairs northeast parlor bedroom, where he slept when he was alive. Is it just a coincidence that it is this same bedroom where the outline of a body on the bed appeared in the 1800s?
Of course, there may be a perfectly logical explanation for this phenomenon. For example, knowing that Forty Acres was supposed to be haunted, was someone playing a joke? Or did Moses’ spirit body return to rest in his own bed?
Moses Porter’s sword as seen in the Northeast Bedroom.
There is an old Scottish prayer that goes: “From goulies and ghosties, And long-leggedy beasties, And things that go bump in the night, Good Lord deliver us.”
All sorts of “things” that seem normal in daytime can become scary when it gets dark. Shadows in corners or a flicker of movement caused by a draft make us think we are seeing a ghost. And when everyone else is asleep, our imagination turns the normal creaking and settling sounds a house makes into footsteps coming closer … and closer.
Perhaps it was just the stairs creaking on their own that accounted for the sound of light footsteps late at night coming up to the attic bedroom at Forty Acres. Or maybe the “something or someone the height of a child” the young man saw on his way down the stairs was just a shadow on the wall that seemed to be moving as he ran by.
On the other hand, there have been many reliable witnesses over the years who have reported strange experiences in the house called Forty Acres. It’s hard to dismiss all of them as imagination working overtime. And, if we go back to the late 1700s, there are clues that may support the young man’s insistence that he saw a ghost.
In addition to their paid servants, Moses and Elizabeth Porter had two African-American slaves, a woman named Peg and a man called Zebulon or Zeb Prutt. Nowadays, it’s hard to comprehend that one human being could be bought, owned and sold at will by another, but three centuries ago, many wealthy local home owners still had slaves. Slavery wasn’t abolished in Massachusetts until 1782.
Zeb was the son of Arthur, a slave belonging to the Reverend Issac Chauncy, pastor of the church in Hadley. In 1745, when Zeb was about 14, Chauncy’s daughter sold him to Moses Porter.
Zeb stayed at Forty Acres until 1768 when Elizabeth Porter sold him. But Zeb tried to run away from his new owner. As Betsey Porter wrote in her diary on February 7, 1768: “This day, a negro man that was my fathers, who ran away from my mother, the which she sold to Mr. Oliver Warner for fifty dollars, as soon as he went away, was brought back to him - his name was Zebulon Prutt.“
Many hands were needed to get all the daily chores done. In addition to the household, there were sometimes as many as 20 farmhands to be fed. Things we take for granted, like electric lights and indoor plumbing, didn’t exist. There was no gas or oil. Trees had to be cut down, wood chopped and carried into the house for heat and cooking. Candles provided the only light. An outdoor toilet or “privy” as it was called, was used during the day and at night there was a “chamber pot” under each bed.
Every drop of water had to be drawn up in buckets by hand from an outdoor well. Baths were taken once a week at the most, in a large tin tub in front of the kitchen fire. The bath was shared; men first, then children, and women last.
Laundry was a day-long job. Forget about modern conveniences like automatic washing machines and dryers. Water was heated in tubs set over wood fires. Even the soap was made at home from lye leached from fireplace ashes, mixed with tallow. Clothes and linens were soaked, scrubbed, wrung out by hand, rinsed and wrung out again. Larger items like sheets and quilts were often left until spring so they could dry outdoors.
Most of the Forty Acres household’s food was grown on its farm: oats and rye, corn, squash, turnips and other vegetables and fruit. Cows, pigs and chickens provided meat. Only foods that could not be produced at home, like salt and sugar, were bought. The men handled the heavy farm work. The women raised the chickens and collected the eggs. They helped milk the cows and made butter and cheese. They spun thread from flax grown on the farm, wove it into cloth and hand-sewed most of the family’s clothing. Worn-out garments were saved to make into quilts and rag rugs.
Everyone shared in the work, rising as soon as it was light in the morning and going to bed early to save on candles. Children, too, had daily chores from an early age.
