Concord Oral History Program.
Thomas Ryan formerly of 1344 Main St., now age 86 and living in St. Louis, has transmitted his memories of growing up in West Concord, up until World War I, through his sister Madeline who still lives at the Main St. address. An edited transcription of his boyhood account has thus been included in the transcriptions.
His boyhood account particularly deals with ways in which young boys could earn money, the boyhood activities that they engaged in, including "scrapes" with the law and school days. West Concord or Concord Junction as it was then called, represented a distinct entity unto itself.
I was born in West Concord, December 31,1894. My first lasting memory is of a trip with my mother to Boston at 5 years old, in the year 1899. The purpose of the trip was to see Admiral Dewey, hero of the Spanish American War on his visit to Boston. Exciting as the train ride was, it was even more of a thrill to climb aboard the front seat of a car on tracks drawn by a pair of horses.
The streets were decorated with bunting and flags,- presaging the gala event of the next day- the parade- the bands- the crowds of people lining the streets and a chance to see the "Great Hero."
Concord was then a town of about 5,000 and West Concord's largest institution was the Massachusetts Reformatory. For years there was always 1000-1200 inmates, ages 18 and up. As the name implies, they were to be given an opportunity to learn a trade and become good law-abiding citizens. My father, Thomas William Ryan was an instructor of the plumbing trade.
There were in the town only three industries, a harness shop, a woolen mill, and a plant that manufactured "bluine," a patented process. The "bluine" coated paper was advertised nation wide and sold door to door by youngsters. Their reward was any of a long list of "prizes" that any youngster would love to have. Because of the tremendous volume of mail generated by the packaged bluine mailed out and followed by a huge volume of "prizes", all parcel post, West Concord became the first town of such a small size to become a "Class A" Post Office- with 4 "letter carriers" delivering mail twice daily.
The wage scales, judged by current standards are almost unbelievable. At the Reformatory, the salary for instructors, such as my Dad, was $1,000 per year! The "officers" who manned the "towers" on the walls surrounding the prison, and sat on high benches overlooking each work room, commanded a salary of $1,200 per year!
These jobs were the highest paying jobs in town. The wages of those working in the factories was even more unbelievable, $10 to $15 per work-week of 55 hours (7 to 6 weekdays and 7 to 12 on Saturdays. There were no pensions, other than on government jobs, no fringe benefits, sick leaves or allowances for vacations. Every town had a poor farm or poor house where older poor people were lodged when they had no one to look after them.
Our house was about a half mile from the Reformatory and about a mile and a half to the grammar school. My two older sisters were taken to school by a horse drawn wagon. In those days the winter's snow was left on the streets to compact and traveling was by sleighs of different sizes. The sidewalks were cleared by horse drawn plows, often a slow and tedious operation.
A real big event was to hire a horse and two seated "buggy" for a Sunday afternoon drive. I remember my father doing this a couple of times- he and I in the front seat, mother and my two older sisters, Mary and Emma, in the back seat. The cost I learned later was two dollars.
In the summer of 1900 my father rented a house a block from the grammar school, a two story, two family house. There was no electricity and all lighting was by kerosene oil lamps. The house was heated by a coal burning furnace and warm air ducts to the rooms. In the kitchen was a coal burning stove. One of the chores was "sifting the ashes" almost daily, to reclaim any coal that had not been reduced to "clinkers."
The rent was $12 per month and after four years when the landlord raised it to $14, we moved across the street to a neighbor's house where the rent would remain at $12. That was the last move for the family. My brother Roland died at 14 from pneumonia. My mother died at 67, my father at 87, my sister Mary at 89. Emma became a Franciscan nun and died in her early fifties. Madeline 79 is still living in our house and still renting. I left in 1920 to work in New York.
During this period an electric car line had been built connecting West Concord with Concord center, and connecting with other lines, so one could travel to Boston. This made it possible for the priest, who was located in Concord Center, to come more often to West Concord- the fare was 5 cents.
One Sunday, after Sunday School, one of my friends, Billy Williamson, told me that he had found an easy means of entering the grammar school. We could have fun writing on the blackboards, etc. He led me to the rear of the school and kicked open a bulkhead door where coal was delivered, and in we went. We changed the spelling and the arithmetic on the blackboards and swore the usual boyish oath not to tell. The following Sunday was just as much fun and the 3rd Sunday would have been except that the school janitor was waiting for us.
A call to the one policeman in West Concord brought him in a hurry. He really frightened us by putting "handcuffs" on us and though he let us go, he came to our homes that evening with warrants to appear in court the following evening. My mother and father were heart-broken and "mad and ashamed." They felt that our family had been disgraced before the entire community, and I was so scared of being sent to jail that I was numb.
