Gerard J. Burke
129 Old Bedford Road

Age 61

Interviewed May 31, 2005

Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.

Click here for audio in .mp3 format

Gerald BurkeUnder Article 32, the Town of Concord at their AnnualTown Meeting this year voted to purchase the Burke land, 14.4 acres of farmland, on Old Bedford Road. By buying the property now before it is offered for sale on the open market, the Town explained that it is buying time to prepare a plan to identify a source of long-term funding for the land's acquisition that does not depend upon the property tax. The purchase price of $2.5 million and the cost of short-term borrowing for one year of $60,000 would be paid from an existing line item in the budget. Any permanent financing plan would be brought before the 2006 AnnualTown Meeting for approval. If no plan is able to be developed, Article 32 authorized the Selectmen to sell the property. There are multiple uses that the Town certainly has in mind that they see purchasing the Burke as an opportunity.

I would say the family's dream of possible uses to be as much as possible continue to be open and continue to be used as agriculture land as it has been for so many years. We have an interest in primarily open land. My conversations with the Town have sort of opened up a couple of other directions. One of them is because we are contiguous with the Ripley School property, there has been at the outset with my conversations with the Town, the likelihood that at least some of the property toward the west would be added to the school's campus to give them more flexibility at Ripley. How far forward that might come I don't know. I've asked them to the extent that the School Committee or Ripley reaches the point where it is using much of the property that they tried to keep the property closer to the road as open as it is right now. So fields would be fine, but I hate to see buildings smack against the road. That's not what I'm hoping.

The other potential use is that there have been sort of three-way conversations going on with the Concord Housing Trust about the possibility of using the free space behind my father's home at 129 Old Bedford Road to expand the diversity of the housing stock in Concord. So moderate income housing is a possibility for that piece to the extent that it would require the use of a strip of land to the south of my father's house. That would make sense as well.

It becomes a question that it is really the Town's decision once they've acquired it to add that strip. But I know that one of the conversations has evolved in terms of multi-use using that narrow strip to gain access to the piece behind without disturbing too much of the landscaping and the way the land is now. You know farmland doesn't have trees on it. So what we try to do is save what trees we've got. I would think the plan would be to keep the 129 Old Bedford Road house in place.

My grandfather was Thomas Burke. There was a Thomas J. Burke and a Thomas J. Burke, Jr., and then another Jr. which complicates things for me. The original Thomas J. Burke arrived in this area around 1861. He would be my great-grandfather. His wife, Rose Burns, arrived in the mid-1860s from Ireland. Everybody's from Ireland on both sides of my family. In 1871 they purchased from one of the Meriam family members, the Meriam house and 50+ acres around it. It's interesting because although I can't find all the papers nowadays, at one point I saw one of the original deeds and with it was an indication that there had been a mortgage. So a Mr. Sohier, which I think is still a name in town, apparently loaned my great-grandfather some of the money to purchase the land. I often speculated that my great-grandfather may have worked for the Sohiers. But it's interesting that one of the locals was willing to support my great-grandfather in his efforts to gain a foothold here in town.

My great-grandfather was a farmer. One of his sons, Thomas Jr. married my grandmother, Ellen Teresa Dee. Ellen was one of three children who was being raised by her father, John Dee, and very much a part of the large Dee family. I am related to so many people in town that I'm constantly stumbling on the connections. Their family lived in what was the Hartwell farm on Virginia Road in Lincoln. The house was a restaurant for a number of years. My parents had their wedding reception there. It burned down after the National Park acquired it. So now there is a frame of a house that has a fascinating chimney with nooks and crannies. The Dees were three children, two girls and a boy. Thomas Dee ended up marrying Helen O'Lennon, who everybody called Toppie. She actually did some writing of history herself having grown up around Lincoln. They lived on Tower Road in Lincoln for many years and never had any children. He died at Christmas in 1949 or 1950, and she survived him by 30 years. The other sister was Mary Algeo. She lived right across the street from the Hartwell house. She married a Mr. Algeo and there were several children, one was Leo Algeo, who actually lives in Stow now. Leo was police chief in Lincoln for many years and has lots of interesting memories.

