Concord Oral History Program
Interviewed by Renee Garrelick
To grow up in Concord is to have an appreciation of the natural environment that stays with you throughout your life, but the tranquility that might be assumed to go with that appreciation is misleading. I think Concord has had some of the more glorious civil wars between people of varying persuasions and convictions in politics, town government, road mending, pollution, and whatever else. We are not a quiet, sleepy town and I don't think we ever have been.
One of the greatest charms of the town to me is boating. There are three rivers, the Sudbury, the Assabet, and those two come together at Egg Rock to form the Concord. The indians liked it for this reason too, and they made Egg Rock a sacred place. I think many of the people who have spent years on the rivers understand why the indians loved that spot so much. The rivers haven't changed tremendously over the years. It's about the only place, and only in a very few places on the river, where your view is pretty much the way it probably was 200, 300, or 400 years ago.
We can't be sure, of course, but man has not laid a heavy hand on those marshy areas. It was too expensive to do it in the first place, and nowadays with our conservation laws, I hope the rivers will continue to be saved through those areas.
My first trips on the river were with my father who was a great canoeist. I moved on from that to building rafts with my friends, and we would put these rafts out on the river when there was a flood. Why we never got pneumonia or drowned, I don't know, I couldn't swim and I don't think some of the other boys could either. But we didn't drown and we had an awfully good time. When the river is in flood, it goes pretty fast. The meadows are filled with water and there are all sorts of short cuts you can take.
There were other groups of boys who took these opportunities to dump things on our heads from bridges, so we would go to shore and up on the bridge and try to throw the attacking force into the river. Frequently all of us ended up in the river. It was all in fun and nobody got hurt except I think I was probably spanked a few times for tearing new clothes to pieces.
Much of the children's life in town in those days was connected with the river because it didn't cost much to go out there. The canoe rentals were cheap, and the ingenuity of boys in devising some form of vessel is considerable.
The boat house has been there, I'm pretty sure, for over 100 years. I tried to find out exactly at one time, but I don't actually know when it was built. One of my occasional activities is defending the boat house, particularly from new people that come to Concord and are concerned with the image of the town, forgetting that it is their image they see and not the one which is there in actuality. They don't consider a commercial activity like the boat house suitable in a residential district, and indeed there are zoning laws which prohibit the placing of another one. But there is always a grandfather clause in these zoning laws which says that an existing use may continue. I hope the boat house will always continue because it is now the only public access which we have to the river from Billerica to Framingham. It is such a shame because the river is one of the finest recreational activities that we have.
As an adult now, I like to kayak on the river. I used to keep a kayak at the boat house but liking to be out on the river very early in the morning and the boat house locked, I have had to find other places to keep a boat so I can get into the water any time I want to.
On Washington's Birthday about twenty years ago, it was lovely warm weather and the river opened up enough to get a boat into the water. I took Bill Clark, who was our Episcopal clergyman and a very hard working man, out for a spin in my kayak. I couldn't raise the people who owned the boat house so we forced a window. I didn't think it proper for a priest to be caught breaking and entering so I did the entering and passed the boat out the window to him. We had a lovely ride up and down the river. He didn't want to go in the first place; he said he had too many parish calls to make. I said that my soul is just as important as anyone else's in the parish. You have never called on me so let's make this a parish call, and he agreed.
He really enjoyed himself. There were a number of muskrat houses, mounds of clay and sticks and so on, in the marsh. We would paddle over to those and he would bang on it with his paddle and go through the entire parish call introductory remarks, which I thought was very funny but the muskrats never showed up. But I think it did Bill Clark a lot of good!
Concord's Social Circle started in 1782, which is a long time ago. Because a group of men that had been planning Concord's part in the American Revolution from the days when the provincial Congress was first set up in 1774 had so much fun getting together without their wives, that when the war was over, they had no more excuse to go out in the evening. So they invented one and put together the Social Circle in Concord with the understanding, and the charter states this, that even though the welfare of the town was considered, the group would not take any official action as a group but be a means of communication between themselves. Most of the members at the time were active in town government anyway.
Through the years up until about World War I, when the town really began to grow, it was fairly representative of the town, with usually a couple of selectmen, the moderator, the minister of the First Parish Church, a doctor and a lawyer. Sam Staples, the jailor who put Henry Thoreau in jail for not paying his taxes, was a member. Henry was not. Henry was considered locally to be a no-good bum and they wouldn't dream of having anybody like that in the Circle even though Mr. Emerson, who was well respected, spoke for him.
They never got up and said the Circle suggests or demands or requires that the town do this or that or the other thing. But it was a very good place for two political opponents, on some major issue in town that was being debated with more heat than light, to sit down to dinner with a drink in their hands and say "Hey, George, you really are loose in the flue on this issue and now the way that I see it is thus and such." And these things could be reasoned out calmly and peacefully, no face was being lost and no great triumphs were being made before a public audience. It was useful for that.
In recent years, with the population of the town around 18,000, and the membership of the Circle frozen as it is at twenty-five, it obviously cannot be representative of the town or be very influential in the decisions of the town. But yet the moderator, several selectmen, the minister of the First Parish, doctors, lawyers, a justice of the Supreme Judicial Court are all members. To me the most interesting part of it is that of the current membership of twenty-five, I would guess fifteen have not lived in Concord more than fifteen years. I think I am the eighth generation on my mother's side to be a member of the Circle and I hope that wasn't the only reason I got in. I like to think it was all the trouble I made for several other members of the Circle when I was a trustee of the Concord Free Public Library. The library is the institution I have devoted most of my interest in the years since the war.
