40th Anniversary of the Formation of the Minute Man National Historical Park
John Finigan
Herbert Wilkins
Nancy Nelson, Superintendent, Minute Man National Historical Park

Interviewed September 23, 1999

Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.

John FiniganOn September 21, 1959 President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Congressional bill establishing the Minute Man National Historical Park. At the time, John Finigan was on the Board of Selectmen, recently retired State Supreme Judicial Court Justice Herbert Wilkins was on the Planning Board, and currently Superintendent of the Park Service, Nancy Nelson, share an oral history with Renee Garrelick on September 23, 1999 recalling the early days and the years that have transpired since the Park's establishment.

John Finigan -- The Department of Interior in the interests of national parks throughout the United States decided that they would like to have a Minute Man National Park within the Concord-Lexington-Arlington area. They approached us, the Board of Selectman of which I was a member, as the communicating party on behalf of the town, to enter into an agreement to take over the North Bridge and the general area as a prime part of the National Park in Concord. There was some resistance. The resistance came to the fore really from the people in the 1957-58-59-60 era, and the concern of a conservative town of the influx of many visitors, protection of person and properties, and commercialization of the area that we held very sacred. The people discussed it in great detail and during the 1959 to 1963 era there were many hearings and meetings and so forth held by various boards in the town. The conclusion was that we would be willing to lease the keyhole area from Monument Street around the obelisk, over the North Bridge and around the Minute Man to the national park with certain restrictions and certain controls retained by the town. This was debated at length with the National Park and with the Department of Interior. A lease came into fruition in June 1963 between the town and the Department of Interior for national parks whereby the town kept many of its controls and once accepted by town meeting, which it was, could be rejected by town meeting at any time at the choice of the town, and that the National Park could only take it back as a portion of its National Park with a bill of Congress. Many of the conditions that existed in the lease were of interest pertaining to the municipal services rights, the town's rights, the appeal and licensing of the use of the grounds by the town as well as the National Park, the rights of arrest and so forth, so that the Town of Concord did not lose its governmental rights. The National Park in turn accepted its responsibility to maintain the property and the general public would have use. This agreement was discussed at great length, ratified at town meeting in 1963, and signed in June 1963 on behalf of the town by the Board of Selectmen of which I happened to be chairman at the time.

I was elected to the Board of Selectmen in 1959 and served two terms, which the Town as a matter of general agreement is all it assigns to a selectman. It is unusual or very rare that anyone serves longer than two terms. I did serve two terms during this particular period. I was personally in favor of this agreement and the full board was in favor. We had the opportunity to see the merits from a financial point of view, the merits from the governmental control point of view, and of course the right to this valuable, historic piece of property being shared by all the citizens of the United States, and we were in effect being declared owner and custodian along with the federal government.

Along with me on the Board of Selectmen at that time was Robert E. Sheehan, Maple Street, West Concord, Herbert P. Wilkins, who later became Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, Frederick Robbins, a senior partner at Goodwin, Proctor & Hoar, and Robert J. Roddy, an old Roddy family who built many, many houses during the depression up in the West Concord and Westvale area and is currently still alive and lives on Cape Cod.

In this agreement, eminent domain would not be allowed in any way here other than an act of Congress if the full House and Senate agreed with the Department of Interior that the National Park and the Minute Man area of the National Park that the town had rescinded from its agreement at a subsequent date were necessary to maintain the National Park and the vote had carried by Congress.

The preliminary discussion was a broad picture of what the Department of Interior thought the Minute Man National Park should be. Of course, the events at the Bridge encompassed areas outside of the Town of Concord. The British troops were in Charlestown coming up through Cambridge and Arlington, the battle of Lexington or the skirmish, the battle of Concord, all part of the National Park so there were primary discussions with the historical people of the Commonwealth at the very beginning, and then spreading out to discussions between Lexington and Concord and the Department of Interior. I think Lexington and Concord as two communities were very friendly and active in the Revolutionary days and I think it's interesting to note that the British were defeated at the Concord bridge and whatever they did in Lexington was certainly not a victory for the Colonists. But in any event the philosophies of those two towns as appeared for many years are contrary to each other. Concord is a laid-back community, quiet, and with good reception for the general public to come in and see its heritage but in a quiet, non-commercialized basis. Lexington on the other hand is a much larger town, closer to Boston, much more of a bedroom community than Concord is because of its governmental controls and zoning and so forth. Over the years the differences in philosophy between the two communities go way, way back. Concord was receptive to the National Park and the Minute Man becoming a portion of the national historic park in Concord if it met the general requirements of our community. Lexington on the other hand was receptive to it as I recall as an asset to bringing people and business to the community.