My grandparents were married in 1903. There was a house being built across the street from the Meriam house, which is now 55 Old Bedford Road and which the Park service now owns. That house was being built for them. They weren't able to move in until the spring. I'm often sort of amused because the National Park Service has chose to replace the stonewall that was around the front yard of the Meriam house, and the original stonewall wound up in the foundation of a small barn across the street from the Meriam house which is not there any more. But most of the stonewall wound up as a stone foundation of 55 Old Bedford Road. If they wanted to restore the original wall, the house would have to come down. The house is brown now. I can remember it being green at one time. It's always tended to be in fairly dark colors. But I can remember that house over my entire life. It was sort of like one of the places I always went back to as that time with my grandmother and my father's sisters and brothers there. It's a house that has a lot of really good memories. It always sort of felt very much like a home away from home for us.

The Thoreau Society has been leasing the house for a while, and I guess they are going to be there until they are able to move into the Thoreau House which was the Breen house on Virginia Road. And I've gone over several different times and chatted with Jane who is the current Executive Director of the Thoreau Society. It's great fun to wander through the house today. I had always imagined a lot of changes had been made, but there haven't been many changes. As a matter of fact, you still have to walk upstairs to go to the bathroom.

One other thing that occurs to me about that house is that I've been told that it was built right around 1900, and it was one of the first 20 or 30 houses in the area that actually had telephones. So neighbors would come to my grandparents' house to use the phone to get in touch with other people until it reached the point that more people had phones.

My grandfather was also a farmer like his father before him. By the teens and 1920s the Burkes were one of the many farms in the neighborhood that sort of made Concord's reputation for Concord grass, asparagus. There were asparagus beds everywhere. When the season would come around, my aunts and uncles would talk about these men, who came from nowhere or presumably came on sort of a migrant workers circuit, would come and work for the length of the season which was several weeks, so there would be a half dozen or more of them. During the time they were there cutting the asparagus, my grandmother would cook for them as well as for the family. That would have been eight in the family and another six or eight people say camped out and being fed. The family had fascinating stories about some of these men. They were fiddlers and I also suspect they invented exotic histories for some of these men who sort of came along and were here for six weeks and then went somewhere else. One of them played the squeezebox accordion, another played the fiddle, and they were just fascinating people. My aunts especially sort of speculated about why it was that these men were apparently kind of rootless. Making up stories about them was a pastime.

This was considered the East Quarter and a very Irish area. Even when I was growing up in the ‘40s and ‘50s, there was this circle of which the McHughs were always at the core of everything. They had this small collection of fascinating bachelors and two unmarried sisters at home. They weren't distracted by children, I think and so they managed to be sort of story tellers and singers and in minstrel shows. They were involved in the Knights of Columbus and very much involved in the church. Again I remember the Maras, the Daltons, the Magurns, the McQuires, and I'm sure I'll wind up leaving someone out, but there was that sort of gang of people that were right up close and part of the clan. You would think that these people moved from very much the same place in Ireland and sort of transplanted a village, which actually tended to happen with the Italians in the North End in Boston later. These people were from all over Ireland. You could sit down with a group of them and you'd get people from Donegal and Galway and Waterford, places over all over Ireland. Here they had their Irishness in common and their Catholicism in common.

After the turn of the century, the wave of Italian immigrants started to arrive who had in common with the Irish their Catholicism. It's clear from having listened to the stories, it wasn't always a terribly easy blend right at the very beginning. They were peoples of very different temperaments. Of course, the Irish at least shared a language with the people already here in most cases.

