Interviewed February 20, 2001 at Newbury Court
Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
Joining us is Marian Thornton, long time admirer and worker on pioneering conservation activities with Elizabeth.
I first came to Concord when I was about 19 years old. I attended the summer school of music that was run by Thomas Surette, and I met in the orchestra when I was playing violin a handsome young man named Frank Lowell who later became my husband. That was my first wonderful experience in Concord.
Later after we had a couple of children we moved to Concord and we lived in the family place on Garfield Road. I had three children there. My husband was a doctor. He practiced some here in Concord but his main office was with the City Hospital in Boston and then at the Mass General Hospital. When I first came here, I also got interested in the League of Women Voters and worked with them I suppose for about 15 or 20 years on various committees. At the same time I got interested in trying to halt or preserve what I thought was such a beautiful place as Concord. As our land went down to the river, we had great fun paddling, skating, canoeing and watching other people fish in Fairhaven Bay. Over the years I got more and more interested in working to preserve what I call the beauties of the fields and the hills and the rivers of Concord and I worked with various boards for many years. I think I was perhaps on the first opening of the Concord Land Trust, I was on the first board of the Concord Conservation Commission which later became the Natural Resources Commission. Then I worked on other committees that I can mention as we go along.
The Lowell family house on Garfield Road was a big house designed by Thomas Mott Shaw who was a young architect at the time. He had been trained in Paris and came back, and I guess he was trying to find somewhere to use his talents. So he built a house for his parents, then he built a house for himself, and then he built a house right next door to his sister who was Isabelle Shaw Lowell. So this house was by present day standards very large with rooms for many servants, a kitchen ell, a kitchen dining room, a large music room with a very high ceiling with room for two pianos nestled in together. There was a big studio when I moved in. The studio was where Mr. Frederick E. Lowell, my father-in-law, had a studio because he was a painter at that time. Frank and I used the house for many kinds of things. The thing I loved most was having people come in for music. At that time I was still playing the violin and also the viola. The house had a huge fireplace in the main music room which I'm not sure was specially designed but had very lovely tiles around it that came from Europe. He arranged the fireplaces in all the house to give out a special amount of heat. He did this by having the depth of the fireplace itself quite shallow and had the walls on either side of it slanting to reflect the heat out from the back wall. We had a man to help us in the house and his main job of course was to keep the wood supply well stacked near each floor or each fireplace. This was a constant job because there were fireplaces in every room I think. Just to keep the rooms warm was very difficult. In fact the house was always too cold.
We moved in around 1942. My mother-in-law, Isabelle Shaw Lowell, was living there also. We were a young couple and we needed cheap rent and we got it by living with her and we enjoyed living with her. She was a very remarkable person, well informed on almost all subjects, and quite radical by some people's points of view. That was all right with me because my mother was even more radical so I was brought up to hear things straight out.
During the war I worked at Polaroid on a very interesting project. Polaroid started a new outfit, a whole new office in a building in Cambridge near Kendall Square where they were making lenses and prisms for binoculars to be used by the Navy during the war effort. I was hired by them to learn how to do these things and I was trained with another group that were also hired. We all went to New York and were trained at the American Optical Film and Supply Co. We lived there for two weeks around Christmas time and I had a hard time leaving my children as I remember. I had two by then. We lived in a hotel under which went the subway and where the Optical Film & Supply Company was located, the station where we got out was right under that company, so we could go from our hotel to the place where we were working during these dark months without going outdoors. There we got trained in all this process of grinding, polishing and examining the lenses. When I got back to Concord, I commuted with my husband every day from Lincoln because that station was nearer our house than the Concord station, and of course there was a shortage of gasoline. So we would leave at 6:45 or 6:30 and then I would get off in Cambridge and he would get off nearer the Mass General Hospital where he was working and then we would meet again and get on the 6:00 train home again. By that time we were both pretty tired and I was glad to see the children.
