Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
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I was very aware of West Concord being a separate entity from Concord Center when I was growing. People in the whole of Concord as we used to call it very often let us know in one way or another that we were living on the other side of the railroad tracks. At that time West Concord was called Concord Junction and that was because the New Haven Railroad and the Boston & Maine Railroad crossed at the railroad station.
We as boys would get to Concord Center particularly in the rivalry between Concord Junction and Concord Center in sports. When I was a youngster, we had a very good playground program with some very good instructors. I remember one playground instructor was also a second grade teacher in Concord Junction.
Baseball was the big sport in those days. We had a fellow by the name of Chick Murray, who took the job at the playground in the summertime. He later became the coach at Western Reserve University in Ohio. He was a very good baseball player himself and understood the game and taught the finer parts of the sport.
Concord Center had the same program so there were games between the youngsters, who were divided into three different age groups (around ten or twelve years old). And there was the junior crowd (up to about fifteen) and the senior crowd (over fifteen years old).
People came to see these games but the larger crowds came to the games of the different town teams. Adults played on these teams, and I've seen as many as 5000 people at one of those games at the Percy Rideout playground. Those games were usually in late August or early September. Also on the Fourth of July there was a game either at the Percy Rideout playground or at the old Fairgrounds. An uncle of mine, Archie Simpson, was the manager and financial godfather for the team from this end of town.
In professional baseball in those days they could not play on Sundays. So on Friday they would go in to Fenway Park and find out if the Red Soxs or the visiting team had a pitcher and catcher that was going to lose their place in rotation. In which case the manager would allow them to play for a local team so for $100 they would come and play for a team in Concord. That was how I got to see some of the great ballplayers of the early 1900s. There probably aren't too many of us left that can remember Tris Speaker and Harry Hooper of the Red Sox. There was big attendance to see those players especially to see Speaker and Ty Cobb, who was the all time great outfielder.
There were several people in town here that worked for Old Colony Trust which is now merged with the First National Bank. The Old Colony Trust had a ball team and the rivalry was exaggerated by the fact that so many men who lived here in Concord worked for Old Colony.
Games between teams like Concord Junction and company teams like Old Colony would be arranged on holidays like the Fourth of July celebrations or Labor Day celebrations. I do recall a game in 1912, I think, at the old Fairgrounds. There were tents erected far out into the outfield and the baseball game was going on at the same time. A ground rule was that if a ball hit the tent it was a no more than a two-base hit because the outfielder would have no chance of getting the ball before it became a home run. My uncle was the manager that day. Billy Bulger was a very good ballplayer and he hit one over the tents. No one ever expected the ball to go over the tents so he went all the way around. My uncle went out and argued about it, and the game was held up for fifteen or twenty minutes while that argument went on. But my uncle won the argument and Billy Bulger was sent back to second base. Thirty or forty years later my uncle, Archie, and Billy met downtown and started talking over old times, and my uncle said that was the longest hit he had ever seen but rules are rules.
For the Red Sox games we occasionally could get the scores from the telegrapher at the railroad station, especially during world series games. If the telegrapher wasn't too busy taking instructions for the trains, we could get the scores by the innings and what happened. Of course, it was always behind about an inning or two sometimes as much as three innings, but that was a lot better than waiting until the next day to read it in the newspaper. There was always a crowd waiting at the depot for news of the world series games.
This was also true of the championship prize fights. The news came over the wire. The one that stands out in my mind was the Jack Johnson fight in Havanna, Cuba. How they accomplished that I never knew, but there must have been about a hundred of us of all ages standing at the depot waiting for the news.
I used to pick strawberries around here and the one I usually picked for was almost in my own backyard and was owned by Abail Chase. He was one of the biggest growers in this area. He had a strawberry field where the Percy Rideout playground is now. He also had one off Central Street that ran all the way down to where Chase Road is now.
The Reformatory at that time had several industries, a woolen mill, a furniture factory, and a shoe shop. Most of the instructors were from Concord. One superintendent of the woolen mill was Jim Dunlap, who lived up on Main Street, and a Mr. McKenzie was at the woolen mill also. Brick laying was taught by a Mr. Wilson.
For the kids of Concord Junction all roads led to the fire station. It was an all volunteer department including even the horses that pulled the fire apparatus. Ed Comeau, Charlie's father, had two marvelous horses, Tom and Barney, and when the whistle blew, no matter where those horses were working, they were unhitched and ran to the fire station.
One comical situation that I remember was between 1910 and 1920 the town got a motorized fire truck. In the summer of 1915, I think, the fire whistle blew and since there was no school, the area around the fire station soon filled with youngsters. Silas Bean was chief of the fire department at that time, and of course, he was the one that should drive the truck. I imagine that anybody who contradicted his judgment as to who was the best driver would be in trouble. So he started the truck and drove it out onto the apron in front of the station and stopped. He got out of the truck and lifted up the genuine leather seats and took out a pair of long, leather gauntlets. Here it was about 80 degrees, he put those on, put the seat back in place, got back into the truck, and went off to the fire. I often wondered if Si ever thought you didn't need gauntlets when the temperature wa sin the 80's.