My father's name was Gerard and he was the youngest. The oldest was Katharine which is a slightly different spelling of Katherine and fortunately Katharine Hepburn came along with the same spelling and gave her some justification for that spelling. There was a brother, Jack or John H. John died in 1937 and worked for the town tree department. He was killed in a brawl in West Concord. Then two sisters, Alice Hargrove, and the younger sister, Nancy. Alice ultimately owned the home at 82 Old Bedford Road. She built that in the ‘60s with her husband who came from Lexington. Nancy's real name was Ann Winifred, but she didn't want anybody to know that. She worked for 30 years or more at the Concord Reformatory, now MCI-Concord, first as a clerk in the Steward's office and ultimately as treasurer of the prison. She married Leo O'Malley who was one of the correction officers there, and they lived in Littleton. He died about 15 years ago and she died in 1992. My Uncle Tom was a farmer, Thomas J. Burke, Jr., and he was the one that carried farming into that generation. He farmed this land right up until the mid or late 1960s. I can remember coming home from college in the early ‘60s and bringing along a couple of friends from the dormitory and we would go out and we would plant corn and so forth. Then there was my father who was in the service. He'd graduated from the University of Maine in 1940 and had gone through the ROTC program and actually been commissioned an officer and was on active duty at the time World War II broke out. He spent about 20 years in the service. We would keep coming back here, but we were in all different places.

Katharine, the eldest, actually stayed at home and cooked for the entire family. It was sort of a house with two mothers. My grandmother lived until 1963 and she was an extraordinary lady. She put up with incredible adversity over the years and seemed never to be particularly down. She always was an optimist. She supplied an awful lot of momentum and willingness to sort of go back to work at anytime all the time. That was sort of where the power was with my grandmother.

Alice came to this house we're in now largely because of the Park Service or confluence of other interests. Alice graduated from a two-year normal program at Fitchburg State College, taught for 20 years before marriage, and substituted for 20 years after her marriage. She and her husband, John Hargrove, had moved into a small bungalow Cape which they built next door to his mother's house on Massachusetts Avenue in Lexington right opposite what used to be the main entrance to the main road off Mass Ave. that led into the airport. They were at 3038 Massachusetts Avenue and her parents-in-law were at 3058. They built there in 1950 when they were married. Over the course of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, there was more and more talk about the National Historic Park being established and sort forth. My aunt and the others all had some expectations that this would disrupt their lives. I have a collection of letters that my aunt wrote to Leverett Saltonstall and John Kennedy, who were Senators at the time, and to the representative who's name I don't recall right now, urging that the National Park Service legislation not be enacted. I don't think it was really a surprise to her in the mid-60s when once the law was enacted that the Park was more and more interested in acquiring land. They wanted the property that she and her mother-in-law's house was on and they ultimately acquired it. The Hargrove family home was torn down. Alice actually had her house lifted and moved down Massachusetts Avenue to Old Bedford Road and put on the lot which is now 96, and that house was torn down just last year to make room for a growing family that needed a larger home.

Her sister-in-law, Florence, taught for years in Belmont and she was a single lady. When the house was sold, she had a niece and nephew on the other side of the family who gained title to the property and they sold it to Drew Pierce and they've been there since 1996. They seem to share our love for the land and the views. When they realized they weren't going to be able to manage with the small house that they bought, they decided that it was important to them to stay there, so they built something larger. So they're not really related to me.

Alice then built this house. The irony, one of several ironies, was that John, Alice's husband and she and Florence, John's sister, had farmed. I think it was always their sense that they had a number of acres of land, and that if the Park took the Battle Road property which was the piece that sort of ran so many yards on either side of Massachusetts Avenue, they could simply move farther south. They could back up into what had been the farm fields back from the road still in Lexington. They felt they could move onto other family land and give up the frontage on Mass Avenue. Ironically, it was about then that much of the land on which the Minuteman Technical High School was built was also Hargrove land. They had land taken from them because of the Park Service, then their Plan B evaporated when the State came along and said oh, no we want the rest of the land. So that was when my aunt and uncle decided that they would build themselves a larger house and they would move the smaller house here for his sister. My parent's house was finished in 1962 and I think she finished the move here in 1966 or 1967. I actually need to look at the deed to sort of see when the property passed. The number of this house is 82 and her old house was 92.

