Interviewer: Michael N. Kline
Also Present: Carrie N. Kline
Place of Interview: Concord Free Public Library
Transcriptionist: Samuel Bollier
Richard Warren Wheeler: I need your guidance to start with.
Michael Kline: OK. I'll guide you.
RW: Good. As well as expressing my thanks and appreciation for all you have done, because I deeply believe, with the family that I have been blessed with, that the memories and the information that we have about them, it's terribly important that it can be preserved. And so I thank you.
MK: Would you please say, "My name is?"
RW: Oh. My name is Richard Warren Wheeler.
MK: And we never ask people their age, but maybe you'd give us your date of birth so we can put this in some sort of historical--.
RW: Surely. February 8, 1929, which means that I am now an octogenarian, and have been reminded by several of my friends who are older that it's nice to have new members in the club. [chuckles]
MK: Perhaps you'd start out, if you would, and tell us about your people and where you were raised.
RW: Good. I start life here in Concord at 387 Sudbury Road. 387 Sudbury Road was the house that was built in 1829 when my great-great-grandmother came into the family, Harriet Lincoln Wheeler. And she arrived at the old Wheeler house which is where we are now, the Scotchford Wheeler house, and discerned that alcohol was served; and that was a detail not made known to her. She came down from Ashby, just up in the north, north of us, and she declared that another house would be necessary. And so in 1829 the other house was built, and that served a wonderful purpose. It was down in what we call today Hubbardville, which is where Daniel Chester French had his house and — the family did. And then eventually we would have Samuel Elliott Morris across from us. So that is the house where I start life. However, it turned out that my mother's OB-GYN got out his stethoscope one day and declared as he took some readings that this infant should be born in Boston because of necessary concerns. So I'm born in Boston on February 8, 1929 and come back immediately to Sudbury Road to be there, back with the family. And so I share the same fate as Ralph Waldo Emerson and several others who were, while they had their life in many ways in Concord, they were born in Boston.
Good. So let me tell you a little bit about my family line. I am the 11th generation and the second. I have an elder brother, Wilfred Wheeler III, and he will eventually form a great part of my life, a great part indeed. Unfortunately he will be declared Missing In Action in Korea. He loved flying, above all things. He had his flying license before he had his driver's license. The air was his world, and it came to end in May of 1953. So I have been sort of the sole survivor of our particular family line as it has come down through the last couple of generations.
Now I don't remember very much abut Concord in 1929 through 1933. I do have some sort of visions of wandering around, and we had a pet dog. We were on a farm. Grandfather—. The farm that had been under our control, or under our management going way back to the very beginning out on Sudbury Road. This farm had oh, I'd say 30 or 40 acres to it. It was one of the fifth — one of the top five largest farms in Concord in the 19th century. Grandfather was an esteemed horticulturalist.
RW: Wilfred Wheeler. He's the first Wilfred Wheeler. And he would become one of the first Commissioners of Agriculture for the state and did a number of other things in agriculture in the town, was active in town affairs, so he, however, decided that — or his wife decided, and that is another story — that he wanted to move on from Concord. And he did move down to Cape Cod in the late 1919 — in the late teens, and the early '20s. I'll get to that later, but the point was that there was a shift in the family, and Dad, who had been born in, Wilfred Wheeler, Junior, had been born in 1901, takes over the farm. I don't think that farming was really Dad's love. He would go on to be the senior person for the Bartlett Tree Company up here in northern New England and did a wonderful job there. So in 1933, for a variety of circumstances which I'm still not sure, Mom and Dad went different ways. Mom was a Down Mainer, and they had met at Orchard Beach up in Maine in the early part of the 20th century. But they went different ways, and I went down to be with my grandparents, who had by this time —. Grandfather had founded what we know today to be Coonamassett Ranch. And then out of that he had acquired 300 acres of land, a good portion of which is now the Audubon Sanctuary, for his holly work.
MK: On Cape Cod?
RW: On Cape Cod. On Cape Cod. In Ashumet or in North Falmouth. Ashumet. So, I'm with them, and my grandparents will be an ever-present influence in my life as I grow up. My brother and I were together for the first couple of years on the Cape. And then Dad has another wife, and that moves us back up to Cambridge, to Brattle Street, right next to the Radcliff campus. Unfortunately, I am but at that point seven years old, and so I don't fully appreciate the asset that has been given to me. In fact, we are sometimes reprimanded by the faculty for conducting war games on the property while the students were trying to take final exams. But we managed to work out peaceful solutions. That marriage lasted about two and a half years, and then we would move out to Belmont, Massachusetts.
Now at this point I think it's important that I'm following your protocol, because we're looking here for an oral history relating to Concord. The point that I would make to try to support giving you this kind of detail is every summer I would go down to the farm on the Cape with my grandparents to work. Therefore the influence of Concord was so clearly present at the dinner table, at the tea. There would be people coming from Concord to be with my grandmother and grandfather. There would be subjects relating historically to things that took place in Concord. So Concord was really very, very much part of my life. As we move towards Belmont and the final marriage, we are now but a score of miles away, less than that, eight miles, 10 miles away from Concord. We still have the house at 387 Sudbury Road in the family. That is still in the family. And we're coming out to Sleepy Hollow throughout the year to check on everything and make sure that the family is well taken care of up on Author's Ridge. So Concord was, in so many ways all the way through that early part of my life, it was there. It was there. And reinforced by the friends, reinforced by the visits, and reinforced by being able to come out here and see where I started.