My Dad had to take the day off and we went by train to Concord Center to avoid meeting many people on the street car. The scene in the Court was dramatic. The judge in his black robe hearing other cases and two frightened fourth grade boys cringing beside their parents.
Finally our case was called- the janitor told the whole story in detail. The judge asked if we had anything to say, but we were too frightened to talk. Then, to our great relief, Ed Loughlin, the Clerk of the Court, who lived in West Concord and knew our families, made a plea to the judge for leniency. So the judge gave us, a fatherly talking to and pronounced sentence- three months probation- and we were not to play together during that period.
Many West Concord families still retained more than a small bit of Puritanism and quite a few of my friends were forbidden by their parents to play with me. A Catholic altar boy arrested for breaking into the school. Shame! Fortunately our relations were renewed after a few weeks but a real lesson was learned.
In the fifth grade I became a newspaper boy. My job was to be at the railroad station at 4:50 each afternoon to meet the train from Boston and with two other newsboys to carry the newspapers to the general store. There we sorted them out for each of the three newspaper routes. My route took at least three quarters of an hours. On Saturday mornings we all had to be at the store to "strip off" the front page headings of all unsold papers and package them to be returned to Boston.
The longest route, about 2 1/2 hours was covered by the oldest boy, on Saturdays he received $1.50. The next longest about 1 1/2 hours, he received $1.00 and for my weekly stipend I received exactly 20 cents and happy to get it. As time went on I finally got the $1.50 route.
I found the satisfaction that comes from earning a regular "salary" for work. Like all my friends we went after every odd job such as picking strawberries, 1 1/2 cents a box, shoveling snow, 5-10 cents a walkway, picking weeds from the big farms outside the town, 10 cents an hour in the hot sun.
In the 8th grade I was taught by Mr. Tapley the Principal and only male teacher in the school. At this time the Allen Chair factory was being built. Like all boys we were impressed by the large number of carpenters and the speed of construction. I was fascinated by my first look at a blue print and impressed by the skill of the carpenters who would look at the blue print for a minute or so and start sawing lumber to fit. I wanted to learn what all those lines on the blue print meant, I wanted to be an engineer.
I was then a tall, lanky kid of 13 and my seat in the classroom was in the back row. The thing to do was to "outsmart" the teacher. One day Mr. Tapley stepped out of the room. A great opportunity to toss a few spit-balls. But he came back almost immediately and caught me standing up and letting one fly.
He lost no time jerking me out of my seat and plunking me down in the first row, saying not a word until the bell rang at the end of the school day.
Finally he came and sat on the next desk. His first words, I shall never forget, for they made a big impression. He said "Thomas, I ought to punish you, but you are too good a boy to allow Yourself to spoil your life. Have you got any idea what you want to be?" I said I wanted to be an engineer and then he told me about M.I.T. which was the beginning of a dream.
Miss Brown, my mathematics teacher and Miss Coolidge, my history teacher, encouraged me to seek a scholarship at MIT, since my family didn't have enough money to send me to college. My father's salary was still $1,000 a year in 1911 and there were five children.
Though my father had no political influence, I am sure it was due to his efforts, combined with much assistance from my teachers and Mr. Hall, the Superintendent of Concord Schools, who lived in West Concord, that I was awarded one of two full scholarships provided for residents of the state each year. Credit must be given to our local state representative who gave his blessing.
During my early high school days I gave up my $1.56 per week newspaper route to work for the meat market owned by Mr. Young next to the general store. My duties included filling the orders sent in by inmates of the Reformatory and most of these were for sweets, cookies, candies, and fruits. These orders were delivered each Thursday evening.
On Friday afternoons after school I helped fill orders sent in by a group of about 10 farmers who lived in an area called Nine Acre Corners. As soon as the orders were filled I would start off, usually about 4:30 or 5 o'clock, driving the horse and wagon about 5 miles, delivering a week's food supplies to each of these farmers.
On Saturdays my day started at 6:30 a.m. feeding the four horses, home for breakfast, then back to the store at 8 o'clock- filling orders and making deliveries morning and afternoon. Evenings I waited on customers until we closed the store at 9:30 p.m. Then a half hour or more cleanup. My weekly pay envelope contained $3.50.
One summer Mr. Young asked me to take over the full time job of one of his men who was leaving. I knew the man was paid $12 a week and I took over everything the former man did with the exception of being permitted to cut "steaks." The best steak in those days cost 45 cents per pound. On Saturday night at closing time I got $7.00 in my pay envelope.
