Conantum Neighborhood

Interviews by Renee Garrelick

Fall 1986

Recommendation made to Historical Commission that these in- terviews should be video-taped with a camcorder because of the importance of the visual impact. The board has not approved the selective use of video taping for the Oral History Program. Transcriptions, contemporary photos by Alice Moulton and historical photos of the neighborhood are available.

Carl Koch -- 52 Holden Lane
Frederic "Lanny" Day -- 158 Simon Willard Road
Helen and Chauncey Watt -- 114 Holden Wood Road
Pat Sterling -- 181 Holden Wood Road
Susan Hay -- 12 Holden Wood Road
Penny & Hugo Logemann -- 178 Heath's Bridge Road
Burt Webster -- 297 Holden Wood Road
Betty Aschaffenburg -- 155 Heath's Bridge Road
Mary Wilinsky -- 185 Heath's Bridge Road
Colleen Owen -- 43 Holden Wood Road
Jay Forrester -- King Lane
Sylvia Gold -- 76 Holden Wood Road
Olive "Oggie" & Bob Butman -- 55 Holden Wood Road
Susan Curtin -- 169 Holden Wood Road


Written by Renee Garrelick
(November 1986)

"I talked of buying Conantum once, but for want of money we did not come to terms. But I have farmed it in my own fashion every year since." -- Henry David Thoreau, Journal, August 1851.

On land frequented and named Conantum by Henry David Thoreau, groundwork was laid 35 years ago for Concord's first large residential development of 103 homes on 190 acres of land along the Sudbury River.

Over 40 percent of the original residents still remain. The young academic and the pregnant woman standing in front of a line-up of mailboxes are at retirement age now. They regard their neighborhood as a special place to live in for the bonds of community offered in a time when neighbors often remain strangers.

Their story is a special one too because of the idealism of its beginnings, the unique composition of so many of its residents employed in the academic community of MIT and Harvard, the contemporary design of their homes, and the activist-liberal political thinking of some in a community then generally regarded as conservative. Included among the arrivals were a handful of Jewish families, novel at the time, since the few Jewish families in Concord employed in tailoring and dry goods at the turn of the century were no longer living here.

The arrival of over 100 new families to homes of contem- porary design, and the development of 190 acres of prime Concord land along the Sudbury River, was considered a dis- ruption not welcomed by some in the town.

The financial health of the project, the demand on town services, and whether the new arrivals would be a part of the larger Concord community, were all questions raised at the time. The project survived bankruptcy, the residents provided and paid for their own water supply, and over the years have taken an active leadership role in town affairs.

Conantum was the dream of an idealistic MIT Economics Professor, W. Rupert Maclaurin to build lower cost housing in a country setting for young families, that attracted, but was not limited to, fellow academics from MIT and Harvard. According to the February 1 issue of The Concord Journal, the land was purchased by Maclaurin from former owners T. Mott Shaw, Dwight Robinson, and Robert Goodwin.

Maclaurin was the sponsor, underwriting the initial expense. Architect Carl Koch was the planner and contractor Joseph Kelly the builder. Together they formed the non-profit corporation of New Towns Inc., which subsequently became known as Conantum Realty Trust in April 1951. Concord architect Frederick "Lanny" Day, who worked for Koch, was a trustee and the project's treasurer.

Carl Koch, 52 Holden Lane has lived in Conantum since its inception. "Sixty acres were set aside as common land for playgrounds, ball fields, boat landings and tennis courts. Prices of the homes generally ranged from $10,000 to $18,000 and for each buyer, the cost of land, roads, water and a share in the common land averaged $2,900. Building lots were from one to several acres.

"Homes were designed on a standard rather than custom basis to keep costs low and some of the materials were pre-cut on site. There were two basic frame sizes but the range of options and variations resulted in buyers choosing from 40 different models. Construction of roads and the water system began in mid-May and house construction in July.

"The initial group of buyers were mostly engineers, which proved to be a mixed blessing when they offered their advice and involvement in the business of construction, such as doing their own slump tests on the mixing of concrete or determining the water content of the lumber with a moisture meter. I remember the driver of the cement truck complaining that he wasn't going to make another delivery while those damn scientists were poking around.

"The effort to hire a watchman to prevent vandalism and the theft of materials from the site backfired when the watchman, a retired policeman, was found to be stealing. By the time he was apprehended, he had trucked away several thousand dollars worth of supplies, and disposed of them at a clear profit.

"By February 1952 the water system was complete, eight families had moved in, and by the middle of March most of the homes were finished and there were 50 families. But by the 23rd of April with 60 of the homes substantially complete, costs had escalated beyond the ability to pay and Conantum was broke.