So that will bring us —. I'm in Belmont; I'll graduate from the Belmont High School in the class of 1946, and immediately I'm off to the Army. Is this pertinent in terms of this —? Right. And by one of the most incredible serendipitousness of life, I end up on a troop ship going to Italy. And I will be assigned to our Allied Force Headquarters at the age of 17 to serve in the G2 Unit. That's the Intelligence Unit, because at that time we in the Military were very concerned about what was happening over in Yugoslavia and particularly the efforts which were quite apparent that the Yugoslavs wanted to recapture some of Italy that they felt had belonged to them for years. So we had a busy group. But here was a 17-year-old young man who survived a seasicky sort of journey across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, in our G2 unit, in a castle that had been built by King Umberto to rival Versailles. And one of my favorite stories of that time is, as I report for duty, I go to the castle and I ask the British guard, "Where is G2?" And he said, "Just down the corridor, and third door. And knock." So I go down the third door of this beautiful palace, and knock. And a lady's voice comes back. "You don't have to knock. Come in." Now I want to give you just a bit of a back story here.
The lady, Staff Sergeant Hilda, had come in on an entire North African campaign, all the way from Morocco through Sicily; she had been part of it. Next to her was a Nisei Japanese of the 442nd Battalion, which ended up the War being the most heavily decorated unit. These people had been there. I march in and say, "Private First Class Richard W. Wheeler reporting for duty." Pause. Pause. And then Staff Sergeant Hilda said, "Good God. What are they sending us now?" [chuckle] But nonetheless, Italy and that experience, which would go on for the better part of 18 months, both in the area of Naples and Caserta, which is where the castle was, and then eventually up the mouth of the Arno and the Lorno, which is about 60 miles to the west of Florence, Italy, was one of the most incredible times in my life. My family had traveled to these parts of the world, my grandmother particularly, others, they were familiar with it, but it gave me a view of foreign lands that I had never had before. And Florence and all of its beauty; Naples has the wonderful statement, "See Naples, see Napoli, and die." This was quite a bit for a young boy. And there I was.
I will come back from Italy; we're closing down the Allied Force Headquarters in '47, and I will set my sights on college, which will be Williams. I have decided on that, by a sort of very wonderful occurrence, and off I will go to Williams. Now my father didn't like that very much; he classified Williams as a "rich boy school." But in one of the visits with my grandmother and grandfather I was asked to help to sort out some letters that were in the bottom drawer of a bureau in the living room. And this was deemed to be the family archives. So I went rummaging through and, lo and behold, found a letter with a postmark 1836, 1836, from —
Carrie Kline: We're hearing that â€¦.
RW: Oh, I'm sorry.
CK: It's all right.
RW: In 1836 —. I found this letter with a postmark dated 1836 from Williamstown, Massachusetts. And this was from a member of the family who had gone to Williams. So I proudly showed that to Dad, and said, "Our family has been there before," and that was the end of it. It was a wonderful experience at Williams for me. It certainly was. But in 1950, I was running low, and that led to the marriage to my beloved wife, the first date that I had in Belmont High School. And she had gone off to be Miss Jordan Marsh and one thing and another. But we were married in September 9, 1950. And she came up to Williams to help the boys all get ready for the dates that they were having on the coming weekend, and all that sort of counsel and advice.
I graduate in 1952. Our first daughter, Emily, will arrive in October, and at that point we had made the decision that we were going to go abroad. We loved this area. And again the Cape — my grandparents, Concord, were still continuing to be part of our lives. But we decided that this was a time for us to go abroad, and we did. We had two choices: One was to teach, that I would be a teacher at the University of Beirut in Lebanon. The other choice was with a New York bank, the National City Bank of New York, which had extensive holdings operations in Asia, and both of our families had identification with that, with Asia, going back over a century or more. So we decided to go to Asia, and that we did. And we will spend about 30 days getting out to Asia on a steamer, City of Swansea. And our daughter was along with us, and we all had a wonderful time. Arrived in Cebu in the Philippines, and then Manila, and then on to Hong Kong, where we would stay for the first two years. One other child in Hong Kong, our number two daughter, and she was born in August, on August 6, which unfortunately has resonance in Asia, because that's the day that one of the bombs was dropped.
MK: Her name?
RW: Her name is Susan. Emily was the first, Emily Wheeler; Susan Knight, K-n-i-g-h-t was our second. Hong Kong was an extraordinary experience for us. It was really, again, it was putting us —. Being in Italy, from my point of view, was an extraordinary experience culturally, artistically, and, but from a point of view of the people, they were —. The language--. I spoke a fair degree of French, and spoke some Italian. It —. We were sort of together. We had inherited so much from Italy in so many ways, in our Western culture. But in Hong Kong, we were running into totally different cultural norms, things of that sort. And it was a great experience. After two years we will be transferred over to Manila in the Philippines. And there we will be for 10 years. It was an extraordinary time, and it was sort of articulated, as we talked today about the news that broke over the weekend, that an extraordinary lady who had been President of the Philippines for some years and had in many ways rescued the country—. Corazon Aquino was her name—. She passed on and —
MK: This past weekend?