The agreement has held up extremely well over these past years. I can't imagine the national government and Department of Interior and the people they have here to manage the Concord section of the National Park getting along better, very harmonious and pleasant. It's been an outstanding relationship tested many ways particularly with the appearance of President Ford at the bicentennial year of 1975. The communication between the federal government and the Town of Concord, the government of the Town of Concord, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was outstanding and without it I don't know what kind of chaos Concord would have been in with the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the fight at the bridge. I chaired the committee that planned the celebration for nine years. It was an experience of a lifetime. It did take considerable time and effort but the cooperation from everyone from the Secret Service, the Washington police, the mounted police, the Air Force, the Coast Guard with a boat on the river at the time of the visitation, the challenge of the people's bicentennial groups, the political upheaval that was around in those days, the weather. After all the little community of Concord with a population back then of around 13,000-14,000 receiving maybe 200,000 people on a morning that the weather was less than perfect, was indeed difficult and without the cooperation of the National Park and the Department of Interior and help from Washington, I don't know where we would be. I did promise the town that when they would wake up Sunday morning, the town would be clean, neat and no damage and they could all go to church. And it happened.

Herbert P. WilkinsHerbert Wilkins -- The National Historic Sites Commission which was appointed by President Eisenhower filed a report in June of 1958 concerning its recommendation for the creation of a National Park in the Lexington and Concord area. That report was sent to Congress in early January 1959. By that time the Planning Board of which I became chairman in the spring of 1958 was already deeply involved with the plans for the park. In the Concord Journal of January 22, 1959 in the letter which I signed with the authority of the Planning Board, I outlined the general scheme of what was involved and there is a full spread in the middle of the paper of the map which the interim report had outlined for the park, which is pretty much along the lines of exactly what the park now consists of. The Commission felt that it could not recommend the inclusion of the American Mile in the park because there had been so much development, but recommended a historic district be created for that area. The Planning Board in the letter I wrote indicated that it was moving in that direction and fairly shortly, within a year or so, legislation was enacted which created the Concord Historic Districts Commission, and the various areas at that time were within the intended area of the Concord Historic District. The National Historic Sites Commission consisted of Senator Saltonstall, Congressman O'Neil, Chairman Mark Bortman, and Edwin Small who was historian for the Historic Sites Commission. They met with the Planning Board several times to talk about this proposal. For some reason I have never been able to understand, the Selectmen expressed at that time very little interest in supporting the proposal although I don't think they took a position in opposition to it. I don't know whether they were concerned about the loss of tax revenue or had some other concern, but basically it was the Planning Board which represented the interests of the Town of Concord in connection with the creation of the Minute Man National Historical Park.

I have in my files a couple of letters, one in May of 1959 from Senator Saltonstall to me as Chairman of the Board in which he thanked me for a letter I had written, a copy of which may be in the Planning Board files, in which he expressed among other things his appreciation for the cooperation with the project and indicating he would keep us advised. Then in August of 1959 again as Chairman of the Planning Board, I received a letter from Thomas P. O'Neil who was Congressman, in which he indicated the House of Representatives had passed on August 17 and sent to the Senate a bill authored by Representative Edith Nourse Rogers who was Congresswoman for this area, and the matter was referred to the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs and the hearing would shortly be held. That was in fact so because I have a copy of the telegram that came to me on September 1 from Senator John F. Kennedy and Senator Leverett Saltonstall jointly indicating that there would be hearings the next week before the Senate Interior Subcommittee, and "We do not anticipate any difficulty in obtaining favorable committee consideration of the bill but would be pleased to make arrangements for you to testify if you so desire." At that point I think it was sufficiently clear that this whole matter was going to go forward satisfactorily. And it did and as far as I know there has been no major criticism of the existence of the park. I think it is just one example of a number of, I think, fortunate events which have helped Concord preserve its rural-like character if not entirely so. I've always felt that the people of the Town of Concord collectively, at least no matter how long they've lived in the town, have felt a sense of fiduciary responsibility for preserving and improving the various historically significant areas of this town.

