Friday, October 18, 2002
Voices from Carlisle's past: Oral histories preserve town memories
"When we came here, I could see clear down to what was then the Towle place, but it has since been shut off by growth, by various kinds of trees. We could see the lights of the Prudential and John Hancock in Boston from our porch."
That long-ago Carlisle landscape was described by Anna P. Johnson of Westford Street in July 1987 for the Carlisle Oral History Project. Hers is one of the treasured voices from Carlisle's past in the Gleason Library's oral history collection.
The Mosquito's thirtieth anniversary seems an opportune time to dip back into the archives of the Carlisle Oral History Project, then under the leadership of its founder, Bonnie Miskolczy. We revisit five Carlisle residents whose interviews have never been published and whose memories keep the town's history alive. Their names will be familiar to anyone with an interest in Carlisle historyEdmund French, Donald Lapham, Herbert Bates, Father James Byrne and Mrs. Johnson.
Following are brief excerpts from the interviews with occasional commentary, marked by an asterisk (*), on Carlisle history from Ruth Chamberlin Wilkins's book, Carlisle: Its History and Heritage.
"[Henry] Greenough was going over to Billerica and he got on that road which led right up to the house. It's a dead end, you know. So he said to Mr. [Ernest] Bralit, 'You wouldn't be interested in selling this place, would you?' He said, 'No, I bought this to live on.' Mrs. Greenough got out of the car, walked around, and said to Mr. Greenough, 'It's a lovely place. I wish we could get it.' Later on he went again to Bralit and said, 'Would you consider selling?' Bralit talked to his wife and said, 'I'll ask a price that will stagger him!' Well, Greenough came again a couple of months later and said, 'Have you made up your mind that you'd sell?' Bralit said, 'As soon as I get my price, I will.' Greenough said, 'Will you take a certified check for $10,000 as a partial payment?' I think he paid $80,000 for the place. More than the place was worth then, and he was tickled to death to get it! First thing he did he tore down these barns, you know, because they spoiled a beautiful view. . . . "Greenough didn't farm it he had John Windholm or was it Fred Windholm? a Swedish man, and he worked hard. He was a good farmer. I forget what line of work Greenough was in. His wife was the one that had the money. They were working on that building across the brook one day and she came down here and she said, 'I don't like the layout of this barn,' you know, the cement floors and everything. 'When I open the doors, I want to see the head of the cows, not their rear end!' So we took a pick and shovel and broke up the cement in order to turn it around and have a place for the manure! It must have cost several hundred dollars. We spent a whole week with crowbars and so forth. The cement hadn't been laid for too long a time. But we had more fun, breaking it up to turn the stanchions around so when you opened the door you'd see the head of the cattle!"
Store fire in 1925
"You know, I love dogs. I was building the garage for Helen Wilkie down on East Street and Everett Heath was helping me. He said, 'There's a lot of smoke coming from Carlisle Center. Let's go up and see what's wrong.' I had a Model A car and he and I got in the car and went up there. There was smoke pouring out of the basement of the store. Mr. Houlton owned the store then, he lived upstairs. I said to Everett, 'The dog is upstairs. I'm going to go rescue the dog.' He said, 'Don't be a fool. The stairs could collapse.' I said, 'If the stairs are hot, I won't go up.' So I punched open the outside door which was locked and the treads were warm, but the air was not exactly smoky, but it was hot. I went to the top of the stairs and opened the door and the dog dashed down and went across the street. The firemen were having a water curtain to protect them across the street. I went over where Mrs. Coombs lived and sat on her steps there, and the dog came along and lapped my face because he felt I had rescued him. In fact, I knew that dog, a beautiful Scotch collie. Well, later on, the building was pretty well consumed.
"Houlton was an awful smoker. He threw a cigarette he thinks may have gone in the basement. They had a massive drum there containing kerosene that they sold, and of course around the drum is static kerosene. He told me, 'I may have been the cause of this fire, but I don't want it to be known.' He had gone into Boston for the day, he and his wife, see. They had hard work to know where he was. He felt terrible."