The relationship with the Park Service has been a contentious one. The right of imminent domain was always threatening. One always knew that you weren't going to be free to pass it along in the family forever because there were these constraints on it. You knew you couldn't sell it on the open market because the likelihood that someone would want to buy it on the open market with that same threat on them would affect the value. There was this certain irony. All of these sales are centered around what they call fair market value which is defined under the law as what a willing buyer would pay a willing seller. I think two things happened. First of all, none of these things take into account that you often times don't have a willing seller. If someone were to come along and say that we determine that the broach that your mother has been wearing for 50 years that she got from her grandmother who got it from her grandmother and is a national treasure and took it to a jeweler and discovered it had a value of $350 and say we will give you $350 because that's the fair market value, doesn't take into account the history and the value and the sentiment it has to whoever is wearing it. The law just doesn't take into account the way people bond with land and without. So many really cling to land we're living on as a major piece of security and it's a major piece of the family's history. So that doesn't get factored into the value. So there's always the sense that there is this risk that something is going to be taken away from you. This struggle about the fact that the value thing is there.

They're buying land which is actually somewhat unique. And the value that gets placed on it is the value that would be put on it even if it were not unique. So people don't get compensated for the uniqueness of the property. It is really a contentious type of situation. I think our family and I know my aunt Alice especially had an awful lot of emotional distress because of that. There are other families too that were really distressed over that.

They did sell some land to the Park Service in 1969. The five siblings that were alive sold two parcels of land. One was a parcel that ran along Old Bedford Road and then on the easterly side of Old Bedford Road the land fanned over and actually abutted Lexington Road as well. So originally the property where the Willow Pond Kitchen was ultimately situated was part of that property. The Palumbo house, which was a schoolhouse, was carved out of it at some stage of the game. Then there was a piece of property of about an acre between the Palumbo house and the Meriam house which we had farmed, and that block of property and fanning out to what is basically called Mills Brook which is the small brook that runs across Old Bedford Road was sold to the Park. The Gowing Swamp is not part of that. It is to the west and sort of tucked in behind the Catholic cemetery. So there was six acres of land sold there. Then the hillside, which was also part of the property, is basically this end of the Ridge. They call it Revolutionary Ridge and it comes up behind Meriam Close and the condo development there. So they owned that and that was all woodlot and that was another 3 acres and that was sold to the Park Service in 1969.

In the late '60s after my grandmother died, the rest of the siblings got together and they deeded the family homestead at 55 Old Bedford Road to my Aunt Katharine who was the only one still living there at the time. All the rest were married and elsewhere. In 1974 she sold her remainder interest. She kept a life estate so that she had a right to live in the property for her lifetime and the property went to the Park Service upon her death which was in 1989.

The Meriam house itself was sold in 1951 to James and Margaret Ingraham who were a fascinating couple. Both were fascinated by antiques so the house was filled with an incredible collection of Colonial and Early American stuff. He was from Camden, Maine and she was from one of the Carolinas. They met while he was at West Point. They moved here from Newton because they wanted more room, I think for antiques. They had that house until 1962. I can't remember when she died, but he remarried and moved to Maine. He too as I recall sold the property with a life estate. That actually became one of the typical moves that the Park Service would offer families. I don't know how many there are now, but I'm sure that on Massachusetts Avenue there are at least a few more houses which continue to stay in families through the measure of someone's life. That's true of the Palumbos. I think the person who has probably continued to resist and resist and my bet is that they've not really struck any deal are the Inferreras and the gentleman who owns right next to the Inferreras. They continue to fight and struggle.

At the northern edge of the farm back from the road, the family also sold probably about an acre and a half of land to the Heritage Pool and Racquet Club who wanted to put a private pool on the property. My recollection is that they bought some land from us and some land from the Dalton family. They're still there so they are one of our abutters if you will.