The slave named Peg stayed at Forty Acres even longer than Zeb. In 1772, Elizabeth Porter wrote to a friend that “Our Peg, who has lived with us near eighteen years, left us and two children, and of her own choice was sold to one Capt. Fay with a negro man from this town for the sake of being his wife.”
Peg may not have wanted to leave her children behind, but by law, any child born to a female slave belonged to the master or mistress she was serving at the time. Rose, 11, and Phillis, 7, remained at Forty Acres.
Betsey Porter, who was eight when her father, Moses, was killed in the French and Indian War, grew up to be a healthy, energetic young woman. By her teens, with her mother often ailing, she had taken over much of the responsibility for managing the household.
In 1768 Charles Phelps, whose family had been among the first settlers of Northampton in 1654, came to help run the Forty Acres farm while the manager was away. Betsey soon began to mention him in the weekly diary she kept for 41 years. At one point she noted that, “In the after-noon, Mr. Phelps and I took a Rideinto town in the new chaisehe got at Boston.”
Two years later, when Betsey was 24, she and Charles were married. Unlike her mother’s elegant wedding gown, Betsey’s was made of a plain, dark brown fabric. We know she wore the dress for a number of years as her diary notes that it was altered in 1788 and again in 1812.
When her mother died, Betsey inherited Forty Acres. She and Charles lived there for the rest of their lives. They had three children: Moses; Charles, who lived only a week; and Elizabeth.
Charles Phelps made a lot of improvements. He bought more land, including nearly the whole of Mt. Warner. The roof of the house was raised to add a third floor. A covered verandah was attached to the back of the house with benches against the wall where farmhands sat to have meals. A long woodshed with arched openings along the front, in which to store corn and other crops from the Forty Acres farm, now linked the main part of the house to the Chaise House where carriages were kept.
The original ell that was attached to the back of the house, with its smoking chamber and big oven, was extended further to the north to provide a larger kitchen. The old kitchen was combined with the parlor to create the Long Room. And in 1782, construction began on the great barn that stood south of the house. For many years it housed the family’s horses and cattle and stored hay cutfrom Forty Acres’ fields. In 1929, the barn was moved to its present site behind Hadley Town Hall where it serves as the Farm Museum.
By all accounts, the slaves at Forty Acres were well looked after. The female slaves most likely slept in the house. Betsey taught Peg’s two children, Phillis and Rose, to read along with her own children. Like her mother before her, Betsy was also responsible for the health of everyone in the household. There is a small wooden box at Forty Acres that still holds the faint scent of the herbal-based medicines that were kept in it.
Early in 1775, when Peg’s younger daughter, Philis, was nine, she became ill with tuberculosis, a disease that affects the lungs. She was taken to see various doctors. A six-board chest bed, which is still at Forty Acres, was brought down into the kitchen so Betsey could keep a watch on Phillis while going about her household duties. But in spite of all efforts, in April of that year, Phillis died.
Six years later, when Rose was 19, she also became seriously ill, probably from the same disease. Betsey looked after her, too, even sending her for carriage drives to give her some fresh air. But in March, Rose died, leaving behind her five-year old daughter Phillis, named after Rose‘s sister.
The day of Rose’s death, Betsey noted sadly in her diary: “A little after sunrise our Rose died.“
With both Phillis and Rose gone, Betsey became a surrogate mother to little Phillis. Then, just one year after Rose’s death, Phillis became ill. At first, it was thought that she had scrofula, a form of tuberculosis. Early symptoms are usually swelling of the lymph glands in the neck. In olden days this disease was called the King’s Evil and it was believed it could be cured by an anointed king touching the patient’s neck. Lacking an available king, the seventh son of a seventh son was believed to have the healing touch.
When Phillis’ condition didn’t improve, Charles Phelps took her to see a Mr. Arams who lived near Deerfield. Arams was himself the seventh son of a seventh son.
When Phillis didn’t get better after the visits to Mr. Arams, Charles and Elizabeth took her to two different medical doctors in Northampton. Their treatments didn’t help either. Phillis’ health continued to deteriorate. Her grandmother, Peg, who left Forty Acres in 1772, returned to help look after her. On Sunday, April 16, the Meeting House congregation was asked to pray for Phillis. The following Friday, she died.
Slaves were given a proper funeral like their owners and many members of the community attended the one for little Phillis. She and her mother and aunt were most likely buried in the Hadley graveyard. But as the graves of slaves were seldom marked with a headstone, that is not certain.
Could it be that the “impression of someone or something the height of a child” the young man passed on the stairs was young Phillis’ spirit body? Was she still restlessly roaming the only home she knew and died in at such an early age? The bedroom in the attic at Forty Acres may well have been where she slept, along with her mother and aunt until their deaths.
In addition to their paid servants and slaves, Betsey and Charles Phelps had two indenturedboys. One of them, Simon Baker, was about 10 years old when he arrived.
Simon’s father signed a contract with Charles Phelps that required Simon to live and work at Forty Acres without pay for a term of 10 years and nine months. Like the slaves, he could not go anywhere without Charles’ permission.
It is hard to accept the idea of any parent sending a young boy off to live with strangers. But for a poor family with many offspring, the indenture system meant the child would be fed, housed and clothed and, most importantly, taught a trade. And unlike slaves, at the end of the allotted term, he or she was free to leave and find a paying job.
An indenture contract was a legal document usually written in duplicate on a single piece of paper. After both parties had signed or made their mark, the paper was torn in half along a jagged line so it could later be proved authentic by matching up the two halves. A typical contract promised that the child be “instructed in the art and mystery of husbandry” and “provided with reasonable meat, drink, washing, lodging, physick and nursing in care of sickness.”
The indenture system worked well if you had a kind master and mistress like Charles and Betsey Phelps. She must have been kept busy doctoring young Simon, who seemed particularly prone to accidents. In 1770 Betsey noted in her diary that, “This night our little Boy Simon Baker Broke his toes at the saw mill.” Some months later, he cut his foot. Then he came down with quincy (tonsillitis).
Other indentured children were not treated well. Some ran away. For example, an ad posted in the Daily Hampshire Gazette around 200 years ago, reads as follows: “One Cent Reward! Ran away from the subscriber, on the 3rd inst., an indented boy, named Oliver Sally, alias Lucas Ingram, about 15 years of age. Whoever will return him to me shall have the above reward and no charges paid. David Ingram, Amherst.”
A similar ad of the same time period reads: “Joseph Collins, an indentured boy, ran away from the subscriber on the 17th inst., and all persons are forbidden trusting or harboring him on penalty of the law, on my account. - Hervey Frink, Northampton.”
In 1801, Betsey and Charles Phelps’ youngest child, named Elizabeth after her mother, married Dan Huntington, who came from Lebanon, Connecticut. This is why Forty Acres eventually became known as the Porter-Phelps-Huntington House, the name it bears to this day.
After the wedding, Elizabeth went to live in Litchfield, Connecticut, where her husband was pastor of the Congregational Church. Fifteen years later Elizabeth, Dan and their nine children returned to Hadley to help her widowed mother run the Forty Acres farm. Two more children were added to their family in 1817 and 1819. Dan Huntington served as principal of Hopkins Academy from 1817-1820 and was the first postmaster at the North Hadley post office.
When her mother, Betsey Phelps, died, Elizabeth inherited Forty Acres. Her brother Moses, who became a lawyer, built a house across the road for himself. As an adult Moses took his father’s name, calling himself Charles Porter Phelps. His house is still known as the Phelps Farm.
Elizabeth Huntington died in 1847 when she was 68 years old. By 1855, only Dan and his daughter, Bethia, were still at Forty Acres. Dan died in 1864 at age 90. Bethia continued to live in the old house until her death in 1879.
Dan and Elizabeth’s son Frederic Dan Huntington lived in Cambridge, Mass. with his wife Hannah and their seven children. He was pastor of South Congregational Church in Boston. The family spent the summer months at Forty Acres.