Interest in photography
"My uncle in Acton, my mother's brother, gave me a little plate camera, three by three and a half. I was ten years old. And I used to develop for the kids in the neighborhood. I got some chemicals and I said to the kids, 'I'll develop your plates for ten cents. And if you want a print for it, it'll be another ten cents.' But if they wanted a blueprint, I'd do it for five cents because I had an uncle who was an architect. And if they wanted it bound, I'd do it for ten cents. . . . I was about eleven or twelve then. I had an awful lot of fun. But some of the prints were no good at all. I'd tell the youngsters what the trouble was because I knew enough about photography. Sometimes I'd take a snapshot in the dark, you know, or point it toward the sun, which wasn't wise, so I got an education in taking a good picture!"
"The Gleason Library was named after a tramp! One day a tramp came by and asked Mr. Parker for a job. As he needed help, the tramp Mr. Gleason went to work for Parker. He later found out that the old man had quite a lot of money. He thought it was a pretty good place to stay, so he courted the daughter [Joanna Parker] . . . . They were married and lived in Carlisle. On the father's deathbed, someone, maybe a lawyer, forced Parker to sign a will leaving most of his property to his second wife and it later went to [Joanna Gleason]. Old man Parker left a large estate and earned his money by hauling wood to Lowell. The Gleasons lived in the Milne Cove area. The house is now gone, but anyway, Gleason Library is named after a tramp!"
"At the end of the 19th century, tramps also called hobos or drifters became part of America's rural landscape, often hitching rides from place to place in boxcars. Ruth Chamberlin Wilkins writes, "In Carlisle, tramps were seen in town at any time of day. Some stopped at homes and asked for food or other help. Some were willing to work to pay for the assistance, and others were not. The tramps were said to have their own cryptic means of communication, and some, on leaving a home, left a mark on [the] fence or gatepost which would acquaint the next tramp with the type of welcome to expect there."
*In September 1884, Mrs. Gleason gave more than $7,000 to the town to build "a brick building for a free public library." The Gleason Public Library was dedicated on May 13, 1896.
"In the early days, some farmers in Carlisle used to hitch up their horses and loaded wagons and drive to Bedford and Lexington where they would sell their produce. The section of woodland beyond the Concord River used to be referred to as Bedford Woods and there were no houses in that locality until very recent years . Oftentimes, while returning home, these farmers were accosted there by thieves, who robbed them of their earnings.
"After the farmers started to carry guns and held them in readiness while traveling through the Woods, and one or two thieves were shot, these robberies stopped."
How zoning began
The following two excerpts are from Mr. Lapham's talks on town history to members of the First Religious Society:
"We should remember and give credit to those foresighted member of the Layman's League of [the First Religious Society] who, led by Harry Wilkins in the 1930s, instigated the drawing up a list of zoning by-laws for this town. The public was invited to attend a meeting held in Union Hall, and the following, all active in the League at that time, were appointed as the committee to investigate the desirability of establishing a Town Planning Board: Harry Wilkins; Jay Fisk, former owner of the Litchfield Parsonage; and Phil Detsch, former owner of the farm now operated by Jack Valentine. Subsequently a seven-member board was elected and Harry was one of the seven. I have a gut feeling that he was responsible for assembling most of the by-laws. Harry was a smart, dedicated person!
"Dr. Lunt, who owned and operated Valleyhead Hospital, was responsible for securing the services of his friend, Bradford Washburn [explorer, writer and director of Boston's Museum of Science], in the aerial mapping of the Town.
"Some people were very critical of certain proposed provisions, and their suggestions resulted in some initial changes before the by-laws were enacted. What would this town look like today and in the future if it were not for these zoning regulations?"
*Carlisle's first zoning by-law mandating a one-acre minimum lot was passed by Town Meeting on February 13, 1933. After several changes and amendments over a 23-year period, Town Meeting in 1956 adopted two-acre zoning outside business zones in the center of town.
