Hilltown Families


While in the summertime it seems easy to explore a multitude of activities, the wintertime provides the space for quieter activities, new hobbies, or creative outlets that encourage reflection. The intense winter storms and their impact on travel keep us inside to discover new activities or pastimes. Winter days feel quiet and reflective as our time indoors beckons us to think more about how to spend our time intentionally. Let’s take a look at the art of letter writing and how Epistolary Novels can help us connect our interest in correspondence with literature.

Snow can make you feel as though the world has stopped around you. During snowstorms, travel is suspended, and, for a day or two, the quiet of the outdoors reminds us to simply enjoy the moment and to be mindful. Here are several resource centers, peaceful places, and class ideas to connect you to the quietness inside through your community during the winter months.

Poet and Cummington native, William Cullen Bryant, was very much influenced by the landscape of the Western Massachusetts Hilltowns of his youth. In fact, Bryant’s “A Winter Piece” is a reflection on this time of year. The poem is a meditation on this season, and one to read on a quiet winter’s day or perhaps before a winter walk in the woods. Here we share a link to the poem, inviting you to read the poem and then visit the very location that inspired this great poet.

How does winter stillness connect us to place? What activities and hobbies reoccur every year? What skills have been shared and passed down through the years because of New England winters? How does the stillness of winter impact our emotional well-being and interconnections. Can the art of letter writing keep pace with modern day letter writing? How can we practice this art in the winter months? These questions and their answers lead us toward the answer to the question, how does winter stillness connect us to place?

We’re spoiled in Western Massachusetts! Our summers are a bounty of local agriculture and food. We have the opportunity to eat seasonally most of the year and then winter arrives, the summer farmers’ markets disappear, and our kitchens feel a little lackluster. What do we cook without all of the colorful foods of summer?

One way to get some inspiration for your next winter culinary adventure is to visit living history museums to experience daily living routines and food preparations from the 19th century. Visitors can see firsthand what types of recipes 19th century Americans were preparing during the cold months of the year. In addition to New England culture, other cultures can be explore via community-based resources. Food traditions from fish on Friday to turkey on Thanksgiving are rich in history and a delicious lens for learning about culture.

How do you think your food consumption would change if you were to eat only foods from within 10 miles of your home? What foods would you not have access to and how would it impact your diet seasonally?

Presidents’ Day celebrates the life and work of George Washington. Although Washington’s birthday is on February 22nd, the holiday is celebrated on the third Monday to allow us to enjoy a three day weekend. Presidents’ Day is also a chance to explore the tenets of democracy and civil freedoms.

Interestingly, the freedom to read has not always been seen as a freedom. Citing the freedom to read as a part of our Constitution’s First Amendment, the American Library Association hosts a Banned Books Week every year to celebrate the freedom to read. Here is a list from The American Library Association of the top 20 American novels that have been challenged. Why do you think they have been banned or challenged? How many have you read?

Did you know that Calvin Coolidge, the U.S.’s 30th President, attended Amherst College and was mayor of Northampton in the early 1900’s? We have our very own slice of U.S. Presidential history here in Western MA. Have you ever cross the bridge over the Connecticut River that connects Hadley to Northampton? That’s the Calvin Coolidge Bridge. There’s also the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum at the Forbes Library which houses a collection of materials related to Calvin Coolidge’s life and are available to historians and researchers interested in the public and private life of Calvin Coolidge.

Think about this:

What books have you read that were once banned or on a challenged list?
What does the freedom to read mean to you?
What was the literacy rate among women in the United States in the 18th century? What was it later in the 19th century?
How can literacy, the right to read, and the value of reading literature help shape an ethical and compassionate democracy?

Every year, Americans exchange an average of 142 million Valentine’s Day cards – making the holiday near the top of the list of card-exchanging holidays (second only to Christmas). Valentines come in many different shapes and sizes, and can be handmade or store bought, clever and creative, or very traditional. Whatever form they come in, the valentines that we exchange each year have their roots right here in western Massachusetts, and are symbolic of the love, caring, and appreciation that we have for the important people around us.

Think about this:

In 19th century New England, the winter season was a time for gathering and socializing with family, friends, and neighbors. As the fields lay dormant in anticipation off the agricultural season, rural New Englanders used the cold season as a time for meeting friends, having conversations, and visiting with one another. Before the telephone or telegraph, visiting a friend’s home was a way to share news, gossip, and stories. Now with the invention of social media, automobiles, and blended fabrics, how do communities gather in the winter months, celebrating local culture and strengthening their sense of place?