Another comical thing was when the hose would be hooked up to the hydrants. The firemen would hook it up to the hydrant and the other firemen at the end of the hose would wave to signal those at the hydrant to open it up but nothing would happen. So they would try it again. In the attempt to let the firemen at the hydrant know that they weren't getting any water out of the hose, they would let go of the hose and just then the water would come through. So there would be about 200 feet of fire hose snapping around like a snake with water flowing all over the street. They were like the keystone comedies. It was better than the actual movies and you didn't have to pay a dime to see it.
I later became a newspaperman for the Boston Globe. In the early days there were several newspapers in Boston. The Transcript was read by those that were interested in the social activities of the Boston area and they had a prestigous financial section. The Post was for the most part the Democratic paper and they supported Democratic candidates. The Globe was the largest paper in circulation in the early 1900s but subsequently lost that title. For years they carried the caricature of a man whose belly was like the globe. When their circulation decreased, they had to drop that caricature, as they were no longer the largest newspaper in circulation. The Herald-Traveler, the Herald being the morning paper and the Traveler being the evening paper, supported the Republican candidates.
The Globe tried to stay more or less neutral. It was a hard job. The editorials could remain neutral but some of it's reporters and city editors sort of leaned toward the Democratic candidates, and their neutrality slipped.
The Enterprise printed in Marlboro was sort of a local paper and had the largest circulation in Concord. But sometime in the 1930s another newspaper started and they had their office in the old railroad station off Lowell Road. In those days I was so busy at the Globe that my time spent in Concord was in more or less a horizontal position.
Most of the people in Concord had no real concept of the agony that the depression caused. It was very difficult going back and forth to Boston especially working nights and sometimes on overtime, that I lived in Boston during the week. I shared a place with another fellow who worked at the Globe, Arthur Griffin, who later became well known as a photographer. After finishing work at night, I would walk up Boylston Street and I would see as many as 2000 living on the Common. They would team up with ten or twelve fellows looking for food. One place that they would get a good haul of would be Thompson's Spa on newspaper row. They closed about 11:00 and put their garbage pails out into City Hall Avenue. These unfortunates living on the Common would show up on City Hall Avenue waiting for the garbage pails to be put out. They could get a pretty good amount of food and take it back to the Common and heat it up on the fires they had there.
The two or three items they couldn't get were sugar, salt, and milk. So passersby on the Common might be asked by these people if they could give them a dime to get a couple pounds of sugar or salt. Those were really tough times. I think some of the people here in Concord thought I was exaggerating when I would tell them about that, but it was no exaggeration whatsoever.
Here in Concord most of the industries such as we had kept running. The woolen mill finally gave out, that is the one at Damondale or Westvale. The Concord Garnett Mills kept running. As far as the reformatory was concerned, business was just as good as it ever was.
People in this community worked in various professions, bankers, lawyers, stockbrokers. They may have felt the depression in some way, perhaps their dividends were not as good as in the '20s, but they were still not up against it the way people were in the city. I was selectman from 1954 to 1958 and was very involved in town meetings and town affairs. The first town meeting I attended was when I was a teenager. Those that couldn't vote were allowed to watch the meeting from the balcony at the Town House. At that time there were very few Democrats in town. In fact, they had a hard time getting a Democratic committee. You could have put all the Democrats in a telephone booth then.
The town meetings were then held at the Veterans Building on Walden Street. If there were several real controversial articles, the meetings were held at the Armory. And there again there was a balcony that the younger people could watch the proceedings.
The first moderator I recall was Judge Prescott Keyes. He was a rather dictatorial character. You could always go and talk with the Judge and if he thought you had a good enough reason you could usually count on it being done. If he said so, that was it. For instance, when the Fowler Library was built, it cut off a shortcut that had been used to cross that bit of property, and there was considerable controversy about having to walk down Main Street to Church Street and turn left. For years we walked diagonally across the lot. The original plans called for a sidewalk on Main Street straight to the front door of the library, so that meant anyone using the path would be crossing the lawn. So it came to the old Judge's attention and he came up to see what it was all about and finally agreed that there would be three paths, one diagonally across to the front door and continuing to Church Street plus the one from Main Street straight into the front door. The Judge would listen to you and if you were a pretty convincing character and if he said okay, it was accomplished without any more argument.
Lots of town meetings generated quite a bit of heat sometimes some light. I think there was probably more light than heat. There was a gentlemen named Ed McKenna downtown, and he and the Judge would cook up a deal where they would liven up town meetings by Ed McKenna either opposing or espousing something that the old Judge was for or against, and that argument would proceed. Of course, the Judge acting as moderator couldn't get in on it but there was always somebody willing to pick up on the argument and debate with Ed McKenna.