Some of the lenses were not what we thought they were. Most of the lenses were of a certain color, either red or green or a kind of gray color, and of course they were polarized to keep the glare out of anything they were doing. There was a third little piece that we put inbetween sometimes to make a sandwich. We never realized that that was the making of what they called the Norden bomb site which was being used very specially for airplane use. The bomb site when you looked through it, just a little sandwich of three pieces of dark glass, you saw a circle or like a target of various rainbow colors. The magic of this which made it so secret was that when you jiggled it around as though it were on an airplane it didn't move the target, it always stayed absolutely steady. This was a great secret. I just heard the other day from somebody who lives here in Newbury Court that her husband was a pilot and was using one of these Norden bomb sites. They were so secret and so special that they were instructed, this woman's husband, if his plane was shot down they were to grab the Norden bomb site and destroy it so the enemy wouldn't learn of it.
I was brought up in Boston but I went to Bennington College which was just opening in the fall of 1932. When I was in college, I was majoring in the sciences because I wanted to become a doctor. But on the side I took some violin lessons from Marietta Lowell. From then I kept up my music and got more and more interested in string quartets, and played in the Concord Orchestra. The first conductor I played under was Mr. George Brown who also taught other people around the area in Lincoln and Boston and Dedham. He was a concert cellist himself. The next conductor of the orchestra was a Mr. Podeau, I think. Then Dick Pittman came along. So I must have played in the orchestra about 25 years sitting beside Elizabeth Babcock some of the time, and Sidney Wanzer some of the time, so I got to know a lot of people in Concord through the orchestra. It was great fun. I also played in other orchestras. I played in the Melrose Orchestra and I played in the Cambridge Orchestra, but however, I always liked chamber music the best and that's what we did so much of in my house.
Isabelle Shaw Lowell was a great pianist. She studied in Paris for many years, and her daughter Marietta who was my teacher played the piano as well. And her husband was famous for his beautiful voice and he used to sing on various occasions at the Tavern Club in Boston and all around at soirees and evening parties with his wife at the piano. I even have an old Victor recording of it.
My husband was a real pioneer against the use of pesticides. There was a time when there was a great many mosquitoes in Concord especially near the rivers. For a year or two they had what they called broadcast spraying to keep the mosquitoes down. This seemed to my husband to be a pretty dangerous thing to be doing - spraying people as well as the land and the animals with this poisonous spray. He got together with Allen Morgan and David Garrison from Lincoln and Derek Till who was a chemist here and they studied the whole mosquito problem. They did what they called mosquito counts for about a year and a half, two springs and a winter. There were about 18 or 20 volunteers who would go out every day at certain times of the day and wait to be bitten by a mosquito and they would record this so they knew how many mosquitoes there were and what times of day and when they were worst. So they finally brought before the town an article that would stop this spraying over everybody's land and came up with simplier ideas of how to control mosquitoes. One of them of course was to just have a mosquito sprayer that you would spray in your own backyard when you were out there, not on the grass but on yourself. His group accomplished a great deal. Rachel Carson's book has just come out about that time, and I think she had an influence on the whole society of the point of trying to stop spraying.
It was very difficult to convince people that we needed to preserve land in Concord. In the beginning no one understood why I would want to buy an open field or an old swamp. I think it was Tom Flint who was the prime mover. He was an enthusiastic speaker and liked talking to people and he was very persuasive. We had many small meetings and he wrote very good letters or explanations of purposes, and he was able to persuade a great many people including some of the selectman like Pat Moulton at that time and Phil Suter and others whose names I can't remember. Gradually the town got the idea. The very first parcel the town ever voted money to buy was Warner's Pond. We were able to get matching funds from the state. I think a Mr. Foster was head of something or other in Boston at the time and a Mr. Yahcey. They would come out and look at the land and we would sign all kinds of papers and things went back and forth. But anyway we did buy this parcel. It was about 21 acres I think, perhaps more and we were very pleased that it was in West Concord because at that time there was sort of a rivalry between West Concord and Concord. So this was a sort of getting together of the two sections and I think it was a great move.
Marion Thornton - I had come to Concord by this time but I wasn't aware of Warner's Pond although I skate there all the time. It's a very special place.