"Conantum from the start intentionally had operated on a small profit margin to keep costs down. Conantum's troubles resulted not from gross miscalculation but an effort to calculate too closely on too small a bankroll. It might have been cheap at twice the price.

"I remember the fear and concern by some existing Concord residents living nearby that Conantum would lower property values and ruin their riding and walking area. I remember Mr. Metcalf coming over to my house, using my burning brush as an excuse to tell me what an awful thing Conantum was. These new arrivals, were all damn bright people, the yuppies of that period. And the town could be uncooperative. The town told us it was too expensive to provide us with water."

According to the March 15, 1951 issue of The Concord Journal about 50 residents attended the Planning Board Hearing led by Chairman George Bates. At the time 77 house lots had already sold.

Part of the discussion involved the two miles of roads and entrance drives to be built, the eight inch mains with hydrants to be placed at 500 foot intervals, and the water to be pumped from wells to a central elevated 250,000 gallon storage tank.

But there were concerns by existing residents about the impact of the project on the character of the town. Some expressed concern that the project might be started and abandoned due to cost or other difficulties.

The March 15 issue of The Colonial describes the audience that filled the hearing room of the town house as "mildly hostile." As Maclaurin spoke, the paper says "he moved his hands in vague professorial gestures over a relief map of the proposed Sudbury road subdivision. The professor was a visionary, also a practical man, who had facts and figures, and could see alternate solutions to the problems of water and sewage. His plans had fired the imagination of his followers."

According to The Colonial, Garfield Road residents Edwin Brooks, Jr. and F.C. Lowell, posed the dangers of building 100 houses in a wooded area beyond the protection of high pressure hydrants and vulnerable to fire. Local realtor Fred Boyd believed that the project would become more costly than anticipated and the large lot sizes, averaging two acres, would be expensive to supply town services. He said he feared the project's abandonment when building became too costly.

Among the members of the Planning Board then was The Concord Journal editor, Sam Kent, who wrote supportively of the project in the newspaper. "There is no doubt in your editor's mind that the type of citizens which this development would bring to Concord would be desirable and welcome in our community. ... In view of the fact that Concord must definitely expect real estate development and a population increase in this area, the type of growth that this project envisions seems the most innocuous.

... The last thing we want to be is smug, and inconsid- erate of the problems, desires and hopes of others. New building in Concord is inevitable. There is much we can do to protect ourselves, but our approach must be a matter of intelligent, diplomatic direction, rather than thoughtless belligerence."

On page one of the Boston Traveler for May 2, the headline over the masthead blared "Concord Realty Trust Bankrupt - $200,000-$500,000 Lost in 200-Acre Development of 100 Dream Homes."

According to the April 24 issue of The Concord Journal, Conantum Realty Trust filed an involuntary petition in bankruptcy under pressure from three of its creditors. The Journal reports that before the building permit was issued, Maclaurin was required to provide two completion bonds for the roads and water system, one of $78,795 and another of $24,000.

If Maclaurin was the prime mover in starting Conantum, he was also responsible for getting it out of bankruptcy.

During the bankruptcy period Maclaurin kept residents informed of developments through bulletins to residents. On May 6, he offered $50,000 of his own money to the receiver Irving Helman, and work began again on May 26 and the last homes were finished by late fall.

Frederic "Lanny" Day, 158 Simon Willard Roadrecalling that time, "We all were idealistic and didn't know too much about the business end. Our cost estimates were too low and there wasn't enough allocated for such needs as blasting for roads and providing for the water system. Today though it would be more of a disaster, then the amounts of money were lower and it was simpler to get on your feet again.

"In retrospect, I regard Conantum as a wonderful solution to housing needs. There was so much space between homes and common land, and we attracted so many interesting minds to move out here. But, in an effort to build as cheaply as possible, low cost products were used. We could have aimed higher and charged more. Two or three years after a project is done, people only ask what is the quality, not what did it cost."

While Maclaurin saw the completion of Conantum, he did not live to see its longterm success in terms of the quality of life expressed by its residents. According to records supplied by the MIT Museum, on August 17, 1959, the 52 year old Lincoln resident, "toppled" to his death from the roof of the Sheraton-Plaza Hotel in Boston. He was reported despondent over the recent deaths of his brother and fellow research scientist.

The original residents arrived in 1951-52, eager for housing and starting their families after the men had been in the armed services or graduate school. Helen and Chauncey Watt, 114 Holden Wood Road were one of the first Conantum residents to move in, in January 1952. "For Christmas 1950, a present from my husband, an electrical engineer at MIT, was a $10 option to have our house built. We paid $14,500 for the house and $2,200 for the acre of land.

