William F. Kussin
512 Elm Street
Interviewed May 15, 1997
Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
Growing up in Concord, it was really a very stable community. People moved in and they stayed. They worked in Boston, many of them took the train in or commuted, and there was very little mobility in and out. The old settling families, the Italians, who had come early in the century, were here and they stayed. Many of them worked in town departments. It was a very stable population with very little movement in and out.
Today we look at the community as one unity but back then there were divisions as to neighborhoods, social and economic class, religion, etc. I often think particularly as I get older about this very aspect of Concord. Certainly growing up I know it was not looked on with favor, in my family anyway, for me to play with the kids as we called it "on the other side of the tracks." My circle of friends that I did play with was very narrow and they were confined basically to what might be perceived as the socially elite of Concord. This was part of a very calculated plan to sort of keep this little enclave in tact unsullied by those who were on the wrong side of the tracks.
My parents' social group would have included the Gordon Shaws, the Lovejoys, the Kidders, Woolsey Pratt, George Bates, Pliny Jewel, Harold and Maude Smith, Dr. Garfield, and Dr. Johnston, and Dr. Piper. These were the families who got together with frequency socially and who belonged together to the Concord Country Club Â¾ they played badminton together and they golfed together and they partied together. It was very much a small circle and they did indeed get together with frequency. There was very little migration out of that circle.
My mother was a Pratt and related to the Alcotts. I often get asked whether being a member of the family, the Alcott family, by inheritance was very much a part of my life growing up, and I have to say it really wasn't. This was something that my mother guarded jealously for herself and there was very little discussion about it in the household, and I'm not quite sure when I took my first tour of Orchard House, I suspect I was well into my teens before I did. It never really meant much to me and I never talked much about it, nor interestingly enough did my cousins, also relatives whose mother and father lived and taught up at Middlesex School. When we talked about this in recent years, they said the same thing that there was really very little discussion in their household about it also. I perceive as I look back that it was something that belonged to my mother, and she guarded it jealously and that was her domain and she really wasn't interested in having any other family intrusion into it, certainly not mine in any case. Her grandmother was Anna, Meg in Little Women. She was very proud of that obviously, and it was important to her but it was just not something that was a subject of much discussion in terms of the family.
Now years later I'm a board member of the Orchard House. This is really a fairly recent vintage also. I've been active with the corporation. It was founded in 1911. I've been active with it for the last six or seven years. I've been on the Board of Directors, Director of Development and all kinds of extra curricular committees, and now I'm serving as interim Treasurer. I enjoy it. The house at this particular point, largely due to the new Little Women film and two recent discoveries of heretofore unpublished manuscripts that have provided at least in one instance a very handsome endowment for the house, is in a very pleasant financial situation. For years it struggled as do many small house museums to make ends meet and survive one day to the next. The house now is in a very comfortable position and has a good deal of latitude on projects that it undertakes. We can do some long range planning and really have some meaning and some meat to it. So it's been very interesting, and I've enjoyed it as much as an exercise in seeing something grow and prosper as to assuming some sort of responsibility for the family heritage.
The two manuscripts I mentioned belonged to the Pratt family particularly Woolsey Pratt, who is my mother's brother and who was a teacher at Middlesex. He started at Middlesex I believe in 1926 when he got out of Harvard. He was an educator and he was a male, so he inherited the very extensive library from my grandmother when she passed away and he was given custody of it. This included many works from not only Louisa's library but also Bronson Alcott's, who was a prolific writer on his own. When my aunt died in the early 1980s, most of the collection was in the hands of Houghton Library and the balance of it was turned over to the Houghton Library, the rare manuscript portion of Harvard's library system.
Encased in there was a box, a large cardboard box of various pieces of Alcott memorabilia, writings, some sketches of May's, some sketches of my grandfather who loved to sketch too, all kinds of little bits and pieces of things, and included there also were these two manuscripts. After the estate was settled and these documents were recorded, they decided that they would like to sell the larger of these manuscripts, and so this was given to a rare book dealer in New York and it was sold. They donated the proceeds of it to Orchard House which helped to fund the endowment. Of course, Orchard House also engineered an arrangement to garner a portion of the royalties, not ever anticipating that there would be any royalties. We assumed that this book would really be published in the academic world and not in the pop literature world. Well, it ended up being published by Random House and became a best seller. It did very well with Random House's tutelage through the system and so Orchard House benefited additionally very handsomely from a quarter of the royalties that were developed in this process. The book is called The Long Fatal Love Chase. It's a very interesting book, quite sophisticated, and as they like to say full of today's issues involving women. Louisa was very much an independent spirit and she would, as she liked to say, paddle her own canoe, and this book is a sort of a manifestation of that. I know the rights have been picked up and renewed to keep them in play to make a mini-series out of this, and it was anticipated that there would be a mini-series in the fall which will very nicely garner some more revenue for Orchard House.