Elizabeth - The idea of a conservation commission was formed in 1959. Again, I think it was Tom Flint who was the prime mover. Before that some of us had also gotten the idea a little bit and we made a town survey with Al Ehrenfried, Robert ???, the Butlers and a few other people in which we asked questions about what would they like to see in Concord, what would they like to have protected, and we learned a lot about how to make a questionnaire so that the questions were fair and the answers would mean something. The person who knew a lot about that was Bob Butman. I don't know where Tom Flint heard of this but we were the very first conservation commission to be formed by a town in Massachusetts. There were other conservation trusts. I think there might have been two or three conservation land trusts, which we then formed the next year again with Tom Flint in the lead, and we copied pretty much the format of what they set up in Lincoln. Over the years we worked both the Commission and the Natural Resources with neighboring towns. This had to do with trying to stop high tension wires for getting electricity for the town. Do you remember somebody Green who worked for Boston Edison? He lived on Powder Mill Road or Sudbury Road on the corner there. He worked for the Edison Company and he was trying to get permission from various towns, Concord, Acton, Lincoln, Sudbury to put in these high wire transmission lines and that joined us altogether to try and prevent it. So from then we had very close relationships with the towns up and down stream on the Concord River. It was quite a big fight. I think it was Tom Flint who was very persistent, very polite, very friendly and kept explaining it over and over again how it would spoil the whole look of the Sudbury River valley to have these huge power lines going through.
It is not easy to prepare for presenting at town meeting. I used to write out everything I was going to say. And I wrote it out in big writing or printing, so when I stood up at the podium I wouldn't fumble and I used to keep a piece of cardboard behind it so the papers wouldn't shake. And I practiced at home. I put up my music stand as a podium and I'd get my husband or children to listen. Of course, they were very critical. They improved my style a great deal.
Another project that we preserved was the Calf Pasture on Lowell Road. That one of the first preservations. That was near Egg Rock. I think it was being sold for $200 or $225 an acre. Our town counsel was very skeptical if we were allowed to vote these funds until something had been signed. So we were sort of in a no end discussion about this. But finally the land trust was able to step in, put up the first down payment so something could be signed and then the town did vote for it. Early on in those days it was always a question of needing more money for roads or for schools or for school busing. There were always people who would get up at town meeting and I think with some merit and explain that they really needed a better water system in the schools or more toilets and why were we spending on an open field or a marsh that had a few cows on it. But somehow we got it through.
Marian - I first met Elizabeth I think when I read about the Millbrook. I think I also had my neighbor, Oggie Butman, say you should go to this land trust meeting. I think I heard Elizabeth speak so well that I was totally impressed with not only what she had accomplished but that she could stand up and make a good presentation at town meeting which was at the armory at that time. That was an enormous roomful of people, and she seemed completely sure of herself and what she was talking about. Then I found out that she was also my neighbor. So that's how I began to watch and go to the Concord Land Trust meetings. I also was a reporter for one of the newspapers and I became interested in conservation through that.
Elizabeth - All I can say is I remember you coming over to my house one day and asking me a few questions about something, and you were the first person who had ever come over asking anything about conservation. I had been at meetings galore but on one ever came over to ask me a few questions.
I got the idea of having a historic district because they had one in Lexington. Although I wasn't particularly interested in the history itself, I thought we should try to protect that wonderful Lexington Road with all those nice old houses. Then it would also protect the Millbrook in some way. Oggie Butman at that time I think was chairman of the Recreation Commission. I had been trained a little bit by my father about land use. He was a landscape architect and a city planner. We lived in Boston and he did a lot of planning for Boston, Storrow Drive, the Revere Lau, something to do with Wellesley College, the Fenway, Fells Way. I used to help him once in a while when he was planning a garden or an estate and I would hold one end of the tape measure and he would pace it off and we would learn the distance of where things were going. He also took me to Williamsburg where they were restoring all the gardens there and he was the landscape man for that project. He was hired by Rockefeller and for about 15 or 20 years he worked there. So I was pretty much aware of how the landscape and what one should do.