In her book Sixty Odd, Frederic and Hannah’s daughter, Ruth Huntington Sessions, describes the journey from Boston in the mid-1800s, which took all day. Nowadays, it takes about 1 ¾ hours by car. They traveled by train to Springfield, with a lunch stop-over there at the Massasoit House Hotel where the children were allowed to order the specialty of the house, waffles. This first leg of the journey was followed by another train to Northampton where they were met by two horse-drawn carriages and a cart for the luggage for the six-mile drive to Hadley. Aunt Bethia would be standing on the doorstep at Forty Acres to welcome them, and she always prepared a special supper that first evening: thin slices of ham, raised biscuits with pats of fresh butter, a bowl of Hadley strawberries with a pitcher of yellow cream and baked custards flavored with nutmeg.
Forty Acres was still a working farm and Ruth also recalls helping to get the hay in before a storm hit, riding back and forth on top of the loaded horse-drawn wagon with thunder rumbling around the hills, getting the last load into the barn just before the first rain drops fell.
Frederic Dan Huntington later became the first Episcopalian Bishop of Central New York. But even after the family moved to Syracuse, they continued to spend summers at Forty Acres. The locals referred to it as “The Bishop Huntington House.”
Frederic Dan and Hannah’s oldest son, George Putnam Huntington, also became a pastor. He and his wife Lilly continued the tradition of bringing their eight children to Forty Acres every summer. But after George died in 1904, things began to change.
Two of George’s sons, James and Frederic, decided it was time for some major renovations to the old house, which was showing its age. A cellar was dug; electricity and a furnace were installed. Electric pumps brought water into the house and the first indoor bathroom was installed. Their mother, Lilly Huntington, moved back in with her maid in 1922 and lived there from late spring until early fall every year until her death in 1926.
The Chaise House, built in 1795 to house carriages, was torn down and rebuilt as a home for James, who was a doctor in Boston, and his family. Attached to the old house by the long shed built by Charles Phelps, this new wing is almost an exact replica of the original Chaise House. James also decided to rent out the fields and sell the remaining livestock. For the first time since 1752, Forty Acres was no longer a working farm.
In 1943, James gave up his medical practice, sold his house in Boston and moved back to Hadley with his wife, Genevieve.
Like many of his relatives, Dr. Huntington believed in ghosts. In his book, Forty Acres: The Story of the Bishop Huntington House, he recalls some of his own strange experiences in the old house, beginning in his childhood: “Some of us as children, waked at night to find a figure bending over the bed, someone whose full skirt of oddly patterned design and frilled cap were perfectly visible in the dark.
‘Don’t mind that,’ my aunts would say the next morning, ‘We have all seen her.’” The children were never afraid when the figure appeared; somehow they knew she meant them no harm.
Who was this mysterious lady who watched over several generations of children in the house called Forty Acres? Was it Elizabeth Porter, the first Elizabeth to live there? She has also been seen gliding down the stairs and along the hallway. Or could it have been her daughter Betsey, the second Elizabeth?
When Dr. James Huntington’s aunt Arria died in 1921, her body was brought back from Boston for her funeral and burial in the family plot in the Hadley cemetery. No one was living at Forty Acres at the time. Rather than open up the old house, the visiting family members stayed at the Phelps Farm across the road.
Dr. Huntington’s brother Frederic arrived after bed time. Not wanting to disturb anyone, he decided to sleep at Forty Acres. Letting himself in the back door, he took a quick tour of the house to make sure everything was okay.
When he came to the room Aunt Arria had always used, there she was, lying on her bed. He thought what a nice idea it was to lay out her body in her own room. Going closer, he saw that her mouth looked odd, pulled down at one side.
Frederic reached out and gently smoothed and folded back the top of the sheet covering Aunt Arria. Then he went off to his own room.
Next morning, Frederic walked across the road and offered to help his brother move Aunt Arria’s body over from Forty Acres in preparation for the funeral. James corrected him, ”But she’s here; she was never over there.” Frederic went into the parlor and there was Aunt Arria, laid out in her coffin. Her mouth was pulled down on one side, just as he had observed the night before.