On Monday morning I sat on a meat block waiting for Mr. Young. I told him that I should receive more money for taking over the place of a man receiving $12 per week. Surprised that I knew this he hesitated then asked if I would settle for $9, which I accepted quickly.
In my senior year 1911-12 at Concord High School it was decided by Mr. Goddard, the Assistant Principal, and athletic coach to reactivate football. The school had always had fine baseball and track teams but had dropped football in 1908.
Our total squad was 13 boys, I was selected to play center. Our uniforms were black jerseys with a small bit of padding on the shoulders and elbows, and the usual football pants. There were no helmets or face guards.
My career was almost brought to a dead stop in our first week of practice when I suffered what Dr. Pickard diagnosed as a minor concussion during some practice team maneuvers. Afterwards the school ordered helmets for the entire team. Our chief rival was Lexington High School.
In my senior year I took civil service examinations for substitute employee at the Post Office. I passed these and was selected to fill in for any of the four letter carriers or three clerks at 40 cents per hour. My friend John Garvey, though had captured a job writing a weekly column of local events for the Concord Enterprise. For this he received $1.50 per week. I tried for and succeeded in getting the same job for the rival Concord Minuteman. I received $1.00 per week writing up births, weddings, visitors in town, etc.
At about this time John Garvey and I conceived the idea of a one day big celebration for the "West Concord Improvement Association." We enlisted the leadership of Rev. Batt, the elderly and universally respected chaplain of the Reformatory.
The big events were a parade of floats by all the businesses in town. One wealthy man wanted his own float, to be filled with the prettiest girls in town. Then a ball game in the afternoon and a band concert in the evening.
To promote this, John and I prepared a four page folder, with ads, at 50 cents each, by all the local businesses. To have this printed John and I had to travel to Ayer, the nearest printer.
It was a gala day, more excitement than had ever been seen in West Concord. Finally we came to the economics. John and I had kept records of every receipt and expense. It so happened that they matched almost to the dollar.
Just about the time I was to start my past-graduate year at Concord High I got a big surprise and a big assist toward the expenses I would incur if I got into MIT. (I took a post graduate year because French and German were required for the entrance exams and I needed French)
Dick McSweeney, an officer at the Reformatory, who had always taken an interest in John Garvey and me, asked if I would like a job teaching night school at the Reformatory, at $2.00 per night twice a week. I could hardly believe it, and accepted at once.
There were four school nights, dividing the prisoners into two groups- Tuesday and Thursday and Wednesday and Friday. There were six classes, each of 50-60 prisoners. There was no attempt at classification so that each class was composed of illiterates up to high school graduates, 18 to 50 years old.
Night school started at 6:15 p.m. and ended by a gong to 8:15 p.m. During those two hours each teacher was "on his own." I was the youngest teacher, the others were regular officers or instructors who wanted to supplement their salaries, now called moonlighting.
Discipline was absolutely necessary. The prisoners knew that on the front of the teacher's desk was a button to be pressed in case of any trouble. This brought in immediately an officer who took charge. He hustled out of the room any prisoner who caused trouble. They all knew this meant solitary confinement and a blot on their record. Also they would be denied the privilege of going to night school for a period of time, this to be spent behind the dreaded bars of their cells.
During the five years I taught, I had occasion only once to push the button. A big surly prisoner in the back row had thrown a blackboard eraser at my head. I was lucky to have ducked in time and pushed the button. I never saw that prisoner again.
Most of those with little or no education were most anxious to learn, while many of those who had 8th grade or higher education took little or no interest. Most were in for what was known as 2-5 year "indefinite." Their crimes were mostly robbery, and similar crimes. They were released by the parole board, whose decisions were based on conduct and a judgment of their willingness to go straight. However the percentage of repeats was quite high.
Though I had to give up my weekly news column, I held onto my job as temporary employee of the Post Office. Many times I filled in at the Post Office for a couple of hours. Both the Postmaster and the letter carriers gave me every available opportunity to work during all my four years at M.I.T. In those days prior to World War I the tuition at M.I.T. was $250 per year, the highest of any college in the country.
During the latter part of 1916 and early 1917 our entire senior class was deeply concerned about the ever growing feeling that we would soon be involved in the Great War then raging in Europe. The sinking of the Lusitania brought about the declaration of War on April 6, 1917. The Institute offered many special courses that would be helpful to the War effort. It was announced that any senior in good standing with his studies would be given his degree if he entered the military service. I was the first student in the Civil Engineering Course to go into service.
John Garvey had graduated from Harvard and had taken on the idealistic but frustrating job as Superintendent of Schools at the Reformatory. He wanted to reorganize and systematize the school.
When the Army announced the formation of Reserve Officers Training Camps, John and I were on our way.