Interviewer: Michael N. Kline
Place of Interview: Concord Free Public Library
Transcriptionist: Carrie N. Kline
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Audio file is in .mp3 format.
Michael N. Kline: Okay. Today is the 16th of June. And the sun is not out. It has been a raining--.It must have been a couple of weeks by now, huh.
Sara Wilbur: Yes.
MK: And we're here at the Concord Free Library in pursuit of the issue of built and natural environment around Concord. Can you say, "My name is?"
SW: My name is Sara Winstead Wilbur. And I'm known in Concord as Win Wilbur.
MK: And we never ask people their age, but maybe you'd give me your date of birth--
MK: to put this in a historical context. That's all I'm interested in.
SW: I was born in 1933.
MK: And the date?
SW: January 27th, 1933. And I've lived in Concord for forty-some years. I moved here in the winter of 1965.
MK: Has that been long enough to make you a local?
SW: Oh never. Your mother has to be born here to be a local. We're from away.
MK: Uh huh. Well, maybe in that case you would tell me a little bit about your people and where you were raised.
SW: Oh, okay. I was raised in New Jersey and spent my summers in Virginia with my father's parents on a farm. And my mother was from New Jersey although originally her people came from Germany. And so I had a mix of long, long term English farmers and rather conservative, rural Baptist Southerners and more recent Presbyterian American Germans.
MK: And a bit about your education.
SW: I went through public schools—
MK: In New Jersey?
SW: In New Jersey. And then to a girls', small girls' private school and then to Bryn Mawr College and graduated then in 1955 with a degree in European history. And then after I was married and had children I went back to college part-time and have a master's in Education from Northeastern University here in Boston.
MK: [2:47] Very impressive. So what was your path to Concord?
SW: [laughs] I married a husband, and he--. I was married right out of college, and we traveled to various places. He worked for several construction and building materials companies. We lived in Georgia, and New Mexico and then in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and outside New York City in Hastings for about five years. And then he--. That division of, whatever it was, closed, and he took a job with Arthur D. Little, which is a consulting firm, used to be a consulting firm in Cambridge. And he was a management consultant there for many years. So to do that we moved to Concord. And his aunt and uncle lived here and took us around to various towns and showed us houses. And they said that the only place to live is Concord, really. And that's what we did.
MK: And where did you roost, end up roosting in Concord?
SW: We live on the ridge, which is up behind the Alcott Orchard House. And we have a house that was built in the '50s. It's a modern fake colonial. And it's a nice little neighborhood of—used to be--colonials and ranches and a few spilt levels, capes, that kind of houses.
MK: Used the be?
SW: Well one of my issues is that Concord is changing very radically, and our neighborhood was considered very desirable for bigger houses to be built. So as houses came on the market a number of times developers bought the houses and tore them down and then built very much larger houses on the same lots. And so it's now a mix of what we used to have. And I think we have five very big houses, six hundred thousand square feet-- 6,000 square feet, which is a good size.
MK: What does that feel like? Talk about that.
SW: Yeah, I'd be glad to talk about that. I had thought you might want to talk first about the demolishion delay bylaw and its implications for Concord and then about this more recent phenomenon of so many not historic, not famous or wonderful owners, but nice, moderate size houses being torn down.
MK: Let's do it that way.
SW: Is that all right with you? Okay. I taught for--. Maybe I'll just back up and tell you how I got into things. [coughs] Excuse me. I have a morning hack. I taught for a number of years in a quasi-independent school in Concord, in Lexington--. No. Where was it? In Lincoln. Called the Caroll School for youngsters with reading disabilities, who are dyslexic. And it was partly privately paid for by their parents and partly paid for by towns. So I had for many years a pretty demanding day schedule. I have four children who were growing up at that point. And then when things eased up a bit I became more involved in various town committees and joined the Historical Commission in 1996 I think. And at that point they had already been looking at a way of protecting houses that were not in an historic district.
The way Massachusetts works, [which I think most listeners might know?]. We have historic districts, which are approved by the state and which have very rigid controls. The Historic District Commission can control the color of a house that, well anything that appears on a street, the windows, the replacement of windows, the paint colors, whether you put a fence at a certain height in front of the house, change your driveway paving, things like that. Concord has four and now five such districts. One of them runs down Lexington Road which is just below where we live and is a--. It's called The American Mile. It's the roads where the British soldiers marched into Concord on April 19th, and it's also the road where the American militia harried them on the way back when they retreated back to Boston. So those houses are protected and they can't be destroyed or changed in any major way.
There are, however, in various outlying areas of Concord, a number of other houses that are important we felt, because of one of four criteria. They have either cultural, political, architectural or social history. And the social history part can include an important person lived there, or an important event happened there. They might have been designed by a man who became a famous architect. Andrew Hepburn was one of those in our area.
SW: Hepburn. A man named Hepburn. And another is Harry Little who--. So there was a reason to preserve these houses, because of those areas of significance. I think, I hope in the near future they will also--. The Historic Commission will also look at some of the houses that were designed in the modern era by Gropius and his Bauhaus school. Gropius himself lived in Lincoln in a little house that sort of looks like a concrete box and it's quite an amazing use of space. There are several of those in Concord. So to back up again, the Historic Districts control houses within--. Their Commission controls houses that are historic, within the five historic districts. They can add another district or another house through going to Town Meeting and presenting reasons why this is important to add. And if they win the support of the area and of the town in general, the Town Meeting will pass it usually.