Death and disease in Carlisle
"Lucy Andrews and her infant daughter both died of smallpox on the same day in 1761. According to tradition, the baby was buried with gold beads around her neck 'to ward off evil spirits.' However, as the old farmer said, 'Don't say nuthin' lest certain people get ideas! This spot is located at the end of Peter Hans Road. The headstone, the oldest in town, seems to be intact, but the footstone has been broken to bits. This gravesite, measuring one rod square, belongs to the heirs of Jeremiah Andrews forever, and does not belong to the abutting landowners. A fence once surrounded the plot. Peter Hans Road is named for Peter Hans Christiansen, who lived alone in the locality several years ago."
"My father started [delivering milk] right about 1920-1921, but after the war he started delivering it here locally in Carlisle and branched out to West Medford where he was born, brought up and raised. It kept growing to other towns around Medford, West Medford, Winchester, Arlington, Lexington. We delivered to most everybody in Carlisle at one time or another. . . .
"In 1958 we started the ice cream stand [now Kimball's at Bates Farm]. We ran a surplus of milk during February vacation week, because we were supplying the schools with quite a lot of milk. We got the idea that maybe we would put that into some ice mix and keep it until March or April before we froze it into ice cream. We would open the ice cream stand somewhere near the end of March and the first of April, and then pick up enough more surplus milk during April vacation. Then, of course, we wouldn't have the schools all summer so we would have that milk to put into ice cream. My wife has worked there, I've worked there, the whole family has worked there . . . when our children were old enough they worked there. I guess probably 90% of the kids that grew up in this town have worked there. That's how it started."
A day in the life of the police chief
"I had one full-timer [in 1966], that being Art Stetson. He would patrol pretty much in the cruiser during the day, take care of the school crossings, and he was also safety officer. . . . He would check the bus routes and the bus stops and follow buses. Plus he did patrol from eight in the morning until four in the afternoon. During the day I would either be in court prosecuting cases or processing the traffic tickets that he and other other officers had written speeding tickets, motor vehicle violations. . . . Then after
four o'clock I would go out in the cruiser.
"Housebreaks were the biggest time-consuming problem. About 1966 was the time we had a lot of burglar alarms, silent alarms that were hooked in with the dispatcher, Mrs. Wilson, or hooked in with the telephone office. Then we had several houses with outside alarms where the neighbors would call in if an alarm was going off. Carlisle being a small town, most neighbors knew when their other neighbors were away, and who should be in the yard and who shouldn't be. So it was a great help to let your neighbor know where you were going and that has prevented an awful lot of housebreaks in Carlisle for us. Just the neighbors keeping an eye on other people's property. . . .
"When Carlisle was small, I knew everybody by first name, and I always thought that was a plus. Even as the town grew, I tried to meet the people and get to know them and where they worked and know the members of the family know as much about them as possible. It was an advantage because then, when you did want new equipment, they knew just why you wanted it; they knew you needed it. There wasn't any discussion in Town Meeting whether you were swindling away their money or what you were doing. They always knew and that way they would appropriate money for us to go to school . . . for new cruisers, for radar, resuscitators or any equipment we wanted. We had a very good rapport with the town."
Father James Byrne
"The church started because Father Mark Sullivan, a young priest in Concord, came to visit in Carlisle. Carlisle was then a subdivision of St. Bernard's Parish [in Concord]. Father Sullivan found many of the people [in Carlisle] had fallen away from the church because it was so much distance to cover, and it was hard for older people, and the children weren't going to Sunday School. So he felt that there was a need for a separate recognition in Carlisle of the Church, so he started by going to the [James] Barron family, who lived on Westford Street in the center of Carlisle, and who had come here from Cambridge. He asked permission to have a Sunday Mass on their property, and so they agreed to that. And the first Mass was celebrated in 1946 by Father Sullivan and Father Burke, the pastor of St. Bernard's in Concord. There were about 99 people there, according to the town records. There were probably 60 or 70 Catholic families living in Carlisle at that time. Then, when it rained they would have Mass in the Barrons' garage, and one time they had the Mass there they had an old fire burning and it smoked them all out, but they still persisted. I think [Mass] went on on Sundays for about a year or so. . . ."