The most recent manuscript is the first thing that Louisa is supposed to have written at the age of 17. This is a somewhat less significant work published by Little Brown who interestingly enough published as Roberts Brothers Louisa's Little Women and the rest of the series with which we are all familiar. They are publishing this and it is called The Inheritance. It's a pleasant albeit somewhat fluffy work, I guess, with not really the significance as The Long Fatal Love Chase, but it's again an unpublished manuscript and is out on the book shelves now. I guess it's doing very well. It's interesting to note that Louisa's will indicated that at her death any manuscripts that were left unpublished were to be burned or destroyed. Well, this didn't happen, and the legal opinion now is that there is nobody currently alive who has the right to exercise that will's prerogative, so they will not be burned and indeed they have, and I'm sure she would have liked this, lived to benefit Orchard House where she wrote Little Women.
My father was an architect. He was a graduate of the Harvard School of Design. He never got beyond the eighth grade, he was a self-made, self-taught man. He designed a number of buildings here in Concord including the Fenn School, the West Concord Fire Station, and he redesigned the Elm Street bridge which is exactly the way it was done in the early 1930s. Basically what he did to preserve the original bridge which was there at that point, was rebuild the bridge to include the present sidewalk. Anybody driving over the Elm Street bridge is aware that it is still very narrow, but if you can picture the Elm Street bridge with no sidewalk, that's the way it was, so it was enlarged, the stones were preserved, the bridge was reinforced and rebuilt and it's as it was done in the early ‘30s.
He designed a number of properties in Carlisle including Lawrence Lunt's Valley Head Farm, as it was called then, which was a sanitarium on South Street and was one of his very fondest projects. He did over the Lovejoy house on Main Street, and he did over the Harold Smith house at the junction of Main and Elm. I remember it fondly when I was growing up. I was very friendly with Louis Smith who lived in that house and remember the turntable floor in the garage. You drive in head first, push the button, the turntable turned the car around and out you headed the next morning. I thought it was a marvelous invention. We used to get on that thing and push the button and take a ride around. It was quite something. It has changed hands many times since but is still a magnificent property. It looks nice. Whoever bought it most recently has fixed up the grounds and it's got a wonderful beech tree on the side. I can remember I spent many hours playing in that house with Louis and he was one of my very close friends. It's more of a Federal style than colonial.
The Children's Shop on Main Street was founded by my mother in 1938 with two other ladies, who apparently from reading the early accounts of things, gathered over tea one early fall day and decided that Concord needed a children's shop. Having been in the business myself for about 35 years I can attest to the fact that that's the way most children's shops get started. The gals decide that their town needs a children's shop. If there isn't one around where they can get what they need, they start one. Well, that's the way this one started, and of course, in 1938 we were a country that was preparing for war and things were scarce. My father's architecture had dried up in the late ‘30s with the depression and so he came into the business in 1941 and joined my mother and they bought out the other two partners over the course of a year or two. The business started in two rooms on the second floor over what used to be Hollis Howe's Jewelry Store. The entrance was in the little alley next to it (which is now Independence Court). Then in the early ‘40s the Children's Shop moved from there because they were running out of space and the inconvenience of the second floor location over to what was then the old First National Bank Building, which is the lovely Greek revival building next to what is now the Harvard Trust BayBank or whatever it is this week. They opened the Children's Shop on the ground floor there, and that went on for several years in that location. Then it was decided to get out of the toy business, so they sold the toys because they had opened with a few toys as well and that had increased and grown, and they decided to go into larger size clothing, get fully into clothing and expensive toys, so they sold the toys to my uncle Bronson Alcott Pratt and aunt Louise Pratt who ran what was then the Concord Sports Shop which you now know as the Concord Toy Shop. So in 1942 the Concord Sports Shop became the Concord Toy Shop and in 1943 my uncle died and my aunt took over the operation of that business and ran it until the mid'80s when she retired and sold it to Linda Painter and Bobbie MacGregor. My uncle had been a veteran of World War I and had been gassed and had lung problems when he came back from the war, so he died of lung complications in 1943.