But these other houses are--. Well in our town at least, they were not protected. And some of them seemed to be threatened by developers or new owners who didn't see their value for one reason or another, the reason to preserve them.
And so in the early '90s the Historical Commission, which is a separate organization from the historic districts who only handle historic district houses, the historical commission looked at something called a demolition delay bylaw, which does not have the teeth of being in a historic district, because then you can't destroy something, but it has some teeth. And they drew up a list of houses. And they also produced in the early '90s a huge survey of all the neighborhoods in town and all the houses or even areas of houses--could be a street or several streets of houses--that exist. They covered everything that was built before 1939 in this big, four-volume document, which is now available I think on line, and it's available on paper in the library.
From that, a man named the committee and I think led by a man named Richard Foreman, who was a macro economist, macro geologist I guess he's called, at Harvard and who lives in Concord. They assigned a value, a ranking to each of the houses, both in the districts and outside the districts based on these four criteria, cultural, political, architectural and social. And they numbered them one, two, three, four. Well practically everything already numbered one was already in a historic district. Practically, most of the things number two, but not all were in historic districts. Very few houses or structures at the third level and almost none at the fourth level were in historic districts.
This is--. I can show you. Obviously the audience can't see that. This is what the--.
MK: What's the title of this document?
SW: This is the short-. It's a short summary, a precis of the full volume. And it's called Historic Resources Master Plan of Concord, Massachusetts.
SW: And this is done 2001. The earlier document was done 1995 and parts of it--. In fact I think this was done in 1995 and updated in 2001. This is . . . .And it's divided--. People from the outside say, "This is impossible to use. This is a crazy thing," because instead of being the whole town in order, it's West Concord, and then it will have places in West Concord, and then it'll have houses and then historic buildings that are not houses. And that would include the prison and a bridge, and a water tower, and some silos, things like that. And then it will have yet other things. There's a burial ground. There's a wonderful little burial ground over in Fair Haven, which is where they put the people who were victims of smallpox. And it's called the Smallpox Cemetery. Has two stones and no label on it at all. You'd never know it was there, but this is where at least nine or ten people who died of smallpox were buried. They somehow felt--. Well I don't think they wanted to bring them into town. And they had a small pox hospital, or a house that was used as a hospital out there. And they felt that it was unsafe to have even their bodies near other people, which was a little weird, but anyhow.
MK: And this would've been roughly what year?
SW: This--. I don't know. I think it was in the late 1700s or early 1800s. It was way back. There are also several other spots where there are two or three people buried in the back of somebody's backyard on Main Street. Just past the underpass of the railroad there's a house that has some. So anyway that's the kind of thing they wanted to preserve. They didn't want somebody coming in and saying, "Ah, here's a nice lot. Let's build a house on it. And, but this particular document--. You can see the numbering one, two, three, four here.
MK: We're on page 146.
SW: And. Well it starts--. Let's see . . . . on page—
SW: 136 and goes to 152.
MK: Now where are the ratings you were talking about?
SW: The ratings are right here.
MK: Oh, I see.
SW: These are the priorities. Yeah. And over here this is the existing protections, so that some of them are on the National Register. Some . . . . These are local dstricts. Goodness, w hat's FI?
SW: Federal--. I think it's a federal protection of some sort. You'll find an "S.O." for the state. Oh, it's federally owned. Yeah, so that would be a couple of the houses in the National Parks fit into that category. This is the date the house was built. This is the--. It starts with the address and then the reason why it's important, the historic resources. And that's the owner. Or the blockhouse on Lowell Road is a house that was originally used for protection against the Indians. And it was originally on Main Street, where, right next to where the South Burying Ground is today, where Keyes Road is. And when they built the new, then new, bank in . . . 30 about, in the winter, they put this house on rollers and dragged it across the mill dam and took it over to Lowell Road. And it's about. It's just before the parking lot to the Rite--. Is it Rite Aid is here? The drug store.
And Rick Wheeler, whose family goes back 300 years in Concord, would tell you that the favorite activity of Concordians in the old days was moving houses and suing their neighbors. Those were the two things they loved to do. And so a lot of these houses have been moved actually. Several of them have. There was a house here where the library is that was moved a block or two over to Stowe Street. Not Stowe, Hubbard. So. But anyway. This house, the blockhouse, we also did a lot of research on. And it has walls that are built two feet deep and these deep, deep window sockets. It's just fascinating. Now I have—I really have to parenthetically say that as a historian and someone who's very interested in houses and people, I think houses and people are inseparable. You can't--.
There's no meaning to a house, or for that matter a barn or a water tower or a prison, except apart--. Apart from its impact and its role in the lives of people. So that when I was involved with the Historical Commission those were things we looked at and considered.
The way the four-volume book is put together is that it has the historic—the architectural description of the house in one section. And then it will have the historical significance of it just below that. And that will talk about early owners and events that happened there, and the kinds of, a little bit about the private lives of early owners. It never lists the current owner by name as a courtesy I guess. But once you're out of there it's all safe to talk about! So. That's been very interesting to research, and fascinating to know about, to me.
