Interviewed April 17, 1997
Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
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William Buttrick, who we refer to in the family as "the settler," was only 17 or 18 years old, and was in the first settlement of Concord in the group led by Peter Bulkeley who settled Concord. I suspect he was indentured. Indenturing wasn't slavery. It was very well accepted. It was an obligation a younger person had to an older person, and was very easily unshackled. There were funny rules about it, and it was no big deal. I don't want you to look at these people as slaves. So William Buttrick was the first and I am now, well, my son I suppose is the last at this moment of a line of Buttricks that stayed in Concord. There were many other Buttricks who did not. This is the same line that four generations later, I think, Major John Buttrick came along. So the Buttrick family has been in Concord since the beginning, at least my direct branch of it, and I think I'm the 10th. It goes William, Samuel, Jonathan, Major John, Jonas, the first Stedman, William, Stedman my grandfather was 8th, Stedman my father ninth, myself Stedman 10th and my son Samuel, who doesn't live here at the moment, is the 11th.
Well, the fact is that if anybody wants to know about the Buttrick family, at least the male descendants, there is a book on it now. It was done by somebody I've never known named Richard Buttrick. He was in the foreign service and after his retirement in the early 1970s, he wrote a book called Buttrick, Buttrick and Buttrick in America. So if anybody is curious about the Buttrick family, I have this book and other members of the family have it.
In my family we always had a peculiar feeling about the Old North Bridge. We accepted it. The battle was really on our property. By 1875 at the centenary the land had been deeded to the town and the statue by Daniel Chester French also a relative of mine on my mother's side. My mother was a Keyes and Daniel Chester French definitely was on the Keyes side but I don't know what his relationship is to me. My mother's father was George Keyes.
At the Old North Bridge there were many celebrations. There was an additional celebration that I believe was done by the Caledonian Society where they decorated the graves of the fallen British soldiers. That seems to have vanished. Up to not too long ago that was a regular thing. It took place between the 19th of April and Memorial Day.
Living up there right on top of the hill, we took a lot of history for granted. It was there, we knew about it and we were curious about it, but it didn't drive our lives and it didn't bother us either. At least not until later on. While I grew up in the ‘30s and ‘40s and into the ‘50s, you know I was interested in the history Â¾ it was there, it was a part of us, but it wasn't a driving element in my life or in my development. We've always bridled at the term mansion. We thought of it as the homestead because that's the way it was in my grandfather's will, and he was the one who built it. It was built in 1911 and finished in 1912.
We used to live at 74 Main Street, the last building of Concord Academy on Main Street as you head west. It was a two-family house, it still has two front doors. The land ran right down to the river. That was where my father was born. In fact I think all the Buttrick children were born there in my father's generation. His mother died giving birth to the last child in 1909. My grandfather was busy at work and very successful at it, his reaction was to drive himself harder at work as a kind of anodyne, as my father described it, to his grief. He drove himself and at the same time he decided he better build a real big place. He was going places. He was the first one in the whole history of the family who really became wealthy. You know small towns had many different jobs. My great-great-grandfather was treasurer of Middlesex County and he defeated John Keyes for it as a matter of fact. The Democratic party has always figured in the Buttrick family since the times of Andrew Jackson and the loyalty persists.
I think my grandfather thought he was deserving of a big place. He had enticed Russell Robb who had married Edith Nourse and was somewhat related to the Buttrick family through the Bagleys of Detroit. My grandfather married Olive Bagley and she was the daughter of the Governor of Michigan, John Judson Bagley. They enticed Russell Robb and his bride to move to Concord and they were very close.
My grandfather decided to build this place up on Liberty Street. It was Buttrick land and some houses were moved. Metcalf & Eddy did the work. They pulled a house over from where the driveway is up there to over on Monument Street where the Boardman family lived for a long time back in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s and into the ‘60s. They did a lot of that house moving in those days. Not so much in my time. The land had been in the family ever since the settlement of Concord so there was not a question about having to buy land. The cost of it was around $45,000 at the time. The cost of it was high because there was a lot of rock everywhere.