Most people didn't know that was a prearranged argument. It was only to keep the people awake I suppose. Ed McKenna was quite a guy. I had the opportunity to serve with Ed on the registrar of voters for several years. That was where I picked up some stories that I was to young to remember.
He told me a story about one of his first visits to Concord was the 100th anniversary of the fight at the North Bridge. He came out on the railroad and the day turned out to be bitter. There were so many people here in town that the railroad couldn't take care of the people so he and a couple hundred other people rode on the roof of the passenger cars to get back to Boston.
One of the big issues while I was selectman was the rebuilding of the old North Bridge. In 1955 there was a hurricane that did considerable damage upstate and further west. As the floods of water came down the Concord, Sudbury, and Assabet Rivers causing a lot of flooding, the debris in the water finally did in the piling on the old North Bridge, which was constructed in 1909 of cement. Of course, a great many people were not particularly impressed by seeing the old North Bridge constructed out of cement. In the flood the pilings were damaged and swinging free so we immediately closed the bridge. This gave us an opportunity to think of something that really looked like the wooden bridge that was there in 1775.
Congress declared this area of New England a disaster area and appropriated money to replace damaged property. The bill stated that it had to be a bridge leading from one town to another connecting up to roads. Of course, the bridge connected up to nothing but the Minuteman Statue, and there was no road beyond the statue, it had been given up years ago. So legally the North Bridge did not qualify for the use of the funds. The other aspect of this was the communities west of Concord had suffered tremendous damage so they were not too anxious about the North Bridge and figured the town could do a very good job on its own to replace it.
But, an official of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the federal administrator of these funds seemed very insistent that they be allowed to rebuild the bridge. I couldn't understand why they were in such a great hurry especially as winter came on.
John Volpe, who was then Commissioner of Public Works, came out here on a real cold blustery day and he wanted to have pictures taken at the North Bridge showing what we were going to do. He held up this piece of paper with something on it for publicity purposes. So Elmer Joslin and I met him to have pictures taken. I was still insisting that we didn't want the bridge rebuilt because all that meant was another cement bridge.
I arranged with the Globe that when the right opportunity came the citizens of Concord would get very indignant about the rebuilding because we wanted one made of wood and a replica along the lines of the model that was in the Antiquarian Society building. Finally the opportunity came and we unleashed the story and the concept of having a replica made of wood was picked up across the country. Ralph McGill, who was then the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, wrote a very magnificent editorial and other papers had articles on it, including the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times, so we seemed to be winning.
Another publicity stunt was to go in to see Christian Herter, who was then the governor of the Commonwealth, and we brought along a youngster, who was a direct descendant of Colonel Barrett, who led the Minutemen at the North Bridge, Mrs. Hosmer, and Russ Cantrell. The delegation met with the governor and John Volpe and more pictures were taken for publicity. They seemed to be leaning our way but I was still trying to figure out what all this was about with all the publicity. Then the whole story came out from the Director of Public Relations for John Volpe.
President Eisenhower had had a heart attack and it was not known if he could run for a second term. John Volpe wanted to be governor with Christian Herter being willing to run for President in case Eisenhower was not able to continue. Christian Herter's nomination for the campaign would be touched off by the dedication of the North Bridge in Concord. So that was the reason they were all for the bridge being rebuilt as a replica of wood with the hopes that the dedication could take place in June.
Subsequently, it was discovered that Eisenhower was physically able to continue, Governor Herter's chances of being nominated were lost and construction of the bridge slowed down.
The dedication did not take place until sometime in September,
1956. That's one very few people knew about because to protect my friend, the Director of Public Relations at the Public Works, I kept it quiet.
The funds used to rebuild were from the federal appropriation. The wood used for the bridge was specially treated and supplied free of charge by a firm in Nashua, N.H., Koppers Coke. I was more or less laughed at and criticized when I said a wooden bridge properly constructed with the materials available at that time would last longer than the cement bridge. I'm still of the opinion it will be there long, long after anything else that might have been built.
Another story that comes to mind that occurred at town meeting is about Joe Dee deciding to sell some of the land he owned off Bedford Street and dividing it into house lots. After a vote at town meeting, a new road was accepted. Joe named it Nancy and when that came up one of our local historians opposed the name. She thought the day of naming streets after persons of no particular historical significance to the town was past. It was finally voted to name it Nancy.
A couple of weeks after town meeting was over, Joe Dee, who was a wonderful guy, had a story printed in the local paper as to why the name Nancy. He was not naming it after his daughter, Nancy, he was naming it after a village in France where he had been stationed during World War I for a rest after being in the front lines. So that kind of took the wind out of the sails of those that thought he was just naming the street after a member of his family.