Now I'm gone all around Robinhood's barn. I'm sorry. I've lost the thread on where we started.
MK: No. This is great. So you--.
SW: So anyway, the idea was that the number--. The houses that were first priority were pretty much all saved. Many of the second priority houses were not saved. And because of that they were vulnerable to demolition. And so we--. Before I got on the board other people had looked at this list and said, "Well let's save everything that's a level two or a level three." And that came out to something like 900 houses. And that, we thought, would never get through Town Meeting.
And so they went back to the drawing board and said, "No, Let's--." They were going to present it to Town Meeting in '95 and then withdrew the Warrant Articles and said, "No, let's wait a while and take this through again." And so what we did was to look at the list and be very much more limited and just take houses that were Level Twos and a few Level Threes. And also we did include though the water tower out at Madison's Farm, the little bridge that goes across Westford Road to—what is it called--Spencer Brook Road (?) and a couple of silos, barns with silos, and oh, there's a little house that's a log cabin on Monument Street behind a big house, and that kind of thing, as well, and the small pox cemetery, as well as these Level Two and Level Three houses. And again, most of them were built fairly long ago, but a few, the West Concord Depot, things like that were not--. I think they're probably early 20th century.
And we went through a year-long process where we met with the owners. We invited all the owners to come to a meeting and hear our proposal and offer their suggestions and objections and as you would expect, all the ones who objected came and some of the ones who supported came. And then we put together the article and worked it out with, the specifics of it with the Building Commissioner. It was his job to protect or to decide whether a house merited being put on the demo delay list.
The way Concord did it was somewhat different from the state pattern, and I--. In retrospect I'm not sure we did the right thing. What the State Historical Commission recommends is that you pick a date and say, "All houses that were built before 1900," or, "All houses that are fifty years old or seventy-five years old should be subject to a demo delay, just at least a look through. Many of them could probably go down. Some should have the whole hearing process. In Concord we were afraid that would never go through, because we had so many houses that were older. And so we didn't do it that way. We didn't do this. And because we had the historical survey already, we used that and the priority list. And a few slipped through the sieve. It was just too bad. There were several houses that, at least on that was not on, was not protected by the Historic District and it was not on our list, that was torn down couple of years ago. And as soon as it was sold and people realized it was going to be torn down, there was a great despair, but there was nothing to be done.
I won't go through the whole criteria for how a demo delay works, because anyone who's interested can look at it as a--.
MK: Page 213.
SW: Yeah. And it's a summary of the article as it was presented at Town Meeting and voted on. But the interesting--. One of the interesting details of it is that we--. The question was what constitutes demolition, because just before this went through there was somebody who said, "Oh, I'm not going to demolish the house." And they left one wall and built another house around the outside of it so that one wall is invisible, and the other house looks nothing like the one that was torn down. But. So the definition of demolition that we worked out with our Building Commissioner was that it be a substantial proportion, and that substantial be defined as, substantial destruction would be defined as either half of the volume of the building or half of its value, as determined by the Building Commissioner. The volume is pretty obvious. You just measure the square feet of it and the height. And the value would be his determination.
So and then we picked out this listed group and--which houses--for a six-month delay period, because, that would go through Town Meeting really. I think in retrospect we should've made it twelve months. I know there has been a consideration of expanding it to twelve months. Six moths a builder can wait you out. Twelve months is a long time to tie up your capital and might discourage people from demolishing, buying a house in order to demolish it.
There's a very long, complicated procedure where a person who wants to demolish a house goes to the Building Commissioner for a permit. If it's on the list, the, we're, the Historical Commission is notified. They have a hearing within fourteen days and say, "Yes, it's okay to demolish it," or, "No, wait." And if they say, "No, wait," it goes into the six month delay period.
And then various things happen. The idea of it is not to always prevent demolition, because that doesn't happen, but to encourage the owner to find a way to either rehab it or move it perhaps, sell it to someone else and move it to another site, or, barring all of that, allow the Historical Commission to come in and take photographs of the house and its significant architectural details. That last process has happened just recently with a house that's on the list. It's the Samuel Hoar house, which is right, it's hidden but it's at the edge of Great Meadows. And Samuel Hoar was a state senator who was very interested in environmental issues and in birds, and he created, he bought the, or maybe already owned the area that's now Great Meadows, and put in the dikes to make ponds. There'd be nesting areas for water birds.
SW: H-O-A-R. Yes. And he's part of a family of Hoars who lived--. That's their name. Who live in town, lived in town. I don't know that any one them still live--. But he built himself a house out there. And so he could see this. And then later on he gave the 230 acres of Great Meadows to the National Parks I think. It's owned by the Federal Government.
Now that might be not the fact. It may be owned by the state. But anyways.
MK: It's protected.
SW: It's protected. I'm sure it's federally owned, because they allow--. It's very weird. You're not allowed to bring a dog into it, or picnic, but you can go hunting there. What kind of--? Only the feds would come up with an idea like that, wouldn't they? So. But that house has not been torn down. They applied for a demolition permit last summer, and in the fall the Historical Commission sent an organization who have all kinds of fancy criteria in to do the measured drawings and thing s like that.
MK: Do documentation?