My grandfather was so busy at work that he hired a housekeeper named Miss Pride who ran the place. Then there were the usual sorts of governesses. The brothers and sisters bonded together since they didn't have a mother. My grandfather went to Concord High School for two years and then his father became ill and the family exchequer needed some help and he went to work for either wool brokers or cotton brokers. The business was Brewster & Cobb, then that business changed and became Brewster, Cobb & Estabrook and then it became Estabrook & Company. He started off just as a runner or something at 16 or 17 years old, but he had a good business sense and worked hard. Anybody who picked strawberries in the fields in Concord knew what hard work was about. Marrying the governor of Michigan's daughter didn't hurt either because he was in investment banking. His role, which was the most important thing in those days, was buying securities from expanding companies, manufacturers, utilities and so forth and reselling them to the public. It was the most important of the business in those times. Underwriting was really what the name of the game was and that was his skill.
My grandfather was Stedman and he had a younger brother William and a younger sister Mary. Mary lived in Concord at a place called Overly which is just below the Buttrick homestead and was torn down. In the late ‘50s my brother had the house torn down, he wanted to expand the gardens down there. He said it was full of termites. The house was perfectly good, he just didn't want it there. Brother William went into the utilities business and then moved back to Concord. His name will come up from time to time. He moved back to Concord after working for the infamous Insole???? brothers who expanded the utilities industry that came crashing down in a pryamiding of holding companies that collapsed.
The homestead constituted the obvious Liberty Street property plus what they called the Major John Buttrick house and the fields going up toward the Estabrook Woods. That was the homestead property. I think the total property was probably under 100 acres.
My father grew up in this house. I was born in Boston but I lived in the house until I went to boarding school and then I would come back so I'm quite good on memories up through the early ‘50s. I'm very bad on remembering days at the house in the ‘50s because I was in the service a long time and then living in Boston. I do have many memories in the ‘30s and ‘40s but the ‘50s are a bit spotty.
We all loved the land. My father and mother both thought the house was dull. In fact later around 1946 Miss Mary Ogden Abbott, the good sculptor and artist and a very strong willed person, gave my father a pretty good draftsman's set. He started to redesign the house as he wanted. It was so grandiose. The living room needed two grand pianos to balance them. I think they really disliked the house. The loved the site and the gardens and the grounds and everything but I think both of them disliked the house. I think there is another reason why my mother did and that was because everybody in the Buttrick family felt that they owned the house as much as my mother and father did. For instance whenever my father's sister, Helen or Flick as she was known, came east she felt she had a right to stay here for as long as she wanted. She was a pretty strong person too. So it was a house that was very socially active.
His sister Olive came over from England in June of 1939. She came with her two sons, a daughter and a nanny. Her husband visited that summer but went back. They stayed with us for maybe a year and then Olive rented a house (the Hobart house at the end of ???? Road and then on Monument Street). They were over here six years.
Of course there were a number of English children over here during the war. Fenn School was loaded with them. I went to Fenn from grade one through eight. Around grades five and six we had a lot of English boys, evacuees they were called. Chris Davies was one of those. He came back and still lives in Concord.
My memories of the English in Concord are very clear. I think my political awareness had arrived by then. My family were big New Deal Democrats but I don't remember much of the domestic New Deal in specific. I think it may have petered out after the elections of 1938, but boy, do I remember Roosevelt in foreign policy. I think that was because we were very much in favor of the antithesis of the America First. It was called Defend America by Aiding the Allies and William Allen White, a newspaper editor and reporter in Kansas was the editor. It was kind of the counterweight of America First. You don't hear much about it but it was a very important organization. People around here tended to sympathize with it. Sympathize to such a point that when Pearl Harbor was attacked and we received the news, it wasn't exactly a celebration but it was a relief. It was not a Franklin Roosevelt town. The town was very Republican, but many people sympathized with his foreign policy. President Roosevelt could be deceitful. He was edging, edging towards involvement all the time. Some say it was too slow, some say it wasn't fast enough, but the fact is you knew what he was doing. We favored it and Pearl Harbor was a relief. We were in. We should have been in a long time ago.
Well, during the war Maynard Mills finally resumed production after having been shut down for quite a number of years. It was hard to get help for the house. We were fortunate, we were able to find some people. We had had a lot of Finnish girls and when the mills reopened, they went right back, and they should have. My father encouraged all the men on the property that if good jobs were available there, they should take them.
The two formal upper gardens, if you walked up there today, were started by my grandfather. Everything else was my father's. The gardens were his favorite. There was some expansion in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, but most of the lower terraces and the beds heading down toward what was Overly, were from my father's efforts. The place required five or six full time gardeners and some of the guys were getting on, especially by the 1950s. The gardens were getting visited all the time. My father entered iris competitions so we always were having the Horticulture Society and so forth.
Then my father and myself and another trustee decided that this place wasn't manageable. My father retired from business rather prematurely and he couldn't handle it. He had been handling it for years and years. He never owned a house. He was living there at the homestead at the will of his siblings and they wanted him to live there, but he never owned a house in his entire life. It's interesting. He was born in a house owned by his father, he lived in houses owned by my mother's family, the Keyes family, and that's where he died. He died 450 yards from where my mother was born. She died in the same house. He lived three miles from where he was born. The rootedness in Concord was extraordinary. Here was a man who was sophisticated and educated in every way, a cosmopolitan person, but you couldn't take him from Concord.
The tie of the family homestead with the National Park Service was pretty simple. Our family lawyer was Ted Chase who also had been a Concord product. His father was Judge Chase who has a place across the river on Monument Street. Judge Chase was a judge and lawyer in Boston and Ted Chase grew up there and went to Groton and Harvard, but he settled in Dover. He married a Concord woman, Dorothea Newman and the Newmans lived in Concord. He knew Concord and he was our advisor. We knew there were some rumblings from the National Park Service about the property. We, the trustees, proceeded to get an appraisal, and we got a guy who came up with a pathetically low amount. He was looking at it as a sale of one or two properties. It was just ridiculously low. We got a local engineer named Lawrence Murray who was the brother of Henry Murray who was our head gardener. He came up with a better plan. All we had to show the National Park Service was what we thought the place was worth under limited subdevelopment. We had no intention of even doing a limited subdevelopment. It was ridiculously low; it was $600,000 which is a huge amount for 1961. But we finally settled on an amount and it really didn't take too long once we got started. So the National Park Service purchased the property in 1962.
That's another observation I've had in town about houses in general, older houses. In the ‘30s these places, big houses, were in disrepair. Now they're all spanking. I'm referring to houses on Hubbard Street and up on Main Street in West Concord, some good houses but they were all in shambles in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Nobody gave a damn about them. I think prosperity obviously is one of the reasons they are in better shape now but I think the attitude also is a reason. Nowadays, especially generations younger than me, look upon their homes as just another asset in their portfolio. The home is an asset and it is where they live. They look upon it as an investment perhaps and they keep it up better. There is really a different attitude about your home now.
My mother and father rented a house up on Monument Street owned by the Prescott Smiths, Prescott and Eloise. Eloise is still alive by the way. Then they moved into the Warren house on Estabrook Road which was owned by my grandmother Keyes. Then they moved into the house that she lived in once she died and that was just down Liberty Street two from the corner. So you see how close they were, the Buttricks and the Keyes. They lived over the back fence. A long back fence mind you, but there really was a closeness in this family, not only the closeness of the Buttricks but the closeness of the Keyes and they all got along very well too. They really had a tightly knit relationship which is something we don't have any more. We don't have the sort of common meeting place as the Buttrick homestead. I miss that a lot really. The social life was far more active and heady then than it is now. Nobody hid in their homes as much. They were always out more.