"It was like a wilderness here. We trudged through the mud looking at lots marked by flags. There were so many things that had to be hammered out in the beginning, we felt like pioneers. But there was definitely a mystique about the neighborhood and all of its young college graduates."

The once pregnant woman, now shows pictures of her grandchildren, at Conantum's Wednesday night sewing group. And a long tradition of the neighborhood is that every child gets a Revere bowl when they get married.

Pat Sterling, 181 Holden Wood Road refers to the pervasive idealism among the early residents that kept the time of bankruptcy from interfering with their sense of pioneering optimism.

"My husband Jim, an engineer with Raytheon, and I liked the contemporary architecture and I remember foraging in the mud to select our lot. There are 40 of the original families still here in the neighborhood directory of families.

"With so many having young children then there were cooperative efforts through playgroups and car pooling. Within the town, we were sometimes seen as the radicals, the intruders. Suddenly in this heavily Republican town there was a Democrats for Stevenson headquarters set up. Our community of new PhDs definitely were not the country club set.

"There is a feeling of comraderie through the annual Christmas caroling where residents hold open houses, and the Fourth of July picnics that used to include parades, costumes, and baseball games. Everyone who played an instrument was in the band. We all seemed to have a high energy level when the kids were young. Today, the townwide 'Picnic in the Park,' for July 4th has reduced the scale of Conantum's celebration."

Susan Hay, 12 Holden Wood Road describes the circumstances that led to the formation of the Conantum Garden Club in 1953 and her active involvement as its president. "We were left in a pile of mud, litter, and trash. We decided we needed to form a study group to learn how to deal with our landscaping problems. Betty Karlian and Penny Logemann became our resident specialists.

"While the Concord Garden Club existed new members had to be proposed by existing ones. When we found we couldn't get into the Concord Garden Club, we set off on our own, with a starting membership of 75. Today membership in the Conantum Garden Club is open to all Concord residents. Through our efforts a record of the area's flora and fauna has been compiled, which of course includes the abundant kalmia mountain laurel after which the neighborhood association is named."

Interest in their own neighborhood extended over the years to town projects. Included is the garden club's active role in raising money through a state program to keep Nine Acre Corner farmland owned by Steve Verrill in agriculture forever, and the 350th anniversary landscaping project for the Emerson Umbrella on Stow Street. Annually the Conantum Garden Club hosts the fall Harvest Supper, for neighborhood residents, which this year took as its theme the statue of liberty, "yearning to eat free."

Penny Logemann, 178 Heath's Bridge Road, "Though not by choice, until May 1983 Conantum had its own water district. Initially water was supplied to the homes through a series of wells, then joined to the town line on one meter three years ago. Conantum water was fluoridated as early as 1953.

"I remember when the windows, doors, and rafters, cut to the same dimensions, were produced on site from a mill on Heath's bridge.

"There is a clause that specifies no restrictions on purchasing the Conantum homes on the basis of race, national origin, creed or color. Among the new arrivals were eight Jewish families.

"And when we found we couldn't get into the Concord Garden Club, we formed our own. We put plantings along the bank at Heath's Bridge and Valley Roads in 1953 that included the community Christmas tree around which they gather to sing songs every year."

Hugo Logemann, 178 Heath's Bridge Road, "When we moved to Conantum in July 1952, we remember very pointed questions being asked about the bankruptcy at neighborhood association meetings, but no panic. Everyone wanted to stay, they rolled up their sleeves and formed their own supervisory committees to monitor the details of the building operation. Maclaurin was a a real gentlemen, a pleasure to work with.

Burt Webster, 297 Holden Wood Road, "We were young eager beavers then, and Conantum was the first development that had an impact on the town because of its size. I was one of the lone Republicans among the new arrivals. I remember Maclaurin as a brave man of tremendous courage. The original residents shared the common bond of going through many of the same problems together. A lot of theft of materials had taken place and with the furnace and bathroom fixtures stolen, I had an incomplete house for a while."

Betty Aschaffenburg, 155 Heath's Bridge Road, "I have become something of an expert on the neighborhood's water, having served on its water board as clerk and treasurer. Conantum went through the stages of having no water mains and pumping and selling their own water, to purchasing water from the town and having one meter for the area, to now having individual meters for each home.

"When water prices began to rise, it was no longer practical to divide a flat fee up among over 100 homes. Conantum residents paid for the extension of the town water mains to their area, which makes a loop with the water entering at Oxbow Road and the lines ending at the ballfield on Heath's Bridge Road. It was a real struggle with the town.

"Now that I'm a widow, I appreciate the quiet sense of caring shown by my neighbors. The brush sitting in front of my house is gone one day when I return from work, the mailbox is painted when someone is doing their own, and people will stop by to ask if I need any help."