SK: Do documentation. And it's going to be on the, going to be in the library when it's all put together. Probably in Leslie Wilson's [Special] collections, that people could come and see it.
MK: So which category or categories does that structure fall under? Is it significant architecturally, or is it because he owned it?
SW: I think it's because he had it built and he owned it, and because he was a donor of this very valuable natural resource to the Town. So the two, the built and the natural support each other in that sense. Yes.
MK: Is it architecturally significant?
SW: I've never seen it. The house is hidden behind--. If you're familiar with Concord, when you go to the National, to the North Bridge on Monument Street, there's a parking lot where you can leave your car and then walk down a long grove of trees to the bridge. And right beside that parking lot there's another driveway that goes up to three or four houses. And this house is owned by a man who also owns another early 1900s house, big red brick house, and has now high walls, high security fencing around it. And he has a, I guess live-in guard there and won't let people go past unless they, I guess unless they're residents or visiting one of the residents. There are a few houses just past it. But he's very protective, so. I would love to see it. Somebody has seen it and describes it briefly here. It's not commonly seen though.
This part of the book is done alphabetically by the streets.
MK: . . .
SW: This part of the book is done alphabetically by the streets. So this is easy to see. Yeah. . . . description. This is the Samuel Hoar House here. And he had these dikes constructed to attract water fowl. The house is--. And the house was built by a local architect, Andrew Hepburn.
MK: Colonial Revival.
SW: Right. Country estate. And the present owner of the adjacent house, which is the Frederick Chase residence, wants to--. He owns both. And he wants to tear it down for whatever his personal reasons are I don't know. I don't think it's inhabited now. I think no one's lived in it recently.
So, this demolition delay bylaw went through the procedures, went through Town Meeting and was voted with very little opposition. And we drew a deep breath and thought, "Well, that's done." And about six minutes later a house over on Balls Hill Road, which was on the list, and its barn, which was a number one, one of the only, highest priority, came up for demolition. And so there we were. And that became a very--. It's called the Old Ball House. And Balls Hill Road is a little road off Monument Street with about eight houses on it. And it has this one very old, very, very badly rundown house at the end of the road, and a big old barn adjacent to it, which was probably late 1700s. And the house was probably built about 1725, or between 1725 and 1740. May have been an earlier house on the site. It's hard to tell. But in doing the historical research for the house we found deeds and people owning cattle and oxen as part of the list of their estate in the tax rolls as early as 1727 there. Really, really old. The house itself was a wonderful little--. It's not first period, but it's the next thing after that. It's a house with a high front faÃ§ade facing south. So you get sun into both floors all winter long, and then a long, deep--. What do you call them? Back roof that slides way back. I can't think of the name of it. Anyway.
And two rooms in the front, a lone room in the back, and a little room off to the west side is partitioned off. This house--. The present owner of the property was a woman who had built a very large, very handsome house up on the hill behind it, not visible from the Ball house. But I guess she could look down on it. And she didn't want anything in her view. And at that point we ran into a very difficult--. I don't know how to describe this appropriately, because I feel pretty strongly about it. But there were many parties with an interest in this area.
The Town wanted to put in wells. And they wanted to buy part of the land for a future well site. The land slopes down eventually to Concord River.
MK: Water wells?
SW: Yeah, it would be deep well. And they--. So the town and the, whoever the water commissioner people are, wanted it for that. The land trust and the people who wanted conservation land wanted to preserve some of the land for conservation. And the Town Manager was sort of negotiating all these things. And the Historical Commission was the orphan, not really even at the table until deals had been made. And so even though the house and barn were under this demolition delay bylaw, they had pretty much made the deal with the owner of the land. And she wanted it demolished. And she didn't--. It was not in a condition to be moved intact anywhere. And so there weren't very many options. And it was very frustrating.
However, along came angel, because living down the road on Monument Street a ways was a family named Bemus. John Bemus was from an old Concord family. And his wife, Charlotte Hutchins Bemus, and her family, had lived on Monument Street, I don't know, across the road anyway, not on the waterside, for several generations. So they had four children—and one of their children--who all--. Three of them still live right in town and are farmers and very big on--.
One of them runs the Gaining Ground, and that kind of very, very public-spirited people. The fourth child is a daughter who moved to Idaho but came back periodically. And her name is Gerry Bemus, and she persuaded the family that they should set up, I guess it's called a foundation, to buy the—to preserve the house by dismantling it and saving the pieces of it, and then eventually reassembling it someplace else. And they also dismantled the barn. So the house went on the demolition permit level, back in the fall of 2001 I think. And then, or maybe 2000. And then we had about six months. We knew there was no other buyer. No body else was interested in it. We knew it would not be saved.
So we arranged with Jerry to have access to the house, to empty it. The present owner wasn't—well that's a whole separate story. I'll tell you that in a minute. The present owner was a man named Coburn Benson and so we took the house—he had left and gone with his million and a half or three million or whatever it was he got for the land and the house and the barn and went up to Limerick, Maine and bought another very handsome house and moved the stuff that he had wanted from his house out. And he had material and other parts around the house, which he also took. And several of us went in and spent several months going in a couple of days a week and going through stuff, dumping out things in a dumpster that were no good, and finding levels and levels and levels of stuff, so that—
MK: Inside the house?