Today in Western Massachusetts winter festivals provide a gathering space for friends, families, and neighbors to get together, visit with each other, tell stories and share news… just as our predecessors in this region did before us. Winter festivals provide the space and occasion for community members to enjoy the winter season through art collaborations, fairs, and winter-themed activities. Additionally, these festivals are a way to explore different art forms, such as ice sculpting, share skills with others, and learn about local history and cultural traditions. Celebrate winter at these annual festivities and start a new family tradition!

Think about this:

What are the tools used in sculpting ice? What are the challenges ice sculptors face that other sculptors of different media don’t?

How would families and neighbors gather in the winter before the invention of automobiles and highways? How did the inability to travel far distances impact communities and relationships?

How do winter festivals gather communities together? What types of activities do they host in order to foster connection and togetherness during the colder months?

February is National African American History Month in the United States. It is a time to honor the work, achievements, and contributions of African Americans. Literature, art, and community-based resources share stories and help us to remember the struggle for civil rights and the importance of equality, civic action, social justice and solidarity. Looking through the lens of poetry, Langston Hughes and Audre Lorde are two African American poets who illustrate the power of voice and words.

In addition to literary explorations of African Americans’ creativity and contributions to U.S. literature, explore African American History Month in Western Massachusetts through the different cultural organizations and institutions that educate the public on the history of African Americans in our region. One of the most significant pieces of New England history is the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes, stops, and places throughout 14 northern states that were established to help escaped slaves to freedom.

Norman Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With,” painted in 1963, is considered an iconic image of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Asking yourself questions, visit the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA, and look at his paintings closely to discover his perspective as illustrated in his iconic images of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

The David Ruggles Center for Early Florence History & Underground Railroad in Florence, MA, in another community-based resource in Western Massachusetts to supporting learning about African American History. The center offers self-guided walking tours, including the African-American history trail, Sojourner Truth’s house, and other abolitionist sites.

Ice harvesting is an industry of the past, and one whose roots lie only in cold climates – like western Massachusetts! Done both as a necessity in early New England and as a profitable industry more recently, ice harvesting plays an important role in local history, literature and New England culture.

Part of a rich history of economic pursuits driven by available natural resources, ice harvesting plays an important role in the history of communities all over western Massachusetts. Throughout the upcoming month, local historical societies and museums offer families opportunities to learn – in some cases, experientially – about the process of ice harvesting.

Ice harvesting is embedded within the history and cultural traditions of New England. So much so, in fact, that it also influenced the literary reflections of writers such as Henry David Thoreau. As you explore ice harvesting through living history demonstrations and artifacts from the past, read Thoreau’s chapter in Walden on “The Pond in Winter” for historical understanding from a literary perspective.

In the days of western Massachusetts past, when refrigerators weren’t standard kitchen equipment, ice was quite a luxury during the summer. In order to have ice after the spring thaw began, early New Englanders would have to harvest and strategically store ice from local lakes and ponds. Kept in the proper conditions (in the dark, and surrounded by insulation – usually sawdust), the harvested ice would last much longer than the cold weather did.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech speaks to the value & importance of kindness via civic engagement & community service.

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On the 3rd Monday in January, the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day offers families a three-day weekend – a treasure that can be used to engage in meaningful community-based learning opportunities. Families can take advantage of this special day honoring Dr. King’s work and lasting impact on our country by taking part in community celebrations, giving their time to be part of a day of service, or attending educational screenings and performances.

Think about this: How do you define “the power of voice?” How can a speech or words shape or inspire social change? How can rhetoric influence ideas? What are ways in which you can exemplify the value of kindness everyday to help build a more resilient and dynamic community where you live? What causes do you believe in? Where do you want to give your support as a volunteer in Western MA?

There are many ways to remain active and engaged with the outdoors during the winter season. Nordic skiing, alpine skiing, ice skating, and snowshoeing are a few examples of different activities that encourage New Englanders to get outside, stay fit, and maintain a healthy lifestyle while connecting them to local places during the cold winter months.

Accessible to skiers of all ages and abilities, nordic skiing is a favorite winter activity locally. Skiers young, old, inexperienced, and expert can take advantage of local trail systems, equipment rentals, classes, and special community events in order to experience the magic that nordic skiing adds to a Western Massachusetts winter.

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