Mary Wilinsky, 185 Heath's Bridge Road, "Conantum still holds the sense of an old fashioned neighborhood. There is a mystique about the place. When my husband Gene and I moved in 25 years ago it offered us instant social life."

Colleen Owen, 43 Holden Wood Road, "I have lived here for 21 years and Conantum balances a sharing and caring among neighbors, while still maintaining a respect for privacy and the individuality of its residents. And yes people actually came to the door to welcome Don and me when we arrived.

"The Kalmia Woods Association, which now includes residents from adjoining Oxbow Road, keeps the neighborhood informed through a monthly news bulletin, which lists jobs that kids can do such as mowing, painting, or babysitting, and which homes may be up for rent.

"I love the wooded area, the accessibility to the boat landing at Martha's Point and having our own tennis courts. And it is not unusual for a family as their needs change to move from one house to another in Conantum.

"The only unpleasant association with Conantum came when people elsewhere in town would say 'how could I live out there with those Communists.' The first time I heard it, I was reduced to tears. I haven't met any Communists yet."

Jay Forrester, King Lane, referred to by some of his neighbors as the father of the Digital Computer, "At the time of Conantum's inception, I was an electrical engineer working at the computer development lab at MIT and one of the very substantial percentage of MIT professionals looking for a nice house at a low price in a country community. All of us were tight on money then.

"My wife Helen and I were taken with the beauty of the land, which still had deer roaming then. While personally we felt welcome in town, we realized the unpopularity of the development as the first of a major new wave of building and population for Concord.

"Conantum in the early days was a community within a community with its own trash collection and water system, common land, and neighborhood governing association. And with so many young families, there had to be a major impact on the schools."

Sylvia Gold, 76 Holden Wood Road, "My husband Ben and I have lived in Conantum since 1958 and are really comfortable here. That comfort has come from knowing our neighbors over the years and feeling people care about you. As a computer scientist with Lincoln Labs, Ben heard about Conantum through the MIT community.

"We were never made aware of being Jews. My husband and I while not really religious have a strong Jewish identity, but some other families did not. After all Jews differ from one another like people in any group.

"I was never aware of how many families were or are Jewish in Conantum, and that common interests rather than religion determine their association. The Jewish families in Conantum have never stuck together."

Olive "Oggie" Butman, 55 Holden Wood Road, "Conantum has been a special place for us to live. We were surrounded by really top notch people in their fields, there was a new infusion within the town of young families and their children and everyone here felt part of the pioneering spirit. It was like a campus here with playgroups and car pooling and our involvement in the schools and town affairs. We were a real doing kind of group.

"In 1964 I ran for selectman, a position at that time never held by a woman. I thought I had something to offer, I had become active in town government through the Recreation Commission for seven years. I wasn't conscious of being a woman. I've never been bitter about my defeat. Bob Sheehan was an incumbent and well known in town. Though I had to answer some pretty tough questions campaigning, I had no sense that I was going to lose. Maybe its because I was used to politics with my father a Mayor of Medford!

"I ran the following year for school committee and won. The arrival of over 100 Conantum families, many with young children meant a strong impact on the schools. I served on the school committee for six years and then my husband Ben succeeded me for another six years.

"There was a lot of study and discussion about the schools then; we were in a time of growth and change. I remember chairing the public hearing of 1,000 people at the high school in April 1966 on whether to become part of the METCO program, which involved busing black students from Boston to the Concord schools. Change was in the air, it was a time of involvement in the war in Vietnam and civil rights, and the recognition of the need for special education through the introduction of classes for the deaf."

Bob Butman, 55 Holden Wood Road, "I remember Maclaurin as a blue-blood gentleman who stood up well in a tough situation, though later events showed otherwise. He had dignity and fortitude. The homes were sited to allow for individuality, not lined in rows. This allowed for additions and changes over the years.

"By my term in office, population growth had ceased. Nobody wanted to believe that the decline was going to happen, people were still tuned to building schools. I was in the minority in opposing the building of the addition to the high school. We were past the peak of growth as well as experi- mental education. Those were the days when the school committee was doing the negotiating with a multitude of bargaining units."

Susan Curtin, 169 Holden Wood Road, "I am an 11 year resident. I grew up in Carlisle, just over the Concord line, and I remember hearing as a child about this strange development on the banks of the Sudbury River. So Conantum always sounded mysterious and exotic to me.

"I find Conantum to have a definable esprit de corps. There is no pressure to conform. There is a sense of living in someplace special but in no way is it an elitist neighborhood."

Mounted 24th March 2012 rcwh.