I knew the Estabrook Woods as a jumble of different lots. My grandfather was trying to tie them all together -- ten acres here, fifteen acres there, maybe forty here or there. They sold for nothing. My grandfather was trying to get a good-sized contiguous piece and my father continued that. There was a lot of swapping. If my father owned a piece individually, he would put it in the trust so everybody could make more sense of this puzzle of lots up there. I forget what the whole Buttrick ownership of the Estabrook Woods was, but when Harvard came along and I think Ted Chase was in on this too, we were very happy to get this. I don't associate the Buttrick family with the most ardent conservationists but when it came to land, they weren't too happy to see it developed. They were maybe taking a bit a financial sacrifice. You go around Concord these days and except for a few houses up on Estabrook Road, lovely land, not very good houses, there is very little development of the old Buttrick property, practically none really. We'll get to the Brewsters later.
I roamed the woods in my young days. We put a pond in there and Fenn School used to skate on it from time to time. That was about the only major development. There was clay in the sand up there and that was used for tennis courts. The Robbs had some nice contiguous land including a great birch meadow. Then we run into Emerson land further up and if you went far enough around, Hutchins land. When we decided to put this together and sell it, it was a sale but at a low price. I might point out most Buttrick land transactions were sales because we had foreign beneficiaries and gifts didn't help them at all. So any Buttrick transaction was a sale but a sale at a rather low figure.
Harvard approached us and they wanted it for their biology department as a large tract of land that hadn't been trampled or hadn't been farmed and nothing had happened much to it for a long time, and this was very suitable because nobody had farmed up there for years. It was poor land, swampy and so forth. That went through very quickly. Some of that land backs right into Middlesex School. I think this was largely in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s.
Then the Brewster property came next. This was a big property. My grandfather in 1919 bought Brewster's entire holdings, including his house, his barns, his sheds and his land. Some of his land was jewel property along the river, and October Farm was the house. My Uncle John lived in the house for about 14-15 years and then it got sold to Mr. Gleason to Funkhouser to Gustavson and then after Louisa Gustavson, it was kind of broken up which is the state of it today. All during this period we owned all the land below Balls Hill Road. So even though October Farm had been sold there was still land that we all owned in common. We, the beneficiaries or my generation, in effect owned the land. The previous generation was dead by then. Wade Stanley and Dick Perkins found a buyer. We did not want to break it up. There had been very little built up there. The money here was closer to market but one of these things where we could see it protected and held as one piece. We knew Miss Englehart would have no trouble because her father was a very wealthy man specializing in platinum and other rare minerals.
The house at October Farm was never used when my grandfather bought it in 1919 until my Uncle John moved in around 1928. It just sat there. It is a fine place. I knew the farm very well. I was sorry to see John leave it but he felt it was just too much to keep up. He did a lot of the work himself. This was during the war. He couldn't get people. So these changes take place but the essential landscape remains the same, I think, which is always pleasing to me.
People walk though Estabrook Woods now. They never used to. Funny, people take more interest in it. Brewster's always attracted more walkers down by the river. People would canoe over from Bedford and so forth. There was much more activity down there, camping and so forth.
I went to Exeter so I wasn't here some of the time. My brother went to Middlesex. I then went to Harvard and I was out here a lot of time when I was at Harvard. Herb Wilkins and I were roommates our last year at Exeter and we've been very close ever since. Now he is the State Supreme Court Chief Justice as his father was. I'm delighted to have him in there. He's followed the role of his father pretty much. I feel a little responsible for his having come to Concord but he might have anyhow as his wife went to Concord Academy. He knew my family well and I think we can take a little credit luring him to Concord. He was very active in Concord being a selectman and everything until he got on the court.
Chuck Peabody appointed me to the Concord Housing Authority back in the ‘60s when he was governor. I had to get involved with a mess over at White's Pond and it still hasn't been entirely cleaned up. Housing has never been a strong point in Concord. Low income or moderate income, the town has never come up with a comprehensive plan. We've always been behind the eight ball and we're still there.
They were just a bunch of shacks over at White Pond and they wanted to upgrade them. Most of the government money went to hire consultants in Cambridge. Nothing ever got done and I'm not so sure that it's been completed now. In my mind it is an embarrassment really about Concord housing that we've never seriously come up with a comprehensive plan where we were willing to devote the money to it.
The library has been about my only real intensive town interest, that has been much more lasting. My father served on the library at one time. When David Little was thinking of retiring, he wanted me to come on and succeed him several years later as president of the library corporation, which I did. But I found I couldn't handle the job too well because you have to be around too much. I was in Boston. The president of the library has to be available locally at all times. The corporation is private. It has nothing to do with appointments from the town. The corporation owns the two buildings, the Fowler and the main library, and has a pretty good-sized investment. I always thought continuity was important, but I don't know how long I've been there maybe 30 years now and that may be too much continuity, but it is good to have someone around as people come and go who's been there and has a memory for one thing and can remember things that happened a few years back and make sure they are not duplicated like a study for energy or something like that. I was the president and the treasurer and now I am just plain old individual trustee there, but I like it and I enjoy the meetings. Our library is unique. It has extraordinary turnover of books and so forth. It is very busy for a town this size. It's a very special institution in this town. It needs a lot of attention and a lot of expansion as well.
Tourism in the town seems to be the issue at the moment with the visitors center. There's nothing new about that. The idea of a visitor's center has been tossed around for years and years. I told you about my idea of being Rip Van Winkle up around Hutchins Pond and driving down Monument Street. Really as I walked out Monument Street there are very few changes. The same old buildings are there in somewhat better shape. Some have been expanded. It's clearly wonderful what's been done by the Bemis family and the Robb family, terrific vistas. I approve of that because I've been arguing with the National Park Service that they've got to do a lot of tree cutting. It's getting far too dense. It's been my major argument with them about the way they maintain the place. They maintain it is too expensive. I know it's awfully expensive but it's got to be done. I think there are some foolish attitudes about preserving trees. There's a lot of preservationist feeling that gets silly after a while especially when it comes to trees. When it comes to a town, that's a different thing.
Traffic is what is going to strangle this town one of these days unless something happens. Access to Route 2 is impossible at times, the center of town is jammed at least twice a day by the Maynard/Bedford/Burlington access, and there has to be some way of rerouting but on the other hand, Route 2 is almost at full capacity. The major difference is traffic and traffic lights and so forth. Population has not grown extraordinarily. The town I remember back in the 1940s was 7,500 and now maybe we have 17,000. I think the population even went down for a while and it's coming back now. If you want to see a mismanaged town all you have to do is go up to Acton today to see a mess. There is a town that never had any policing and it just fell apart. We always depended on Maynard because although the Mill Dam was nice, it was terribly inadequate as far as shopping. We needed Maynard in the old days and now we've got the malls in Acton or Bedford or Burlington. Concord's lucky that other people do these things for them. There was never a movie theater in Concord except during the Second World War when they set up one at the Veterans Building and it was terribly uncomfortable but they had first run movies. I saw "Casablanca" there for the first time, on a sweaty summer night.
We're nearing Patriot's Day and that is a good tradition. My grandfather had a stroke in late 1921-early 1922 and for several years thereafter he would go out to a big place, the Hotel Del Coronado which is just off San Diego. He'd leave right after Thanksgiving and he would be back by the 19th of April. Those were important dates. The 19th has always been important to us. I don't think people realize how important the 19th of April was to the world. I'm not only talking about the town of Concord or the region. There is some local historian around here who was writing a crabby letter to the Concord Journal maybe five years ago saying that this 19th of April was nothing around here. It was just a little skirmish, it meant nothing. Well, just at that time I was reading a long article by Henry Fairley. Now Henry Fairley was one of those bricks like Alistair Cooke, very pro-American and very loyal to the United States. I don't know if he became a citizen like Alistair Cooke but he was very pro-U.S. and he wrote a long article about the 19th of April that was covered in the news reports in Europe and had royalty quaking and had Catherine of Russia sending letters of commiseration to King George III. Now this was important then and it should be remembered that way. It shouldn't be described as a huge battle, it was a skirmish and a very difficult retreat for the British. They should have been cut off. They should have never been allowed to get back to Charlestown. Pickering was commanding the Minute Man militia and they should have shut the British off. So the 19th of April was important for us and for the world too.