A Weekend in Massachusetts

Springfield and the Connecticut River Valley are amazing sights to see

| 23 Jul 2022 | 03:25

The Springfield area in Massachusetts is closer to Manhattan than Albany, with lots of experiences to be had. For much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the city was a large industrial center, known as “the City of Firsts” (basketball, as an example). Want to know about domestically-built Rolls-Royces, the NBA before its meteoric rise, the man who did all for “The Cat in the Hat,” plus the Yiddish language and 12 restored village houses dating from 1730 to 1850? All this and more await in a destination that’s relatively close to NYC.

Springfield: Cultural Center

The Springfield Museums (not a typo—there are five separate buildings on the campus, easily reachable from a Downtown hotel) would be a day’s visit on its own. Did you know that American-built Rolls Royces were manufactured in a Springfield plant from 1921 to 1931? There are a few finely restored examples to gaze at. On this campus are two distinct art galleries, a science museum, a hall for technology in the local area, and a museum for Theodor Seuss Geisel, AKA Dr. Seuss.

The collections are rich with Tiffany glass windows, 75 Indian motorcycles (manufactured in Springfield from 1901 to 1953), Japanese art, and the geology and climate of the Connecticut River Valley. All buildings are ADA accessible and, with the exception of the planetarium, masks are welcome in the galleries, but not required.

Local resident Geisel, the author of “The Cat in the Hat” and other children’s books, lived here from his birth in 1904 until his graduation from Dartmouth in 1915. The Seuss Museum was founded after he passed away in 1991. Some of the Seuss famous characters are also memorialized in a campus sculpture garden nearby.

Up for Basketball?

The first public men’s basketball game was played in Springfield, Massachusetts, on March 11, 1892 at Springfield College, developed by James Naismith, with the first women’s basketball game played three weeks later in nearby Northampton.

To celebrate the game in all of its facets, the sprawling Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame lies along the Connecticut River. The Museum is home to more than 400 inductees and over 40,000 square feet of basketball history. Nearly 200,000 people a year visit for the rich history of the game, filled with memorabilia. New York City’s Knicks and Harlem Globetrotters are prominent in their histories. The WNBA and women’s basketball are well documented in both video and artifacts pertaining to their teams.

Want to shoot hoops? The full-sized “Jerry Colangelo Court of Dreams” basketball court is there for you to score those three-pointers. A don’t-miss was a tribute to Kobe Bryant, with excellent media documentation throughout the hall to add excitement to your visit. At this time, mask-wearing is optional, and there is full accessibility for the physically challenged.

After the Touring

If you want to be close to these sights and others, there are hotels and dining opportunities within a medium walking distance. The Sheraton Monarch, walking distance to the Springfield Museums and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, provided a comfortable place to relax. Also close are a Marriott, La Quinta and the MGM Springfield.

With quite a few places to dine around the hotel, one old-line restaurant, The Student Prince, serves German cuisine today, as it has since 1946. It remains a unique venue for lunch and dinner in this part of New England. Should you want, seating outdoors is provided on a first-come basis. Other nearby options include BBQ, Italian, Mediterranean, steakhouses and seafood.

If the Springfield Museums and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame aren’t enough, the The Springfield Armory National Historic Site preserves and interprets armament history in original buildings. Also downtown? The MGM Springfield Casino.

Conveniently, Avis and Enterprise have local locations for driving to the next destinations.

Along the Connecticut River

Within a half-hour’s drive of Springfield lie the college towns of Amherst and Northampton, the base for four separate institutions of higher learning: Smith College in Northampton, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and Hampshire Colleges in Amherst.

Northampton is filled with charming local shops and dining venues, Smith College with its beautiful campus has collegiate charm, and, as the Hampshire county seat, the town has well-maintained public buildings erected prior to the dawn of the twentieth century. The Hotel Northampton, almost a century old, has been a favored resting and dining spot, with its Wiggins Tavern having roots in 1786.

Amherst, with the biggest population in Hamden County, offers local and national stores and food outlets. UMass, at it is known, is at the north end of town, Amherst College in the center and Hampshire College at the south end. While the big box stores and chain restaurants tend to be on the west side of town towards Northampton, the center of Amherst lies around a manicured common, with some existing stores dating back more than a century in commerce. Newly opened in the town center is The Drake, a 150-seat venue for live music, with a range of musical styles and performers.

Shrine to Yiddish

Perhaps Amherst’s most surprising venue, located at the south end of the sprawling Hampshire College campus, was started by an alumnus who created a cutting-edge institution.

Aaron Lansky, who won a MacArthur fellowship in 1989 for his work, saw the decline of spoken and print Yiddish Language, and has devoted his life to its preservation. He founded the Yiddish Book Center in 1980, unnerved by the all the Yiddish language books being thrown away by American Jews who were unable to read the language of their parents and grandparents. In these forty-odd years, the Center has amassed over 1,000,000 books, all in Yiddish.

While the 250,000 volume repository is beyond public view, the public is welcome to visit the facility, which includes a filmed introduction, a bookstore, the ability to walk past thousands of Yiddish-language books, exhibits and cultural programs. The 1997 structure, since increased in size, was designed to resemble an Eastern European shtetl. Here, mask-wearing is mandatory.

Deerfield: Compact but Fascinating

The town of Deerfield, home to prestigious Deerfield Academy, about a mile long, is tucked away from major highways. A half hour’s drive north of Amherst, it’s preserved structures date from 1730 to 1850, scattered along Old Main Street. With eight houses to see, and an additional repository of artifact collections, a well-spent day here will provide a historic look at what small-town Connecticut River Valley life was like two hundred years ago.

The Flynt Center of Early New England, the museum on premises is a 27,000 square-foot climate-controlled exhibition space. With a visible storage area and collection storage for the museum’s most sensitive and highly valued collections, historic artifacts abound. Throughout the restoration, docents and volunteers discuss and demonstrate evidence of what life was like before the modern era, After watching a bread-baking demo in the Tavern, the complexities of working in an 18th-century kitchen became very real.

Among the preserved houses, the 1747 Wells-Thorn House revealed the lifestyle of Deerfield residents from 1725 to the 1850s, appropriately furnished to show development of the agricultural economy, domestic life, and refinement in the Connecticut River Valley over a century and a quarter ago.

The Cook’s Garden, a public site, was dedicated in 2006 in memory of Margaret Quinn Orloske, a member of the museum and a Marsh and McLennan employee who died on September 11, 2001 in World Trade Center Tower One.

The historic Deerfield Inn lies in the middle of Old Main Street. The 24-room inn has Champney’s on-site, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Locally sourced ingredients provide nourishment for your day’s outing. With both traditional and modern fare, a table on the terrace contemplating the calm street is a place to be fed well and watch an un-Manhattan world go by.

Besides the Deerfield Inn and the Hotel Northampton, the area abounds with other hotels, motels and B&Bs. Many well-run local establishments are among them. We sampled the family-owned D Hotel, just below Northampton and Amherst. At the foot of the Mount Tom State Reservation, the lodging provided a comfortable quiet room in a rustic setting, close to the Connecticut River. A hearty breakfast is included, and an on-site restaurant was available for dinner Wednesdays through Sundays.

Travel to the Region

Traveling to Springfield and beyond is relatively simple from NYC, either by car, bus or train. Springfield proper has rail and bus service from New York, as does Northampton, with direct bus service to Amherst from Port Authority For traveling to Northampton, Amherst and Springfield, there is local bus service available. To fill in transit gaps, Lyft, Uber and taxis are available as well.

For reference, here are applicable websites.