Frederic ran back to Forty Acres and into Aunt Arria’s room. There was no one there … only an indentation where her head had rested and the folded-back sheet.
Some twenty years later, there was another strange occurrence in this bedroom. Dr. Huntington’s sister Catharine had come for a visit. Normally, she stayed in the new wing with her brother and his wife. Most family members preferred to do this, in part because of the ghosts that were said to haunt the old house.
On this occasion, however, two friends of Catharine’s, Doris Abramson and Dorothy Fletcher, were living in the old house for the summer. Knowing they would be there to keep her company, Catharine decided to sleep in the downstairs northeast parlor bedroom.
When bedtime came, Doris lent Catharine a book to read. Then the two young women said goodnight and went upstairs with their dog, Dommy. Catharine got ready for bed, settled in and decided to read for an hour or so. After awhile, she became sleepy, put the book down, and turned off the light.
Almost immediately, Catharine became aware there was a strong smell of freshly-turned earth in the room. As she lay there, the smell increased until she felt as though she was choking. Getting scared, she started coughing loudly, hoping that Doris or Dorothy would hear her and come downstairs.
Upstairs, Doris half woke and heard Catharine coughing in the room below. Dorothy slept on. Dommy, curled up under the bed, didn’t stir. Doris wondered if she should go down and check on Catharine. Maybe get her a drink. Then the coughing stopped. Doris turned over in bed and went back to sleep.
When neither Doris nor Dorothy responded, Catharine felt she couldn’t bear the smell any longer. Getting out of bed, she ran to open her door, rushed out into the hallway and across to the front door. Unlocking it in a hurry, she stepped out in her nightgown and bare feet into the front yard. It was a lovely moonlit night. There was no smell of freshly-turned earth outside, not even right under her open bedroom window.
Going back into the house, Catharine closed and relocked the front door and returned to her room. Stopping just inside the doorway, she took a cautious breath. To her surprise and relief, the smell had completely disappeared.
Catharine got back into bed and settled down again to read, hoping that would calm her down. Then … coming from the next room, she clearly heard the sound of a rocking chair creaking as it slowly rocked to and fro. It was the room where her mother used to sit and rock while she was sewing.
Catharine knew there was no rocking chair in that room now. Her mother had been dead for almost 20 years. This time, however, Catharine wasn’t afraid. The sound of the chair gently rocking was soothing. Thinking about her mother, she soon fell asleep.
The next morning, Catharine told Doris and Dorothy what had happened. She showed them the hand she had cut trying to unlock the front door in such a hurry. As further proof it hadn’t all been a dream, there were some little blood stains on the book Doris had lent her.
Doris felt bad that she hadn’t come down to see why Catharine was coughing so much. Neither she nor Dorothy had smelled anything strange.
Together, the three women went over to the Chaise House to talk to Dr. Huntington. While they were eating breakfast, he listened quietly to Catharine’s account. Dr. Huntington thought it was probably one of the squirrels who persisted in finding ways to get into the house. It had jumped into a little rocking cradle that was in the room next to Catharine’s. That, he said, was what had caused the creaking noise that sounded like her mother’s old rocking chair.
But he never did come up with a logical explanation for the mysterious smell of freshly-turned earth!
The summer of 1944 when Catharine had the strange experience in the downstairs northeast parlor bedroom, her friend Doris Abramson, a student at the University of Massachusetts, had a live-in job looking after the gardens at Forty Acres with her friend Dorothy Fletcher. The two young women were paid $5 each for five hours of work five days a week. They shared an upstairs bedroom in the old house.
Back in 1777, John Morison, a Scotsman captured in the early months of the American Revolution, was brought to Forty Acres by Betsey Phelps‘ cousin, Colonel Porter. With so many men away from home serving in the Continental (American) Army, British captives were set to work on New England farms. It was Morison who designed and planted the formal flower garden on the north side of the house at Forty Acres.
Laid out in the form of a rectangle, the garden had paths dividing it into four parts with a circular rose bed in the center. The roses are still there and traces of the garden’s original outline can also be seen.
