By Tyler Holman
Arkham, MA – “It’s a great relief.” That’s how oral historian Professor Terrence Wood feels about being finished with the monumental work that has consumed the last thirty years of his life. As you read this, copies of Dunwich Fading are rolling off the presses of the Miskatonic Valley Historical Society, for release later this summer.
The book is the result of countless interviews with Dunwich residents conducted by Professor Wood, and his students and colleagues. Says Wood, “The place has been so unfairly represented over the years that I really wanted to go right to the source and get their side of the story, you know? It’s really such an amazing place; it’s as if you step right into the past when you go there. History is more alive in Dunwich than any other place I’ve seen.”
The seeds for the book were sown 25 years ago. “At the time, I was teaching a class at the Miskstonic University – an American History class. We had an interesting discussion about how different history looks, depending on whose eyes you see it from. I spent one afternoon playing old tapes from the archives to the class. It’s amazing to hear a real Civil War veteran talk to you from down through the years. I’ve always been interested in our local history and I thought it was high time we did something similar around here, before all the memories of the past are lost.”
A few years later, once the project actually got underway, Professor Wood still wasn’t sure what the final goal would be. The end result of the project was never envisioned as a single publication. “We went to Dunwich to document everything. For ourselves, for the university, for other historians, and for the public. That’s what the funding was for and that’s what we did.” Indeed, Professor Wood and his team amassed an impressive collection of raw material. Hundreds of hours of audio, thousands of photographs, drawings, maps, and countless notes.
The materials are now held at the F.C. Ashley Memorial Library in Arkham. The collection is overwhelming. Different accounts of important events in Dunwich’s history survive, including stories of the town’s founding passed down through the generations, and courtroom accounts of a 17th century witch trial. There are also vast and sometimes contradictory genealogies of the town’s founding families, exhaustive photographs of historic structures and sites, and even the findings of an archaeological survey of what’s left of the Native American ruins that once dominated the hills around the town.
Those ruins were once some of the finest examples of megalithic structures in North America, Sadly, most have all but disappeared, the victims of paranoia surrounding the supposed supernatural events said to emanate from them. That’s why Professor Wood felt it was so important and urgent to embark on this project when he did: “Everything is fragile, most particularly human life. History disappears before our eyes every day. That’s why it’s so important for us to do everything we can to ensure that it’s not forgotten.”
The interviews, though, are the real passion of Professor Wood’s effort and the interviews make up most of Dunwich Fading. When questioned about the hundreds of reel to reel tapes, cassettes and CDs (reflective of just how long the project has taken to come to fruitation), the Professor’s eyes light up with joy. He eagerly digs through the reel to reel tapes, seeking out some of the first interviews conducted: “These are the really interesting ones. All of these people, they’re all gone now, but we can still talk to them through these tapes.”
Eager but careful, he places one of the old tapes, marked “Anne Hoadley; 87 year old female; reminisces and historical gleanings; 1978, into the massive player, and it crackles to life. The sound is poor, the medium is fragile, but everything that’s important is here: “My name is Anne Hoadley, and I’s born February 17th, 1891. My family’s been here for as long as can be remembered. Granddaddy Hoadley worked a mill – ” Here Professor Wood interrupts, asking what sort of mill, his voice almost inaudible between what was a poor tape to begin with and the static time has added: “Grist, never was no other kinder mill in Dunwich, to my knowledge. Industry never was kind to this place. Anyways, granddaddy Hoadley always says his granddaddy was borned here, too.”
The interviews stretch on to about six months ago, but the project turned its focus more and more towards photography and historical inquiry, as older residents passed away and sources of new information ran dry. Of particular interest in the collection are the interviews conducted with the descendants of the town founders: the Whatleys, Bishops, Farrs, Fryes, and others.
Dunwich being one of the oldest towns in the immediate area, it wouldn’t be surprising to find that most of the original pioneer families had blended together so much over the years as to lose their separateness. In Dunwich, however, this is not the case. Each family maintains its own identity and its members are proud to call themselves “Bishop,” “Whatley,” or “Farr.” Others, perceived as ‘lower class’ by the better-off members of the family, are viewed with disgust and virtually disowned.
“Ol’ Junior’s too far off to be counted; there’s not enough Bishop left in him to call him ‘Bishop,'” rasps the voice of Charles Bishop, a World War I veteran Professor Wood interviewed a few weeks before the former’s death.
Professor Wood smiles. “I think that’s what makes Dunwich such an interesting subject for me. These people never lost their roots – they know who they are, where they came from, and they haven’t lost sight of that. There are – these days, I guess I ought to be saying ‘were,’ since most of them are long gone – people in Dunwich who can name their grandparents back to the 1600s.
“I think that’s a large part of why they’ve been looked down on so. The people of Dunwich are inward-looking people. Sometimes, that comes across as being downright hostile to anyone from the outside. I don’t think I’ve seen so much contempt as I saw in the eyes of some of them who refused to be interviewed.”
Even the ideals of the Revolution weren’t strong enough to penetrate the isolation of Dunwich. That isn’t to say they were Tories, as old resident Jeremiah Whatley explains:
Well, I always heard from my grandfather that his grandfather, maybe great-grandfather, always said the British come lookin’ ter take some men into their army in the win’er of 78′ or 9. The recruiter was a little man by the name of ‘Hollis’ or somesuch, but he seemed ter think he was tall as a tree and strong as an ox. Grandpa Whatley says the men of the town took hold o’ this Hollis and his men and carried ’em up into the hills.
Here there is a pause in the recording, total silence. Professor Wood swears that there was a strange twinkle in Whatley’s eyes as a sly grin crossed his face. “The British never did trouble the folk o’ Dunwich again,” he finally said.
The Whatleys are the subject of numerous less-than-flattering rumors, and many of the people interviewed show an odd aversion to speaking too much of the family. Even the Whatleys themselves come across as guarded and selective in what they choose to reveal. There are large gaps in the Whatley genealogy, partly because no family Bible could be found, despite the fact that such documents exist for all of the other families in the area. Even though Professor Wood’s book is focused on taking a fairer look at Dunwich than the works that came before it, it’s hard not to wonder why the Whatleys in particular have been the target of so much ill-will.
In summary, we thoroughly recommend Dunwich Fading to anyone interested in the history of the area. Professor Wood has chosen a fascinating subject for this volume. The materials he and his team have collected over the years will no doubt prove to be of immense value to the generations of historians and other inquisitive souls that come after. Dunwich, meanwhile, lives on, neither fading away into the mists of time nor answering the call of progress.
Dunwich Fading (527 pgs) is published by the Miskatonic Valley Historical Society, and has been available by direct order and at fine booksellers everywhere since July 15th.
Bio: Tyler Holman is a writer and journalist from Georgia, and a regular contributor to the technology site neowin.net. He enjoys reading, writing, making music and wallowing in a myriad of gadgetry. He has a passion for genealogy and discovering new obscurities, and would really like it if you followed him on Twitter @tyler_holman.