Building a church
"In 1947 they tried to get some of the town buildings the old abandoned school house on School Street, for example, and they met a lot of opposition. Then finally they secured land on Bedford Road and they made overtures to obtain what was a recreation hall in Maynard on government property there. It had been used as a recreation hall during the war, and so through the intercession of Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers of Lowell, who was one of the first Congresswomen in the country, they secured the ownership of the building. They made provisions to move it from Maynard to Carlisle. The original edifice had seating space for about 100 people. When they moved it here the Catholics of Carlisle all rallied and made their contributions in the way of electrical work, plumbing, foundation work and groundskeeping. Everybody was so enthused about having their own church and they all cooperated. So then they began the Sunday program and had a Sunday School with just a small number of boys and girls there. They had a big field day to dedicate it and Paul Dever [a candidate for governor] was the star speaker that day, and Cardinal Cushing came and took part in it."
* Carlisle's new Catholic Church was originally named Saint Elizabeth Chapel, in memory of Mrs. Barron's mother who had recently died, according to Mrs. Wilkins. It was officially dedicated on September 13, 1947, by Cardinal Richard J. Cushing . . . "before nearly 300 parishioners, visiting clergy, invited guests and friends. . . . By 1960 the [church] had grown and prospered to the extent that Cardinal Cushing decreed the establishment of a new parish in Carlisle, effective February 16 of that year, to be known as the Parish of Saint Irene. The Rectory on East Street was completed in the spring of 1960 and Rev. Paul H. Doherty was the first pastor at St. Irene."
Anna P. Johnson
"I neglected to mention one very colorful character in our town for many years. His name was George West. He lived with Mr. George Wilkins when we first came, and on the first morning of May that I lived in this house, I found a beautiful little May basket on my back door with cake of Sweetheart soap which I had never seen before, but which brand I have used ever since. This was given by Mr. West as a greeting and he was our friend for all the years until he died. When he was ninety, he could put the newspaper flat on the floor, sit in his chair and read it without glasses, and although he had never gone beyond grade four or five in school, he could read that newspaper and understand it. He said he had learned more in the old one-room school listening to the older children recite than he did in his own classes. Which is very interesting and which to me is one of the values of a one-room school, which I taught."
Rationing in World War II
"Mr. Herbert Lee was the one who had charge of giving out the rations for gasoline and this sort of thing, and as far as I know, he was very fair and very good. As I recall, we were given gasoline according to the mileage the men traveled to go to work. How many times they went and how far and so forth. Then we were given ration stamps and little round red buttons-type of things for buying meats and butter and so forth in the markets. That was according to the family, how many people, the young and old, and so much extra for babies for milk and things like that. But with people this far from the city where the bigger supplies of things were, many people found it hard to get what they needed. So when I used to go on my egg route, people would give me their red coupons and I would go to the stores, particularly to the Stop and Shop in Cambridge, and the manager . . . would give me whatever he could and would take whatever coupons he needed. During that period of rationing, I helped buy food for 42 families in this town."
Carlisle's moveable post office
"Mr. Fred Daisy and his wife had the post office when we first came to Carlisle, and it was in where the little store is and the bank is on the other side. There was no bank, of course, that was a private house until that time and most of it became the store. Then the post office moved over to the building opposite where Mrs. Coombs had the antique shop and Mrs. Clarence Russell had it there. And from there, it went further up over the hill into what was the lower part of the old Congregational Church where it now is [in 1987]."
* Mrs. Wilkins writes that following Mr. Daisy's death in 1946, Mrs. Elizabeth S. Russell was the next postmaster, and on December 30, 1948, the post office was moved into the central part of the Wheat Tavern owned by Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Russell. "There the Post Office remained during the years that Mrs. Russell was Postmaster, and afterwards until 1971," when it moved to the first floor of the addition to the Congregational Church.
In addition to keeping history alive, Carlisle's long-term residents have shared their wisdom and insights, fine-tuned throughout a lifetime of experiences. For example, in recalling the Depression years in the 1930s, Anna Johnson said, "When you don't live in excess, you don't have as much to lose. The people that suffered the most [in the Depression] were the people that had so much more than they needed that they didn't know what to do without it. They didn't know how to act because they had too much."
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito