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These Mysterious Hills: The Passion of Elder Leland

By Joe DurwiniBerkshires Columnist
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... Or Historic Cheshire Resident Tangled With the Mysterious?

Pastor John Leland reportedly had brushes with the mysterious during his years in Cheshire.
CHESHIRE, Mass. — Ghost stories are by no means a new occurrence to the Berkshires, begun when such historic venues as The Mount and Ventfort Hall began opening their doors to tech-toting paranormalists from the SyFy channel. Even in its earliest histories and records, there is a liberal peppering of references to preoccupations with witchcraft, apparitions and mysteries.

One of its most distinguished early citizens, Elder John Leland, is worth noting for his impact on the vast folklore of the Berkshires. Leland, who served as baptist minister in Cheshire from 1791 to 1841, was an influential abolitionist and friend to Presidents Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, but is best remembered as the man behind the creation of the Mammoth Cheese. 

Most locals are probably at least passingly familiar with the story of how Cheshire gained some measure of fame in 1802 with its presentation of a massive block of locally made cheese to Thomas Jefferson, commemorated today by the Cheshire Cheese Press monument in its small downtown area, and even a couple of children's books. 

Less well known, perhaps, is the deeply political aspects of the process, and just how controversial the Mammoth Cheese actually was, both locally and in Washington. Similarly less well known today is a longtime local legend, in which is told the historically uncertain events surrounding the temporary disappearance of the ton-weighing cheese wheel.

As the story goes, there lived on Mount Greylock an old Indian medicine man by the name of Hokaposset. This old shaman was viewed with much trepidation by locals, who attributed vast powers to him, including the power to kill a stag merely by pointing an unloaded rifle at it, and to cause mysterious deaths to befall his enemies.

The old native sorcerer had but one living relative, his granddaughter, Shonoma, also known as "Humming Bird." Humming Bird was much in love with, and loved by, a local boy by the name of Ichabod Rannolds. Pastor Leland, it was said, advised the boy's mother to forbid the match. When Ichabod, a dutiful son, broke the bad news to Humming Bird, she became furious. She warned him of her grandfather's powers, and that he would cause suffering to those who caused pain to his only granddaughter. Ichabod did not relent, and the next day, Pastor Leland was shocked when one of his deacons brought him the news that the entire cheese wheel — which had been stored in the barn of one Captain Brown — had disappeared.

Ichabod, suspecting the culprit to be the old shaman, went with some other men to the mountain to confront him, but when they arrived, Humming Bird said her grandfather was very ill and was indeed near death. She begged him to leave and let him die in peace. Hokaposset, who was indeed quite sick, died that very night. That morning, when Captain Brown opened the door of his cider mill, he was shocked to see that the cheese wheel, completely intact, had mysteriously reappeared.

The 'Big Cheese' mysteriously disappeared one night and then reappeared the next, accordingly to one story.
This was not to be Elder Leland's final brush with These Mysterious Hills. Tucked away in the vault of the Berkshire Athenaeum, an obscure little 1838 manuscript tells in the Baptist clergyman's own words of unexplained occurrences in his own home. For months, writes Leland, his house was plagued by the sound of a strange unearthly voice, which would moan and groan throughout the nights, causing he and his family great consternation. Leland consulted colleagues, and at one point removed all of the cupboard doors throughout the house, but could find no logical answers to its source or to ridding himself of these sporadic miserable groans. 

One night, the sound began to slowly move from where it was usually confined and move toward the pastor and his wife's bedroom. Elder Leland, struck by fear, began to pray "as never before."

"I asked the Lord," he writes, "to deliver me and my family from this annoyance, and that it might be explained to us, and then depart."

It this point, Leland writes, his prayer was half answered. The noise grew at first exceedingly loud, and then receded. He never heard it again, nor found any satisfactory explanation as to what had happened.

He concluded, simply: "I have given you a simple and true history of the facts and you may form your opinion. I have none."

These Mysterious Hills is a production of writer Joe Durwin and more mysterious goings on can be found here.

Tags: cheshire cheese,   folklore,   mysterious hills,   

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