No longer a captive, John Morison chose to stay on at Forty Acres after the war ended. He died in 1814 at about age 65. He is buried in the oldest part of the Hadley cemetery, near the graves of Charles and Betsey Phelps.
Would the ghost of a gardener perhaps smell like freshly-turned earth? If so, that might explain Catharine Huntington’s strange experience in the downstairs northeast parlor bedroom.
The only family still living at Forty Acres by the summer of 1944 were Dr. Huntington and his wife. They occupied the new wing, still called the Chaise House.
On the day Doris and Dorothy moved in, Dr. Huntington told them to be sure to be in bed by midnight because there had been occasions when the ghosts had been known to walk the halls and up and down the stairs. He, himself, had seen them. Dr. Huntington had also heard the spinning wheel mentioned in the first chapter of this story.
One afternoon, Doris had been to Northampton. She brought back a small cardboard box of candy. She and Dorothy stayed up late reading downstairs. When they decided to go up, Doris said to their little dog, “Time to go to bed now, Dommy.” He ran ahead of them up the stairs, crawled under the high canopied bed and curled up there as he did every night.
Dorothy put the box of candy on the bureau, they got into bed and turned out the light.
It was a warm, dark night. They heard the clock in the downstairs hallway start to strike and counted to twelve. Dorothy commented that it was the first time they had stayed awake past midnight.
They were almost asleep when all of a sudden, they became aware of a presence in the room. Dommy didn’t stir or bark, but they were both sure someone had entered, moved around the bedroom and left, even though they knew no one else was in the house. Then Doris and Dorothy heard light footsteps running down the stairs. They hadn‘t heard footsteps coming up!
They talked about this for a few moments in whispers and were just dozing off when they again became aware of the presence in the room, followed shortly afterwards by the footsteps running down the stairs. This was repeated at regular intervals.
The two of them lay there, listening, too scared to reach out and turn on the bedside light. It didn’t occur to either of them that it might be a real live person in the room. They instinctively knew it wasn’t. Doris remembers thinking that perhaps they had somehow passed into a different time zone.
There was a portrait in the hallway outside their bedroom of a Huntington ancestor whose eyes seemed to follow you as you passed by; a trick some artists use. Dorothy whispered: “Perhaps it’s George,” their nickname for the man in the painting.
One of the times when they felt the presence in the room, something fell over with a clatter. “That was probably the waste paper basket,” Doris thought to herself. “Or something has been knocked off the bureau.”
Neither Doris nor Dorothy knew afterwards how long this sequence of events went on, although Doris remembers hearing the clock in the downstairs hallway striking two a.m.
Then, as suddenly as they had started, the noises stopped and Doris and Dorothy finally fell asleep.
When they woke up the next morning, everything in the room seemed exactly as it had looked when they went to bed. The waste paper basket was still upright. There was nothing on the floor. It appeared everything on the bureau was in its right place. While checking things out, Doris happened to pick up the candy box. As she lifted it, she realized it was empty. They had not eaten any of the candy the night before. And, strangely, the lid of the box remained closed.
The morning after their weird experience, Doris and Dorothy rushed over to the Chaise House to tell Dr. Huntington, both talking at once.
After listening to their story, he calmed them down by saying it was probably just one of the squirrels again. Dr. Huntington’s logicalexplanation was that the squirrel had somehow smelled and found the candy. Only able to carry one piece at a time, it had made repeated trips up and down the stairs until the box was empty. Of course Doris and Dorothy hadn’t heard the squirrel coming up the stairs, but it had made more noise going down because it was carrying the candy.
At first, they were greatly relieved by his reasonable explanation. Then, very quietly, Dorothy whispered to Doris, “What a clever squirrel to have taken off the cover of the candy box and closed it again so carefully.”
Later that summer, Doris was reading in the Long Room. It was late afternoon. Dorothy had gone out in her car and Doris was waiting for her to return.