By the time I became Selectman the details were being worked out. Much of it was a matter of how fast the park was going to move forward to its creation. It's fortunate I think that it was not a situation where if you're building a railroad, you have to have every piece of land immediately. Ultimately a cooperative agreement was worked out between the National Park Service and the Town with respect to the area around the North Bridge. The people of Concord have always felt a rather strong sense of pride in that area. The monument was paid for exclusively by the Town, and the area has been owned by the Town for many years. We were concerned that some sort of commercialism or improper use of that area might develop if the National Park Service headed in the wrong direction. So there was a certain amount of hesitancy as to how we might proceed, and we developed an agreement which curiously took us quite a while to develop from the time the act was put into effect. I think over time it has worked out very well. I haven't been close enough to all the problems of recent years to be able to comment with any special understanding as to how each step in the last 40 years has gone, but I regard this as a good example of federal and local cooperation to preserve significant portions of our history.

It's hard to believe it's been 40 years. I look at pictures of me at the time when I was on the Board and I wonder whether I had just gotten out of high school. Those were interesting times and I had great experiences with various selectmen who names I see at the end of this.

Nancy Nelson, Superintendent of the Minute Man National Historical Park -- The first time I drove into Concord was about 25 years ago. My husband and I were coming to Massachusetts and the Boston area from Iowa. It was at that time that I knew that Concord was a very special place. Consequently, we were tourists and visitors to Concord on the occasion of the bicentennial and so we were lucky enough to see that. I went to work for the National Park Service and worked as a landscape architect in the Boston office as Special Assistant to the Regional Director and I became aware of the issues. It was a mystery to me why there was that disconnection between the communities of Concord, Lincoln and Lexington and a National Park. It seemed to me as a regional office person that that should just not be the case, but I came to learn of the issues related to the acquisition of land and to the broader issues that were surfacing in the general management plan, the Willow Pond Kitchen, the question of closure of Route 2A or the management of traffic along 2A, and all those historical issues that had actually been with the Park since its inception since 1959, some of them related to traffic.

When I came to the Park in 1993, I followed Larry Gall, and I counted that my great fortune because Larry was not only a superb historian with impeccable academic credentials but was a very collaborative fellow with good vision and good judgment and a very good way about him that would fit with the community. I came to the Park hoping for the best, happy to be following him and really feeling very lucky because the Park was at a different moment in history. We knew that we were on the verge of being able to do a lot to realize the original vision of Congress which was articulated in 1959 and also in the 1956 Boston National Historic Sites Commission report. The concern had all along been for preserving the sites, but not only the sites but very importantly the landscape of the Revolution. After a long and sometimes difficult period of consolidating the land within the Park particularly in the Battle Road unit of the park, we were now at a point where we could begin to develop those lands of the cultural landscape and the buildings within it and the sites that were significant on April 19 for the enjoyment of future generations.

Almost from the day that I walked in the door, the development of the Battle Road Trail was a major issue. We had funding for a trail which was still surprisingly ill defined. In some people's minds, it was going to be a 12-foot wide paved bikeway that would connect with the Lexington Minute Man bikeway. In the minds of others, it was better if it would be a dirt trail built by Boy Scouts and volunteers on weekends. So when I first arrived one of the first meetings I went to was a meeting with a remarkable group of people that included representatives from Lincoln, Lexington, Concord, Bedford, Army Corps of Engineers, landscape architects in the towns, conservation commissioners, historical people, land bank folks from the various towns, and a fair sprinkling of people who had expertise in bikeways and trails, folks from Fish and Wildlife, Appalachian Mountain Club and from other bikeways around. In addition there were some people who were good solid critics, actually all of them were good solid critics, but were working to help shape this trail so that it would be a good fit within the towns in which the Park is located. That was a very, very successful group. They advised us on many aspects of the implementation of the battle road trail. Bear in mind that it was a really difficult thing. It was like threading a thread through a thousand needles. There were wetlands to consider, there were geological constraints, there were active farm fields, there were existing holdings within the Park where private interests were still active, there were neighborhoods that we were running by, there were serious safety issues that we had to address, and so these people stood by us through all these meetings and iterations of plans, through Town Meetings even. In the case of Lincoln, the Town of Lincoln transferred back the roadway in the Bloody Angle section to the Park so that it could be incorporated in the restoration of the Battle Road in the Hartwell Tavern area. The Hartwell Tavern area is still a work in progress, but I think people can now see what it might become and that's really gratifying.