So we were in the old bank building and then it was decided that we didn't have enough space there, wanting to expand into larger sized clothing, so we moved across the street concurrently and opened a location where Potpourri is presently. We rented the downstairs and that became the L.A. Kussin Company. So we had two stores going on Main Street, one the Concord Children's Shop and then across the street, the L.A. Kussin Company. We had sold our house on River Street and for a year we lived upstairs in a huge one bedroom apartment right over the store. I remember it distinctly because we used to go out and picnic on the flat roof in the back. We had a Franklin stove up there which used to get red hot, roaring in the winter. Then in 1947, my family seeing an opportunity bought a run down property at the end of Main Street opposite the Old Burying Ground in the building that Kussin's is presently in. It was owned by a gentlemen and his family and they rented the property out. There were two families living in there and the house was in a shambles. My family bought the house. I believe they paid $18,000 for it. It was not zoned for business so they went to town meeting in 1947 and got that property and the property where presently Cambridge Trust is and the property where the Colonnade is, all three properties went to town meeting and was voted near unanimously to be rezoned as limited business districts. Then in 1947 construction was started to remodel and renovate the shop into its present configuration. In 1955 the smaller building, which is now occupied by The Stationers, was added for women's clothing along with an addition at the back that was added which became our boys shop and is now rented by the Barrow Book Store.
The Children's Shop is continuing to operate and will hopefully operate for many more years in the main portion of the primary location. So the business continues -- we're now going on 59 years. I often wonder if the small specialty store is irrelevant these days, but we continue to do very nicely. People love the store. We have second and third generations coming back. When I started in the store, I was I believe 29 years old and I waited on young couples and helped them clothe their youngsters, and those kids are coming back now with their youngsters and it's really quite rewarding to see these generations recycle. Every now and then we'll have a grandmother come in and say "Oh, I haven't been in here for 25 years, it's wonderful to see you're still here." So maybe we're not irrelevant yet. Whether we will become that way down the road is something only time and history will determine.
My son (Karl) ran Nourse's for nine years and I think would very much like to come into the business at some point along the way, but we're not sure if he will have taken new avenues of endeavor at that point or whether he will still be interested, so we see ourselves certainly as being involved in the store for another five or six years in any case. My wife (Gigi) is the bookkeeper and trims the windows, so it's a family affair. We get along very well, she and I, in the business working together, which doesn't always happen. We decided early on we would have our own respective areas of responsibility and we don't intrude on each other's unless invited, and it works out very well and it is a very happy time for us.
There are some stores on the Milldam that pop out at me that I remember growing up. We had all kinds of food stores downtown. We had a First National which was where Carr's is presently, we had an Economy Store that was around the corner on Walden Street, we had a fruit and veggie store that was in where Artinian Jewelry is now. They used to have wonderful produce and fruit out in bins in front of the store. If my recollection serves me, it was sort of open and you could look in and see these wonderful boxes of fruits and vegetables and it spilled out onto the street. It was a yummy sight. The Christian Science Reading Room was downtown over where Vassell's Jewelry is now. There were even some extra restaurants. We had Helen's Restaurant where Brigham's is now still owned and run by the same family (Denisevich). Across the alley was the Battleground Restaurant which subsequently had several different names and was sort of a place where you could get a good breakfast. You could smoke a long, luxurious cigarette. You want to remember that everybody smoked in those days and the restaurants were always well endowed with ashtrays and smoke.
We had a couple of automobile agencies downtown in those years. Mutty Ford was where the old 5 & 10 store used to be which is now the art gallery and gift shop on Walden Street. I can remember my family getting some cars from them over the years. Out in the back there before that was a parking lot, the property was owned by Mrs. Black who lived in the house where the Cambridge Trust is now, and there were three small houses and they were rental properties that were in the back there along the fence toward our parking lot. The Minuteman Press was back there in the building where the Key West Coffee is now. There was a big red barn that belonged to Mrs. Black and that was back there. The door was always closed and I always wondered what was in there. It was one of the sort of mystery buildings in Concord center that you were never quite sure what went on there. I'm sure it was nothing that shouldn't have gone on. Eddie Bartlett had a cabinet making shop. I remember Eddie always smoked a pipe and had a crewcut. He was a man of few words but a marvelous cabinet maker. Then across the street I remember George Lawton selling refrigerators and stoves. There weren't any air conditioners in those days but he had the cement floor where the Cheese Shop is now and was loaded with refrigerators and stoves. I can remember that very clearly. Then Bumford Ford was where Tuttle's Livery is now. I bought my first car in Concord from Bobby Bumford who died of cancer unfortunately at a very young age. It was a used Ford wagon, I remember. I bought a couple more cars there too. I remember Huzzie (Bob) Moran who built his little automobile empire out on Route 2A in Acton was a salesman there.