SW: And now I have to tell you about the Benson family. This house, the Ball/Benson House went into the Ball family sometime in 1720 and 1740. And their descendents lived there probably until around about 1825. Then another prominent family in town bought it but apparently didn't really live in it. One of the daughters married somebody I think is how it worked out. And then it was briefly owned by a couple of other people. And then in 1887 a family named Benson moved in.
And by this time Monument Street had originally been yeoman farmers and as time went on they got richer, and some of them got very wise about how to farm well and did very well be themselves. And so they had --. They became gentlemen farmers with big estates and great big houses, the houses that you see along Monument Street. And they hired a--. They hired young men to farm for them and young women to be their maids and seamstresses and children's governesses, and so forth.
In some parts of Concord those people who and came and did that were Irish and there were lots of Irish farmers along Lexington Road. Those houses were owned by the McHughs and some other people later on.
But on Monument Street, at least by the 1880s, they were hiring people from Norway. And they had come, many of them from one or two little towns in Norway. A couple of brothers would come and then they'd say, "Hey, this is pretty good and bring Susie over." And the sister would come and she'd bring her best friend. So there was this whole community of Norwegians, young people, young men, young women who lived--. Many of them lived, I think, in some kind of--. The girls probably lived in maids' rooms on the third floor and the boys lived in some kind of out building, wherever. And they all intermarried, and that's where the Petersons and the Johnsons and the Andersons and the Bensons all come from.
And when you go to Sleepy Hollow and walk along one part of a high ridge you can see all these names of all these people buried who came in as kids and stayed there. And they intermarried and sometimes they didn't intermarry but had children and--. In fact, one of the interesting things--. I'm on the Records & Archives Committee and we were going through the old birth records and death records of people from the 1890s and thereabouts. And there are--. Every year of the early Twentieth Century, every year a number of single girls who have a baby, of many last names. So, I guess single motherhood is not anything new in Concord.
They--. But the Bensons, this man and his wife were a married couple and they worked for one of the families. They worked for the Hunts, I think, mostly, but they bought this little house, which was by then one hundred, twenty years old and probably not in great shape and they lived there and they had nine children and seven of them were girls. And if you're a farmer, that's not a good distribution. So the girls grew up and went and worked as maids in houses along Monument Street and a few of them married. In fact one, sadly, married in 1919 and her husband died a year or two later, I think, of the flu epidemic. And she had a son and his son and this Coburn are the only descendents of that whole group. And many of the girls never married, and the older son never married. He lived there his whole life and died when he was eighty-nine, or so. And the youngest girl, I think this child is not a legitimate child, she had a son named Coburn, and he grew up there. And the mother died of cancer when she was about forty, so he was nine years old when his mother died and he was raised by all these aunts and an uncle and lived there until he was sixty something. I think he went away and did things and then came back.
And he's a fascinating person. He, in his middle years was always a gifted mechanic apparently, worked on cars, worked on something called a Benson, I don't know, and had a bunch of old cars and motorcycles and motorcycle parts in his barn. And was known to be the best mechanic in that part of town, at least, and people would bring their cars to him. And in his later years he took care the uncle who remained, the last--. After 1979 the sisters had all died and so these two men lived together, an uncle and a nephew who was twenty-five years younger. And two men living in a house like that who were not housekeepers made for a rather heavy level of debris and detritus and stuff not thrown away. But the women who had worked in these houses must have been given little things. Because as we emptied out the packed back rooms up in the upstairs, we would find a little set of lovely small blue glass wine glasses and a fine piece of linen, a dresser scarf and old sheets. And some of the sheets, a few of them, had camp names for—I think it was the Chases who lived over there—as though the boy had gone off to camp with these cot sheets, and then, when he outgrew them, the mother just gave them to one of the Benson girls, and said, maybe, "Here, maybe someone in your family can use this." Because they had this family of six or seven adults living in this house. And so we kept finding all these fascinating things. And it was really very interesting, quite amazing.
MK: And are all of those artifacts preserved? Not all of them, surely—
SW: Not all of them. Some of them were preserved. Some of them were sold--. We had a sale to raise money for an archaeological survey. And we had--. There was some group in town who does a sale every Spring, I think it was at the First Parish, and you could buy a table. And so we sold some--. We sold some things I now wish we hadn't. One of them was a United States flag, a great, big, four-by-six flag—maybe not that big—and it had forty-six stars on it, which must mean it was from just before New Mexico and Arizona, were they the two that made forty-eight states? It must have been from that window of about ten years. Anyhow, but gone is gone. And he also had years and years of motorcycle magazines and old records and, I don't know, and many old pictures of relatives in the family and those did go to the Library, Special Collections. And all the paper documentation we saved. And later on--. That was what the Historical Commission did just sort of clearing out the stuff that was in the house, old pots and pans, whatever.
MK: So was Leslie Wilson in Special Collections involved in preserving some of these things?