RW: This past weekend. And her ceremonies will be in — taking place on Wednesday of this week, in Manila. The Filipino culture was one that had a great emphasis on the family. And as we made a conscious effort in Hong Kong to move to meet the Chinese element of the community, so we did in Manila. And again in somewhat of a humorous way, one of the marvelous anecdotes that surfaced was the Filipina mothers would welcome Betty Ann so warmly — my wife, Betty Ann — and they would then, the first question would be: "How many children do you have?" Well, we arrived with two. And the response was pretty much standard: "Oh! Is anything wrong?" And Betty Ann would say, "No, nothing is wrong." "But you only have two. And you've been married now for almost five years." So we went to work and produced two more children, and with great applause, and great encouragement. The third child is Thomas Adams, and he is born in 1957. And the fourth child is Alice Whe — Owens, O-w-e-n-s, Wheeler, and she is born in 1961, in May of that year.
So we leave the Philippines with great prestige for this growing family, and in 1965 I am sent up to Japan to be the head of our activities and operations there in Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. And we arrive in Japan to a lovely home and wonderful support and everything, although I am deemed to be too young, because they prefer to have older people running things, but again reaching out into the community. The Japanese at that point, and for some years, had joined with the Chinese with very strict controls, dictums, and regulations regarding the size of the family. And when the inevitable question was asked, "How many children do you have?"â€¦ and Betty Ann would reply, "We have four." The other, the fifth, was yet to arrive —. And the answer was "Oh. Is anything wrong?" [laughs] But eventually, everything was reconciled, and our number five child Sarah Bennett Wheeler, will arrive —. She will arrive also in May, of 1967.
So our life abroad— while for those sixteen years, we were abroad on three-year tours and then would come back for three months, would seem to have kept us away from Concord, but the incredible part of it was that when we arrived in the Philippines, we heard about a Forbes Park, and that resonated to me, because the Cameron Forbes, a Woods Hole person, had been a frequent guest at the farm. And it turns out yes, it's the same one! Cameron Forbes was the first Commissioner for the Philippines, going back into the 19th century. And his name was remembered. And so this started to open all sorts of connections in Concord, and of course what we need to bear in mind is the extraordinary effect of the Transcendentalist Movement in Asia. And we—. The minute we identified ourselves from Concord, that would inevitably surface. Now somewhere along the line I'd like to just share something about them, so we'll finish off in Japan, and we'll come back to the Transcendentalists in another way. That was Thoreau, Emerson, Margaret Fuller was even known. Incredible. Alcott, yes, absolutely. And this was a wonderful starting point in building relations, that we could share some of the things about Concord and the people who were there, what it was like. In Japan, it was, I would say, Thoreau had perhaps made a greater impact into the culture than Emerson, because in many ways, his writings and his views were ones that had — could be found in the religious faiths.
However, the real breakthrough, in Japan was when we arrived and were going around dutifully introducing ourselves, or being — people were coming up to us 80 years later than the subject that they were going to address, and said "Your name is Wheeler? Are you a relative of William Wheeler from Concord?" Well, being somewhat diplomatic, for the first ten questions I sort of said, "Yes, he's a distant cousin," because we had all sorts of things. I had no precise feeling, and then back to our family archaeologist, and was confirmed. "Yes, Rick, he is distant; he's the 8--. He's your 8th cousin, and there are three degrees, or three removes." Right, so he's two generations behind me. But William Wheeler had been so active here in Concord at the end of the 19th century, from 18 — the latter quarter, and in effect produced our waterworks, had done numerous other projects, and was so highly regarded in the town. And Nagog, up the road, he acquired from Acton, and added to our water reservoir. In 1876, he decided that he wanted to go abroad. And responding to inquiries that had come from Japan, because the changeover in the government, a major one called the Meiji Restoration, had focused on bringing Japan into the modern world. People were sent to Germany to talk to the Army, because they — how — what does the German Army do and that information. They were sent to France: What about art? Things of that sort. Well, I guess they were scratching their heads about America, as to just what attribute would be mined, but one of the things was education. And the Ambassador to the United States sounded out whether there would be somebody who would be prepared to come to Japan to the northern island of Hokkaido and to help set up a school there.
Japan had reacquired Hokkaido from the Russians, and this is, to all intents and purposes, a foreign country, because the Ainu, who lived there, are — whoops, that's different. They, of course, are the predecessors of the Japanese in many ways, but to the Japanese, they were not Japanese. So William Wheeler got into this web via his involvement with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. They were looking for not just classical education, but agricultural, horticultural, things of that sort. What could be done to Hokkaido to bring it to a point where it was making a contribution to the country as a whole, as well as to itself?
So a school dedicated to those disciplines and with that goal in mind became the issue, and William Wheeler said, "Yes, I'll go." Now he went with the head of the University, of Mass Aggie, Professor Clark, and two or three others. And they were eventually known as the triumvirate that started this school. And as I said, well, we get to Japan in '65 so it's in 1885. And 80 years later, 80 years later, his name was just as vibrant in the culture. William Wheeler. And so once again, we found Concord embracing us as we moved along in this international life. And William would stay on for three years there. The original was a year, but he kept staying. And nobody wanted him to leave here. Nobody wanted him to leave Hokkaido; they wanted him to keep staying.
MK: Seems like he was a real Renaissance man -
RW: He was —
MK: - a real educator, civil engineer —
RW: Right. Civil —
MK: And a horticulturalist.