The work on the Meriam House is part of a larger package to rehabilitate seven historic structures in the park. The Meriam House is one of the most significant because it stood at the point that marks the beginning of the running battle following the skirmish at the Bridge. The British troops came down Lexington Road and the Colonials followed along the ridge and this was again where the British line thinned out and became ostensibly an irresistible target. Someone shot and casualties were taken and from that point on the battle and the retreat back to Boston was pretty definitive. The North Bridge incident might have been ignored, but the battle that ensued all the way back to Boston was hard to ignore. So Meriam House was a witness to that day and it's very significant for that reason. The Park Service assumed control of that historic structure shortly before I came to the Park so it's relatively recent. Prior to that it had been owned and cared for by an ardent preservationist who had taken great pains to conceal the modern nature of work and to blend it with the old work. An interesting challenge for our historical architects was trying to unweave the work that Mr. Ingraham had done from the earlier times. He actually lived in the house and he was very, very good at concealing what he did in making it look what was appropriate to the time. Today the Park Service is also in partnership with the Meriam family working toward the rehabilitation of the interior, toward the development of educational programs there, and more work on the landscape. Right now in conjunction with the restoration of the house is a fairly extensive archeology dig. We're fortunate to now be the host park for this region's archeology center, which basically just means we have lots of archeologists addicted to their work here. They think they've uncovered remnants of earlier Meriam family farm buildings there. The one that's standing today is not the earliest, but they may be looking at 17th century foundations. It's remarkable to just look at where they are working to see the fencepost lines in the ground. You can see plow marks. It's really amazing when you know what you're looking for. That's an exciting piece of work at the beginning of the Battle Road Trail.

The year 2000 will be the 250th anniversary of the battle of the North Bridge. One of the areas where our partnership and our programs are expanding is in the area of interpretation, and the cadre of living history and reenactment volunteers that is available and willing to work with the Park is an extraordinary resource for us. An interesting aspect of that partnership is sometimes the distinction between National Park Service policy and what reenactment groups desire to do in National Parks. The Park Service policy does not allow simulated warfare or taking of casualties or opposing lines of fire, and of course that's the essence of the experience for a lot of re-enactors who are very much engaged in honoring a battle by recreating a battle in their minds and in the minds of the public. We are very, very fortunate in this area to have some pretty sophisticated hobbyists who have worked hard with us to find the balance between our policy and the desires of their members. So there will be a fairly grandiose pageant in April of 2000 that will begin at Lexington Green and come to the Bridge and then go back along the Battle Road through the Park. Now with the development of the Battle Road Trail those restored sections of the Battle Road are there. There is a huge contingent coming from Britain and it is a very, very special thing for those people to be on the actual site passing by the actual structures that were in place on April 19, 1775. It's a very nice accommodation that we've all worked very hard for.

There are several historic structures within the Park, over a dozen actually, many of which have been occupied on a long-term but still temporary basis by Park staff with the ultimate goal of returning those structures to greater public use and enjoyment. One of the opportunities we're exploring very strongly right now in the face of changing NPS policy is the use of some of those structures for bed and breakfasts or for restaurant purposes, and we are very hopeful that NPS policy is going to settle down soon and we'll be able to explore in a real way what potential there is for doing that. There are several prototypes around Concord, and there is a lot of demand in the Town of Lincoln for a tavern because Lincoln is a dry town. They would like that so we think there is a lot of potential there.

People have to understand that the National Park is not just at the North Bridge. I think that is a change for the general public as well as for us. When I first came here, someone on the staff said to me that on a good day park management thought the Park extended as far as the Bridge. So it's been a growing experience in terms of the park staff too. We have a staff that has not increased in size a lot for a couple of decades and yet the scope of the park is really broadening. I think that has carried with it challenges and stress, but at the same time there is huge excitement here, a lot of creativity and some considerable turnover. But that also brings the opportunity for fresh faces and new energy and we're really seeing that at work. We observed our 40th anniversary last weekend, this weekend and next weekend, and we thought we would have a wonderful party here at the Buttrick home and had asked Stedman and Susan Buttrick if they would be honorary hosts. But the fact of the matter is we had no energy in the end. It was a sad thing for me because I thought it would be great to have one of those grand old Buttrick-style parties. Maybe for the 50th anniversary or even the year 2000. I think that creativity is something that the general public is able to see in the programs that we've been offering. We're very excited because a lot of the people who for instance are the walk leaders in this program that we've titled "40 Walks for 40 Years," are people from the communities. Bill Brace for instance is an amateur expert in grasses and spends a lot of time in the Park. He led a walk on the grasses in the Minute Man National Historic Park and I understand quite a few other experts in grasses showed up for his talk. We may have an informal science program out of these connections. I think it is really important to be able to connect the Park with the incredible resources that are in these towns. It is really exciting and I think a perfect match. It's really nice to see that happen.