There is an old cart path that dates back to the 1600s and it has played interesting parts in recent town history. The cart path although it is not developed or paved has the status of a public way. It exists with the Town maintaining the rights of all the citizens to pass over it. It runs from just opposite the driveway behind the Meriam house to the left of the shed or garage of my grandmother's house which is falling down now. It goes out basically along the base of the back of the Ridge so that it has hillside and woodlot to the left and farmland to the right and it runs all the way over again just to the south of the Ripley School area, past Gowing Swamp on the left, past our farmlands on the right and ultimately winds up in a fairly wet kind of boggy area which is along Bedford Street. In my youth it always basically sort of took a left hand turn and then cut up one side or the other of the Catholic cemetery. At this stage of the game, it almost doesn't go anywhere because you can't quite figure out where it would have existed on Bedford Street. Historically, and I think it has been speculated often enough that it is sort of accepted as fact, that when the British left Old North Bridge and the center of Concord and began to head back toward Boston that they went down the Battle Road which was Lexington Road, and then Massachusetts Avenue in Lexington and that the Colonials basically came north of the Ridge and came down and met them at the end of the Ridge. So the speculation is that the path of the Colonials would have been along this cart path which is still there. In more recent history, the most recent of the houses which were built on the cart path now numbered 49 Old Bedford Road, there was some struggle about whether or not the Board of Appeals was going to see that as a proper lot in terms of whether or not it had frontage for purposes of building. At that time Tom LeBlanc who owns the property now with his wife was looking to build on the property used the long term existence of the cart path as a public way to justify placing a house lot and building facing it. This was about 10 years ago.

Beyond the LeBlanc property sort of tucked in behind the land that belongs to the Catholic cemetery, Gowing's Swamp actually goes through from the cart path and abuts the back of the Meriam Close property, in the back of Paul Bayles' land and backs up to some properties that front on Lexington Road again. Gowing's Swamp was an area that was one of Thoreau's minor haunts. It's really kind of an interesting area. There was a quacking bog back there so that it actually at times of the year will support somebody standing on it, but it vibrates and so it's sort of like a geologic version of a water bed if you will. It quivers. I can remember having my father walk me through that area a number of different times. Spring is a good time to look because you will see trillium, lady slippers, jack-in-the-pulpits, and lots of not that common wild flowers which grow in marshy areas. Of course, there are legends about people having thrown dead animals in there. It's sort of a spooky place.

By the time I was around, the asparagus that was grown was mostly a bed just for the family's use. I remember eating lots and lots of asparagus. In the spring it would find its way into every meal of the day. I sort of thought of the crops in terms of what came first in the year. The first thing that would come in were the strawberries, so that was sort of a sign of spring or summer. Throughout the rest of the season, my uncle would use two or three high school boys for work. The strawberry season was different because we had a co-ed group. I can remember over the years working with various kids from around the town — McGraths, Diskins, Duggans, Stones, Bucktons, a whole slew of people who would work and pick strawberries for six cents a quart. I was one of them but I was never particularly gifted at it. I was so clumsy and slow at it. My father was very impatient at how slow I was, so I basically allowed the situation to evolve so that I would simply walk up and down the aisles and fill baskets from other people who were picking more efficiently.

Strawberries were the first crop of the year that would put cash into the farmer's pocket after a winter of little income or certainly little farming income. Then over the year we would do lettuce, potatoes, parsnips, beets, turnips. More and more over the years, we would do corn so I can remember my uncle sort of working out which fields the corn was going to be in this year, carefully selecting the hybrid of the corn that he was going to use, and the period of time it would take that he could expect to have one field maturing weather permitting. You could expect to have one field of corn maturing early and then every couple of weeks as one sort of passed its prime, another would come in, so we would pick corn for several weeks in July and August and even into September. That was done weather permitting. If you got tons and tons of rain early on, then everything got slowed down and the schedule that you carefully put together was sort of flummoxed up. In the late ‘40s, my uncle had had a large water hole excavated sort of in the center of the land and after that if there wasn't enough rain, then we would lug pipes out and set them up in the rows of corn or whatever the crop happened to be, and we would pump water onto it. We always managed to have enough water although it meant a lot more manual labor if it didn't fall out of the sky.