RW: Right. The horticultural, I would say, would be more from a distance, but he would create the fields, and he would create the irrigation. He would create the necessities so that the crops could be grown. But you're right on. And the incredible thing — their house, Maru-Yama Kwan [Round-Hill House] is right still up on the hill, Nashawtuc Hill, and it's still there. And he comes back here and is just a continual contributor to the town.
MK: After the —
RW: After the stint in Hokkaido. So I think the reason I mention this is that we never felt —. I never felt disengaged from Concord. And I would be getting letters from my grandparents out there, and various people, and one thing and another. What would rest is we would come back to the United States, in 1969. And then would follow 24 years in another foreign country, which at least put us within distance in terms of being able to drive up here, be with the family. 387 Sudbury Road, with the death of my grandparents would pass on to us by virtue of the decision of the three brothers. And we still hold it, and it's there; yes, it is. But in New York, yes, without a doubt Concord was a spot, was a place, and viewed I think more historically, one thing and another. But then again the New Yorkers are extraordinarily centered people, and they will listen for a minute, or one thing and another, and go on. We didn't get — and I want to be careful about this, that I'm not being — that I'm not being deprecating about it — but in Asia, the discussion — and yes, I was going—. Let's get back to the Transcendentalists. That opens so much for communications between people, that what that group had done and given to the world, and how it had been found to be congruent with Buddhism, with even some of the Japanese cultural faiths and beliefs —
MK: Could you say more about how they dovetailed?
RW: Well, yes. I say starting number one, maybe seen more from the Transcendentalist side, is what the goal was here, that we as individuals, by adhering to these precepts, would become better people. We would become more considerate; we would become more open to community; we would be caring for others; and also, we would be very deeply involved in learning more, understanding the extraordinary role of nature in our lives that — how nature is such a deep part of our lives. Yes, all of those. And therefore it was —. There was always an opportunity to not only talk about the Transcendentalists and their relationship, because in some ways there were, as I —. I've probably skipped over here a little bit, but Harriet Lincoln Wheeler, who came down from Ashby, was of that generation. And here she was, she and several of the Transcendentalists —. Well, I better be careful about that. But the families were known and were frequent visitors. Sophia Thoreau, when she went up to Maine to live, would come back to Concord and stay with Harriet. Let's see, what else? Well, Louisa May Alcott —. May Alcott was the artist. And there was Mary C. Wheeler, who was one of Harriet and Abiel's children, and Mary C. was a really a very good artist. We have some of her drawings here at the library.
And they got along marvelously. And so I think that one of the things that has always, not astonished me, but given me a warmer feeling, is that notwithstanding the precept that would emerge in the late 19th century between the squire and the yeoman—. That is a characteristic that is out there, that was applied. Who were the squires, who were the yeoman? And that hurt in many ways. But from my day, however, when I look at our family and its history, Sophia's coming down to be with Harriet, Mary painting with May Alcott, and so many other things — Harriet being part of the Underground Railroad, one thing and another — the family was fully integrated into the community. It wasn't that we were pushed off to the side because we were farmers: No. Notwithstanding that squire-yeoman bit. I have a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson recommending one of my great-great-great uncles. These communities were not divided. I'm in no ways imputing that the squire-yeoman was a creation of the Transcendentalists. Quite to the —. It was probably more, much more, from the business owners, the older families.
MK: Reflection of capitalist economics?
RW: Yeah. Yes. Mmm-hmm. Yes.
CK: Did you mention the Underground Railroad and Harriet?
RW: Mm hmm. Harriet was a member. And we did, through family lore —. I've tried to verify this, and I've not yet been able to get it over all these years. But she was a member, and there was one Negro who did come up and stayed in the barn before heading for Canada. Yes. Harriet Lincoln —. There's a wonderful story, but—. Could we get back to some of these people?
MK: Whatever, however you want to proceed.
MK: Now she was the one who, when she found alcohol being served, she â€¦.
RW: Yes. Harriet was the one who —.
MK: --wanted her own place.
RW: She wanted her own home, and I hope when—. Maybe if you two have a moment when we've wrapped up here, you'll drive down Sudbury and just, as you go over the railroad tracks — bump, bump — and keep on going, and then the French house is on the right, and you start to turn to go out to Route 2, and just as you start to turn, on the left is her house. And it's wonderful. It is. She was an extraordinary lady, and everything I have, in my mind and from the letters and one thing and another, is that she was —. Up until Harriet, the boys had found their wives in Concord. What happened? One of the great events of springtime was the cattle drove. We had cattle here in Concord, enormous numbers, but we had to get them off of the fields in order for the fields to be planted and harvested. So the cattle were driven up to New Hampshire, and what better responsibility or chore could befall a young man than to lead the cattle drove? Why? He is freed from parental discipline and instructions, freed from all the messy chores of the farm, and finally, you meet new people. And lo and behold--. This is such a wonderful story. As he was driving the cattle through the little town of Ashby, which is
MK: He — he — who?
RW: Sorry. When Abiel Wheeler — Abiel Haywood Wheeler — was driving the cattle through Ashby, there at the side —. I can only visualize this — was the young Harriet Lincoln looking out and just sort of seeing what was passing by. And something went click. And by golly, that's how they met, and they married in Ashby, I think just a matter of months later, or something of that sort.
CK: Can you spell Abiel?
RW: A-b-i-e-l. Abiel. Of God. Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Yes.
MK: So they married a few months later.