As to the interaction of Congress in how the Park is funded or not funded, I think Tip O'Neil said all politics is local and that is so true with National Parks. I think the Park had really exceptional support even through some hard times and Congressman Atkins can tell you exactly who didn't vote for him because of problems with the Park to this day, but I think the support of local and congressional leaders is essential. Congressman Meehan now is extremely engaged with the Park. Senator Kennedy, even before the Park Service got here, had a special fondness for this area in general, and Senator Kerry and Congressman Markey too. All of that matters greatly. From a park superintendent's perspective one of my obligations is to make certain that I communicate with them or their staffs on a regular basis in terms of what issues might be in the communities vis-a-vis the Park, but also on other fronts that might be related to the Park not directly but indirectly that they might need an understanding of. So there's always a need to be in close contact with Congressional and Senatorial staff so they know what you're doing and why. If you anticipate a problem, what is your perspective because they may hear the other perspective and that's been very important. For Minute Man I think we're lucky to have such a powerful mission and such an important story to tell, and we've had very good luck, not only with our own delegation, but making contacts and inviting folks from the Appropriations Committee who might be on the other side of the political aisle to the Park so they can see and understand first hand what the resources are and what the issues are and most importantly what the potential is. Now it's very difficult to make any headway unless you can clearly demonstrate that there is going to be a difference with the American people. Congressman Meehan has done a superb job in terms of being a collaborative bi-partisan player. And needless to say Senator Kennedy has always had that ability so we're very lucky to be represented by them.

I live in the Bullet Hole House. It's a house with a fascinating history which my husband actually has better ingrained in his brain than even I do. Parts of it are believed to have been early 18th century, maybe late 1600s, but no pieces are very apparent from that period of time. The house clearly started as a colonial house and the classic little New England house of the era. At one point in time it did not face Monument Street but was more perpendicular. I'd advise anybody listening to this to check that out. This is the way I remember it, that the house has been moved and rearranged and the shed that is now attached to it was not always attached but used to be elsewhere on the property and it's not totally clear. The road has moved in relationship to the house over the years, and there used to be a blacksmith's house somewhere on the property. Judge Keyes in the late 1800s made significant changes and additions which you can see in the French doors and the bay windows and the floor to ceiling windows in the front of the house. Recently Orville Carroll (National Park architect) came back to town for a dinner and we had dinner and guests at the Bullet Hole House, and Orville at that time told me that the porch and the front granite step had originally been part of the Thoreau House which is now the Colonial Inn. I never knew that before. I wouldn't presume to argue with him about it, but it would be something interesting to look for. The granite stoop at the Bullet Hole House is just a massive piece of granite and I bet could be recognized from photographs if that was true. It's a great house. You can still see the remnants of an orchard that was healthier in the ‘50s than it is now, a Concord grape arbor, and the woodlands that are adjacent to it go back toward Great Meadows National Park.

Legend has it that following the skirmish at the Bridge, the British column was passing in front of the Bullet Hole House and a farmer, Elisha Jones, was standing in the door of the shed and provoked the British in some way and they fired at him and missed. Legend has it that the bullet hole that is now enshrined in a triangle covered with plexiglas was the bullet hole made by the shots fired at Elisha Jones. Archeologists will tell you differently. But the legend is there and it is very strong and every bus that comes to the Park stops in front of the Bullet Hole House. An interesting thing is one day when we were gardening in the backyard, my husband stopped to talk to two women who had come behind the house and had a great interest in the house and they identified themselves as the descendants of Elisha Jones's wife. They said she was a Tory and returned to Canada. They were from Canada and they were coming back to see the house of their great-great-great-grandmother. That's an important story that we sometimes forget, the story of the expatriates who left America and went back to a proper British colony. There are quite a few stories to be told about that.

Nancy Nelson and Herbert Wilkins

Mounted 19 Jan. 2008; revised with image added, 8 May 2013; rev 12 October 2013 -- RCWH.