To go back to the historic districts, this is when Oggie and I took a long tape measure that was to tiresome to unravel every time, so I decided to just pace it. So she'd hold it on Lexington Road and I'd walk with big steps and a certain distance counting them, and say, "Don't you think this is far enough, Oggie?" And she would say, "No, go another bit." So I would count off ten more paces and then we would put a stake in there. This we did over and over again and later on we drew a map of where we thought the stakes were and presented to the town with the historic districts of both sides of Lexington Road. At that time, this was a relatively new idea also and we had to talk to the neighborhood, a group of about 10 houses, about why we thought it was a good thing for them to be living in a historic district. This was sort of a hard sell. They felt in the beginning that we were just limiting what color they could paint their house or where they put a garage if they needed it. But, we finally persuaded them that if all the neighbors did it too then the whole neighborhood would look better or could look better. When we finally had this article on the town warrant, again with a great deal of help from Phil Suter, we read the article which of course delineated the space where it would be and it came up for town vote. There was one woman who was very much against it who lived at one end of this area. The town was about to vote and this woman was so excited and worried about it that I had the bright idea of suggesting that maybe we delete her house. It was at the end of the historic area, it didn't make much difference whether it went along one house more or not. So the town voted for the historic district minus the number of feet that she had on Lexington Road.
Of course, the Millbrook is sort of the centerpiece of Concord for all its life, and I was personally pretty depressed to see how it was going into culverts and houses seemed to be encroaching upon it. I think everybody else on our committee and the land trust and others were concerned about it. One of the first things we were able to do was to persuade Lawrence Kenney who was a farmer farming some of the land there. So the town bought that land with the understanding that he could farm it for $1 a year for as long as he wanted to. So that was the beginning. Then later on we had other articles on the warrant to preserve neighboring pieces of that big flat land. Some of them we did not buy. I think they were just restricted. But the first piece was on Hawthorne Road and that was the beginning. I think people saw the light and people have been working at ever since. I read this little booklet about it that came out in 1997 and written by somebody named Richard Forman. I think that sort of connects it altogether. They've been doing a study of it, and I think we should do a lot more having just read that. I'm very eager to get people interested in making it so that it would be easy to walk by [voice trails off].
I want to tell you something about a town meeting that I don't know if Marian remembers it. It has to do with you Marian. This was way back when we were talking about some kind of floodplain zoning. It was going to be across the Sudbury River but also the Assabet River and we had proposed an article on the warrant that would ... on Main Street and Baker Avenue. There was a man who owned that land and wanted to develop it. So he was of course opposed having the zoning for the wetlands in that area. I remember Tom Flint speaking about it and I got up and talked about how good it would be to preserve it. I even had a slide made of a photograph I had taken showing how high the river was when you went under the bridge and was therefore flooding this particular parcel that the man wanted to develop. Then the man got up and spoke for himself and he was very persuasive about he could grade the land a little bit and put in a building and why didn't they just exclude that little bit and then let the article go through or something like that. Then Marian Thornton got up. She was looking very beautiful with her blond hair and she began to talk about the principal of the thing and how important it was that we didn't start making exceptions even before we got the article passed. She did a very wonderful job and the article passed and that floodplain zoning went through. As we were walking out of the armory after the meeting, he went up to Marian and said something like, if it hadn't been for you and he looked very cross. So Dick her husband stood right up to this man and the two of them looked like two roosters. Marian began to cry a little bit because it looked as though there was going to be a fight. John Boardman who was there separated the two men, and Marian burst into more tears because she was so relieved that there wasn't a fight and we all walked out together. Do you remember that Marian?
Marian - I certainly do. You describe it absolutely perfectly and I didn't know of anyone else who remembered that. I remember the cast of characters but I won't mention them.
Elizabeth - By 1966 we realized we needed somebody who would spend more time at the conservation commission than we could as amateurs. So we sent out notices to see who we could hire and among the people that came was Dan Monahan and his wife. They came to talk to us somewhere in the Town House and we interviewed him. He seemed like a nice young man and so did his wife, and after they left Tom Flint asked the rest of the committee what we thought of the various candidates. We all thought well of Dan Monahan, we all thought well of some other people also, but Tom Flint said, "I think we should hire Dan Monahan because he's got such a wonderful wife." So that's why we got him, and he was wonderful for the next 15 or 17 years. He did a very good job. He was very conscientious.