RW: They married a few months later, and she came back. Now here, you sort of say to yourself, well, yeah, Ashby? Hmm. Harriet's family was a fascinating one that traced itself back directly to the Warrens and the Richard Warren who came over on the Mayflower. And I got named for Richard Warren, so I'm Richard Warren Wheeler. And Richard Warren on the Mayflower is a signer of the Compact. There was a period in the 20th century that — some fifteen years that I spent in the cause of refugees. And I got to thinking, because the dictum of the United Nations was quite clear that a refugee was one who, for a well-founded fear of persecution, because of his religion, had left the country. A well-founded fear. Well, in fact the Puritans left England, went over to Holland, couldn't stand it there either, and came here. So I got to thinking, "Well, they came to England first, and then put things together with some major loans from investors who were going to, in effect, reap the benefits of the Plymouth Plantation." So I got to thinking, "My goodness, with all this talking that I'm doing and things that I'm doing for refugees, maybe I could tell a little anecdote about Richard Warren." I'm an international banker. I —. The little voice says to me, "You better do a little more research." And I do, and to my horror, find that Richard Warren was one of the men sent by the investors to make sure this rather strange group worked and repaid their loans. [laughs]
Oh, dear. But the family, over the years, has truly been a part of Concord. I keep bouncing into them. There were so many Wheelers. There were. But our family line, as I move down here, is one where we were farmers. And the interesting thing is that we cared for that land, and Grandfather had it as one of the top five, and all that sort of thing. As we did that, as the number one or whoever was selected, the other members of the family went off and did incredible things. Got somebody who started up the waterworks in upstate New York. Somebody else is — did so much work for the Museum of Fine Arts, and on they go. These are people who — you know, you sort of had the feeling that you're going to be the farmer and everybody else said, "Wow, I've ducked it." [laughs]
MK: Did that go automatically to the oldest son?
RW: No. No.
MK: I was wondering if it was —
MK: - carried in the English tradition.
RW: It would be, in many ways, the first choice, because — but it didn't necessarily. Dad was the eldest son, and it went to him, but that —. It went to him because the next son is going to be born 13 years later. So — but this family was so much a part of Concord. We had Deacon David Wheeler, who was a deacon of the First — of what we call now the First Parish Church, and Deacon David was up on the hill on April 19, and all that's —. Then his father —
MK: April 19?
RW: 1775. To beat back the Brits. The house that we're in now, 99 Sudbury Road, was used for storage of the goods — the food, and one thing and another. Deacon David's father, Ephraim, fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill, then was so taken with that that he went down to New York for Brooklyn Heights, and came all the way back. So these people —. George Wheeler, who is much later in the Civil War, will go down to some of Antietam, and, he doesn't do Gettysburg. But he will come back and be the head of our Civil War Unit. Sort of the alumni and that sort of thing.
Now there is one other wonderful story about Harriet that I'd like to share. We know the Melvins had the four sons who were in the Civil War, but Harriet had three. And one of them is captured. He is not in Andersonville, which was one of the most horrible places in the world, but he's in a very primitive Prisoner of War camp. And there's a little stream that is polluted beyond belief, and nobody's being fed. Harriet writes a letter to the head of the prison, the camp, the Prisoner of War camp, asking for the release of her son. And the Commandant agrees. And he comes home to Concord, and with all of the tears that you can imagine, he says, "But Mom, I can't stay here. I never want to live again in my life more than 20 feet away from running clear water." So he moved up to New Hampshire. And that place that he had in New Hampshire, just over the border, I can remember visiting back in the '30s. And I'd hear this story. But incredible. She wrote a letter and they agreed to free him.
CK: Do you have that letter?
RW: I have several letters surrounding it, but I don't. No.
MK: What do you suppose it said? I mean, what kind of an argument would she have given for her people?
RW: I think she somehow had to imply, or state, that he would not go back into the Army, that he would no longer be involved in the Civil War. And on that basis they did it. That's the only thing I can see. Because to start giving up the prisoners — goodness, that's the last thing you generally want to do. But Harriet — there were these — these wonderful stories of her, of things of that nature, that just give me a feeling of an extraordinarily vivacious, alive person. And of course, yes, she's a foreigner, she's from Ashby, you know. [laughs]
There were — way back at the beginning, just to —. We start out [coughs] — excuse me — George was married to Catherine over in Cranfield in Bedfordshire. And they're part of the group, sitting around, you know, saying, "We've had it here." And I've always loved it, because the mapping was fairly good in those days, the international mapping, and they were hearing stories about Plymouth and Massachusetts. And as they got out their maps, which I don't know they had, they saw — would see — that Concord, or Massachusetts, is about the same latitude as the upper Tuscan Hills. Well, my goodness, I mean, well. So many of our close friends go over to Italy, you know, in the summer. No, this is a fabrication. But they said, "Gee, that can't be too bad. Hmm? That can't be too bad at all." And of course, the wonderful story that emerges is the people who do get out to Concord are horrified in their caves at how cold it is, and how snowy. And the assistant rector for the First Parish Church after was about eight years, they decide to go south, and 44 members of the church go south to Connecticut. [laughs]
MK: Out of harm's way.
RW: Yeah out of harm's way. Now —
MK: Did you mention caves?