The marketing of the produce was done in two different ways. When I was very young, there were a number of people who were basically sort of farmers' agents. The fellow I remember most was a fellow named Mike Dimodica. Mike drove a Cadillac and had lollipops in the glove compartment which is the reason why I remember him. He also had tickets to the Red Sox games, so once or twice a summer there would be a pair of Red Sox tickets that would come with Mike. He would basically send around very large trucks and pick up and take to market, the old Faneuil Hall market, the excess that hadn't been bought by local retailers like other farm stands. There were farm stands that sold all their own produce and were so successful that what they were selling was always local products. There was a farmer who had a small farm in Cochituate, and he used to take a great deal of our crops because he could sell more than he could produce. He would come here at 8:00 or 9:00 on a Saturday or Sunday morning and we would have been up picking corn since 6:30 or 7:00, and he would put it all on his truck and take it back and have it at his farm stand, picked today local. So there were a number of local stands like that that would buy directly from my uncle and pick it up here. Then what didn't get sold on the days we had bushels and bushels ready and was more than that market would absorb, then it would go into Faneuil Hall. He never sold even then to the major supermarkets as they had a different acquisition and distribution chain. They would buy from this wholesaling process.

A lot of it was truck farming because we would have several crops at the same time. We never had vast quantities of anything after the asparagus years. That was truck farming in that what you produced got trucked to someplace else either by you or somebody else and there it got sold in a separate market. In the case of the food brokers, they would take a cut and give you back the difference. I remember waking up with my uncle in the morning and he would turn on the radio and at 6:15 or 6:45, one of the radio stations would read the farmers' report because all the buying and selling was done in the middle of the night. You took stuff in at the end of the day and then buyers would come in the middle of the night, so prices from the day before would get read on the radio the next morning. So they would tell you the range of prices per bushel of this and that. I don't know where that information is available nowadays, probably online.

I know the brokerage process is still done the same way. I suspect there is less heavy lifting and I suspect that they use pencils and paper a lot less.

I mentioned before that we got six cents a quart picking strawberries but I think my uncle got 50 cents a quart. We'd put the quarts in trays of 20. My sense is that he could get $10 for a tray. That would be during the early ‘60s. What we were selling it for probably went up faster than what my uncle was willing to pay the people to pick it.

At one time there were orchards here. I certainly don't remember orchards, but the remnants are still visible occasionally you will see an old knarled sort of hopeless looking apple tree that has managed to survive without apples any more. Two or three of them I think still exist along side the cart path. I always think in terms of apples that one of the things I think is really interesting is people are now doing heritage apples. My father and his sisters would talk about varieties of apples that I had never heard of and how wonderful these apples were when they were children and how for one reason or another simply weren't grown or weren't available any more.

My son Ezra will be the fifth generation and is moving into the house at 82 Old Bedford Road in the fall. Of course, I am at 129 so we will be going into 140 years of family members on the land. I was actually touched because when I talked with him about the possibility that the land would actually be sold, he said, "Well, it won't be ours any more." So the fact that he's shown interest in my aunt's house is really exciting for me.

Eric Nelson's father Alan had Cucurbit Farm for a number of years but Eric does most of the work now, and Eric has been growing on our land for the last two or three years. Before that the Ammendolia family at Pine Tree Farm cultivated and grew corn on the land. As a matter of fact in the arrangement that has been made with the Town, I was pretty careful that the Town understood that there was a crop planted on the land already and that Eric had title to what is being grown and would harvest it after the title shifts to the Town. The planned transfer of title is July 15.

The Town approached me actually during the hearings that were being held before the special town meeting about the Ammendolia land. Mrs. Rasmussen, the Planning Director, told me that in the past my father had expressed an interest and a willingness to talk to the Town about the land, so she said as they were sort of completing the Ammendolia acquisition that she thought it was a good time to begin the conversations with us. That's been an interesting process over more than a year of what the Town wanted and so forth. I think I've said before and I mentioned it in a letter that I wrote to the Concord Journal, there's been a sense in the family for a long time that we weren't going to farm forever. My brother and I showed no particular interest in becoming an agronomist, so there's always been a sense that the land might be kept essentially as it's been for many years if the Town could purchase it and sort of carry on the process. The family is very pleased about what is happening.

Text added 26 March 2008; audio added 16 May 2012. rcwh.