That's wonderful that you found this photo taken of myself and several other members of the commission that became the Natural Resources Commission when we were receiving an award in 1968 from the Mass Aubudon Society for developing this Natural Resources Commission. I'd sort of forgotten all about that. But I'll tell you one incident that I remember. My brother William ??? did a great deal in opposition to having the supersonic airplane built by this country. I think the Concorde was being built by the French and another one by the English, and the United States was getting interested in it. He was very much opposed to it, and he worked for the committee in Cambridge which I worked on with my sisters and other people, and the funds were appropriated by the government to go ahead with the supersonic airplane. Audubon had invited my brother to come out from Cambridge to get an award for his work on this. Bill told me that he was coming out and I said, "Sure, come over and have dinner with us first, and I'll take you over." So we went to the meeting at the Audubon and I was waiting for Bill to be called up and suddenly Allen Morgan said, "And we want to give Elizabeth Lowell an award for something or other, I don't know what." So Bill looked at me with absolute horror because he thought he was going to get the award. It turned out of course that he got the next award.
Marian - Without doubt, Elizabeth served as an inspiration and mentor to me. I think she was the most outstanding although I do remember meeting Tom Flint, and he was certainly a very charismatic and a very thoughtful person. But I think at this point I was thinking about what I might be able to do having been in the League of Women Voters and other things like that after I'd brought up my children. Elizabeth just showed me the way. I did go and talk to her and did become involved. I think one of my best moments was when one referred to me as a "little Lizzie Lowell". I thought I had arrived at that moment in the world of conservation. She certainly was admired.
Elizabeth - I should say Marion is being very modest. When we first set up the commissions, the Land Trust and the Natural Resources Commission we always were looking for new members and we always thought we would get Marion Thornton, but at that time Marion was working for the Audubon Society and the Trustees of Reservations as well as bringing up her children. So we had to wait a little bit. But you were our first choice for many years.
Marian - I became more involved in the 1970s. I was on the Land Trust for about 15 years and 10 years of that I was the chairman sort of dragging people to do projects that had to be done. But I always thought back to Elizabeth and thought how would she do it. I think the Land Trust has provided a very important balance to the Natural Resources Commission, and as we've grown together recently I think we've been able to see the public/private partnership has great thought because if private people can put in money and time toward a public project, it's great thing to be sold at town meeting for instance. So I think they were very smart back then to start the Natural Resources Commission and the Land Trust at the same time. I think the Land Trust business has grown expotentially. There are more land trusts in Massachusetts than any other state in the country. I think it shows by the land that's been saved.
Elizabeth - I'll just talk a little bit about the Harvard College Estabrook Woods project. Way back around 1965 or something Barbara Shevill was working with the Department of Mammology?? under somebody called Ernst Meyer and she persuaded him and Harvard College to put a 20-year restriction on what they called the Estabrook Woods. So this was a great relief to the town because we were interested in land up in that general direction, Hutchinson's hill and along Monument Street. After the 20 years were up that's when Marion came in because Harvard then started to think they would do something else with the land. Then Marion got involved and did all those wonderful things that she can tell you about.
Marian - It was a combination of the Museum of Comparative Zoology under Dick Taylor. Dick Taylor was director of the region, the 627 acres of Estabrook Woods and the field station in Bedford. He was very anxious to see the land was in perpetuity and very anxious to have Harvard really come forward on its commitment to preserving that land. It was through his enthusiasm that we were able to work with Harvard to get this done. It was really the past work that had been done by Elizabeth and Tom Flint and all those people because it is a written history that that was their intent. And we drove them to it. The intent was a wildlife ecological study area with a field station. It was to provide students and the Museum of Comparative Zoology the ability to do field work in such a great area or large area that it would be meaningful. It allowed people to use it for recreation, passive recreation which is all the way up from ??? to riding. And they've always been very kind that way.
Elizabeth - This makes me think again of how we acquired the rifle range. The Recreation Commission was in charge of the rifle range at one time. This was of course when they were no longer using it for practice shooting of any kind. However, the thought had been that maybe the town really didn't need it any more since nobody was using it. At the recreation meeting they voted that they had no use for it. This was sort of a signal then that the town could sell it and use it in some other way. When I heard about it and I think Tom Flint too, we were absolutely shocked. We thought oh, my this would be wonderful for some of the Natural Resources with the brook and the swamp land and all those wonderful trees. But, the Recreation Commission had already voted. But they went to Herb Wilkins who was a well known lawyer and he said well, was it on the agenda of your meeting? They said, "No, it wasn't on the agenda." Then he said the vote is not confirming so they changed their vote and that's when the town was able to turn it into part of the natural resources and open lands. But that's thanks to Herb Wilkins.
Marian - The Natural Resources was composed of the Conservation Commission and the Town Forest Committee. I remember the Town Forest Committee had Jack Lambert on it and also a gentleman from West Concord who worked on the railroad, Harold Chase. Both of those people were wonderful in teaching me a lot about West Concord and forestry. That was very helpful. There was still this separateness between the two ends of town and I learned to respect and know much more about West Concord which has been very helpful to me throughout the years.
We have a map that shows all the lands acquired and they blend together very nicely. A lot of it has to do probably with the open space plans that have been done because I think they have accomplished a lot of that work. It was through Joan Ferguson's working very hard to make sure everything was correct on that map, all the different kinds of open space that are available in Concord.
Elizabeth - I don't remember too much about the possibility of Heywood Meadow being used to construct a new county courthouse. I think it was Russell Clark who persuaded the town not to have it put there.
Marian - That was one of the first things I ever did was do whatever Russell Clark told me to do. I was the gopher. I ran around collecting signatures and that's where I found my interest in the Heywood Meadow which of course the Millbrook coming right through there.
Elizabeth -. My mother was very interested in hand bell ringing. She was the one who started hand bell ringing in this country. As children we used to ring on Beacon Hill around 1926. What we did was to ring tunes, we'd just stand up and ring them by ear. Then we got a little bit better at it and we had a table and we had music and there were six of us and we felt pretty good at ringing in harmony. My mother at that time was very interested in prison reform and we used go to different places and play for the prisoners. Mother's main aim was to get the attraction for prisoners and the people who control the prisons to make sure the prisoners could learn some trade so when they got out of prison they would have some work to do to earn some money. So we were taken out by my mother to play at the Concord Reformatory when I was about 12 or 14. We set up the table on which we put quilts from our house and things to affect the bells. Mother gave her usual little speech and after we played and they all clapped very hard, she invited some of the prisoners to come up and see how they ring a bell and she would demonstrate how you ring it so it doesn't jingle. They were all intrigued. After that they all sat down in their places and the man in charge thanked my mother. Mother started packing up all the bells when she found that two were missing. Mother very quietly went over to the man in charge and told him. He said, "That's all right. I'm sure we'll find them. You just stay where you are and do what you were doing and I'll manage to see you get the bells back." What this man had done was to get the prisoners to walk single file out through a little hallway with a table in it and he was sure if they went single file the two bells would be laid on that table. Sure enough the two bells were there and mother put them back in the case and we left. I bring this up because I was invited quite recently to go over to the Unitarian Church and there was David Huston who used to play in the Concord Orchestra conducting bell ringing. He gave a little speech which included other things about my mother and bell ringing. I think it's a wonderful thing that bell ringing has caught on and now it's all over the country.
I was brought up on Beacon Hill at 66 Mt. Vernon Street in Boston. That's why on Christmas Eve it was so handy to play in Louisburg Square and all around that place. We spent the summers in Ipswich on Edgehill Road. The family had a rather sprawling, ever increasing in size summer house. My father was interested in gardens and stone walls and orchards and things, that the house just grew like Topsy. It's a wonderful house. Among other things is that picture of the windmill that pumped all our water.
Elizabeth Lowell was last on the Natural Resources Commission in 1969, and the 1970 Town Report pays tribute to eleven years of leadership and service with the words, "The firm commitment and dedicated effort of Elizabeth Lowell to protect our environment has been and will continue to be an inspiration to the NRC."