I can remember there were tailors, the Arkin brothers, up on the second floor over Richardson's Drug Store which is now the Harness Shop. They used to alter suits and shorten pants, retuck skirts and do all kinds of things. We had a shoe store also on Walden Street sort of midblock. We did have a couple of shoe stores in town at that point. Concord Clothing was well ensconced where the Toy Shop is presently and also where Landini's little bit of Concord eating establishment, that was all Concord Clothing and then down the street in later years, Frank Esau ran Nourse's.
It's interesting, people ask me whether I've seen a lot of change in the Milldam, and I respond that I see very little physical change to the exteriors of the downtown facades, of course everything is different inside. I've been pleased over the years, particularly with the way the downtown shopping area hasn't changed physically. The changes that have been made have been very positive. They've been in keeping with the nature of what the town looked like that I remember growing up. The facades have been enhanced and updated and it's really been a salutatorious situation for Concord. We haven't had any huge discount operations move in. The spaces are small, they don't lend themselves to that kind of merchandising. We've had specialty stores. It's often commented that Concord center is become a bit boutiquey, well, the marketplace dictates these things. The rents are high. They are in excess of $32-33 a square foot, so the old service businesses, the cobblers, the tailors, those kinds of things that we used to find down there can no longer afford to pay those kinds of rents so they leave. It's the natural evolution of the marketplace and I have no problem with that happening. It happens everywhere in all towns across the country, these kinds of evolutions take place and it's the way the marketplace dictates. If it isn't interfered with, it's a very orderly process and I've seen that take place in Concord. So it may be a tad different than it was, but I don't think I would really describe it as boutiquey. We still have our hardware store, Vanderhoof has been there even longer than we have, and he's in the fortunate position as we are of owning his own building so it allows him to manage the major expense of running a business in downtown Concord which is controlling the rent. So I'm very comfortable with the way the downtown has developed. I think most people who spend the kind of time that I have in Concord would agree there really has been very little physical change and that the changes inside have been indeed well managed.
Some of the service industries have gone to West Concord. Again the marketplace is mandating. West Concord rents are less steep than they are in Concord and this allows that kind of business to open up. Certainly there is a market for those things and West Concord is filling that very nicely. I like to think that West Concord and Concord center work well in tandem. That one supplies what the other doesn't and it allows us to enlarge and enrich the available Concord shopping for those who come there. I'm not obviously as familiar with West Concord center at this point as some who will probably talk with you further and give a perspective of that or who may have already done that. But there are certainly small industries, cottage industries opened up there, some of which have become quite substantial doing food manufacturing and specialty type items. The things that are operating as store fronts in West Concord are fulfilling a need. They have the cobbler, they have the tailor, they have all those services that used to be down in Concord center but can no longer afford to be there. I think it's a very pleasant blend, Concord and West Concord. I know there is certainly a lot more movement across Route 2 on 62 from one town center to the other then there used to be 35 years ago, and I think this is good, this is healthy.
I mentioned the Milldam Store owned by Paul Landini and we didn't know each other growing up but we reminisce about the old days and we have very separate old days. It's been interesting, and of course as you get older, Paul's about my age, he graduated from high school in 1952, because he tells stories that I have absolutely no recollection of or no sense of comradeship, things that I really didn't know anything about. I sort of look at him with envy. I liken myself to a kid looking through a knothole in a fence at a bunch of kids in the other yard and kind of wishing he could take part in it. I talk with him frequently about this. He said this even as early as this morning, I was sort of discussing things with him and he said, "Well, we never associated with you snobs on the other side." I said, "Yea, I know, if I had known you then, you would probably have been a bully." He said, "Yea, I would." But it's interesting to talk with him because he is looking at the other side of fence through at us. I don't sense a lot of envy on his part. I think he perhaps got a completely different flavor, I know he did, a completely different flavor about Concord than I did.