RW: Yes. When we came out here, in the early settlements of that first winter, the Old Hill — the Old Hill Burial Ground, our first, so to speak, burial ground, is on a ridge, that ridge that goes all the way out to Miriam's Corner, out Bedford Street. And there wasn't time to build houses, and so many of them — several of them were in actual caves, just dug into the side of the ridge. Now they — that didn't last for years, no. But there were caves there, definitely. Right. Mm-hmm. It was a very tenuous kind of an environment here, in the beginning. George Wheeler—. My George was the first one, married to Katherine, Katherine Pynn, and they —
CK: Katherine, with a "C"? "K"?
RW: "P--" Katherine — [Hums: do do bum bum] — I should have it — I want to say P-y-n-n. But this is only showing Katherine.
MK: Katherine with a "C" or "K"?
RW: "K." Thank you. Cranfield, Bedfordshire — Sorry about that.
CK: That's okay. So it's tenuous, when they came?
CK: Tenuous environment when they came.
RW: Yes. It was. And there weren't that many of us. You know I've â€¦ done â€¦ work in history on the town over the years, and a normal Town Meeting or town gathering of those determined to be qualified — 14, 15, 16 people. And with —. You had to pay a fine if you didn't go to the meeting, so if you were determined to be eligible, and you didn't go, you had to pay. It wasn't a paltry sum at all. So this wasn't a large community at the beginning. But George was an active person in it, he and his wife, and they will move on for several generations. It would rest with —. Back in the end of the 17th century, our family had married into the Merriam family, or the boys had. You know, a copy of this can be easily made for you if you would like it. And the wonderful part of it was this John Scotchford, who originally built the house, which is now at 99 Sudbury Road. John was a prominent member. And when you stop to think of it, the location of the house is not that very far — what, about a five minute walk, or a three minute walk from the library. So that's pretty much downtown for what was going on, although it is on the south side of the river.
MK: Built in roughly what year?
RW: It was built in 1653. But Scotchford is, in his family, they're getting married into the Merriams. In fact, Scotchford was married to a Merriam lady. And Ephraim, who was our —Edward Wheeler —
CK: And the Merriams, can you spell that?
RW: Yep. Ours are spelled with one ‘R.'
RW: M-e-r-r — no, ours is spelled with two ‘R's — M-e-r-r-i-a-m. Mm-hmm. M-e-r-r-i-a-m.
M-e-r-r-i-a-m. And Edward would have been the person who arranged with his wife, arranged for the purchase of the house. So it has been in the house since —. The house has been in the family since 1692. And it came on the market in 1775, and we heard by the most convoluted ways. We had a dear cousin here, but rather than write to us, she wrote to my mother, who was down in San Antonio, Texas. And Mum wrote to us, and we came dashing up, and could buy the house.
RW: 1975. Did I say 18?
RW: No, no, no. 1975. Thank you. For the munificent sum of — hold on — I think it was $83,000. So —
MK: Did that — did that bring you back to Concord then?
RW: Well, no. It didn't, but it was an anchor that would, because at this time we're still in New York, and my career with the bank is winding down. I will stay on for a while doing odds, and bits, and pieces, and that sort of thing, and then we will come back in 1993. Mm-hmm. Yeah. And we would be coming up here of course with the house. Oh my goodness, you had to come up almost every weekend. But we rented it, and had the two family houses at that point, and it was just so wonderful to be here. It was, to go up and to Sleepy Hollow and Author's Ridge. And we are, as you climb up the stairs —. Please bear with me on this — but it just — it — this squire [laughs] —yeoman business gives me such a I like to say "chuckle," but at the other time I say, "Rrr." But as you go up the stairs, and you will first of all see Henry, and his family, and then you march a little bit and now we have the Hawthornes reunited, on the left, and then a little bit, step or two more and we get to the Alcotts. And then we walk over a little open space with one of the paths down to the right. And right at the cusp of those trails is our family, five generations. Mm-hmm. Yes. And everybody said, "How the heck did they get here?" And the only reason that I can come up with is simply that George, who had been so active in that post-Civil War period with the Concord group, that would have elevated him to a position of some degree, some great degree of prominence. He was a farmer; he was all of these things, but there it was. The people were saying, "He was in the Civil War," and so, there we are.
CK: Are you saying this actual wooden structure from the late 1600s is still standing?
RW: The house, 1653? Oh yes. Oh yes. Now it's air-conditioned throughout the year. The windows are still a little bit —. But I'll tell you what, what we really would, because I think —. I would greatly appreciate it if you'd be willing to consider having a visit to the house. You will meet Abiel and Harriet, paintings done by their —. And there would be just lots of things, but I think it would just be wonderful, and we'd be deeply honored, at a time convenient for you to come by and just see the house.
MK: Love to.
CK: Thank you.
RW: Yeah. Yes, it is.
MK: Let's, in the time we have remaining, which is —
RW: I'm loquacious.
RW: Did we run out? No.
MK: Well in the time remaining, why don't we start with your return here.
RW: Yes, that's an excellent idea.
MK: Okay. So maybe we could segway back into your return —
RW: Yes, excellent.
MK: I'm sure we could discuss family history for the next week —
RW: I think we could.
MK: - and never just scratch the surface.
RW: Well, as a setting in my life, these people were real. So, coming home was an enormous thing to me. I felt that I — and please bear with me on this —. Dad had moved away, and no one, so to speak, in the family had been here since those early days of '33 — living, a resident of Concord. And to come back in '93, 60 years later, I felt that I had continued the family. And it meant a great deal, a great deal to me.