At one point, Doris thought she heard someone come into the dining room. Thinking she hadn’t heard the car and that perhaps Dorothy had come in through the back door, Doris got up, moved quickly across the Long Room, out along the hall and into the dining room.
As she entered, she got the distinct impression that someone had just left. She knew it wasn’t Dorothy as she would have called hello when she heard Doris moving about.
A small mirror on the south wall of the dining room caught Doris’ eye and she sensed that “the someone” had been looking into it when Doris walked in. Feeling that she was the intruder in this case, Doris thought to herself, “Oh, I’m sorry to have interrupted her.” She was certain the presence she had felt was a female because she also heard or imagined the rustling of a long skirt, as though the someone had just gone around the corner of the dining room into the little room called the “Ketching Chamber.” But when Doris went to look, no one was in there either.
When she told Dr. Huntington, he just nodded and said calmly, “Yes, probably it was Elizabeth.” He was referring to Elizabeth Porter, the first Elizabeth to live at Forty Acres, whose ghost has been seen on other occasions, gliding down the stairs and along the hall.
By the late 1940s, the old house called Forty Acres stood empty; the family that had lived in it for six generations had moved on. No one came to spend the summer months there. After two centuries, it seemed as though the house had outlived its usefulness.
In 1948, Dr. Huntington formed the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Association and turned Forty Acres into a Historic House Museum. It opened to the public in 1949. In 1955, when the museum gained non-profit status, Dr. Huntington officially donated the house and its contents. He continued to live in the Chaise House and often showed visitors around the museum himself until his death in 1968. He was the last of his family to live at Forty Acres.
But, even after Forty Acres became a museum, its ghosts were still around. In 1977, while the museum director was living in a small, one-bedroom apartment on the second floor of the old house, her sister Linda came for a visit with her little dog, Kasha.
Linda was sleeping in the living room, which had a door leading down to the old kitchen below. In the middle of the night, she was awakened by the sound of Kasha whimpering. Feeling a cold draft, Linda sat up and looked around. The door, which had been closed when she went to sleep, was now ajar. Standing in front was a small woman in a long white dress, with a tight-fitting white cap on her head. Softly but clearly, she said, “Susan died in childbirth.” She repeated this again, “Susan died in childbirth.” Then she vanished.
Who was she? Once again, there is a clue in the past. In October of 1767, Betsey Porter was very upset to learn that a good friend of hers had just died giving birth to her first child. And here’s the weirdest part: Linda - visiting over two hundred years later - was a midwife. Did the ghost somehow know that? Was she perhaps the midwife who delivered poor Susan’s child, or was it Betsey herself?
If you go for a tour of the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Museum, you will be seeing the house much as it was when the family lived there. There have been no major structural changes to the building itself since 1799. The furniture and other household items in the rooms are the ones used by succeeding generations.
As you walk through the rooms, look for the big brass kettle the first Elizabeth brought with her. It is sitting on the hearth next to the kitchen fireplace. Moses and Elizabeth’s pewter plates are on the mantel above.
The furniture that Moses brought from his family home when he and Elizabeth moved into Forty Acres in 1752 is also still there, including the four-poster bed with the cut-off posts in one of the upstairs bedrooms. In the downstairs northeast parlor bedroom, Moses Porter’s sword, darkened with age, sits on the windowsill. The clock in the downstairs hallway is the one that Doris and Dorothy heard strike midnight on the night the candy disappeared.
The tour also includes climbing the narrow stairs to the loft bedroom in the ell over the dining room. From here, you can also see the stairs leading up to the attic where the young man heard footsteps late at night.
The loft bedroom, with its sloping ceiling, was nicknamed the “Prophet’s Chamber” by the brothers and sisters of James Otis Sargent Huntington, who became a monk. A simple wooden cross hangs on the wall above the bed.
Just outside the loft bedroom door is the old smoke oven used in the early days to preserve meat from the Forty Acres farm and fish from the Connecticut River. You can still detect a faint smoky smell of those long ago hams and bacon.
And maybe, just maybe, while you are at the museum, you might also hear or see a ghost!