SW: She has them, yes, we brought them to her, we brought her a bunch of old books and documents that--. She said, "I'm going to leave these outside." It was the old Special Collections before the fancy new room. She said, "I'm going to leave these out in the hallway, they look to me as if they might be full of bugs--" I think they were. But it was this kind--. There were old photographs that Coburn had taken, there were photographs from all kinds of earlier places, there were graduation pictures and wedding pictures, and so forth, of some of these people in the family. When that period ended and--. Meanwhile Jerry Benson had hired a man named Dave Ottinger who was an excellent person at dismantling old houses, and he came in and during the summer—I think it was all supposed to be done by the end of August--. So during the summer he systematically dismantled the house numbering every board, every beam, every stud, every whatever. And as they peeled back things, they would find eight layers of wallpaper in some of the rooms.
And Jerry saved samples of most of those. I think she still has them at her family's house. We found down in the basement all kinds of canning jars, Mason jars from many different areas, some with very early lids of them, the glass lids. And some with food in them still. And one of the things we found was a jar of preserves that was dated 1937. It was just fascinating. It was like peering back into the past and seeing somebody's life from way long ago. But as they peeled it back, they got past the Benson era, which is probably--. I mean, they realized the house had been remodeled in various ways. There was once a big wing out in the front, which included a garage and a shed and stuff. And that blew down in a hurricane in 1938 and was never rebuilt. At some point they changed the house from the early traditional gate-leg staircase that comes up the front a long, straight staircase in the back. And they, at that point, redid the chimneys. There is pretty strong evidence that a second family probably lived in the back of the house, maybe one of the children, back in the Ball era, one of the children and his family. There was a little room separated off on the west side where,
if you measure the house with the long, slanted back, and part of that was cut off on the west side--. And the people who did the dismantling called that Naomie's room because in the early days there was, in the first Ball generation of their children, there was a young woman named Naomie who came back to live with them at a certain point. She appears going in one Census and back in another. And she had a baby, but no husband that anybody can find, so they think maybe that was her room for a while. And then I think she lived there as an old woman, too. I didn't go back and review all that but it was just, you know, amazing. There are old soapstone sinks in the kitchen, and they found a second hearth which is why they think another family lived there. There is a tremendous old cookstove sort of hearth with an eight foot brick hearth before the chimney area. And when they got back off the old wallpaper and everything, what they were finding was featherboarding, which is the earliest kind of way of building a house. It's horizontal boards that are sort of slanted in at the top and then the next board fits over it. It makes the house weather-tight from storms, even though you've got only one layer of wood. And that was painted in--. The front of the house is called--. The East Room is the hall where people actually lived in the old days. And the West Room is the parlor which was for entertaining the minister and fancy times and upstairs would be a single bedroom or maybe another. But everybody came down to the hall and that's where you cooked and that's where--. It was a light, sunny east and south exposure and you could--. It was warm. That was the room you kept heated. On that wall they found, oh, probably blood paint, the red paint that would be the original paint. And in the room--.
MK: Blood paint?
SW: It's made from cows' blood, I think, or something. It's that natural barn-red paint and I don't know the chemical aspect of it, but I think it's made of the blood of animals that are killed for other purposes and it makes this nice, sort of dark, muddy red.
MK: I never heard of blood paint.
SW: Well, maybe I'll go home and find out it's something really different. But there was a secret—not secret but blocked off—staircase in the back, in this back room, and that staircase went up to this back little part, too, and to another room off to--. There were extra rooms back there. And on the staircase wall they found writing in charcoal and one of the things said April 19, 1775. And up above the beams in the parlor room we found some paper and it appears to be a list of people who were Minute Men. And perhaps it was a list of people to notify at times of meetings. And the fact that it was hidden up there looks as if they were trying to keep it from somebody's eyes. And under the--. When they got down to the basic boards and lifted those in the parlor, they found that the boards had probably been turned over, that they had originally had the other side up and that the underside had all these burn marks that—not near the hearth but in the middle of the room—which seem to indicate that somebody may have been working as a blacksmith in there, possibly making bullets for the Minute Men. A lot of this is conjecture, there's no way to prove it any more, but there was an old door--. When they turned the old boards over they found a scrape make where a door scrapes as you open it, a big arc, There was a door to the west which is no longer there, had been turned into a window. The windows had been changed from the early ones to larger ones. They found the old window frames—I mean it's just--. When you dismantle a house slowly and look at everything, you find the most fascinating, wonderful, surprising things. You think oooh, now what were they doing that for? What is this, this is wonderful!
Another thing that was really surprising was that we found some shoes, early hand-made shoes, one above a doorway at the back of the parlor which made people think that maybe this lean-to was added later and that was the original exit. And also some cornhusks and other stuff. But there was a child's shoe there. There was a woman's shoe under the door sill in the main entrance and some research turned up the fact that early settlers and people in this country were modern and Christian in one way, but also were hedging their bets against witches in other ways. And the thought that a shoe, particularly a shoe I think of maybe a child that has died, would be protection to keep evil spirits from coming in through the doors. Isn't that fascinating?
So those things, those things are at U Mass now, much to my aggravation. They came in and did the archaeological parts of the survey, and they took the archaeological evidence that included some Indian points and different kinds of, bits of pottery and chards. And there's a big archaeological report that's been written about the house and the environs around it. And all that, I guess, they have in a drawer some place, and I really think it should come back to Concord. I have written to Brona Simon a couple of times and she blithely doesn't answer. She's the state archivist. So I think probably somebody official in town has to request it in the Library, or somebody has to say, "We want those back." Well, we paid for the survey, so it seems to me that would be legitimate. So where was I?
MK: So was the house then dismantled?
SW: Yes. Well, what they were doing was peeling back layer after layer after layer, numbering every board, putting them in the big trailer. And eventually they got back to, by late summer, just the skeleton of the house, and it was this beautiful skeleton. I wish I could show you the pictures that Leslie has down stairs, because we kept a photographic history of the steps as it happened, the dismantling. And it does exist. And Jerry Bemus herself took thousands of pictures and what she's done with them, I don't know. But--. And in fact, another man who was a Concord resident, Lansing Old, came over and videoed parts of the dismantling, so he has pictures of stages where they are lifting off the roof, or whatever they were doing.
But when you see just the skeleton of it, it's just beautiful clean lines, a beautiful little house. Someday--.
MK: Where will it be--?
SW: Well that's the great mystery wrapped up in the enigma. It's been six or seven years and we just hope that wood mites, or whatever they are, aren't working away at it. It's in these two trailers, which are presently out at the edge of the filter beds in town. And I know the town is eager to get them moved someplace.
MK: So it's just waiting for--.
SW: It's just waiting for a site, yea, and the barn also is waiting for a site. Various options have been suggested and I don't know whether any of them are financially reasonable. The barn was in pretty bad shape. They were able to save the beams. It had vertical siding on most of it, rather than horizontal, which is kind of odd, and a great three-bay front, with huge sliders they pulled on. And inside of it, oh my god, all kinds of stuff. But again, it had the modern things that Coburn had been using, oil and grease and motorcycle and can pieces and parts and whatever. And it had in the back cow stanchions because they had had cattle at one point. A cow stanchion is a narrow strip--. Lead the cow in, she puts her head though a, this narrow vertical bars and then there's a narrow thing that twists so that she's held in place when you're doing the milking. And then the cows can be released. But there are several other barns in Concord that have that same kind of thing. But they were wonderful. And then there was all kinds of, everything under the sun.
Coburn himself was god's first packrat, he had everything in the world. I don't think he ever threw out anything his mother, his aunts, his grandfather had ever had, and so he had two old school busses back in the woods. And they were chalk a block with fabric and sheets and clothes and dresses and photographs of everybody. And he took--. I think he took most of that up to the place in Maine. But some of it did end up in the Special Collections—not the clothing, I think, but some of the pictures. And so there were these two families who lived there generation after generation in both cases. And it's quite unusual to have a house which is two hundred, fifty plus years old with majorly two families, just the Bensons—just the Balls and then Bensons.
MK: But it tells this whole story beyond just those two families, this whole Swedish influx of young laborers--.
SW: Norwegian, yes, fascinating. Right. It was. I'm pretty sure what happened eventually was, they had electricity but they didn't have running water in the house, They had put pipes out to a well in the front yard, but the pipe wasn't deep enough, or something, and it froze. And after repairing it two or three times, I think in the last decade Coburn said, "Oh, heck with it." And so he just drew water from the well and didn't bother having running water inside the house.
There's no bathroom in the house, never was a bathroom, which leads one to wonder. And there was no, at the time we were there, no signs of an outhouse outside either. But when the sisters were there it must have been it must have been more civilized. It had electricity and water and I'm sure they had an outhouse. And Coburn--. They had his wonderful antique pump and they had this picture in the paper of Coburn with the pump, and then he left and sometime in the weeks soon after that somebody stole the pump, which is too bad, ‘cause it was a nice water pump.
So there it is. It was a fascinating place. It was a fascinating winter to work there. Another man, Joe Wheeler and I and a few other people from the Commission spent--. We'd go up in the mornings in January and February and it was warm enough with the sun coming in. This is what I really learned about how important the orientation of a house is. With the front door open, and working with all this dusty stuff, layers of old rugs, and trying to get rid of all this stuff, we had doors and sometimes the windows open and it was not cold. I mean, it was comfortable to work there and it was full of light, it was wonderful. I loved that house. It was really very special. It had--. The east part, the hall, had quite old stuff. The west part, this parlor, had been modernized and had paneling and had plaster and stuff that was more recent, and a more recent, shallow fireplace probably done one the late Seventeen hundreds, early Eighteen hundreds.
MK: That's wonderful! That's probably longer than you intended to talk about that, but it's so revealing of what's important about preservation and--.
SW: Well, this was just very, very special, and we were all so--. I'll just--. How much time do we have?
MK: About ten minutes left.
SW: Of the whole time?
SW: Do you want me to talk about neighborhood conservation? I'd better, hadn't I if your whole time is up?
MK: That, or Louisa May Alcott.
SW: Yeah, that's all the same thing. The other thing that I have been involved in the past ten years is an attempt to start a neighborhood conservation district bylaw for Concord. And this is a concept that came up about 2005 in, at the state level, was approved by the attorney general at that point and, since our own street had seen so many houses torn down that were not tiny, run-down houses, but were good-sized colonials with an average square footage on the floors of about two thousand, eight hundred, fifty square feet. Those are the ones that preexisted 2000. The new ones that have been added on our street average six thousand, three hundred, seventy square feet.
MK: So three times the size.