MK: But you didn't just slip into some Sleepy Hollow, secluded —
MK: - state of being, necessarily, -
MK: - did you?
RW: No. I think the great thing right off the bat was going to be the further renovations, restorations, on 99, where we would move to from Bronxville in New York. And we worked on that and did a number of things of--. My dear bride, Betty Ann, was so wonderful. Coming up on our 60th wedding anniversary. She sort of supervised that, and —
MK: What about now? Can you hear?
CK: We're doing fine. Sorry about that.
RW: No, not at all. I'm so impressed.
MK: So there was the restoration. But also your—. Apparently you jumped right back into exercising your civic responsibilities —
RW: Well, yes.
MK: That's really what I'd like to talk about for the next—
RW: I think — looking back you heard a little bit about refugees, and there were a number of other things. Coming back into Concord, I was — both of us — were struck by the fact that this, in — no matter how much we knew about Concord, we were newcomers. So it was with a great deal of sensitivity that we sort of started to become involved. Now our church —. There's a marvelous little account of the Wheeler family. We start with the First Parish, go to Tri-Con, Trinity Congregation, and end up over here with our Episcopal Church. So I — we, both of us became active in that, and I get on to what we call a "Vestry," which is this citizens' sort of representation, and we get involved with several projects, and that sort of thing.
But it wasn't until I stumbled across the League of Women Voters' request or call for help in the form of being an observer of a particular town committee and/or function, and these observers would go out and sit in on the meetings, and which one could I luckily get but the Library. Hmm? And so I would sit back there and the meeting of the Board or the Library Committee would take place here, right at this table, and I would make notes. And then those notes of what transpired weren't the minutes by any means, but they would be circulated out through the League of Women Voters. That was the first stepping stone of being involved. The next thing I know, I am asked if I would be oh — serve on some committee. And so I go down to the Town Manager, Chris Whalen, and say, "What is available with my background, etc.?" And I am given a chance to go onto the Board of Assessors. Well, I had never —. We'd had some involvement with the dynamics of the Board of Assessors in terms of my professional career, but not from the basics. We were looking more or less at the results of their work. So this was a wonderful experience for me. It really was. It was a good Board; we had a wonderful person in the town who was the staff member for it, and I end up in the third year being the Chair of the Board. And we don't have any rocks thrown at us at Town Meeting; in fact, we even get some thanks for some things that we had done. And then I step down. And that is going to bring us pretty much to 2006. No, no, that's going to bring us, excuse me, that's going to bring us '96, '96, '97. And then somebody comes up and says, "Have you ever thought of running for the Board of Selectmen?" And I said, "No, I've not been here, I —. Yes, you are a candidate." So I ran, and was elected, and that was again an extraordinary experience on my part. I've long felt, and it goes back to [makes clicking noise] —. It goes back to a wonderful book, Wind, Sand, and Stars, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, a French pilot who in effect laid out the flight routes along the west coast of Africa.
MK: Can you spell his name?
RW: St.: S-t — S-a-i-n-t; Antoine: A-n-t-o-i-n-e; Saint: S-t, is in French, but S-a-i-n-t; Exupery: E-x-u-p (as in Peter), -e-r-y. And his statement — I read this book in the '30s. With my brother who loved flying, this was his number one book. Saint-Ex said the greatness of a profession is perhaps to bring people together. And that stuck. And all those years in my professional career it — that was with me, bringing people together. So when this surfaced, I was going around to run for the Board of Selectmen, and it was an extraordinary time. There were lots of things that were tension, one thing and another. But eventually, in the third year I was made Chairman of the Board of Selectmen, and finished up the century as Chairman of the Board of Selectmen. I look back on that —. At that time my dear, very dear aunt and uncle — Dad's first younger brother — they were leaving, and they needed a lot of help. And I just felt that I had a greater obligation to them, and so I didn't run for the second term. And sure enough, within the next eighteen months, both of them were gone. But that was —. I'm glad I did what I did. I'm sorry I didn't stay longer.
But after that, I did a couple of committees, including one which was hilarious. We were having a great deal of [coughs] trouble with the dump, our dump. And over the years everything had been taken over there and literally dumped. And now we were trying to clean it all up. And — but the problem of — and in modern science, and modern work of what has happened as the residue of the decaying objects have filtered down through the sand, and all that sort of thing. So I ended up being the Chair of the program to create a protocol for cleaning up the dump, and I got a lot of jabs on that. "Oh, I see you're in charge of the dump now, Rick!" [laughs] But it was. We came up with a good program; it was implemented, and the dump is regarded as having been handled in an excellent way. So that pretty much —. As we entered into our present century, that pretty much was the end of the formal town involvement. There have been a number of groups that I still stay in touch with, and Town Meeting, of course, and the run-up for that —
MK: And all of it has, it seems, been guided by one of your most important agendas, which is neighborhood building?