So I guess it serves to show that there was indeed this polarization when I was growing up. I think there is certainly very much less of that now. I don't think there is any question now that neighborhoods have all been melded. My son and my youngest daughter live on Pleasant Street in West Concord, my daughter-in-law is a real estate agent here in town, and I think she personally has repopulated West Concord with young professional families with small kids. It's a very close neighborhood, they get together frequently socially, they're all bright, well-educated young people. The whole tenor of the town has changed. There certainly is mixing and matching now. There is no question about it. The kinds of polarity that were part of my upbringing really just aren't there any more. I think we don't have trouble going across the tracks any more unless the train is coming. It's just again the evolution of the town, the melding in of the old and the new. There is certainly a lot more mobility in and out in the town now so you don't have people bearing all the baggage that my generation bears. They come with new slants and new outlooks from different parts of the country and the world, and the old biases and semi-bigotries are certainly breaking down as this process continues and strengthens.
I was programmed to go to Fenn School. I actually started at Brooks School when Brooks was out on Lexington Road in a little brown shedlike house that's out there on the left. Then I went to Fenn and from Fenn I went to Middlesex and from Middlesex to Harvard. This was sort of the track that the kids I hung around with followed also. Maybe they didn't go to Harvard at the end, maybe they went to Yale, but that was okay too. But we were all sort of programmed to go this private school route. There were none of my friends who went through the public schools system. This was just sort of the way it was. There was never any discussion about it.
I was very involved a number of years back with the Chamber of Commerce. I was president for a year, and I was head of the Merchants Committee which is a standing committee of the Chamber for five or six years. We were a very active group and did a lot to revise the bylaws of the Chamber. We were responsible for setting up advertising programs and touting the Milldam and also getting West Concord involved and the Depot area. In recent years I've sort of backed off on that but still serve in special capacities as they come up. More recently I became a member early on of the Concord Business Partnership, the group that was formed initially to be comprised of landlords in Concord who had issues involving property that were perhaps not synonymous with the issues of the merchants. The organization has gone beyond that now. It also encompasses people who are professionals and not necessarily property owners, including some merchants. I wear actually three hats Â¾ I'm a merchant, I'm a property owner and I'm a Concord resident and taxpayer so I come from several different avenues.
I was asked when Concord undertook it's now historic search for a visitor's center to serve on behalf of the Partnership on this committee. I must say it was one of the more interesting assignments that I've ever been involved with. It was contentious from the outset and I think it probably is the only committee in Concord that was ever formed where two opposing groups came in calculating to do the other in as much as possible. We were charged on this committee to try to find a site that was better than or equal to the site that had been chosen prior by the Concord Business Partnership and that was Lot 3 on Heywood Street. We went through the process for approximately two years and we forwarded two additional sites for the Selectmen to review along with Lot 3 as it was affectionately called, and the Selectmen ultimately settled on Lot 3 and it carried at Town Meeting and is now in the process of being pursued through the permitting process. We hope that this will get consummated. I found it interesting. One of the ladies who is a guide at the present information booth on Heywood Street mentioned at Town Meeting that 104 years ago a subject of discussion was toilets for the downtown and it was decided that the article was too contentious and it was tabled. So with sort of tongue and cheek it was mentioned a number of times at Town Meeting after that and here we are 104 years later and we're still wrestling with where we're going to put toilets downtown. So this site should provide a couple of much needed facilities for the downtown area, and we certainly hope that it will get through the permitting process and that the deed will get accomplished and the Partnership will have certainly stood the town in good stead and done a huge service for having made this happen. It is nice to see the Chamber of Commerce and the Concord Business Partnership pool their resources because after all the Chamber of Commerce does operate the visitor's center and it has for many years.
This past fall I was chosen by the Chamber of Commerce to receive their businessperson of the year award. I joke I guess I was the last man left standing, but anyway it was a very singular honor and I was very pleased. It was presented to me at the annual meeting dinner, and it was a very exciting time and I feel very honored to have been chosen. I had a very serious heart attack and bypass surgery a little over a year ago so I sort of felt I've kept alive long enough to have received the award. In any case it was a very moving time and I felt rewarded for all the years of attendance in Concord center and the business. It was an exciting evening. There was a table of the Concord Business Partnership there cheering and the wonderful staff from my store was there and my family were there, and it was a lovely evening. I'll certainly treasure it the rest of my life.