SW: Three times the size, very big, nine-foot ceilings, meteor rooms, nine foot ceilings in the basement, huge facades all the way across the front of the house. So these little houses were being replaced by very much bigger ones, and it just seemed to us that this was not a healthy thing for the town. And again I go back to—
MK: In what sense?
SW: In several senses. Concord traditionally was a town of people of mixed income. There were a few very rich people. There were a lot of moderate-income people, middle-class people, and there were certainly some people who were struggling to keep their heads above water. And there was housing--. There were young people, there were elderly people, and there was housing available for all those different groups. And what I see happening in the past decade is that the poor—the very poorest may be able to get low-income housing, get into some of those units. But the young families who are moderate-income people, or older people who are moderate-income people are being squeezed out. And it's partly market forces. Concord is just within comfortable driving distance of Boston and has public transportation.
The neighborhoods here, some of them have little cull de sacs and quiet little streets and areas that would be residentially desirable for families with children, or for families who just want a certain amount of peace and quiet. And certainly earlier this decade there were a lot of people who were interested in buying a house for an investment and then moving on after a few years, maybe.
So that we personally ended up living on a circle, which was off the main road and one block from the main drag into Boston. And developers looked at us and said, "Whew! This is what we want."
And one after another they came in and bought ranches and colonials and capes and demolished those houses, bought them for seven or eight hundred thousand, demolished them, which means that the land is worth seven or eight hundred thousand to the developer. And built enormous houses in order to make a profit on what they had done. And those were selling for a million and a half or more. I see this as changing the whole culture of Concord and squeezing out the lower, middle-class people—financially, I'm talking about—and introducing a new group who are not bad people. There are lovely women who live on our street and we're friends and they have nice kids. But these are people who are young and very wealthy and they're—it's different, it's changing what Concord historically has been. And I think it's a loss to Concord. It's difficult to change this because some of the elderly people who sell their houses want obviously and necessarily to make as much profit as they can in order to have money to live on the rest of their lives, or to move into a retirement community or go to Florida or do whatever they do and it's just--. This mansionization though, I think, is an unfortunate step for a town.
So anyway we, with a number of people in our neighborhood tried to create a neighborhood conservation district, it's called, for a bylaw, which would--. The bylaw would cover the whole town, but what it said was if a neighborhood wants to create its own neighborhood conservation district and puts together its criteria and gets approval from the town, it may do so. Nobody has to do it, no neighborhood is required to do it. This is any neighborhood's own choice. So it was going to be—it was—two articles, one creating the, basically, permission to create such a district in your own neighborhood, and the second was a district for our neighborhood. We had the support of fifteen of the twenty families on our street, and most of those people worked pretty hard to make the thing work. We invited everyone in the street and larger neighborhood to be participants. We did the historical research showing that we abut the Alcott house and Samuel Prescott house in the back and changes to houses on top of the hill are visible from those very valuable historic houses. And we wanted to establish certain criteria that would limit various things in new buildings.
I think we made a mistake in trying to do both things the same year and it would have been better if we had done our own neighborhood a second year, but we were really concerned because houses were going down so fast. And so our specifics were to have a--. The criteria that would have been involved were enlarging the setback between, on the side lots, insisting that there be a determination about how much shadow the new house being built would cast on the houses in the neighborhood already.
MK: Literally shadows?
SW: Literally shadows, yes. You can do a shadow impact by looking at, on a certain day in Spring or Fall, and the theory is that the house is far enough back, or if it's banked so that it isn't a flat wall right up to the third floor, but the side of it is set back, you know, you have a wing and then you have a central part that's toward the back, you won't cast a shadow at night—you see what the shadow impact is at nine o'clock and three o'clock and noon. At noon it shouldn't be any thing, but at nine and three, if your blocking all the light to the house next door, then it matters to the people who have always had a ranch house next to them. And I think part of that was, the present ruling in town for roof height is that it's thirty-five feet but that is determined as half-way between the ridge, which is the very tippy top, and the eve, where the roof stops at its lowest level. Halfway between that is thirty-five feet. So if you have a very steep or extensive roof, it can be another ten feet higher. And that's legal. We had hoped to make the ridgeline thirty-two feet, so that that would reduce the height again. And there were a number of specific criteria about not raising the house, not building up around the house so that the whole house sits higher than other houses on the street. And not making it more than, I think it was fifty percent, or some percentage, larger than houses already on the street. So anyhow, those were the criteria that out neighborhood worked out. We talked about it with people on the Planning Board. We had a supporter on the Selectmen, although not all of them were in favor of it. And we presented it to the Town Meeting. And the real estate community came out, I think in toto. I would say every realtor in town was there and they all were against it. And from their perspective I can see why. They get a commission twice: they sell the first house, it's demolished, and they sell the second house. And they kept saying, "Oh, that was just a terrible little house, that wasn't any good, blah, blah, blah," you know. "That house, it was full of mould, or full of this or full of that."
But anyhow, I think that unless the Town makes some kind of determination that limits this building of very large houses in the place of small houses, we are going to be a very different community in the future. And I'm afraid it may be to the detriment of Concord's community spirit and the way people are involved in the Town and care about it long term. I see you looking at your clock and we're running out of time.
MK: Yes we are, but this has been absolutely fascinating.