RW: Oh my goodness. You are truly incredible. I had forgotten that. Yes. Going back to Saint-Ex, to bring people together, in Bronxville, on Cape Cod, and here, a major portion of my time after I stepped down from the Board of Selectmen, goes towards the creation of a neighborhood community network throughout the Town of Concord. Now [coughs] as we all recall it, at the turn of the century there were cries abounding that there was going to be some huge electronic whatever, disaster, that when we tried to set the clocks for the new century, the world was going to collapse. And therefore one lady had set up a program dividing Concord into neighborhoods and designating an individual for the contact point in case anything went wrong. And she put that — now that was a disaster sort of response. My concept that I had been working on from Bronxville to Cape Cod, even to here, was building a greater sense of neighborhood that we knew our neighbor. What could we do to be of help? What could we do together? What could be — that sort of thing. So I picked up her effort —
MK: Her name was —
RW: Di Clymer. Di: D-i, Diane, Diane Clymer. C-l-y-m-e-r. Di Clymer. And we fused the — not just the emergency aspect, but the whole aspect of knowing our neighbor, being in touch with them, doing things with them. And that went on for about five years.
MK: How do you do that?
RW: Well, what we do is we —. What we did is that we would go around to a neighborhood and get a small group of putative leaders, right? And say, "Look, this is the template that we're searching for, and that we're going to build. Now, will you host a meeting of everyone in your neighborhood, and we'll give the briefing on what's involved here. And what we're looking for is yes, you're going to do an inventory of emergency preparedness; no question about that. But now we're also going to do things such as, who has children, who doesn't. What can we do during the year? Can we have an annual get-together in the neighborhood? Can we put something together that we can support?" And that worked. That worked. It worked very clearly under the impetus of this 2000 overhang. But nonetheless, where it worked it worked beautifully, that people knew each other. And that was the basic goal of it. Then the town got terribly interested in it, because we were creating something that would interact with the town in case —. And eventually, it sort of got taken away from its own independent standing to be an adjunct of the town for emergency purposes. And we gave a presentation to our Massachusetts Commissioner for Emergency Preparedness, and they liked it, they loved it. Oh, they sure did. But the element that to me has always been so important, and that is that we know the neighbor, that it's not just, "Hey, I'm on the phone. Oh, is there a disaster?" "No, I just wanted to make sure everything's okay. Everything okay? Haven't seen any cars going in and out of your driveway." And that took me through 2005, 2006. Mm-hmm, yep.
CK: So, "Everything okay?" So does the goal continue to be a security measure then?
RW: It became predominantly a security measure. Yeah.
MK: That wasn't necessarily foremost in your mind, though.
MK: Foremost in your mind—
RW: Foremost in my mind was the bringing the people together, that they would know each other, and yes, that the security —. And by knowing each other, they would be more prone and willing to share some — in the emergency sense, that we weren't isolated. So I think I did —. You're right. A lady that I had spent a great deal of time with and really become involved, she took over and was the liaison with our Fire Department, and it just sort of —
MK: Deb — Debbie Bier?
RW: Yeah. Debbie Bier.
MK: I interviewed her too.
RW: Did you? Oh, Debby's wonderful. She is. We had a —. So, whatever she said about that was where we came together at the beginning of —. Yeah.
MK: It's a beautiful model. Her interview is a fantastic model for —
RW: Well, by the time it got —. By the time Debbie took over--. We were in those early years, we were in a formative process with the two — oh yes, 2000, but we knew that that was not the whole thing. However, when the Fire Department took over, because under state law the Fire Chief is the contact point for emergency purposes, then a whole discipline started to unfold, with calls, communications, one thing and another, and that gave it a far greater sense of being, but the casualty was that the annual functions, or the getting-togethers, or that sort of — yep, dripped by the side. You know, we live in quite a different world, as I go back in my family life. We knew our neighbors; we knew them, and we lived here, and we worked here. Yes, Henry David did say with the inauguration of the train, "Boston's only two mi — two hours away!" But today, I don't know my —. My current number, that I use, is 25 percent of the population work outside of Concord. And another —. There's another element that we are all aware of, which was one of the principle stimuluses for — stimuli for this program, where — people, there are some people who buy a home and say, "This is my home. Stay away." Hmm? And there they are. They don't want to be involved — part of the community. They don't want to be. They just want to have their own personal privacy. And yet, in situations where there can be a disaster, that is probably one of the saddest things, that wall that they built around them, and we did run into that. "Don't bother me." We're not bothering you; we're trying to be here to help you.
CK: How do you deal with that at — from a development standpoint, as property is redefined, and bigger homes with bigger fences are built? Is there any sort of a recourse or a conversation to have with people?
RW: I think we have to go and meet and sit with the people themselves and say that this is not intrusive. Now that's difficult, because in effect, we're saying that we want the privilege of being able to alert you in case there is some incipient or growing disaster, man or nature emerging. Number two, we are not going to be intrusive in your lives; number three, we will be able to give you information about the kind of things that you should have on hand. But fundamentally, we are here as an adjunct and a resource for you. And if something happens, then here's the structure. And so I think some people may dismiss it totally. Some may dismiss it and then ponder on it and say, "Wait, wait, now hold on. This is something good to know." So. Yes, that was a great deal of the first five —. Bronxville, in New York, the Cape, we only have about 40 houses on the road, but we all still to this day are working together so closely. Mm-hmm. It is. It is.
Well, I thank you both for coming so far and — yes. And you carry away a great deal of respect and —. I don't know, there are things about our family. Yes, we were one of the — not one of the very first. We came over two years later, but we've been here, and to continue to be here is so meaningful for me, that I can be — and. So, I want to thank you for your time. Now we've —. And I really--. It wouldn't be possible just to go bang up the street to take a look? [coughs]
CK: Want to stop? Yeah, I just wanted to thank you for your words and your passion, and for carrying the family history and the meaning of the legacy.