Concord Oral History Program
Interviewed by Renee Garrelick
Brick MacWilliams, the town's long time building inspector, remembers West Concord during the early years of the century when he could kick the dust up on Commonwealth Avenue before the road was paved.
The business area of Concord Junction at the turn of the century
Concord Junction as a separate entity- tempo of life
Working at the Damon Mill
West Concord Union Church
Electrical Inspection of town
Commonwealth Avenue was not paved in those days. I can't remember when it became a practice to put oil down and cover the oil with sand. But, I don't recall when it was other than a gravel road. It was quite smooth because it was traveled a great deal and it was in good shape. I'm sure Concord had a road department at that time. But I don't think from 1912 to 1915 there was a road paved in our end of town.
If you took out the Boston-Maine R.R. tracks where Commonwealth Avenue crosses them, looking westward along the Avenue coming to what is now Beharrell Street, just before Beharrell Street there was a garage known as Hunter's Garage (his daughter married Charlie Comeau, one of our local contractors). In back of Hunter's Garage was the Blueine Manufacturing Company. They sold blueine in dried packets all across the United States of America.
Just across Beharrell Street from Hunter's Garage was the post office. The post office was a first class post office rather unusual in Concord Junction in those days, but the blueine supplied enough business so that there was enough mail that brought the Concord Junction post office to a first class level.
In the tin building which was called Association Hall, there was a Rexall drug store and Dr. Davis's dental office. And farther along on that same side of the street there was a dry goods store and still further along was Bartelomeo fruit store, a double house and then a Chinese laundry.
If we go back to the railroad tracks and cross the street, we came to Loring & Fowler's Furniture Store (he's the one that donated the branch library in West Concord), and then Adams & Bridges grocery store (with a branch on Main Street in West Concord or Westvale in those days). Next to that was Mr. Waite's store and then the Elmwood Hotel which is now apartments. And across Bradford Street was a house, which General Otis Whitney bought. As you follow along Commonwealth Avenue you came to the pail factory bridge over Nashoba Brook. On the left hand side was the pail factory itself. All I remember of it is an old dark building that had been abandoned. As you continued up the Avenue, there were houses on both sides and you eventually came to the Reformatory.
On the southerly side of the Boston & Maine tracks, there was a store run by Charlie Holden and his wife, Mame, and next to him was Mike Kelly's barbershop, who was succeeded by Charlie Lombardo. A great many people around today remember him. They faced actually on Church Street and moving up Church Street was a pawn shop and then a house that we lived in, which was burned down at the same time as the fire station burned down in 1931. And then on up the street you came to Our Lady Help of Christians Catholic Church and Dr. Batt's house on the right and a little farther up was the Union Church.
Incidentally, the railroad in those days didn't look much like it does today. It was kept in spic and span shape. They had nice clean lawns, the grass was kept mowed, the track was in perfect condition. They had in those days what they called the interlocking tower, that set the signals for the express trains that go through and did the switching for the freight trains. Out in back of the tower was a turnaround that was used to turn engines around so they could reverse direction without backing up. There was a little train called the WN & P (Worcester, Nashua & Portland) that came down through North Acton and the end of the route was Concord Junction, so that was one of the engines that was turning around. As kids we used to get a kick out of watching the trains going out and turning those engines around. My father was a section boss for the railroad; he always had a big crew that kept the train in shape.
I'd like to mention a spectacular wreck that I saw. Our house was quite near the railroad and quite near the station. I was sitting out there one Sunday afternoon and my father was in the house reading the Sunday paper and an engine came down the Boston & Maine tracks traveling eastward, just the engine, which I thought was rare. It seemed to be just coasting along and as he got down to where the intersection of the Boston & Maine and the New Haven tracks were he stopped. And presently, along came the rest of the train which was a bunch of sand cars, that we called gondolas.
The engine had stopped and when the train caught up to him, those cars went up in the air one after another. It was a tremendous sight. Of course, I was shocked for a second but I ran in the house for my father. He took one look and said "Oh, my God" and headed for the trouble. That was a terrific wreck. There were sand cars on the freight car platform and practically leaning against the railroad station and freight cars over on their side. It was a fantastic thing. That was a most unusual thing to happen, the engine should have kept going and let the rest of the train catch up to him gradually to avoid a wreck.
Another thing I recall about those days, there was an engineer named Beaverstock. He was an engineer on one of those big and fast express trains that went from Boston to Montreal. What makes me recall him was that when he whistled for crossings he had a very distinctive sound. There were always two long blasts and two short ones, and he drew it out for such a long time that you remembered it. As kids we rolled our hoops around down there, and we would try to imitate him. He was a legend all right.
There was another railroad station over in back of Derby Street on the New Haven tracks. Across from the station was a big water tank that was used by the big engines to fill up with water, and beside the tank was a windmill with a circular wheel at the top. We estimated it was something like 80 feet off the ground, and some of the kids, myself included, would climb up there.
I don't know how many people realize that in the 1920's there was a movement to separate Concord Junction from Concord. The town was separated into precinct 1 and precinct 2. Precinct 2 being Concord Junction first and later West Concord. The idea was in order to provide ourselves with better services, we should have our own township. There was quite a lot of talk about it at the time, but obviously, it didn't happen. Probably it's just as well or we would have developed political troubles.
It was quite obvious that Concord (Center) itself was almost entirely residential and Concord Junction had the woolen mill, the foundry, the reformatory and there was a difference in the town. And, this may have contributed to the feeling of separateness. Also, there was a feeling by many people that Concord proper got more attention than Concord Junction, and I think this feeling may have been strong in the minds of some people.
The West Concord Union Church was built in 1891 and it was built on the idea of union. In fact the moral of the church is that "all may be one." I was born and brought up in the church. My father was Presbyterian and my mother was Baptist, and we were brought up on the Bible and all. I taught church school for about 20 years and I sang in the choir. Later I was the choir director for 18 years. It is a good church; a very friendly church. It was always very strong in music.
In my high school years I worked at Damon Mills. One summer about 1918 or 1919, I got a job as an office boy at the mill when Mr. Servais, a Belgian, ran the mill. The paymaster and accountant name's was Mr. Fawcett, and I used to help Mr. Fawcett go around and pay off the help. He used to put the pay envelopes on a big tray and put a big revolver on top, and I would carry the tray and he passed out the envelopes.
Incidentally one of my duties for the town now is elevator inspector. Not long ago I inspected the elevator for Bill Sullivan at the mill. I remembered going around with Mr. Fawcett in paying off the help and riding the elevator from floor to floor. I got in the habit of riding the elevator, and one day I jumped on the elevator, and the elevator man kicked me off. He said "You're not a boss, you're just an office boy. Get out of here and walk up the stairs just like everybody else." The mill looked the same and had the same feeling. As I sat in one of the offices, I remembered the place quite well, and some of the help.
It was a very busy mill in those days. It was fascinating to go into the basement and see all the machinery that ran the mill, and on the upper floors, the spinning machines and the skill that it took for the operators to run those machines. Those were people that Mr. Servais apparently brought over from Belgium. Some of them didn't speak much English. Mr. Servais spoke English some but I was interested to notice that when he was talking about mill affairs with the manager, he spoke in French so the people standing around didn't know what they were saying.
The area around the mill is almost the same now as then. As you cross the river there are some houses that were not there in the old days. The building that was the branch of Adams & Bridges grocery store is still there and the storage barn, the Damon houses, the house at the top of the hill that Henry Damon and his father, Winslow, remodeled, and the old fire house that is now an apartment building. The houses on the corner of Conant Street are pretty much the same.
When I was young, sometimes some of my friends and I would be allowed to bring- the horses up from down in the field, which was down a slope to the lefthand side of the branch grocery store or the Westvale store. It was especially fun after dark because stores stayed open until 8:00 or 9:00 in those days. We would get into one of the wagons and drive the horses up across the railroad tracks on Main Street and down to the barn.
One thing I forgot to mention about Concord Junction was the old grammar school which was torn down many years ago. The Harvey Wheeler School was built in 1918 and to make room for it the Chaplin's Livery stables were moved which was quite a project by E.A. Comeau & Co.. The stables were moved to the area on Commonwealth Avenue that is now Edwardsen & Soberg Service.
Outside of a movie now and then baseball was about the only diversion in those days. It was a Saturday afternoon game. One of the things we looked forward to was a battle between Concord Junction and Maynard. We were traditional rivals in almost anything. There was no Sunday baseball in those days. If it rained, the whole town went into mourning because everyone looked forward to the Saturday games. We used to get some tremendous crowds. It was a real baseball town, and the ball teams included the town team, the Westvale AA, the West Concord Juniors, and then the Union Club team, which I played on, was formed in 1919 or 1920.
In Union Club days since we didn't have grandstands, the ladies used to bring their camp stools and parasols and line up on the base lines. The club originated with the Union Church but it gradually evolved into the town team. Then in the late 1920's the team broke up because some of the guys moved away or left town. I played some semipro ball in the Middlesex Valley league and also in the Paul Revere league. In Concord, we played at the Emerson playground but the Paul Revere league played in various towns.
The last game the Paul Revere league played was a post season game with Lexington, which was Bedford's archrival. It was mid-September on a Sunday afternoon and the game went 13 innings called because of darkness with a score of 4-4. It was some ball game. When we walked on the field, we thought we were going to get our brains beat out because we found out there were only two Lexington players on the team. The rest of the team were minor league ball players home because the season was over. I was pitching, and they got 4 runs off me in the first inning and that's the last time they scored.
One particular story about baseball is the time when our team played in Cambridge on a field that was made of cinders, no grass on the field at all. It was as hard as a rock. Our infielders couldn't handle a ground ball because it bounced like a golf ball. It was hard to compete. The manager asked me to relieve the pitcher since he was getting hit pretty hard. So I went it to bat for him and was on second base. The next batter hit a ground ball that went bouncing past me and being on second base I was expected to score. So I was going around third base and I was trying to dig my spikes in so they wouldn't slip on that hard field, but I lost my balance and about half way home I went flat on my kisser on that ground like cement. There was this sudden hush from this crowd filling two grandstands, and then this voice called out, "Hey, big boy, what you sliding up there for, here's home plate way down here." That really broke up the crowd. I still laugh about that.
I started as wire inspector in 1953, that's a horse and buggy term, it should be electrical safety inspector. I was a contractor for a number of years, and I was acquainted with the conditions in town so the first thing I wanted to do was to get some of the practically dangerous conditions cleared up. I found the owners of these buildings very cooperative. Maybe they were just waiting for someone to come along and point these things out. This is my 30th year as electrical inspector in town. In between I have been deputy building inspector, building inspector for about 18 years, elevator inspector and chief of weights and measures. So I manage to keep busy.
Many of the buildings in West Concord are very old and need to be updated but the tendency these days is to put electrical safety and efficiency last on the list. Everyone must be so used to electricity that they don't pay much attention to it, but because everything runs on electricity it should be the first consideration in buildings. In the case of the wiring done in the older buildings, it is very susceptible to mechanical injury and the circuitry is not as adequate as it should be today.
I have seen many dangerous situations and fires caused because of the conditions of the electrical system. My own approach to this is that electrical inspection including safety is a program. You can't make expense a guideline because you can't measure safety by money. So, in my opinion, you have to consider safety first then the cost, and in the old days they probably didn't see it that way.
Building inspection is a great experience. I really loved being the administrator of the building bylaws for about 18 years, and I found it challenging in every respect.