Judge Keyes had died before I joined the Circle, but I knew him pretty well. He was very fond of my father. Judge Keyes and Charles Francis Adams, who really only summered in Concord, were very interested in the library and had supported my father in the early 1930s when dad was asked to enlarge the Concord library. Dad said he would do it but he wanted to change the exterior from Victorian Gothic to Georgian Colonial. These men said, "Harry, tear the whole thing down if you want to and start over, we'll give you the money."
The central octagon of the library is an extraordinarily handsome room. Dad said that this meant so much to him in his years in the town and to mother, who of course had always lived here. Both of them knew a great many people in Concord and had taken the trouble to ask them about the library, and they all loved that central room. It had a meaning for every one of them. So dad had that room cleaned out to the point it was at when the first architect had first finished it. And they changed the accents on the outside, changed the brick, took off the pointed windows and refinished it as a Georgian structure and added reading rooms on each side. Dad's theory was if a building is well proportioned, you can finish it in any style you like. If it's badly proportioned it's like a photographic negative that was exposed when the camera was out of focus. No matter what you do to it, it's going to look lousy. This was his demonstration.
Judge Keyes and Mr. Adams supported my father vigorously. The Judge said precisely what he thought and usually phrased it a little more strongly than was necessary, and he didn't care how many people's toes he trampled on. There were many who were afraid of him and there were some who hated him with a passion, which was wrong because even though he was not a kindly man, he was decent and a brilliant man and he was a honest man. Even if he didn't like you, he would never cheat you or back you into a position in which there was no stand. There were a few people in the Circle that would call to see if the Judge was coming to Circle and if he was coming, they wouldn't.
I'm a little distressed by the library now. We're having the same problems here on a smaller scale that the Boston Public Library is, expenses skyrocketing and funding going down. What upsets me the most, and it really upsets me, is the apparently determined campaign to steal as many books from the library as possible. The number of books that are going, in proportion to the size of the town and the holdings of the library, would indicate that it is not just casual theft but very deliberate looting.
Concord has always been proud of its library, always taken care of it, and it's theory for years was if you give people the best, they will respect it and take care of it. If you cut corners, you're in trouble and now we're in trouble.
I just don't know what the basis for this is, and it distresses me and it distresses the staff. The cuts in funds which are necessary, I'm afraid, because of the tax situation in the town put us in real trouble.
The library is run by two boards and a professional staff. The library corporation was set up by Mr. Munroe when he gave the library in 1873. The corporation was to own the building, maintain it, and to manage the private gifts of books, money, or whatever comes to it.
The town library committee goes back before the founding of this library when they had a small library in the town hall which was open several afternoons a week and in the evening for the Lyceum lectures. That was the library Mr. Munroe saw Mr. Emerson working in. In those days, the library committee was elected by the town but it is now appointed by the selectmen. That committee appropriates the town funds which are spent for books and salaries and in the old days it was a dollar for each rateable poll and the dog tax refund. That was the standard New England formula for maintaining a library.
In recent years there has been substantial money voted by town meeting to pay salaries. Librarians work for the town and they are managed by the town library committee.
This has worked out well because you have two committees responsible to different agencies, one the corporation and the other the town, each looking over each other's shoulder, each working with each other, each settling various problems between them. The library committee is usually more closely aware of what is going on than the corporation.
My father's work is very evident throughout town. The second house he ever built was the one I grew up in on Simon Willard Road back of Nashawtuc Hill. When we lived there, there was no other house in sight, and we came through Mr. William Wheeler's farm yard to get to it. My father built the house in 1914 for $10,000 and the house sold a few years ago for $250,000 and is still a very beautiful house.
My father did quite a number of houses in town including a new sanctuary for the Trinity Episcopal Church and a new church for the Trinitarian Congregational Church after their original one burned. He also built an addition onto the Middlesex Mutual Insurance Company on Monument Street just off the square. During the depression he built a filling station for Mr. Crosby at the corner of Route 2 and Cambridge Turnpike. This was somewhat of a comedown I suppose from The National Cathedral in Washington which was his life's work. He loved to practice architecture and he put his best in everything he did. I have never seen any evidence of carelessness or indifference in his work.
The Antiquarian Society was a tremendous undertaking because it had to be in appearance a private house. Inside it had to take 200 years of architectural interiors of different periods, different tastes, different styles and scale. He worked very closely on that with Russell Kettell, one of America's great experts on interior architectural design of the American period. Russell would scurry around finding these old houses that were being torn down and would buy the architectural detail or sometimes it would be given to him. He would call up my father, frequently in the middle of the night, to tell him he had materials for a particular room. My father would say "Russell, just give me a few samples of it, the Schwab Mill in Arlington can turn out absolute replicas of it." And Russell would say, "For the hundredth time, Harry, you simply don't understand. Everything that goes into the rooms has to be authentic!" Somehow they managed and the Antiquarian Society is, I think, one of the most beautiful houses here.
On Main Street, the facade of the Anderson market, which is now a bank, was frequently photographed, and my dad designed that. Mr. Anderson, Sr. was a good friend of my dad, and he wanted a new window for his store. My father was very partial to windows with small panes of glass so he put them in. Inside the windows he put shelves on the windows so that things could be shown right up against the glass. This worked out very happily for some time. Then old Mr. Anderson died and the market became less prosperous because of supermarkets coming in, so they put an ugly aluminum awning over the windows. Fortunately my dad had died or he would have been very unhappy about it. But the bank has taken the awning off and cleaned the wood back to the golden oak that it's supposed to be and the windows look very nice.